Retrospective: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

I think it’s time for another look into the past, the distant past. The past of 2002, when violence in video games was still something some people actually cared about rather than a scapegoat for politicians who wanted to avoid talking about real societal problems. Well, it was that then too, but the scapegoat tactic seems to have worked a lot better back when the Grand Theft Auto series made the transition from 2D to 3D.

Years ago, I wrote a post about my time with the older GTA games from the 90s. I’ll still stand by GTA and GTA2 as being pretty fun at the time, but the series benefited massively from this leap into 3D. The 2001 title Grand Theft Auto III was an impressive game, giving the player an entire city with depth to run around and cause chaos in, but it’s still the followup Vice City that I’ll always remember best.

Oh yeah, also spoilers, but I don’t know if anyone cares in this case.

Yeah, this really brought back some memories. Still absolutely no idea what was going on here though

I recently got a separate digital copy of Vice City on Steam because my old CD copy may as well be on the Moon for all I know, I lost track of it so long ago. And playing it again was a really nostalgic experience. This was at least partly because of the time and place I first played Vice City, taking some stress out on the poor residents of the city while studying for exams and writing those damn IB papers. If you were or are an IB student too, you’ll understand why playing this game was almost necessary for me at the time.

But enough of my complaining yet again. What’s Vice City about? If you haven’t played it, there’s not much to know about the plot and characters: it’s a basic gangster story. The protagonist Tommy Vercetti, a mob guy from Liberty City (aka New York, and also the setting of GTA III) took the fall for his boss, Sonny Forelli, and after serving several years in prison he’s back out. But Forelli doesn’t want him around Liberty City, so he sends him down to Vice City (aka Miami) to start some business for the family there. Vercetti goes to Vice City but loses the money he was given to pay for a drug deal after it’s ambushed by armed men, and Forelli is unfortunately not the forgiving type. So it’s on Vercetti to find out who fucked up the deal and get Forelli’s money back.

Forelli being pissed off about his missing money. I’ve never even seen one of these giant blocky 80s cell phones in real life

Of course, that’s not quite how things go: instead of getting the money back for Forelli, Vercetti ends up getting it back and keeping it for himself, because by the time he’s gotten to that point he’s built up his own criminal empire in Vice City, and honestly fuck that guy anyway. In the course of building that empire up, Vercetti makes friends with a bunch of colorful characters, including the neurotic, coked-up lawyer Ken Rosenberg, best friend forever Lance Vance, and the hotheaded local mob boss Ricardo Diaz.

Some of these and other characters you meet will give you missions to complete in exchange for money and plot progression. Said missions might involve intimidating people, following people, transporting people, transporting illicit items, chasing people down in a stolen car, or just plain killing people with any number of weapons you can buy or find lying around town. Your friends will also occasionally join up to help you cause trouble (though how useful they really are in a gunfight is questionable, because more often than not you’ll end up having to babysit their dumb asses and make sure they’re not shot full of holes.) Naturally, you always have to stay vigilant, both for rival gang members and for the police, who don’t like it very much when they see you committing theft and murder right in front of them.

There’s also this weird mission. I still don’t know what the French government has to do with this game

I could get more into the storyline, but that’s the gist of it: run missions, build up your reputation with your contacts and make more contacts who give you more missions, use your money to buy properties and eventually businesses that make you more money, run missions for those businesses to improve your status, and kill that asshole Sonny Forelli when he eventually comes hunting for you. Before that, however, you kill Ricardo Diaz when you discover that he’s turned on you and Lance. And in a great example of “possession is 9/10ths of the law” when you do that you somehow take ownership of his massive mansion and arsenal. You probably don’t need a lawyer to tell you that doesn’t work in real life. Maybe Ken Rosenberg pulled some trickery at the Vice City probate court offscreen. It doesn’t really matter, though: the important thing is that you’re on top of Vice City’s criminal underworld at the end.

Don’t forget to take time out of that busy schedule to find the best ramps in the city to do motorcycle jumps from

One obvious question about Vice City, since it’s now 18 years old, is how well it holds up. Vice City is obviously not as big or nice-looking as GTA V, but there’s enough to do both with the story and side missions that you can still spend hours on it. The game starts off with only half of the city accessible, the rest closed off due to an incoming hurricane until you pass an early mission (Phnom Penh ’86, the one where you ride the helicopter and shoot guys while hanging out of the side.) But even in the early stage of Vice City there’s plenty to mess around with: the usual taxi, police vigilante, and medical transport missions, an irritating pizza delivery mission you have to do while driving a shitty moped, and hits to carry out on people who probably don’t deserve what you end up giving them.

This guy wasn’t a contract, he just tried to steal my car. Well, my car that I stole from someone else. But still.

The story missions themselves are mostly fun as well, though of course the developers had to include a few bullshit gimmicky ones that might make you tear your hair out while trying to complete them. Like the one where you have to dodge the Haitian car dropping coffins with bombs in them. Or the street race with a bastard that I swear is using cheats, or maybe I’m just bad at the races.

But that’s where my favorite aspect of Grand Theft Auto comes in. Like other games in the series, Vice City is fine with you setting the story missions aside for a while to take side missions to make more money, or to try sticking up a few stores to see how much money you can get away with without being arrested. If you’re feeling especially pissy when you load Vice City, you can naturally also just go on a rampage in the streets, beating people up for the money they drop and getting an increasing wanted rating represented by the six stars in the top right of the screen. One of the most fun parts of any GTA is testing your skill at evading a progressively more intense police chase, one that becomes especially hard when the SWAT trucks start showing up at four stars. The cheat codes are also great fun to create even more chaos: if you’re playing the PC version, I recommend combining FIGHTFIGHTFIGHT and OURGODGIVENRIGHTTOBEARARMS. And maybe NOBODYLIKESME as well if you feel like trying to fight off all those armed pedestrians yourself.

Cheat codes won’t help this guy much; he dies in every playthrough of the game

There is clearly a lot of work and attention to detail in Vice City. A lot of that attention goes into making the city feel like a real lived-in place instead of a bunch of streets and building-looking objects that you can run into with your car. You have to deal with other drivers and pedestrians, who will always get in your way when you’re trying to run your missions. You’ll probably find yourself driving on the sidewalk and running over a few people more than you’d like. Well, it’s their fault for being obstacles to avoid when I’m driving my taxi missions or fleeing from police, isn’t it? One funny effect of having so many people wandering and driving around is that you’ll hear a lot of the same voice clips coming from nameless pedestrian #3845, but for me that adds to the charm of it. Like in Skyrim and all those guards who got shot in the knee or however that went.

The voice acting for the game’s central characters is also excellent, provided by serious and big-name actors including Ray Liotta, Luis Guzman, Burt Reynolds, and Dennis Hopper. The voices really fit, especially well considering that a lot of these guys acted in mob/crime dramas before this, most notably Liotta in Goodfellas. Speaking of mob dramas, there are also plenty of references to Scarface, along with a big reference to the lesser-known Al Pacino gangster movie Carlito’s Way: the entire character of Ken Rosenberg is pulled directly out of that movie based on Sean Penn’s performance as Pacino’s mob attorney. And Guzman was in Carlito’s Way too. Hell, if you like mob movies at all, you need to play Vice City if you haven’t already.

Sean Penn doesn’t do the voice, it’s William Fichtner, but it is that character

Even the radio is entertaining to listen to — every station features fake ads and satirical talk shows of the kind that were introduced in GTA III. I remember the big new 80s soundtrack featured in the radio stations getting a lot of praise as well. I’m not such a big fan of it, even though there are some really good songs there (for example, “Billie Jean” is the first song you hear on the radio when you get into the first available car in the game.) The 80s isn’t my favorite decade ever for music, though maybe it was a great nostalgic trip for people who grew up then. Maybe it’s a Stranger Things sort of thing where I don’t give a shit about the 80s references and themes so much. I wasn’t even in nursery school when that decade ended, so what do I care? Then again, I don’t care about 90s throwbacks that much either, and I did grow up in that decade, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

I don’t think you could steal a police car and get paid for running petty criminals over in the 80s either. This game is lying to me

So I’d say based on my time with Vice City recently that it totally holds up. San Andreas, IV, and V built the series up quite a lot, but Vice City still stands as an excellent game on its own. It’s pretty cheap, too, so if you don’t mind how old it looks I think it’s worth checking out. I don’t think I would have gotten passing scores on my IB exams without being able to vent here in alternate universe Miami so much, so I’ll be grateful to the game forever for that at least.

Deep reads #5.1: Why I like Megami Tensei

This was bound to happen at some point. I’ve written a lot about the long-running Megami Tensei JRPG series on this site, certainly more than I have about any other game series — maybe even more than every other series put together. I don’t care to go back and measure that out, but it seems likely.

But why? What’s so special to me about Megami Tensei that I can’t shut up about it? I’ve written reviews of a few games in the series and about various aspects of it here and there, including these two commentary posts from last year. With this new set of posts, I want to dive into that question and examine what makes this series unique and what I think it may have to offer new fans just getting into Persona through the Persona 4 Golden PC port, for example, or wondering about news of the Nocturne HD remaster and the upcoming Shin Megami Tensei V.

As with the Disgaea series I wrote way back in January through April, this one will run as long as it needs to, and like that one, it’s partly meant to win over converts. But don’t worry! It’s fun in the world of MegaTen. At the very least, it might put you into the right mindset to deal with the coming demon apocalypse that will begin in 2033 when a portal opens over your city and Loki and Set fly out.

Speaking of Loki and Set, first things first:

A very brief history of the series and an explanation of just what the hell Megami Tensei is exactly

Megami Tensei (女神転生, literally “Goddess Reincarnation” though it’s never gotten an officially Anglicized title like that as far as I know) started out as a trilogy of novels by author Aya Nishitani. These have to do with a bullied high school student named Akemi Nakajima who summons the Norse trickster god Loki through a computer program he wrote to beat those bullies up, but the kid goes a bit power-mad, and Loki ends up using him to escape the computer and enter the real world somehow. Then Nakajima becomes an actual hero, trying to stop Loki with the help of his classmate Yumiko Shirasagi, who also happens to be the reincarnation of the Japanese creation goddess Izanami (which is where the title Megami Tensei comes from.)1

Following the success of the first novel in the series, two games were made titled Megami Tensei and released in 1987. The first to come out was a Gauntlet-looking top-down action game made by developer Telenet that has absolutely no connection with what came afterward. The second was a turn-based JRPG developed by Atlus for the Famicom and was the starting point for the now three decade-long series we’re talking about here. Though this game was based on Nishitani’s first novel, as soon as the sequel Megami Tensei II the series moved away from the source material and started doing its own thing.

But where does that Shin come from? And how do Persona, Devil Summoner, and all the other spinoffs relate to it?

And what makes this cover kind of misleading?

