Another 5 old school RPGs

(wordpress is being an ass so I’ll put pictures later)

Jello! Since last entry I’ve played a handful of excellent and not-so-excellent RPGs on my PC and my trusty Sony PSP. I swear buying the handheld was the best thing I’ve ever done. The fact it emulates pretty much every non-128 bits systems previous to itself is a marvel of technology (and hacking).

Golden Sun

Ah, Golden Sun :) Its very name strikes joy unto my heart. You take the role of a young boy named Isaac. He lives in the village of Vale, at the foot of Mount Aleph. Atop the mountain lies the Sol Sanctum, a shrine dedicated to Alchemy. Alchemy is the game’s equivalent to magic and those capable of wielding it are called Adepts. Alchemy is divided in Earth, Fire, Wind and Water and everything is composed of a combination of them (cool story, Empedocles). Every Vale citizen is an Adept and every Adept has an innate element, which determines one’s strengths, weaknesses and affinities. Earth is weak defensively and strong offensively against Wind, the same is true for Fire and Water.

In ancient times, Alchemy had been sealed from the world, deemed a source of corruption and destruction. No one barring Vale’s resident’s can wield Alchemy anymore. Or so they thought. Isaac, his friends Garet and Jeena and Kraden, Vale’s resident bookworm, sneak in Sol Sanctum looking for adventure but shit hits the fan very fast and Isaac has to part in a quest to save the world from being destroyed. He has to prevent the four elemental Lighthouses from being lit. If it happens, the seal on Alchemy will be broken and that would spell the doom of the world.

In his deeds he meets magical creatures called Djinn (singular: Djinni). Each Djinn is of one of the four elements and can be equipped  to the characters similarly to weapons. They are the cornerstone of Golden Sun and a very fun feature to screw around with. Each Djinni enhances the character’s stats a little in a different way and the combination of them may change the character’s class. This is the single most important aspect of the gameplay. Mixing and matching different Djinn yields different classes, different stat bonuses and different types of Psyenergy. Oh, Psyenergy is Golden Sun for spells. It is crucial to experiment and exhaust every possibility before you settle on a class and Djinn spread (or, you know, giving up and going to gamefaqs). Having access to many types of Psyenergy is important because it gives more flexibility and options to your party. Also, the strongest classes are those that mix different types of Djinn, most of the time Djinn different from the character’s innate element. You may have Isaac, an Earth Adept, hold only Earth Djinn but his stat bonuses will be low and his Psyenergy will be limited to Earth and healing spells, albeit very powerful ones at that. Superstar classes such as Samurai offer a much varied Psyenergy array and many times they will be as strong or stronger than those of the base classes. Moreover, the stats bonuses of the special classes are much, much higher.

There are 28 Djinn scattered in the game, 7 for each element. They may be find in towns, caves, towers and some on the very overworld. Don’t worry, there’s no way you can miss one permanently. Each one can be “Set”, that is, equipped, or put in “Standby”. A Set Djinni applies its bonuses to the character and may change his or her class. Also, it can be Unleashed in battle for a unique effect. For example, the Earth Djinni Flint, the first one you encounter, performs an Earth-based attack on one enemy. There are many other possible effects such as HP restoration, removal of status ailments, Attack up and invulnerability for one turn. When the Djinni is Unleashed, it goes to a Standby state and the character loses its bonuses and may revert his or her class. However, and this is the best, you can use Djinn in Standby to Summon powerful creatures. The Summons are the most potent attacks in Golden Sun, no questions asked. Up to four Djinn of the same Element can be used for a Summon at once and the results are exhilarating. Once used in a Summon, the Djinni enters a “cool-down” state in which it can’t be take part in a Summon, be Set or Unleashed for a few turns. Once it is over it is automatically Set. A Djinni in Standby may also be manually Set during battle but that costs the turn for the character.

To sum it up: find the Djinn, fidget with them until you settle on a class combination across your party, ????????, profit. Unleash them in battle for their powerful effects or start with them in Standby to use the Summons as soon as the first turn. Just don’t forget that a character without Djinn is relegated to the weaker classes and may very well be killed by a boss or strong enemy in case the first onslaught doesn’t get rid of them.

