Actually, It's About How Games Journalism is a Pain in the Ass

Or, Why I Won't Be Doing That Again Any Time Soon: A Postmortem

So the last three posts comparing and contrasting five different Mega Man games required rather a lot of screenshots. It took a long time to get them all, for a number of reasons I'll get into in a moment. It wound up taking a lot longer to get those posts done and posted than planned, and it really wasn't a whole lot of fun.

The other day on Brontoforumus, I described it as taking two things I enjoy doing -- playing video games and talking about video games -- and turning them into work. More specifically, work I don't get paid for.

I like how the whole thing turned out, but it took hours and hours to put together, and playing a game to farm for screenshots is a pretty different and altogether less fun experience than playing it just to play it.

Some of it may be down to the tools I'm using, or just my lack of proficiency with them.

I opted to grab all the screenshots myself, rather than try and find a resource that already had them (or close enough). I think this was probably the right call; VG Museum has a perfectly good shot of the floating platforms in Ice Man's stage that I could have used, but it doesn't really have any other grabs of the Mega Man screens I needed, and it's got next to nothing from Mega Man X and nothing at all from the other three games I was capping.

So I could have poked around the Internet trying to find the screens I was looking for, either as static images on websites or as caps from Let's Play videos on YouTube. But I think that would have taken just as long as getting the damn things myself.

The next decision I made that made my life more difficult was to try and grab all the images at each device's native resolution, with graphical filters turned off.

Here are some of the screenshots I used in the last three posts:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

And here are what those games look like when I play the game scaled up for a 1080p screen and with a graphics filter turned on:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Highway Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Now, first of all, those images are pretty big. In fact, unless you've zoomed this page in, you're not even looking at them at full size right now, because they've been scaled to fit the content area of this post. That's 892px wide (unless you're viewing it on a mobile device, in which case it's less), whereas the images are between 1157 and 1920px wide.

And they're PNG's, which means they're also pretty big in terms of filesize (except the Mega Man Xtreme one). Unnecessarily big; you just loaded a 1920px-wide image just to display a scaled-down 892px version. Or less. If you're reading this on a 3G connection, then I probably owe you an apology.

Now, there are things I could do differently. I could set my emulators to output as JPEG instead of PNG, but that would result in a visible decrease in quality. I could resize the images manually, but that would be more work for me. I could set up a script to scale them automatically, but we'd still end up with a bunch of images all scaled to the same width. Which isn't really ideal; it doesn't make a lot of sense for the Game Boy screenshots to be the same size as the PSP ones, and 892px is just too damn big to get multiple images onscreen and get a good comparison anyway.

So, instead of that, what I did was turn off the filters and, when I was ready to take a screenshot, toggle fullscreen off to take it.

This is a pain in the ass, not just because it interrupts the flow of the game but because it's fucking difficult to set up a good screenshot in a tiny 160x144 window on a 1080p TV when you're sitting on the couch across the room.

And that's before you get into weird shit like this:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man

I don't know why the fuck RetroArch did this. I told it to size the window to native NES resolution, and it gave me these monstrosities instead. That is not native NES resolution. And it's not a problem with the core I was using, because I tried it with two different cores. (I thought it might be some weird leftover setting from when I'd done the Game Boy screen grabs, but that doesn't make sense; the Game Boy screen grabs were 160x144, while these are 205x191.)

And I took a bunch of screenshots before realizing what it had done. I had to go back and replay fucking Ice Man's stage and do it all over again.

So I think the best solution would be to use emulators that output screenshots at native resolution and without filters, regardless of what scaling and filters are applied as I'm playing them. I know I've used emulators like that before, but I can't remember which ones they were offhand.

And there's another requirement: I want to be able to take a screenshot without having to use the damn keyboard. I want to be able to use one of the buttons on my controller to take the screenshot. Because having to stage a shot and then quickly take my hands off the controller to hit F12 on a keyboard doesn't just interrupt the flow of the game, it's a good way to get yourself killed if you're trying to grab a screenshot of a particularly difficult section of game.

Snes9x let me map the screenshot button to my controller, and I think FCEUX did too, but I couldn't find any feature like that in PPSSPP or RetroArch.

So I guess what I'm looking for is an emulator that lets you output screenshots with no scaling or filters applied, and lets you map that function to a button on your controller.

That would make the whole exercise a lot quicker and easier, but it wouldn't fix a number of other problems -- I'd still have to wade through a bunch of files with names like ULUS10068_00017.png and RetroArch-1011-165734.png and find the ones I wanted, and then realize "Fuck, I forgot to take a screenshot of Spark Mandrill's stage" and have to go back and replay that section, and seriously, you have no idea how many times I did that.

And that's without even getting into the editing portion.

Remember this guy from the first post, with the measurements?

Mega Man is 33x54px

I added those rulers and numbers myself, manually, in Gimp (and it probably shows). And it wound up being way more fiddly and time-consuming than it should have. I guess I probably should have gone looking for plugins to see if somebody had already coded up a tool to draw a shape like that automatically so I wouldn't have to do it myself; that is what I ended up doing for this graphic, with the arrow in it:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

So, I dunno. Like I said, I'm pretty pleased with how the feature turned out (and it's gotten a positive response from the Brontos, which is nice), but it just took so long to put together, and it was not very fun. I might try it again sometime -- especially if somebody can steer me in the right direction and help make it easier next time -- but for now I'll probably go on back to my usual Wall of Text posts.

Course, in the old days I used to enjoy doing shit like this:

City of Heroes time-lapse

But there's a pretty important difference: we were already just fuckin' around and essentially posing for photos anyway; it's not like I was taking screenshots in the middle of a difficult mission. (And even if I were, it was pretty easy just to reach over and hit PrtScn without breaking stride in the game.) I wasn't trying to get a grab of any specific gameplay element -- let alone compare and contrast across five different games.

Maybe if I do this again I'll just pick an easier topic.

In the meantime, I think I'll go back to just playing games. Maybe I'll replay some more Mega Man X games. I never did get around to finishing X8. Fucking vehicle levels.

Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd
City of Heroes © 2004 NCsoft

I took all the screenshots myself.
I used the following emulators:
NES: FCEUX and Libretro with the FCEUmm and Nestopia cores
SNES: Snes9x and Libretro with the Snes9x Next core
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

Dueling Mega Men, Part 3: Rebalancing Act

As I've indicated in the last two posts, Mega Man: Powered Up has a lot more changes from the original game than Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X. And the changes to Powered Up are usually for the better, while the ones to MHX are usually for the worse.

There's a pretty simple reason for that: Mega Man has a lot more to improve than Mega Man X.

Back in the first post, I described Maverick Hunter X as "a pretty solid remake of an excellent game." Powered Up is the reverse: an excellent remake of a pretty solid game.