In 1992, Shin Megami Tensei was released for the Super Famicom. Like a lot of other game series that jumped over from the Famicom, this Shin was added as a prefix to set it part from older titles — the character 真 has a few meanings but here it’s used as something like “true”, like “hey, this is the real thing.” Like its predecessors, Shin Megami Tensei was a turn-based JRPG about fighting a demon invasion while recruiting demons into your party through a unique negotiation system. It also spawned a sequel, establishing what we now call the “mainline” SMT series, running through those first two Super Famicom games, SMT III: NocturneSMT IVSMT IV Apocalypse, and the upcoming SMT V.1

However, in the mid-90s Atlus started producing a load of new games in the Megami Tensei universe, using a lot of the same mythological figures and creatures that were featured as demons in the older Megami Tensei/Shin Megami Tensei games. Series like Devil Summoner, Megami Ibunroku Persona (the first Persona game, yes) and later on Digital Devil Saga and the strategy RPG Devil Survivor. These games either had sequels or started entirely new spinoff series, the most successful of which was Persona, which has gotten far more press than even the original series that spawned it.

It’s also important to untangle some of the title-related weirdness that’s gone on when these games have received NA/EU releases. Fans of Final Fantasy will be very familiar with these problems, getting a “Final Fantasy III” that’s actually Final Fantasy VI and so on. The issues with some of the 90s/00s titles in Megami Tensei are weird in a different way. In their attempts to sell this series to the West, Atlus messed around with its titles a bit, releasing Persona 3 and 4Devil Survivor 1 and 2, and the Digital Devil Saga and Raidou Kuzunoha games with the Shin Megami Tensei prefix when none of them were actually SMT games. Megami Tensei, yes, but throw out the Shin because it doesn’t belong there.

It doesn’t have a , but Persona games aren’t a bad place to learn a few other kanji. Thanks for the help, Ryuji! From Persona 5 (2016).

Thankfully, they seem to have quit doing this, but it’s still a bit of a mess for westerners who want to look up information on the Japanese versions of some of the 90s and 00s games. Basically, if the original title doesn’t contain that 真, it’s not SMT. That naturally has nothing to do with its quality or anything; it’s just a problem with classification. But hell, classification is important. How are we supposed to find anything without it?

I’ll stop boring you with classification talk now, though, and answer the question I posed in the beginning: what do I find so great about this series? Let’s get on to it:

1) Use of mythological, historical, and religious figures from around the world

Many game series that rely on myth and legend for their characters and worldbuilding use beings from one culture or part of the world. Or they go the route of Elder Scrolls and D&D-based worlds and use Tolkien’s old lore. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and I’ve really enjoyed games that stick to those standards.

But one of the reasons I find Megami Tensei so interesting is that it doesn’t limit itself to any one set of traditions. Certain games will have specific focuses, but as a whole the series branches out into the tradition of just about every culture it can find. Many of the demons in the series (and note: “demon” is a neutral term here referring to any supernatural or mythological being regardless of their alignment) are taken from pretty well-known and common sources, including the active Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist religious traditions and the ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, and Egyptian ones, and sometimes with a special emphasis on Japanese myth. But there are also beings taken from traditions like the Buryat (best bird Moh Shuvuu), Ainu (Koropokkur), and Hawaiian (Pele). The addition of a few other “fallen” gods who were toppled by now-dominant religions like Christianity and Islam make for some interesting character relationships that play out in some of these games.

Alilat, an ancient Arabian goddess whose idol was smashed in Mecca, is back to take it out on your party. Well, not exactly, but I like to think she’s carrying around that grudge. From Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (2009).

The demon designs add a lot to this variety. Most of them were done by artist and series co-creator Kazuma Kaneko, who has an extremely distinctive style. Some of Kaneko’s designs are straightforward, while others get extremely creative, taking some liberties with the demons in question. But even when that’s the case, the designs still usually make sense. The two alternate designs for the common series Angel are good examples of both his approaches: the one that’s used in SMT I and II looks like the typical depiction of an angel from western tradition, while the design used in Nocturne and the Persona games is… well, not typical at all. Yet even that provocative “bondage angel” design has some connection to what an angel is supposed to be in our set of traditions here. It’s not just provocative for its own sake.2

And of course there’s the classic case of Mara, the villainous god of desire/temptation in Buddhist tradition, but also known among MegaTen fans as “dick chariot” for reasons that will be obvious if you look it up. I’ll do you a favor by not posting it here, but you’ll have seen it in some form or another if you’ve played a MegaTen game, and maybe even if you haven’t. That damn dick chariot just won’t stop showing up — he’s a fan favorite, after all.

2) The relationship between the supernatural and human

This connects to the first reason above. It’s also a theme that I plan to write about in a more in-depth way later on. But here, I can at least say that the Megami Tensei series does a lot more with its various gods, angels, demons, spirits, monsters, and mythical heroes than dumping them into a game and making the player fight them. Most of the games involve the human characters having to deal with the supernatural leaking over into the world of humans. This was the basis of the very first Megami Tensei novel and its game adaptations, and though the series has branched out greatly since then, that basic premise is still there.

The relationship between humans and gods and/or godlike supernatural beings isn’t a new theme for the JRPG genre. It’s been present in the genre pretty much since the beginning. The original Megami Tensei has its roots in that beginning, but other major JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and Ys also established it as a common theme. Megami Tensei carries that theme even further by having its human and demon characters not only fight but also bond and work together towards common goals. The demon negotiation system is part of that, one of its most unique elements and still one of my favorite mechanics in any game series. Cooperation between humans and demons also plays heavily into the plots of these games, however: particular demons join up with or try to influence human leaders to take actions depending upon their alignments, and the most powerful of them pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Or, you know, they become your demon waifu like Pixie here. From Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003).

In the SMT games and some of their spinoffs, this places the player character in an awkward position where fellow human party members will fall into one of the ideologies that make up these alignments. By the end, the player is usually forced into one of these alignments depending upon his dialogue and action choices at fixed points throughout the game. And it’s very much to the credit of the series that it never presents one of these paths as “the right one.” Megami Tensei doesn’t set values of “good” or “evil” on your decisions, going instead with a law-neutral-chaos scale and leaving the players to make up their own minds about the morality of their choices.3

By doing this, the series avoids falling into the trap of trying to force a morality-based karma system that may come off as overly simplistic. Such a system might work for some games, but it wouldn’t really work for MegaTen. While some gods, spirits, and demons certainly identify with being on the good or evil side of things, many of the others have little or no regard for these paltry human concepts of morality. Even the MegaTen version of big bad Lucifer, the Devil himself, doesn’t seem to consider himself evil but rather more a force of chaos, pushing a world of might-makes-right-based total freedom. Whether his goal is good or evil is up to you to decide.

3) A variety of gameplay styles

Megami Tensei is best known for being a turn-based JRPG series, and to be fair a lot of its games use that combat style, including the mainline SMT and Persona titles. If turn-based combat isn’t your thing, though, the series still has plenty to offer, like grid-based tactics battle systems (Devil Survivor) and real-time action (Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha.) So even if you’re completely allergic to the old JRPG “stand and wait for the enemy to hit you, then hit him back” standard, you don’t have to write MegaTen off completely.

And even the turn-based games themselves vary greatly both in gameplay mechanics and in atmosphere and narrative style. There have been a lot of complaints in the last decade about how “stale” the JRPG genre has gotten, partly because of its wearing down of old plot and character tropes and partly because of its use of the old turn-based combat system that hasn’t changed much since the 80s. That’s a take I generally don’t agree with anyway, but I do think MegaTen has been able to avoid being subject to these complaints both by defining its own unique narrative styles and by keeping combat fresh from game to game. Combat in SMT and the other series spinoffs has a different rhythm, relying on the player’s use of buffs and debuffs, exploitation of enemy weaknesses, and effective defense of their own weaknesses.

The Press Turn system in Nocturne is a good example of this: by hitting enemies’ weaknesses, the player only spends half a turn instead of a full one that can be used for a strategic advantage, but hitting enemies with attacks that they void, repel, or absorb costs the player extra turns or even cancels the player’s attack round altogether. The same rules apply to the enemy’s attacks, requiring the player to use both a strategic offense and defense to win. This creates a situation where the battle will tip for or against the player depending upon their party composition and how smartly they’re playing. As a result, brute-forcing your way through an SMT game is simply not an option.

Trumpeter toots as he pleases, no matter how overleveled you are.

And then, of course, there’s Persona. This MegaTen spinoff series has blown up everywhere, comparatively moreso in the West where Megami Tensei didn’t have much of a presence up until Persona 3 got some notice from players here. The Persona games use a modified form of the turn-based SMT battle system, but it’s their inclusion of the social sim aspect that really sets them apart from the rest. It wasn’t a new concept when Persona 3 came out — the Sakura Wars series had been doing it for a while by then — but it was a new concept to me when I picked the game up on its NA release in 2007, and despite a few pacing issues it really worked for me. But I’ll get more into that in a later post.

It’s also worth mentioning that none of these different spinoffs feel like cash-ins based on fads, as though Atlus was throwing out something slapped together for fans to buy up because it had MegaTen branding.4 All these various game styles are at the very least playable even if you’re not a particular fan of them (I’m awful at the Raidou games’ real-time action combat to the point that it’s just frustrating for me to play, but that’s more my problem than the games’.)

4) The music

Yeah, of course the music in this series needs its own section. Every Megami Tensei game I’ve played or even just seen played by someone else has had amazing music, without exception. This is largely thanks to longtime series composer Shoji Meguro (responsible for much of the music in the first three SMT titles, the Persona, Digital Devil Saga, and Devil Summoner games among others.) These soundtracks have very different feels that suit the mood set by each game: Nocturne and DDS combine hard rock with softer ambient-sounding tracks, the Raidou Kuzunoha games use some older jazz styles that suit their 1930s setting, and the modern Persona games have more modern-sounding soundtracks with emphases on rap/hip-hop (Persona 3), pop/rock (4), and jazz/funk (5). And though they don’t get as much attention, Persona 1 and the 2 duology have excellent music as well — I’ve had the battle music in Persona 5 Royal set to A Lone Prayer for a while and I’m not getting tired of it yet. The common point here is that these soundtracks are all excellent, full of memorable, moving, and powerful themes.

While Meguro is the most prominent music guy involved in Megami Tensei, credit also has to be given to Ryota Kozuka, composer for SMT4 and a great one in his own right, and Kenichi Tsuchiya, who provided the massively impressive church organ music for Nocturne and a number of other pieces throughout the 2000s. And of course, the performers get serious credit as well: rapper Lotus Juice played a big part in defining the sound of Persona 3, just as the singer Lyn did for Persona 5 — if Mass Destruction and Last Surprise were stuck in your head when you played these games, they were partly responsible for that.

I actually do like “Mass Destruction” but god damn did it get old after hearing it 500+ times in battle. From Persona 3 (2006).

I could make a list of my favorite Megami Tensei tracks, like say Normal Battle ~Town~, Hunting – Betrayal, Memories of You, Tokyo… but that would probably be an entire post (or series of posts?) in itself.

