Wednesday, December 04, 2019

A few impressions of and pieces of advice on the recently released Romancing SaGa 3 remake now that I've put more than 20 hours into it

My original plan was to wait until early 2020 to buy the recently released Romancing SaGa 3 remake. Everything changed, though, when Square Enix slapped a 20-percent discount on this long-awaited role-playing game during its launch window.

Still, I assumed I wouldn't actually play it for weeks, if not months--what with Pokémon Shield's imminent arrival (at the time) and all. Boy, was I wrong. Romancing SaGa 3 dug its hooks into me within minutes of being booted up for the very first time.

Over 20 hours later, I'm thoroughly enjoying it and ignoring the new Pokémon title.

Why am I enjoying this Romancing SaGa 3 remake-remaster-whatever-you-want-to-call-it so thoroughly? Here are the main reasons, plus a couple of complaints that, if addressed, would prompt me to like this pixelated adventure even more than I already do.

Oh, and I'm tossing in a few pieces of advice at the end as a bonus--just in case any of you decide to buy it down the road as well.

I love how the map opens up as you talk to NPCs--I'm sure other RPGs have utilized a similar system, where you only gain access to towns and dungeons and other locations after a non-player character (NPC) mentions them, but this is the first one I've played. There's something surprisingly thrilling about exiting to the world map and seeing a new area or two pop up out of nowhere, begging to be explored.

It's worth playing for the weird potential party members alone--My current Romancing SaGa 3 party includes a blue elephant, a pink-haired fairy, and a bard who bears a striking resemblance to Final Fantasy IV's Gogo. And they're only the tip of the iceberg here. Additional options include an anthropomorphic snowman, a similarly human-esque lobster, and a Batman wannabe. Eat your heart out, bog-standard JRPGs.

"Sparking" new skills here is as exhilarating as it is in every SaGa game--Admittedly, it isn't as exhilarating as it is in SaGa Frontier, or at least it isn't to me. But there's no denying my heart skips a beat whenever a little lightbulb appears over the head of one of my party members, alerting me to the fact that he, she, or it is about to learn a new battle skill. My only complaint is that I wish it would happen with more frequency. I've gone through a lot of dry spells so far in my 20 or so hours with the game, and that's not only unacceptable, it's boring.

Although I appreciate that Romancing SaGa 3 is mysterious, I wish it would explain things a bit more than it does--You've probably heard that this game, like its predecessors and successors, has the barest of stories. It's true, but that honestly hasn't bothered me much. Far more irksome has been that it's often similarly tight-lipped about how things like magic and combo attacks operate. Some of it can be sussed out via trial and error, but not all of it. Harrumph.

I wish the town music was more varied--I adore Romancing SaGa 3's soundtrack on the whole, but something that really bugs me about it is a good number of towns feature the exact same background tune. Even worse, that particular song is my least favorite of the ones I've heard up to this point.

Where's the fast-forward button, Square Enix?--Both Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler let players speed up battles with the touch of a button. Why on earth doesn't Romancing SaGa 3 allow the same? Especially since it features the slowest fights of this trio of titles. These lackadaisical battles aren't dealbreakers, mind you, but they do get a tad boring now and then.

Has what I've said thus far got you itching to pick up a copy of Romancing SaGa 3? If so, keep the following pieces of advice in mind as you continue to contemplate your purchase--or as you start your way through the game (if it's already taking up space on your PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Vita, or phone).

If you hate RPGs that lack explorable overworlds, look elsewhere--I enjoy racing across an ever-changing overworld as much as anyone. That's not something you get to do while playing Romancing SaGa 3, however. Instead, you get to choose between icons--representing caves, forests, towns, and the like--unceremoniously plopped onto a map. It's kind of a bummer at first, but it saves time in the long run, so I personally consider the whole she-bang a wash.

Also look elsewhere if you absolutely need a grand story in your RPGs--Most SaGa games aren't story-focused affairs. Romancing SaGa 3 is no different. That doesn't mean it's story-free, though. In fact, it offers up plenty of little snippets of stories through the numerous quests it tosses your way. Many of them are surprisingly unique for the genre, too, so if you're at all open-minded in this area, give the title a go despite the fact that its gameplay isn't tied to a novel-worthy tale.

Try not to psyche yourself out--Yes, Romancing SaGa 3 can be obtuse. And yes, Romancing SaGa 3 can be difficult. It's not so obtuse or difficult that it's impossible to finish, though. In fact, if your first playthrough is anything like mine has been so far, you'll enjoy long stretches when the proceedings seem positively ho-hum. So don't keep the game at arm's length simply because you're scared it'll be too much for you.

Prepare to see your party wiped out a lot--Part of the fun of playing a SaGa game, in my experience, is tucking into dungeons or taking on bosses you know nothing about and seeing how you fare. That often results in your ass being handed to you, admittedly. As such, try to embrace dying in Romancing SaGa 3. It's going to happen a lot, no matter what you do. Accept rather than fear it and you'll get a lot more enjoyment out of the experience.

Don't worry about grinding--One of the main things that's made me wary about playing both Romancing SaGa 2 and 3 is the oft-repeated warning that grinding in either game can be a bad idea. As in, grinding does more than toughen up your party members; it toughens up enemies, too. Well, here's some good news for you: while that's true--to a point--you shouldn't have to worry about it much. Although there are no random battles in this game, you'll be forced into them regularly enough that grinding is sure to be the last thing on your mind.

