Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Unstoppable Force Meets the Immovable Object

As the story goes (and which I've probably recounted here at least a few times), in 2008 the illustrious and praiseworthy Kmork suggested that I play the newly released port of Chrono Trigger for the Nintendo DS. I was reluctant at first because, growing up playing video games, I had never had a good -- or even a somewhat pleasant -- experience with RPG. Some of my friends and I half-assed our way through D&D paper-and-pencil role playing games in elementary school*, and when RPG video games started to take off in the late-80s, I wasn't inclined to play them; or the ones that I did -- I'm looking at you, Double Dungeons for the TurboGrafx-16 -- were so dull that they deadened any enthusiasm I might have had for the genre had I played some of the better ones. But after doing some Internet research and learning that Chrono Trigger was considered one of the best video games of all time full stop, I decided to give it a whirl.

I'm glad I did, and I'm thankful that Kmork suggested the game to me. As someone who was by far no way an RPG guy, I still consider Chrono Trigger to be one of the best video game experiences I've ever had. Odd, then, that I didn't seek to delve further into the genre.

Flash forward to late last year. I work in localization of all kinds, but roughly 60-70% of my work involves video games. Since localization can also entail week-long stretches of little to do, my project manager asked me to play games on my PC or phone in my downtime, and I was given carte blanche to decide which games to play (within a reasonable spectrum of genres; there's not much to grok professionally from playing eight hours of Pac-Man a day).

He didn't have to tell me twice. "You mean I'm getting paid to play games at work and I get to pick the games I play?" I wanted to travel back in time and say to12-year-old me, "You're never going to fucking believe this, dude, but..."

Since we localize a lot of RPG, I started looking into which games -- which good games --were ported to iPhone. After doing some research and consulting with Kmork, I decided on Final Fantasy IV, which was released on the App Store in late 2012 and is a port of the 2008 Nintendo DS 3D remake of the original game, released in 1991.

I loved it. While not as great in my estimation as Chrono Trigger, it rekindled the same excitement I experienced almost six years prior with that worthy, and it prompted me to seek out another highly acclaimed RPG posthaste. Fortuitously, news soon hit afterward that Square Enix was going to release an iOS port of Final Fantasy VI, considered by many to be the zenith of video game RPGs.

It was released on February 6th, and I downloaded it that very day without a second thought given to the game's relatively high and much bemoaned -- for iPhone games -- price ($16.99). On Friday morning, I beat it like you better run you better do what you can, and since then I've been pondering whether Final Fantasy VI or Chrono Trigger if the best RPG that I've played. It's a close call.

So, because I have nothing better to do, I thought I'd try to break it down and try to find an answer using my admittedly limited experience in the genre. My criteria are Story, Characters, Villains and Enemies, Gameplay, Music, and Miscellaneous. As a relative neophyte, I expect and encourage comments telling me I'm wrong and that you have had carnal relations with my mother.


Story: Chrono Trigger and FF VI are both epic in storytelling ambition. The former involves time traveling back and forth through millennia in an attempt to save the world pre- and post an apocalypse, and the latter involves trying to, futilely, prevent an apocalypse and then trying to salvage the world after it occurs. It's a close call for me which one is more involving**, but I have to stump for Chrono Trigger in this case. It has time traveling; and, while I like the relatively more mature, "darker" nature of FF VI (Celes tries to commit suicide! Cyan's wife and young son are murdered!), CT offers a more thematically balanced and diverse scope.

Slight Edge: Chrono Trigger

Characters: Another very tough call. Chrono Trigger's protagonists are so memorable: Crono, Lucca, Marle, Frog/Glenn, Robo, Ayla, Magus...Then again, FF VI offers up 14(!) playable characters (not including cameos from Banon and General Leo). But while FF VI has twice as many characters with which to play as, a lot of them get short shrift in terms of development. Mog, Umaro, and Gogo have basic to no characterization whatsoever***, and characters like Gau, Setzer, Relm, and Strago, while having much more background development, are underwritten or come into the game's plot so late that it's hard to develop as much affection for them as that of the characters who were introduced prior.

So while Chrono Trigger has half the playable characters that FF VI does, every one of its characters are thoroughly fleshed out. The same thing can't be said of FF VI. Quality, not quantity. So I'm going to use an A-B-C rubric of my own perhaps/probably flawed making to judge this one. Three points for A, 2 for B, and 1 for C. -2 points for a failing grade, and -0.5 points for extra characters over CT's seven.

Chrono Trigger

A: Marle, Lucca, Frog/Glenn, Robo, Magus
B: Ayla
C: Crono (He's the player's surrogate, sure, but that doesn't mean he's not a vacuum of characterization)

 Final Fantasy VI

A: Terra, Locke, Celes, Edgar, Cyan, Sabin
B: Relm, Strago, Shadow, Setzer, Gau
F: Mog, Umaro, Gogo

Hopefully my math isn't fuzzy, but that works out to 18 points for Chrono Trigger and 18.5 points for Final Fantasy VI. I kind of want to argue with myself for choosing that rubric, but who am I to argue with math?

