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Super Mario Galaxy 2 — Throwback Galaxy

All right, full disclosure, this is just Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64. This jazzy update of the original doesn’t deviate much from the original version, though it’s certainly a little easier on the ears, and it retains the aesthetic style of  Super Mario Galaxy’s score. It’s still a hoot to listen to, and immediately recognizable.

Where were you when you first played Super Mario 64? Do you remember? Do you recall the precise moment when you realized that things were different now?

I remember. I was in a friend’s basement, jealously ogling his new N64, and we sat down to play. I distinctly remember being in awe of the game’s polish, the depth and breadth of its world. It seems quaint by today’s standards, but Super Mario 64 had a feel to it that no other game had ever managed before, a coherence of vision that remains the hallmark of the series. Nintendo got 3D gaming right, in a way that was years ahead of anyone else.

Here’s the original, in case that better evokes the nostalgia. Do you remember how BIG Bob-omb Battlefield seemed, and how surprising it was that there was not one star to be acquired there, but six? Six different ways to approach the same level! What luxury! What decadence!

We’ve come a long way in the last 17 years, but–Wow, yikes. Seventeen years. Maybe I’ll just leave you with that one.

Xenogears — The One Who is Torn Apart

It’s NaNoWriMo time, and that means it’s time for me to assemble my yearly writing playlist.

Based on the tune I’m offering here, go ahead and take a guess at the tone of my piece this year.

Xenogears is one of the most brilliant and most flawed games I’ve ever played. When it was initially released, it was among the most technically and visually impressive games available for consoles, and certainly the JRPG with the greatest scope–beating out even the biggest Final Fantasies. (It probably still doesn’t stack up against the Baldur’s Gates and Planescape: Torment, but hey).

I’m always hesitant when I consider recommending that someone try and play through Xenogears. If you can cope with its pace, its difficulty, the often awkward and dull translation, and the fact that the game is essentially unfinished–the second disc is like an outline for what the developers envisioned the rest of the game ought to be–it’s one of the most thoughtfully created and emotionally resonant games out there. It’s a game that legitimately tries to tell a mature story, though the telling of that story is hampered by a number of factors.

Recommending Xenogears is kind of like recommending someone tackle Ulysses–if they can glean from it the brilliant and remarkable insights present within the text, there’s little that can compare with the experience. There’s just an awful lot to slog through in order to reach those jewels.

But seriously, though. You should totally play it.

Chrono Cross — The Dead Sea

The wind is howling outside my windows. It’s nearing midnight.

I can think of few locales in any video game that haunted me so much as the Dead Sea in Chrono Cross. It was altogether foreign and alien–a futuristic world, frozen in time, captured at the very moment of cataclysm.

There are a number of revelations that occur when you visit the Dead Sea, but I’ll not discuss them, for the dual reasons that  they’re not particularly compelling out of context and that I don’t want to ruin them for those who haven’t played the game. (You should. You really should.)

Yasunori Mitsuda’s gloomy piano does wonders here in terms of conveying a sense of ruin and mystery. Indeed, listen to the track and imagine exploring any derelict structure, in reality or in fiction. I think you’ll find it an excellent fit.

Silent Hill 2 — Theme of Laura

Are you caught in a nightmarish existence, tormented by shapeless horrors of guilt and doubt, trying desperately to seek solace or aid from people who never quite seem to be seeing the same world you are? Are you constantly beset by the nagging, itching sense that on some fundamental level, all of this is your fault?

Yeah, well, you and everybody else, huh?

Akira Yamaoka’s theme from Silent Hill 2 doesn’t really need an introduction. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of video game music of all time. It does an astonishing job of conveying the grim tone of the game, fits in nicely with the grungy visual aesthetic of the series, and even manages to sound mournful–an appropriate presentiment of the game’s ultimate thesis. It lets you know that in the town of Silent Hill, things ain’t all right.

As if you couldn’t have guessed.