Another very fun aspect of the game are the puzzles. Every now and again you will be required to use your Psyenergy and brawl to solve clever enigmas in order to proceed or acquire a Djinni. A good deal of the game is spent solving puzzles. Never a dull day. Some Psyenergy are used solely for this, which is the case of Move, used to move shit around, while others can also be used in battle, like Whirlwind (this one blows… leaves away). Again the classes thing comes into play because certain Psyenergy can only be obtained by certain classes. This isn’t a nuisance most of the time but it’s something one should not forget.

The battle system is very straightforward and doesn’t bring much new to the table save for the Djinn. One thing worth noticing and quite possibly the lesser of the game’s two true flaws is that a character automatically defends in case she/he was set to attack an enemy that isn’t there anymore. I mean, seriously, Camelot? Since when is there anything wrong with attacking the next enemy? Some weapons have a dormant spirit or something that may kick in when you attack and deliver a stronger than normal attack that may have a special effect like sleep or poison. Good luck figuring out whether a weapon with an unleash possibility should be used over another with higher attack but no unleash.

Golden Sun has fantastic music, composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who also scored Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, some Tales titles and Baten Kaitos. The man is good.

Great Djinn system and its treasure hunt, fun puzzles, good difficulty level, quality music, exciting battles, an optional dungeon and its optional, kick-to-the-head-difficult boss. In case I haven’t made myself clear, Golden Sun is an awesome game. I beseech you to play it. Now.

Golden Sun 2: The Lost Age

This game is everything Golden Sun is, only much bigger and better. I mentioned Golden Sun having two flaws. The second one is that it is somewhat short. Golden Sun 2: The Lost Age (hereinafter referred to as TLA) remedies that being twice as big as its predecessor. TLA picks up exactly where the first game ended and expands the adventure to the remaining parts of the world. Many questions left unanswered are addressed here while plenty of others also arise.

First things first, in order to enjoy TLA to its utmost, you will want to transfer the information from the Golden Sun save before starting this one, either by link cable or a password. Physical transfer is hard to do because it requires a link cable and TWO GBAs, which is kinda fucked up but still way better than typing a 180-ish characters password (no joke) the first game generates. Still, this is only required if you wish to 100% it. Money, experience points, levels, items and, the actually important thing, every Djinn is transferred to the second game but won’t come into play until much further into it.

The world is at least thrice as big as the first game’s. This is not an overstatement. Therefore, exploration plays a very big role in TLA. From optional dungeons to Djinn hunt to a Zelda-like item trading chain side quest, every nook and corner of the world should be scrutinized.

Speaking of that, now you can travel the oceans! Almost all of the world becomes available once you do that, which doesn’t necessarily mean you can explore everything as of yet. Almost all areas require a specific Psyenergy to enter or to reach its deepest halls, a Psyenergy that may take several hours of gameplay to get. While most of these locations are optional, one would do well in exploring them for they often hold a valuable item or a Djinn.

Every mechanic of the first game holds true for this one. There are more Psyenergy to solve the now harder puzzles, many more locations to visit and many, many more Djinn. TLA brings 44 new Djinn that added up to the original 28 raise the total to a whopping 72. It is kind of a chore to amass all of them, let alone transferring the first 28, but there’s a dungeon that is accessible ONLY if you have all of them. It houses what is considered by most the hardest boss in the game and the unarguably most powerful and broken Summon. The Summons have been expanded upon by means of the Tablets. Tablets are slabs of stone that teach how to combine Djinn of different elements in Standby for even mightier Summons. Some of these Tablets are guarded by bosses but are very well worth the effort.

Again, Motoi Sakuraba delivers a great soundtrack to match the greatness of the game with a few tracks from the first one. When you are done with Golden Sun don’t forget to get your hands on the OST.

Rounding it all up are Sunshine the blacksmith, many challenging optional dungeons, new antagonists and plot twists. If you liked Golden Sun you have no excuse not to play the sequel.

Final Fantasy

EH! The NES version of the first episode of Square’s seemingly endless saga will make your head spin. Forget trifle facilities such as saving at will, item description at shops or helpful NPCs. You have no idea where to go, you don’t know what items do, resting at Inns doesn’t heal status ailments and no, you can’t carry any more items.

