Final Fantasy Pullblox/Pushmo QR bookmarks – Final Fantasy X and XI

Earlier this year I did a series of bookmarks with Pullblox QR codes for the Final Fantasy games up to Final Fantasy IX. Then I abruptly stopped. There was a reason for that – I’d got into a routine of releasing them in platform-based batches and when it came to the PS2 there wasn’t a fan sprite for Shantotto and the cast of Final Fantasy XII needed to be adapted from the sprites for the DS sequel Revenant Wings, a fairly lengthy process. I kept putting these tasks off and never got round to doing them. Anyway, here are the bookmarks for Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XI. I adapted a fan sprite for the former and created a Final Fantasy VI-style sprite from scratch for the latter. A Final Fantasy XII bookmark will be on the way at some point. Final Fantasy XIII should actually be pretty easy since there are official Final Fantasy VI-style sprites that were created for an official Japanese website offering a story recap of the game. And since there’s no representative character for Final Fantasy XIV yet, that’ll be the whole series done. Enjoy the new puzzles and remember to click on the link to see the full-size versions as ‘View Image’ just shows you the thumbnail.

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Why the 3DS XL has no second Circle Pad

Today it was revealed that a new version of the Circle Pad Pro for the 3DS XL is in the works. This has caused some consternation, with the comments sections of many sites filled with people criticising Nintendo for their apparent stupidity and/or avarice. But I don’t agree with these criticisms – there are actually valid reasons for having a new Circle Pad Pro attachment instead of a built-in second Circle Pad.

Space

One of the things that people never take into account when considering why Nintendo didn’t give the 3DS a second Circle Pad from the start is that there simply isn’t room for one. When you look at the innards of the 3DS, you can see that the gubbins for the Circle Pad cut down right into the bottom of the console.

Here’s an image of the main circuit board for the 3DS. You can see the large hole that has been cut out of it to fit the components for the Circle Pad.

Here’s another image, showing the back frame of the console.

Look at the bottom right. You can see that the Circle Pad affects the design of the console right the way through. Note that there is a large hole on the other side to fit the battery – there is no space on the other side of the console for a Circle Pad. The middle section of the console is filled with the game card slot and the electronic components that allow the 3DS to function. There is simply no room in the original 3DS console for another Circle Pad. It is full.

Now you might be saying, “Oh, but the 3DS XL is larger while using the same technology, perhaps there is extra space.” But that isn’t necessarily so. Many of the components will have grown with the console; we know the battery has more capacity and will perhaps be physically larger. It is easy to suggest that Nintendo add a second Circle Pad, but it is perhaps not physically possible.

Fracturing of the user base

A common argument against adding a second Circle Pad to the 3DS XL is that it will split the user base into two groups, people who have only an original 3DS, and people who have a 3DS plus a Circle Pad Pro or a 3DS XL, causing various problems. This is incorrect. Adding a second Circle Pad to the 3DS XL would split the user base into three. The Circle Pad Pro does not simply add a second Circle Pad to the 3DS, it adds a second set of shoulder buttons too, bringing the 3DS into line with the control configurations of home consoles. It would not be possible to add a second set of shoulder buttons to the 3DS XL, so adding merely a second Circle Pad would produce three possible control schemes for 3DS games: original 3DS, original 3DS with Circle Pad Pro and 3DS XL. This would be something akin to madness.

People forget the Circle Pad Pro includes these

Incompatibility

The current set of games that support the Circle Pad Pro would not natively support an internal second Circle Pad in the 3DS XL. This is because these games are programmed to receive the input from the extra controls from the infra-red transceiver built into the Circle Pad Pro. These games would not be able to recognise an internal second Circle Pad even if it was present. Not only would all existing Circle Pad Pro-compatible games need to be patched to support an internal second Circle Pad, they would need to be amended to support a control scheme featuring a second Circle Pad but not the extra shoulder buttons of the Circle Pad Pro. This would be a bit of a faff to say the least.