And as for the other reasons why I like this series — I’ll be getting into those in far greater depth starting with my next entry. I don’t plan to focus each of these entries on individual games or sub-series, but rather on concepts and approaches the series as a whole takes. This will still require going into depth about specific games’ plots, characters, gameplay mechanics, and themes, but I will be trying to avoid specific end-game spoilers. I don’t have any of the other posts even close to done yet, but this is a promise I’ll try to keep.

Hell, I don’t even really know how long this set of posts will be yet. Let’s just say that it will be as long as it needs to be. No need to worry about the details yet. I feel like I’m stepping into a minefield here anyway — may as well just charge ahead and hope for the best. 𒀭

 

1 But is SMT: Strange Journey a mainline SMT game? On one hand, it’s thematically in line with the other mainline games; on the other, it doesn’t take place in Tokyo and doesn’t have a numbered title. I’d say it falls into the same category as SMT if… — It’s SMT, but not a mainline game strictly speaking.

Again, though, I don’t know how much it really matters. You could just as easily argue the opposite based on the similarities SJ shares with the numbered games and where Atlus implies or some fans believe it lives in the series’ bizarre, complicated five-dimensional multiverse timeline. I’m not getting into any of that, though. I don’t have enough pushpins and yarn for it.

2 At least I don’t think it is. Maybe Kaneko was having a joke on us. He seems like he has that kind of sense of humor. Just look at Mara.

Also, I’m not forgetting Shigenori Soejima here — he’s one of my favorite artists, but I’ll get into his work when I dive into Persona specifically later on.

3 Nocturne’s Reasons are an exception, but aside from Shijima, Yosuga, and Musubi being a bit different from the usual Law/Chaos/Neutral paths, they operate the same way in the sense that the game doesn’t place a moral value upon them. I still think Hikawa is an asshole, though.

4 With the arguable exception of the Persona 3 and 5 dancing games. Technically they were fine, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get some enjoyment out of them, but the way they were released did come off like a cash grab, which is something I won’t even say about any of the other many Persona spinoffs. Still, they didn’t feel slapped together or anything.

Also with the possible exception of the gacha game SMT Liberation Dx2, but I can’t say because I haven’t played it. I’m naturally suspicious of the “free-to-play” gacha game model, but I’ve also heard that the game has had a lot of work and care put into it, so I don’t want to judge it unfairly. (Besides, even though I say I’m suspicious of gacha games, I’ve played both Puzzle & Dragons and Azur Lane, so who the fuck am I to talk.)

Retrospective: Sonic Adventure 2

Were the Sonic Adventure games good? Throw that question out to the crowds of Twitter users and watch people fight over it, because it’s a contentious one. But that wasn’t always the case. This series had a famously rough transition from 2D to 3D, but I think a lot of the poor reputation of modern Sonic stems from the total disaster that was Sonic ’06 and from some of Sega’s less bad but still pretty bad blunders such as the endless slog of the nighttime sections of Sonic Unleashed and the entirety of Shadow the Hedgehog.

The Adventure games, on the other hand, went over pretty well at the time. The first two real Sonic games in 3D were far from perfect, with plenty of camera problems and glitches, but I remember liking them when I first played them on the Dreamcast, and I don’t think anyone really outright hated them or declared the series dead after playing them. A lot of fans agreed, and I do too, that they weren’t nearly as good as the original 2D games on the Genesis, but they weren’t considered a disgrace to the series or anything like that. Even when the Dreamcast died, these two games were at least well-regarded enough to live on as Gamecube ports with new features added. Yet now they do get quite a lot of hate, especially the first one, which I’ve even heard called one of the worst games ever made.

I’m not going to address here whether Sonic Adventure deserves that harsh assessment, though I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. But I only own the Steam port of Sonic Adventure 2, so that’s the one I can write about without having to dig through hazy twenty year-old memories. I finally got around to playing this version of SA2, and I don’t feel that differently about it now than I did back when I played the Dreamcast original upon release in 2001: generally pretty all right but with some boneheaded gameplay decisions and clunky elements that make it a chore to get through sometimes.

But amazing dialogue

But you’re reading this to get specifics, so let’s get to them. SA2 opens with a nice cinematic-looking shot of Sonic being transported as a prisoner on a military helicopter for a crime he obviously didn’t commit, because he’s a good guy. So he jumps out of the helicopter and onto the streets of San Francisco using a broken-off piece of it as a skateboard (Sonic doesn’t take fall damage, so he’s fine.) It turns out that he’s a victim of mistaken identity, because the grandfather of Dr. Robotnik, now officially known in the West as Eggman, developed another anthropomorphic hedgehog as an experiment on an orbital base to be the ultimate lifeform.

When Eggman discovers this being called Shadow, he unleashes him to cause some chaos. And of course, since Shadow and Sonic are shaped in a vaguely similar way, everyone thinks it’s Sonic wreaking havoc instead. While Sonic runs from the military police, his friends Tails and Knuckles join up to help out, pairing off against Eggman, Shadow, and another new character named Rouge, an anthropomorphic bat lady and a government spy. But she’s also a treasure hunter who’s after the Master Emerald, which for some fucking reason isn’t on the Floating Island anymore.

Remember when Knuckles was the guardian of the Floating Island and sworn to keep this shiny rock on it, otherwise said island would fall into the ocean like in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and Sonic Adventure 1? Well Knuckles doesn’t, because he never even brings that up. And this is the third time he’s lost the damn thing anyway. What are you doing, Knuckles?

And since Knuckles shatters the emerald on purpose to get it out of Eggman’s hands, he has to search for the missing pieces again while also helping out Sonic. Amy Rose is also around, though she sadly doesn’t get much to do this game other than pine after Sonic and get captured by the bad guys as usual. Other things that happen in the course of the game: Sonic and Tails meet the President of the United States, and Eggman blows up half of the Moon with a giant space laser.

More stuff happens in Sonic Adventure 2, but this is enough to see that the plot is pretty damn stupid. In places, it doesn’t even make sense. The mistaken identity part is already silly enough since Sonic and Shadow clearly look different even from far away, so why does everyone mistake Shadow for Sonic? I guess it’s because the game needs someone for you to fight/run away from in these stages. And it can’t just be Eggman now, because he’s also a playable character along with Shadow and Rouge in the second “Dark” storyline that runs parallel to the “Hero” one up until the final part of the game, when both teams have to work together to defeat a greater, more insane evil than even Eggman himself.

But does anyone care that much about the plot of a Sonic game? Some people do, and five years later the series tried a sort of serious RPGish plot with Sonic ’06, but that didn’t work at all and went over horribly. So maybe it’s better if the games don’t worry so much about plot. You can easily ignore the dumb plot, because the gameplay is the main thing.

Sonic Adventure 2 also trips up a bit there, however. The first Sonic Adventure, released in 1998/99, tried out a lot of different gameplay modes, a couple of which were famously clunky (namely Big the Cat’s fishing game that’s widely hated; people also complained about Amy’s sluggish platforming style, though I didn’t mind it as much.) Sonic was still the center of attention, however; his game was by far the longest out of the six, with many more stages to play through. SA2 cut down on the number of gameplay modes to just three: traditional fast platforming action with Sonic and Shadow, an exploration-based hunting mode with Knuckles and Rouge, and a third-person mech shooter with Tails and Eggman, each mode sharing equal game time. So when you’re playing SA2, you’re only running around classic Sonic-style for one third of the time.

This is obviously a problem if you don’t like the other two-thirds of the game. You can’t even just play through Sonic and Shadow’s stages and ignore the others like you could in SA1, because instead of individual character routes, the story is told through two separate Hero and Dark routes that alternate stages between Sonic/Tails/Knuckles and Shadow/Eggman/Rouge. So you just have to suffer through those parts if you’re not interested in them.

Do you know the Pumpkin Hill song by heart? I fucking do

I don’t hate all the non-Sonic/Shadow parts of this game. The Knuckles and Rouge hunting levels get a lot of shit, but I don’t find them that bad. The scavenger hunt element of those stages work pretty well, and the three emerald shards or whatever other three objects you’re hunting for are placed in randomized locations that you need to find by using a sort of hot/cold radar system, so each run through of a stage plays a bit differently. The horrible camera controls can make it hard to dig around in tight areas as you’ll often have to do, but the camera in this game is always a pain in the ass anyway.

No, the sections of SA2 I really don’t care for are the mech stages. It was a fun novelty to play as the villain Eggman, and it makes sense that he’d be using a mech to get around, but Tails is now also stuck in a mech throughout the game, which means the player misses out on his unique flying ability that made playing as him in Sonic 3 & Knuckles so fun. I know Tails is supposed to be an engineer, so it’s not crazy that he’d be driving a mech around, but that still seemed pretty dumb to me. You can fly, so why not use that skill?

The greater problem here, though, is that these stages are just too slow and dull. I don’t see anything special about them. Though I do know people who really like them, so this seems like one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.

excitement

But the Sonic and Shadow stages are pretty fun. They’re still not as fun as the stages in the original Genesis games, partly because they’re far more linear. But I think the main appeal of these stages in the early 3D Sonic games is seeing how quickly you can make it to the goal. This game even implements a time/score-based ranking system from E to A (no F, I guess because if you reach the goal, you haven’t technically failed no matter how long it took you to get there) along with four extra challenges in each stage and bonuses for completing them successfully. If you’re a completionist, you can get a lot of replay value out of Sonic Adventure 2.

Some of that replay value is also provided by the Chao Garden, where you can raise some weird onion-headed blue creatures with any of the six playable characters, feed them animals to make them strong, run them in races, etc. I’m not into this kind of virtual pet stuff, but if you are, it’s worth checking out.

This is pretty much how you raise Chao as far as I know

The team that ported SA2 to Steam seems to have done a pretty decent job, because it mostly plays fine.* I do get some slowdown in a few parts of stages (mainly Sonic and Shadow’s visually busy jungle stages) but I’m not sure how much of that is me having a piece of shit PC that I can only run visual novels on. For the most part, this game plays how I remember it playing in 2001. All the good and bad elements of the game are still there: the camera is still garbage and the mech stages are still boring, but the Sonic/Shadow stages and some of the Knuckles/Rouge ones are still fun to play.

The soundtrack hasn’t been touched either, which is again both a good and a bad thing. I really like some of the music in SA2, especially Rouge’s smooth jazz lounge stuff and Shadow’s extra over the top angsty-sounding themes like “Supporting Me”. The Knuckles raps are still really bad, but then again they’re so bad that they’ve become jokes, especially the Pumpkin Hill theme — and in any case, it’s hard to imagine those Knuckles levels with any other BGM. If you’re a fan of Crush 40 and Jun Senoue’s guitar-playing then you’ll also really like Sonic’s character and stage themes. I’m not a big fan of the style, but “City Escape” is still catchy. Just try to get it out of your head when you’ve heard it once.

Hey Knuckles, when you’re done flailing around like a dumbass, let’s have a proper fight.