The original Mega Man is a classic, but it's got rough edges; it's an amazing first effort but it's got its share of flaws. There's a reason Mega Man 2 is universally considered to be a much better game.

The original Mega Man X, on the other hand, is pretty much perfect. It's exquisitely designed and balanced.

So, rebalancing Mega Man resulted in a better-balanced game, while rebalancing Mega Man X resulted in a worse-balanced one.

Let's start with Mega Man.

Powered Up changes the original game so fundamentally that it actually changes the boss weaknesses.

In the original Mega Man, the order is:
Bomb Man Guts Man Cut Man Elec Man Ice Man Fire Man

In Powered Up, it's:
Cut Man Bomb Man Ice Man Fire Man Oil Man Elec Man Time Man Guts Man.

The change in order does more than just accommodate the two new bosses; it makes for a more natural stage order.

The original game has two logical starting points: Bomb Man's level and Cut Man's. The trouble is, if you follow the order of weapon weaknesses, starting with Bomb Man means you go to Guts Man's famously difficult level second. Starting with Cut Man means you take Elec Man's stage before Guts Man and have to go back later to get the Magnet Beam (though, granted, this wouldn't be an issue in Powered Up, which removes the Magnet Beam entirely).

The weakness order in Powered Up puts the two easiest stages right at the start, first Cut Man and then Bomb Man, and puts trickier levels like Elec Man, Guts Man, and the new Time Man near the end.

Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X doesn't change the Mavericks' weaknesses, but it does play musical chairs with the capsules. And that's enough to wreak havoc on the original game's finely-crafted balance.

The most important of the four capsules, the one you need in order to get the other three, is the Leg Upgrade. Here's where it is in the original game:

Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X

It's about halfway through Chill Penguin's stage (the easiest in the game), smack dab in the middle of the path. You literally can't miss it.

Whereas in Maverick Hunter X, not only is it possible to miss it, it's likely. Here's where it is in that version:

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Don't see it? Let's try that again.

Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X, with Giant Red Arrow

That's right: the ledge you grab onto to reach the Leg Parts is covered up by the fucking HUD. It's so hard to see that you can walk right past it even if you know it's there.

Contrast with the same location in the original Mega Man X (which, in that game, had the Arm Parts capsule):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The original game gives a very clear visual cue that there is something up there. Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, once again fails to handle the conversion from 4:3 to 16:9, and makes the hanging section almost impossible to see. And if you don't find that tiny ledge, you can't get any of the other upgrade parts -- your mobility, offense, and defense are all severely limited, and the game is much harder. Not fun hard, unfair hard.

And if you do know the Leg Parts are on Flame Mammoth's stage, there's another problem: nobody in their right mind would pick Flame Mammoth's stage first.

It disrupts the entire stage order. Do you start with Chill Penguin and then end with Flame Mammoth? That makes the game a whole lot more difficult, going through seven stages with no capsule upgrades.

No, the best option here is to base the stage order around the capsules, not the bosses' weaknesses. Take out Chill Penguin first, then Flame Mammoth, with maybe a stop-over at Storm Eagle along the way (he's a relatively easy boss and Flame Mammoth is weak against his weapon, and it also makes Spark Mandrill's stage easier; on the other hand, it's got all the shitty vertical parts I mentioned in my previous post, and they're harder without the Leg Parts).

The other three capsules are rearranged too. Chill Penguin has the Head Parts instead of the Leg Parts, Sting Chameleon has the Arm Parts instead of the Body Parts, and Storm Eagle has the Body Parts instead of the Head Parts.

The Head Parts are damn near useless in the original game, and they're not any more useful in the remake. In the original game, they protect you from falling rocks in one section of Sting Chameleon's stage, and are also necessary to reach the Arm Parts capsule in Flame Mammoth's stage. Maverick Hunter X is much the same, except that in this case you need them to reach the Body Parts capsule in Storm Eagle's stage. Chill Penguin's stage -- which, again, is the easiest level and, in the original game, the best one to start with -- has gone from having the most useful of the four upgrades to the least useful. Storm Eagle's stage, on the other hand, ends up with a much more useful upgrade than it had in the original, and one more reason to hit that level earlier in this version of the game than in the SNES version.

The change to Sting Chaemeleon's stage probably makes the most sense of the four, though it removes the nice sense of symmetry the original game gives you of defeating a suit of robot armor to gain an armor upgrade.

If you follow the stage order implied by the capsule locations (ie fight Storm Eagle and Flame Mammoth early), then that means Sting Chameleon will be the last of the eight stages. Getting the Arm Parts right before the Sigma stages, or right at the beginning of the Sigma stages, matches the original game, where if you started with Chill Penguin you'd end with Flame Mammoth, and get a chance to get the Buster Upgrade -- and if you missed it, you'd get it on the very next level.

Which brings us to another change.

In Mega Man X, midway through the first Sigma stage, Zero confronts Vile, and sacrifices himself. If you didn't get the Buster Upgrade from the capsule, Zero will give it to you.

Maverick Hunter X changes this in two ways. First, it moves the battle to the third Sigma stage instead of the first. Second, instead of Zero giving you a Buster Upgrade that's identical to the one you would have gotten from the capsule, he gives you a different Buster Upgrade.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't think it's a very good one, for two reasons.

The first is that it messes up the narrative structure. There's a reason Zero dies, and passes the torch to X, in the first Sigma stage in the original game: it changes the atmosphere of the rest of the game. It establishes a sense of loneliness and isolation that lingers through the end. Nobody else is going to help you; you're humanity's last hope. And you've done what Zero said you'd do all the way back at the end of the first stage: you've become stronger. The student has become the master.

In Maverick Hunter X, on the other hand, you spend most of the Sigma stages playing catchup. Zero's gone on ahead. Even at full power, X is playing second fiddle, right up until the end.

Which brings us to the gameplay reason why it doesn't make sense to kill off Zero right before the end: it's right before the end. I understand the reasoning behind rewarding the player for getting almost to the end of the game without the Buster Upgrade with a cool, unique weapon -- but what the fuck good is it? You've got exactly half a level left in the game at that point, and then four bosses. (And I guess the caterpillar things in the last level, but they're pretty much just there to fill up your Sub Tanks.) The game rewards you by giving you a weapon you'll hardly get to use.

Aside from that, there are other weird little changes. The X-Buster takes longer to charge to its maximum level, and bosses are invulnerable for a longer period of time after you hit them.

And then there's stuff like this:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original game, when Spark Mandrill's stage goes "dark", it's just a transparency effect; you can still see where you need to go.