Embrace FAQs and walkthroughs--Going through a game blindly is an admirable feat. That said, I wouldn't suggest doing so with Romancing SaGa 3. Not only will it make your journey a lot more challenging, but it'll likely cause you to miss a bunch of cool characters and quests along the way as well. This blog is a great source of information, as is this shrine.

See also: 'Five reasons I would've paid full price for the Switch version of Dandy Dungeon if Onion Games had forced me to do so'

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Manual Stimulation: Osawagase! Penguin Boy (GameBoy)

Osawagase! Penguin Boy's in-game graphics are cute as a button.

The same can't be said of this 1990 release's box art, which I find almost bizarrely ugly.

In fact, I found it so off-putting when I first bought my copy of the game that I waited over a year to open its instruction booklet--because I assumed it, too, was hideous.

Boy, was I wrong.

The Osawagase! Penguin Boy manual may not qualify as a stunner--like the manuals made for Bubble Bobble, Ghostbusters 2, and Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa Naru surely are--but it's lovely nonetheless.

One reason for that is the manual made for Osawagase! Penguin Boy, renamed Amazing Penguin when it hit the streets of North America in 1991, kicks off with a multi-page comic. Yes, à la the Snow Bros. Jr. manual.

Said comic looks pretty hilarious, too. Not that I full understand everything that goes on within it, mind you.

Still, the high-quality illustrations nearly make the entire package--and I'm including the box and game cartridge here--worth the price of admission all on their own.

Interestingly, the Osawagase! Penguin Boy manual waits until the sixth page to detail the game's story. I guess its designers really wanted to rope in readers with the comic strip.

Next, we have some explanation as to how Osawagase! Penguin Boy plays. It's a fun little game, by the way, if you've yet to experience it for yourself. It's a bit like Taito's Qix, though cuter and more energetic.

Also, you get to kick objects at on-coming enemies in Osawagase! Penguin Boy. It's surprisingly satisfying.

Speaking of satisfying, that's just one of the words I'd use to describe the manual spread that showcases Osawagase! Penguin Boy's enemies. I mean, what's up with that bear character? Is he riding a cloud, or a baguette? Also, props to the bird boss exclaiming, "Love and Peace!"

Sadly, I have no clue--or little clue--as to the focus of these last two pages. I know the header on the left-hand page says something like "First Present!" but what does that mean?

If any of you have a better understanding of Japanese than I do (not a high bar to clear, if I'm to be honest) and can educate the rest of us as to what's going on in the final spread of the Osawagase! Penguin Boy instruction booklet, I'd be beyond thankful.

See also: the Japanese Penguin-kun Wars Vs. and Penguin Land GameBoy manuals

Thursday, November 21, 2019

15 Nintendo DS games you should think about starting in honor of the system's 15th anniversary

It's hard to believe the Nintendo DS came out 15 years ago today.

Some of you may be surprised to hear I haven't been playing this dual-screened, touch-enabled system since that date.

The truth is, I waited a couple of years before jumping into the fray. In fact, I waited until I was about to head out on a business trip and worried I'd be bored during my down time, so I bought a white DS Lite and a copy of Animal Crossing: Wild World to keep lethargy at bay.

It didn't do the trick. Nor did it transform me into a Nintendo DS fan. So what did? I honestly can't remember. All I know is I turned a corner at some later point and never looked back.

I've bought and played and loved a ton of DS games in the ensuing years. The ones named and discussed below are among my favorites.

If you're looking to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Nintendo DS' release, I'd highly recommend starting one--or more--of them as soon as you can.

A Witch's Tale--Although the word of mouth on this game is pretty poor, I had an absolute blast with it last month. It's a role-playing game with turn- and touch-based battles plus a few other interesting twists. It's also fairly short, especially as far as RPGs are concerned. The cherry on top of this pixel-filled confection: the protagonist is a girl. A bratty girl at the beginning, to be sure, but her attitude improves by leaps and bounds as A Witch's Tale progresses.

Contact--I finally played this Grasshopper Manufacture-made game (after keeping it at arm's length for ages) because I liked its EarthBound-esque aesthetic and its European cover art. I quickly discovered that it plays nothing like Shigesato Itoi's classic. This ARPG manages to hold its own anyway, though, thanks in large part to its intriguing, fourth-wall-breaking story and unique costume system.

Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime--This is another of those games that I long ignored simply because it annoyed me that everyone and their mother seemed to adore it. I got over myself eventually. I'm glad I did, too, as I now consider Rocket Slime to be an all-time fave. Why? You play as one of the Dragon Quest series' iconic slimes, for starters. Plus, the writing is silly and the tank battles that end each stage are scintillating.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light--This Matrix Software-developed game has its detractors, but it's my favorite DS RPG. Yes, it's got a few issues, which I briefly touched on in this old post, but it makes up for them with its overall appearance, its creative job system, and its ear-pleasing soundtrack. If you're looking for a role-playing game that harkens back to the glory days of Final Fantasy IV or V, pick up a copy ASAP.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective--Most folks call this Shu Takumi creation a visual novel, and while they're not wrong, I do think they're selling it a bit short with that description. Ghost Trick is more of a puzzler than an adventure game, if you ask me. After all, your main task while playing it is to, in the simplest terms possible, quickly connect dots while time clicks away. Don't worry, it's a lot more interesting and engaging--and difficult--than my pithy description here makes it sound.