In the end, I still have mixed feelings about Sonic Adventure 2. It’s mostly fun to play, and even the mech sections aren’t horrible to get through aside from a couple of extremely overly long stages late in the game. On the other hand, I think it also represents a shift away from the old Sonic style that I grew up with as a kid and that I liked so much. The first Adventure also added new characters and a dumb plot, but it felt more in line with those older games somehow. With SA2, we’ve now got much more “adult” characters with the extra-edgy Shadow, who looks like he was designed to appeal to depressive loner kids (i.e. me) and Rouge, who looks like she was designed to appeal to furries on DeviantArt (i.e. not me, but I guess I get what they were going for if in fact they were going for that.) And the President is a character in the Sonic universe now for some reason. Sonic Heroes is where the series really lost me, and Sonic ’06 is where it gave me a giant middle finger, but in some ways SA2 feels like the beginning of that shift into unfamiliar territory.

But does it really matter that much? Sonic the Hedgehog as a whole has had plenty of ups and downs, and even though I’ve been mostly out of the loop with the Sonic series for the last two decades, I’ll probably always have a soft spot for it. I certainly will for Sonic Adventure 2, which in my view counts as one of those ups. At the very least, this game is certainly not the disaster some critics paint it as. I guess that’s not the most enthusiastic endorsement I could give the game, but I’d say it’s still worth trying out, even with its problems. 𒀭

 

* This isn’t the case for the ports of Sonic Adventure, however. The Gamecube port Sonic Adventure DX: Director’s Cut was supposed to be an upgrade, but it actually downgraded some of the graphics and added new glitches that weren’t present in the Dreamcast original. The PC version is even worse in this regard, taking the Gamecube version and compounding these problems, and unfortunately the SA offered on Steam is based on that one, making it a port of a shitty port of another shitty port. Thankfully, fans have created patches to fix many of these issues, doing far more for the game than Sega ever bothered to. For a comprehensive rundown of the port issue, see a video overview here (made by Cybershell, an excellent YouTube video maker who recently reappeared for the second time after years of hibernation) or go straight to the source to get all the details.

As far as SA2 goes, I also played it on both the Dreamcast and the Gamecube, and I don’t remember so many differences between the two versions aside from a few bits of added content like multiplayer battle mode, but I could be wrong about that. It’s been a long time, after all. I should also mention that the extra Gamecube content is offered on Steam as DLC. I didn’t buy it, but it’s only a few dollars as of this writing.

Summer cleaning game review special #5 and final: Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble

Now here’s a throwback, one that feels right for the last post in this series. It’s not a throwback to my childhood or anything, but just to 2016 when I looked at the free short RPG-looking shmup Princess Remedy in a World of Hurt. I liked that game enough that I bought the very cheap sequel, Princess Remedy in a Heap of Trouble, and then not unusually for me forgot about it for four years. But it’s been sitting in my Steam library all that time, and I’ve finally returned to play it. And hey, it’s a good game too, especially if you’re looking for a simple shoot-em-up to take up an hour or so.

The story is that Remedy, the nurse/princess* character from the last game, has been called back from her vacation to deal with another health crisis. Once again, her cures involve talking to sick people and fighting monsters that represent whatever’s wrong with them. These illnesses can be either physical or mental/emotional, so Remedy also works as a sort of therapist.

Your first patient

Also as before, during battle Remedy keeps firing her medicine shot automatically until all her enemies are dead, but she also has to dodge the enemies and their shots in order to survive. However, this time around she can get help from the people she cures by going on a “date” with them. It’s not a traditional date, though: her partner simply follows her around and gives her an extra active or passive ability in battle. Characters can also be freely dumped for new dates, which you might do just to see what they say when you ask them out. Princess Remedy is a heartbreaker.

But her dating around is justified, because she needs to defeat some serious bosses to proceed through the land. Several of them wait for the princess blocking off new areas until she gets the number of powerups in battle sufficient to face it.

Some of the bosses also look like fever dream JRPG monsters

Despite how they look, these Princess Remedy games are only a few years old as of this writing. I think they’re meant to resemble old Atari or Commodore 64 games, or maybe a game from one of those British systems like the ZX Spectrum that I’d never heard of until recently. These were well before my time, so I can’t say I have any nostalgia for the look of these games. But I like them anyway, which hopefully says something for their quality. They’re quite simple but fun, especially if you’re into free-movement shmup action.

They also have a bizarre sense of humor that I like. All the way back in part one of this series when I reviewed Qora, I mentioned I didn’t care for the “so random” humor being dumped on me in the game’s last ten minutes. Part of that was probably because I felt the game was boring to play, but part of it was also that it all seemed like an inside joke that I was never meant to understand in the first place. By contrast, the conversations you have with other characters in Princess Remedy are just kind of absurd. I don’t know if they really count as humor, but I find it a lot funnier than the self-conscious “look at how wacky we are” stuff in Qora. I don’t know, maybe there’s really no difference between the two and there’s something wrong with my brain.

Maybe the problem is that you should be in the ocean instead of on the dock

This is probably more than I needed to write about this game. I liked it. That’s simple enough. And like most of the other short games I’ve reviewed in this series, it’s only a few dollars to buy, so not too much of an ask.

Anyway, I hope this break from the usual was interesting. I still have a couple of other games that I’m currently playing through from that 1000+ game itch.io bundle. Not all completely good stuff either, but you’ll see when we get there — if it’s interesting enough, I’ll write about it whether I like it or not. Until then.

* And maybe a doctor too, but it’s not clear whether she has her medical degree. She’s not called Dr. Remedy after all. Then again, Mario isn’t a doctor but he calls himself one in Dr. Mario. I don’t think standard medical ethics rules apply in these games.

The Great JRPG Character Face-Off: My top five

Last month, Pix1001 at Shoot the Rookie and Winst0lf started a month-long battle to determine the greatest JRPG characters, to be conducted by both bloggers and commenters making lists of their top fives with explanations. And I thought, hell, I like JRPGs, so I’ll thrown my opinions in. This is a list I might have thought up, written, and posted during a slow month, but I’m happy that I can use it to contribute to a community event like this. Hell, I can make a top ten or twenty list, probably. Maybe one day. I’d probably end up shifting a lot of these characters around and bumping some out of the top five as well, so fair warning that I’d be completely inconsistent about it. Sorry in advance!

For now, here’s my list. Also, there are probably some very, very general character arc spoilers for each of them, because I couldn’t really find another way to explain my choices.

5) Lyner Barsett (Ar tonelico)

Lyner might be the densest JRPG protagonist ever created, so god damn dense he’s about to collapse into a black hole. He’s a powerful warrior and all, but he also has a “just rush ahead” approach that gets him into trouble. And when it comes to women, he’s hopeless, or at least he should be. Ar tonelico centers on the relationships he builds with the three Reyvateils Aurica, Misha, and Shurelia, all women who can harness and use magical powers through singing. Poor Lyner has to largely rely on his own wits to progress his relationships with them to improve their compatibility in battle, and he will end up romantically involved with one of them in the end. That’s left to the player, so there is no “right” choice (the right choice is Shurelia, though. It’s Shurelia.)

Misha’s fine too, I guess. As long as it’s not Aurica.

What’s amazing is that he doesn’t strike out with all of them, because Lyner is an absolute dumbass. At one point late in the game, he and his party see a powerful forcefield that they can’t get past, and Lyner acknowledges it, and then he walks right the fuck into it getting hurt. When the other characters ask him what he was thinking, he can’t really explain himself very well other than to say he just likes to run straight ahead or something similar. You can’t just run straight through obstacles sometimes, Lyner. Lucky thing that he has women around him who are smart, and also Aurica.

So maybe it’s weird that I’m putting Lyner on this list. There was a time when he just irritated me. But now I can respect his drive, sincerity, and strong sense of morality. He’s a dense fucker, but he’s also a genuinely good guy, and one who gets thrown into a bad situation and has to make the best of things. Fellow protagonist Croix Bartel from Ar tonelico II is also a great character and a lot more capable, but it’s just that capability that puts him lower on the list of characters from #6 down that I’m not making. Croix also has a little sister to help him out in addition to his own set of Reyvateil companions. Those are advantages that Lyner doesn’t have, yet he makes it through all the same. Good man.

4) Etna (Disgaea series)

Make no mistake: even if Etna is one of my favorite JRPG characters, she’s probably not someone I’d want to know, and she’s certainly not someone I’d want for a boss. I’m not nearly that much of a masochist.

But Etna is still a great character. This prickly, vain demon girl was introduced by Nippon Ichi to the world in Disgaea 1 back in 2003, in which she was the “loyal” vassal to the young hotheaded prince and protagonist Laharl. Not really that loyal, of course — she’s extremely ambitious, and Laharl keeps a close eye on her. Etna also seems to enjoy beating up on the Prinnies, her penguin-esque servants who contain the souls of dead human sinners working off their debts in the afterlife. So she is pretty treacherous and mean on the surface, but as the story progresses, we learn that she does have a caring side to her. She loves to mock and needle Laharl, but she’s also genuinely invested in his becoming a great and caring leader in the mold of his deceased father, a man she sincerely respected.

If it weren’t for that other side of her, Etna would simply come off as sadistic and kind of annoying, but she does have her caring and forgiving sides, even towards those Prinnies she hauls around. She’s also carefree enough to make friends with humans and angels when they blunder their ways into the Netherworld. Etna pretty much does what she wants, and while she pretends to be evil, her whims usually lead her in the right direction. Eventually, anyway.

3) Ryudo (Grandia II)

I always like a character who can make light of a bad situation. Ryudo is the mercenary protagonist of the classic Dreamcast JRPG Grandia II, and he makes this list thanks in part to his dark sense of humor and his frequent quips. Like the other characters on this list, Ryudo really is a good guy, but he also buries his sense of honor deep under a thick layer of sarcasm. By putting up a bitter, jaded front, he tries to protect himself. His talking bird partner Skye sees right through it and calls him out occasionally, but it isn’t really until Ryudo takes a job with the big church organization to protect the nun Elena that that shell starts to break. That emotional front is something that helps me connect with this character, even if I wouldn’t last five seconds in the kinds of battles he gets into in Grandia II.

Bread and coffee and nothing else at every meal, that’s Ryudo’s way. I can respect it, though I’d prefer to have Mareg’s dinner (the beast guy on the far right.)

Grandia II doesn’t have the most original plot, and a lot of the story beats and especially the big twist at the end can be seen coming from very far away, especially by players who are used to standard JRPG tropes. I still really like the game’s characters, though. The game builds a real sense of camaraderie, especially during its dinner conversation scenes in which the character make small talk. Why don’t more games include those?

2) Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

If this were a top list of JRPG characters who are unlucky in love, Esty would absolutely be my #1 choice. We meet Esty early on in Atelier Rorona — she’s a bureaucrat for the Kingdom of Arland and helps the alchemist player character Rorona fill orders. She’s also a knight, however, and together with her fellow knight-bureaucrat Sterkenburg, she can join Rorona while in the field hunting for ingredients and fighting monsters.