In Maverick Hunter X, the lights cycle off and on; the platforms go from being completely illuminated to being completely invisible. This, combined with the reduction in height, makes the section a lot harder, the timing a lot trickier, and makes it damned difficult to get through this section without getting clipped by the fireflies that whiz through it.

In fact, this section seems to be taking a cue from the Mega Man Xtreme version of the stage.

Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme

(It may look like the platforms are visible in that screenshot, but I assure you that if you play the game on authentic Game Boy Color hardware, you can't see shit.)

Basically, the game's full of changes, great and small. And most of them are for the worse.

All of this stuff, all of these changes, the reordering of the Capsules and the Sigma stages and Zero's death scene -- I think they actually could have made for an interesting game, if they were only on Hard Mode. The way I see it, Normal Mode should have kept everything where it was in the original game (with some changes, of course, to accommodate the screen height), while Hard Mode could have jumbled things around and created a legitimate challenge for experienced players. Think of it like the original Legend of Zelda: the Second Quest is neat, but it would have made a pretty crummy first quest.

Instead, Hard Mode gives the bosses some additional attacks (that's good!) and ups the amount of damage all the enemies do (that's cheap and lazy).

And then there's Vile Mode, which makes for a pretty great addition but can be overwhelming in the sheer number of options provided. Vile gets a total of 45 weapons, and while it's great to have that kind of versatility, it also means it takes a lot of time testing out all those choices and deciding which ones fit your play style -- and it also makes it a lot harder to figure out which weapons are effective against which bosses. If you're X, you can swap weapons on the fly and keep trying until you find one that works; if you're Vile, you can only equip three weapons at a time, and if none of them do the job, you have to start the level over if you want to try other options.

Plus, when you're Vile they move the Heart Tanks and Sub Tanks around, and while the save screen has a counter for how many you've got, it doesn't tell you which ones you've gotten. Okay, I've got seven out of the eight Heart Tanks; guess I get to figure out which one I'm missing.

(Also, I sincerely hope the decision to make every fucking stage use the same music when you play as Vile was an accident. Giving him is own theme music on the first stage is fine; reusing it on the next eight is not.)

To summarize three long posts, it's really easy to recommend Mega Man: Powered Up. It's thoughtfully and exquisitely redesigned, and good enough to be considered the definitive version of the game, even before you get into all the extras like the many playable characters and the level design toolkit.

Maverick Hunter X isn't bad but it's a much harder sell. Play the SNES game first; it's better; it's that simple.

But if you've played the SNES game already, forward and backward and side-to-side, and you're interested in trying out a new take? Then I'd recommend you take a crack at Maverick Hunter X. But remember going in that things are going to be different, and sometimes maddeningly so.

Mega Man ® 1989 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

Dueling Mega Men, Part 2: Verticality

The original Mega Man has some tricky platforming sequences. Mega Man Powered Up actually does a pretty solid job of redesigning them to make them more fair. Here's one of the most infamous examples, the gauntlet at the beginning of Guts Man's stage:

  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

Mega Man drops you right into what may be the toughest sequence in the game, and it's right at the beginning of the level. Powered Up, by contrast, starts you off with some training wheels.

Lest you think it's going easy on you, though, what it actually does is move that bastard platform to the end of the level:

Guts Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

On the one hand, that's a much better balance, putting the easy stuff at the beginning of the level and the tough stuff at the end. On the other, it's even more infuriating to repeatedly die right before the end of a level than right at the beginning. And it's actually even harder in Powered Up: note the spacing of the "safe" spots in the lower belt; there's much less time to land and jump than the original game.

There's another sequence, in Ice Man's stage, which is, for my money, the worst part of the original Mega Man.

  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Ice Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

In the original game, you have to jump from moving platform to moving platform over a vast empty pit. The platforms' movements are not predictable, they shoot at you while you're trying to time your jumps (and, not shown, penguin guys fly at you too), and sometimes just for the sheer fuck of it instead of landing on a platform you will fall right through it and die.

Powered Up reduces the number of platforms to two, makes them move in consistent zigzag patterns, and eliminates the additional obstacles that you have to avoid (not to mention fixes the collision detection). And greatly reduces the amount of space you have to pass over.

It's a pretty perfect example of Powered Up finding something that was wrong with the original game and fixing it.

Maverick Hunter X does not do that.

Here's an example from Storm Eagle's stage:

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's hard to tell from a static screenshot, but those three platforms all move up and down. And while it's easy to keep an eye on the next platform in the original Mega Man X, in Maverick Hunter X they move right off the screen.

It gets worse in Sigma's fortress.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Once again, Mega Man Xtreme actually does a better job than Maverick Hunter X; it reduces the number of platforms and their amount of vertical movement. It even turns the Sigma's Fortress sequence from a vertical section to a horizontal one.

  • Storm Eagle Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man Xtreme

(Of course, don't let any of this faint praise give you the mistaken impression that Mega Man Xtreme is a good game. Its version of the Sigma Fortress platform sequence ends with a blind leap off into nowhere.)

The pattern here is that, while the Mega Man: Powered Up devs were more than happy to retool tricky platform sequences, the Maverick Hunter X team seems oddly reluctant to change them, even just to accommodate the different aspect ratio. ("Oddly" because they made plenty of other, and much worse, changes; we'll get to some of them in a little bit.)

The other big problem is the underwater sequences, because of the increased height of your jump. In Maverick Hunter X, you jump so high that you can no longer see where you're going to land. Here's a miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The enemy uses a weapon that pulls you towards the spikes; if you jump to get out of its range in the original Mega Man X, you'll still be able to see the platforms where it's safe to land, but in Maverick Hunter X, you'll scroll them right off the bottom of the screen.

And here's another miniboss from Launch Octopus's stage, a serpent which you can ride:

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

While you can ride the serpent past the point where the spikes and platforms scroll off the bottom of the screen in the original Mega Man X, you go higher before that happens -- and it's still not too hard to land safely.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man X

Riding the serpent and shooting it in the back of the head until it drops you is a viable strategy in the original game, but it's likely to get you killed in the remake.

Of course, for all the examples so far, there's at least an explanation for why these sequences are like that in Maverick Hunter X: because they were like that in the original. What's entirely baffling is when they add new vertical hazards, on purpose, and they have the same problems or worse.

Maverick Hunter X significantly redesigns the Sigma's Fortress stages (which, again, makes it even stranger that it leaves the sequence with the floating platforms as-is, albeit in a later level than in the original game). Early on in the first fortress level, there's another fight with one of the giant fish minibosses from Launch Octopus's stage, which wasn't in the original game.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

Let's compare that to the one on Launch Octopus's level again.

