The Chaos Shrine was a great big ruin, and not in the sense Final Fantasy normally means when it says “ruin,” with the hundreds of rooms and active machinery. This is the actual ruin kind, with all the fallen pillars and the walking dead crammed into the only accessible floor. Some of the doors were even locked, making it one of the smallest dungeons in the entire series. Garland doesn’t even have much room to wait for you: he sits in front of a black stone with the princess not five steps into the dungeon, concealed by a single door and a prayer that no one will open it.
The black stone is actually the most interesting thing in the room, but only in the NES version, where it’s part of a set. It looks like a black crystal ball, and there are four other such crystal balls in the world. In later versions, the others were given a makeover while this one remained the same. The peculiar thing is: it’s definitely supposed to be the same thing as others, so the oversight is surprising. I hear the connection is confirmed in Dissidia, the Final Fantasy crossover game, so the fact that they never redrew the crystal ball even in releases made after Dissidia makes this seem even stranger.
You’ll notice I’m not talking about the boss fight. What a coincidence, you’re going to notice that all across the Marathon when it comes to first bosses, because most of them aren’t worth talking about. Unfortunately, this is true of most of the bosses from the 8-bit era – the bosses won’t really pick up until FFIV. But Garland is a piece of work. You probably expect me to talk about his infamous line: “I, Garland, will knock you all down!” but the line never really bothered me. We’re talking about an industry where the end of the world was once addressed as “Kangaroo.” This isn’t even a ranking localization flub. As for the boss: first bosses in Final Fantasy are pathetic and Garland doesn’t even spice it up with spells or special attacks. The only “spice” to Garland’s fight is that if you haven’t grinded, he may kill you. Maybe. He’s really no more remarkable than a tough wandering monster. Happy new franchise, everybody.
That’s enough about characters, let’s hit the digital tarmac! We selected our party, and they walk into the world out of nowhere: that’s not even hyperbole, they just march in out of legend, carrying four crystal shards. Or “Orbs,” in the original, text-restricted NES version. And when I say they march in out of legend carrying only four crystal shards, I mean I feel fortunate they’re even wearing clothes. They have Crystal Shards, kitchen knives, and rags. The spellcasters don’t even come with spells! Just seconds after you’ve agonized over character selection, the damn game tells you to go shopping!
This is how a lot of classic RPGs liked to start off: you agonize over character build followed by… agonizing a different way, which is like following up an kart racing minigame with a slot racing minigame and calling it “variety.” If you want to see it go bad, go check out my Phantasy Star journal archive, because ai carumba. Phantasy Star started you off in town, something Final Fantasy doesn’t care to do, but the rest was all downhill. Things could be worse in both cases, that’s just what early RPGs were like. Look at me and see the eyes of a man who’s played pedit5. Things could be worse.
Final Fantasy 1 on the NES opens directly to a text crawl explaining the backstory. Later revisions put the opening text off until after you’ve done character creation, where it’s unskippable. I want to say that later versions are in the right here, since this opening text crawl is nearly the only insight into the plot you’re going to get. I want to say that, but can’t help but feel that the opening info-dump is the sloppiest narrative convention on the rack. Oh, I admit: FFI doesn’t stand without this opening text crawl, but that’s a problem that could have been solved with just a few tweaks. One of my favourite games of all time has a similar, maybe even worse version of the same problem, and it deserves to be raked over the coals for it. If I’m going to be harsh on one of my favourite games, I’m sure as hell not going to let up for Final Fantasy I. At least FFI’s is shorter.
It gets worse: this exposition is stacked on top of FFI’s character creation segment. Considering you can skip the opening crawl on the NES, the otherwise clunky 8-bit version starts coming off as crisp and efficient for the one and only time in the entire comparison.
I’ll cover the text crawl all the same. It’s not very complex. The four classical elements are all out of whack: winds, gone. Fires, ablaze. Earth and water, dying. Thankfully the prophet Lucan has prophesized that four lucky contestants will come along to save the day. Come on down!
We had just crossed the street from the Electronics Boutique in the plaza near Kyle’s house, and were settling in at Wendy’s like we often did, and started talking about future marathon plans. I don’t well remember what we were playing the day Kyle suggested it. By this point, The Marathon was not only ongoing, but it was well and truly unstoppable. You can read about them here, but in brief: we were playing through (often speed-running) series of single-player games together, swapping the controller at set points. The Marathons hadn’t started with that much fanfare. Mega Man 9 was coming out, so we took up Mega Man 1-8. It was a change from our usual schedule: a little of this, a little of that, one infamous ongoing game of Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, starring my greedy alter ego and his army of sweet potatoes and no remorse. Now it was all different, now there was direction. Hardly a conversation went by where we weren’t quoting our own Mega Man in-jokes. Over 100 Robot Masters and counting, and everything mechanical a “jerkbot.” Everything mechanical is still a “jerkbot,” actually. And if King Jet, an awful boss from Mega Man and Bass couldn’t stop The Marathon after near three hours of failure and tedium, nothing could.
