Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Videogames to Me

Coming off of my outlook on 2011 into 2012, this post is about my thoughts on videogames as a whole. As is obvious, my outlook and opinions on videogames change with every single game I play. It doesn't matter if it was amazing, if it was bad, if I put in over 100 hours into it, or if I only played it for 30 minutes; every single videogame I play effects my opinion and outlook on videogames as a whole. This is because every videogame I play shows me what the industry and developers are thinking and doing in a given time period, and my mind sees this and judges this, and thus my outlook changes; it may not change very much, or it may completely change the way I think about everything. But, let's get on with my current thoughts on the entertainment medium that is videogames ...

Videogames are art. That is what I believe. Perhaps the more correct way to say it, however, is that videogames have the potential to be "art". When someone says "art", they usually think of beauty and of flawlessness; and that is simply not true in the gaming world. In the gaming world, there is a lot of mediocre and ugly to go along with the beauty. Now this is true of any medium, for throughout antiquity there have been mediocre sculptures and poor arias; it is simply that because those art mediums have had centuries to age, we in modern times simply do not think of the mediocre. This is not the case with videogames yet, for it is a very young art medium; one only a few decades in age. With this is mind, I can understand that throughout my history of playing videogames, I haven't truly enjoyed that many when looking at it in the scope of things. There have been hundreds if not thousands of games made since I've started playing games, and yet I would say I've only enjoyed around 60 of them. But, I digress, what are videogames to me?

Well, they aren't a true artform yet. They are art, but haven't reached the point where I'd say the world should recognize them as such. I think the main problem is how many view core aspects of videogames as "art", but they're looking at it all wrong. A game can have an incredible soundtrack, but that doesn't mean the videogame itself is art, it's the soundtrack that's art, not the game as a whole. And that's what people need to recognize, the art of the videogame as a whole. Videogames combine many separate aspects that can be considered art, but it's the interactivity aspect of the videogame that makes it capable of being a truly satisfying art form.

This factor of interactivity has indeed been used in games very well; in classics like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Okami, but none of it really reaches a level equal to that of grand symphonies, beautiful paintings, or powerful films. I think this is because the developers behind videogames aren't taking games seriously enough. Many game developers make "serious" games, but their focus is always to try and make the game serious, rather than let the serious tone simply come out of what they're creating. I think the reason for this is simply that making videogames is hard. The simply fact that a player has to interact with your work makes the creation process of videogames difficult; they aren't like movies where the viewer is simply watching or an aria where the listener is simply listening. The factor of interactivity is the x-factor of videogames, for it is both their greatest strength and their greatest weakness.

I recognize the fact that videogames are a young medium, and that the creators behind videogames will need much more time to perfect the art of creating videogames and then after create variations of that process. Many would argue that this process has already been mastered. To that I say: perhaps. After all, I have had many incredible gaming experiences, but I can't say I've had a game experience that really, really impacted me. There have been amazing experiences like Okami, Chrono Trigger, Metroid: Other M, Klonoa 2, and others, but nothing that impacted me the way a movie like Fantasia or Spirited Away have.

I think that the reason for this is because videogames, in their current state, feel almost like toys. They're something we buy because we want to play with them. And we do. We play with them, have fun with them, and enjoy their creativity; but can a toy truly be timeless? Perhaps, if we develop some type emotional connection to it, like the way I have an emotional connection to the game Sonic the Hedgehog 2 because it was the first game I've ever played. But still, I think of Sonic 2 not as a timeless entity, but rather, an unforgettable toy I had. I don't mean to demean videogames to that of small pieces of plastic (and besides that, toys can be very fun), but what I want to get at is: I want videogames to move past being something simply to be played. This is where that "experience" factor I write about so much comes into focus, and some games have this experience factor, but it's usually just for key moments in a game. I'd like for a game as a whole to be that experience factor. Similar to how a movie crafts the experience from beginning to end, I want a videogame to do this as well. Many would argue that many games have already done this, and I understand that thinking, but what people tend to think about is a game's story, visuals, and music, of ten forgetting completely about the gameplay. I do this with Chrono Trigger. The pacing, visuals, music, and story of Chrono Trigger had the elements of a superb movie, but his is a videogame, not a movie. I don't think that videogames have reached a point where I can only think about how a game was not only superb in visuals and music, but superb in an interactivity respect as well. I think that is the next step for games.

Many games have come close to my ideal, The World Ends With you perhaps being the closest, but it just doesn't hit that "sweet spot".

Heh, I think about videogames in such a way, and yet the reality of the situation is that videogames are a business built around consumers. And I perfectly understand arguments against my views. After all, videogames as toys isn't a bad thing; toys are fun, and people like having fun. Not everything has to be deep, story-driven, or rich in history. And to that, I understand. But simple, fun games can be great experiences as well, as the Megaman games have shown. But I don't think that people should lower their expectations of what videogames can achieve simply because they're based around a consumer market. After all, weren't sculptures, paintings, film, novels, and classical music built around consumers as well? Yet they managed to touch hearts and stir the soul. Why not videogames as well?

I think it's a matter of waiting. Waiting for developers to create rather than simply build. There have been many, many great videogames, but I still think they remain in the realm of products rather than experiences. To get out of this realm of products, I think videogame developers need to move past the trivialities of what goes into a game and forge an experience based upon creativity. Just as a great movie is a master of the sum of its parts as it brings together visuals, music, and acting, so to must videogames become a master of the sum of its parts, as it brings together visuals, music, and interactivity.