Hotel Dusk--This CiNG-developed point-and-click game should've become a break-out hit like chart-toppers Animal Crossing: Wild World and Brain Age. I guess the masses just weren't interested in solving novel-worthy mysteries after they were done running errands for furry villagers and training their gray matter. That's too bad, as Hotel Dusk offers players a lot more than an enjoyable whodunit. It also offers them a fascinating cast of characters and some killer tunes.

My World, My Way--You might think of this DS title as being similar to both A Witch's Tale, mentioned earlier, and the much-maligned Super Princess Peach. It's like the latter in that both games' protagonists use their emotions to battle and even interact with enemies as well as alter their surroundings. And it's like the former in that it's a decidedly unconventional RPG. There's no real overworld to traverse in My World, My Way, for example--just small areas that open up as you complete various tasks and actions. Admittedly, this part of the game can be tedious, but you shouldn't find it so tedious it ruins the rest of the adventure.

Okamiden--Capcom may not consider this title to be an actual sequel to its highly revered, but lowly selling, Okami, but don't let the lack of a "2" at the end of its name fool you. Okamiden is a worthy follow-up to the company's original Zelda clone. There are a few elements here that are sure to give some hardcore Okami fans pause--the chibi-fied visuals, in particular. Still, the DS' touch screen is the perfect canvas for the series' "Celestial Brush," and that alone should sway most skeptics.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney--I'm sure some of you will have a hard time swallowing this one. After all, the very same game can be played on far more modern and accessible devices and systems than the DS. This is the last release of the original Ace Attorney that features pixel-based graphics, though, and that alone makes it the go-to option for folks who still have a dual-screened, Nintendo-branded handheld.

Quick Spot--A few months ago, I asked folks on Twitter to recommend some fun, under-the-radar DS titles. Two people I both like and respect suggested I try this one. And do I did, though I was hesitant at first. Quick Spot--Unou no Tatsujin: Soukai! Machigai Museum in Japan--is one of those spot-the-difference or photo-hunt games. Not exactly my cup of tea. What separates this one from the o-hum hpack is that it features a plethora of beautiful illustrations produced by the wizards at Namco. There's not much more to it than that, to be honest, but that was enough for me to spend a full five hours finishing its 100-plus stages (images?) a few months back.

Rhythm Heaven--Rhythm Tengoku diehards aren't aways kind to the series' first sequel. Me, I adore it. Sure, it's not the definition of perfection like its GameBoy Advance predecessor, but it's pretty wonderful all the same. That's especially true of this game's aesthetic, which matches and maybe even exceeds that of the original. I personally think the vast majority of Rhythm Heaven's new tap- and flick-based mini-games are stellar, too.

Style Savvy--I'm fully aware that most, if not all, of this game's sequels have surpassed it in terms of both graphics and content. Still, I think the 2009 original is worth checking out for one simple reason: you play it with your system held sideways. So, if you're like me and you're a sucker for book-style DS titles, give it a try. An added bonus: used copies are dirt cheap these days.

Tetris DS--Some will tell you the GameBoy version of Tetris has yet to be topped. Am I a member of that group? I'm not sure, to be honest. Regardless, I think the argument could be made that this DS iteration deserves the title of "best Tetris game ever," too, thanks to its Nintendo cameos, underrated soundtrack, and bevy of inventive modes.

The World Ends With You--There are all kinds of reasons you should play The World Ends With You if you haven't already. One is that it's a Square Enix title but isn't called Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, or Kingdom Hearts. Another is that it oozes style. And then there are the unique setting, the eclectic soundtrack, and the frenetic dual-screened battles. The mobile and Switch versions of The World Ends With You also feature those first two components, of course, but you'll only find the last one on this DS cart.

Touch Detective--Like a lot of people, I was first attracted to this point-and-clicker's Beetlejuice-esque art style. OK, so I also liked its anthropomorphic mushroom character, Nameko (Funghi outside of Japan), quite a bit. On a less positive note, the cases you're tasked with solving in this BeeWorks-made game can be a touch confusing. Everything else about it is so silly and charming and bizarre that I think it's worth a go anyway if you have even the slightest interest.

Are there any DS games you'd recommend that I failed to point out in this post? If so, let me know about them in the comments section below.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

To the person who pointed out two pages were missing from my post about the Magical Puzzle Popils manual: that's no longer the case

Three or so years ago, someone pointed out that two pages of the Magical Puzzle Popils instruction booklet were missing from this old "Manual Stimulation" post of mine.

Unfortunately, that comment came in while my husband and I were on sabbatical. I didn't have my copy of this Sega Game Gear puzzler or access to a scanner at the time, so I couldn't rectify the situation then.

I finally rectified it the other day, but who knows if the person who made me aware of the gaffe is still waiting to see the full Magical Puzzle Popils manual?

In the off chance they are, I decided to publish the post you're reading right now to let them know it's finally available in all its "Magical Guide" glory. (Click on the link above to see it.)

That's not the only reason I'm publishing this post, though. I'm also doing so because I want more people to know about this wonderful Game Gear title, which the late, great Fukio Mitsuji developed for the now-defunct Tengen.

If Mitsuji's name doesn't ring a bell, he's the brainchild behind two games you should know well: Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands.

Unlike that pair of Mitsuji creations, Magical Puzzle Popils, renamed Popils: The Blockbusting Challenge when it hit European store shelves in 1992, challenges your brain rather than your reflexes.