  • Launch Octopus Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

The one on the Sigma stage is definitely worse: the spike traps are twice as wide, there's only one place where you can stand and it's half as wide as the Launch Octopus version, and the platform is at the same height as the spikes, so if you miss it you're dead, instead of having a chance to grab onto the side and jump back out.

The underwater section is followed by a reworked version of the vertical section from the original game, and I'll actually give some props here: this is one of the few instances where I like the Maverick Hunter X version better.

  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man X
  • Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There are several reasons the Maverick Hunter X version is better: it's shorter, there are fewer enemies, and there are more places to stand. But most of all, this is an instance where the devs understand that they're working with a different aspect ratio, and make it work for them. They don't try to preserve the narrow shaft, or keep the Joes on tiny platforms backed right up against the wall where it's nearly impossible to get them to attack, then hit them while their shields are down, and then get onto the platform they were standing on. It's not perfect, but it's a thoughtfully-designed sequence that's a legitimate improvement on the original. And it's a frustrating example of how good this remake could have been if this same kind of care had been applied to other vertical sequences.

And then it passes, and you're in another vexing vertical sequence that wasn't in the original game. It isn't as likely to cause cheap instant deaths as the aquatic sequence at the beginning of the level, but it is incredibly awkward and annoying because of the screen's limited height and your inability to see where you're going:

Sigma's Fortress -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

But the worst new sequence of all is the end of Armored Armadillo's stage when you play as Vile:

Armored Armadillo Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

It's similar to the sequence in Sigma's Fortress, with platforms at multiple heights and those same helicopter dudes coming at you. But there are more of them, they're harder to hit when you're playing as Vile (and you can't just use a powered-up Rolling Shield to protect yourself like when you play as X), and you have to jump to platforms below you, not just ones above you. And of course when you jump, you may very well scroll your destination platform right off the bottom of the screen and have to guess where it's going to be by the time you land. It's a friggin' nightmare, and a great justification for savestate-scumming.

All in all, Maverick Hunter X does a terrible job with pretty much any sequence that deals with vertical scrolling.

Powered Up doesn't have that problem -- but the comparison's not entirely fair, because Powered Up has an advantage: it's a remake of a game that has no vertical scrolling.

There are lots of vertical sequences in Mega Man, but the screen never scrolls. When you have to traverse a section that's taller than a single screen, that means climbing from the bottom of the screen to the top and then climbing a ladder up to the next screen, where you end up back at the bottom. The screen doesn't move up and down as Mega Man does, only left and right.

  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Elec Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

So it was easy for Powered Up to follow that pattern. As substantially as it changes some segments of the game (and adds two entirely new levels), it keeps that rule. No room is ever taller than one screen high; the screen doesn't scroll vertically -- and so the game never has to deal with the challenge of how to handle vertically-scrolling sequences.

Maverick Hunter X does. And it proves, time and again, that it's not up to the challenge. And then, bafflingly, it doubles down on this flaw and adds entirely new vertically-scrolling sequences. And they're even worse.

That's a major reason why, despite all its polish, despite all the effort that clearly went into it, and despite the many things it does right, Maverick Hunter X is an inferior game, both to the original Mega Man X and to Mega Man: Powered Up.

Another major reason is that it completely fucks up the balance of the original Mega Man X. And that's the topic of my next post.

Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

What Mega Man Powered Up Does Right and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X Does Wrong, Part 1: Aspect Ratio

So the other day, I got to listening to OCRemix's Mega Man X: Maverick Hunter Rising album, and it got me jonesing to replay some Mega Man X.

I decided to take another crack at the 2006 PSP remake, Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X; it had disappointed me on my first playthrough, but I thought maybe I'd give it another chance.

And on a second playthrough, now that I'm familiar with its changes and idiosyncrasies, it went a lot smoother. Those changes and idiosyncrasies are glaring -- and they're what this series of posts is about -- but underneath them, it's a pretty solid remake of an excellent game.

But it's no substitute for the original.

And it's interesting to look at its immediate contemporary, Mega Man Powered Up, and see how much better Powered Up is than Maverick Hunter X.

There are a couple of reasons. One seems obvious -- in fact, it's the very first thing you notice:

  • Mega Man model
  • X model

Mega Man is short and squat, while X is tall and thin.

Now, these graphics tell you one thing right off the bat, and it's tone. Mega Man is fun and lighthearted; X takes himself seriously.

But the thing is, those designs affect every aspect of the game's design. And what you're looking at, in both cases, is a game that was originally designed for a 4:3 screen ratio, remade for a 16:9 one.

And which one of these guys do you suppose makes the transition better from 4:3 to 16:9 -- the one who's short and squat, or the one who's tall and thin?

At least, that's how it looks. But it's an illusion. Let's take a look at their actual dimensions, in-game:

  • Mega Man is 33x54px
  • X is 51x57px

Those are back-of-the-napkin measurements; I haven't taken the models through their full range of motion, and I'm not sure what the exact dimensions of their hitboxes are. But it's enough to see that Mega Man only looks shorter and squatter -- in terms of the dimensions rendered in-game, X isn't significantly taller than Mega Man, and he is significantly wider.

But it's not really just about the ratio of the character models -- it's about the design of the worlds they inhabit.

Both games face the same challenge: they have to substantially rework stage designs to fit a different screen ratio, while still making them feel like they play the same. Take a look at this screen from Cut Man's stage:

  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man
  • Cut Man Stage -- Mega Man Powered Up

It's pretty close.

In fact, it just hacks out the brick below the ladder, and the (inconsequential) top section of the ladder, above the range of the enemies.

It's got the same number of little eye-lantern guys, and nearly the same width to move around in. (The movable width of the screen in the original Mega Man is 12 "blocks", where in Powered Up it's a very close 11. And the height from the floor to the topmost enemy is 9 blocks in the original and 6 in Powered Up.)

There are places where Maverick Hunter X does a similarly good job, like here in Flame Mammoth's stage (after defeating Chill Penguin and freezing the lava):

  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Flame Mammoth Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

There's a lot less vertical space to move under that platform, but it's not important; it's still enough to fit, and still keep the entire room onscreen.

But other sections don't always fare as well. Look at the beginning of Spark Mandrill's stage:

  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Spark Mandrill Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original SNES version of Spark Mandrill's stage, the sparks that run along the floor and ceiling are half X's height and half his width, and the gap between them gives you plenty of room to dodge them. In the Maverick Hunter X version, they're as big as X, and there's very little room in between them. Even the Game Boy Color Mega Man Xtreme, with its severely compromised screen size, didn't have that problem.

(On the plus side, this does mean that defeating Storm Eagle before Spark Mandrill (and thereby disabling the sparks in the floors) makes a much more significant difference in how the level plays than it does in the original game.)