Currently, I find myself wondering if I will soon grow tired of videogames. And with the current state of the game industry, I just might. However, as I stated before, I believe that if I wait for the game industry to develop and "find" itself, I will find the game to completely satisfy me, and then, perhaps, many more equally satisfying games will follow.

My Thoughts on the Game Industry Going into 2012

So here we are going into a whole new year of gaming. 2011 damaged my excitement for videogames pretty bad; I realized that fighting games are becoming stale, that "big name" games are full of old ideas, critics will love just about any game that has a lot of money behind it, and Japanese developers don't release games nearly as much as they used to. I knew several of these things before 2011, but it just really became apparent last year.

So, let's just jump in here: what are my thoughts on the game industry as it is right now? The answer: it's like it was the past couple years, but to a higher extreme. By that I mean: the focus on big-budget western developed games, the focus on selling to the US market, the lack of creativity and risk-taking, the focus on creating the "summer blockbuster" equivalent to videogames, and Japanese developers trying to appeal to the Western market, which were all things seen in past years, have been taken to a higher degree.

I won't go into all of the little details that all gamers already know; rather I'll focus on what I believe is happening to games, and that is a shift; a shift to a "new phase" of sorts.

The shift is separated by two regions: the east and the west, by which I mean the game industry in Japan and the game industry in the US and Europe. Before a few years ago, games were just games; nobody really thought about who developed them or where they came from, but nowadays, it feels like games might as well have big labels that say either "Made in Japan", "Made in USA", or "Made in Europe" on them. More and more the consumers, critics, and even developers themselves are becoming focused on where videogames are being developed, and, in return, create these expectations about the games before they even play them. All of this is creating a rift between the different regions, and this rift became so much more apparent to me in 2011.

I'll skip talking about the US and EU industries and just focus on the one industry I care about: Japan. So, this shift in the game industry and the rift between the different areas created one realization to me: in Japan, the game industry is basically becoming the anime industry. Japanese games do not sell like they used to. At this point, Nintendo is the only game developer spending a lot of money on their products and turning out a profit; however, even Nintendo is having problems, as the sales of their more complex titles like the Zelda and Metroid series dwarf in comparison to the sales of their more simpler games like the Mario and Wii Sports titles. So what's the result? Nintendo threatening to end these series if they don't turn out a profit. This shows me that even Nintendo has become all about business. This is shown even more-so in their games, which have really lacked passion lately.

Speaking of Nintendo; they're reluctance to localize games like The Last Story, Xenoblade, and that one tower game (the name escapes me) show me that Nintendo just doesn't have confidence in the sales potential of Japanese-developed games anymore. And rightfully so, in my opinion. After all, Japanese games just don't sell like they used to; casual gamers in the West always lean toward shooters, that's it. There used to be a time when casuals tried all types of games, but not anymore. And with the rating of games not meaning anything anymore, kids lean towards shooters as well, and just skip over the Mario and Final Fantasy games. Nintendo's situation can be put in for many developers in Japan. They understand that there is an audience in the West for their games, but just not enough to warrant the money that goes into a localization. This is where the reflection of the anime industry comes from. In the past, tons of anime would get dubbed and come to the West, but nowadays, that really isn't happening, because the Japanese industry just doesn't feel its worth the time. This is the source of that "rift" between markets. The Japanese game market is becoming isolated from the other markets.

Japan herself is getting her game industry in check within her own borders. There, the game industry is becoming like the anime industry as well. Big-budget, high caliber games just aren't getting made much anymore, and the developers who are making them are starting to regret it. Case-in-point: Square -Enix; a giant of the game industry with a huge following, and yet their games are not selling nearly as well as they used to, with less-than-stellar sales within Japan for both Final Fantasy Type-0 and Final Fantasy XIII-2. Eventually, Square might not be able to make such high-budget games anymore. Japanese developers have caught into the declining interest in games in Japan, and thus have begun to either focus on creating lower-budget, niche titles, or appealing to the West in their game design. Examples of the former include Level-5, Marvelous Entertainment, and Arc System Works, while examples of the latter include Capcom, PlatinumGames, and Square-Enix. The focus on lower-budget, niche titles greatly reflects the anime industry and how it also focuses on creating short (12 to 26 episode) series with subjects that are not universally loved, but have their own niche fanbase, and the developers focus on that niche and give them what they want with the budget they have. Examples of this niche execution include games like Senran Kagura, Hatsune Miku, and Gundam Extreme Vs. Not everyone will love these games, but the developers sell enough to make a profit by focusing on a niche. The developers that appeal to the West often try to give their games a broader appeal, but this often backfires, especially for deveopers like PlatinumGames and Square who just can't take the Japanese out of their games no matter how much they try. To these developers I simple say: please stop thinking about the Western market and make the games you want to make. Capcom, however, has done well in selling their souls to the West and making games that look like they could have a "Made in USA" sticker on them. This has worked out for them so far, as they're the only Japanese developer to see such high profits. They may not be the same Capcom as they used to be, but that doesn't mean they aren't successful.

