Thursday, July 14, 2016

Turn Based Brilliance: An Appreciation for Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem has entered into the public spotlight with its recent surge in popularity with Awakening, Fates, and the large cast of Fire Emblem characters in Smash Bros. I'm appalled that we almost never got to see this series in the west. If it weren't for Marth and Roy in Smash Bros. Melee, I doubt we ever would have. Thankfully, Nintendo went against the decision to remove them from the American version of the game. Yes, that almost happened!

Fire Emblem Theme

I recently replayed through Fire Emblem (7: Rekka no Ken/Blazing Sword) on the Wii U Virtual Console, and it holds up extremely well. Awakening was one of the best games to come in 2013 amidst a slew of other amazing "Year of the 3DS" games, and is probably still one of the best games on the system. Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn are both fantastic games that sell for very high prices, but are worth every penny, with perhaps the best told and least traditional story in the series. The older entries in the series that were never translated are challenging, but very fun games: FE4 with its trademark generational system is great, and FE5, one of the hardest games I've ever played, both stand out as some of the best strategy RPGs in the genre due to their unique mechanics and crushing but rewarding difficulty, respectively. Fire Emblem 4 and 5 also take a seldom seen approach in that Fire Emblem 5 is a midquel to Fire Emblem 4, taking place in between chapters five and six of that game. The story is full of political intrigue - it's certainly the most politically oriented set of games in the series - and takes place over the span of two generations, so you're able to watch the children of the heroes take over at a certain point. It's an ambitious concept that the games pulled off very nicely.

The Japanese box art for Fire Emblem 4. Its subtitle is "Seisen no Keifu," or Genealogy of the Holy War. Pictured are Sigurd, the hero of the first generation, and Celice, his son who takes over in the second half of the game. Sigurd, who can be seen here riding his trademark white horse, has the distinction of being one of the only lords in the series to be an adult, rather than a teenager.
My first experience with Fire Emblem was, like most Americans, with Marth and Roy. Reading their trophy entries in Melee revealed that they came from Japan only titles, which added a certain sense of mystique to their character, making them feel somewhat exotic when compared to the cast of otherwise familiar characters. When Fire Emblem was announced for the west, I played the series for the first time, and fell in love instantly. I love how every unit has a name, a class, and a face. (I hate how reclassing took away the individuality that came with chaining certain characters to certain classes, but that's another story). Not one unit is a generic nobody, and every single one has a personality and a history.

The story is almost always cliche, but I don't think there's been one FE with a plot I did not enjoy. Most of the stories revolve around a sacred item known as the Fire Emblem, whose history, purpose and appearance changes from game to game, and a bid to save your kingdom from an evil invader. As I mentioned above, some of the games do step outside of the series' comfort zone of "little lordling saves the world and rescues his kingdom," such as the Tellius duology - Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn - where the main character, Ike, is not a lord, but rather a mercenary leader. Even in this case, the game is still very much grounded in high fantasy tropes, but again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Without spoiling too much, the Tellius games even manage to make ye olde Black Knight trope interesting again.

Hero Ike faces off against The Black Knight. The knight's identity is unknown for most of the two games that he stars in, and he has a rather personal connection to Ike and his father that is also shrouded in  mystery. His story, while certainly cliche in many ways, is one of the best told and most gripping story arcs in the series.
I am playing through Fire Emblem 6: Sword of Seals right now, and it is much harder than Blazing Sword. Roy also sort of pales in comparison compared to most lords, which is disappointing after being introduced to him through his much superior Smash Bros. incarnation. Playing it as a sequel to Blazing Sword is neat, though - it picks up very nicely from FE7's epilogue and "cliffhanger" ending. Seeing returning faces is great, too - I never realized that the map in Laus was shared between games, or that Eric was the map's boss in both of them. FE7 is clearly a more polished game, and rightfully so, as it came out afterward, but I'm really liking FE6's colorful character design and larger scope in regards to its plot. The extra challenge can be nice, too. Despite Roy's lackluster lordliness, it's nice to finally see him in his own game after years of him being "that guy from Smash Bros.".