Popils is just as cute as those classics, though, if not quite as kaleidoscopically colorful. It also matches their blissful soundtracks.

Add it all up, and you've got one of my five favorite Game Gear games. Is the Magical Puzzle Popils instruction manual a favorite, too? I'll let you be the judge of that.

See also: five Game Gear games you need to play as soon as possible

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Manual Stimulation: Banishing Racer (GameBoy)

Given the brilliance of Banishing Racer's box art, its instruction booklet must be similarly magnificent, right?

To be completely honest, I find the Banishing Racer manual a bit disappointing.

I say that mainly because I love every other aspect of this Japan-only GameBoy game, published by Jaleco Entertainment during the summer of 1991. To me, Banishing Racer's cover art, in-game graphics, soundtrack, and even story are marvelous.

The kookiness that's on full display in each of the above-mentioned areas is barely noticeable while flipping through the game's instruction manual.

The story spread of the Banishing Racer manual is a welcome exception, thanks to the portraits that sit behind the text.

Speaking of which, that's not City Connection's Clarice on the left, is it? I know it doesn't look like her, but you never know--maybe she got her hair done between when that game wrapped up and this one began.

I know it's not always easy to spruce up the pages of a game manual that tell readers how things work, but surely this one's designers could've offered up something more than a simple--and small--rendering of the GameBoy hardware?

Here comes my favorite page of any game manual that's worth its salt--the page that showcases the game's items.

Unfortunately, Banishing Racer features just three items. A bit of a head-scratcher considering the game is a side-scroller, don't you think?

The Banishing Racer instruction booklet wraps up with a look at the game's five stages, each of which consist of three areas.

These stages are based on real-life American cities, by the way. Your journey starts in San Francisco and then takes you and your adorably anthropomorphic car character through Las Vegas, Denver, and Detroit, before concluding in New York City.

See also: 'Five more overlooked Japanese GameBoy games you need to play as soon as possible'

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Manual Stimulation: Donkey Kong (GameBoy)

If I could only play one GameBoy game from here on out, of course I'd choose Tetris. Donkey Kong would be my second choice if such naughtiness were allowed, though.

For me, GameBoy Donkey Kong--that's what the manual cover below suggests this version is called, right?--is one of the most perfect portable gaming experiences to be made available to the public.

Does this game's Japanese instruction manual similarly represent perfection? Not in my mind, but don't take that to mean it sucks.

Sure, it pales in comparison to the Burning Paper, Ghostbusters 2, and Snow Bros. Jr. manuals, but it's still more appealing than many others--as the remainder of this post should make clear.

OK, so the first few pages of the Japanese Donkey Kong booklet don't quite make the case for it being any kind of standout among GameBoy manuals.

At least they feature a few illustrations and a good bit of color, though, right?

Things get a little more exciting on the sixth and seventh pages of this particular Donkey Kong manual.

I especially like how the drawings on the next couple of spreads depict the surprisingly athletic moves Mario makes in this 1994 release.

I also like how these pages mix in the odd screenshot to nice effect.

I do wish the artists and designers who worked on the Japanese Donkey Kong instructional manual had whipped up a few illustrations that depicted the game's handful of items, most of which are highlighted on the next handful of pages.

They could've offered up a more interesting representation of the game's map, too. Instead, readers get some black-and-white screen grabs. Yawn.

Hey, did you know the folks at Pax Softonica--or Pax Softnica, as the company's also known--developed GameBoy Donkey Kong?

That name may not ring a bell, but I'll bet these titles do: Balloon KidMole Mania, and Mother (aka EarthBound Beginnings). Pax Softonica made each of those games--and many more. Pretty impressive, eh?

Also impressive, though not nearly as much: the enemy sprites they conjured up for their handheld take on Nintendo's famous Donkey Kong IP.

I don't know about you, but I've always had a soft spot for that ladybug, in particular.

The GameBoy iteration of Donkey Kong wraps up by naming the people (primarily?) responsible for the game's creation. That's not something you often see in Nintendo-published titles, so I think it's pretty cool this one is an exception.

See also: Balloon Kid, Hoshi no Kirby, Kaeru no Tame ni Kane wa and Moguranya manual scans

Thursday, November 07, 2019

You press a button to hold hands, plus four more reasons I can't stop thinking about and playing The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

I've got to admit: I hemmed and hawed quite a bit when it came to buying a physical copy of The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince early this year.

Why? Although I've thoroughly enjoyed a number of Nippon Ichi Software's smaller offerings, like Cladun and Yomawari, in recent years, this PS4 and Switch game appeared to be inspired by, if not directly related to, the much-maligned htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary and A Rose in the Twilight.

I've yet to play either of those pretty puzzler-platformers, sadly, but I've read and heard enough about both of them to get the feeling they may not be my cup of tea.

Still, The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince's announcement trailer made it seem so damn charming that in the end I couldn't keep myself from pre-ordering a copy.

Fast forward to today, and I just finished playing through the game for a second time.

I've been thinking of doing so since I wrapped up my first playthrough shortly after it released in my neck of the woods. Why? Here are the main reasons I've had The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince on the brain for most of 2019.

I think its story is the sweetest I've ever encountered in a game--Honestly, this is the reason I haven't been able to get The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince off my mind this year. It feels kind of silly to say so given the story here is little more than a fairy tale. Still, the folks who wrote and localized that tale imbued it with such sincerity and tenderness that it hit my ill-prepared heart like a Mack truck. Their efforts made me truly care about the eponymous characters and their unfortunate situation, and that's not something I can say about the text in many games.

