Archive for the ‘Video Games’ category

Final Fantasy II’s Beginning and Mine

January 1, 2011

Final Fantasy II Box Art

Since I didn’t grow up a prince, this was my first encounter with palace intrigue. I was six years old.

My parents didn’t like to buy me games, but they did let me rent one whenever we went to Blockbuster.  It would have been cheaper for us to buy this one right off the bat, though, because I took it home six times.  Eventually, Mom was so tired of hearing about it that she agreed to buy it if I finished a packet of elective addition and subtraction worksheets. The classical box art isn’t the kind of design you’d expect a small child to like, but I recognized the title because I’d watched my neighbor Brian play Final Fantasy I, and I thought the curtain-colored red background and the radiant sword in place of a T were pretty sweet.

I never got farther than five hours into the game in one weekend, but that was just enough because the opening story arc is so meaningful. It’s about a knight’s contrition, penitence, and redemption. There’s (movie preview voice) Murder! Betrayal! Camaraderie! Adventure! …And Love!

The translation could have been more clear, concise, grammatical, and appropriate with its diction (“You spoony bard!”). Compared to my reading material in first grade, it was like Mozart versus Barney the Dinosaur. This game and its successors introduced me to adult themes and vocabulary. I matched up the natural and emotional imagery of the church hymn “Be Not Afraid,” in particular, with scenes from this game. The Pope would have been surprised to hear that, but my imagination didn’t have anything else to work with. I drew swords in class – on paper, I mean – and designed games in the car all the way through elementary school. You bet I still have those spiral notebooks. Scholars might need them some day!

Yes, Final Fantasy II was text-heavy, but so is my brain, and the cinematic presentation kept things exciting. (The game opens with music, a fade-in, a cool vehicle going somewhere exciting, and a fight, just like the movies!) The graphics are simple, but I responded to them. I saw sadness in the knight’s side profile and flowing locks and loving concern in his lover’s 256-pixel icon. As a game player, I was in control: I could go to wherever I liked and talk to whoever I liked. That 3-dimensional freedom is more engaging than a book, where the only direction you can go is forward in a straight line. If games hadn’t created interactive worlds where talking meant reading, teachers would have had to invent them.

If my mind ever goes, find this game in an old curiosity shop, put a Super Nintendo controller in my hands, and bring a voice recorder for yourself because it’ll all come back to me. My brain responds to blue dialogue boxes with white text like Pavlov’s dogs responded to dinner bells. “This was the game that started it all,” I’ll say, and by then we’ll know what “it” was.

If you’d like to continue watching this game, NextGen Walkthroughs has recorded it all while graciously omitting the voice-overs that spoil so many game videos.


How Video Games Pass on Traditional Culture

December 4, 2010

You’re a king or queen, and the gods offer you a choice: either your country’s name or an aspect of its culture can be passed on forever. Which would you take?

I ask because these are a few songs I know by heart.

There are musicians and professors who would be ecstatic to know I’m familiar with these styles, but I don’t know where they are. These songs come from the Genso Suikoden games on the Sony PlayStation. The music of cities that once were fills the streets of cities that will never be.

Modernization is a scapegoat for the demise of traditional culture. You’ve probably read an article or two about an old master who has devoted his life to his craft but worries it’ll die with him because the young don’t appreciate it. As legitimate as his feelings are, in some ways this is the golden age for the preservation of traditional culture. The arts that have survived until today can now be digitally preserved forever.

Gregorian Chant fans probably wrung their hands when organs were installed in chapels, but I heard chant live in my church here in Taipei last night. If something is unique and beautiful, someone will pass it on or revive it. Even if people don’t understand its origin, it will enrich them. If you were a creator, you wouldn’t mind that, right?

To keep a kid interested in a fantasy world for forty hours, especially when he’s passed through some already, game developers need to cast a wide net. I was taught about Leviathan, Odin, and the Minotaur in high school English class, but I’d already seen them years before in video games. I once spent a summer day when I was ten sitting on the floor reading this cover to cover. Now it’s practically an encyclopedia. I didn’t know I liked opera until I played this. I’ve always wondered where I could get clothes like this:

Secret of Mana Cast

Some American gamers have studied China’s Three Kingdoms Period through Dynasty Warriors. I lead this post with music from Genso Suikoden: the title and concept of that series come from another of the four great classical Chinese novels, Outlaws of the Marsh.