As long as I'm on the subject, I might as well parrot some love for my favorite class in the series. Mine has to be Swordmaster and its variants, although it pains me not pick other amazing classes like Hero or Paladin. From the Fire Emblem Wiki:
The Swordmaster (ソードマスター, Swordmaster; 剣聖 Kensei, Sword Saint, in the Japanese version) is the promotion of the Myrmidon. These lightly armored foot soldiers are capable and have an increased chance to deal critical attacks. The Swordmaster has a high amount of speed when compared to many of the other classes, giving them high accuracy and evasion, making them a very deadly class. The Swordmaster class was officially introduced in Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (where Ayra and her daughter Larcei defined the class, including its signature skill, Astra). The Blade Lord Lyndis from Fire Emblem: Rekka no Ken and the Great Lord Eirika from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones are considered to be a variations of Swordmasters, having the same stat caps. The average HP stat of Swordmasters varies greatly regardless of gender, it can be high or low.
My introduction to this class, like many others, was with Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword, commonly known as Fire Emblem in the west. Lyndis is a lordly variant of the Myrmidon and Swordmaster classes, but the character that really sold me on them was Karel, the Sword Demon.

A pre-promoted unit in any given Fire Emblem has an 80% chance of being not as good as a unit that you raise yourself, but Karel tears up the battlefield with the best of them. He looks extremely cool and returns in the next chronological entry as an older, wiser, and redeemed man, now known as the Sword Saint.

An older Karel finds redemption. As his story is told in reverse, this is the first incarnation of the character you see, provided that you play the games in their order of release.
The animations for Myrmidons and Swordmasters are also among the best in the series, with a very flashy flair to the way that they move and an extremely intense critical hit. Even their regular attack has them spinning through the air. Lyn's Blade Lord variants are quite possibly the most stylish critical animations in her game. You can always count on the Myrmidon line to add an extra bit of cool to their attacks.

Karel's critical animation from Fire Emblem 7.

Lyn, the Blade Lord, with her own unique critical animation.
Lyn uses her divine weapon to up the ante. The Game Boy Advance sprites were, as you can see, extremely stylized, and are largely regarded to be the best style of presentation that the series has had.
Even when the series moved onto awkward 3D models in Path of Radiance and beyond, the Swordmaster class always managed to convey a sense of immense speed and skill with its animations, with its units sheathing and unsheathing their swords extremely quickly and making very precise strikes with their blades. 

The most recent Fire Emblem, Fates, has quite possibly the most brokenly overpowered character in any of the games in Ryoma, and his class is... you guessed it, Swordmaster! Ryoma takes the class to an entirely new level with his sacred sword, Raijinto, which essentially functions as a Silver Sword with a ranged attack. His terrifyingly strong offense combined with his high dodge makes him nigh unstoppable, and represents the best of what the class has to offer.

Overall, I'm very glad that the series is finding so much recent popularity. Hopefully it continues for years to come. Cheers to an amazing series!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Physics of King Kai's Planet

I've been a Dragon Ball kick lately. This post had me floored. There's analyzing a series you like, and then there's analyzing a series you like. This falls firmly into the latter category.  I found it while reading leavemywife's let's play of Dragon Ball Z: Attack of the Saiyans, which you should read. It's a good let's play of a good game. No, it doesn't come from NeoGAF, but it was so in depth that I felt that I had to preserve it.

"Seriously, you folks start talking about physics but don't even take your calculator out?

To do calculations with the gravity we need to know the gravity of the planet and the size.

The surface gravity is simple. 10g, or 10 x 9.8 m/s^2 = 98 m/s^2.

For the size, I went to the Dragon Ball Wiki. It says that King Kai's car is a 1957 Red Chevrolet Bel Air. According to Wikipedia, that car has a length of 195.6", or almost 5 meters.