Eternal Darkness — Black Rose

Eternal Darkness is not the most frightening game I’ve ever played. It is, however, the best attempt I’ve ever seen to have a gameplay mechanic mess with the player’s perception of what’s going on in the game world.

Here’s an anecdote which I frequently relate when attempting to explain the game’s “sanity effects” to people: One night in college, after a long night out on campus carousing, I decided that rather than try and sleep, I’d pop in Eternal Darkness and play one of the game’s chapters. I was still energized by the night’s partying, and it was October, so horror games were definitely on the docket.

My good friend Bob, who had been out carousing with me, plunked himself down on the bed across from the television and watched. Bob, it is to be admitted, may have been carousing a little harder than I had, and so his normally keen senses were a trifle dulled. As I maneuvered my unlucky protagonist through the decrepit hallways of an ancient and blasphemous temple in the heart of the unexplored jungles of southeast Asia, the tension grew as I was assaulted by monsters and booby-traps. It seemed as though from around each corner might spring the nameless terror which would slaughter and devour my unfortunate avatar.

Soon, though my health and sanity were dwindling and I was reaching the climax of the chapter, Bob had to rouse himself from the bed and use the restroom–the alcohol in his system had gotten the better of him. Quietly, so as not to disturb my concentration, Bob slipped off the bed and stepped toward the door, just as I entered a room which contained not one but two enormous abominations, which roared at me in throaty rage.

The sound on the television cut out. In neon green block letters, at the top right of the screen, the word “MUTE” appeared.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Bob blurted, looking frantically about the floor below him in the dim glow of the television. “Did I step on the remote?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My character’s just going insane, that’s all.” I’d encountered this particular sanity effect before. On the television, the abominations lurched toward me silently.

I don’t remember whether I survived that particular encounter. What I do remember is the expression on poor Bob’s face: stricken, terrified, as though the game was somehow deliberately making him question the nature of his reality. Bob and I were both a little tipsy from our evening’s adventures, of course, but the game’s intended effect was spot on. I could see writ large on Bob’s features the same cry that any one of the game’s protagonists is wont to shout when faced with such madness: “This… isn’t… really… happening!

Sunset Riders — Shootout at the Sunset Ranch

I literally woke from a dream this morning with this music in my head. I don’t know what that says about me.

Sunset Riders shares the same lifeblood as Turtles in Time: both Konami arcade games from the same era, both co-op titles with entirely respectable SNES ports, both with the same flavor of music. Sunset Riders can’t match the satisfying feel of whacking foot soldiers with your weapons and then grabbing them to hurl them at the screen, but there’s a special kind of pleasure that one gets by dodge-rolling away from a hail of bullets.

Years before firing two guns whilst jumping through the air was cool, I was leaping away from slow-moving projectiles and returning fire with dual-wielded sawed-off shotguns. Sunset Riders may not be quite as polished as a John Woo movie, but it kinda sounds like one when you put it down on paper.

Except, I don’t know– is John Woo noted for his cartoonish, appalling racism?

Yikes.

The game’s primary antagonist, Richard Rose, is a caricature of a British aristocrat, and he’s not really racist (he’s a stereotype, but from what I understand it’s all right to stereotype against the British–Americans, too–anybody post-global-empire, really).

But check out those other blokes. “Chief Wigwam?” “Paco Loco?” It’s a little embarrassing to play this game. If you have, you may remember that Chief Wigwam suggests you “Get ready for pow-wow” before he begins to leap about maniacally in a parody of a war dance while showering you with throwing knives (I know, I know–they couldn’t have sprung for tomahawks? Really sold the whole deal?). Boy, at least he wasn’t called “Chief Scalpem” or something, huh?

Oh, really? The arcade version, huh? Geez…

Anyway. Racism aside, Sunset Riders is a pretty fabulous time, and though it’s not widely available at the moment, I’ve run across it a couple of times when browsing SNES games at flea markets and garage sales. This is another title that I’d pour quarters into unrelentingly if it made its way to my local barcade.

