Blog Update & The Final Fantasy Initiative

Today, I’m going to take a moment to declare my intention to temporarily refocus my game playing for the purposes of this blog.

I started this blog to share my love of video games and the nostalgia that I feel when I think about my youth. It didn’t take long for me to learn that there was a lot more to those warm fuzzy memories than retro video games. My childhood was extraordinary. I was born in the late 70s, so my early childhood took place in the 80s – a wonderful time for games, cool movies, cartoons, etc. All the great kid stuff came out in the 80s. During this time, I also was blessed with the fortune of being able to experience life in a foreign country. My time in Japan helped open my eyes to a larger world and even though it was only three short years, it had a large effect on me as I grew into adulthood. After getting married and settling into the routine of the five-day work week, I had my first child.

Unless you’re just a selfish deadbeat, having a child changes you in ways that you cannot expect. Your priorities change, and so does your habits. Sometimes, things even end up coming full-circle. Right before my son came along, my wife and I enjoyed going to clubs, socializing with other couples, attending concerts, things like that. Video games and other “childish” obsessions had really been put on the shelf to large extent. However, once you have an infant in the home, you find yourself AT HOME at lot more often than before. It doesn’t take long for you to go thru that stack of DVDs you never got around to watching. Once they are gone, you’re bored. While I had never fully abandoned my interest in gaming, I now found myself thinking about taking up the hobby with more zeal. When you have baby sleeping in a bassinet for extended periods of time, something like a video game ends up being a perfect way to pass the time. You play it for as long as you need to. You can pause it, save it, whatever.

It was during this time that I once again allowed gaming to become a main hobby of mine. Once my son got a little older, he naturally wanted to play games as well. It was at that time that I knew gaming was something I would be able to use to help form a bond with both of my children in one way or another. I guess that’s a big reason why I’m so passionate about games these days. When I play a video game, it reminds me of the good times of my youth and also rings a chime on the present day as well.

When I started this blog, I decided to replay my entire game library. Starting with the games I played as a kid and progress onward to new games. To date, I’ve pretty much covered the first half of my plan. I’ve reviewed and a talked about a majority of the games that were important to me when I was a child as well as sprinkled in a few new releases from time to time. I’ve deviated on a couple of occasions, like my Castlevania and Mega Man playthroughs, but I’ve done a pretty good job to sticking to my original goal.

Currently, according my own plans, I should be focusing on games for the original PlayStation. But I’m going to announce another temporary deviation:  The Final Fantasy Initiative.

You see, Final Fantasy is one of my favorite video game franchises. I’ve played almost every title to date (with a few exceptions). These exceptions are the most recently released titles in the series. If you’re reading this, you know me by now. I am pretty OCD when it comes to playing things in a particular order and I’m starting to fall behind. There’s a slew of new FF titles on the horizon and I need to catch up quick.

So when it comes to my game entries, I’m going to be catching up on all of the remaining Final Fantasy games I have yet to review. So far on this blog, I’ve managed to playthrough Final Fantasy 1-7 and all of the related spin-off games thus far. Next up, I’m going to proceed onward with 8, then 9, etc. Final Fantasy XV is expected to come out this spring and I would LOVE to be ready to play it on release day. Of course, I admit that I will unlikely be able to meet that goal, I do plan to be there as fast as possible.

Once I am all caught up on the series, I will resume my original plans.

October is coming…

Autumn is here! This is probably my favorite time of year. I love the crisp air, the falling leaves, the pumpkin spice everything… I also like spooky things. Creepy stories, scary movies and of course horror games.

Last year was a bit lacksluster on the blog here. For October I played and reviewed Blood and Blood II on the PC. In 2012, I was a bit more ambitious. I attempted to play every Castlevania title. I made a pretty good effort, but I did run out of time. My Castlevania marathon extended all the way into December.

This year, I plan to something similar. Starting today, almost all other games are on hold. I’m going to focus on a number of horror-themed games from now until the end of the October. If it goes well, and the mood still feels right I may extend it into the first part of November.

There’s so many to choose from that I’m not really sure where to begin. To start, I think I’m going to go a bit casual and kick it off with Zombie U. Next up, I may actually tackle Castlevania: Lords of Shadow II.