The scale seems to differ a bit between the anime and the game, but I'll go with a picture from this game. It won't change much anyway.

As you can see, the diameter of the planet is about six and a half times the length of the car. That makes 32.5 meters. The radius is half the diameter, 16.25 meters. By the way, that's a tiny house.

Now, we can use the formule g = GM / r^2, with g being the surface gravity, G the gravitational constant, M the mass of the planet in kg, and r the radius in meters. Let's rewrite that. M = g*r^2 / G.
Filling it in: M = 98 * 16.25^2 / 6.674E-11 = 3.88E14 kg
That's a rather big number, but it doesn't tell us that much by itself. But we can use it to calculate a mean density of the planet. Density is simply mass divided by volume.

The volume of a sphere is given by (4/3)pi*r^3. For King Kai's planet, that is 17974 cubic meters.
The density is 3.88E14 kg / 17974 m^3 = 2.16E10 kg / m^3 or roughly 21.6 billion kg / m^3. For the Americans, that's about 1.35 billion pounds per cubic foot. Imagine lifting a block of that stuff.

Anyway, that density is in the same order of magnitude as a white dwarf. That's a very dense, relatively small star that has almost burned out. As it completely burns out, which can take hundreds of billions of years, it might turn into a black dwarf, with similar properties except that it doesn't glow. Its matter is in a 'degenerate' state, meaning that the atoms are so close together they don't act in a way we're used to. The only reason a white/black dwarf is stable is because it is about as heavy as our sun. This gives it so much gravity that it can keep itself together.

King Kai's planet weighs many, many, many orders of magnitude less than our sun. This means that in reality, this planet would immediately blast apart in an enormous explosion.

Of course you could try to prevent this by using a different kind of mass distribution. Put something much denser in the center, and make the outer layers a bit less dense. For instance, put a neutron star or a black hole in the center, those are both much denser than a white dwarf.

The thing is, this wouldn't be stable either. Either the black hole is too strong, the gravity is way higher than 10g, and everything is sucked in, or it's not strong enough and the planet explodes (or if it's exactly in between, the inner part would be sucked in while the outer part would be blasted away).

The only way I can think of to make a planet like this keep together is by using some magical "forcefield" that prevents it from flying apart. The force required for such a thing would be incomprehensibly large. And you need to keep applying it every nanosecond.

Oh by the way, if King Kai's planet were possible, the small size distorts gravity so much that Goku's head would experience significantly less gravity than his feet. Enough to make anyone feel a bit... lightheaded."

Post credit goes to user Carbon Dioxide. Now that's dedication.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Warrior of the Future, Trunks: A Case Study of Wasted Potential

We all have the experience of thinking a certain character is great when they're introduced. Maybe they have one episode where they're the highlight, but then they stick around for the rest of the show without ever doing anything important again. Maybe they're falsely hyped up to be integral to the plot of the show and then subsequently drop off the face of the earth, or end up never doing anything substantial. Maybe they do participate in the plot, but not in the way that you thought or wanted them to.

A prime example of this, for me, is Future Trunks from Dragon Ball Z.

His arrival on the scene is one of the most captivating moments in the entire series. He comes out of nowhere and decides to face down Frieza, the most powerful enemy we've seen up until that point, and not only wins, but takes him - and his father, for that matter - down effortlessly, and with style. Not only that, but this purple haired badass can go Super Saiyan, something that very recently we've only seen Goku, the hero, able to accomplish, and only through immense turmoil. Also, he had a sword. Nobody else had used a sword in the Z portion of the series up until this point. (Gohan had one as a kid, but that hardly counts.)

His intrigue doesn't end with his stylish appearance. He's introduced as Vegeta's son (!) from the future (!!) and his mother is Bulma (!!!) His future is a post apocalyptic wasteland, and he and Gohan were the only survivors, fighting against not one, but two threats far greater than Frieza ever was. He's come back in time to set things right, and he's going to fight alongside the heroes we know to help fix the future that went wrong.