Here’s another track or two that illustrate the game’s awesome boss tunes:

This one is the music that accompanies the fight with “El Greco,” who takes on your group of gunslingers with nothing more than a metal shield and a bullwhip. Aboard a moving train. Why has no one made this into a film yet?

And this music is from the game’s attract mode, which introduces the four playable characters and maybe gives a false impression of how mellow and Western the game’s music is going to be. I remember this piece quite clearly from my time in the arcades as a youth.

Why anybody would play someone other than Cormano, I don’t know.

And finally, here’s an OC Remix by arranger “Dr. Manhattan” that takes the absurdity of the game to heart:

Enjoy.

Turtles in Time — Star Base: Where No Turtle Has Gone Before

I’ve made a couple trips to Joystick Gamebar in the last couple of weeks, and I continue to be enormously pleased with the establishment. They’ve made a couple upgrades and additions to their catalog since they’ve opened: Space Invaders is a welcome addition, and their specialty seasonal cocktail is superb. As with any arcade, however, there are going to be games that continue to call out to you and games that you’re content to ignore after you’ve given them a try on your first couple of visits. I will never be able to resist a Galaga machine, and I’m quickly becoming a Ms. Pac-Man devotee. If they were to get a Donkey Kong machine, I’d really be hooked.

As far as their selection of beat-’em-ups goes, they’ve got the perennially popular X-Men Arcade, which I took the liberty of blowing through with some of my buddies the last time I was there. It’s a pretty good time! They’ve also got some B-sides, like “Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja,” which, though the intro screen asking if you’re a “bad enough dude” to rescue “President Ronnie” will never fail to elicit a chuckle, is not a very compelling game.

I think I’m done with X-Men, too. As much as I love beat-’em-ups as a genre, the Marvel classic never really grabbed me like some others.

If, by some miracle, my local barcade happened to get hold of an intact and functioning Turtles in Time machine, I would be in very serious trouble.

I own TMNT IV on SNES. I’ve played through it approximately one hojillion times. It doesn’t matter. The game is so well designed that I would pour quarters into it weekend after weekend before I got tired. My friends might have to talk me down from playing through the entire campaign each time we went to the bar. Between the perfectly-tuned feel of the combat (challenging enough that you’re likely to spend some money, fair enough that you’ll admit it’s your own fault and not the game’s when you die), the bright and engaging visuals, and the relentlessly upbeat music, I would keep coming back for more.

The track I’ve highlighted, from the final stage, encapsulates the giddy chip-rock which populates this game. From the  orchestra hits and synths to the shredding guitars and the punchy vocal samples, what you’re listening to is nothing short of musical Prozac. Maybe chased with a shot of 5-Hour Energy. I want to meet composer Mutsuhiko Izumi and slap him on the back.

Indie game composer superstar Danny Baranowsky once described the boss themes from Final Fantasy as “kind of like Dream Theater as interpreted by a robot from the seventies,” and in that vein, a lot of the Konami soundtracks from the early nineties are kind of like if KISS had dropped a bunch of acid and tried to write a sci-fi epic concept album for kids.

As a bonus, here’s the SNES version, which is just as rocking in its own way.

Take note, Joystick.

 

Rockstar’s Bully and the Brilliance of Casual NPC Interactions

Bully is a game that is remembered mostly for the controversy it generated before its release. From initial hysterics claiming that Rockstar was developing a “Columbine simulator” to cries that the game was promoting bullying behaviors (it wasn’t) or trivializing them (which was maybe a more legitimate criticism), Bully may have received more attention in the media before its release than after, when people had a chance to experience the game and evaluate it for what it was: a competent translation of the Grand Theft Auto formula into a different aesthetic that was maybe a little rough around the edges. In truth, there wasn’t a whole lot about the game that was controversial once people had a chance to play it.

Well, except that you could kiss boys. Some people didn’t like that bit.