Its gameplay is simple, but not boring--While playing The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince, you spend 90-plus percent of your time performing one or more of these four actions: moving left and right, jumping, holding the prince's hand (but only while you're a princess), and clawing enemies to death (while in wolf-monster form). I'm sure that makes it sound like a snore-fest, but I'm here to tell you it's anything but. Hell, just grabbing the prince's paw and pulling him through each stage is such a thrill for me that I'd be perfectly happy if that were all the game had to offer. That it also provides players with some light platforming, baddie-slashing, and puzzle-solving is the icing on the proverbial cake.

It doesn't overstay its welcome--My two playthroughs of The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince lasted nine-and-a-half hours total. Although I've long championed shorter games, I'd usually balk at one that takes only four or five hours to beat. Especially when its asking price is $40. (Don't worry, that's for the now-out-of-print physical version. Digital copies cost just $20.) Not in this case. In my humble opinion, five hours is the perfect length for this particular title. It allows the endearing story to unfold without completely unraveling. And it keeps the straightforward gameplay from grating or boring. Plus, it entices players to do as I've done and stroll through its otherworldly set pieces multiple times.

It looks marvelous--Not so long ago, I wasn't a fan of the kind of "Flash game" aesthetic showcased in The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince and its ilk, like the aforementioned htoL#NiQ and Yomawari. These titles would look so much better if they were sprite-based, I stupidly thought. At some point, though, I did a 180. I can't tell you when or why, just that it happened. And now? I find this title's hand-drawn, watercolor-esque graphics stunning. The only thing I'd change about them at this point would be to allow players to disable--or, better yet, adjust via a slider--the effect that darkens the edges of the screen. It's fine now and then, but sometimes I'd like to fully see my surroundings, you know?

Its soundtrack is pretty wonderful, too--If your experience with The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince is anything like mine, its background music may seem a bit samey as you work your way through its side-scrolling world. Listen to the soundtrack when you're not worrying about the well-being of the game's, erm, "royal" protagonists, though, and it'll immediately become clear just how varied it is. Some tunes soothe with lilting harp-, guitar-, or flute-focused melodies. Others rouse with triumphant xylophone- or piano-heavy hooks. True, most have a decidedly chill vibe, but they're appealingly distinct when you give them the attention they deserve.

See also: 'Five things that made it really easy for me to put more than 60 hours into The Alliance Alive'

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Six reasons all the people who suggested I'd hate A Witch's Tale were wrong

Shortly after I announced on Twitter that I was starting through A Witch's Tale, my old podcasting pal Mollie Patterson sent me a GIF of Morgan Freeman nodding his head and saying, "Good luck."

She wasn't the first to warn me away from this Hit Maker-developed, Nippon Ichi Software-published Nintendo DS RPG. In fact, I'd say most folks have responded negatively whenever I've expressed an interest in it.

Still, I'm the sort of bloke who prefers to come to his own conclusion about such things. So, true to form, I stubbornly stuck my long-ignored cartridge of A Witch's Tale into my trusty 3DS a couple of weeks ago and prepared for the worst.

Eighteen-ish hours later, I'm here to tell you those naysayers were wrong. Or at least they were wrong to believe I'd hate the game.

On the contrary, I loved it. The more time I spent with A Witch's Tale, the more I enjoyed it. And now that I'm done with it, I can honestly say it's been a highlight of my year. Here are a few reasons why.

It looks lovely--At first glance, A Witch's Tale isn't anything special, aesthetically speaking. Oh, it's colorful and cute, but so are countless other DS titles. What eventually set it apart from the ho-hum pack in my mind was how it deftly combines charming spritework and deliciously lush backdrops. Usually I'm not a fan of this kind of commingling, but it produces eye-popping results with such regularity here that it's easy to embrace.

Its battles really grew on me--Early on in my playthrough of A Witch's Tale, I found its turn-based battles rather annoying. It didn't help that every single action required me to utilize the system's touch screen. I'm fine with that in some DS gaming situations, but it can make for slow-paced fights when shoehorned into an RPG like this one. That's what I thought in the beginning, anyway. My opinion on the matter changed mightily a little later on, though--so much so that I actually relished the occasional tussle as this quirky adventure approached its conclusion.

I especially like how "ancient magic" works in A Witch's Tale--The element that slows down this game's battles the most is called ancient magic. To unleash one of these bigger-than-usual spells on the enemies lined up in front of you, you have to correctly trace a "rune" on your DS' touch screen. It's a source of frustration at the start, as screwing up--and thus failing to send forth a ring of fire, a torrent of water, and the like--is easy as can be if you race through the experience. In time, though, I came to appreciate the careful nature of this aspect of A Witch's Tale--mainly because it keeps you from spamming high-powered magic and forces you to use at least a smidgen of strategy while taking on baddies.

The locations you explore in it are a breath of fresh air--OK, so A Witch's Tale does feature the requisite "snow area." Even then, though, it's more Christmas-y than wintry. The rest of the locales on offer here are not so clichéd. My main--and almost only--complaint with this part of the game is it almost entirely ignores the Halloween-ish Shadow Town. Also, you don't fight any enemies there, which I consider an even bigger missed opportunity. Shouldn't this be where me and my bad-ass doll posse battle the final boss--or at least challenge her second-in-command?