In conclusion, there are valid practical reasons why the original 3DS does not include a second Circle Pad. This has led to there being valid practical reasons for not including a second Circle Pad in subsequent reiterations of the console. The original Circle Pad Pro wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing, and I hope its successor is more attractively designed. It is worth remembering, however, that it will not just add a second Circle Pad ‘that should have been there in the first place’. It will also add extra buttons to replicate the home console controller experience perfectly, and perhaps developers will design games that will make that experience worth the extra bulk and expense.

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Some Nintendo 3DS XL questions answered

The big news of the latest Nintendo Direct presentation was the announcement of the Nintendo 3DS XL. A new larger version of the Nintendo 3DS, similar to the DSi XL, is ready and waiting in Nintendo’s European warehouses, ready to be released next month. I had a few questions about the device, but it’s actually possible to try and answer many of them, even with the sparse information available. Here’s a short Q&A.

You’re supposed to carry around the 3DS so you can StreetPass. What will carrying around the 3DS XL in my trouser pocket be like?

The dimensions and weight of the 3DS are very similar to those of the previously released Nintendo DSi XL. You can actually a feel for what carrying the 3DS XL will be like just by placing the older device in your trouser pocket. The DSi XL is fairly comfortable to hold in the pocket, but it does leave a much more pronounced bulky oblong outline than the original 3DS. The outer edges of the 3DS XL are curved, and I suspect the purpose of this may be to avoid leaving this strong outline when placed in a pocket.

The 3DS XL doesn’t come with a charger in Europe because I’m already meant to have one. Does that mean it won’t come with the set of AR cards that were included with the original 3DS either?

The Japanese website says a set of AR cards are included, so if you want to sell or trade in your original 3DS you should be able to include the cards that came with it.

The original 3DS had a problem where the raised bezel of the touchscreen damaged the top screen. Will this happen with the 3DS XL?

The original 3DS had a raised bezel around the touchscreen and bumpers around the edges that were meant to prevent the bezel from coming into contact with the top screen. These bumpers were completely inadequate to prevent the bezel from resting on the top screen in earlier models, and even later models left so little space that residue could build up between the bezel and the screen – a small piece of lint on the touchscreen bezel even damaged the screen protector over my top screen recently. Unlike the original model, which had a plastic sheet covering the whole of the top panel, it appears the 3DS XL uses a proper glass screen. This should be more hardy. Instead of bumpers, the 3DS has two bumps protruding from the top panel. Looking at promotional images of a flat 3DS XL, it appears these bumps actually rest on the bezel itself, on either side of the buttons below the touchscreen. It seems it will be more difficult for the bezel to damage to top screen now, since the design seems to make it impossible for it to come into contact with the top screen.

When playing Kid Icarus: Uprising, I like to use the 3DS stand to make playing more comfortable. Will I be able to use it with the 3DS XL?

It’ll be very hard to give a definitive answer to this until the console actually comes out. The details of the design may make it more prone to sliding off the stand. As I said above, the dimensions of the 3DS XL are very similar to the DSi XL. When I placed my DSi XL on the stand, the stand seemed able to accommodate the increased depth satisfactorily – in fact there is some surplus depth when using the original 3DS. While the headphone slot has been moved on the 3DS XL, it appears to be placed so that it will not be covered by the ledge of the stand. I’d say it’s likely that it’ll be possible to use the 3DS stand with the new console.

Do you have any questions about the Nintendo 3DS XL? Leave a comment and I’ll either add it to the post or update it when the information becomes available.

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The A-Z of Sega games: A is for Alisia Dragoon

Volumes 1 and 3 of The Complete A-Z of Sega Games, a series of review compilations from games magazine SegaPro, were the gaming bibles of my youth. As I mentioned in my Master System Sonic retrospective, I spent endless hours reading them, and while I did use them to guide the odd purchase, the primary pleasure I derived from them was of indirectly experiencing a vast range of games I would never be able to play. But today the wide range of games in the two volumes are closer to my grasp than ever before. They’re available as inexpensive digital downloads, eBay bargains, and even as free ROM downloads if other methods fail. And so I’ve decided to create my own A-Z of Sega games: I’ll take one game for each letter of the alphabet, play it, and then see how both the game and the SegaPro review hold up to modern day scrutiny. I’ve decided to start with Alisia Dragoon, a shooter/platfomer for the Mega Drive.