The sheer lack of information within the game catapults it one or two notches in difficulty. That isn’t to say it is terribly hard by itself. No sir, with a combination of good party members and some level grinding, it is possible to breeze through the game like it is nobody’s business… if you know where the fuck you are supposed to go. I wonder who can equip this weapon… let’s buy it for an arbitrarily large amount of money and find out it sucks. Now, I firmly believe that most relevant information is contained on the game’s manual but I obviously don’t have one. Another important point is how buggy the game is. Many spells don’t work the way intended or don’t work at all, special effects of equipments don’t apply and even one of the classes is bugged.

The game is a quest of the four Light Warriors trying to purify the four Orbs that represent the four elements. At the beginning of the game you choose the class of each character and their names. The classes are Fighter, Black Belt, Thief, Red Mage, White Mage and Black Mage. If you have no idea of what they represent you will probably do like me and pick two mages and other random two. Terrible idea, the mages are horrible in this game.

Allow me to enlight: they are weak of body and have barely any MP. The MP here are called Spell Charges and there are 8 levels of Magic, each one with its own MP. Nothing you shouldn’t be familiar with, some other great titles, like Grandia, use a similar system. The one problem with Spell Charges is that. They. Are. Just. Too. Few. Even at very high levels the MP spread of a Black Wizard (the upgraded Black Mage) is something like 12/11/9/7/6/5/3/2, which, I fear, is not nearly enough for a 2-3 hours long dungeon and its over one hundred battles. No, you can’t restore MP either, the only two items that do so cannot be used indoors. The Red Mage has even less MP but his other stats are decent at least.

Magic is divided in Black and White. Black aligned mages can only use Black magic and likewise for White. The Red Mage can use most low and mid level magic but not the latter spells, which doesn’t matter anyway since he has very few Spell Charges on the highest levels and the only to be missed is the resurrection one. What is more, the equipment of the Black and White mages suck rat dick. So, most of the time, the Black and White mages will use physical attacks for a feeble 1 damage while praying they don’t die. Not good enough. At least the Red Mage has better equipment and can hope to do some hurt.

Oh, you have to buy spells. Fuck. And they are EXTREMELY expensive. Fuck. And shops offer no description of them. Fuck. And you can only have 3 spells per level. Fuck. And once you buy one you are stuck with it for the rest of the game. Fuck.

The other classes, Fighter, Black Belt and Thief are all okay but in the end it comes down to Fighter versus Black Belt. The first has superb HP, Attack and Defense and can equip almost everything in the game. On the other hand, he is somewhat expensive to maintain. The Black Belt is stronger than the Fighter, scores more hits, deals more critical hits and needs no weapon. His downside are his mage-sized defenses and that he cannot wear most armor. And his upgraded version is bugged, though it can be circumvented, somewhat.

At first I probably went with Black Mage, White Mage, Fighter and Black Belt then got mopped and switched to Fighter x 3 and Red Mage, which is probably the best party as the Fighter is nigh invincible and the sole Red Mage provides the little magic you will ever need.

I am still not sure of what the on is going fuck on the battle screen. The turn order is random, I swear to all of your Gods. That alone throws any whiff of strategy out the window. When the target dies or flees before someone takes action, you get an “Ineffective”. No, not even a “Defend”. There’s no defend command. Some equipment can be used in battle but of course nowhere in the world, save gamefaqs and possibly the game’s manual, it is said which ones they are and what they do. It is trial and error.

Speak of items, there is ONE healing item for a laughable 30 HP. Better start to stockpile them now for you shall need each and every last one of them. This and the Antidote, for Poison, are the only items that can be used in battle. The other status effect is Stone, which basically means you are dead but it can be healed with Soft. There’s no revive item. There. Is. No. Revive. Item. Fuck. When someone dies you have to take the party to a Clinic and pay for it. Fuck.

