Tag Archives: software

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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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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A note on power-ups in Mario Kart Wii and Mario Kart 7

Mario Kart Wii wasn’t my favourite instalment in the series. I thought the graphics were a little bit slapdash, the proliferation of control schemes was a bit bewildering, and it seemed a shame that the recent Super Mario Galaxy had ended up having little influence on the design of the levels. But one very specific thing irritated me right the way through the experience. Mario Kart Wii introduced the POW Block as a power-up. The POW Block upsets all the characters in front of the user, causing them to lose whatever items they’re holding. But the series already has a power-up that causes most players to lose their items, the Thunderbolt. The combination of the two meant that you were forever losing your power-ups in Mario Kart Wii, and it made it pointless to hold on to them to use strategically.

A screenshot of Mario Kart Wii showing the POW Block about to activate


Thankfully the POW Block was removed in Mario Kart 7, along with number of other superfluous power-ups like the Fake Item Box. In their place, Mario Kart 7 introduces the Super Leaf. This gives your racer a tanooki tail, which you can use to bat aside weaponry and rival racers. It’s not the most dramatic introduction to the mix, but I like it. When you play a Mario Kart game in singleplayer, you’re usually in first place. But you end up with a limited range of power-ups that aren’t very interesting or useful. The Super Tail not only livens things up by adding an extra option in the mix, it’s also just plain useful to the racer in first place. It’s a defensive item rather than an aggressive one, and when you’re in first place your primary concern is defending your lead.

Mario Kart 7 is a better game than Mario Kart Wii. It feels tighter in terms of both graphics and design, and there are even a few tracks with a clear Galaxy influence. It’s hard to tell how Nintendo will try to refine the formula for the inevitable Wii U instalment but I’d recommend ditching the Blooper. I can tolerate it in Mario Kart 7 because it highlights the 3D effect, but I don’t like it. It seems contrived having AI opponents pretending to have impaired vision and I’d rather it was gone. But we’ll just have to wait and see how Nintendo approach the formidable task of topping their lucky seventh instalment of this ever-popular series.

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Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2

I wouldn’t claim to be the number-one fan of any game series, and I tend not to get excited about game releases any more. That said, a couple of days before the release of a major Final Fantasy game, my sanity starts to erode as I get worked up into a frenzy of excitement. The wait for Final Fantasy XIII-2 was particularly unbearable. Not only had I ordered the most expensive version of the game (the £80 Crystal Edition), the dispatch of my copy ended up being affected by retailer GAME’s financial woes. GAME received their stock late and then decided to dispatch their Soulcalibur V pre-orders before starting to send out Final Fantasy XIII-2. By the time I received the dispatch email, I was panicking. I’d read a few anecdotal accounts from people on Twitter and web forums who had had their Crystal Edition orders cancelled with no explanation – would my precious copy, pre-ordered months, months, in advance, be OK?

The dispatch of my copy was not the end of my ordeal. GAME’s Twitter account was uncertain whether pre-orders would arrive in time for release day. An unimaginable horror – having to wait until the day after release to play the latest Final Fantasy title – loomed. The fateful Friday of release arrived. I waited for the delivery van in my living room, on tenterhooks. Would my copy arrive? Or – gulp! – would I have to wait until tomorrow? The minutes and hours became more and more prolonged as my sanity ebbed. Was that… was that my reflection in the mirror, or the delivery man? People passed by the front window, wondering why I was staring out at them. They would never know the true reason – that I was staring at them because I wished they were Parcel Force vans. The morning was passing, lunch approached. Was that sound my rumbling stomach… or the doorbell?

Finally, finally, there was a knock at the door. The delivery man! I struggled to suppress a wild grin – I wouldn’t want the him to think I was mad, would I? I unleashed my Crystal Edition from its cardboard tomb. I gazed upon its contents, its artbook, its lenticular artwork, its soundtrack, its artcards. And then, at last, I reached out the game box. Now, after this long wait, I could begin the experience I had waited all this time to undergo. I read the manual.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 showing Snow holding Serah

Snow makes an appearance – he has new hair, surely the most exciting feature ever added to a sequel

So then, Final Fantasy XIII-2. It’s one of the few direct sequels to a mainline Final Fantasy game – and, perhaps unfortunately for anyone who hated the controversial original, it’s perhaps the only follow-up to a Final Fantasy game that feels like an actual sequel. Other follow-ups, such as Final Fantasy X-2 and Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings, have featured wild shifts in core gameplay from the original, inconsistent character design and completely different soundtrack staff. In contrast, Final Fantasy XIII-2 feels more like a refinement, an expansion. Although character clothing designs are done by different designers and two new composers have been added to the soundtrack team, everything feels just about consistent with the world of Final Fantasy XIII. The extra world-building feels like it’s unearthing a world the original game failed to adequately explore, rather than awkwardly bolting on extra narrative elements.

