Earthbound! Etrian Odyssey! Shin Megami Tensei! It's time for part two of This Year In JRPGs So Far, with special guest Kirk Hamilton.
(For part one, head on over here.)
Jason: Hey Kirk - it's time for part two of This Year In JRPGs (So Far)! Last we talked, you had just bought Earthbound and you were gonna play it soon maybe. So... did you?
Kirk: I did, in fact! Not a ton, but enough to get a feel for it.
Jason: OK, so what'd you think? It's always interesting to see how first-timers adjust to Super Nintendo classics like this.
Kirk: I really like it! I mean, OK, I should be more specific. I'm a sucker for vibe and for music, and I really like the game's vibe and music. Weirdly, the look remind me of the Home Alone game for Game Boy that I loved as a kid, even though I'm guessing it was actually garbage. But I like playing as a real kid in the real world. And the music is just… dang.
As for the game part… well, it's a reminder of a lot of older video game tropes that I never did grow to love.
Jason: Such as?
Kirk: Well… there's the grinding thing. But let's get to that in a second. I want to ask you about another JRPG thing because I'm curious what you think. So, in Earthbound, you can't see your character, or really see enemies. It really makes combat feel different to me, you know? And I gather that it's an old-school JRPG thing, since Dragon's Quest and Shin Megami Tensei games do it too… but I gotta say, I really like seeing the action onscreen. Which is interesting, right? Because SMT IV also does that, and it's a new game.
Jason: Think about how much time you save by not having to sit through all those annoying character animations!
Kirk: True… but I dunno, I like seeing characters fight. Though I do like using my imagination, too. In Earthbound, I've been laughing quite a bit at the combat descriptions in the early goings. How the dog just starts howling, and then MY dog starts howling, and no one's doing much of anything… it's pretty hilarious. Back when Earthbound first came out, how was it received? Did people remark on how offbeat it was?
Jason: Fuck if I know. I was 8.
Jason: But anyway. Let's talk about animation for a second. Thinking about it, it's kind of funny: the games with that kind of first-person menu-driven combat are often the games that require the most grinding — SMT, Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, etc. And without combat animations, combat is much faster, meaning it's much easier to mindlessly level up at a rapidfire pace. So maybe... either A) developers ramp up the difficulty in order to make games like that feel longer, since otherwise combat would go by too quickly and everyone would win super-fast, or B) that first-person viewpoint actually fits well with the game they wanted to create, a game where you have to grind for levels. I mean, with Earthbound and SMT and many later Dragon Quests, it's certainly not a technological limitation like it may have been back in the NES days.
Kirk: It IS interesting that games like that tend to be the grind-heavy games. Though didn't the most recent Dragon Quest show your characters in combat? I'm not sure if it's conscious, anyway… I mean, grinding is basically required in Persona as well, and those games are all about showing your characters engaging in combat. But the parallels between the new game, SMT IV and the just-released old one, Earthbound do strike me.
More broadly: I dunno about that kind of old-school grinding, man. Not the kind of grinding I sense I'll have to do in Earthbound, anyway. I'll certainly keep playing, but if the game loses me, that's what'll cause it. Though at least I can play it while I watch TV! The Wii U controller is a godsend in that regard.
Jason: OK, now hold on. How far are you in Earthbound?
Kirk: I just hit the first bad guys who kicked my arse, so I just started grinding on little birds and dogs and stuff.
Jason: Which bad guys?
Kirk: I think they're gang members?
Jason: Yeesh, so you haven't even fought the first mini-boss of the game and you're already complaining? Earthbound is really only a grindy game during its first hour, before you get other party members. Power up your dude for a little bit, then get a better bat and a bunch of hamburgers and you'll be fine. You can do it while watching Netflix. Once you get Paula, you really don't have to grind much.
Kirk: What is it with JRPGs and kids eating hamburgers? First Ni No Kuni and now this. Man, these games make me hungry.
Jason: Ha ha ha, just wait. Earthbound is all about the food. Oh, BTW, you should read that helpful player's guide (available on Nintendo's website for free) while you play — it came with the game back in 1995, and you were expected to use it for reference a lot.
Kirk: I want to read while I play, but then I'd have to put the game on the TV, right? I'm basically doing my best to play this as a handheld, and pretend it's a 3DS game. Is there a web version?
Jason: Yeah, you can just read it on your laptop while you play.
Kirk: Oh, nice. OK, I will! I was already following a FAQ so I could, say, find that hidden treehouse and get the special hat. I'll just read Nintendo's instead. I find that with older games like this, I have zero qualms about reading an online guide.