Battles are random and happen literally everywhere save inside towns and flying (more on that in a minute). Some tiles inside dungeons are rigged and always bring the same enemies. Some of them are very exploitable for level grinding. The enemies generally are nothing exceptional. If you must, gaining levels doesn’t take that long in this game, actually. There are, however, some particular enemies that are a pain to deal with, i.e., those that can petrify or instant kill you. And these buggers are always deep inside a dungeon. A few of the bosses are brutally strong too and can wipe out any warrior in one hit or even the entire party in two or three turns. Thank heavens there are a very few precious equipment that can be used to heal or else I think I’d still be level grinding in this game (it’s been months since I beat it). The last dungeon in particular is murder.

Anyway, still it is not that hard of a game. The many limitations of the engine are roadblocks that can be dealt with after you get used to them. At worst, all you have to do is to level grind more to be able to advance.

Leaving the gameplay aspects aside, the developers went wild with their imagination here (remember the year was 1987). There are various locations to explore and various different people and enemies. You get to know men, elves, dwarves, fairies, mermaids; you visit highlands, plains, caves, castles, deserts, forests, the bottom of the sea,  the space and the past. You travel on foot, canoe, ship and flying vessel, vehicles that would become staple of the series. The music is fine though you get tired of the battle theme after the 203894289341st time.

In conclusion it is a fair little game and is worth a shot if you want to know the grandsire of the FF hype of today. If you don’t want to go through all the bullshit I forced myself to, there’s always the GBA, PSONE and PSP versions though they are dumbed down and, sorry, don’t evoke the nostalgia the NES version does.

Final Fantasy II

Think of everything you learned in Final Fantasy one. Now lobotomize it. The second game is a ghost from another world.

Following the success of the first game, Square quickly made a sequel but for some reason threw almost every mechanic from it to the winds. I played the GBA version – couldn’t find a translated NES version – and therefore some points may be different from the Famicom but bear with me.

Imperial forces are wrecking havoc on the country and a group of youngsters, Firion, Guy, Maria and her brother Leon stand up against them. They are utterly crushed but are rescued at the last instant. They wake up in the king’s refuge to find Leon is missing. Basically you fight to take the country back from the imperial forces and find Leon.

Levels are gone. You don’t level up. Instead stats gain bonuses as they are “used”. That is, Attack will upgrade as you use physical attacks, HP will grow as you are attacked and so on. Weapons and spells have individual levels too and increase as you use them. I guess the designers intended this to make your party customizable or to perhaps apply some real world logic to the leveling system. In the end, all they got was an extremely abuseable one.

There are no classes. All characters can equip all weapons and all armor save those specifically for men or women. All spells can be used by everyone. It is nice that again you can customize your party every way you want but this robs each character of identity. While the three initial characters have different stat spreads and seemingly different growth rates for some stats, it is no challenge at all to turn each into whatever class stereotype you want. Heck, you can even make everyone good at everything. At least they are not silent and have faint traces of personalities.

There are 7 weapons: swords, knives, axes, staves, bows, spears and shields. Each one levels up individually as you use them. You may have one weapon or shield equipped to either hand but as a rule of thumb you want to hold two weapons if not to deal more damage at least to level them up faster. Only the bows are two-handed. As they gain levels they become more accurate, deal more damage and deal more hits. If you like to cover all bases like I do, you will probably get all weapons of everyone to a decent level because hey you never know when you will find an awesome sword! It is not necessary, really.

Spells level up likewise weapons and, again, all characters can have all spells. You buy them in shops and sometimes find one in a dungeon or an enemy drops some. There are Fire, Ice, Earth, Wind, Cure, Light and Void spells. Several enemies are resistant, susceptible, immune to or absorb certain types of magic. They may be directed at one single enemy or the entire enemy party for smaller damage.

Added to the battle screen are the front and back rows. The back row provides a great deal of extra defense and evasive at the expense of being unable to deal damage outside of using bows and magic. Also, the enemy can’t hit someone on the back row unless they too use magic or arrows or they fell whoever is in the front row first. You must always have at least one character in the front row. Enemy parties also have a back row of sorts. Since they come in bands of up to 8 critters, the first 4 are sort of a first row. This applies even if there are less than 8 enemies.