Slight Edge: Final Fantasy VI

Villains and Enemies

Yes, Kefka is a great villain, but he's also a very easy one to create. Like The Joker, he just wants to see the world burn. People complain about cardboard do-gooder heroes (Superman, Mr. Rogers, Jesus H. Christ), but the nihilistic antagonist who just wants to wipe out everything***** is as easy to create as a grilled cheese sandwich. Now, Kefka is a grilled cheese sandwich made with sourdough bread, Swiss, Monterey Jack, and Colby cheese, but he's still a grilled cheese sandwich. He's full dark, no stars. Black holes are scary because of our inability to understand them, but that also makes them pretty uninteresting as evil incarnate.

As for the rest of FF VI's main villains, there's not much to be said. Emperor Gestahl is a double-crossing sonuvabitch (which makes him at least somewhat relatable to living human beings), and Ultros is the video-game analogue of Don Rickles.

The enemies in the game range from expertly designed and awesome to hilariously out of place and awful. As great-looking as the King Behemoth or Ultima Weapon are, you also have Leaf Bunnies and Onion Knights and whatever random shit the animators and graphics teams came up with while possibly working on no sleep for two days straight.

And while this game vs. game criticism is between Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, I feel the need to point out that Final Fantasy IV has a plethora of memorable bad guys, each one carefully and independently conceptualized. Again, I get that the developers wanted to focus on Kefka as the be-all-end-all enemy, but it makes the rest of the game's bosses feel insignificant.

I didn't have that problem with Chrono Trigger. All of the enemies are well integrated into the game without the WTH? factor, and when you're fighting a boss, you, as a player, want to beat them more because they're more realized and are actually included in the game's main story.

Big Edge: Chrono Trigger
Gameplay: Caveat: I've only played Chrono Trigger on the Nintendo DS Lite and Final Fantasy VI on the iPhone 5, so if you're an old-school day-and-date-release gamer your experience is probably greatly different from mine. I cannot fathom having to cycle through menus with the SNES's gamepad, and maybe that's a big reason I've taken to video game RPGs in recent years. Touch menus are to RPG gaming as wings are to flight. So I apologize for missing out on the controller-throwing frustration of not being nimble enough with the D-pad-and-button-play of the games' original releases.

"Gameplay" is an umbrella term, and this post is already longer than it deserves to be, but my criteria is thus: fun factor, difficulty-to-fun ratio, and sustained interest on the player's part.

There's no doubt that Chrono Trigger is an easier game, but that doesn't make it comparatively better or worse; it all depends on what you're looking for in a gaming experience. I like hard games (Contra IV, holla!), and I like simple games (I've been playing the shit out of Super Stickman Golf 2), and I like games that aren't by many definitions even considered games at all (Device 6, Picross). But what I won't abide is intentional vagueness disguised as art or innovation for difficulty's sake****.

Final Fantasy VI is more challenging than Chrono Trigger, but, while most of the game is linear in its intuitiveness, the record skips in the World of Ruin. I'm all for open-world exploring and blah blah Doom Gaze blah, but I had to take an almost 3-week break from the game after trying, fruitlessly, to find Locke. You shouldn't need a decoder ring to read a book, nor should you need to land on a random island to accomplish an important part of the game. I'll remember FF VI as one of the best gaming experiences of my life, but the asterisk "Trying to find Locke was bullshit" will circle above my memory like a cursed halo.

Edge: Chrono Trigger

Music: Hoo, boy! To me this comes down to which soundtrack has more hit singles versus the complete album, and FF VI wins out in pure longevity. This is the one criterion that I am 100% sure I'm judging without blinders, because I've been listening to the Chrono Trigger OST regularly since 2009, and only in the past two months have I been listening to the FF VI OST. Chrono Trigger's OST hits its high notes higher, and it's shinier, but the FF VI score is consistently better.

Slight Edge: Final Fantasy VI


Chrono Trigger:  Only being able to have a maximum of 3 members in the party during battles is limiting, but the dynamic works 60% of the time every time. Team combos are fun to mess around with. Chrono is

Final Fantasy VI

The Gold Dragon is a brontosaurus. I never was able to figure out what Gau's father meant about fixing his door.


* Every single campaign started off in a tavern. Every single one!

** I used the root word "involve" three times in that paragraph, with 2 definitions, and I regret nothing. Nothing!

*** Even their economically short names feel like wheel-churning creative spitballing compared to names like the hilarious and obviously overthought Edgar Roni Figaro.

**** It's also why I hate James Joyce novels.

***** It could be argued that Kefka wins the entire game. He wants everything to end, and after he dies, how would he know it doesn't?

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