The fact that so much hot air was expended on the “controversial” aspects of Bully means that not much attention was paid to some of the game’s subtler touches. Like anything Rockstar puts out, the game is as deep as it is broad, and there are a lot of little gems in the design that are worth taking the magnifying glass to. In particular, Rockstar included a number of systems designed to make the world of the game compelling, immersive, and real, some of which I’ve not seen included in other games–which is a real shame.

The fact that the town of Bullworth goes through each of the four seasons gives an air of authenticity to the school-year-length story. The fact that each student at Bullworth Academy has their own name and identity makes each person you pass on campus seem real. But the system that really sold me, the one that made me fall in love with the world of Bully and become really invested in each and every person that inhabited it, was a touch so simple and brilliant that I’m aghast that it hasn’t been mimicked elsewhere. The simple touch is this:

You can say “hi” to everyone.

Bully isn’t unique in letting you converse with people you meet in the street. Nintendo Power has been admonishing us to “talk to everyone” since the days of the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. In fact, a good majority of narrative-focused games will let you interact with non-player characters. The way in which Bully handles its social interactions, however, is so pitch-perfect that I never cease to be pleased by it.

The way that social interactions work in Bully is pretty basic: As soon as you target a character, you’ve got the option to give them a positive or negative greeting. Positive interactions are simple phrases like “You cool?”, “How’s it goin’?”, or “Anything going on?” If you happen to be targeting a pretty girl (or boy) who might be willing to spend a little quality time with Jimmy, you get phrases like “I really like spending time with you” or the somewhat bolder “If I were you, I’d make out with me.”

The negative interactions are similarly basic. Jimmy tosses out adolescent insults like “You suck big time,” “Dumbass,” and the somewhat inexplicable “Yo mama!”

The beauty of these interactions is their simplicity: The positive phrases are all legitimate greetings that you might offer to friends you pass as you walk across the campus of your school. The students’ responses are in the same tone: “Whattaya say, friend?” “What’s your deal?” or even–in a lot of cases–just a simple “Hi!” or “Hello!” On the other hand, if you insult a jock, they might try and beat the snot out of you. Call a little kid a dumbass, and they might cower, whimpering “I don’t understand! I never did anything to you!”

These social interactions don’t serve a lot of purpose in terms of the mechanics of the game–flirt with the right girl (or boy, again) enough, and they’ll make out with you, giving you a health boost. Occasionally you can “hire” associates from friendly cliques to come help you fight your battles. The mechanic of speaking with NPCs is the way that you can talk your way out of trouble with the prefects or calm someone you’ve accidentally insulted or injured.

Mostly, however, these interactions serve to establish Jimmy Hopkins as a character, and the fact that you have a choice in how he deals with his peers allows you to feel as though Jimmy is more directly representative of you within the game’s world. You’re more invested in Jimmy because his relationships with the other students of Bullworth are, in a sense, your relationships, simple though they might be.

The fact that you can target other characters while on the move means you can call out passing greetings to friends as you make your way to class, without having to interrupt the flow of gameplay. If you catch a bully roughing up a little kid, you can threaten them into submission. In fact, the end of the game’s first chapter sort of establishes Jimmy’s status within the school as a defender of the oppressed, a role which is reinforced by your ability to “check in” with the younger students, constantly asking them if they’re all right and how things are going.

You can greet–or insult–the adults, as well. Mouth off too much to one of the locals, and they might call down the fuzz to haul your sorry butt back to the dorms. The police are less likely to let you talk your way out of trouble than the prefects are, but it’s worth a try.

I can’t think of another game that lets you interact with NPCs in a way that is so quick, easy, and authentic. In a Final Fantasy, talking to the citizens of a town doesn’t really feel like interacting with actual people–it feels like activating information dispensers, mannequins eager to inform you of the nearby, monster-filled cave or the Secret Back Entrance to the Bad Guy’s Lair.

Western RPGs, like Fallout or Mass Effect, like to give you more conversational options with their NPCs, or simply have them mutter things when you’re in their vicinity. These have the potential to create real, authentic characters  (remember that teenager waiting for her parents in the Citadel cargo area in ME3? Heartbreaking!), but they also require you to devote the time to process them and would break the flow of an action/exploration-centric game like Bully.