SegaPro reviewer James Scullion had high praise for Alisia Dragoon, describing it as “graphically great, musically masterful, particularly playable and delightfully difficult” and “a great combination of quality gameplay and excellent aesthetics”. He gave it a final score of 85%. I played through the game from beginning to end. Do I agree with his assessment? Um, well… no.

A screenshot of Alisia Dragoon showing the opening level

Whoops, wrong way.

In Alisia Dragoon you guide the titular Alisia through a range of hazardous levels, striking down foes with your lightning as you go. You can also fight off enemies with a relatively innovative extra feature – a range of magical familiars that attack enemies. There’s a mild RPG element too: both Alisia’s lightning magic and her familiars can level up, gaining extra power and health bars. Alisia herself is a pretty decent stab at a female protagonist, visibly feminine but not scantily clad or exploitative. All this sounds pretty good for a Mega Drive game, and it would make a reasonably promising foundation for a game even today, but unfortunately Alisia Dragoon squanders its potential.

We’ll start with the superficial – Alisia Dragoon just isn’t that aesthetically pleasing. The review in my guide is dripping with praise for the aesthetics: “The backdrops are excellent; all the enemies are particularly well-coloured and animated; Alisia moves in a no-messin’ kind of way which the programmers have taken great care to invoke.” But while the graphics aren’t terrible, particularly the character sprites, they don’t seem especially well-crafted and feature a dreary washed-out colour palette. None of it stands out today; all of it is forgettable. Except, that is, for the well-crafted opening sequence, where detailed hieroglyphics scroll by to a suitably atmospheric piece of music. And speaking of music, my guide speaks well of that too.

There are 21 kickin’ in-game tunes, including Elizabethan waltzes, techno moshes, medieval fripperies and New Age meditationals, all of which add marvellously to the scenario.

It hardly feels like we’ve been playing the same game. The music starts out reasonably well, the opening sequence is nicely composed and some of the early music is quite catchy but the soundtrack becomes completely forgettable fairly quickly. You certainly wouldn’t buy the soundtrack album. But while James Scullion is impressed with the music, he’s positively thrilled by the sound effects.

Sound effects number a staggering 100+ (the largest number I’ve come across yet!) and range in diversity from alien cats meowing to bongo drums in space. All are loud ‘n’ proud, and deserve full volume, despite what your neighbours might say!

This is the review at its most cute and anachronistic – remember the days when reviews discussed things like the number of sound effects? Alas, these effects are nowhere near as interesting and diverse as they sound.

A screenshot of the third level of Alisia Dragoon

This is an artist's impression of what the end of the third level looks like. No-one has ever seen it because it's impossible to get through the endless gauntlet of vicious, virtually invincible cannons at the start.

As a whole, Alisia Dragoon doesn’t really work. The core gameplay isn’t particularly fun. It sounds good on paper – frazzling enemies with giant bolts of lightning – but in reality you just hold down the lightning button and the enemies are automatically targeted with beams of lightning, which can spray out across the screen to deal with multiple foes. There’s a certain lack of autonomy that makes it unsatisfying – because you can’t target the lightning properly, the experience doesn’t feel personal or satisfying. You aren’t experiencing smiting enemies with lightning, you just feel like you’re pressing a button to make the computer hurt the enemies. This means you’re more inclined to blame the game when things go wrong – it’s difficult to target particular threats – and that’s not good for a game as difficult as Alisia Dragoon. Also, later in the game it requires ridiculous amount of lightning to destroy enemies, even at high levels, which makes combat tedious.

A screenshot of one of Alisia Dragoon's later, sci-fi themed levels

An example of the odd juxtaposition of fantasy and sci-fi.