Final Fantasy IV Baron Throne Room
Final Fantasy IX Bahamut v. Alexander

It goes the other direction for the Japanese with mythology and medieval fantasy. Final Fantasy IV was made twenty years ago, Final Fantasy IX ten. (Yes, that castle has wings; it’s alive.) When I was six, I took the Western fantasy trappings in RPGs for granted. When I played them as an English teacher in Japan, I was shocked by how exotic it all must have been to my peers there. Not only the settings but also the language were foreign: scores of English words, like “Fire,” “Potion,” “Monster,” and “Cure,” were transliterated directly from English. Japanese kids have seen a lot more of Europe than they think.

For you music fans, here’s a sound test of ethnic music: city themes for seven games of the early to late ’90s.

Final Fantasy IV: Kingdom of Fabul
Secret of Mana: The Little Sprite
Wild ARMs: Seaside Town
Final Fantasy VII: Cosmo Canyon
Grandia: Prayers of Gumbo
Chrono Cross: Termina: Another
Xenogears: Dazil, Town of Burning Sands

All told, there’s enough material out there for a dissertation or two. I’m grateful for my education from school, but I’m also grateful for my education from Sony and Nintendo, which made the past so much more vivid than textbooks ever could.


November 13, 2010

Harry Potter, Moulin Rouge, Final Fantasy 7, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Ani DiFranco, Ender’s Game, Rent: these things were huge among my friends ten years ago. Their impact was broad, but more importantly it was deep. Music, movies, and video games are treated as Entertainment in most newspapers, and that makes sense because Work and Family override all other emotional concerns for adults, and they care about Politics and Business as much as those can affect the same: Entertainment is a way to relieve stress on weekends. Adolescents, though, don’t have the same responsibilities and pressure and don’t have the same reasons to care about Politics and Business, so the role of “Entertainment” is much bigger. Naturally, the more exciting, stimulating, and skillful the art is, the better…and the more persuasive it is. For me, the arts [including games] were teachers. They showed me colors and worlds and feelings I’d never seen before, things that couldn’t be contained in the four walls of my home or the four corners of my town. Phrases like “art imitates life” or “life imitates art” didn’t make much sense to me because what was on the screen sometimes felt so much more real.

I don’t mean it’s immature to deeply appreciate art: otherwise, orchestras would never get standing ovations. The engine for some of my best friendships has been people sharing with me the music, games, and art they loved. Art is always important, but perhaps the way you relate to it changes: When you’re older, it takes you back, and when you’re younger, it drives you forward. It’s easier, when your experiences are less broad, to say “THIS is what it’s all about” or “unless you see this, it’ll be hard to understand me,” or to see something that changes who you are forever.

For me, it was a game. It was the summer between junior high and high school.

Grandia Album Cover

This opening video got me so excited that I started my game right away and saved over my little brother’s file, which already had 30 hours of work on it. I hope I can make that up to you some time, David!

In the end, most adventure games boil down to good and evil, and this one does too, but the best bring something extra. Lunar had humor, Final Fantasy Tactics political intrigue, Xenogears baroque complexity, Final Fantasy 7 gritty realism, but this game is about limitless adventure. Justin is a young man who “adventures” around town with his childhood friend Sue: your first task in the game is to find a “legendary” sword (a broom) and shield (a trash can lid). They go to visit Grandpa, a retired adventurer, and while spelunking in nearby mine discover that it has the ruins to an ancient advanced civilization, and that The Empire happens to be making a military-motivated archaeological dig as well…one thing leads to another, catapulting Justin and Sue out of their town and into the real world, which just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. The picture above, of the three looking over a jungle during sunset, comes after you’ve scaled a massive, massive wall called “The End of the World” and you’re looking out over the other side. So it wasn’t the end after all: in fact, most of the game is still before you. Eventually it’s too much for Sue, who has to go home, but by then Justin is already close to Feena, a girl a couple years older than him who’s already a famous adventurer…and things go from there.  As my friend Jericho says in the comments, a boy becomes a man.

I didn’t realize, when I played this game, that I would turn out so much like Justin. I didn’t realize I was growing up in a time when it was easier than ever to travel the world and immerse myself in different cultures. Or that the Internet was making society more open than it ever was before. It didn’t occur to me to go to college out of state, or to live in Spain, Japan, and Taiwan while traveling to a dozen other countries: no one I knew did that. It didn’t seem possible.