The Fable games allow you to build individual relationships with townsfolk, and the tracking mechanism for managing these relationships is much more robust than what Rockstar has on offer in Bully. The means of interaction, however, is all pantomime–flexing your character’s muscles, for example, or doing a happy jig. None of it has dialogue, and all of it is exaggerated to the point where the narrative veneer is entirely stripped away from the interactions and the mechanics are laid bare–almost entirely the opposite scenario than that of Bully.

I want to see more games offer mechanics by which your protagonist can express themselves in ways that resonate, that are authentic, that feel natural. In writing, they say that dialogue is action, and action is how characters are defined. In offering simple ways for players to have their character interact with every citizen of the game’s world, developers can give players a greater measure of control over how their character is represented, and players will feel more connected with their character and the world as a result.

At the end of Bully, the epilogue is called “Endless Summer.” You have the opportunity to hang out at Bullworth Academy and wrap up all the side missions you may have missed. When I played the game, I was particularly fastidious, and I’d completed most everything before I took on the final mission. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to linger a while and ride my bike around town, even if there was nothing to do.

You know. Just so I could say “hi” to everyone.

The Beauty of the Barcade

Our culture is obsessed with things returning from the dead. Why not the video arcade? About a month ago, Ars Technica published an article that almost sounded too good to be true–and, reading it, I was somewhat skeptical. I have fond memories of time spent in arcades as a youth, but I was never privy to the true heyday of the video arcade in the ’80s. I wasn’t willing to believe that arcades could make a comeback, for one reason and one reason only: I wanted it to be true, and so of course it was never going to happen.

Then one opened a mile from my house.

Last night, I took a couple of my friends and went to check out the Joystick Gamebar, and after a night of cocktails, quarters, and aching wrists, I’ve changed my tune.

To borrow a line from my personal friend Fox Mulder: I want to believe.

Joystick proved to me, in a few short hours, that establishments like this really have a shot at success, and there are a handful of factors that make me believe that we’re going to see more and more barcades pop up in the next couple of years.

First, booze goes a long way toward making an establishment profitable. Let’s face it: a place like Joystick isn’t going to be making its money from quarters, especially when they do the honorable thing and keep the price of a game cheap. (X-Men arcade? 25 cents. Galaga? 25 cents. Street Fighter II? 25 cents. In fact, the only game that cost more than a quarter was Rampage: World Tour, which clocked in at a hefty 50 cents.)

Beer and cocktails, however, can bring in the money at a respectable rate. Joystick has several original cocktails (including one with homemade chai soda!) and a very palatable beer selection (Brooklyn Lager on tap!). By ensuring that an individual could come for the drinks and the friendly atmosphere and have a good time without inserting a single coin, a barcade can ensure that its livelihood isn’t dependent on the games it has to offer, even if those are a big part of attracting its clientele.

Pictured: Profit.

Some of the arcade owners in the Ars Technica article seem to attribute the recent revival of the arcade to the fact that nostalgic gamers are now old enough to be drinking, and that the bar/arcade model is viable now in a way that it didn’t used to be–but I don’t think that nostalgia entirely explains this transition. After all, haven’t huge numbers of gamers been old enough to drink for a decade (or two)? Sure, I’ve got fond memories of my uncle’s Space Invaders cocktail cabinet, but that thing was an artifact even when I was a kid. I’ve got a different theory.

I think that the rise of mobile gaming has created a sea change in the way our culture as a whole (and not just gaming culture, but pop culture in its entirety) views the gaming experience. Over the last three or four years, buying a game for a buck and playing it for twenty minutes or so before letting it sit, forgotten, at the back of your iPhone has become the norm–and this isn’t just something gamers do. It’s something everybody does.

That’s right. I think that you can thank Angry Birds for the resurgence of the arcade.