Below is a list of some of my horror-themed games, if there’s anything on the list that you would like to see reviewed, please feel free to comment or reach out to me through another method. (Many of you seem to like tweeting me):

Potential Spooky Games For October:

Slender: The Arrival
Silent Hill
Resident Evil
Fatal Frame
Corpse Party
Amnesia
Ghostbusters: The Video Game
Walking Dead

Also accepting suggestions

House Cleaning – Looking towards 2014

As the year rapidly comes to a close, I’ve taken a little time to do some major housekeeping on this blog.

First, I’ve eliminated some of the silly review designations (Retro review, catch-up review) – I decided that a game review is a game review regardless of how old or new the specific title is.

Second, I’ve also added a list of related games to bottom of each review. For those games that are part of a series there are now links to other reviews in the franchise. This list will be updated as I complete reviews going forward.

Also, with the start of the new year, I’ll be making more non-game related posts. When I first started this blog I had the intention of creating a place where I could wax nostalgic about the games I loved growing up as well as other things that are near and dear to my heart. My children are now at an age where they both enjoy gaming. My youngest son is only five, but he enjoys playing casual games on the iPad. My older son enjoys playing computer games and is currently a huge fan of WWE games on the Xbox.  I plan on blogging a bit more about what they are playing as well as addressing other topics that are relevant to both Geek Culture and parenting in the digital age.

When it comes to reviews, if you’re a subscriber to the blog (I do have a handful), its probably obvious that I’ve focused a lot of retro gaming. What I’ve actually been doing is playing catch-up to a degree. I wanted this gaming blog to cover games both old and new. I decided to start with the games I grew up with and then gradually catch up to modern releases. this would help show the evolution of gaming during my lifetime, which is something that fascinates me. For the most part I’ve been very successful in this. So far on this blog I’ve replayed and reviewed the majority of games that were really relevant to me growing up. We’ve covered NES, SNES, Gameboy, and even some of the early PC titles from my teenage years. We’re quickly coming to a very important point in my gaming history… the dark years.

The “Dark Years” really began as teen. When I was around 16 years old, my focus shifted from gaming to more important matters for a teenager (ie: girls and Rock n Roll). It was during this time that I turned away from console gaming and picked up PC games instead. (That’s where we are currently in my review cycle). Even though I was no longer interested in the console market, they still existed and the market was growing. While I was spending my late nights blasting away at friends in Quake on the PC, the Sony PlayStation was surging in popularity. The Nintendo 64 was released, and the Game Boy color and Gameboy Advance were on the scene. This means that there were games, in franchises I love, that I overlooked.

I started console gaming again after my marriage, and I did catch up a little on some of these “dark years” titles, mostly Final Fantasy games,but there’s a large majority of games I never played the first time around. That will be next focus of the blog. I hope to start my “Dark Age of Gaming” reviews shortly after the first of the year. Then, my goal will be to catch up with games and franchises that interest me, later in 2014. Hopefully, by the end of next year, I will have knocked out most of my backlog and reached a point where I can focus on new titles as they are released. Of course, this will be easier said than done. But let’s see what happens.

Distant Worlds

As many of my readers might know, I am a rabid Final Fantasy fan. I’ve played every title in the main series as well as several of the offshoots. One of my favorite aspects of these games is the wonderful music that is composed for the titles. Being the collector that I am, I have amassed a large collection of Final Fantasy soundtracks over the years. But my favorites are the Distant Worlds live symphonic albums. The records feature classic Final Fantasy tunes played by a full symphony orchestra.

After several years, I’m happy to say I have finally been able to attend a Distant Worlds concert in person and it was nothing short of fantastic!

For those unfamiliar with the concert, I’d highly suggest doing a little digging around YouTube for some footage or better yet, make plans to attend. It was simply an amazing experience. I’m thankful my wife was able to attend with me. It certainly made some new powerful memories for us both.

Castlevania Playthrough Update

Well, it’s Halloween. I think now it’s obvious that I’m not going to meet my goal of playing through every legacy Castlevania title before the end of the day. But, I gave it a good shot!

I’m almost finished with Curse of Darkness. After which, I have two more DS titles and a Wii game. At this point the original series is complete. There is of course a remake of Castlevania Adventure on the Wii virtual console, and then a quirky multiplayer mashup. I’m going to continue with the playthrough and hopefully finish up in November.

I have admittedly been distracted by a number of things. The original version of Final Fantasy XIV is about to end. I have been very busy collecting once-in-a-lifetime achievements for the game, as well as playing the new Wizardry Online beta.

I plan to restore some normalcy to the blog in the coming days, so stay tuned.