Chill Penguin's stage has problems too:

  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man X
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man Xtreme
  • Chill Penguin Stage -- Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X

In the original, you can see the wheel coming and have time to get out of the way; in Maverick Hunter X, you can't and you don't. Though in this case, at least it's not being shown up by Xtreme, which has the same issue.

In a nutshell, Powered Up does a really good job of redesigning its vertical segments to fit a 16:9 screen, while Maverick Hunter X doesn't. And this really sticks out, because like Powered Up, MHX is a really polished remake. It shouldn't have these kinds of glaring issues with cropping; they're the hallmark of much lazier ports, like Mega Man for Game Gear, Mega Man and Bass for GBA, and, yes, Mega Man Xtreme.

But it's not just a few sucker punches by enemies that are too big, or that come out of nowhere. No, worst of all are the tricky platform segments where your limited field of vision can result in cheap, instant deaths. And I'll get to those in my next post.

Mega Man ® 1989 and © 1987 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man X ™ and © 1993 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Xtreme © 2001 Capcom Co, Ltd
Mega Man Powered Up and Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X © 2006 Capcom Co, Ltd

Character models supplied by Models Resource

I took all the screenshots myself, and tried to get them all at native resolution with no filters.
I used the following emulators:
SNES: Snes9x
Game Boy Color: Libretro with the Gambatte core

Excellent Games with Lazy, Halfassed Interface Design

So Arkham City was on sale on Steam last weekend. Between that and the recent removal of GFWL and SecuROM, and my Xbox (and my copy of the game) being recently stolen, I went ahead and bought it.

Compared to the Xbox version of the game, well, it's got all the same benefits and drawbacks as every PC game does compared to the console version.

Including controller support.

It recognized my outdated Cordless Rumblepad 2 just fine -- I'm not sure if that's internal to the game itself or due to the compatibility layer Steam's added in Big Picture -- but either way, well, it recognized the controller but didn't actually work right with it.

All the button pairs were switched. A and B, X and Y, the bumpers and the triggers.

All of which I suppose I could have eventually reprogrammed my muscle memory to work around (hell, the Xbox's button layout is already backwards for a kid who grew up with a SNES). But the fact that the Y-axis was backwards on the left stick? Not so much. Try playing a game where up is literally down and see how far it gets you.

And here's my gripe:

There's no menu to reconfigure your controller in the game.

There could have been. There's a menu option to look at the controls. You just can't modify them in any way. (Well, you can invert the axes on camera and flight, I suppose. But not on regular movement, the thing where I actually needed to invert an axis. And no button remapping whatsoever.)

There's a configuration utility -- outside the game -- which lets you remap controls...for keyboard and mouse. If there's a way to change the button layout on a gamepad, I sure didn't see it.

Now, the good news about this being 2013 is I could type "arkham city" inverted controls into a search engine and find a trivial fix -- as it turns out, there's a config file in BmGame\Config\DefaultInput.ini that has straightforward, cleartext entries with names like XboxTypeS_LeftY and XboxTypeS_A. Simply swap the names of the axes and buttons, and that's all it takes.

Which is great!

But the bad news about this being 2013 is I can't help asking why the fuck I had to look this up on the Internet and edit a fucking text file instead of just configuring my controls from a menu.

The last time I had a problem like this, with The Walking Dead, I found a forum post by a Telltale staffer who had this to say:

Unfortunately we do not have access to all the various versions of controllers that logitech and other companies make.

Which sounds perfectly sensible, and also completely misses the fucking point.

Now, in Batman's case, there are a couple simple reasons that's a bad argument: first, this issue occurs with the authentic Xbox controllers that the game is specifically designed for. Second, this is not a new bug -- see the link to the fix a few paragraphs up? Take a closer look at the URL -- it's for Arkham Asylum, not City. This is a bug from the original game that was not fixed in the sequel.

But even leaving aside those two points (which is only fair, of course, given that I'm quoting a guy from a different company talking about a completely different game), the central issue remains: this is the twenty-first goddamn century and people are making games -- PC games! -- where they don't give you the option to remap your buttons.

Yes, I know that hardware inconsistency is the single most difficult thing about PC development. No, I don't expect you to design your game to work with every single controller ever made.

But I do goddamn-well expect you to let me map my fucking buttons however I want.

Mega Man X did that shit twenty years ago. What the fuck is your excuse?

World of Balance

So my current replay of FF6 has sparked some discussion over on the forums, as you might expect.

My previous post, asserting that the Auction House is the worst thing in the game, met with some debate from TA and Brent, who contend that the Veldt is the worst thing in the game. From there, discussion ensued about Gau's utility, and I mentioned that I'm going out of my way to use characters on this playthrough who I don't normally use and how putting Strago, Relm, and Locke in my party made the Floating Continent a much more defensive affair.

Brent interjected that strategy is not a subject he associates with FF6 ("I always thought the RPG bits were just the glue holding together a pretty good steampunk fantasy novel"); Ocksi and I got to talking about the unlikely prospect of a remake in the style of 3 and 4 for DS -- and I bridged the two points, noting that while the best we're likely to get is a prettied-up-but-primitive port like on the PSP (and even that's not looking likely right now), FF6 is a game that could really use the sort of serious rebalancing that the DS remakes got. Brent suggested the following:

If I were redoing the game I'd just do away with the Fight command completely and let everyone have their own wholly unique attack mechanic. That'd mean a lot of new minigames and some changes to existing specials (Cyan shouldn't hold up the entire damn fight, Setzer shouldn't randomly end the game), but I don't think many people would complain.

and we went from there.

Most of this was originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2013-08-11, but I'm making some notes and revisions here as I go.

That'd be pretty tempting, yeah. Make Terra and Strago pure magic, say? And give them an FF12-style Charge move in case they run out of MP.

Further thoughts:

Give monsters AI. Make them only heal as needed, and not re-cast offensive/debuff/negative status spells on characters they have no effect on. Obviously you'd need to rebalance their attacks, because there would be absolutely no reason for a Stray Cat ever to use its standard attack instead of Cat Scratch. (Which I guess is the same problem with Edgar, Sabin, Cyan, and the Fight command.) Maybe add charge time to the more powerful attacks? I'll get back to charge time in a minute.

Either give Gau, Mog, and Umaro AI much like what I described above, or make them controllable. (Or, ooh, here's a thought: have them initially fight based on AI, but introduce a relic in the second half of the game that allows you to control them, like the FakeMustache turns randomized Sketch into Control.) Make your character controllable in the Coliseum, too.

(Mothra interjected that he liked not controlling his character in the Coliseum. I don't, at all, but if they were to keep it that way they'd definitely need to give it the same kind of AI upgrade that I suggested above -- Sabin should never, ever use Spiraler; if you know Firaga you shouldn't be casting Fire; and if you cast Scan I'd better see you using your next turn to exploit any elemental weaknesses it pulled up.)

