Short Takes

June 16th, 2009 by | Tags: , , ,

I’m coming at you guys with a few short blurbs this week. I’ve got a few things on my mind that aren’t really topics for longer think-pieces, but we’ll be back to the normal 4thletter! format next week.

In both the comic book community and the video game community, the release of monthly sales figures is a newsworthy event. One look at the comments on Newsarama or an NPD thread on the NeoGAF forums reveals the incredible level of importance that fans give to the raw data, even without any sort of analysis from journalists in their respective industries. What I’m stuck puzzling out, though, is what these numbers mean to people who aren’t invested in cheering on one company or another. Are they worth anything beyond a passing moment of happiness when you see that something you like sells well?

It’s tempting to just write off sales figures as nothing more than fanboy bait, mere fodder for endless arguments about which consoles, characters, and companies are better than others. That’s mostly what they’re for, after all, when you’re just looking at the commentary that follows the postings. Let’s not let the fanboys ruin things for us, though. There’s important information to be found if you’re a huge nerd about industry trends, success stories, and the difference between products that are immediate blockbusters and those with “long tails” (things that become successful, sales-wise, over a long period of time).

Admittedly there’s not a lot there for someone who isn’t invested in either comics or games, but don’t write sales off as something boring. Sales figure data is what leads to really interesting stories and analysis, enabling discussion about why nobody but Nintendo can sell games on the Wii, or why Justice League of America is still a top 15 book, or why Chris Claremont keeps getting his own series (brand recognition, name recognition, and built-in fanbases, respectively and collectively).

David and I have both been replaying Final Fantasy 7 since its release on the PlayStation Network last week. It’s got me thinking a lot about how RPG design, or at least Japanese RPG design, hasn’t really changed significantly since its original release in late ’97. Final Fantasy 7 was a watershed moment for me, the first RPG I ever played through, and since I was 12 at the time I did it, the game left a lasting impression on me. This impression, I think, is what makes me feel like just about every JRPG I’ve played since has just been a refinement of that “modern formula,” with everything post-FF7 and post-move-to-3d playing incredibly similarly.

This is clearer to me in the current generation of games than it has been in a long time. Games like Eternal Sonata, Infinite Undiscovery, Tales of Vesperia, and Star Ocean: The Last Hope, once you get past the novelty of their respective combat systems and graphical styles, all feel like variation on the same tired themes. They’re not bad games, for what they are, but there’s nothing innovative about them at all, to my eyes.

Am I completely wrong about this? In the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 era, RPGs were the games that I cut my teeth on, the genre I delved into more deeply than any other. It might just be that I’m jaded, but outside of, say, Final Fantasy 12 and the recent Persona games, it’s like the quote about there being “nothing new under the sun” is actually completely true for the genre. Please, someone tell me I’m wrong about this. I’d love to be able to play a new game instead of going through Final Fantasy 7 for the 5th time, no matter how fun it is, and how nostalgic I am.

I know I talked about this last week, but how good is inFamous? I’ve played more of it since the last time I wrote, and despite warnings that the missions would get repetitive, it hasn’t lost a single bit of its charm. I know people don’t want to read me harping on this game again and again, so this’ll be the last time I mention it, but it’s the best game I’ve played all year and anyone who has a PlayStation 3 and 60 bucks to spare has no excuse for not playing it. It’s got good combat, great platforming, and a story that’s engaging

Finally, I want to conduct an informal straw poll of the 4thletter! readers… Video games are a new topic for 4thletter! (longtime readers don’t need to worry about it taking over, It’s just me and my weekly post), so I really have no idea what kind of things you actually want to read about. So far I’ve just been winging it and assuming that my audience isn’t one full of enthusiasts, and I’ve been trying to aim my thoughts accordingly. If this is the wrong assumption to make, leave a comment or send me an e-mail. Let me know what kind of articles you guys want to read, enthusiasts or people who could not care less about games, and I’ll get to work filling that niche.

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7 comments to “Short Takes”

  1. I thought inFamous was great but after finishing it as a good guy on normal and playing through it again I just didn’t care as much as they seemed to copy/paste large sections of the city (it seemed like I spent 99% of the game fighting people underneath the train by the water) and the powers struck me as kind of uninspired. I traded it in towards Prototype and I’m finding that to be generally more compelling because the sheer variety of options you have in the massively overwhelming combat.

    And about the video games: I think that regular discussion of the kinds of games that would appeal to comic people (i.e. Prototype or inFamous) would be well suited to the sort of criticism and discussion I get from 4L.