Esty makes the list mainly for her dedication to her work paired with her somewhat carefree attitude. She makes a great pair with Sterk, a bulky knight who’s extremely serious most of the time. Unfortunately, her work doesn’t leave her much time for relationships, so when she shows up in the third Arland game Atelier Meruru, still single, she’s a bit on edge about it. But not enough on edge that she isn’t still one of the best characters in the game to take along into the field. Esty’s balance between serious dutifulness and relaxation is something to admire, especially when she shows up in Meruru to encourage/intimidate her younger sister Filly.

Moments later, a sword is ready to be pulled.

And yes, it’s Esty Erhard. That’s her last name in the JP versions of these games. No, I’m not just being a big weeb here as usual: the localizers at NISA changed it from Erhard to “Dee” to create a hilarious joke. Esty Dee. Get it?!?!?! Truly, they can fuck off. I like Esty. She’s honestly one of the most likeable characters in these games, which is saying quite a lot. If Atelier games had Persona-style dating sim mechanics, she’s the one I’d go for, absolutely no question. There, now someone can go on Twitter and call me a simp for Esty, or whatever the stupid term is they’re using now.

1) Aigis (Persona 3)

Once again, no surprise here. Aigis is certainly one of my favorite game characters period, largely for her character arc in Persona 3. A weapon created to fight Shadows, Aigis goes through the old “android discovers human feelings and love” plot but in a way that isn’t nearly as tired and cliché as that might sound. I can’t say much more about why Aigis is so great without posting major spoilers for Persona 3, though, so I’ll leave it at that. Just play Persona 3, either FES or Portable — I preferred FES, but they’re both good choices.

I do hope this isn’t considered a cop-out to excuse me not being able to explain myself. If WordPress had spoiler tags, I’d use them, but it doesn’t. So blame WordPress. Hey, WordPress admins, maybe consider adding spoiler tag solutions that also work in the Reader/don’t require a plugin or a paid subscription to use? A lot of us write about fictional works on your platform if you haven’t noticed.

Those are my entries. If you also want to join the party, be sure to check out the links at the top of the page. These community events are a nice break for me, and I hope they continue to catch on.

A review of Muse Dash (PC)

Sure, I like playing my hardcore simulation games and JRPGs and all that, but I also like to have a few casual games to mix things up. Especially these days when I have so much work to get through, being able to pick up a game for half an hour or even a few minutes can be useful. So I’ve been getting a lot of use out of Muse Dash, a rhythm game out for PC, Switch, and mobile platforms. I say casual, but in some sense, Muse Dash is extra-casual. Unlike other rhythm games I’ve covered here like Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone and the Persona dancing titles that feature four tracks to keep up with corresponding to the four buttons on the PS4 controller, Muse Dash only has two. There’s no story to the game either, at least not one I could find.

But that’s fine. This was just the kind of game I needed for these bullshit times we currently live in. It’s colorful and fun, and you don’t really have to think too much about it.

Muse Dash in its base form features a few dozen tracks to play through. The player can pick one of the three muses Rin, Buro, or Marija to play through these rhythm-based courses with, beating up enemies and dodging obstacles to the beat of the song. Each course includes a “boss” sort of enemy who will shoot more shit at your muse that she has to dodge/hit to maintain her combo. Missing an enemy breaks that combo, and getting hit by an obstacle or enemy deals damage and drains her health bar. And naturally if that bar gets to 0 HP, the stage is failed.

So the basic gameplay is pretty simple, intuitive enough to pick up and start playing right away. One of the nice things about Muse Dash is that it offers a wide variety of difficulty levels rated by number. Even if you’re someone who’s not very good at rhythm games (for example: me) there are plenty of songs from 1 to 4 in easy and even hard mode that aren’t too much trouble to master.

Don’t get hit by her peppermint candy cannon, it hurts

If you greatly improve your skills or you have naturally amazing reflexes, there are also higher-rated hard and master mode levels that provide a nice challenge. However, Muse Dash is also considerate enough to let the player level up quickly by playing through courses no matter what difficulty they’re set to, meaning even a crap player like me can unlock most of the content in the game.

And there is quite a lot of content that’s initially unavailable. These include most of the game’s songs, useful helper characters called Elfins who can be paired with your muse, and a variety of costumes for Rin, Buro, and Marija that change their HP and abilities. Most of these costumes took hours upon hours of grinding through songs to unlock, but most of them are worth getting for the benefits they provide. Anyway, those hours didn’t feel like grinding; they just passed naturally as I played the game.

She’s not the best character to use, but my favorite one is still catgirl witch mode Marija.

The base version of Muse Dash sells for only three dollars, and the few dozen songs it includes offer some nice variety in speed and style. However, there’s a heavy emphasis on sweet-sounding poppy material. The game also features some harder-edged rock and electronic tracks, some jazzy stuff, and a few classical/orchestral-sounding pieces. But between all the J-pop/cute anime theme-style music (a lot of it seems to be Chinese as well, but it’s also done in that style) and the game’s cute visuals, Muse Dash might be too extra-sugary for some players. At least it won’t affect your blood glucose level, but you might feel the same way playing Muse Dash as you would eating a bunch of cupcakes or those horrible glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I’m not a fan of every track I’ve played so far, but I enjoy most of the music, especially the more relaxed chilled-out stuff.

However, that’s just the base game. Muse Dash also comes with a DLC package that sells for $30 and piles several dozen more songs and courses onto the tracklist. I know I’ve complained about overpriced DLC already, but this time the price feels more justified, especially since it acts as a sort of “season pass” that applies to future DLC. It also looks like the makers are actively releasing new songs and characters. It’s entirely possible to get a lot of play out of the basic three-dollar version, enough that you might be satisfied with that alone — the $30 version seems made for players who really get into the game.

How the hell are you standing on top of a limo and shooting missiles out the back? This is definitely a traffic violation!

The only problem I’ve had with Muse Dash so far is some occasional slowdown and stuttering in the tracks. When this happens, the song and course fall out of sync and then you may as well quit and restart, because your run will probably be completely screwed up if you can’t rely on the beat to guide you. This has only happened to me a few times when I had too much other crap running in the background, so it’s likely just an issue on my end.

So I don’t have much to say about Muse Dash, but in this case, that’s not a bad thing. I’ve been playing the Steam version off and on for a while now, and it’s been a great break from my work schedule, especially considering how easy it is to break into five- and ten-minute runs. Like pretty much every other game out there, it’s not for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. Even if it is pandering a bit with those costumes. Why aren’t there more catgirl witch characters around anyway? Someone needs to work on this deficiency as soon as possible.

Deep reads #4: Playing God (The Sim series)

A few years ago, I started a game of SimCity 2000 on a virtual machine that I documented here on the site. The result was a fifteen-part series that ended in a stupid joke non-ending because the VM crashed, or my file got corrupted or something, and I lost all my progress. Should I have backed the file up? Probably, yeah. Do I understand a thing about virtual machines beyond the bare basics of how to run one? Not really, no.

Behold my glorious creation and despair that the city file is now forever lost.

But recalling my own stupidity is not the point of this post. There’s plenty of time for that later. The point of this is rather to look back at my experience with the Sim series, a long-running and now seemingly dead series of games started by defunct developer Maxis. I say my experience because that’s just what it is: mine may be very different from others, because at some point I left the series behind. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say the series took off in a different direction and left me behind.

Game developer Will Wright, the man whose name comes up most often when talking about the Sim series, was faced with the problem in the mid-80s of how to create a game that would be fun to play and that focused not on fighting and destroying, but rather on building and maintaining. The game he and his team ended up making, SimCity, was a city-building simulator just as the name suggests. It had a hard time getting much distribution at first because of how different it was from the usual fare, but those distributors who rejected it must have felt like real assholes later on because the game became a hit.

No, it’s not a farming game despite the cow on the title screen. If you wanted to be a virtual farmer instead, you had to buy SimFarm, released a few years later.

I have serious respect for the original SimCity, but it’s not one of the Sim games I have fond memories of. First put out in 1989, it was slightly before my time, and even after it was polished and re-released as SimCity Classic I more or less skipped over it.1 No, the game that hooked me onto this series was the one I went back to when I was feeling nostalgic a few years ago: its sequel SimCity 2000. First released in 1993 on DOS and later ported to every system on Earth, SC2K was an improvement upon the original in every way. The old top-down view was replaced with a more satisfying isometric one. The constant building and rebuilding, abandonment and repopulation from month to month made the city feel more alive. But the changes weren’t just cosmetic: many more substantive city-building features were added as well.

And of course there were the disasters. These were also present in the original SimCity, but watching your city get wrecked by an earthquake, hurricane, or nuclear meltdown felt more exciting in this new isometric view. I know it doesn’t look like much today, but in the mid-90s this was really impressive to watch, and despite approaching 30 years old as of this writing, the game with its 90s graphics still feels just as functional and playable as it did then.

A tornado rips through the center of my city. Not much you can do in a case like this except wait for it to go away and rebuild.

Both this and SimCity Classic gave the player something they didn’t usually get: the power to create and to lord it over that creation. Not that this meant everything is necessarily going to go the player’s way. You have the ability to build, but you naturally have to pay for what you’re building, which in hard mode means taking out a municipal bond that has to be repaid with interest. And even if you’re doing well financially, your citizens might not be so happy with your performance. Cost-cutting measures like not building enough police and fire stations lead to higher crime rates and more fires breaking out, while skimping on hospitals and schools directly and immediately affects your citizens’ quality of life. And if you’re playing with disasters turned on, your city can be struck with tornadoes, earthquakes, and fires at any time — all disasters that are more difficult to manage if you’ve been too tight-fisted to build and properly fund those all-important services.

You might think that you’re safe from the wrath of your people no matter what you do. The citizens living in the world of SimCity 2000 are stuck with you: they can’t vote you out of office for doing a bad job or oust you from power in a coup. They can protest, however, and if they get pissed off enough riots can break out, leading to fires being set around your city. In the end, it’s enough of a hassle that even if you don’t care about your citizens’ happiness, it’s just easier to keep them content by following fair, sound policies.

This happens sometimes when you try to build a nuclear plant or a water treatment facility near a residential area. People don’t like pollution or the possibility of a horrific disastrous meltdown in their town, who would have guessed.

One of the reasons I think the SimCity games did so well was the balance they struck between accessibility and complexity. SimCity 2000 was easy to pick up and play without any preparation, but it also had enough respect for the player’s intelligence not to dumb things down. The game didn’t require you to manage municipal ordinances or to go through all its charts and adjust commercial and industrial tax rates, but if you wanted to mess around with those to try to make more money or spur growth you had that option. As a consequence, both children and their parents might get hooked on this game — it’s intuitive enough for a kid to pick up on quickly, but complex enough for a teenage or adult player looking for a challenge.

The most tutorial-style help SimCity 2000 gave the player in the course of normal play was advice provided by city officials on the budget screen, but again, you weren’t required to consult with them or to take their advice if you did. And sometimes said advice wasn’t even very good, just like you’d expect from a city council in real life.

For example, this nonsense. Legalized gambling is necessary to a city’s lifeblood in my opinion. The more unpleasant elements the better.