Gau/Veldt: Make Gau automatically learn rages from every monster he defeats, whether he's on the Veldt or not.
Veldt can still serve a purpose as the place where you can re-fight monsters from earlier in the game -- but needs a few tweaks.
First of all, get rid of the current arrangement of monsters (where you fight a random group from an ordered list). Split the Veldt up by region -- maybe arrange it so that it resembles the world map in miniature. Go to an area on the miniature map and you'll fight monsters from that part of the world map. (Obviously this would be a little trickier to implement in the WoR -- do you have a mix of WoB and WoR monsters in each region, or find some way to split it up into two miniature world maps?)
And no more missable Veldt monsters. If you've been to a region, monsters from that region will show up on the Veldt, whether you've encountered them or not. (The exceptions would be the two bosses, provided you even keep them as Veldt monsters; that was always kinda weird.)

Oh, and no missable dances, either. Create some persistent location where you can learn the Water Dance in the WoR. Maybe make the Serpent Trench, Ebot's Rock, anywhere else that was underwater in the WoB into a marshland that counts as water.

Celes: While Terra and Strago make sense as pure mages from a plot perspective, Celes doesn't. She's been raised as a warrior from infancy; you'd have to expect she'd at least know how to handle a sword when MP runs out. I say make her an FF5-style Mage Knight; give her the ability to enchant weapons with elements or effects. You could keep Runic, but if so you'd want to make it useful late in the game by, for example, making it only draw enemy magic (maybe have this be another ability that gets upgraded by a Relic), or you could drop it entirely in favor of Magic Sword.

Magic: The four natural mages (Terra, Celes, Strago, Relm) should have visibly better magical aptitude than everybody else. I think everybody else's magic stats (Magic, MP, M Evade, M Def) should be nerfed -- not to the point where magic is useless, but to the point where it's noticeably less effective than when the natural mages do it. (Gogo's actually a pretty good example of a character who can still use any ability in the game but is visibly worse at it than its natural practitioner.) I'm thinking you could also add charge times for the non-natural magic users to cast their spells.

And speaking of charge times, that's what you do with Cyan. Have him pick his attack from a menu and then initiate the counter; if you want to do, say, #7, it'll still take just as long to prepare, but everybody else in the party can keep doing their thing while he's preparing it.
Also, either eliminate his intermediate attacks or make them useful.

Similar goes for Edgar -- there's not really much reason to use any of his tools except Autocrossbow and Chainsaw.
I say nerf Chainsaw a bit. (Make the difference between it and Drill more striking -- make it useless against monsters with high def, for example, so that Drill is clearly a better choice there.) Make monsters more susceptible to Bioblaster and Noiseblaster (and maybe add some more tools that cause different status ailments) -- here's a thought, maybe even make monsters that would normally repel a Bio or Confuse spell susceptible to the Tool version.
Introduce Debilitator way earlier in the game -- say, before the Magitek Research Facility. (Technically it's possible to steal one from the crane boss, but it's rare and that still means you get it immediately after the part of the game where it would be most useful.)

Auction House: Easily fixable. FF9 had an Auction House that actually behaved like an auction house; do it like that. Make players bid; place them up against simple AI behavior from townspeople; reward good betting strategies while keeping the results somewhat unpredictable. Maybe even have an online component to it, let players trade items -- you can put restrictions on it (like one purchase a day) if you really want to, but I wouldn't worry that much about people gaming it, really.

The joke events could still happen I guess, but limit them to once each.

And keep a high probability that the important items -- the two Espers and, provided we keep Gilgamesh, Excalipoor as well, shouldn't be too hard to get ahold of. It's okay to have some rare stuff in there -- maybe a very low probability of super-powerful, super-rare items like Economizers and Offerings showing up -- but I don't think any unique items should be such a bastard to get.

And while we're talking about rare items, having the Excalibur and other high-end equipment not show up until the very end of the game is dumb. It should be obtainable earlier.

(Making the player choose between Ragnarok the Esper and Ragnarok the Sword, while still allowing you to steal the sword from one of the Goddesses, is okay by me, though. ...but maybe make it not such a pain in the ass to get rare steals. Maybe do like the more recent games have done and allow monsters to carry multiple items so if you keep stealing for long enough you'll eventually get the rare one?)

I think Celes's theme should actually play for more than three seconds of the game, too. Like, for starters, why not play it when she's introduced, like nearly every other playable character?

Final Fantasy Prequels I'd Actually Like to See

R^2's excellent Let's Play Final Fantasy 4 Advance thread over at Brontoforumus has veered onto the topic of The After Years and its general wretchedness. I've never played it -- but yeah, it sure seems like a terrible idea, on principle.

And I get to thinking, what Final Fantasy same-world sequels are any good?

For my money, FF12 and Revenant Wings don't count -- that's a case of an established setting being worked into a numbered FF game, not a numbered FF game's setting being reused per se.

FF10-2 was pretty neat, partially because it was the first and partially because it was so utterly different from FF10 proper, in tone, plot, and gameplay.

And the only FF7 sequel worth a damn is Crisis Core.

I think a lot of that is because it has the good sense not to take itself as goddamn seriously as most everything in the FF7 universe -- but I think it's also because it's a prequel. FF7 has an ending. An ending whose appeal comes from its ambiguity. Setting games (or movies) after the ending misses the point. Badly.

So with FF4. FF4 puts a fucking bow on things. Everybody gets to be a king or queen. Even Yang, for no reason whatsoever.

How the fuck do you top that? You don't.

Most Final Fantasys have an ending that's pretty, well, final. (There's an ongoing fanboy talking point that that's why they're called "Final" and that's why you should stop making jokes about "Dur hur how can they be final if there's thirteen of 'em?" That's stupid fanboy talk. But you really should stop making that joke.)

But you know what? Plenty of them come with perfectly good backstories to play with, and ripe ground for prequels.

Let's start with FF5 and the Warriors of Dawn. You could play as a young Galuf, and Butz's dad, and...look, I forget the other two guys' names. The point of FF5 isn't really its plot, it's the jobs system. I'd be happy to play a game with an earlier war with Exdeath, revisiting some familiar locations and characters a la Dragon Quest 3.

And then there's FF6 and the War of the Magi. The backstory's dashed off in a few lines of exposition in-game, but it's got loads of potential -- three gods begin fighting, they mutate humans into magic users, other humans hunt the magic users to take their powers, and it leads to an all-out apocalyptic battle that rends the world asunder and ultimately wipes magic off the map and sends technology back to the Stone Age.