The text is surprisingly witty--No one with any taste is going to tell you A Witch's Tale features the best writing around. They should tell you it's far better than average, though--or far better than you're probably expecting it to be. Speaking of the latter, I went into the game with fairly low expectations in this regard, so that may be why it impressed me as much as it did. At any rate, the thing I like most about this title's localization is that it convincingly transforms the pigtailed protagonist from an annoying brat to, well, someone who still tests your patience but is a lot more likable overall.

It's a properly bite-sized RPG--Although I don't mind playing a lengthy RPG now and then, I far prefer playing ones that take 20 or fewer hours to finish. A Witch's Tale fits this criteria, if only just, but that's not all. It's also designed to accommodate shorter stints of play. Rather than give players an overworld to traverse, it offers them a hub--the aforementioned Shadow Town--that conveniently connects each of the game's six lands. Those lands are fairly well contained, too. Sure, it's possible to get lost in them, but mostly they ensure you move on to the next well before the current one overstays its welcome.

Does all of this mean you'll love A Witch's Tale as much as I did if you give it a try? It could. I think your chances of matching my positive experience will be best, though, if you're the type who likes games that dare to do things differently--even if it doesn't always produce, or even approach, perfection.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Ten questions with Christophe Galati, maker of Save me Mr Tako

I had a keen eye on Christophe Galati's Save me Mr Tako: Tatsukete Tako-San long before it hit Steam and the Nintendo Switch eShop this time last year.

To put it another way, I drooled over this adorable, octopus-starring platformer back when it was still a Wii U title. And when it was being considered for the New 3DS, too.

In the end, neither of those now-defunct systems were blessed with Save me Mr Tako. Why? Sadly, I don't know. I rather stupidly forgot to ask Christophe about those planned-but-canned releases when he agreed to answer a few questions about the game a couple of weeks ago.

I asked him a number of other intriguing questions, though. Or at least I hope they're intriguing. You be the judge.

The Gay Gamer: How long have you been making games and what prompted you to start making them? Also, what kinds of games did you make early on?

Christophe: I was really into JRPGs and retro games growing up, as my brother was a game collector. I started to create games when I was 12, after discovering RPG Maker with a friend. My first attempt was a Pokémon fan game. It had a Final Fantasy-like battle system and a very dark story with Mudkip sacrifices.

I learned a lot, then decided to make more personal projects, learn pixel art and write stories. I continued using RPG Maker, and showed my work in online forums. At 18, I went to a game school--Isart Digital--in Paris, where I learned more about game design and programming while also working in the industry.

Christophe Galati sporting a Zelda tee

The Gay Gamer: I'm guessing Save me Mr Tako was your first "big" game--or at least the first one that was picked up by a publisher, made you money, etc. How did you go from developing games for fun, or on the side, to this?

Christophe: Correct, Save me Mr Tako is my first game as an indie. I started to create it in 2014, at a time when I was very depressed by the game school I was attending and the internship I had (where I was making a game for a French cheese company). It was the GameBoy's 25th anniversary year, I ate takoyaki for the first time and got the vision of an octopus character. All of this merged in my mind, along with my JRPG inspiration, and led to Tako.

I started with a small prototype that I published in September of that year, and it got a lot of visibility, especially in Japan. It gave me the motivation to make a full game of it, even though I was 19 at the time. I worked on it in my free time for three years, with the help of the composer Marc-Antoine Archier. Then, the game was selected for the Tokyo Game Show in 2016. It was like a dream come true. That’s where I met Nicalis. After that, I decided to leave my job and go full-time indie. The game finally released last October, after four years of hard work.

The Gay Gamer: How was that experience for you overall, now that it's behind you? Are you happy with how Save me Mr Tako turned out and how players responded to it?

Christophe: It’s never behind you. There are still many things I want to do with the game. I’m glad I was able to follow my vision and make the story come to life, as my first goal when designing a game is to tell a story. I’m proud to have made such a large game, but I’m kind of sad it has some balancing issues, as it was never my intention to make a hard game. After four years on my own, I couldn’t feel the difficulty anymore. Hopefully it will be patched soon so more people can enjoy the story.

I also learned a lot by working with a publisher, and feel prepared for what will come next. I’m glad players liked the game and identified with the characters, that it got the "hidden gem" aura and is considered one of the best GameBoy tribute games.

A scene from Save me Mr Tako

The Gay Gamer: Kind of an aside here, but Save me Mr Tako features drag queens. What made you decide to include them in the game?

Christophe: You can thank my friend Mirage for that! She introduced me to drag culture around the time I started development, and brought me to a few drag shows in Paris. It was so much fun! I’m all for making games more inclusive, to help the representation of LGBT characters--that’s something I want to keep doing in my next creations.

The Gay Gamer: Do you think you'll ever return to that world, perhaps with a sequel to Save me Mr Tako? And if you did ever return to it, what do you think you'd add to or change about it? Would it even still be a platformer?

Christophe: I hope I can return to that world someday. Now that I have more distance with it, I realized there were a lot of elements and ideas that came from the projects I made when I was a teenager, with an octopus twist. I guess it’s my own universe, and I want to keep expanding it.

But I don’t want to do a platformer again soon. My goal is to lean toward the JRPG genre, which is more suited to the stories I want to tell. I love to write universe and lore documents, so I may also create new worlds. Who knows what projects I will have the chance to work on in the future?