Except he doesn't ever really do anything again, really. From the moment he comes back in the Android arc to the moment the Cell arc is over, the only thing of note he does is A) Allow Cell to enter their timeline inadvertently and B) Fight Cell and lose, making a fool of himself in the process. He gets a cool design overhaul with Saiyan armor like his father and a ponytail, but it doesn't do him any good, and he goes back to his original style eventually anyway.

To be fair, it's not at all Trunks' fault that he doesn't get to shine during the Android and Cell story arcs, and unlike the other Z Fighters (I'm looking at you, Vegeta and Goku) he is trying his hardest at all times and never wants to prolong fights for any superficial reasons. He has the drive to finish the fight, without any of the Saiyan love for battle that so often bites them in the end. This is a pretty consistent trait of his from his introduction up through his latest appearance in Dragon Ball Super, which is part of what makes him stand out so much from the other characters in the series. I'm rambling a bit: the reason he doesn't get to shine is because his signature weapon - his sword - breaks early on in the story, leaving him without any real style of his own, and his one real moment in the spotlight has him using a form of Super Saiyan that is largely useless. This was to show Trunks' respect for his father and his pride, as well as Vegeta's knack for what's useful in a fight; Vegeta realized the form was useless right away, showing us that as powerful as Trunks may be, he is still naive and inexperienced. You can't blame him. Unlike Goku and Vegeta, he hasn't had any formal training, and also unlike those two, he is only a seventeen year old kid.

I'm sure that, if pushed to the same extent that Gohan was during his fight with Cell, he could have easily taken his place as the first Saiyan to reach Super Saiyan 2. But, that isn't how things played out, and Gohan needed his moment in the sun. This mysterious warrior from the future that was able to kill Frieza so easily is shoved to the side for the rest of the series. He does get one more moment of glory in his own timeline when he kills the Androids, but for all intents and purposes he did almost nothing to help the Z Fighters actually fight the Androids beyond giving them the heads up that they exist. Dragon Ball is notorious for sidelining its characters, but you'd think someone like Trunks would fare better than he did. His present timeline counterpart - the much less appealing Kid Trunks - does far more than he ever did, even if he never received the same level of praise and popularity as his future counterpart.

I will say, even though his last act in Z was the equivalent of returning to the first area and fighting level 5 monsters when you are level 50 in an RPG, he again showed his brutal efficiency and no nonsense fighting style, making his exit from the series just as stylish as his entrance.

Now that Trunks is back in the latest arc of Super, I hope he gets his chance to be useful. He's already shown that he took out his timeline's incarnations of Dabura, who was around Perfect Cell's level of strength, and the wizard Babidi, as well as reached Super Saiyan 2 on his own. In addition, he's apparently learned to channel ki through his sword, shooting a blade beam at new villain Black. He's definitely no slouch, and he's already shaping up to be a key figure in the story.

Poor Trunks. His future can't seem to catch a break. I'm glad he's back, but there's one thing that bugs me. Why is his hair suddenly blue!?

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Riding the Zelda Wave: A Link Between Worlds Retrospective

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's E3 reveal has everyone in a Zelda mood. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to revisit one of the more popular incarnations of Hyrule... or rather, its direct sequel.

Let me start off by saying two things: one, I am a HUGE fan of Link to the Past, to the point of absurdity (it was one of my first video games), so I came into this not expecting it to surpass the original. Two, I enjoyed it my first time around, but not as much as other 2D Zeldas, such as the Oracle duology or The Minish Cap. Overall, I found it to be a disappointment, even if I had fun with the game.

This time I played on Hero Mode, and it makes all the difference. Normal mode is simply too easy. Hero mode requires you to stay on your toes. You die. You become more engaged with the game. It's harder than LttP, but still closer to it in difficulty than Normal Mode. Hero Mode makes the game fun.