Given the timeline and the established power of the Warring Triad, the world wouldn't need to bear any kind of resemblance to FF6. (Though, hm -- maybe the map could start out looking one way and, after being torn asunder by the Triad, look like the World of Balance. Dramatic irony!)

And the final candidate I'd like to share is Final Fantasy 3. 3 has an even more barebones story than 5 (and isn't as good a game), but it has one idea in its backstory that could make for a wonderfully warped take on the traditional story.

3 relies on the D&D trope of Good and Evil existing in balance to one another, and the idea that if one becomes too strong, the other will rise to defeat it. Final Fantasy 3 has a world subject to the influence of a creeping evil -- and so the Crystals create four Warriors of Light.

But, it's clearly established in the backstory that the reverse happened a few hundred years before: Good got too strong, and the Crystals created four Warriors of Dark to restore the balance.

I'd love to play a game that does the Final Fantasy formula in reverse: burn villages, breed monsters, awaken ancient evils, start an evil empire and slowly take over the world.

I guess it would be kinda like the first half-hour of Final Fantasy 4, if Cecil had a much higher degree of job satisfaction.

The Auction House is the Worst Thing in Final Fantasy 6

It really, really is.

I mean, the Fanatics' Tower is downright sadistic -- it's a huge, nasty, difficult slog, with no save points, ending in a boss who will almost certainly kill your entire party when you defeat him, and then, if you survive (which requires either Reraise or an extremely high-level party), makes you walk all the way down again, and not only that, but it offers no experience, so if you die you lose everything you've gained.

But, it's pretty easily gamed. You're not going to fall for that wipe-out-your-entire-party thing a second time, and players who know what they're doing can actually get in and out painlessly with a Moogle Charm and the Berserk and Reraise spells.

The Auction House, on the other hand, is bullshit.

The first thing wrong with it is that it is not a fucking auction house. It is a store with a randomized inventory where it takes an inordinate amount of time to buy things. Items go for the same price, every fucking time; you just have to sit through a goddamn cutscene before you can agree to buy them.

And the second thing wrong with it, of course, is the goddamn Talking Chocobo and 1/1200 Scale Airship.

Not only is it a store with a randomized inventory that makes you sit through a cutscene to buy things, but a very large percentage of the time (I'm going to say "majority", though people who've paid more attention to FF6's RNG can correct me) it hits you with a gag item that you can't actually buy.

This is, possibly, mildly amusing the very first time it happens.

For some reason, it is possible for it to happen a second time after that.

And a third, fourth, fifth, and seven hundredth fucking time.

And if you want to get two particular espers, or certain rare relics early in the game, you either have to study the game's random number generator to figure out how to get the things you actually want, save-spam until you get lucky, cheat, or actually sit through every one of the auctions.

Nice thing about emulation is that it makes it a lot less obnoxious, what with the ability to use a save state right outside the door and fast-forward to nudge the RNG. (On my last playthrough I was convinced that the item up for auction was seeded by your number of steps; this time I'm more inclined to believe it's time-based. I'm sure somebody out there has written an exhaustive guide, though I must admit I'd be more interested in just finding a hack that turns the damn thing into a store and lets you buy the things you want from it.)

Auctions -- actual auctions -- make a lot more sense in MMORPG's, where you're interacting with other players. So do extremely rare drops, for that matter. FF6 is less guilty of the latter than FF4, with its rare summons, Pink Tails, and such (though I've only ever seen one Economizer drop in all the times I've played 6 top-to-bottom and side-to-side), but there's slim damn reason for there to be an auction house in the game in the first place, and no reason at all for an irritating goddamn barely-functional store that pretends it's an auction house.

Part II begins now!

If I've a gripe about Act 2 of FF6, it's that it's one of those bits that gives you flexibility to choose your party but where the plot clearly defines a correct party.

It's Edgar, Sabin, Locke, and Celes.

If you've got Edgar and Sabin, you'll get their cutscene in Figaro that tells the story of their father's death, the coin toss, and Sabin's departure.

And if you've got Locke, you'll see his cutscenes in Kohlingen about Rachel, her fall and amnesia, and her current state of suspended animation.

While it's true that Celes only gets one line of dialogue to react to all this, I think it's still valid to say she's a "correct" party member here, given that she becomes mandatory after Zozo.

Speaking of after Zozo, yes, you do get to choose half your party there -- but Locke and Celes are mandatory, and Sabin and Edgar are still the two remaining party members who contribute most to the plot if you pick them -- because then you get the punchline to the coin toss story.

Sure, you can get Shadow during this stretch -- but it's not really worth it. You might catch one of his dreams if you stay at an inn, but other than that, he doesn't do much except potentially run away at an awkward moment and leave you stranded. Plus, if it's your first time playing the game, you won't know he's coming and will leave Narshe with a full party and not be able to get him (without backtracking to Narshe and leaving somebody behind), and if it's not your first time, you'll know the correct party is Edgar, Sabin, Locke, and Celes.

Anyway. That aside? This is one of the great sequences of the game. Zozo is one of the most memorable locations, and the Opera House represents everything I love about Final Fantasy in general and this game in particular. And in the version I'm playing, with the music restoration patch, it's an actual recording, complete with real voices. Singing in Italian. Seriously, it is the crown jewel of an excellent game hack and you owe it to yourself to check this version of the game out.

And then the occupied cities of Albrook, Maranda, and Tzen -- if I've a gripe about them, it's that they're a little too samey, but that was a pretty common problem in 8- and 16-bit JRPG's and FF6 provides more variety than most.

And then Vector. Vector is marvelous. The slight sheen of fire and metal over everything, the soldiers everywhere and robbers in the inn, the oppressive music.

And the Magitek Research Facility is a whole other vibe: pure mad science.

The whole sequence is so fantastic that I hate to point out the places where the seams show, but what the hell, here they are.

First: it's stated in dialogue that Gestahl has known about Magicite for 20 years and that Celes's magical talents came at the expense of an Esper's life.

But Kefka and Cid are both quite clearly surprised by the revelation that the best way to obtain an Esper's power is by killing it.

I can understand Gestahl not telling Kefka -- I mean, would you? -- but Cid? That doesn't make a lick of sense. Cid is the guy in charge of extracting power from Espers. The entire purpose of this giant facility you're in is rendered moot if Gestahl knows magic is derived from dead Espers rather than Espers in giant fishtanks. Not to mention that Cid is the person who gave Celes her magic infusion when she was a child, so if it involved dead Espers he should presumably have known about it.

(And speaking of children, the Slattery and Woolsey translations both have Terra say "I was raised on the Esper world." and then immediately tell the story of how she left the Esper world at the age of two. That's more of a nitpick over a single word choice, but it still grates.)