Alisia Dragoon‘s most promising feature, its selection of summonable familiars, doesn’t really work either. Properly implemented they could have been a real asset to the game, something to make it stand out from similar fare. Unfortunately familiars aren’t very useful and die quickly; they become unavailable until you find a revival item and reset to level one when they perish. This even stood out to the reviewer in 1992: “All the familiars protect your rear but seem rather ineffectual in heavy flak. Still, their intentions are honourable.” And that, of course, is the most important thing.

The game’s campaign is a bit weird and inconsistent. The first level is split into three sub-levels, giving the impression of a fairly meaty game, but the subsequent levels are much more brief. The setting abruptly veers from fantasy to sci-fi and back again, and while there is an interesting-looking level set in a stricken alien spaceship, it ends in a rather baffling boss battle where your fantasy heroine faces off against an evil priest manipulating guns with his telepathic powers in a rapidly descending, nigh-on epilepsy-inducing, lift. The structure is strange and unreadable – what appears to be a mid-level mini-boss turns out to be the final boss of the level, a viciously hard boss encounter signals the end of another level, only for the player to be cruelly thrust into an upward ascent up a rock face, pelted with damaging boulders all the way. To top it all off (spoiler alert!) the game ends with Alisia turning home, victorious in her battle to save the world from the game’s evil super-villain, to find that her only reward is a handshake from the village priest. Baffling.

A screenshot of the end of Alisia Dragoon, showing Alisia receiving a handshake from the village priest

This is the climax of the game.

What really breaks the game, however, is the difficulty and structure. In Alisia Dragoon you get one life. One. One life and a tiny health bar to last you eight horribly, utterly, difficult levels, levels containing bosses with almost unlimited endurance, levels filled with enemies constantly spewing out attacks which the not-very-dexterous Alisia struggles to avoid. It’s artifice, the kind of difficulty that comes from the desire to transform a short game into an impregnable behemoth worthy of £40. This wasn’t as apparent in 1992. The review notes that bosses require a ‘phenomenal amounts of hits’ – but as a positive. Another positive: “Life energy runs out all too soon”. Yay for death! But times have changed – Alisia Dragoon no longer has to justify the £40 price tag that it was designed and distorted around, leaving a game that seems frustrating and badly designed. I cheated to see the end of Alisia Dragoon, and I’m frankly not ashamed to say it. I’d have struggled to scrounge up the ability to reach the end of Alisia Dragoon, but finding the will would have been impossible.

So no, I don’t agree with James Scullion’s assessment of Alisia Dragoon back in 1992. I can understand why his enthusiasm for the graphics and sound exceeds mine – standards have changed and it’s also hard not to unfairly compare early Mega Drive titles against later ones like Sonic the Hedgehog 3. His views on difficulty seem anachronistic now – I can’t see many reviewers praising unreasonably small health bars these days. Another anachronisms are more charming. In one place he notes that the levels are “professionally programmed”. Simpler times.

Ultimately, Alisia Dragoon is a product of its time, a mediocre early Mega Drive game, artificially padded out with a crushing difficulty level. The levels, however professionally programmed they are, lack charisma. Alisia Dragoon is a game that is difficult to play but easy to forget.

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The Final Fantasy XIII-2 Prada images: reality vs fantasy

Prada and Square Enix have teamed up to produce images of the cast of Final Fantasy XIII-2 modelling Prada’s latest summer/spring collection for men, and the images will appear in the latest issue of Arena Homme+. There’s been a bit of a mixed reaction to the images. Some people think they look creepy and unnatural, some people are wondering whether they’re virtual heads and hands melded with the bodies of real humans… and so on. I’ve managed to hunt down images of the outfits being worn on the catwalk by real human beings. Take a look at the side-by-side comparison images and see what you think.

How much of the images are fantasy, and how much reality? I’d say most of the images are rendered by computers – the torsos don’t look natural enough to be real, the shirts look like accurate virtual representations rather than the real thing. The legs and trousers look pretty natural though, so either they’re real or just pretty convincing CGI. In any case, for all that the images look weird, I have to say that after looking at this collection more than I would have liked to have done, these clothes look less out of place on Final Fantasy characters than they do on actual people.