The map is completely derivative of LttP, at least the map of Hyrule, but that's also where its charm lies. It's fun to go back and visit the old locations again, and see new faces and subtle changes to certain areas. The desert being walled off and only visited later as part of Lorule's dungeons was a nice change of pace and a creative way to design a new dungeon in an old area. I also like how they didn't reuse the dungeons from LttP; even the ones you visit again, like the Tower of Hera, are totally different in their design. Lorule is a hauntingly beautiful world and, in my personal opinion, much more enjoyable than the series' other parallel universe of Termina. I love its use of purples and blues, and it's visually distinct enough that it doesn't feel like a retread of LttP's Dark World at all. My only complaints with Lorule are that A) The name is a really stupid pun and B) Despite what I just said, it's also true that it's too similar to the Dark World to believe that it's a totally different place. Regardless, it was a very enjoyable experience and the second set of dungeons were very creative.

The portrait mechanic is something I initially didn't like, as I felt it was too much of a departure from LttP's mechanics, but this time around I really warmed up to it. Zelda is at its best when it takes a gimmick and runs with it, whether it be time travel, transformative masks, changing the seasons, ocean traversal, or whatever - and this game not only take Link to the Past's alternate world travelling gimmick, but also adds one of its own with the portrait wall crawling. It added its own unique flair to solving puzzles and felt like a fresh experience.

The rental system, on the other hand, was a nice idea in concept. I don't dislike it. The non-linearity it offers is as refreshing as the new portrait mechanic. However, it also took away the charm of finding a new weapon in a dungeon, and renting items over and over again when you die could get tedious. Despite the tedium of re-renting items upon your death, Hero Mode made the concept more fun, as in Normal Mode you are never in any real danger of losing your items and there is much more of an incentive to save up rupees to buy them. I also very much liked the upgrades and how they were performed - finding lost Maiamais was one of my favorite things to do. It took the collectathon concept and made it feel substantial by giving you a useful reward for every ten Maiamais that you find. The Maiamais were also adorable.

The story was more absent than it has been in recent Zeldas, but more present than it was it was the classic games, which was a nice compromise between new and old. Hyrule's cast of characters was relatively bland, but where the game really shone brightest was in the inhabitants of Lorule and the story behind their kingdom and its Triforce. Hilda and her last minute betrayal were well done - I never saw it coming the first time around, and she was effective as an empathetic villain. The ending makes her entire scheme seem intellectually bankrupt, however, as Link and Zelda use Hyrule's Triforce to wish Lorule's back into existence. Why didn't Hilda do this from the beginning? Ravio and his existence as the "other Link" is probably my favorite plot twist in any Zelda game, if only for the fact that we technically get to see an incarnation of Link speak. Yuga was... ok, I guess. Ganon, Demise, Ghirahim, Zant and Vaati were all more interesting villains than he was. Yuga came off as kind of a clown. Lorule's "Triforce trio" was ultimately a refreshing new take on the three characters we've grown attached to over the course of several games, and their subdued personalities were a thematically appropriate inverse for a world that had its own Triforce shattered. Ravio lacked courage, Hilda lacked wisdom, and Yuga lacked power.

Overall, it was a fantastic game, and a nice return to the "Fallen Hero" timeline of the original games. Perhaps Nintendo will visit it again in the future? One can hope.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Quick Look: Gungnir, Dept. Heaven Episode IX

What a neat little gem of a game this is.

This game is a strategy RPG through and through - Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre have their fingerprints all over this game. However, it also has a unique flair to it that only developer Sting could bring to the table - their RPGs always stand out as different from most, and this game is no exception. You don't get more experience for killing blows, for example: experience is gained from acting, whether it be using potions, attacking, etc. The game has its own twist on the grid based, turn based battle system where you can force your character to move when they're fatigued at the expense of their max HP for that battle. You can choose any member of your team to move on your turn, rather than wait for a specific unit to become ready for battle. You can also choose your "ace" at the beginning of battle, and, depending on who you choose, the units in your army will receive different bonuses. Even with the trademark Sting flair, however, this game plays much more traditionally than their usual titles, which is somewhat disappointing coming off of the one-of-a-kind Riviera, but also refreshing for fans thirsty for traditional tactics games.