So the game let you play seriously if you felt like it. But if you weren’t feeling like it — say, if you had a hard day at school and wanted to let off some steam — you could also use the well-known cheat code to open debug mode (PRISCILLA, typed in all caps while holding the city toolbar, to this day I remember it.) This gave you access to unlimited money and rewards like statues, mansions, and the city-within-a-city arcologies. It also let you wreck everything with an expanded list of disasters that you could trigger. The normal disaster menu let you freely start the usual fires, riots, tornadoes, and earthquakes. But now, like a vengeful god, you could make a volcano rise out of the earth and swallow your city up (or rise off in an uninhabited corner of the map — it seemed to be random where it ended up.)

This part of the city looks nice and idyllic now but just wait until the wrath of God hits it.

SimCity 2000 stole dozens of hours of my childhood that might have been better spent outside in the sun. That’s what some people say, anyway. I’m not sure I believe that myself. And that’s just as well, because this wasn’t the only Sim game that occupied my time. SimTower was released for PC in 1994, and I jumped on it. This one wasn’t developed by Maxis but rather by the Japanese company OpenBook Co., later renamed Vivarium, under the leadership of famous strange game developer Yoot Saito.

But I didn’t know any of that at the time. To me, this was like a followup to SimCity, only scaled down from a city to a single building — a concept that really appealed to me. I felt like I was building a tower that might exist in one of those cities I built in SC2K, one of the big skyscrapers in the heavy commercial zones. Even though it was made by a different developer and was merely branded with the Sim name when ported over to America (in Japan it was simply titled The Tower) SimTower felt like it fit in well with SimCity thematically, which is likely part of why Maxis rebranded and published it here in the first place.

A basic office building like this is easy to build and maintain, but a real skyscraper in SimTower takes way more micromanagement to keep up.

When I wrote a short retrospective on this game years ago, I called it a happiness management simulator, and I stand by that description. Look at all those people lined up in front of the elevators in pink and red: those colors denote progressively more pissed-off tenants and visitors. Elevators quickly reach capacity and just as in real life, people don’t want to take the stairs. Meanwhile, each office, condo, and hotel room you build also has a quality meter that takes a hit if it’s too close to a busy restaurant or shop. And of course, if the shops and restaurants you build don’t get enough traffic, they lose money, and that’s on you somehow — instead of collecting your rent, you either end up paying to keep the place open or axe it and try over. All this day-to-day activity on a smaller scale makes SimTower a little more hectic-feeling than SimCity, but I still liked the feeling of building something and seeing it run, even if my creation kind of sucked at making money.

Years later, I picked up Yoot Tower, which was not released under the Sim name but was a sequel to SimTower in every way right down to the visual style. It seemed to have a few mechanics problems, such as certain businesses being automatic failures no matter where or when you built them (maybe this was intentional, but in that case I’d ask why the hell include those?) but it was still pretty fun seeing how this game expanded on the original.

Why did I even build this stupid ramen shop, nobody likes it

In the mid-90s, however, I was still hooked on SimCity along with a couple of other simulation and strategy games, so much so that I bought SimCopter when it came out in 1996. This was a helicopter flight sim that let you fly around the custom cities you built in SC2K putting out fires and transporting citizens in medical airlifts. Never mind that the game looked like complete ass. It was still a good time flying around the cities you built solving problems or causing even worse problems. Maxis knew the same players who started disasters in their own cities in SC2K would also try to destroy their cities from the inside in SimCopter, so the game lets them cause chaos in ways that it doesn’t really have to: dragging passengers’ icons outside your helicopter actually kicks them out of the vehicle, even if you’re a thousand feet in the air, and visiting a military base in your city lets you steal an Apache that shoots actual missiles. If you’re wondering what happens if you steal an Apache in SimCopter and use it on a nuclear plant, Maxis thought of that too — it was almost more fun causing horrible disasters in your cities than playing the missions and making money to upgrade your helicopter the proper way.

While games like SimCopter and Streets of SimCity were fun diversions, they seemingly didn’t make much of an impact on anyone. Not so for the next big idea Maxis had, which around the beginning of 2000 would start an entirely new spinoff series of games, one of the best-selling of all time. Although it was both critically acclaimed and a massive commercial success, The Sims was where the series lost me. Not that I angrily swore off the Sim series claiming I’d been betrayed or anything dramatic like that. It just didn’t provide what I was looking for when I picked up a Sim game. And since The Sims was more or less what the entire series became rolling into the 2000s as the original sold millions of copies, I naturally drifted away from it.

Relive the excitement of the shitty house you rented your last two years of college!

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit unfair with the above screenshot, because the game lets you do a lot more than recreate a sad existence eating cold pizza in a three-room house. It was advertised as a sort of life simulator, taking you down to the level of the individual people living in a suburb, perhaps just the sort of suburb you might have built in the then-recently released SimCity 3000. You had the option of starting with a family of one to eight people and either buying a pre-built house or building a new house for them to occupy. After your characters, called “Sims” in a tradition stretching back to the old SimCity days, were named and appointed to a house, they started living their everyday lives.

And that’s where almost all the gameplay lies. Left to their own devices, your Sims go about their days, pursuing hobbies, entertaining themselves, and interacting with each other. They have autonomy, and they’ll generally do what they need to do to fulfill their desires: eat, sleep, shower, talk to each other, play games, watch TV, and so on. However, they also have to make money (not to pay rent — they live rent and mortgage-free somehow, which is very convenient, but food, furniture, and other goods still have to be paid for.) So you need to press them to get jobs. Children automatically go to school, but some of your adult Sims can be kept unemployed if you want to keep control of them 24/7.

Build mode lets you design and furnish your own house.

The Sims is largely a social simulator — your Sims gain and lose points with each other in their various interactions, and both love and hate can bloom between them. However, the building process is also an important part of the game. I imagine The Sims is at least twice as fun if you’re into interior design, because the game gives the player quite a few options to choose from: wallpaper, siding, floors, light fixtures, many styles of door and window, and of course a lot of furniture ranging from crappy-looking and cheap to posh and expensive. Gardening fans also have the option of planting trees and bushes outside. Your Sims appreciate getting some fresh air, so a nice garden serves them well. It takes some extra money, but building a pool is a good way of completing your Sims’ home.

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games. Your Sims have that autonomy, and they’ll use it to get to their jobs on their own and do the other things that are absolutely necessary like eating and using the bathroom. However, they also have their own personalities that are set through point systems in the character creation screen, and they’ll act according to their likes and dislikes. A naturally messy Sim won’t be quick to clean up spills, for instance. In extreme cases, if a Sim neglects the bathroom (or if you were an asshole who didn’t bother to build a proper bathroom in your house) they might piss themselves and leave a puddle on the floor. Even worse, your Sims can potentially miss work if they’re distracted by other things. Urine can be cleaned up, at least, but money that goes unmade can’t be made back unless you have a time machine.

With only one or two Sims to deal with, this stuff isn’t too hard to manage. But with eight, all with different personalities and their own likes and dislikes running headlong into each other, things can easily turn chaotic.

Some dumbass starts a fire in the kitchen. This and the other examples I’m using here are official pre-release screenshots from Maxis (the actual game replaces that ugly “GO HERE” button with something nicer and adds toolbars and extra functions) but this is essentially what happens if a disaster strikes: your Sims waving their arms around and being useless, panicky idiots.

I can’t really criticize any of this too much. The Sims was very well-made, with great attention to detail. Much like the older Sim titles, it didn’t feature characters or a story but let the player more or less create their own, and it put the same kind of emphasis on balancing micromanagement and long-term planning.

It still didn’t work for me. Maybe I was just bored with watching a bunch of simulated people live lives that weren’t really that different from our own real-world ones. There was just something so mundane about The Sims that I couldn’t get past. I guess SimCity and SimTower were just as mundane in a way: they also took place in realistic modern-day settings and involved managing money and people to some extent. But they also felt different. I’d never have the ability to control an entire building or city in real life unless I somehow became an insanely powerful CEO or an emperor or someone like that, and I had the sense even as a child that that was not going to happen. Living an everyday life, however — that was something I was already doing when I played The Sims, and it’s still something I do today. Why did I need to recreate that? I didn’t even like my regular life very much, and playing what amounted to a smaller, simpler version of that life didn’t provide the kind of escape I normally looked for in games.

Is this really a kind of escapism, by contrast? Maybe all this is saying more about me than about these games.

This is where my time with the Sim series just about ended. I did buy SimCity 4 when it came out a few years later, and it was a great update to SimCity 2000 and 3000 before it (why they didn’t just continue that trend and call it SimCity 4000 I don’t know; maybe they felt silly about the “thousand” part of the title at that point.) It was nothing new to me, though. The graphics were nicer and more detailed, and there were many more building options and features to choose from, but the old excitement of creation just wasn’t there anymore.

That lack of excitement had nothing to do with SimCity 4 itself. I’d bet that if I were ten years younger, I’d be talking about it in just the same way I talk about SimCity 2000. I’d also bet that there are players out there five or ten years older than me who felt that excitement with the original SimCity and didn’t feel it with SimCity 2000. The first four SimCity titles are excellent games; I believe how you feel about each is largely a matter of which one you started with.

My SimCity 4 city is just as shitty as my SimCity 2000 ones

The fact that I don’t have any nostalgic feelings for The Sims may also have a bit to do with the age at which I played it, but I think that’s more a case of my simply not liking the premise very much. Too bad for me, because that’s the basket where Maxis and its new parent company Electronic Arts put almost all their eggs. The first Sims was followed in the next few years by seven separate expansion packs, not counting later deluxe editions that tied some or all of those expansions to the base game. The Sims 2 and 3 were released in 2004 and 2009, along with their own dozens of expansion packs and with similar critical and commercial success.

I was off the ride at that point, but my ears still perked up when I heard about the newest SimCity release planned to come out in 2013. The release of what was essentially supposed to be SimCity 52 would result in a public relations disaster for EA and Maxis, and the abysmal reception that it received is arguably a large part of the reason that no major Sim titles have been put out in the last seven years other than The Sims 4, which was already well into development at the time. What happened, then?

A promo screenshot of an intersection in 2013’s SimCity.

The new SimCity looked beautiful, but it had the worst release imaginable. Because while it was widely expected to be a principally singleplayer game like its predecessors, it required a connection to EA’s servers to run. The servers crashed upon release, however, so nobody could play the damn game. This was a double whammy for EA and Maxis — first, the fact that having bought a $60 game (still considered a fairly high price tag for a game in 2013) most of its owners could not play it, and second, that it required a connection to play in the first place. The developer and publisher’s defenses of their actions (that they weren’t actually deceiving anyone, and particularly that it wasn’t in anyone’s interest to play SimCity in offline mode) were worse than useless, seen by many as disingenuous and insulting towards the fans. Even Will Wright, who had left Maxis behind well before development started, took shots at his old company for essentially putting DRM into the game that broke it for legitimate players.3

At the time, I watched all this happen, and then I watched EA and Maxis scramble to reassure everyone that The Sims 4, planned for release in 2014, would be playable offline. And though I was very put off by how they handled the whole matter, I think I was done with the series anyway at that point. I likely would have checked SimCity out just out of curiosity, and because it really did look that good, at least from the promotional materials and pre-release videos. But it wasn’t something I was obsessing over, and I didn’t really lose out on much in the end.