Somewhere in the conversation, as I’m picking away at my fries, we’re talking about doing Kingdom Hearts next. If the Marathon is unstoppable now, it needs fresh targets, new jerkbots to steamroll. But somewhere in that conversation about KH, Kyle makes the fateful suggestion. Final Fantasy, he says.
Screenshots in this journal are taken from Valis77’s longplay of Phantasy Star Adventure, available at World of Longplays and on YouTube.
Phantasy Star Adventure
This one isn’t a surviving original journal. It’s more of an apology. While I was playing the original Phantasy Star games, I discovered that there were some additional Phantasy Star games that I had never heard of before. Since I had been around portable RPGs longer than console (as we’ll see later in the Marathon), I felt these Game Gear games would be a nice little addition to my run without opening the pandora’s box that was Phantasy Star Online. There are three classic Phantasy Star spin-offs, all exclusive to Japan. The most interesting game was a Game Gear game called Phantasy Star Gaiden, a full portable RPG, but I never finished it. There were a series of eight text adventures related to PSII released for SEGA CD, which I never even started. The game I did finish was a Game Gear game called Phantasy Star Adventure.
I chose to start with PSA, because it showed all signs of being a quick experience that wouldn’t infringe much on my spare time. The funny thing was that I was right… but I didn’t know the half of it! At the time, I hadn’t played any games that were quite like this. Visual novels yes. Adventure Games that are mostly just visual novels, yes. “Barely one and a half hour portable adventure games cum Visual Novels…” …that’s different. I’ve played better, longer versions of this genre since, typically old DOS games, but at the time, PSA was a surprise.
I didn’t keep a full journal on PSA back in the day, though I’m not entirely sure why. Best guess… and I risk laying this on thick, but it’s the most likely reason: I probably didn’t write a journal because it was such a very short game, which means this is going to be a very short discussion. If the only thing I get across is the length, I’ve done my job.
You play an agent from Piseo investigating a bio-plant on Dezo, although not in an official capacity (which means making you an agent was just a lazy tie-in to PS2). Secretly, you’re trying to find a kidnapped friend. You bash around, solving rudimentary puzzles and engaging in combat. Yes this adventure game / visual novel has combat, which involves on-screen dice! This idea is cute, but only serves to slow the game down. It’s all so shallow and terrible. It doesn’t have the decency to just be shallow, or just be terrible. It felt the need to be both, and made it clear every chance it got. I can’t help but wonder if the game wasted time rolling on-screen dice just to add ten minutes to the experience and so significantly extend the playtime.
Japan had more than a few of these Adventure/VN/RPG combat triple-hybrids in the 80s and 90s, mostly on PC. The gameplay in PSA doesn’t stray from that limited template (you mash three genres together and you’re either going to get something expansive or something limited, that’s just how it works). Unfortunately, PSA is one of the worst examples I’ve seen from this niche, hybrid genre. There are dating sims with the same formula and more content and polish. I’ve seen dating sims with better combat systems, and they don’t have a reason to even have combat systems! The failure of combat in PSA, an RPG franchise’s spinoff, is a pratfall.
I wish I could say more but I’m all dried up. You break into a lab and stop some evil bio-engineering. I feel it’s not like me to skim the substance off of a retrospective in favour of blanket condemnation, but it’s been five or six years since I played PSA and all I remember about the game was the way it went splat in a big ‘ole belly-flop. The only worthwhile moment in the entire experience is when you picking up a bazooka to fight a giant, which doesn’t typically happen in an Adventure game, and then you still have to roll dice to do damage with it. Slooooow dice. So even though you used a rocket launcher to destroy a monster, all you remember is the dice!
I’ve said in the past (though for the first time on this blog) that I’m more willing to forgive faults in a video game than lack in a video game. PSA is only somewhat faulty, but it’s absolutely lacking. For me, it wasn’t worth it. It ain’t worth it. Stay away.
Screenshots in this journal are taken from Valis77’s longplay of Phantasy Star 2, available at World of Longplays and on YouTube. Yup, same longplayer, we have the gift of consistency.
Day 8 Continued
So naturally, after finishing Phantasy Star 1, I started off Phantasy Star 2 the very same day.