Pictured here are the four supporting members that you can choose to support your "ace" unit getting ready to sortie.
The story is what you'd expect from a SRPG, and not quite what you'd expect from that art style. If you're coming off of the lighthearted Riviera, it's kind of jarring how much darker this plot is by comparison. You play as Giulio, a persecuted minority in an evil empire who is A) the son of a rebel hero B) the younger brother of a revolutionary leader and C) the successor of the Norse-inspired magical spear, Gungnir. You're set up for greatness in every way, but at the same time you also start at the very bottom of society. The first battle is you and your friends raiding a caravan for food. You're not much better than low-life bandits, although Giulio himself has a noble undertone to his actions and words that will no doubt bloom into something substantial later on in the story. The story delves into supernatural elements very early on, as soon as you're introduced to the spear Gungnir. It has a Valkyrie Profile-esque tone to it, with the afterlife and even a valkyrie warrior taking the stage at various points. It's not quite as sweeping or gripping as FFT or TO, but I would go so far as to say that it comes very close, and I would even go so far as to call it a very good story. If you like the typical SRPG storylines, play this game. Despite the supernatural twinge, it is still a relatively grounded plot and no more invested in the fantastical than FFT was with its Zodiac Stones.

Ragnus, protagonist Giulio's older brother and revolutionary leader, makes a grim inquiry.
This is also, incidentally, Episode IX in the Dept. Heaven series, which also includes:

Riviera, the Promised Land
Yggdra Union
Knights in the Knightmare

It supposedly takes place in the same universe as those games, despite sharing almost no similarities.

Overall, the bottom line is this: this game is an unsung gem of the PSP's library, and it's well worth playing if you like Japanese RPGs, strategy RPGs, or Sting/Atlus games. If you can check even one of those boxes off, this game is worth your time, even if the others don't usually appeal to you.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Experiencing World of Warcraft as a noob will never be topped

You may have heard, but for various reasons, the well known Private Vanilla WoW server, Nostalrius, has received a cease and desist order from Blizzard, and has been forced to shut down. In honor of what Nostalrius was trying to accomplish with its regression back to the game's original form, I'm going to recount what made the original World of Warcraft experience so special.

Making a new character and having that immense sense of promise and adventure in front of you was an amazing experience that I feel will never be topped, or at least not for a very long time, as Blizzard has moved onto other ventures and changed their design philosophy for games quite a bit since the game launched in 2004. 

Flashback. It's 2004. Blizzard's acclaimed WarCraft franchise was announced as an MMO spinoff a few years ago, and it had finally been released, to much critical acclaim. Back then, MMOs were anything but mainstream. They were the definition of niche, the definitive skill and timesink wall that separated "gamers" from "casuals." These terms were used regularly back then, and held much more weight, as mainstream gaming hadn't yet taken hold on western society. WoW took much inspiration from Everquest, arguably the progenitor of MMORPGs, although it made several changes, such as the more accessible raiding system, the removal of XP loss upon death, the addition of a ghost form that you used to find your corpse upon death, the slightly goofier tone of the world, and the addition of rest experience. Since its release, it has changed so much that it is almost not the same game anymore; however, back at release, it was very much a spiritual sequel to Everquest with several quality of life improvements. This is slightly ironic, as many of the old Vanilla/BC mechanics are now seen as outdated and needlessly tedious, such as attunements for dungeons, but I digress.