But what about the kids who were around that same age I was when I first got hooked on SimCity 2000? It seems to me that they were cheated out of a potentially great experience. To this day, the new SimCity carries a poor reputation, one not helped by the fact that it was also reportedly pretty buggy on release. The go-to city-building games as a result now seem to be SimCity 4 — 17 years old as of this writing, but seen as the last true SimCity game by a lot of fans — and Cities: Skylines, a series put out by serious-business ultra-complex strategy game publisher Paradox.

Cities: Skylines might be good, but does it have stupid-looking mad libs style newspaper articles?

Maybe it’s just my sense of nostalgia talking again. Maybe Cities: Skylines is really a great game, a true successor to the old SimCity titles. But I do think something was lost when EA and Maxis screwed up the new SimCity release and then blamed the players for not accepting the new situation they were trying to create with their always-online scheme. There was no reason the series had to die. It’s not like these PC game series have expiration dates. Sid Meier’s Civilization series, one of my other childhood favorites, has been going strong for almost 30 years now without much trouble. No, it seems like sheer arrogance killed the Sim series. Even though I don’t care for The Sims that much, I can see why a lot of people loved and still love that game and its sequels. And I can also see why a lot of people hated what the series turned into in 2013 and why they turned their backs on it.

Despite all that, the impact the Sim series had on me and a lot of other people has been significant. It took an unusual game concept that hadn’t been tried on a large scale by the late 80s and proved it had wide appeal if done right. Even if it was just a simplified simulation, it showed us the workings of a city, how it was almost like a living organism that could thrive or wither based on how it was maintained and what conditions it was subjected to. And it taught us the joys of making a new save file probably titled [city name]-2 and then unleashing fires, riots, and UFO attacks on said city to see just how much would be left standing after the chaos ended. Many of the same lessons go for SimTower, and though it didn’t work for me, I think The Sims had a similar impact for others. Even if the Sim series is permanently dead now, that impact will never go away. It’s something worth remembering.

***

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get so melancholic by the end. I really feel old after writing all that, scouring my memories of the series and how I felt about it. It all feels like it happened a lifetime ago. There are also a lot of highly praised Sim titles like SimAnt and SimFarm that I didn’t even touch on because I never played them, but I’m sure players have plenty of good memories of those games as well. I don’t know if anyone has any especially good memories of the new SimCity, but if you do, please feel free to leave a comment. A different perspective is always interesting to hear. 𒀭

 

1 I did own SimCity Classic, but only because I ordered it out of the Scholastic catalogue thinking it was that SimCity 2000 game I’d played some of on my cousin’s computer. Still a good game, but I was quite disappointed when it came in the mail and I realized my mistake.

2 I know I’m not even close to the first person to point this out, but it seems like new games released in long-running series that are put out with exactly the same titles as their respective originals have all failed to capture the feeling of those originals: Sonic the Hedgehog in 2006, SimCity in 2013, Thief in 2014. And though it’s a movie, let’s not forget Ghostbusters in 2016, which despite getting a lot of critical praise and some mild commercial success has since been hidden away and almost totally forgotten. It’s almost like there was unwarranted pride at work in all these cases.

3 To be fair, Wright faced his own DRM-related backlash with the less botched but still controversial release of his own game Spore in 2008. I guess he’d learned his lesson by this point.

Summer cleaning game review special #4: A Short Hike

A Short Hike is another game I dug up in the pile of 1,000+ games in that itch.io bundle. I didn’t know it at first, but this game seems to have gotten a lot of attention for a small indie title since it was released last year. Makes sense: it has a lot more polish on it than most of the others I’ve played, with nice graphics and music and a small world to explore.

You play as Claire, a bird girl in a world of Animal Crossing-looking characters, on vacation on an island popular for its hiking trails. There’s not much direction at first; the only stated goal is to climb up a difficult trail that turns out to lead to the top of the mountain in the center of the map. Since she’s a bird, Claire can fly and glide, abilities that will help her get up the mountain, but there are also items that will improve those abilities. The key items to look out for are the golden feathers sold by a couple of characters and scattered around the island; these give Claire the added ability to climb up steep surfaces and to jump multiple times in midair.

Halfway up the mountain

In addition to the main objective of “get up the mountain” there are a bunch of fetch quests, races, and other challenges you can take on by talking to NPCs. The game doesn’t demand you do any of this stuff, though. If you feel like leisurely exploring your surroundings, you can just do that. There’s no way to die; Claire doesn’t take fall damage or drown or anything like that, and there’s no time limit. And the controls feel very natural, so it’s fun to just run around aimlessly in this world finding new characters and items.

A Short Hike feels like it was made to be approached this way. Maybe I’ve played a few too many indie games that looked innocent and fun at first but then had a big plot twist and turned into psychological horror or broke the fourth wall and started talking directly to me. So for a while part of me was bracing for something weird to happen, but nothing ever did. As much as I like some of those games, it’s fine that I could take this one at face value. A Short Hike isn’t trying to shock the player or make any big statement; it just feels made for relaxation, especially in the way the background music changes as you run and fly around the island to suit the mood of each area.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a big deal

A Short Hike goes for eight dollars on itch.io. Admittedly I didn’t pay that price, but it doesn’t seem like such a bad one considering what you get for it. I think it’s the kind of game I might just load every so often to run around in for a bit. If that’s not your thing, then you should definitely avoid it, because there’s not much else to do beyond the various side quests and exploration. But it might be therapeutic for you, especially in these shitty times.

Summer cleaning game review special #3: Radical Solitaire

Does that screen hurt your eyes? Well it did mine. This is Radical Solitaire, another game in that itch.io bundle. You might be wondering what’s so special about a solitaire game, especially one released this year (and not in 1982 as developer Vector Hat claims, the liar!) And especially one that at first doesn’t look that different from the standard game of Klondike that has come with every version of Windows since the dark ages, aside from having a title screen that changes to different eye-destroying color schemes every ten seconds.

Well, there are a few differences. The only reason I decided to check Radical Solitaire out among the many games in that bundle was that it claimed to be different in its tagline, which makes the promise: “never a bad deal, always a RAD DEAL!” So I downloaded it to see what was so rad about this solitaire game.

This deal doesn’t look that fucking rad to me

At first it just seemed like a regular game of Klondike with some weird sound effects, something like a robotic yelp every time I uncovered a new card. However, when I got stuck in my game, I went over to the GET RAD button. Clicking it didn’t do anything, but dragging an upturned card to it did:

Yes, this is a Klondike/Breakout hybrid. Any time you’re stuck, you can drag a useless card to that GET RAD button and play a game of Breakout to change it out for any still-hidden card. Every time one of the balls breaks through and hits the card, it changes, and each game can get quite chaotic — new balls are embedded in the wall and can be broken out and used to hit the card as well. There’s no guarantee that the card you’ll end up with at the end of your Breakout game will be useful, but you can play new games of Breakout as many times as you want to get something you can use. Hell, you can just play Breakout all day if you want. Radical Solitaire doesn’t seem to care if you ignore the solitaire part of it.

It’s definitely an interesting combination, and I think the basic idea works. The fucking color schemes still hurt my eyes, though to be fair the game does at least provide a night mode if you’re up playing this at 3 am. As for whether I’d recommend it, I don’t know. If the weird colors don’t bother you and you’re a huge fan of both solitaire and Breakout, you’ll probably like this. If not, it’s probably not for you. If it were free I’d say try it out either way just to experience how strange it is, but it does normally cost three dollars, so whether you want to spend that money is up to you (and if you have epilepsy, I guess you should be careful — I’m not sure how the flashing lights issue works, but this game does have those, though it looks like they can be turned off.) In any case, next time I’ll look at a game that hopefully won’t give me eyestrain.

A review of Atelier Meruru DX (PS4)

Years ago, to take my mind off of my extremely irritating studies, I bought a digital copy of Atelier Rorona Plus for the Vita. This was my very first Atelier game, and though I liked its unique style quite a lot, I never got around to playing any of the other Atelier games. Not until I dropped part of my tax refund this year on Atelier Meruru DX, a deluxe PS4 edition of the original Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland on the PS3.

I really like to think that some mom in a Gamestop bought her princess-obsessed kid this game based on the cover, but then it turns out to be all about a princess dealing with bureaucratic deadlines and resource management.

Meruru is the final game in the Arland trilogy, a sub-series of the much larger long-running JRPG Atelier series made by the Japanese developer Gust. While the Arland trilogy shares the central alchemy mechanic in common with the rest of the Atelier games, it also has its own identity distinct from the others.

But first a catch-up on the characters and plot. The protagonist, Merurulince Rede Arls, is the daughter and only child of Lord Dessier, the King of Arls. Somehow this tiny podunk town, population 1,000, counts as a kingdom and has a king with a giant stone castle, but we can’t question that too much. In any case, all that’s about to change.

Princess Merurulince, or Meruru to her friends, constantly shirks her royal duties to practice alchemy under the direction of her teacher, the master alchemist Totooria Helmold. Meruru doesn’t like being a princess, and she reasons that since their tiny kingdom is going to be merged into the far larger Arland Republic in five years, upholding her royal duties doesn’t matter that much anyway. Even so, her dad understandably isn’t too keen on his daughter studying a trade that requires hunting for ingredients in the wilderness, killing monsters, and working with potent poisons and explosive fuels.

However, Meruru won’t back down, so the king’s butler Rufus proposes a compromise that they both accept: if Meruru can use her alchemy skills to increase the population of Arls to 30,000 within three years, Dessier will allow her to become a full-time alchemist.

The stamp makes it official

So while Dessier sits his royal ass on his throne for three years, he leaves it up to his teenage daughter to actually do all the work to strengthen the kingdom. Some king he is, but there’s nothing to be done about it. Meruru (meaning the player) must find some way to increase the population of Arls to thirty times its original size while also maintaining her popularity among the people, otherwise it’s a game over and a bad end.

Thankfully, Meruru isn’t left alone in her efforts. She first gets help from an unexpected place: the castle itself, represented by Rufus. Though he calls himself a butler, he’s really more of a chief advisor and minister to Dessier, and he takes his job extremely seriously — a single needle can’t drop in Arls without Rufus knowing about it. He’s also serious about the development plan he proposed. When Meruru receives requests from the citizens to develop new patches of wilderness or to clear up monster-infested areas, Rufus creates plans for the princess to carry out that will variously open new areas for exploration, increase her popularity, and bump up the kingdom’s population. As Meruru fulfills these goals she also gains points that can be used to build new facilities, bringing even greater population increases and other various benefits.