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Adding value to retail

UK retailer GAME has had bad news coming in from left, right and centre over the last two weeks and is clearly struggling now it’s lost its credit insurance. And it’s not just GAME having a bad time, the whole retail sector seems to be struggling at the moment. With more and more games being bought digitally, either through services on traditional consoles or on smartphones, and with second-hand games under attack from publishers, retailers are facing an uphill struggle, especially if they don’t have a decent business strategy.

And I’m not sure GAME does have a decent strategy. Here’s GAME’s Group Marketing Director Anna-Marie Mason in an interview with Eurogamer yesterday.

One problem we hear often is how expensive games are at GAME versus how much they are to buy from the likes of Play, Amazon and other online only retailers. Could your GAME prices be cheaper?

It’s well documented. In a marketplace like video games, there will always be somebody that’s selling the game cheaper. That’s not what we’re about. We’ve never tried to be, or never wanted to operate like that.

What our customers get from us, whether they shop with GAME or Gamestation, is more than a sterile transaction. They get the opportunity to transact with us in the way they want and they get added value. Our customers will vote with their feet.

To me, it seems bizarre that GAME feel they can adequately add value essentially by providing interaction with their store staff. I’m sure GAME have a lot of committed staff, but negative comments about service are never far away on comment and forum threads about their business. And even if their staff were maximally helpful, how would their service add value for the consumer? Core gamers are possibly the most educated, well-clued-up consumers there are. They don’t need store staff for information. Slightly more casual gamers just want the latest Call of Gears and, again, don’t really require much assistance from staff. The most casual gamers are the group that gain the most value from interacting with store staff, but that’s a market that’s moving towards smartphones – and it’s not like casual gamers are necessarily less bargain- or price-conscious. Staff interactions don’t make GAME competitive within the retail sector either – all stores that sell games have staff, in fact I follow an extremely conscientious HMV staff member on Twitter.

GAME struggle to compete with online stores on price, but they already have an inherent advantage over online stores that they fail to sell adequately – with retail you get your game instantly, without having to wait for delivery. And when you think about it, it’s possible to put a monetary value on the benefit of this. If I were to order Mario Kart 7 on Amazon.co.uk, it would cost me a staggering £8.99 for their express one-day delivery option, and it would still take the game many hours to reach me. I might pay more for Mario Kart 7 when I buy it in-store at GAME, but I get my game instantly, an experience that we can attach a value of more than £8.99 to, even if it’s tempered by the fact that I’ve had to travel to the store and will have to travel home before I can play the game. Every time you shop at GAME you get an extra £8.99+ of value added to your experience, but GAME never tell you about it.

A photo of the Playstation Vita's launch at GAME's Oxford Street branch. A man is putting an extra GAME sign over the store's existing sign.

Yo dawg, I heard you like signs so I put a sign on your sign so you can... er... read a sign while you read a sign?

Although GAME can’t compete with online on price, they (and other retail stores) do need to keep their pricing within the realm of sanity. I’ve seen Ridge Racer 3D and Rayman Origins for 360/PS3 selling for £45 on the high street, long after heavy price-drops elsewhere. You can’t add over £25 of value to a mass-produced piece of software that’s identical wherever you buy it from. You just can’t. Retailers need to avoid having too many stores too close to each other. GAME had three outlets in Leicester’s city centre at one point, and HMV had three stores in Manchester’s city centre until recently. Retailers need to get rid of these stores and cut overheads so they can at least match the vague price tiers of online stores, if not the actual price.

I’m really not an expert in retail, so perhaps this whole post is hopelessly naive. Still, it seems to me like GAME are making some huge errors in strategy. For every online news story about a beleaguered business there’s a wealth of insightful comments from consumers explaining where things are going wrong and why they don’t use it any more. It’s not always a great idea to read below the line but I think some of the businesses struggling to survive in these difficult times would benefit from it.

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