Starting out in Dun Morogh, Teldrassil, or Tirisfal Glades put you in the middle of the vast World of WarCraft, with a seemingly infinite amount of possibilities for your future. I'd even argue that starting a few months after release gave the most impact, as when you finally reached the capital cities, you would see several high level players in glowing, intricate gear running around, giving you a sense of what your character could one day become. The sense of progression in the lower levels was still substantial, as many people had just picked up the game and did not view the lower level dungeons or equipment as worthless, or a mere stepping stone towards the endgame. Everyone else playing the game was experiencing it along with you for the first time, and early adopters filled a mentor role than made the world feel like a real, living, breathing place. Those RPG tutorials where a badass older character shows you the ropes? They were made completely organic by early WoW, as that particular "character" was a real human being who had been through the steps to greatness before you. It was an amazing feeling, being a fish in a lake, with the promise of becoming something much, much greater than what you were at the moment.

The world itself was an immense treat, as well, especially to fans of the WC series, and even more so to those who wanted a conclusion to WCIII and The Frozen Throne. Seeing the fallen city of Lordaeron in a manner that was relatively to scale, seeing what the Night Elves had done following the third war, seeing how the Humans had relocated to a rebuilt Stormwind only to find themselves combating a group of thugs in the Defias Brotherhood - it all felt like legitimate sequel material, completely unlike the hamfisted writing you see from Blizzard post-Cataclysm. Being a part of the world of WarCraft was a huge portion of the game's appeal, and that initial sense of wonder garnered from exploring the world in a much grander scale and scope has yet to be matched.

I still like WoW, even if it's changed, but it's not the same as it used to be. A lot of this has to do with the nature of MMOs; they promise an endless experience that ultimately cannot be delivered upon, as the content grows old and stale after a while, and there is only so much facelifting that can be done before the game begins to feel like it is trying to recapture its glory days. Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King were equally enjoyable experiences, but I'll get to those some other time. For now, I'd like to fondly remember Vanilla WoW, and appreciate it for what it was, warts and all.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Golden Sun was a fantastic series that was also a product of its time

Alright, where to even begin?

Golden Sun caught me completely by surprise when I first learned of it as a wee lad, back in 2003. I had seen glimpses of the first game here and there, both in Nintendo Power and in the infancy of the internet, but it had never really grasped me as a must have game. Later, when The Lost Age came out, I was deeply entrenched in internet communities and received more exposure to the hype surrounding the game. I began to look up screenshots and reviews and other info about the game, and quickly became more and more intrigued by its colorful design and focus on the Greek elements of Fire, Earth, Air, and Wind. Of course, during this time, I was also an amoral pre-teen, so I downloaded the ROM of the first game and began to play the opening segments on Visual Boy Advance. I was hooked. The game was pure old school RPG goodness, and I quickly realized it was developed by Camelot, the developer of the beloved Shining Force series - the trademark little Yes/No options you get during dialogue tipped me off. I got to the end of the opening - where you leave Vale - and I decided that I was going to ask my parents if I could buy the actual cart for GBA. I barely ever got games as presents back then, so this was a big deal. I ended up barreling through both the original and its sequel within two weeks or so, and I was completely blown away by how much I enjoyed them. I adored the OST, as well, and I didn't even find out it was composed by one of my favorite game musicians, Motoi Sakuraba, until after I'd beaten both games.

The elemental focus of the game is one of its greatest strengths. It individualizes each character in a similar way to superhero comics or shonen manga, where everyone has a set of "special powers" that only they or a select few are able to use. Playing on the Greek elements of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air, although taking names from Roman mythology to refer to them in Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter, each Adept was confined to a single element, and often bore physical traits of their element in their design, such as blue hair for Mercury Adepts and red hair for Mars Adepts. The fact that there were four different types of adepts meant that each "special" person was drawing from a limited pool of powers, which only added to the appeal of their abilities, as they felt unique, but still relatively grounded - they were different than others, but they were much less so than, say, your average superpowered comic or manga protagonist. I love how each type of Psyenergy is assigned a certain color, and how its adepts and djinn work within that color scheme. Color is a huge element of these games (pun intended) and the coloring style itself is very striking, especially in its artwork but also in-game. Each element also had a particular type of Djinn assigned to it, with each Djinn remaining visually distinct from one another yet retaining common elements among the same type.