Final Fantasy

If Wizardry is considered the grandfather of western-style fantasy games. Than Final Fantasy is its far-eastern cousin. While Wizardry was rooted in classic Tolkien style swords and sorcery, Final Fantasy can be summed up as a more unfamiliar techno-fantasy type of genre.
I was introduced to the series while living in Japan. I had seen the game in the collection of several of my Japanese friends, and I knew that it was off limits. “No play!” They would tell me. I assume they feared I would accidentally delete their character data due to my inability to read the Japanese menus. I enjoyed watching them play the child-like characters, as they explored weird underwater shrines, and did battle with goblins or vampires.

Eventually, the game was translated to English and made available to the western audience. I snapped it up immediately and never looked back. The summer of my post 6th grade year was spent exploring the game to the fullest. I created characters of every class, snooped through every nook and cranny of every dungeon, and defeated the final monster countless times.

I knew that Final Fantasy II and III were already available to my Japanese friends, and I was more than upset to learn that Nintendo of America intended to skip these tiles and repackage the upcoming Final Fantasy IV and “Final Fantasy II” for the American audience.

Over the years, I consumed every Final Fantasy title made available to me.  Eventually, after I was married and had children of my own, the elusive third entry in series was finally brought to the American shores in the form of a 3D remake.

To date, I have played and beaten every single-player entry in the series (except for the newly released XIII-2). As far as the online titles go, I was active in Final Fantasy XI from 2003 until the spring of 2011. I have been a supporter of Final Fantasy XIV ever since.

While Wizardry, nurtures the purest part of my dungeon crawling, spell casting, classing D&D spirit, Final Fantasy appeals of me in other ways. The art direction reminds me of my years living in Japan, while the settings and in-depth stories cater to the classic fantasy elements that make Wizardry so appealing.

A few years ago, I thought it might be interesting to play through various game franchises and post reviews of each game, noting how they have matured and developed over time. I did this with the Final Fantasy series.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting these reviews.

Wizardry

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One fateful summer night in 1989, my friend James suggested we play a computer game on his dad’s old black and white Macintosh. After a few rounds of Chess, I spotted an interesting looking icon in the games folder. “Oh no. That’s Wizardry.” He said. “It’s not very good. It’s too hard.”

Despite his protests, I kept bugging him and eventually he relented. What I discovered was mysterious labyrinth filled dangerous monsters at every turn, trapped treasure chests, and cryptic messages scrawled on the walls of the dungeon. I was enamored.

“Hurry! Cast a healing spell!” I screamed as a band of Kobolds nearly killed the Fighter leading our party.

“I don’t know which spell will cure! They are all written in Latin or something!” He cried.

Moments later, the entire party was defeated.

“Oh no! My dad is going to kill me. This was his group, and I’m not supposed to play it. He’ll be so mad!” James exclaimed…

There as only one thing to do to save James from what was sure to be a WHOLE WEEKEND of lawn mowing and car washing. We had to sbring them back to life. To accomplish that, we needed to create new characters. Their mission: return the corpses of dad’s fallen party to the city where they could be resurrected.

It was truly a slumber party of epic proportions.

The game was Wizardry, and at the time it was the most fantastic thing I had ever played. It was the first game that really opened my eyes to world of swords and sorcery. If it wasn’t for Wizardry, I would have probably never taken an interest in other fantasy role playing games, or even tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons. In Wizardry, you create and control a party of six characters. Their mission is travel to the bottom of a ten-level maze to recover a magical amulet stolen by a powerful wizard. There is no in-game map, so it’s wise to chart every step you take on graph paper. If you don’t, eventually, you WILL get lost.

It was another year or so before I was able to get my hands on a copy of Wizardry for the Nintendo. The NES version was an upgrade of sorts, the maze was colored a muddy orange, and there was actually music that played in town and on the title screen. It was thanks to this port of the original classic, I was finally able to complete my quest to recover the amulet.

The sequel was also ported to the NES. I purchased it and loved it just as much.

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I knew that three more games existed in the series, but until the release of Wizardry V for the Super Nintendo, I was left out of the loop (my parents did not own a personal computer at the time).

Eventually, the information age hit my household and with the purchase of an IBM compatible PC by my mother, I saved my allowance and ran to the software store at the local mall. Sadly, it seems time had passed by the older Wizardry titles, but the latest entry; Wizardry VI -Bane of the Cosmic Forge, sat shrink-wrapped on the shelf ready for me to take home. Even though it was now over a year old, this title was still a hot seller.