Jason: Ha ha ha, I forgot about that hidden treehouse. OK, so speaking of guides — I think I need to play Shin Megami Tensei IV with a walkthrough next to me. That game is a doozy.
Kirk: The morning after that game launched, someone on twitter was like "More like Shin Megami INtensei, amirite?" And I was like, "Yes, you are right."
Jason: I haven't played much — had to take a break for Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, which I'm reviewing — but man, yeah. What's up with demon negotiation? Sometimes I'll be chatting up a sexy blob thing, trying to get it to join my team, and then it'll randomly get pissed off because I gave it too much stuff. Or because I kissed it instead of hugging it. Everything's so friggin' random.
Kirk: But it's probably not, right? I am really into that idea, that you have to woo demons to your side, and they're these mercurial beasts that don't behave rationally. How cool! I've got to boost myself past the opening dungeon, I think, since I'm stuck as well. (And got distracted by a bunch of other games, too.) And man, yeah… I know you can't talk about Mario & Luigi yet, but jeez… considering SMT IV just came out, and Fire Emblem earlier this year… the 3DS is finally starting to put some horses in the JRPG race with the Vita.
And related to all of that… OK, here's a topic that we've talked about before (I think?) but feels more appropriate now than ever: Has the JRPG moved from the big screen to the handheld? Are all these great JRPGs coming to Vita and 3DS further evidence that we most want to play long, turn-based games on handhelds and not on a huge screen?
Jason: Well they're certainly further evidence that the handheld market is dominant in Japan.
Kirk: You think that's as far as it goes? I mean, I can only speak for myself, but I'm so much happier to play a JRPG on a handheld than on a big screen. I wish I could've played Ni No Kuni on a screen like the Wii U controller. I'm playing Valkyria Chronicles for the first time, and I long for it to be on Vita. (Not the PSP sequel, which I'll probably play sometime, but the whole first game, just redone for Vita.) Every new console JRPG makes me say, "Man, I wish this was on a handheld instead." Surely I'm not alone in this.
Jason: Hm. Well first of all, I don't know that I agree with you 100% there — as much as I love handheld gaming, there's something to be said about getting an experience like Ni no Kuni in high-definition on my 50' screen.
Kirk: I'd trade it all, Jason! I'd trade it all for the small screen. (Though yeah, I know what you mean.)
Jason: But no, I don't think this JRPG handheld revolution is about convenience; I think it's about sales. In Japan, the handheld platform has become king of the charts. It's certainly nice for those of us who prefer to play 60-70-hour games on our laps, but that's incidental.
Kirk: Well, I will certainly take it as an incidental benefit. And yeah, I guess it'll only take one amazing next-gen JRPG that like, uses smartglass for the world map and has some sort of mind-blowing cinematic active-time thing going on to make me glad that some JRPGs are still coming out on consoles.
Jason: Have you seen the Final Fantasy XV trailer? JUST SAYING.
Kirk: hahaha I was just typing something about your refreshing enthusiasm about FFXV! Which in turn has me enthused. And hell, I'm even looking forward to Lightning Returns, and not just because it opened the door for the best obvious joke in obvious joke history. It sounds legitimately interesting. But OK, those are future games. Do future announcements count for our discussion of the year of the JRPG so far? What are some other games we haven't discussed? How is Soul Hackers? Worth playing?
Jason: It didn't hook me, but you know what did? Etrian Odyssey IV, an excellent first-person dungeon-crawler that feels much more modern than Soul Hackers (a near-16-year-old port). You played some, right?
Kirk: I did! I really liked the music. It was another game that was immediately difficult right from the start, and so I haven't gone too deep. I know you've written about the game before, but what makes the game feel modern? And how does it stack up with SMT IV, the other "IV" game on my 3DS that's waiting to kick my ass?
Jason: Well, there are a lot of modern conveniences — auto-battle, for example, which drastically speeds up combat and makes grinding much more palatable. There are invisible random encounters, but there's also a meter that turns from green to yellow to red as you wander through a dungeon: red means you're about to get attacked. So it doesn't exactly come out of nowhere. As for SMT IV...
EOIV is about creating a customised guild of characters and sticking with them. SMT IV is more about collecting and experimenting with different characters (demons) all the time, depending on your needs. Also, one is fantasy and one is horrory. Both excellent in different ways, I think.
Kirk: Funny - so the one is about building up a menagerie of heroes, and the other a menagerie of demons. It's interesting playing all these new JRPGs alongside older ones like Final Fantasy IX, which I've also been playing. There are so many modern conveniences added — the ability to save anywhere, this random-encounter detector you describe… I get the sense that the people making these games are trying to keep the energy the same while removing some of the more onerous JRPG tropes from ages past. Do you ever miss those old-school things, or are you glad games are moving beyond them?