Overall, I don't know what to think. Japan is beginning to find its own groove in this modern game industry, but it feels as though the West isn't really going to be part of it. The fact that Square-Enix initially developed Final Fantasy Type-0 without any thought on a Western localization shows me that Japan may just start focusing on themselves and forgetting about the Western market. This is a huge disappointment to myself, but, in reality, the majority of the Western consumer market couldn't care less, and I think Japan is starting to recognize this. And thus, the game industry in Japan is slowly becoming the anime industry; a focus on strong niche titles with the Japanese fanbase solely in mind, and complete neglect of the Western market unless specifically called upon by them.

Of course, there is some love to the Western consumer who loves Japanese-developed games. PlatinumGames and Kojima Production's Metal Gear Rising is trying to be the start of bringing Japan back to the forefront of the game industry worldwide, though I don't really see it succeeding. Some niche titles still make it to the West courtesy of Atlus, XSEED, and Nippon Ichi; who still have a good business strategy of manufacturing over only a few thousand of each title so to still have profit. However, the amount of titles that these niche publishers bring over is nowhere near what they used to do. Hopefully, they don't go bankrupt.

So, yeah, 2011 was a disappointing year for videogames, and 2012 doesn't look to really change things. For me, as a fan of videogames, I think I just need to focus on the games that I can actually play, rather than the ones I want to play. I have to understand that there may be a point where a Vanillaware or Square-Enix game simply won't see a Western release. I also have to come to terms that change is not something the game industry strives for anymore; it's really about sales now. As far as creativity goes, that comes from niche Japanese developers whose games I probably just won't play.

I am excited for several games in 2012, but I don't think any of them will restore my love for the industry after 2011 killed it. I want to go back to the magical days before this console generation, a generation where developers still don't seem to know what they want to do.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Why I Love Final Fantasy IX

I've noticed that most of my posts are about criticizing games and simply talking about things I don't like in the game industry. Well, I'm gonna turn that around and just write about why I love certain games, specifically Final Fantasy IX.

I didn't play FFIX until January 2011, where during my winter break from college I sat down and played the game non-stop, and I loved every second of it. Before FFIX, the only FF game I actually finished was FFXIII. You see, I was never really big into RPGs. Chrono Trigger was the first RPG that I really got into, loved, and completed. After CT, I decided to try a bunch of RPGs; unfortunately, even as a young kid, my tastes were pretty picky. The only other RPGs I really loved were Chrono Cross and Dragon Quest VIII. I played a ton of others, including many Final Fantasy games, but I could never finish them. But, after beating FFXIII, I decided to give the series another shot, and I'm glad I did, because I got to complete three of the best RPGs I've ever played: FFIX, FFVII, and FFVI. But this post is about FFIX, so lets just jump into what I love so much about the game I consider the absolute best traditional RPG.

The introduction - FFIX has one of the most beautiful, satisfying, and complete introductions of any game I've ever played. We begin with a tutorial fight with main character Zidane, then move onto exploring the beautiful town of Alexandria with a young boy named Vivi who wants to see the play that everyone is clamoring about, but he loses his ticket, so he goes on an adventure to get it back, and then we get to see the play. I honestly don't understand why everyone gives so much praise to FFVI's opera scene, and yet completely forgets about FFIX's superb play. The play is complete with it's own multi-track soundtrack, great animations, and an awesome sword-fight mini-game; the play has its own set of characters and just feels like great entertainment for the player as well as giving some foreshadow for the game. The game then introduces more characters and eventually leads to an exciting escape from the city and the evil Queen Brahne's attack. This sequence also has some beautiful CG cut-scenes that just show how much of a quality project the game is going to be. Within the first two hours of FFIX, it was already one of my top favorite RPGs ever.

The art direction - the very first thing the player notices in the introduction cutscene of FFIX is just how beautiful the game is, not in terms of polygon count, but sheer artistic beauty. The city of Alexandria is just beautiful. It's filled with detail and powerful architecture that rivals Disney's best works; furthermore, the lighting of the city at sunset is just beautiful. As the game progresses, the art direction only gets more and more impressive, with expansive cities like Lindblum that are packed with steam technology that looks like its out of a Miyazaki film, and environments that are both beautiful and scary. Character design was hit-or-miss with many people, but I find the abstract character design helps the game by allowing us to see the emotions of the characters much more clearly. FFIX executed its graphics the way all games need to; not by showing off one's polygon count or production cost, but showing the player a work of art, a beautiful and endearing world that they want to just dive right into.

The soundtrack - FFIX's soundtrack is, in my opinion, easily Nobuo Uematsu's best work. Uematsu has done amazing work in past FF games, but his work on FFIX is just so expansive, original, deep, and atmospheric that it is hard for it not to have an impact on the player. The most impressive aspect of the soundtrack is just how many music tracks are in the game; I believe it's over 120. Every area, every character, every major battle, and every major scene has its own superb music track. The power of the soundtrack hit me hard during the entrance to the kingdom of Burmecia. The city had just been torn apart by Brahne's forces, and the music just made the atmosphere so sad and depressing; furthermore, it plays Freya's Theme in this area, and her theme is also sad in tone, which works well in the atmosphere of the area because it's Freya's people who were killed. It just feels like so much hear and soul went into this soundtrack; and it just really helps bring the whole experience of FFIX together.

Active Time Events - Hey! Square-Enix! Why the hell have you not used these in any of your other games?!? This was an absolute brilliant idea! It allowed us to get insight into what each character was feeling after major events, and was a great character development tool. The focus on the characters is one of FFIX's crowning achievements, and the ATE system was a huge part of it.