This was first title in a new direction for the Wizardry series. Released in 1990, the game features detailed graphics and outdoor environments. Bane was actually that start of a three game trilogy that wouldn’t come to a conclusion until 2001, with the release of Wizardry 8.

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Bane of the Cosmic Forge

wizardry8-2   Wizardry 8

Around the time that Wizardry 8 was released, people’s interest was sparked enough that a compilation was released of the first seven titles. The Ultimate Wizardry Archives. Finally, I was able to sit down and play the first five games in order. It was delightful to watch the games progress in quality from title to title. Another satisfying feature of the PC versions was the ability to import your characters from previous chapter.

I was surprised by the lack of information on the Internet available for wizardry at the time, so I decided to create my own Wizardry fanpage. From 2001 to 2003, Kyler’s Wizardry Den was the largest source of Wizardry information on the net. I can boastfully say that my contributions to the Wizardry community live on this day. Even though my website is no more, the exclusive maps that I created can still be found floating around the web. At one point, I even boldly elaborated on the original background plot for Wizardry I, adding some colorful commentary and ideas to the scant three-line background found in the original manual. Before going bankrupt, Sir-Tech soft included my rendition of the Wizardry story on their website, officially making my ideas canon. I was honored.

Since the release of Wizardry 8, and the bankruptcy of the founding company, things here in the west have been quiet. Many young gamers have never even heard of the series. This, however, is not true for Japan.

Once Wizardry was released on the NES, the Japanese audience went wild. The first 7 games were made available on the Famicom, Super Famicom, and Sony Playstation (Japan only of course). At some point, a Japanese publisher bought the rights to the franchise and number of Japanese-exclusive games were made for handheld systems. To date, most of these Wizardry: Gaiden and Wizardy Empire titles have yet to see release in the US.

One exception was the release of Wizardry: Tales of the Forsaken Land. This title, known as Busin: Wizardry Alternative in Japan, was released on the PS2 shortly after the release of Wiz 8 here in the US. It is highly recommended, if you can find a copy. I have to admit, the Japanese “get it”. They understand what Wizardry is really about. If I may be so bold as to suggest, this title makes a better sequel to Wizardry V than Bane does. It seems to be more of a natural progression. Sadly, it’s sequel has not seen a release here.

Wiz 6, 7, and 8 have more of a PC RPG feel to them that an actual “Wizardry” feel. The Japanese titles, seem to stay very true to the roots of the originals.

Tales, was the our last taste of the Japanese Wizardry series until the recent release of Wizardy: Labyrinth of Lost Souls on the Playstation Network.

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I am in love with this title. Again, it seems to be a natural progression of the original Wizardry series. All of the original quiet, but hardcore elements are there. Yes, the Japanese have certainly put their own spin on the art direction of the series. But, being a fan of Japanese art and culture, you will not hear any complaints from me.

I’m taking my time with this title, not wanted to finish it too fast because the next chapter in the history of Wizardry is about to manifest here in the US with the release of Wizardry Online.

Imagine, an MMO that features permanent character death, friendly fire, and always on pvp. The mere idea of it is an instant turn off for most western players. In games these days, if you die, no big deal. Just run out to your body in spirit form and resurrect with little to no penalty. Not with Wiz Online. No sir.

Just thinking about it, I am reminded of that night in ’89. Crawling through the uncharted dungeon trying to find to bodies of the characters Jame’s dad created…

I can’t wait to relive that magic moment again.

Japan

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If you’ve actually read this blog, you’ll know that as a child I was a military brat. Shortly after starting my 4th grade year, my family moved to Okinawa, Japan.

Living in Japan was one of the most defining experiences of my life. I still remember exiting the quiet, climate controlled airplane after a 22 hour flight. Stepping thru the archway of the plane and into the Okinawan air for the first time was like a slap in the face. The air was thick and moist. It was just like a steamy sauna, only with the smell of salt water and foreign foliage in the air. The jet lag had really got ahold of me, and I found myself unable to sleep in the hotel room that day. I flipped on the TV only to find three channels. One English speaking channel operated by the US government and two local Japanese channels. Watching Japanese television for the first time was a wake up call like I’ve never had. The cheesy samurai soap opera, followed by a children’s show featuring an octopus farting into a Jello mold made on thing abundantly clear; I was in a completely different world.