And of course, the princess doesn’t have to go off gathering alchemy ingredients and killing monsters all by herself, because she has plenty of friends to help her. These include both new characters native to Arls and returning characters from the two previous Arland games, and some of them can be recruited to join Meruru’s party in battle while she explores the various fields, forests, and mountains of the surrounding country. Each of these characters has a different combat style: some are more defensive and supportive like Meruru’s childhood friend/chief maid Keina, while others are offensive like the warrior Lias. They also have very different attack ranges and skills, so no one character plays quite like another, which adds some nice variety (even if it means that some characters kind of suck in battle when compared to others.)

And then of course there are the other alchemist characters. The Arland series specifically features a chain of masters and apprentices continuing from game to game starting with Atelier Rorona, in which Rorona is the player character and apprentice (which you can read about in my very old, completely inadequate review of that game.) In the second game of the series, Atelier Totori, the main character Totori is apprenticed to Rorona, who has become a renowned master of alchemy, though still exactly as clumsy and ditzy as she’s always been.

Totori joining up to kill some wolves in the mountains

Carrying on that tradition, Meruru is now apprenticed to the master Totori. As such, a lot of Meruru’s time is going to be spent in the atelier crafting items using the ingredients she finds in the field and after battles while under Totori’s supervision. Though the Atelier games are turn-based JRPGs, they’re very different from the typical sort of JRPG, and part of this difference comes from the all-important alchemy mechanic. The alchemists in these games are special because they alone have the ability to craft and use items that do everything from heal allies’ wounds to destroying the shit out of enemies, making them potentially very powerful.

This unique gameplay feature adds quite a lot of variety to the game by letting the player mess around with ingredients that have different qualities and traits. One of the most fun aspects of the Atelier games is experimenting with new mixes to see what works and what doesn’t, and the games generally give the player leeway to try new things out. Because as with the other Atelier games, alchemy in Meruru isn’t a mere crafting system: it’s practically a science in itself. For a while, you’ll see traits passed on through synthesis that you have no idea of, there are so damn many of them. Players who commit themselves to getting alchemy down can make truly amazing items, however, and that’s part of the satisfaction that playing Meruru provided me.

Once the princess learns how to synthesize weapons and armaments, that mom realizes this game wasn’t quite what she expected

You might have noticed that I haven’t elaborated on the plot a whole lot beyond the basic premise, and that’s because there isn’t much of one. Certainly unusual for a JRPG, which tend to be very plot-heavy, but in Meruru there are no world-ending comets or plagues or any magic crystals to take away from an evil overlord. There isn’t exactly any villain in this game at all, at least not in the way we’d normally understand it. Meruru’s big goal is simply to be allowed to practice alchemy, nothing more or less, so that motivation is the central force driving the plot.

This is an element of Atelier Meruru that may put some players off, but I don’t really care about it. In fact, it’s nice to play a JRPG (hell, an RPG at all) for once that doesn’t have a great evil emperor pretending to be the big villain with a greater evil god or god-controlled lieutenant of the emperor behind him as the true villain. If you want that, you can get enough of it out of Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, and as much as I like it yes, Megami Tensei too. The conflicts faced by the protagonists in the Arland series are much more personal — saving your small business from being closed by a corrupt government minister, finding your missing mother, and in the case of Meruru simply not fitting the mold you were intended for.

Offtopic but I like that thing Totori wears on her head, whatever that’s supposed to be

That’s not to say there is no villain at all in Atelier Meruru. I’m not talking about the boss battles you have to fight, or even about that lazy bastard Lord Dessier. No, the villain in Meruru is far greater than any of those: it’s the calendar, or more broadly time itself. When you’re given the three-year time limit arrangement at the beginning of the game, you might be thinking “Okay, three years. That’s a long time. This will be easy!” And then it’s very easy to start getting sidetracked by going on journeys through the countryside and freely doing alchemy. Of course, you’ll notice that time is ticking down as you proceed — traveling, gathering items and getting into battles in the field, and synthesizing items in the atelier all take parts of days or full days to complete depending on the size of the task in question. But no, three years is plenty of time, right?

Hey, look at this fortress we built all thanks to alchemy. We’re doing fine, Meruru! No need to worry about that stupid time limit.

When I played Rorona years ago, I remember Rorona having deadlines to fulfill certain tasks or else she’d get a bad end, but I don’t remember ever having to worry very much about meeting those deadlines. They seemed easy enough to fulfill while playing the game pretty naturally. So I went into Meruru with the same mindset, and it turned out to be the wrong one. It might be my fault for not realizing that it’s a lot easier to gauge your progress towards a one- or three-month deadline than it is towards a three-year one. Still, I got legitimately pissed off at one point when a certain event occurred that I wasn’t expecting, causing me to have to waste extra months running back and forth from a distant area to acquire an item necessary to a development quest. It’s a good thing I make several saves, because when this event occurred I didn’t even know how absolutely fucked I was until a few months later when I realized I couldn’t synthesize what I needed in time to meet the three-year population deadline. So I did something I normally don’t — I reloaded an old save.

Maybe some people would consider that cheap, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t pour hours into a game like this to get a bad end and get kicked back to the beginning of year one. I’m a busy man with a life outside of these games. Anyway, if the game wanted me to commit to a single straight-through run, it wouldn’t have given me multiple save slots. I highly suggest you use at least a few of them unless you’re the type to fully commit to one run without reloading no matter how badly you might screw up. I have respect for people who commit in that way, but hell if I’m one of them myself. The key in this case, as far as I’m concerned, is that the game gave me no reason to believe that I needed to take a certain action before an arbitrary date. Looking back, Meruru did drop a hint of what I should have done, but it turned out to be the kind of hint that you only see in retrospect. Or maybe I’m just an idiot. I have made a lot of terrible real life decisions, so perhaps that’s more likely.

I don’t know if nectar calms your nerves, but I might need a glass after that bullshit.

Without spoiling anything, my general advice to new players is to trust your instincts: if the game seems to be suggesting that maybe you should check something out and it won’t take you too much time to do so, go and check it out and gather what ingredients you can, because you might need them. If the game is giving you a tool to use, say by bringing a new shopkeeper into town who offers a unique service, you should try using it as soon as possible. You should also be fulfilling requests at the tavern on a regular basis, if possible with high-quality items, to keep Meruru’s popularity up and to make extra money, because you can never have too much of either.

Even with all the time pressure, it’s hard to get too mad at Meruru. The game is just too damn positive, cute, and friendly. A lot of this has to do with the game’s style. Every entry in the Arland trilogy features character and background art by the excellent Mel Kishida. The sheer amount of detail in the character portraits and CGs alone make the game worth looking at even for people who aren’t so into turn-based JRPG stuff. I’m not sure if he’s also responsible for the item illustrations, but whether it’s him or someone else, the work on those is even amazing, all the more so because there are hundreds of ingredients and synthesized items in the game.

Playing this game actually made me hungry at times. If only I knew how to bake, damn.

I also have to mention the game’s beautiful soundtrack. I don’t hear Atelier get mentioned too often when it comes to game soundtracks, and to be fair I haven’t mentioned it either, but now I’ll give these composers their dues, because both Rorona and Meruru, and I have to assume probably Totori as well, feature a wide variety of music that’s all suited for fighting in battle, gathering ingredients in the field, running around in town, and working in the atelier. From what I’ve heard of the following Dusk trilogy in the Atelier series, that quality of music continues on as well.

The game also gives the player plenty of time to relax with dialogue cutscenes that come up throughout the game without any prompting. A lot of these involve characters from the previous two games in the Arland series. Though it helps provide context if you’ve played those games, it’s not necessary to understanding what’s going on. I’m in a bit of a weird position since I’ve played the first game in the series but not the second, so while old faces returning from Rorona are familiar to me, those from Totori aren’t. But again, it doesn’t matter that much. In fact, if you start off playing Meruru before the others, you’ll be in the same position as Meruru herself, who’s meeting all these recurring characters aside from Totori for the first time.

Totori having a flashback to her own game.

Of course, all these character interactions wouldn’t be so fun if the characters were all two-dimensional cardboard cutout types, and they aren’t. Some of them are a bit exaggerated in their weird traits, but almost all of them feel more or less like people who you might know in real life (well okay, maybe not Pamela, but I did say almost.) Series with a lot of characters like this tend to give their secondary characters very little detail, usually with only one broad trait and absolutely nothing else, but the Arland games take that extra step to make them feel a little more fleshed out. Maybe because they contain dialogue and slice-of-life style chatter in place of that big serious plot.

This aspect of the series is more obvious with the main characters. The protagonist here is a great example — although Meruru gets along well with her teacher Totori, the two have very different personalities: while Totori is careful and meticulous, Meruru tends to jump into new, potentially dangerous situations without thinking too much about it. And this balance works: Meruru, despite not really wanting to be a princess, accepts her role as a leader for her people and uses alchemy to help them thanks in part to her more level-headed teacher’s guidance. The alchemists central to the games’ plots are all very different kinds of people, but they manage to work together to create amazing machines and objects to help their friends and fellow citizens, and isn’t that what life is all about?

So this might be a pretty obvious conclusion to this review since I’ve been mostly gushing over how good it is, but do I recommend Atelier Meruru? I do, especially if you’re into the kind of obsessive collecting that I am, because unlocking new items to create through alchemy fulfills that weird need I have very well. I don’t know how it measures up to any of the other games aside from Rorona, but it  measures up to that game pretty well even if I still feel like Meruru was quite a bit bullshittier in parts. But again, I’m pretty forgiving of that. Maybe too forgiving. It’s that damn bishoujo style Kishida draws — I would not have accepted this nonsense from a less cute game. There is also plenty of game content left after your three years is up assuming you don’t get a bad end, so that adds some slightly more relaxed time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And as with the other Arland games you get some benefits from a new game plus, making successive runs quite a bit easier to manage if you decide to go after some of the game’s hardest challenges or see new endings.

As for which version of Meruru you should buy, the only one I’ve played is the DX version on the PS4, which runs well and contains some DLC costumes and recruitable characters who weren’t in the original. There are also DX versions on the Switch and PC, and those are probably fine as well, but not having played them I can’t say whether they might have some technical issues. If you’re the kind of true patrician who owns a Vita, there’s also Meruru Plus, which is probably also fine to play if it’s anything like Rorona Plus, but again, I can’t really say. Just buy whichever one suits you best.

I don’t own Meruru Plus, but here’s a screenshot from my very own Vita copy of Rorona Plus if you want a general comparison. Why do I have so much high-grade perfume? I don’t know, but Pamela seems happy about it.

As a side note, the Atelier games in general still seem to be in a bit of a weird niche area, though the series may be branching out to a new audience now. All of the more modern games have been localized, but the series as a whole seems to have gone largely unnoticed outside of the usual weeb circles up until the most recent game Atelier Ryza, which attracted some new players thanks to Ryza’s, let’s say “generous” character model. But so much the better. I know some people feel that bringing in more fans can “ruin” a series or whatever (just have a look at any Persona-oriented board for some of that) but more fans mean more exposure for the series in question, and that probably isn’t such a bad thing. It also means more people get to appreciate these quality works, and I don’t see how anyone could object to that. 𒀭