Jason: Having also recently spent a ton of time with Final Fantasy IX, I have a hard time feeling nostalgic for save points. I lost about two hours worth of progress because I played through a bunch of long cut-scenes and then died before I got a chance to save. (That instantly made me stop my playthrough.)
Kirk: Oh man. That sucks.
Jason: Yeah, but on the flip side, when an RPG gives you the ability to save anywhere, the stakes feel a bit lower. There isn't as much pressure; there are no do-or-die battles. So maybe there is something to be said about the idea of limiting where you can save. Anyway, how much of FFIX did you play? What'd you think? Isn't Vivi just the best?
Kirk: I really like it! I had zero idea what to expect, and so while I could say "It's defied my expectations," that's not exactly true. I know that FFVIII was all "dark" and starred Squall, and no one liked it. So I'm surprised that FFIX is so colourful and cartoonish. It's funny and I really like the characters, and actually just typing this makes me want to go play more. And yeah, Vivi is great! We were talking about this when I was first playing, but now I forget: Is Vivi the first Black Mage character that looks like the "default" Black Mage from Tactics?
Jason: Hahaha oh Kirk. Oh Kirk. First of all, lots of people like FFVIII — I certainly do!
Kirk: Oh, OK, "No one liked it." It was not as beloved as FFVII, I guess, is what I mean.
Jason: And nah, the iconic Black Mage first appeared in the first Final Fantasy, then as a job class in Final Fantasys #3 and #5. Also as an NPC in #4.
Kirk: But like, as a speaking character? Named "Vivi?"
Jason: I can confirm that yes, Vivi is the first appearance of Vivi.
Kirk: No like, with a name. And a backstory. But that looks like a faceless Black Mage.
Let me explain: I've always thought of the Black Mage as this sort of generic, default class in Final Fantasy. I never thought there was a character with a whole story, a main character in a core game, that looked like a Black Mage. That's what I'm getting at - I think, more broadly, I'm just surprised to see such a "stock" Final Fantasy character turn up in IX, since to my recollection there aren't really any stock characters like that in VII.
Jason: Ha, well how far are you? Believe it or not, the question of whether black mages have personality is an integral part of the plot.
Kirk: Ha. I'm not very far. But that's great. And this really is making me want to go get farther. Another thing about FFIX that's impressed me is how much more advanced the production values are when compared to VII. Same platform, same era… but the developers clearly got a handle on the PSX in the space between the two games. The 3D characters look great, and the area layouts and background are just lovely. I'd imagine people just devoured this game when it came out. Speaking of that, I've also been surprised by the love the game inspires — every time I say somewhere that I'm playing it, a bunch of people flip out about how much they love it.
Jason: Yeah, it's one of those games that has built quite a reputation over the years. It does a really good job of staying appealing to everyone even as it hurls Final Fantasy nostalgia at your face. It's funny — it almost wasn't a mainline Final Fantasy game. It was developed as a gaiden (side-story) and then turned into FFIX, much like Versus XIII became FFXV... so maybe FFXV is destined to be just as awesome?
Kirk: Sure, seems logical to me! At least we can tell ourselves that, until it's a crushing disappointment. No… must fight… cynicism...
Jason: Square Enix? Disappoint us? Never.
Kirk: Never ever!
Jason: So we've got a few months left in 2013 — any other RPGs on your radar for the rest of the year? Looking forward to anything in particular?
Kirk: Well, I mean I'm looking forward to hearing something (anything!) about Persona 5. And I'm looking forward to South Park: The Stick of Truth. That could just be a surprisingly decent South Park game, but it wouldn't surprise me if that game winds up being something really special. How about you? Are there any actually Japanese JRPGs I should have on my radar?
Jason: Yes. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, which is fantastic. Tales of Xillia could be a good one. Dragon's Crown is getting rave reviews, my distaste for some of its animation aside. And of course, I expect you to play through Final Fantasy X and X-2 when they're re-released in HD for Vita later this year.
Kirk: Oh, god, that's right, FFX is coming. Tidus! Orange and blue! Underwater Quidditch! I'll definitely play that. And yeah, I wouldn't miss Dream Team. Man, that's a good list. With all the games we've talked about and all the games you just listed… so, a good year for JRPGs, huh?
Jason: Man, it really is. If only we could just take off from work for like two months and play them all.
Kirk: I can only imagine how ugly that'd get. Someone from the office finally goes to check on you, and you're in your apartment with the blinds drawn, Chinese takeout boxes strewn all around… you hiss at the light, 3DS in hand...
Jason: Somehow I have grown spiky hair and a giant sword.
Kirk: Actually, that doesn't sound half bad.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.