2020/05/12

Victory Defeated JRPGs

Chrono Trial

Besides writing best selling books, I've been keeping myself occupied during the Corona-chan lock down by going back and playing some classic retro games. Mainly I've been revisiting celebrated titles from console gaming's 8 and 16-bit golden age.

To say it's been a trip down memory lane would be an understatement. I've been focusing on Friday night rentals of yesteryear I'd failed to beat before I had to return them--as well as gems I somehow missed the first time around.

The Internet Archive even has every back issue of Nintendo Power, so the re-creations of those long-lost after school decompression sessions  with a new kart slotted in my SNES, a crisp copy of NP flopped open on the couch, and a bowl of popcorn in my lap are almost perfect. Archive.org doesn't call its old web site search feature the Wayback Machine for nil.

One thing that hits you over the head when you go back and play the old 2D sprite-based games is the real craftsmanship behind the bright colors and pixels. Roger Ebert, may he rest in peace, was rightly pilloried when he decreed that video games can never be art. He was working within a Late Modern framework. The Medievals understood that an art is a work performed to a standard. Considering the subject matter of many games--particularly role-playing games--that definition is especially apt.

An important reason for Generation Y's definitive nostalgia is that they grew up in a time when multiple consumer arts were reaching their high water marks. The concept is alien to Millennials and Zoomers, but if you were a kid in the 4, 8, and 16-bit eras, you had every reason to expect that each new installment in your favorite movie, TV, and game series would be better than the last. The excitement over the premiere of Super Mario Bros. 3 or a new season of The Simpsons was justified.

Finite human and technological capability meant that the ride had to end sometime. Consider Japanese Role-playing Games. Video RPGs had some pedigree among PC hobbyists with series like Ultima and Wizardry, but it wasn't until Western RPGs were filtered through Japanese sensibilities that the genre really took off.

Dragon Warrior--as Dragon Quest is called in the States--was the first JRPG to make an impact on the American market. Thanks to a clever cross-promotion in the aforementioned Nintendo Power, every kid in the early 90s knew at least one classmate who'd gotten the game with his renewed subscription.


If Dragon Warrior got the JRPG genre's foot in the door, Final Fantasy blew the door off its hinges. The genre took a while to get traction in the West, but it had become a staple of gaming by the early 90s. There's a reason why the Super Nintendo was known as an RPG machine.

From about 1990 to 1995, each new entry in a JRPG series boasted more complex, compelling stories and better graphics. Watching the opening of 1994's Final Fantasy VI was the first time a video game actually took my breath away.

ff6 opening

The heights attained by the JRPG arts in the high 90s resembled the incredible degree of realism to which representational painting had risen in the Victorian Age. The problem that painters ran into wasn't a technical limitation on accuracy. It was that they'd advanced to the point of being able to reproduce their subjects with perfect accuracy. They'd painted themselves into a corner.

Young Hare
Dürer painted every individual hair of this rabbit.
2D JRPGs hit a similar dead end in the mid-90s. The video game analogue to Dürer's Young Hare was legendary JRPG house SquareSoft's Chrono Trigger.

Chrono Trigger

Released almost exactly at the start of the last year in the SNES's life cycle, Square's 2D swan song featured stunning graphics--including character designs by DQ and DBZ artist Akira Toriyama--a combat system as innovative as it was flawless, and so many possible endings based on player choices that to this day, nobody's sure of the exact number.

It's no coincidence that Chrono Trigger was the last great 16-bit JRPG to launch before cultural Ground Zero.

16-bit JRPGs had reached the point of drawing every hair on a rabbit or making a chapel ceiling look 3D. The only room for innovation was on the technical end, so Square et al. followed the rest of the industry into the new world of 3D polygons.

Final Fantasy VII

In fairness, that screen shot from Final Fantasy VII depicts the early days of 3D gaming. But consider the CG FFVI opening created for the Final Fantasy Anthology, which came out two years later--an eternity in software time.


The 3D-rendered intro looks impressive for the time, but it just doesn't evoke the same type or degree of awe as the 2D opening. The difference is even starker for the fact that the original intro directly follows the CG prelude.

If you initially got chills at the start of the video, watch it again with the sound muted. I guarantee you that those pangs of nostalgia came from hearing the piano rendition of "Terra's Theme".

The art alone isn't enough to carry the newer intro--precisely because it shows too much. That's because the switch from 2D to 3D constitutes a transition from a cool medium to a hot medium.

Your senses interact with 2D games so differently from fully realized 3D games that the former can never provide the same experience as the latter.

Children of the 2D era have long wondered what happened to the great games of yesterday. The answer is as simple as it was inevitable. Victory defeated JRPGs.


It doesn't help that most of the games industry hates its customers, either. Deny them your hard-earned cash. Stick to the superior classics. You can find these and many more ways to have good, uplifting fun in my new best selling book!

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier
Buy it now!

55 comments:

  1. There's room here for an interesting experiment:

    Dragon Quest XI S on the Switch includes both a full-on, current-level 3D mode and a 16-bit-grade 2D mode. I've gone through the 3D mode, but once the experience has faded a little more, I may go back to the 2D mode and see how it changes the experience of the same story and engine.