3772349310_7b9de77e47 A bottle of Sake featuring the corpse of a venomous Habu snake in the bottle

Living on military base in a foreign country can be a bit deceiving. Inside the confines of those walls, you could almost believe you never left the normalcy of the USA. But step outside, and there’s no question… You are in Japan. One of the first things I learned to enjoy about Okinawa, was the food. Thankfully, I love noodles, and there no short supply of them. Over my three-year stay in Japan, I became quite fond of the various flavors the orient had to offer. It’s an obsession that lasts to this day.

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The first time you taste something like Miso, or some other foreign spice or sauce, it can be a little off-putting. But once you break thru the defensive concept of “I’m not used to this”, you might just sup rise yourself with what you actually enjoy.

One thing I will say about these Japanese, they certainly like their candy. Japanese snacks and confectioneries are like no other. The variety of flavors seems endless. For example, over here in the US, we have three flavors of Kit Kats. Chocolate, Dark Chocolate, and White Chocolate. In Japan, on the shelf of any random convenience store, you might find Kit Kats in such exotic flavors as: Wasabi, Orange, Banana, Cheese, Sweet Potato, Basked Potato, Key Lime, Green Tea, etc.

In the short three years I lived there, I was never able to get a firm grasp on the Japanese language.  But I did have many encounters with kids my age. One thing that we both understood, regardless of our language barrier was video games. The Nintendo Entertainment System, or as it was called in the Japan, the Famicom was in just as many Japanese households. Many of our games were the same. Things like Mario and Zelda didn’t rely heavily on words, so there was no real need to to be concerned with communication. It was not uncommon for a Japanese friends to lend me a Famicom game to take home and play. However, the size of the carts were different. This led to a compatibility problem. Thanks to the black market, this problems was easily solved for a mere $10. Meet the honeybee.

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This beautiful piece of Asian engineering made is possible to fit a Famicom game into a standard US NES. Oh, the fun times that were had thanks to this little devil. I may have never learned the secret that the REAL Super Mario Bros. 2 was not the same as the SMB 2 that was presented to the American audience… but I’ll save that rant for another time.

I slowly became absorbed with Japanese pop culture. I viewed Dragon Ball Z cartoons on TV during their first run, I saw video games months before they were even revealed to the western audience. I read manga, collected anime branded pencils, listened to Japanese pop music. There’s so much I could write about when it comes to my experiences in Okinawa. Perhaps I will do so in future posts. For now, let this serve an introduction into my obsession with a particular genre of video game, the Japanese RPG.

The Nintendo Era

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The world of gaming changed forever in October of 1985. The date that the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in North America.

I still remember getting mine. It was Christmas morning, at my grandmother’s house. I tore the paper from the corner and my eyes caught sight of the golden Nintendo Seal. I knew immediately what it was before the rest of the paper was even off the box. I had stared at the NES boxes on the shelf at Toys R Us long enough that even that little peek of what lie underneath the paper gave it away.

The NES came with a copy of Super Mario Bros. but I also received a copy of Metroid that year. I don’t recall cracking it open until later tho. I clearly remember sitting in front of the TV for the next two days playing Mario almost non-stop. It was snowing outside and much too cold to go out and play (thankfully), so I had a convenient excuse.

As time went on, my game collection grew and grew. I had most of the classic titles:

SMB, Kid Icarus, Zelda, Mike Tyson’s Punchout, Mega Man, Contra, Castlevania, Final Fantasy, Double Dragon, Skate or Die…  You name it. And what I didn’t own, I rented from the video store.

At one point, I subscribed to the official Nintendo magazine: The Nintendo Fun Club Newsletter.

The first issue I received featured the newly released Mike Tyson’s Punchout. The next issue was the intro for The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The following one featured some hockey game, I don’t recall which. There were no further issues of the newsletter, because that next month, it was changed into the magazine we all know and love: Nintendo Power.

The first issue of Nintendo Power was a real jaw-dropper. They premiered the upcoming Super Mario Bros. 2.

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I was a total fanboy, as were most of my fellow third-grade classmates. Not only did we collect games, but we had various controllers, the NES MAX, the NES Advantage… years later I was even the owner of the notorious Power Glove.

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Nintendo has had many competitors since the NES debuted in the 80s. I think it’s fair to say that as time has gone by, Nintendo has lost a bit of their audience. They seem to focus now on more casual and family gaming. Perhaps this will change with the release of the new console the Wii U, who can say. But I will say this, I still don’t think that any future console will ever cause the revolution that the original NES started. I would probably not be a gamer if it wasn’t for this big grey toaster.

Keep puffing on those carts.