Also very very silly: Locke seems to immediately buy Kefka and Cid's -- that would be, to those of you keeping score, the villain and a guy he just met -- allegation that Celes is a spy.

This is, of course, completely fucking ludicrous.

It relies on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Predictable Tree (after the scene in First Blood where Rambo drops out of a tree on top of a cop -- they are in a forest; how did he know a cop was going to stand under that exact tree before he climbed it?) and TV Tropes calls Gambit Roulette.

Let's paint a picture here.

Let's say Celes was a spy seeking to infiltrate the Returners.

When Locke meets her, she is chained up in a basement. (Or, in the GBA version, just kinda hanging out in a basement.)

So okay. She wanted to infiltrate the Returners.

So she...hid out chained up in a basement, and just waited for one of them to come into South Figaro, sneak past the armed guards by stealing clothes from people, bribe an old man with cider to be allowed use of his secret passageway, and just happen to look through the door into the smallest room in the biggest house in town and see her chained up there?

Locke believes this is a plausible scenario. Because Locke is a character in a video game. And in a video game, a plan like that is perfectly logical.

This is a medium where mad scientists regularly attempt to take over the world by sticking thematic robots into little rooms where they can hang out and wait until somebody walks in so they can shoot at him. Where dragons won't attack you until after you've talked to exactly the right villagers in precisely the correct order. And, lest you think these particular abuses of Video Game Logic are confined to classic games, I point you to my thoughts on Metroid: Other M, a game where a monster does not attack you until you notice a trail of bugs on the ground, and a woman will stand at a window for ten minutes while you look around and then act surprised and run away when you finally spot her.

So, all things considered? I guess Locke's got a point.

The Sublime Symmetry of FF6's First Act

Well, Terra's turned pink and flown off toward Zozo, leaving me to consider the first five or so hours of FF6. In an era where episodic games are now common, it's striking that the game's first act would have made an excellent Episode 1. It doesn't just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and (cliffhanger) ending, it doesn't just introduce the premise and most of the major cast while still leaving the biggest stuff for later -- it also plays significantly differently from the rest of the game, and its plot and play beats form a brilliant mirror where the end of the act recalls its beginning.

The Empire invades Narshe, with Terra as a puppet. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results. Terra regains consciousness and the ability to think for herself. Locke has to protect her in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra and Locke flee the Empire, gaining comrades along the way -- and then the party is abruptly separated. For the first time, you see events unfold through characters other than Terra -- and then everyone makes their way back to Narshe. The Empire invades, with Terra and friends defending the city; they have to defend Bannon in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results -- and even as she comes closer than ever to discovering who and what she really is, she loses her willpower again and becomes an unthinking beast.

Aside from that, there's the gameplay -- and, notably, a couple of things happen during this portion that don't happen again later.

First, there are the two tower defense-style battles. They're the only two in the game, which is just the right amount. The first one is easy and lets you get the hang of it; the second one's a more legitimate challenge.

There's also the "Choose a scenario" portion. While there are other parts of the game where the party is split up, there are no other occasions where you experience story developments from multiple perspectives.

And it's mostly great! Terra's scenario is pretty bland, but at least it's short. Locke's scenario is another unique piece of game; it's a puzzle that plays to his strengths as a th -- treasure hunter, and it's funny besides. Sabin's scenario is the longest and broadest of the bunch, introduces three new playable characters with tragic origin stories, and takes you through a tour of the game's various locations -- the Imperial Camp, Doma, the Haunted Forest, the Phantom Train, Barren Falls, the Veldt, and the Serpent Trench. Some of it feels half-baked -- the Forest is over in minutes, and the Serpent Trench is just a showcase for then-impressive Mode 7 animation where very little actually happens (and then you have to come back later if you want to get Mog's water dance) -- but a lot of it, like the camp sequence and the Phantom Train, is excellent.

And then there's the character balance -- this is a game that's famous for not having very much of that, but it's hard to tell in the opening act.

Each character has a unique ability -- at least, up until you get Celes and then you've got two magic-users and Terra hasn't learned Morph yet. And most of them are pretty well-thought-out.

Terra and Celes both play like Red Mages in previous FF games -- they can equip the best weapons and armor and cast both black and white magic spells, but they're not very strong as attackers yet at this point in the game, their offensive spells are middling, and their low max MP means they don't get much use out of them at any rate. Celes's Runic is pretty damned useful early in the game when she's the only magic-user in the party and it effectively nullifies bosses' magic; it's not until later in the game that it becomes basically worthless.

Edgar gets decent, but not crazy-high, damage against all enemies with the Autocrossbow. It's a pity the Bioblaster and Noiseblaster aren't much use.

Shadow gets solid-to-high damage depending on equipment, and occasionally will counter with Interceptor, which is the most damaging attack you've got at this point in the game but happens rarely enough that it's not spammy. And Shadow is squishy and dies easily. (And may randomly ditch out on you and make you restore from a save so he doesn't take that Genji Glove you put on him when he goes. That part I'm not so crazy about, but the unpredictable mercenary angle is a neat idea in theory, at least.)

Cyan is nominally a samurai but plays more like the previous games' Knight class: he does solid damage but excels at defense. Early on he's kinda like Edgar in that he's got one very good special attack and two others that aren't really much use most of the time.

Gau has immediate access to more powerful attacks and spells than anyone else in the party, but you can't control him and even if you pick a Rage like Templar that drastically boosts his defense and evade (in versions where the evade stat actually works), he's still pretty squishy.

And then there's Sabin and Locke. Who I guess, if nothing else, at least balance each other, since one is ridiculously overpowered and the other is, at this point in the game, not that damn good.

Sabin is the most overpowered character in the game. You can see where they were trying to make him something of a glass cannon like the Monks in the previous games -- he's got the high attack, high HP, can't equip good armor thing going on -- but even with weak armor he still does a pretty good job of soaking up damage, and he dishes it out like crazy. Aura Cannon is one of very few Holy-elemental attacks you get access to in the game, and it deals high damage to most enemies. And while, like Edgar and Cyan, his other two specials are inferior, they're still fairly useful -- Pummel/Raging Fist ignores defense, and he can suplex a fucking train.

Locke, by contrast -- well, he's decent enough later in the game, but early on he deals low damage, has low defense and HP, and his Steal command isn't worth using. It seems to fail about 75% of the time and, when it succeds, it's usually just a damn Potion that won't even heal the damage the party took while Locke was trying to steal from the monsters instead of killing them.

His scenario's fun as hell -- right up until the part where you start actually having to fight dudes, at which point it turns into Locke mostly being a liability while Celes does all the work.

But, Locke and Sabin aside, the characters' balance is really well-thought-out in the early going.

Course, by the time you leave Zozo you've got Espers and a chainsaw -- but that's a story for another day...