The party from the original game. Their goal was to stop the elemental lighthouses from being lit.
Speaking of Djinn, they were a really cool gameplay addition. Collecting more of them allowed you to cast more powerful elemental spells, and you could even assign Djinn of any element to the different adepts in your party. The Djinn essentially functioned as a class system of sorts, and mixing and matching the different elements gave each character unique abilities and differing playstyles between combinations. Reclassing in this game took the job system of Final Fantasy and gave it a very unique spin. This allowed the limited party you had - four people and four people only - to feel very diverse despite its small size, and even when you reclassed a character, they still felt like they were unique and remained firmly in their own elemental niche.

From left to right, clockwise: Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Mercury Djinn.
The elements serve a very distinct function outside of battle, as well, causing the game to have some of the best dungeon design in an RPG. You can use earth magic to push pillars, fire magic to ignite objects, water magic to freeze puddles of water, and wind magic to read people's minds. It's really neat how every element remains useful, and you find yourself consistently using each element both in and out of battle.

The limited party was also a fantastic idea. You got one adept of each element, further exemplifying the "specialness" of the adepts in the Golden Sun world and allowing you to appreciate each character for their unique gifts. The small party size also led you to become attached to the characters in a way that many RPGs with larger party sizes do not, as well as give each character time to shine during story segments. You get them all towards the beginning of the game, so you have a lot of time to fall in love with these characters.

Isaac, the party leader of the first game, uses his earth magic.
And speaking of the characters... the switch between the first and second game was phenomenally well done. You spend the entire first game chasing down a group trying to light the four elemental lighthouses, and the game ends as your group heads off to sea, to new lands and the second set of lighthouses. It would make sense to continue where the story left off, and it does, but in a way that most wouldn't expect - you instead begin the second game as the finale to the first is occuring, taking control of the opposite party! The character of Felix, who betrays you very early on in the first game, becomes the lead protagonist, and his motives are explored in further detail. That's right - your goal is now to oppose your party from the first game, and to light the lighthouses instead. You get a new set of adepts and a new world to explore, and the story takes many twists and turns that function so well partially because of the 180 in perspective. Meeting with Isaac and co. from the first game remains one of my favorite moments in RPGs!

Promo art for The Lost Age, featuring Felix and his group of adepts. Notice the darker and more subdued color scheme, reflecting the tonal shift in the story.
But if the first two were so good, why was the third game, Dark Dawn, so poorly received?

Promo image for Golden Sun: Dark Dawn, featuring Matthew, Karis, and Tyrell.
I believe this is for two major reasons. One is that the DS entry tried to rest on its laurels, echoing plot and character development from the original duology and riding its coattails in a way that felt bland. Your characters are the children of the characters from the first two games, and constant reference is made to that fact, taking the spotlight from the protagonists and splitting it between them and their parents, causing neither party to shine as brightly as the two from before. This leads directly into the second issue, which is that Golden Sun was released on the GBA during a time when quality RPGs were scarce on the system, and when the concepts it was introducing were progressive and unique. Without the novelty of the elemental motifs and gameplay design, the game felt like a grey echo of its bright and cheery predecessors (which is ironic, as the literal color palettes used in Dark Dawn were almost too bright. But, I digress).

See here; mention of 30 years ago. Get used to seeing that.
I believe that Golden Sun was so enjoyable not only because of its mechanics, dungeon design, and simple but appealing narrative, but also because of the environment in which it was released. The reason the simple narrative was able to remain endearing was because it was carried by the novelty and newness of its design, and when the third game is a retread of that, the narrative simply can't stand as strongly on its own, especially when it's diluted by introducing eight new characters in the span of a single game, unlike the gradual introduction of the two distinct parties of the first two entries.

I still want a fourth one, though. Dark Dawn ended on a cliffhanger, and it seemed like the plot could become promising. Maybe someday...?