Ability System - FFIX uses a traditional ATB turn-based battle system that began back with FFIV. FFIX's big difference from the other FF games was an ability system where character learn abilities from weapons they equip. This system was amazing, because it actually encouraged the player to do battles. No battle was wasted, as the player was not only gaining experience to level up, but also learning abilities from the weapons and armor they equipped. Abilities that would turn out to be very useful throughout the game. Not only did characters learn offensive abilities for battles, but also passive abilities that could be equipped. Passive abilities such as "Increase MP by 20%" or "Auto-Regen". These passive abilities went a long way in allowing players to create their very own unique characters, despite each character being a in a set role. This system was brilliant as it promoted doing battles and looking through every nook and cranny of the game world for rare items that would give awesome abilites.

The pacing of the story - FFIX had a great story, but a big part of why it was so great was because of its amazing pacing. FFIX has absolutely no boring sections, nor any sections where the player doesn't know where to go. Events just flow from one to another, and yet it never feels forced or linear; it's just one amazing job at pacing that is only beaten by Chrono Trigger's superb pacing.

The characters - Yup, saved the best for last. FFIX has one of the best casts in gaming. And here they are:

Zidane - our leading character, though you wouldn't know it right away since the game focusing on the ensemble cast rather than just one character. Still, Zidane is a great character for how original he is. He's sorta a typical shonen hero, except he's still very "human". He has his worries, his problems, and ideals, specifically, his innate desire to help anyone in need. It may sound lame, but the reason I like Zidane so much is because of just how nice of a guy he is. He acts like a big brother to Vivi throughout the game, his complex friendship with Garnet is great, and his fellowship with the other characters is really what keeps the group together. I also love how everything he's been through with the cast comes to a strong conclusion at the end of the game where he begins to doubt his reason for living. Also, how awesome was it at the end of the end of the game when he stayed behind to help Kuja? Pretty awesome, and something very few other main characters would do.

Garnet - what leading lady she is. Before the last arc of the game, the player would probably think Garnet was the main character of the game, and she basically is. The entire game is about her struggles for peace and why she fights for it despite suffering through many loses throughout the game, including losing her mother, discovering her terrible past, and becoming a queen. She just goes through so much throughout the whole game, and it just makes for the strongest female lead in the series, even more-so than Terra, Lightning, Aerith, and Tifa.

Vivi - arguably the best character in the game, mainly due to him encompassing the main theme of the game perfectly. Vivi searches for who he is, why he lives, and even if he deserves to live. It's all so very deep, and its made even more impactful because of how young Vivi is. It seems wrong for such a young boy to have to go through so much, but that's just the deck Vivi has been dealt. Vivi's end is also quite tragic, yet happy all the same because he truly discovered what he wanted. We never get to see Vivi's face, but it works so well for his story, for the player forms their own vision of Vivi for themselves. Also, how freakin' adorable is it when Vivi trips, falls, picks himself up, and then adjusts his hat? Pretty damn adorable!

Freya - I love Freya's musical theme! It really shows the power of the soundtrack when her musical theme speaks more about her character than her own words. Freya doesn't speak too much in the game outside of her initial appearance, but her impact when we go to her homeland is very impactful and makes for a beautiful yet tragic character. Her tagline is "To be forgotten is worse than death". With Freya being a warrior, one would think it was about glory in a warriors death in battle, but instead its about the pain of being forgotten by the one you love most. Freya's story is a tragic one, but she still gets her happy ending by still living through the hard times.

Steiner - in any other game, Steiner would be that lovable oaf who is all brawn and no brains, but not here. Steiner is a man of duty who seeks to be strong in order to protect what is important to him. However, he questions if he loves what he devoted himself to because he loves it or simply because he has promised loyalty to it. It makes for a character that stands by his ideals in the beginning of the game, but slowly realizes that to protect what one truly loves, he must sometimes break the rules. It all makes for a great character who is not only a foil to Zidane's aloof attitude, but one who can stand on his own as an interesting story to tell. Also, like Zidane, Steiner is a really nice guy, and really likable.

Eiko - in any other game, Eiko would be the typical "Tee-hee! Look at me! Aren't I just adorable!" type of character, but not here. Sure, Eiko is definitely adorable, but she has perhaps the most tragic past, and her story is simply one of finding love in the family and friends she wasn't allowed to have. She is just a great character to expands as the game goes on. Her relationship with Garnet is very touching, and its great how close they become.

Amarant - the badass who questions being a badass. Amarant is a guy who's from the "other side of the tracks", but upon meeting Zidane, begins to question his life choices. In a game that surrounds the concept of what one lives for, Amarant is the story of redemption, and while he doesn't get a ton of screen-time, his story is indeed told, and comes to a nice ending.

Quina - yeah, deifnitely the character with the least development, but it's basically there to be a fun character who brings the simple ideals of a child to the table. After all, in the worst situations, one needs to think fast, and that's what Quina is there for, even if it's decision aren't always the best.

Beatrix - perhaps the best non-playable side character in an RPG. Beatrix is actually a strong element to the story-line and a great character who deals with her own ideals on life. Her conflicts are similar to Steiner's and that is perhaps why she isn't a playable character, but her relationship with Garnet is great, and makes for a lot of internal struggle when she has to choose between her duties and those she cares for. She even has her own musical theme. Beatrix is actually an enemy for the first third of the game, and makes for some of the most intense battles/moments in the entire game. She really comes across as a badass as well with some intense special moves.