But the game opened up my mind. I knew while I was playing it that there wouldn’t be anything else like it. I felt like they made it just for me. Every new scene, new city, new race, and new character got me more excited. The environments were vast and expansive, with so many trap doors and treasures hidden in corners: it gave a feeling of freedom that wouldn’t be topped in an adventure game until Dragon Quest VIII. The cities were huge and bustling and full of people whose lines and lives changed as the game progressed, and sometimes you could help them out, so you wanted to talk to everyone. Grandia took 60 hours to finish, but I played it twice. It was exhilarating.

I have wonderful parents, and I grew up in a beautiful town, but kids need to push against something even when there’s nothing there to resist. I wanted to be a legendary hero. Ironically, I didn’t do a lot of physically thrilling and dangerous things then, not even roller-blading or skateboarding – I’m not that coordinated, and it was faster for me to take journeys in my head than to get the hang of those kinds of things. I was into Matt Christopher sports stories, then fantasy novels like LOTR and Redwall, and most of all video games, where the bright worlds, creative creatures, and dramatic scenes were animated right before me, and with my controller I was a part of it.

Like many people, the first game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. 3, at my teenage next door neighbor’s house. I was 6. I loved watching them play so much that once I came into their house uninvited to ask if we could play. The family was in the middle of a barbecue with friends. That didn’t go over so well. My parents noticed me looking at a picture strategy guide for Mario 3 every night, and Santa Claus gave me a Super Nintendo with Super Mario World that Christmas. It was my happiest December 25th ever. I was a little like this guy.

I spent a lot of time playing outside, sometimes sports but more often imaginary adventures. My friend Brian and I spent hours outside making up our own adventures, and then we’d play video games inside to get more ideas. When Brian wasn’t around, I played by myself. I filled hundreds of notebook pages with pictures and stats for imaginary video games and stories, rather derivative of the games I was playing, but the scholars will forgive me: I was 8!

I had imaginary adventures at school recess a lot, too, and sometimes a few friends joined in. Once I turned “Killer Instinct” into an adventure and two friends and I jumped around punching air for 20-hit combos for a week. One time it was raining, so we had indoor recess in the gym, but in my mind I was in the desert, so I was crawling around on the floor saying “Water!! Water!!” People thought this was hilarious so eventually 20 boys were doing it. Then I wanted to move to the next stage of the game, and they were like, “Huh?” I liked the attention so we went back to the desert.

Grandia: Justin and Feena

A few years later, after I’d had a couple relationships myself, I started to really appreciate the relationship between the two main characters. Do opposites attract, or should you be with someone who’s like you? I think the answer is “both.” He’s more reckless and she’s more prudent. Her emotional intelligence is way higher, but she also has more anxiety, and he can reassure her. Most importantly, they have the same goals and passions, and so it’s natural for them to spend the rest of their lives together.

At first, he’s not thinking about love at all. The love song I included is beautiful but idealizes what actually happened on the beach: she wanted to tell him her feelings, and he was all “Feena, what do you mean?” I was jumping up and down in my chair as he continued to not get it. But then, I felt like I -needed- love at the time. Someone can instead be so happy with his or her current life that romance isn’t even on the radar. Then a deep friendship, and perhaps a life-changing event (5:00-9:00), can make life even better.

When I was in Japan, I bought a PlayStation and the Japanese versions of the games I played in school. It’s my sentimental collection. I won’t have time for them unless I want to, say, teach my kids Japanese, but they helped me get where I am now. I’d like to let the creators know that some time.

Postscript: Another explanation of why video games are so popular
It’s important for people to get a feeling of achievement from somewhere. Kids, especially. Some are good at sports, and some are good at school, but everyone needs to be good at something. In a vibrant, connected community, kids can try things like arts and crafts, music, science projects, and building model airplanes, so maybe everyone finds something they can do. Games make a great substitute for everyone, though. The best are mental challenges, no different from puzzles. When you succeed, you feel happy about it. It was because you worked hard, organized well, or had a good idea. When you fail, you can move past it. One of the rough things about team sports and school competitions is that everyone sees you fail, and it’s embarrassing, but in a game, your defeats are private. Grandia, for example, had a great battle system. It was unique and had a lot of freedom, but the underlying structure was still strong: it felt like there was something to achieve, but achieving it wasn’t that frustrating. If you lost a battle, it was because your strategy could be better: there was always a way to win. Ideally, young gamers can find work and other activities that give them the same positive experiences.  A lot of people my age are going to play games their whole lives and also be very successful.