Arcades died off in droves in the mid-to-late ’90s, when the calculus of price-to-enjoyment-ratio shifted as a result of the increasing complexity of consoles. As prices rose to catch up, gamers started asking themselves: “Do I really want to drop a buck on six minutes of Tekken 2 when I could have an infinite number of minutes for fifty bucks?” If you were going to fool around with Yoshimitsu more than a couple of matches, you started to think that maybe it might be more worth your time to invest in a PSX copy. Eventually, the only way that arcades could entice people to spend was by giving them things they couldn’t possible get in their living room, like motion sensing technology, big dancing mats, or plastic guitar controllers.

Oh. Wait. Hm.

With the rise of smartphones, however, something changed. Games became cheap–woefully cheap–and the touch screen interface immediately suggested to developers a simplistic mode of play. Whether you think Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Tilt to Live are simplistic and boring or pure and beautiful, there’s no denying that their gameplay aesthetics harken back much more to the arcade games of old than they do the AAA console titles into which we invest our big bucks.

And it’s not just gamers playing mobile games, as I said–it’s everyone. I teach middle school students that have never picked up an Xbox or Playstation controller in their lives, but they come into class decked out in Angry Birds gear like that flippin’ red avian was Mickey Mouse.

Our whole culture has come to value simple, pure gaming experiences for a very low entry fee. And I know that mathematically, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a huge difference between the following comparisons in a person’s mind:

$1.00/play vs. $50.00/infinite plays

and

$0.25/play vs. $0.99/infinite plays

You can buy Galaga on your iPhone for $2.99, or, for the same price, you can have twelve plays in the arcade. Which gives you more value? The answer to the question isn’t really the point–the point is that your answer to the question doesn’t automatically paint you as either “gamer” or “uninterested.” When games are simple and cheap, anyone can invest a little time in them, “gamer” or not–especially if they’ve had a couple specialty cocktails.

Hopefully, between the booze and the changes in gaming aesthetic that have occurred over the last couple years, these barcades/gamebars/arcade-taverns that are starting to emerge in cities across the nation are a permanent fixture in the urban landscape–but I, for one, am not willing to leave this to chance. I submit, dear gamers, that we need to get out to our local game bar and give them our quarters!

If anyone wants to meet me at Joystick, I’ll be the guy at the Galaga machine in the corner.

 

 

The One Final Fantasy You Should Play

So! It’s been nearly two weeks since I posted a new blog entry, and this is due to two (2) separate factors: Firstly, I packed up my whole apartment and moved across town, and secondly, I spent a week in a cabin in the mountains of Colorado, communing with nature and restoring my soul.

Ha ha! Just kidding! I played a whole lot of Dissidia: Final Fantasy.

Not pictured: nature, relaxation.

Alright, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I went on some hikes. I saw some sights. But I did manage to fit in some gaming time when I wasn’t hanging out with my family, and I may or may not have stayed up into the night on a couple of occasions because, well, Cloud Strife wasn’t about to win all those battles by himself.

Dissidia isn’t a game for everybody. It’s a game for people who like Final Fantasy. As someone who’s beaten each of them save for V, XI, and XIII, I am particularly susceptible to fan service of this nature. I like the subtle differences in the way that the different characters play. I like that the game asks you to play as each of them in turn and learn their different styles. I like that I can call down a satellite laser as Laguna.

The battles feel like a mix of Power Stone and Bushido Blade, and it’s satisfying both to win a match in less than 8 seconds and to win a long, hard-fought battle of attrition against a foe of much greater level. The RPG elements which are laid atop the combat system are mostly well-executed and add to the fun. It occupies a space somewhere between the blissful simplicity of Super Smash Bros. and the layered complexity of Street Fighter.

This isn’t really a review of Dissidia (or its pseudo-sequel, Duodecim, which is actually what I was playing)– it’s easy to recommend or not recommend the game (“do you like Final Fantasy?”), but more of an introduction to a matter that playing the game for hours on end led me to consider: If you haven’t played a Final Fantasy, if, somehow, you’ve managed to avoid it for the twenty-five years of its existence, if this is true about you and you wanted an introduction… which game ought you to pick up first?