Kuja - while he begins as a typical intelligent and manipulative bad guy, he soon gets a backstory of his own, and his character begins to gain more and more dimensions. The end result is a villain who one can empathize with, for even Kuja, like the main cast, has to come to terms with what his life is worth and what he will do with his life. This all comes down to a great conclusion for the character that goes beyond the typical ending for a villain. Because of all of this, Kuja is my favorite FF villain.

The romance - FFIX doesn't have a lot of romance in it, nor is it the best execution of romance I've seen in a game, but FFIX breaks the cliched trends one usually finds in romance stories in RPGs. Mainly by having the romance begin as a friendship and expanding very slowly throughout the game. I hate it when two characters meet, and then just fall in love in like three days time; that's bull crap! Zidane and Garnet's relationship expands over the course of months (maybe even years since the game doesn't give an exact indication of how much time passes in the game; though it is a long time). It just makes for a more naturally building relationship. Also, they're relationship is a nice twist on the whole theif-meets-princess formula, for it isn't the princess who falls for the their, rather its Zidane who begins to fawn over the beautiful and strong Garnet when he really gets to know her; Garnet, on the other hand, is more concerned with being the ruler of her country, which is much more important than some boy. I really give credit to this relationship because it isn't cliched at all, and really just spoke a lot for both Zidane and Garnet as characters. There are no cheesy kissing scenes or stupid bursts of "I love you"; rather its all a naturally occurring process where the player can see that the two characters are growing closer to one another. It also ends on a very touching note with Zidane's return at the end of the game.

The theme - What do you live for? Is life always worth living? Do we craft our own purpose for ourselves or are we victims of fate? These are some of the questions that FFIX asks the player throughout the story, and I find them to be very powerful. Each of the characters has their own problems concerning life, and we can see them struggling to find their own answers all the way to the end of the adventure. I also love how intense the theme of life comes about in the game's climax when the players face the very origin of life itself: the Crystal. The ending also shows that life has its struggles and its rewards. Its a powerful theme, and, like FFVII, FFIX pulled it off very well.

The sense of place - I really got sucked into the world of FFIX. The places became so familiar thanks to their unique visual design and music that played within them, as well as many locations connections to the characters. Each place just felt so unique. I'll never forget when the group visits the village of Dali, or the grand metropolis of Lindblum. It all resulted in me really knowing and caring for the places, which is what made the destruction of Lindblum mid-game so heart-wrenching. Square really went out of their way to make these places memorable, and the end product really shows.

The charm - it's a hard one to explain, but FFIX is one charming game. It just sucks you into the experience so much and the player really feels like part of this world. The characters became like friends to me, and I wanted to see them all have a happy ending. The world and characters just felt so human. The art design, the soundtrack, the story, and the characters all just came together so well. The end result was just a superb gaming experience I'll never forget.

There's even more to praise about FFIX, but they're mainly specific events like the Lindblum sequence and when Garnet loses her voice, but I'll stop here. For me, Final Fanatsy IX is one of Square's crowing achievements, rivaled only by gaming greats like Final Fantasy VII and Chrono Trigger. FFIX is the ultimate culmination of everything the previous eight games in the series attempted to accomplish, all executed with the highest level of quality Square could provide at that time. FFIX is a gem of gaming design, and a game that I find truly doesn't get the praise it deserves. I believe FFIX is the reason that Square stopped making traditional RPGs and tried to do new things, because FFIX is, quite simply, the perfect traditional RPG; there's really nowhere to go but down from Final Fantasy IX.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

America: the land of crime, arrogance, and women ... according to manga

(NOTE: I am by no means claiming the manga artists I'm going to mention, nor Japanese people in general, are racist. This is just a fun little blog about things I notice about how Americans, and America in general, are portrayed in manga I've read).

OK. So, if you read a lot of Shonen manga, you may have come across some characters that are American, and you may have noticed that these characters are probably some of the most different characters in their respective manga. In this post, I'm going to talk about American characters in Shaman King, Soul Eater, and Eyeshield 21; and address the stereotypes and cliches apparent with those characters. However, this is by no means a rage topic; it's just that these stereotypes of America and the people there are something I can't help but notice, and I just feel like talking about them because I find some of the stereotypes a bit funny and others just comically insulting.

Well, let us begin with Shaman King and the character of Joco (Chocolav in Japan), who is African-American and hails from New York City. Joco is a great character, but its his past that I find just very cliche (despite, admittedly having some truth to it). You see Joco lives in the ghetto and his house was broken into on Christmas Eve where his parents were murdered when he was about 8 years-old. Afterwards, Joco becomes the ruthless leader of a gang with his fellow black gangster members. Now, it is important to note here that Joco is still only 14 years old here. Why? Because its ridiculous! You got this 14 year-old kid terrorizing people with a freakin' gun, and on top of all this, he murders a man. Not just any man though; nope. Joco murders an upper-class white-man on his way home on Christmas Eve with presents. What's Joco's reason for killing him? To quote Joco himself: "I hate Christmas".