Now how can I start this, this game throws a lot on your plate straight from moment one. The game stars a guy called “Rolf” by default. Rolf is an agent for the government in Piseo, on “Mota,” which is what they call Motavia nowadays (similarly, Palma is “Palm” and Dezoris is “Dezo”). For those that have been paying attention, that means PS2 starts where PS1 ended, and even starts with Rolf having dreams about Alis fighting Dark Force.
A lot has changed in Mota since Alis’ day. For starters, they’ve made a major effort to terraform the place from the desert it used to be, thanks in a large part to a mysterious computer called “Mother Brain” that’s housed in some distant, secret location. Mother Brains’ been planning out the development of Mota via a few special facilities. The grassy areas are walled in, no doubt in some form of terraforming dome, but the visual effect is rather odd, as though Mota were just a series of grassy platforms hovering over inky blackness. This was nearly a Genesis launch title (it was released just a few months into the life-cycle), and it doesn’t quite know what to do with its resources.
So it’s the end of my Phantasy Star “week”, so to speak. With the helpful proddings of the walkthroughs, I found the hovercraft, and wondered if maybe I had listened to the man’s speech about it but just didn’t realize it was a hint about what to do (Editor: after all, in the original draft of these journals, I had a running problem of forgetting town and planet names!). I secured the hovercraft and almost immediately found a dungeon off the coast of the junk town where I had found Hapsby the Robot. Inside the dungeon, I found a Laconian Sword guarded by a Red Dragon at the top. You know, those Red Dragons I had wiped out en masse on the way to Noah’s master? Here we go…
I gave the Sword to Alis and kept searching the Palman oceans until I had found a microscopic, mechanical island somewhere south of the Peninsula Dungeon. There, I found a monster-free dungeon that had a shop in it (…why this layout, designers?) and was delighted to find that they sold “Gas Shields.” I bought one and used it to probe the gas town on Motavia, where I was told where to find a mystical shield. Not the Laconian Shield, mind (I already knew where that was, so I would be pretty bitter if that was the end result of all this fussing). No: they were talking about the Mirror Shield I bet I would need to beat Medusa. I found the Shield hidden on a nondescript square on a small island, classic ugly 80s. Only Odin could use the Shield, so I strapped it on and went off. No thanks, by the way, to walkthroughs all over the internet that can’t seem to agree on its location. It’s probably random.
After double-checking the walkthroughs, I confirmed my next destination had to be Dezoris. At this point, repeated mostly everything I had done on Day 5, without as much cowardly running, and death. I even got the Laconian Shield!
Screenshots in this journal are taken from Valis77’s longplay of Phantasy Star, available at World of Longplays and on YouTube
I hate being lost in this game. It’s the 8-bit first person stuff. I get the feeling that if I were trying to play the original Megami Tensei I might just go insane. (Editor: HAH!)
First, something I forgot yesterday: I found a flute that would let me escape dungeons anytime I wanted. (Editor: Though I’m not positive I ever used it, considering an incident you’ll be reading about in a Day or two.)
Today started out fair enough. I went to Motavia and headed south, where there was a village several people had mentioned that was surrounded by rocks and water. The only way in was a cave to the south, which I took. I got a little lost in the cave, but that’s not the big deal, and it ultimately helped me as I found a side passage I would have otherwise missed. The passage played home to a cramped but plot-important Blue Dragon, which dropped an Amber Eye (a gem) when it died. Once I made it through the tunnel, the people in the village said there were dragons plural in the caves beneath, but I’m pretty sure I flushed the place out. Last resort, I’ll head back.
There was really nothing else to do in town, though people hinted at there being a hovercraft somewhere that would let me cross water (that would be great on Palma, which was Earth-like and mostly water). For the time being, I bought a Land Rover from a shop in town. This vehicle let me move faster, avoiding more fights, and also let me cross Ant Lions. I immediately went exploring and found an area filled with gas that I had been warned about, but didn’t recognize as gas at first sight. It did contact damage that tore the party apart, killing two of them in three squares of movement. I had to cast the Fly spell to get away at all!
Screenshots in this journal are taken from Valis77’s longplay of Phantasy Star, available at World of Longplays and on YouTube.
Well that was unpleasant.
At the end of Day 3, I had two options open to me that didn’t involve leaving the planet: run along the coast (to Medusa Tower, I said) or return to a shrine, inland, that seemed too strong for me. I have since decided that the shrine is Medusa Tower. It doesn’t look like a tower, that’s for sure, but I know the Tower is on this continent, and there are only three dungeons here: the prison, a cave, and the “shrine.” So by process of elimination the shrine must be the world’s flattest Tower.
Thankfully, I decided to try to cross the lava first, since going to Medusa Tower would have been a very bad idea.