The leveling system is broken. And for a very simple reason: you can hit your own party. This means you can beat yourself near dead with either brawl or magic, restore full HP, MP and repeat. There are also some glitches I was not aware of when I played that make this even more exploitable. It is easy to get very high weapon and magic levels early in the game.

Moreover, the Toad, Mini, Warp and Teleport spells are broken. The first two incapacitate the enemy almost completely while the latter two are instant kill. Why are they broken? Because they have 50% accuracy. Just in case you are an idiot, 50% accuracy is GIGANTONORMOUS for an instant kill or severely debilitating spell. But wait, it gets worse: they affect all enemies. I mean it. Even the last boss. Fuck, even the last fucking boss is instant killed.

Ironically, I didn’t know that. I just assumed bosses would be immune to instant kills and didn’t bother to level those spells up. Teleport and Warp specially because as a spell levels up they cost more MP. I beat every boss legit and even then I found the game to be rather easy. Except for here and there “You cannot pass!” areas with stupidly stronger enemies, nothing really posed a challenge. Mayhap the NES version is harder or the game offers a challenge if you don’t abuse the level system (which, frankly, requires you to be a Monera to not figure out how).

That said, there ARE some enemies that are a pain in the rear. In high regard are the latter undead and vampires that seem to deal damage based on your maximum HP rather than stats. I’ve consistently taken 2000, 3000, even 5000 damage from physical attacks of those maggots. Also the leeches that drain all your MP in one turn. Fuckers. A few bosses and the last one are annoying, too.

This game also features a canoe and an airship though the latter is limited to fixed travels. Also, it marks the first appearance of recurrent characters Chocobo and Cid, which are redeeming qualities I guess. There are a few cool places to visit like the dark world and the belly of a sea creature. Which somehow had land worms in it. Eh. There’s also a Wyvern that you can use to fly freely, a nice touch actually.

And people die here. The good people. Party members. And that is hell. Weeee what a cool character let me give him good weapons and spells and train him for hours. Bam, dead.

All in all, I think it is a weak game with an undeveloped level system. Square tried to fix what wasn’t broken and, humorously, came up with a very broken engine. While it actually makes sense from a real world point of view, it didn’t quite work out inside a cartridge. That isn’t to say it was a bad idea in itself, I think it lacked further tweaking. I am sure some younger RPG out there did something similar, hopefully to a higher degree of success.

Final Fantasy III

This is the hardest RPG I’ve ever played. It is Contra III cruel, Ninja Gaiden brutal, Super Turbo heartless, Danmaku evil. And it is madly fun.

It bears many similarities with the first title and, again, it is about light warriors and blagh. At the beginning of the game you choose names for the four characters, they have gone lost in a cave and must fight their way out. They start in the OnionKnight/Freelancer generic class but soon reach the first boss and purify the first of four elemental crystals and from it they receive additional Jobs (classes). The cool thing here is that you can change classes at any time at the cost of Capacity Points, which you earn after each battle. They cap at 250 but you should always have plenty to spare. As you fight in a given class, you gain skill points in it and become more proficient at that class. Skill points never reset when you change classes and also decrease the number of capacity points for a change to that class or a similar one.

Combat is an amalgam of the first two game’s. Turn order again seems random and there are front and back rows but now the warriors can be moved between mid combat at the cost of the turn. Each class has also a special combat command or trait, such as the Dragoon’s Jump and the Knight’s ability to protect a wounded ally. Equipment may be changed freely and some can be used as spells. The Staves only by mages. You choose an equipment for the left hand and another for the right hand. It is mostly useful to slap two swords on everyone.

Magic is yet again divided between Black and White only now they may be freely equipped and unequipped by anyone though their use is limited by the class of the character. Spell Charges across eight levels return but now they are waaaaaaay more plentiful. And there is a goddamn item that restores MP (?). Two new mage classes are the only capable of using summons (along with the ultimate Sage), very powerful creatures that attack the enemy, though they can’t use other spells and pretty much suck at everything else.