The Gay Gamer: You recently completed a five-month artist residency program in Kyoto. How did that change how you think about and make games? What are some of the things you learned there that are impacting your next game?

Christophe: Earlier this year, I got the chance to become the first game developer to be selected in a French artist residency. It’s something I've had in mind since seeing a documentary about Villa Medicis a few years ago. That made me think it would be great to have these kind of places open for game creators. When I discovered Villa Kujoyama in Kyoto, I had to apply. It was perfect for my needs, as my games are very inspired by Japanese culture.

Another Save me Mr Tako scene

I really think I grew up during those five months. It gave me more confidence as an artist and in the messages I want to express in my games. Being able to work in such a cool environment, surrounded by artists from very different fields and experiencing life in Japan--all those things inspired me a lot. It also gave me time to take care of myself after crunching on Tako, to get in better shape, to do research and a real pre-production this time.

The Gay Gamer: Speaking of your next game, it seems to be something you're calling the Himitsu Project. It appears to be inspired by Famicom games rather than GameBoy ones this time around. Is that the case? If so, why are you going for a Famicom aesthetic with it?

Christophe: Himitsu Project is a code name. I always saw Tako as a first step in a journey of paying tribute to and mastering the aesthetic of games that inspired me growing up. I started with the GameBoy, and am now moving on to the GameBoy Advance. I agree the current palette of the prototype is very limited, making it look like a Famicom game, but this way people understand it’s a prototype and that nothing is final. (That’s also why the character is still naked.) I hope that in future projects I’ll be able to explore aesthetics like the PS1 and DS, too.

The Gay Gamer: What else can you share about the Himitsu Project at this time? Does it fit into any particular genre or genres? Have any existing games served as inspiration for it? How far along are you in its creation?

Christophe: The game is an action RPG that's inspired by many games, including Illusion of Gaia, Golden Sun and Secret of Mana. The main themes it will deal with are secrets, how our society and people are built on traumas and how that consumes the world from the inside. It will follow several characters, including a drag performer.

Christophe Galati's Himitsu Project

It’s still the beginning of the project, I think it will take at least three years to develop--if I manage to not only work on it in my free time as I did with Tako. That’s what I’ve been working on since I returned to France--applying for funding and creating opportunities for the project.

The Gay Gamer: You say on your Patreon page that you want to form your own company at some point. Why is that?

Christophe: That’s also why I opened a Patreon page recently. It’s part of creating the good working conditions I’d like to have. I was able to develop Tako mostly alone, but in the future, I’d like to work with a team. That will benefit the quality of the final game and allow me to make even more ambitious projects. Starting my own company will help with funding, too, and that will provide even more opportunities. I’m just at the beginning of my career, and I want to see how far I can go to make my dreams come true.

The Gay Gamer: You also say you eventually want that company be seen as a modern Quintet. How exactly do you hope to follow in the footsteps of that company?

Christophe: For me, Quintet will always be a company with an aura, which made meaningful games. That is kind of what I aspire to--I want to create masterpieces, games that will inspire people as those games inspired me growing up.

My goal is not to revolutionize the game industry, but to explore new subjects, use gameplay to tell stories that will reach the heart of players, create great adventures that will make them understand things and help them in their own lives. I see games as an artform, and I want to defend that view. I believe our generation is the game industry of tomorrow, and I want to help make it less abusive and more inclusive.

See also: 'Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl'

Monday, September 16, 2019

Ten questions with Drew Mackie, host of the Singing Mountain podcast

I've got a confession to make: although I dearly love video game music (VGM from here on out), I pretty much never listen to it when I'm not actually playing a game.

Except, that is, for when I'm listening to an episode of the Singing Mountain podcast.

The thing is, I'd likely ignore Singing Mountain just I like ignore most out-of-context VGM if Drew Mackie weren't its host.

That's not just because of the dulcet tones of Drew's NPR-ready voice, by the way. You see, he and I go way back--in a manner of speaking.

Drew Mackie and Wario
I first became a fan of Drew's around the time I launched the blog you're reading right now. He had his own blog at the time, Back of the Cereal Box--it still exists, though it's been defunct since early 2018--that not only regularly covered video games, but regularly covered the kind of games I tend to enjoy.

In the years since, we've become friends via the comments sections of our respective blogs as well as on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Anyway, between our similar taste in games and my appreciation of Drew's way with words, you bet your sweet bippy my ears perked up when he announced in mid-2017 his next venture would be a VGM podcast.

Speaking of which, Drew recently agreed to answer a few questions not only about why he started Singing Mountain, but how he named it, why he likes 16-bit VGM so much and more.

The Gay Gamer: You launched the Singing Mountain podcast just over two years ago. What spurred its creation?

Drew: To be honest, I had my first podcast and I thought I might do this as a side project to draw attention to the main project--do short little episodes about VGM and then tell people at the end that I have this other nostalgia-based podcast about movies. Very quickly thereafter, Singing Mountain ended up being the project I enjoyed more and before long, I ceased that first podcast and started tinkering around with what I could do with this VGM podcast format. I actually didn't know much about the VGM podcast community and quickly had to educate myself.

The Gay Gamer: Why did you name it Singing Mountain anyway?

Drew: Chrono Trigger! The original OST for Chrono Trigger has one track that you don't hear in the game because that area ended up being omitted from the final version of the game. That's "Singing Mountain." And that name alone evoked something magical and made me wonder about what this lost area might be like. The song has since been used in subsequent ports of Chrono Trigger, but I would still like to see the creator's original vision for it.