OK. So yeah, what's the problem here? Well, it's not the actual story, which is tragic, and Joco's pain is understandable. My problem, however, is simply this: Joco is the one black character in Shaman King, which contains a wide variety of multi-ethnic characters. But why did Takei (Shaman King's mangaka) have to give the one black character the most cliched "black guy" story ever!?! I mean, it covers all of the bases: he lives in New York, he lives in the ghetto, his parents are the victims of murder, he becomes a gangster (fully decked out with a gun and leather jacket) as a teenager, and he murders a guy by shooting him. It just feels like Takei just said: "OK. I've got a black character. What kind of story can I give him? Well, I'll base him in New York, that place is full of black people. NY is also full of crime, so I'll make his story revolve around that. And since he's black I'll put him in a gang. Yeah! This is perfect. It'll really help show the cultural background of New York and the black people who live there." I know, I know; that was harsh. And I'm sure Takei didn't have that thought process. I just find Joco's story so cliched, and, as a result, kinda funny. I mean is that all mangaka think New York has? Lower-class black people, upper-class white people, and crime? I mean, c'mon, don;t be so short-sighted; even if there is some truth in his story. Oh, and everything turns out good for Joco in the end, even if he does get his just desserts when he is killed by the children of the man he killed.

This leads to the next story: Liz and Patty's past in the manga Soul Eater. This one is shorter but no less cliched. Liz and Patty hail from the Bronx in New York, where their mother was a prostitute, gave birth to Liz and Patty and abandoned them in the streets. Liz and Patty grow up as criminals who terrorize the city and take what they please thanks to their powers. So, yeah, once again we have mangaka focusing on the absolute worst in American society. Why did Liz and Patty have to be the daughters of a prostitute? Why couldn't they have been abandoned by a rich family, or maybe just lost their parents to illness at a young age? Oh well, at least Liz and Patty aren't black too.

What I'm getting at here is simply to ask: why do these two mangaka focus on just the worst parts of American society? I rarely see any back-stories like the ones above for other characters. I mean, every place in the world has crime and prostitution; so why only give such terrible back-stories to American characters? Are the only things these mangaka, or maybe even the general public in Japan or the rest of the world, think about when America is mentioned is stuff like crime, gangs, guns, and prostitution? I'm sure there are characters in other manga that have bad backgrounds and aren't from America, but those probably aren't Shonen manga for a young audience like Shaman King and Soul Eater are. So why give such grim stories to Americans? Is that who you think we are? Are we a bunch of gangsters and badasses?

I'm not going to answer my questions. I'm just trying to make a point.

Well, with crime and deviance out of the way, lets move onto how Americans act. In Eyeshield 21, there is a football team of American players. The coach of this team is arrogant, upper-class, and racist. He looks down and verbally abuses the one black player on the team (who also happens to be from the ghetto of New York), has a pride so big its thrown in your face, and he is constantly preaching about the superiority of the "white man" over the Japanese. His personality is just so in your face that it's impossible to ignore. It really comes off a very strange, especially considering no other character acts the way he does; well, except for another American character. This other American character is a black professional football player in the NFL who wears tons of "bling", is stinkin' rich, and always has women around his arms. This is another situation where is just makes me say: "Really? Really!?!". Do you think Americans have no dignity? That we have no respect for our fellow human being? That we are arrogant and believe ourselves to be superior? I mean, sure, like the other examples above, there is some truth to the situation, but do you really need to show Americans this way? If so, why? Are you trying to antagonize us? The main characters all have a deep respect for the other teams, both before and after games, so why is the American team antagonized.

But, wait, there's more! At the end of the series, the main team goes up against another American team. This time there is no antagonizing coach; rather, the players are the ones who are just cliched messes. First off, our introduction to the American team is done in a strip club. Why are a bunch of 16 year-olds in a strip club? Because this is America! And we do whatever the f*%# we want! But, seriously, this scene was just weird, and felt so forced in creating this image of what Americans were like. Oh, and one of the members of this American team is the president's son and always has women around his arms.

Overall, it just feels like the mangaka of Eyeshield 21 is just antagonizing Americans; even if not everyone on the team is made to look bad. I just find it strange how Americans get portrayed in this manga. The same goes for the American women. There are several strong, independent Japanese women in Eyeshield 21; so why are the women of America nothing but objects. They're either wrapped around the arms of some big, strong man or just there to be all "Look! Hot American women!". Why? Why make America look like this?

Well, on that note, I guess I can move onto appearances. This doesn't come from any particular manga, but just things I see in general in manga/anime. First off, when showing someone from America, it's easiest to show a black person for some reason. It's not like there's an entire freakin' continent full of black-skinned people. Also, at least in Eyeshiled 21, black men are big, muscular, and just superior athletes (Oh! And black people have huge packages too). American women, well, they're all blonde and busty, of course. It's just how we breed 'em here I guess.

Like the other topics I discussed; I can see a basis for where the mangaka are coming from. And its not as if we Americans don't forge our ideas of what people look like in other countries based upon stereotypes either. It's just that I'd expect a little better from mangaka who are making such pieces of art.

The things I've mentioned in this post I don't see as a bad thing; like I said, it's pretty understandable where their coming from. It just feels like Americans are objectified a lot as "bad people" and our society "bad". Sure, we've got crime, especially in our major cities, but it's not like the mangaka have to focus on cities like New York as a home for their American characters; America is a big country. Then again, that just may result in a character from Texas; most likely a character like Tina from Dead or Alive.