Ok, so the game is hard. I used to think Breath of Fire II had a steep difficulty curve and required much time of level grinding. I was wrong. Final Fantasy III just goes crazy. In your home town, to which you return right after receiving the first jobs, there is an area in which SLIGHTLY stronger monsters attack and there you are, taken with the pants down. Who the hell expects random encounters within the safe walls of a city? If you haven’t leveled up a bit after leaving the cave (you certainly haven’t) or haven’t upgraded your classes (you probably haven’t realized yet they exist), prepare to meet your doom in the hands of half dozen Werewolves. Really. And this is but a token of this game’s cruelty.

Your first task is to rescue Princess Sara from a cave. The second part of the cave is simply impossible unless you gain a few levels, it’s ridiculous. And even then the boss will walk all over you unless you have figured out his weakness. After that, the game ceaselessly increases the slope of difficulty like a natural exponential.

There are times in which you are forced to use Mini or Frog spells on yourself and that literally means you have to change everyone to mages and place them in the back row. That is because Attack and Defense are SEVERELY cut down because of the mentioned spells, I’d think they drop to 1, but the back row provides great defense and you take less hits per attack and dodge much more often. On the flipside, Attack while on the back row is greatly reduced and so is Accuracy. The enemies you meet while shrunk, while weaker, are nothing to scoff at as they can and will crush you. You even fight a bloody boss while Mini-ed.

Following this example, many parts require a specific strategy, or loads of grinding, to be crossed safely or relatively safely. Sometimes, it is a combination of that and pure luck. There is a boss that you MUST battle with the Dragoon class. No, don’t even try with another. Seriously, don’t. I did and regretted it immensely. Then I switched to all Dragoons, bought their equipment and only after the third or fourth try, when the random turn order didn’t fuck me in the eyeballs, I beat him.

And there are the overworld traps. I have seen tiles that deal damage, that cause poison, HPs being smitten to 1, places you aren’t supposed to visit yet… but never before had I gotten a Game Over screen from exploring the overworld. Those were the second most bitter Game Over screens I have endured (the first was losing my last life on stage 99 of Galaxian to that accursed kamikaze purple with 3 or 4 other enemies left).

You can only save while on the world map so do it constantly. I mean it, mind the traps. And mind the hours long dungeons that come out of nowhere. There’s a cave that is infested by the notorious split monsters. They in general aren’t very strong but they create a clone every time they are hit, unless they are hit by a black sword, a kind of weapon only the Magic Knight and the Ninja (the supreme fighting class) can wield. The clones don’t split if they are killed in one hit, otherwise they split again, so any class can theoretically beat them. Thing is, their damage, while not great, eventually adds up. Add to that 3 to 4 hours exploring their cave and I had to use all my 89 HiPotions, every last spell charge from all characters and a number of Elixirs and Phoenix Downs.

The last dungeon is killer. And by last dungeon I mean the last 3 dungeons you are forced to take in a row. Which could very well be 4 if you couldn’t backtrack to a resting place when you are done with one of them. Can you imagine what it is to weave through endless corridors, branches and rooms for almost 5 hours straight on the edge of death, unable to shake the dread that a monstrous enemy or trap is going to appear at any time to unmake all your hard work? Try playing Fallout with only one life: you die, you start over. Only then will you begin to fathom what it is to brave Final Fantasy III’s last stretch of wickedness.

It is also somewhere around there that you get the ultimate classes and weapons. I must say it is next to impossible to beat the game without them. And even so it is not a walk in the park. I want to note that this was the first time ever I saw over one million gold look like a small amount.

Yet, the game is very fun! It is true that you must be a hardcore old-schooler to enjoy it due to its ancient model but there are many marvels under the thick and mean cover of sheer difficulty. Hidden almost everywhere are fake walls and secret passages that lead to hoards of money and valuable items and gear. The world is vast and it is but a floating Isle above a great sea and great continents. You travel on a canoe, an airship that doubles as a submarine and a great, enormous, flying battleship. Figuring out the optimal class combination for each passage is a brain exercise. Even though sometimes the game is frustratingly annoying, it is so just enough that makes you want to try again and cleave the smirk off that enemy’s face. Find and defeat the three hidden bosses to collect the three supreme summons, assemble the perfect team, collect every hidden gold piece and save the world.

Also, there’s a fat Chocobo. How can you go wrong with a fat Chocobo?

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