If you hated Final Fantasy XIII then you will find little appeal in Serah and Noel’s time-travelling quest to find Lighting and save the future. But if you merely disliked certain elements of the original game, you may find they’ve been amended in Final Fantasy XIII-2. The environments are less linear, and there are now groupings of NPCs – and while you couldn’t call these ‘towns’ in name, they serve the same purpose while providing a more streamlined experience than the towns and cities of the JRPGs of old. The time travel mechanic allows you to return to previous areas and optional areas at will, so you can take a break to do some extra-curricular exploring or side-questing at any time. The characters are a pleasant surprise: new lead Serah is neither excessively vulnerable or overwhelmingly girl-powerish, while newcomer Noel is likeable and has an interesting backstory.

The battle system hasn’t changed much. There are now only two main characters – the third slot in your party is filled by one of a selection of monsters, caught and developed in a somewhat Pokémon-esque style. You can add a variety of adornments to your monsters, or to put it another way, you can dress your monsters up in cute little hats, weee! The addition of monsters actually adds a fair bit of depth to the battle system as their battle skills can be extensively customised. They’ve also fixed some of the little things. There’s no longer a delay the first time you Paradigm Shift (change roles) in a battle – this didn’t even bother me in the original, but the removal of the delay improves the flow of battle so much. You can also change your party leader, both manually and automatically when the leader dies, which is as dramatic an improvement as you might expect (nobody wants to Game Over when there are healthy characters standing about with a wealth of revival spells and items).

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 showing the battle system

The battle system in action

One addition I don’t like is ‘wound damage’. Wound damage lowers your maximum HP level for the remainder of the battle and it can be quite annoying when you end up with a HP gauge that’s a small fraction of its normal size. This only happened to me a few times during the course of the game, and tended to happen when I’d taken too long to kill an enemy. But you can end up in situations where it’s better to let a character die and then revive them with a Phoenix Down than struggle on, which just feels absurd (I only got through the final battle because each character died in turn, allowing me to get rid of the ridiculous levels of wound damage that had built up). It’s an interesting mechanic but one I never want to see again.

Graphically, the game is a little bit disappointing. I wasn’t expecting the visual opulence of the original, as this sequel was developed on a smaller budget, but there’s only one area that matches the heights of the previous game (although it comes in both night-time and daytime flavours). The returning areas have been redesigned with more muted colour schemes which feel like they’ve been implemented in a misguided attempt to appeal to Western gamers. Archylte Steppe is made up of muddier darker greens, even when you set the weather-controlling machine to produce copious amounts of dazzling sunshine. Other areas show a mysterious preponderance of oranges and browns. I can cope with the less-specular level designs – but I miss the bright JRPG colours of the previous game.

The plot, as you might expect from that of a Final Fantasy game about time travel, is an incoherent load of old balls. But it serves its purpose as a motivator and the characters carry it through. It’s as clear as mud but won’t leave your emotions entirely untouched. The primary antagonist, Caius, is one of the best villains the series has seen a while, with an epic theme tune to match. That leitmotif is one of many standout entries in the game’s soundtrack, an eclectic selection of tunes that won’t please everyone but certainly pleased me with its periodic outbursts of batshit mentalism nestled between the more traditional background and character themes.

A screenshot of Final Fantasy XIII-2 showing Hope with Serah

Hope reappears for the sequel too – you can't equip him with a little hat or anything though so WHAT IS THE POINT?!

I’m going to broach the subject of the ending now, and while I’m not going to discuss plot details (in fact some gaming websites have referred to what I’m going to talk about in headlines), you may want to stop reading if you’re particularly spoiler-shy. Are you particularly spoiler-shy? Stop reading… now. Final Fantasy XIII-2 ends with the words ‘To be continued…’ and this has caused a bit of controversy. Some people think the ending is DLC-bait, others think the game works as a standalone narrative. My two cents is this: I quite like the ending as a piece of storytelling but it is clearly not the end of the story and in this instance I feel uncomfortable with the cliffhanger. If you have a game like Mass Effect 2, which was clearly stated to be the second part of a trilogy of games, then there is no need to provide a self-contained story. In the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2 it is not clear how the story will be resolved, although it seems more likely this will be done through DLC than another sequel. I don’t want the story to be resolved through downloadable content – I bought the game for PS3 precisely because I wanted the highest quality assets and lossless FMV; experiencing the true end of the story through assets that have been compressed to save on bandwidth and storage is precisely what I don’t want. But this is speculation to an extent – we’ll have to wait to see whether the Final Fantasy XIII story ends with DLC or an unprecedented second sequel.