So, where is this all leading to? No where really. I mean, I could go on for a while more if I brought up Americans in videogames. I just noticed this ... I wouldn't call it a trend, but just a sparsely-used foundation for American characters in manga. I just hope mangaka understand that there are other ways to portray that a character is from America without making them black, blonde, or busty.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Why I Hate Final Fantasy X

I mention a lot about how I hate Final Fantasy X, but I've never really said why. Well, here's the post to solve that. To note, however, this will be a casual post; mainly because "hating" something in a form of entertainment is a rare occurrence with me. There are many things I don't like in media like movies, anime, manga, videogames, etc, especially since I like to try many different things, but I don't "hate" them, because I understand that there are people out there who enjoy certain things that I simply do not. I can respect something even if I don't like it. It's when I "hate" something that I don't have respect for it, and there are only two objects in media I hate: Final Fantasy X and the anime Panty and Stockings with Garterbelt. The reason for my hate of these two things comes from disappointment. I know, it seems childish, but when I see so much potential in something only to have it ruined by the very people who made it, it just causes this hate. My hate for FFX will be explained in this post. And if your curious, my hate for P&S comes from my disappointment that an anime with such a unique and awesome art style and visual direction was ruined by insane levels of smut, vulgarity, incoherence, and immaturity just made me hate it. Still, it introduced me to the awesome music of Teddyloid; so I guess it isn't all bad.

OK then, let's start on why I hate Final Fantasy X! But first, a bit of a disclaimer: I started playing FFX when it was first released on the PS2, but I didn't go back and finish it until last year. However, my hate for the game has nothing to do with comparisons to FFXIII or FFXII; it does, however, have to do with comparisons to FFVII and FFIX.

First off, as a lover of great gameplay, I was very disappointed by FFX's battle system. Sure, past FF games didn't do too much with the gameplay with the exception of FFVIII, but FFX justs craps all over the past implementations of variety and dynamics in FF battle systems by having the most simple and boring battle system in the series. You see, FFX introduces the element of switching party memebers mid-battle; this goes hand-in-hand with each character having specific abilities others don't. On paper this sounds pretty cool, but in battle (every freakin' non-boss battle) it all just comes down to this: "Oh look! A flying enemy. Better get Wakka in here. OK, that takes care of him. Oh look! An enemy with armor. Better get Auron in here. There we go. Oh! An enemy that glows red. I'll switch Lulu in here to use some ice magic. There we go. OK! I win!" That's it! For the entire freakin' game! There is no strategy at all because the game basically tells you which characters to use to win the battle. It makes combat feel completely pointless, like I might as well just have the computer do it for me since the processes of battle are so simple a child could figure it out. At least past FF games put enemies in front of me that didn't have specific weaknesses, or at least their weaknesses weren't immediately apparent. Sure, bosses require a little strategy, but it's nothing past the typical bread-n-butter of past FF games. One exception being the boss battle against Yunalesca; this is the game's one gameplay highlight for me, because it shows that FFX's battle system can actually have elements of strategy and challenge to it.

Outside of the battle system, there is one other factor I found very disappointing: dungeon puzzles. I'm not against having puzzles in an FF, especially since Square made the right choice of having no random battles during them; however, these puzzles are so annoying. Their structure consists entirely of pushing blocks and placing colored orbs in slots. The results are confusing, time-consuming, and just all-around annoying. It also doesn't help that the music that plays during these puzzle sequences gets very annoying very quickly. I'm sure many people will say I just suck at puzzles and that they were easy; well, sorry I'm so stupid. I've played tons of games with puzzles, and I still found FFX's puzzles just confusing. This is an element that should've just been removed or needed much better execution.

OK, that covers the gameplay since the game was basically just battles and puzzles anyway. Well, there's Blitzball, but that was more annoying that fun, especially with its slow pace. Now, it's onto the aesthetics of the game...

FFX's graphics were fine mainly because it was one of Square's first projects for the PS2; however, what is inexcusable, in my opinion, was FFX's weak art direction. FFX is just such a boring game visually, and coming out of the superb art directions of FFVII, FFVIII, and FFIX, FFX's poor art direction just feels inexcusable. What's even more disappointing is that Square has done the Mediterranean art direction before with Chrono Cross, and that game looked stellar. The artists just did a very poor job of creating a good sense of place; resulting in a very forgettable game, visually.

FFX's soundtrack, like it's art direction, is very forgettable. A few stand-out tracks "To Zanarkand" and "Otherworld" are great, but that's it. If FFX had a main theme, I sure don't remember it. Remember FFVII's incredible main theme? Of course you do, because it fit the mood of the game superbly, as did the main theme of FFIX. FFX just has nothing. Nothing to show for it. It's OST just really lacked personality, imo.

Now, onto the biggest section: story and characters. In my opinion, in an RPG, the story and characters are just as important as the gameplay and aesthetics. And, to be honest, if FFX succeeded in this department, I would have probably forgave it's short-comings in the areas above; too bad this is FFX's worst department.