Falling Seven Times, Rising Eight: A Founding Father of Video Games

November 1, 2010

Source: 読売新聞 七転八起 「ゲーム時代 先取り」 辻本憲三 69歳 カプコン会長

Kenzo Tsujimoto

A Founding Father of Video Games
Kenzo Tsujimoto, Age 69, Chairman of Capcom

“Managing a confectionery got me into video games.”
After graduating from high school, I worked at a relative’s wholesale store until I opened a confectionery in Osaka at the age of 25. But it was the cotton candy machine, not the treats, that brought the kids into the store. After you paid, the bowl would spin, and it was sort of like a game. After I realized that, I turned the management of the store over to my wife and started hawking those machines.

While I was traveling the country, I turned a pachinko machine into a 10-yen-per-spin game, and the kids would try their luck on it over and over. “What people want most, after food, clothing, and shelter, is enjoyment,” I thought, so I resolved to go into the gaming business.

At first I purchased game machines and resold them, but after receiving thousands of orders from across the country, I thought it would be more profitable to make the machines myself, so in 1974 I established a company. Soon after that, “Space Invaders” arrived. After we licensed it from Taito, there were a huge rush of orders.

But the boom wouldn’t last long. Copycat games flourished, and we ended up with a supply glut. After covering our losses, I stepped down from the company.

Resurrection Thanks to the Goodwill of a Competitor
After I lost my job, Mr. Michael Kogan, President of Taito, reached out to me. He said that he would invest in anything I wanted to do in the gaming industry. I was so grateful. He passed away soon after, but even now, I visit his grave whenever I travel to Los Angeles.

Riding the Wave of the Gaming Age
With his investment, I founded Capcom in 1983. That same year, Nintendo launched the Family Computer [US Name: Nintendo Entertainment System]. At first, we designed games primarily for arcades, and when they were hits, we released them on the Famicom [NES].

I anticipated the demand for games that were like Disney movies, so I pushed for clear and colorful graphics and that feeling of liveliness and immediacy. The fruit of our efforts was Street Fighter 2. It hit the arcades in 1991, but its release on the new Super Famicom [Super Nintendo] made it a huge hit.

Strike Two
But our developers’ tight grasp on production rights started to noticeably increase our costs and damage the company. A number of games were losing money. As a result, we seized the authority from those administrators and halted production on our unprofitable products. Opposition inside the company was strong, but I firmly stated, “If you can’t go along with this, then quit.” Some did.

Becoming the Chairman in 2007 and Working for the Future
We split the responsibilities of the President into the roles of CEO and COO, and I dedicated myself to being Chief Executive Officer. I don’t move around as much now, but in my opinion, by focusing on the numbers I can watch over the company more now than I did as President.

I want to retire early and pass a good situation on to my successor. Since our company grew so quickly, however, we don’t have many managers in their 50s, and those in their 40s and below need more training. I’ll keep my nose to the grindstone so I can ensure stability for the most important members of the company, our shareholders and customers.

Kenzo Tsujimoto with Daughter

Hideki Kishimoto, a staff writer for the business section who is based in Osaka, conducted this interview.

Kenzo Tsujimoto was born in Nara in 1940. In 1960, he graduated from Unebi High School in the same prefecture. He sold game machines and established Capcom in 1983. He has held his current position since July 2007. Since 1997, he has served as Director for the Association of Copyright for Computer Software, organizing countermeasures against game piracy and the like. He is also a wine aficionado who privately established a brewery in California.

Capcom is a domestic game producer. Its name is an abbreviation for “Capsule Computer.” By referring to game software as a “capsule,” it refers to said software as a finished product and warns against illegal copies. “Devil Kings,” its 2005 game about the Warring States Period, caught the attention of young women and helped reignite interest in that era. Its revenues in the third quarter of 2010 were 66.8 billion yen, its highest ever. Company headquarters are based in Osaka’s Chuo District. (more…)