This wonderfully beefy piece of cover art wasn't used
for an episode, but I'm including it here anyway

The Gay Gamer: What has been your favorite episode so far?

Drew: "Ric Ocasek in Moonside," an episode I liked so much I actually made it twice, just to iron out the kinks and make it as good as I possibly could. This episode is about EarthBound, but also me and the general way that music can linger in your head for years, unattached to lyrics or anything that could help you identify what song you're actually remembering. If that makes sense.

The Gay Gamer: Which episode do you think is most emblematic or representative of Singing Mountain or even of your taste in game music?

Drew: People make fun of my titles sometimes, but as a gay dude who likes pretty things, I gotta say that the most representative episode of my show is one is called "A Beautiful Place by Moonlight." A big theme throughout Singing Mountain is how I like softer, quieter, more relaxed music, and this episode was all about music that evokes the night but not in a way that's sinister or, like, dark, if that makes sense. It's about how sometimes things are prettier at night. I like thinking of a really abstract theme and then figuring out the weirdest collection of music I can get together that fits that theme. Also, the cover art made me happy.

Runner up: the one about VGM that sounds like italo disco, because I feel like people aren't aware of italo disco, generally, but would be into the idea of disco and new wave having a baby. They actually have an italo disco night at one of the gay bars in L.A. and this makes me very happy. (Not that I'm taking credit for it.)

Drew's Birdo-focused cover art for Singing Mountain's
"The Best Saxophones in Video Game Music" episode

The Gay Gamer: What is your favorite aspect of creating an episode?

Drew: Knowing that I'm my own boss and can do whatever I want. That sounds bratty, but I like that I can break format any way I want and it's OK. I've never had an in-office job where I had that much freedom.

The Gay Gamer: What's the hardest or most annoying part of creating an episode?

Drew: Trying to decide between "I can make this work" and "maybe I can't, maybe I should go in another direction." I don't like putting something out there that I don't think is worth the listener's time, and if I can't deliver the goods, then I need to go with plan B. This last week, I actually ended up not posting an episode, just because nothing was coming together. I'm hoping the time off lets me come up with a good idea.

The Gay Gamer: I always look forward to seeing the cover art you create for each episode, and I'm sure I'm not alone there. I'm guessing you enjoy it too? How long does it usually take you to make a piece of cover art? And what's your process for making one?

Drew: Sometimes the pixel art takes me as long as the episode itself, but only because it's my favorite part. It's basically just doodling, really, because I'm taking existing, official pixel art from Spriter's Resource and then screwing with it and making it weird or taking stuff from two different contexts and making them exist together. It's weirdly relaxing, even when I'm doing it at 2 a.m. because the episode is done and I'm still trying to figure out the art.

The rad cover for a heart-pounding episode
called "A VGM Dance Party"

The Gay Gamer: You obviously have a particular fondness for game music from the 16-bit era. Is that simply because you grew up in the '90s, or is there more to it than that?

Drew: On one hand, yeah. I was born in 1982, so most of my video game playing happened in the 1990s. It's my pop culture sweet spot. However, there is a less objective reason why I focus on 16-bit stuff. Super Marcato Bros. is another VGM podcast, hosted by composers who can talk about music on a technical level. One of the hosts (I think it's Will) has said that he thinks 8-bit VGM is the pinnacle of the genre--and yes, it is a genre--because the technology with which VGM composers could make music was very limited. In order to make music sound good, those 8-bit composers had to be clever enough to work within those restraints and find was to make the technology sing. Alternatively, they could compose melodies that are so purely good and catchy that they'd sound good even being played with those limited means. Often they did both.

I totally think this is true. As video game technology evolved, the restraints gradually went away. So composers coming along later didn't have to be as clever or the melodies nearly as perfectly composed. Coming right after the 8-bit age, the 16-bit stuff is still feeling those restraints but also getting a little more wiggle room, technologically speaking. To me, 16-bit is the best, because you still had to be fairly clever but you could also benefit from a wider range of sounds and consequently do a little more. And then as you get into the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 era it kinda gets... less catchy, I would say.

Drew and his adorable pup, Thurman
The Gay Gamer: Regardless, what are your favorite 16-bit soundtracks?

Drew: EarthBound (because eclectic), Seiken Densestu 3 (which is Trials of Mana now and I'm so glad people get to hear how Hiroki Kikuta took his work from the first Secret of Mana to a slightly darker place), and Super Mario RPG (because I actually think Yoko Shimomura is the most versatile composer working today, having composed this and the original Street Fighter II and Kingdom Hearts and Mario & Luigi and a billion other things). Oh, and the Donkey Kong Country trilogy. And then Treasure of the Rudras would probably be the one less famous OST from this era. Also Lufia II is better than you might remember.

The Gay Gamer: Do you have any favorite game soundtracks or even individual songs that come from outside the 16-bit era? If so, what are they?

Drew: Samurai Shodown! Especially the first three. Because I feel like the SNK fighters aren't remembered necessarily for their music, but the composers really nailed the mood of these games. And the DarkStalkers games are where Capcom always liked to get weird and experimental and kinda gay, if I'm being honest. And that includes the music. And then Wario Land 4 is just.... fascinatingly bizarre.

See also: 'Ten questions with the guys behind the best GameBoy game you've probably never played, Tobu Tobu Girl'