Overall, I really like Final Fantasy XIII-2. It’s a fun, playable RPG and out of all the Final Fantasy games that have been released in the last decade, this one is probably my favourite. It isn’t as pretty as the original, and its story is lacking in clarity but it’s enjoyable, well-structured (with no missables!) and restores some of the sense of ambition and scale that I feel some of the series’ recent instalments have been lacking. And you can put cute little hats on monsters! That, surely, is worth £80 and an agonising wait on its own.

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Even more Final Fantasy Pullblox/Pushmo QR code bookmarks

I’m back with more Final Fantasy Pullblox/Pushmo QR code bookmarks. This time I’ve created bookmarks for the Playstation Final Fantasy games: VII, VIII and IX. I’ve also created a second bookmark for the original Final Fantasy – I felt I’d been a bit lazy in not doing puzzles for the upgraded job classes, so I’ve done a bookmark with them on. You can find that over at the post for Final Fantasy I-III. I’m also going to add an index at the bottom of each puzzle post to aid navigation. Enjoy these new puzzles! Remember to click on the link to see the full-size version, ‘View Image’ just shows you the thumbnail.

You can also find half-size versions of these, and some miscellaneous puzzles, in my imgur gallery.

Pullblox/Pushmo puzzle index

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A note on the stereoscopic 3D effect in Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7

Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 marked the start of a new wave of 3DS software, and one thing that jumped out in reviews was that Nintendo had clearly changed the way the 3D effect worked in these games. I noticed this difference myself – despite normally using my 3DS with the 3D effect turned off, I always turned on the 3D effect to play these two games. I was reading the Iwata Asks article about Super Mario 3D Land when I noticed an interesting bit of information about how the stereoscopic 3D effect in these recent games differs from what went before.

Hayashida: A good action game makes you move your body. But it’s a problem if that distorts the visuals. Then Miyamoto-san said that Mario Kart 7 doesn’t get blurry. I took a look, and it really didn’t. I wondered why and came to understand it was because the player’s kart was placed in a location where there is no binocular parallax. While driving, the players are looking at their own kart, so it doesn’t look blurry. So what will people be looking at in Super Mario 3D Land?

Iwata: Mario, of course.

Hayashida: Exactly. It’s Mario. We call that place where there is no disparity between the left and right eyes the reference plane. We thought we would adjust the reference plane to Mario, so he would be less likely to blur. That gave birth to the Normal View.

So your eyes aren’t receiving two different sets of information relating to Mario or your kart, just one. Before the two recent Mario games came out, the biggest problem I had with the 3D effect was the way it was difficult to resolve the image of your avatar. For example in Pilotwings Resort, your eyes are sent significantly different images of your character, and I personally found this uncomfortable. My eyes couldn’t resolve these images, I either saw the ‘left’ version of my avatar, or the ‘right’ version, never a 3D image. My eyes probably have a way of sorting this kind of thing out in real life, but when presented with a relatively crude imitation of a 3D image, they just can’t cope.

A screenshot of Super Mario 3D Land showing coins moving into the screen

This moment in the first level, where coins hop out of the screen, was designed to highlight the 3D effect

I hope this approach to stereoscopic 3D becomes a standard for 3DS games in the future, because I just find it much more comfortable. That said, this kind of 3D isn’t to everyone’s tastes.

Hayashida: About 80 percent of people responded that the Normal View made it more comfortable. But about 10 or 20 percent said that it was better before. So we thought we would leave the previous view, and that became Extended Depth. You can change between the two views with the +Control Pad.

The Daily Mail’s idiot game reviewer isn’t a fan either: he criticised Mario Kart 7‘s ‘barely there’ 3D effect. But that said, I did occasionally find the Extended Depth view in Super Mario 3D Land quite useful – sometimes you’re willing to have a stronger 3D effect at the expense of comfort for a short period. So perhaps future 3DS games should provide a choice of 3D views, either changeable on the fly or from the ‘options’ menu. Stereoscopic 3D is, in some respects, a brave new world, with few established rules on how to use the feature. It’ll be interesting to see whether some established practices develop or whether the approach to 3D continues to differ widely.

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