You’ve, uh… You’ve got some choices.

I’ve thought about this for a fair bit now. The initial inclination might be to suggest one of the two extremes of the series: Final Fantasy XIII, which is by far the prettiest (and easiest to acquire, as it’s the only one on current-gen consoles), or the original Final Fantasy, whence the series began (and has received a fairly nice makeover in its port to iOS).

Of course, FFXIII is (rightly) maligned for its linearity and sluggishness, and FFI is a little dry and bare-bones in this day and age. Certainly it contains the essence of all that comes after it, but I’m not convinced that you can experience all the series has to offer just by playing through the original (this from a guy who has the Four Warriors of Light hanging in his bedroom).

Some of the games have strayed further from the series’ core experience than others– FFII has a really wonky battle/experience system, FFVIII had that business with the junctioning, and FFXII… well, FFXII has issues of its own.

Some might argue that Final Fantasy X, released on a last-gen system, would be the perfect mix of old and new for someone to introduce themselves to the series. There’s merit to that argument, especially when one considers the emotional wallop that the game can pack in the latter stages if one is invested in the characters (I think my wife may have cried for fully an hour after finishing the game). FFX, however, could potentially be annoying for someone not familiar with the series: the voice acting can be grating, and the protagonist isn’t immediately likable in his own right.

Here’s where I’m going to make a bold claim: I think that if you were to only play a single Final Fantasy, you shouldn’t pick it solely on the strength of its narrative. The best stories in the series aren’t necessarily representative of the core Final Fantasy experience, despite narrative being one of the driving forces of these games. When I talk about the best stories, I’m referring specifically here to FFVI and FFVII, which most fans of the franchise concede have the most mature, complex, and operatic plotlines.

Pretty good villains, too.

Do I think every gamer ought to experience the mid-game climax atop the Floating Continent in Final Fantasy VI? Absolutely. Do I think that leaving Midgar for the first time and seeing the breadth of FFVII’s world is a breath-taking experience? You bet.

But do I think that it’s hard to get characters to emote with 16-bit sprites? Yes, probably. Do I think that FFVII’s translation is weak compared to some of the other entries in the series? Yeah, I do. These games are classics, but they’re not without their flaws. Minor flaws, I think– but, importantly, flaws which might be barriers to entry for a gamer who has no experience with the series.

If you were only ever to play one Final Fantasy, you know which one I think it should be?

This one.

Yep. Final Fantasy IX.

I’m not about to make the claim that FFIX is the best in the series. As engaging as its story is, it doesn’t nearly approach the pathos of FFVI or even the bittersweet beauty of FFX. Its cast is a lot of fun (Steiner? Freya? Vivi? Delightful!), but it certainly doesn’t have the best characters in the series (take your pick–there are a million good ones).

Despite not being the best in the series at anything, FFIX is brilliant, and it’s brilliant because each of its elements is very strong. It’s got a solid narrative, engaging characters, a simple but compelling battle system and leveling mechanics, and graphics which, while admittedly 32-bit, are almost certainly the most attractive on the system. What’s more, Final Fantasy IX shares the spirit of the first five games in the series while also dipping its toes into the complex character evolutions of the later entries.

FFIX also has a lot of little quirks that make it appealing: having the ability-learning system tied to equipment makes it very compelling to steal new items from bosses, the Active Time Event system gives you windows into the stories of side characters and makes the game feel more like it has an ensemble cast (without the 14-person party of FFVI), and anyone who is familiar with the rest of the series will find tiny nods to other games hidden in every nook and cranny.

If you happen to be a gamer who doesn’t know Final Fantasy, I would encourage you to give Final Fantasy IX (and indeed, the whole Final Fantasy series) a try. They are all charming, compelling games that will put a smile on your face and keep you busy for many hours.

(Final Fantasy IX just happens to be a PSOne Classic, so it’s easily accessible if you have any Sony hardware. Now you’ve got no excuse not to educate yourself!)