  2. The elephant in the room of video games, Matt, is that the entire industry is pretty much eating its own tail these days. Count the number of sequels to the number of original IP releases (and watch those original properties crash and burn on release, to bring things full circle to the sales figures bit). I have yet to buy anything more modern than a PS2, because I don’t see much out I didn’t already play on PS2, albeit with shinier graphics. Once any genre gets into a rut, it kinda stays there. How many space marines vs aliens/demons/other space marines games does the market really need?

    I think the real originality is coming from handheld systems and the Wii, probably because budgets are several orders of magnitude lower there and one failed game doesn’t have the very real danger of sinking the entire company.

  3. @Joe Iglesias: I think you’ve got a definite point about the handheld consoles being a place for innovation. Most of the more original games I’ve played in the last few months have been on the DS (Henry Hatsworth, for example) and the PSP Go is innovating in the retail space by getting rid of the ability to buy games for it at retail.

    I’m not entirely convinced about the Wii; mine pretty much collects dust outside of Virtual Console games and Wii Fit.

  4. JRPGs were stagnant before FF7. FF7 didn’t really add a whole lot more than 3D graphics. In terms of gameplay, it was virtually identical to everything that came before it, with a couple shitty minigames thrown in. So, the fact that the genre hasn’t changed much since then isn’t much of a surprise. I think the main problem is that there’s not much of anywhere it can go without becoming a Western RPG, and that’s really not what JRPG fans want.

    InFamous has been fun, but it’s getting really repetative. I haven’t finished, but I’m not really sure what more it can do. I also think the morality system is broken. You’re essentially railroaded into playing either ALL good or ALL bad since trying to be middle of the road prevents you from getting all the powers, and you HAVE to play just one side’s side missions to get one power since it locks out the other side. Plus the choices are “HMMM IF I KICK THIS KITTEN IT WILL MAKE THAT KID CRY AND THAT WOULD BE FUNNY OR I COULD GIVE IT SOME CATNIP AND HELP IT OUT OF THIS TREE AND THE KID WILL LIKE ME.” Well, they get better later on, but still.

  5. I would love to hear commentary on that Bionic Commando comicbook that came out last year because it’s rarely mentioned. Bionic Commando was one of the first games I ever owned and I was always wondered if they would ever do a comic on it.

  6. That ‘quote’ you’re looking for is a verse, Ecclesiastes 1:9.

  7. On RPGs:

    The ‘problem’ you are discussing with RPGs not evolving isn’t an RPG-exclusive ‘problem’. As has been stated before, most games that fit into a ‘genre’ are going to play very similarly to all games within their genre. This is by design rather than a problem.

    Gaming theory works like this at all levels – Video games, board games, card games, sports.

    Do you really consider Baseball and Softball to be two different games? Or are they just variants of one another that have both grown extremely popular and meticulously controlled for their individual purposes over the years?

    JRPGs are about menu-based combat and team-building. And most JRPGs try to add narrative and puzzles to enrich the experience (for better or worse). Varying too far from this formula changes the genre.

    In a sense, think of all games that fall within a genre to be ‘revisions’ or ‘expansions’ of the games in the genre that came before. If you are a fan of JRPGs, and you enjoy that style of play, then you will seek out more of the same over and over again. Slight variations between the games doesn’t change much. Playing flag football and playing tackle football are slightly different, but chances are if you enjoy that style of play, you’ll find similar enjoyment in both, despite the glaring difference.

    Similarly, JRPGs can have differences just as glaring as the lack of physical violence in flag football, but people who aren’t fans of the genre will classfiy them as ‘practically the same’. Unsurprisingly, people who are not fans of football tend to say the same thing.

    Fighting games, FPS, Sports games, and Survival Horror games are all subject to these same complaints.

    It’s just a difference in perspective. Sure, there’s room for change and growth in the games, but generally changing things too much tends to create a genre of its own. Look at JRPGs.

    Combine the menu-based combat, team-building, heavy narrative, and puzzles with other gameplay ideas:

    RPG + Stamp collecting – Pokemon, Suikoden (Monster-Hunter RPGs)
    RPG + Chess – Fire Emblem, Disgaea (Tactical RPGs)
    RPG + Fighting games – Tales of series, Star Ocean (Action RPGs)
    RPG + Platforming – Zelda, Kingdom Hearts (Adventure RPGs)
    RPG + Life Simulation – Persona, Mana Khemia (Simulation RPGs)
    RPG + Multi-player – Final Fantasy XI, World of Warcraft (MMORPGs)

    You can argue that all games in a genre are just different flavors of the same game. And you’d be right. But it isn’t a complaint to level solely at RPGs. If you’re beef is with the common trend of RPGs to all be fantasy-based save-the-world adventures, that is also a valid concern, but certainly not -all- RPGs fall into exactly this story/setting structure. You don’t have to look any further than Disgaea or Persona to see this.