I'll start with the story. FFX's story could not have been more straight-forward. The game is literally a straight-line from start to finish, both in terms of it's gameplay (I'm OK with linear gameplay though) and how its story is executed. The one twist being the kidnapping of Yuna, which is dealt with very quickly. I get that the game is a pilgrimage, but the game just needed a lot more conflict. Furthermore, for a story that was supposed to focus on Tidus, it did a poor job of it. He is supposed to be our narrator in this story, yet the game never really feels like its from this perspective; its more like the player is omnipotent. Overall, the execution of the story just feels really poor; like all the writers wanted to do was to get to the "tear-jerker" scenes, show those off, and then work on getting to the next one. Heaven forbid the writers try to create some build-up to those scenes. You know why Aerith's death is so sad? Because we got to know her so well, and she showed how great of a person she was. Yuna, on the other hand, just came across as whiny and weak, but more on characters later. Overall, the story just felt poorly constructed and weak. I say this a lot, but I feel the story would have been SO much better if it focused on Tidus' relationship with his father. If that was the main focus of the story, and there was no crappy romance with Yuna (which is terribly executed btw) or all this talk about religion and stuff, it would have made for a great and personal story about a boy tying up the loose ends in his life before he died. If it did that, I probably would've cried at the end of the game when Tidus was holding Jecht's dead body; oh well. I'll give the game one piece of credit for it's impressive implementation of religion in the story; I liked how they remained consistent with the prayer motion throughout the game.

Now, onto the characters:

Auron - the one good character in the game. His lines were well written and well delivered. He has a great character design. And his aura of mystery was well implemented into the plot. His relationship with both Tidus and Yuna felt natural and was well executed. No complaints on my part here.

Rikku - not an annoying character, but really didn't need to be there. IMO, she cared about Yuna more than Tidus did, and if her and Yuna developed a stronger relationship, I think it would've been better for both characters. Overall, she feels a bit wasted here, as she's mainly used to bring about the Al-behd story-line.

The blue guy - yeah, I do not remember his name; something native-american sounding, I think. Regardless, easily the most forgettable character in the FF series I've come across. Other than that, there really isn't much bad about it him; it's just that he's not really important. I did like the scene where he found those two other guys from his village. Khimari! That's it. Just remembered.

Wakka - OK. Here's another character who felt out of place. Wakka is basically the buy who is bound by a duty but has unfinished business. Sounds admirable, except that unifinished business is playing in a blitzball game. It all just feels weak and annoying. I mean, he's supposed to be protecting the person who is set to save the world, and yet he wants to play in a sports tournament. The parallel I find to Wakka is Cid from FFVII, except Cid's dream was to be the first man in space and look upon the cosmos. THAT is admirable and romantic. Wakka is just this guy who wants to play blitzball and uses a ball in battle and it always shouting "ya!". His personality just feels forced. It's really uneccessary too considering we already have a hyper-active loudmouth character in the form of Tidus.

Lulu - Awesome character design! But pretty bland in all other areas. She is supposed to be the "onee-san" character of the group, which she kinda comes across in the beginning, but then she just falls to the background like Wakka and Khimari. She feels as tacked onto the cast as Wakka, but, hey, every party needs a black mage, right? Her execution could have been great, especially since she has a dark past, but since the story isn't about her, she's just there for magic.

Tidus - Oh man, does Tidus disappoint. As I've said before, I feel that Tidus could have been better implemented into the story if he focused solely on his relationship with Jecht, but instead, he somehow gets in a relationship with Yuna; a process that must have occurred off-screen, because I saw no build-up at all to their kiss scene mid-game. At first, it feels like Tidus was going to have a unique story to go along with his father issues, but that all just goes out the window when Yuna shows up. By the end of the game, Tidus feels less like a character and more of a plot device for the big twist at the end.

Yuna - I've saved the worst for last. Holy moly is Yuna a terrible character. She is just so freakin' weak! Yeah, yeah, people will say: "But she was going to die! Put yourself in her place!". Please! Many of FF's females have been put into terrible situations, and yet they faced them head-on. Terra had to deal with her bloody past, Tifa lost everything important to her, Aerith knew full well she was going to die, Garnet and Eiko lost everything they loved, and you know what they all did: they picked themselves up, held their head high, and fought for what they believed in. But, no, instead Yuna breaks down crying and find solace by kissing a boy she met two freakin' days ago. Just an awful female character. Yuna never comes across as a leader or role-model in the whole game, nor any character really deserving respect. I suppose Yuna's appeal is that she's one of those moe characters that one just wants to protect, and since the player is Tidus, they kinda get to protect her. Tch, whatever. Yuna was easily the most disappointing character of FFX because of just how weak she was; this was especially noticeable coming after FFIX's female lead: Garnet, who was a superb female lead, and arguably the strongest female of the FF series.

So, what does this all come down to: I hate FFX because it dissapointed in every aspect of game design, especially those that are most important for an RPG. And what makes it even worse is how superbly those aspects were executed by the the three previous games in the series.

I understand that FFX is one of, if not the, most treasured game in the franchise by the fanbase; however, I will probably never understand why, especially with such gems like VI, VII, and IX. I'm sure they all simply love the aspects of the game that I despise. Oh well, that's opinions. And yet I cannot simply respect it as that. Heh, it's childish, I know, but I really just don't "get it". How can people truly love this game? The conclusion I've come to is that FFX was simply many people's very first FF game, and, as a result, it holds many nostalgic memories for many members of the FF fanbase.

OK. That's enough rambling. I apologize to those who read this and love FFX. I just did this mainly because I was bored and felt like writing something; so don't take it too seriously. Though I am serious about hating FFX. Oh, how I hate FFX.