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  2. Square and Enix's design took them forward into the PS1 era, but technology wasn't their friend. Without limitations they soon burned themselves out. The swansong for the JRPG era was The Spirits Within which was every bad vice they had accumulated up to that point put into one movie.

    As far as CG intros, none of them compare to the original Tubrogafx-16 CD Ys Book I & II intro. And that was done long before the PS1 was a twinkle in Nintendo's eye. Once Sakaguchi left and the two companies merged that was game over.

    Part of the reason I have problems getting into JRPGs today is the same I have with mecha anime. They keep treating the same property as Ground Zero and won't go back further than that for inspiration.

    Aside from HD graphics and Nintendo, the last three console generations are completely interchangeable. And that is why gaming is on the decline.

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    1. Thanks for bringing up that Ys intro. It's a perfect example of these lost gems I missed the first time around. It nails that High 80s anime vibe in a way that's high-grade A/V heroin for Gen Y. And on an 8-bit system, no less.

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    2. I clearly remember walking into my buddy's place back in the day and seeing an issue of EGM announcing the Squeenix merger. Usually the transition from one era to the next is gradual like a lobster boiling, but that was one clear instance when I knew right away the magic was over.

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    3. This gives us another interesting pair of openings to compare:
      turbografx 16 version:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KT-y7bZlpJM

      PSP version:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=roTijbL4l8k

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    4. XSEED Games. Nice.

      Quite illustrative. The new version is more operatic and does a better job of showing instead of telling. But it's tarnished by that plastic veneer that mars every remake nowadays.

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    5. The TG16 version of Ys I & II is the best version because it nails both the feel of older text-based RPGs with the more modern advancements in controls, graphics, music, and general accessibility. It was the best of both worlds.

      Chronicles is a good version (probably the second best, honestly) but it's too modernized. There's a lot less mystery and wonder because they add a lot of new dialogue.

      Also, the addictive nature of the simple combat is taken away. The combat in Ys was like DOOM. A bunch of enemies with varied patterns and ways to approach that you have to learn to navigate.

      It's a good game, but it's a better action RPG than it is a remake of the original two Ys games.

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    6. I never had the opportunity to play Ys I & II, but it stands out in memory as being one of the only games to ever score a perfect 10 from a reviewer at Electronic Gaming Monthly back when they took an editorial position that 10 meant literally perfect.

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    7. Props to them for not taking the idiot manager, "There's always room for improvement!" position by having a standard of perfection that could be--and was at least once--met.

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  3. I think the better comparison would perhaps be between 9 and 6 instead of 7 and 6, because by 9 Square had a better mastery of the playstation. I wouldn't go past that because by the time 10 was being made the team had changed too much.

    Another good comparison would be Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake on the MSX2 versus Metal Gear Solid 2 or 3 on the PS2. Not exactly JRPGs but they involved the same medium change.

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    1. That's fair. FF IX hits my point home even better because its main selling point is nostalgia for the 8 and 16-bit era FFs. Other than that, it really doesn't bring much of substance to the table.

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    2. Square-Enix's presence on the PS2 has aged really badly.

      "Why do you hate Final Fantasy XIII! It's just like Final Fantasy X!"

      Yes, exactly. Glad we agree.

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  4. I know this isn't 2 to 3d, but it's just as relevant:

    The early 2000s gave us the Sly Cooper trilogy, a brilliant series of cartoony 3d platformers about a gentleman thief raccoon and his friends facing off against villains.

    Two years after Assassin's Creed came out. Like Sly Cooper, its gameplay consisted of stealth and 3d platforming. Like Sly Cooper, you could wander around the world if you wanted to but could also go to pre-set story missions. Like Sly Cooper, it placed a high value on its story.

    UNLIKE Sly Cooper, it is known for amazingly realistic 3d visuals that admittedly do still hold up, and the series turned this into a kind of identity along with the historical mumbo jumbo.

    There is only one catch to all of this: Sly Cooper is literally better in every way, on every level, across the damn board.

    I don't think people fully realize just how unoriginal AC is. Even the pirate levels in Black Flag and Rogue are just needed up versions of the same basic minigame done and done better in Sly 3.

    The writing in AC, subject of so much praise, is clearly terrible, and Sly Cooper is a great example of why you can't say "It's good for a video game" as an excuse.

    The Sly series is a KIDS series and it is more cleverly plotted, has better dialogue, better characters, and tells it story in a much more entertaining way. It even took more risks than the AC series ever dared to do - like structuring Sly 2 as a full blown tragedy.

    What I'm getting at is, AC gets all of the mainstream attention and praise the Sly series never got, when the only thing it has done to earn it is...look realistic. Not even better. But realistic. That's the industry attitude in a nutshell.

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    1. Assassin's Creed is fairly weak as both a 3D platformer and as a stealth game, which is funny to say since Ubisoft have done both better with the Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia series.

      I suspect the only reason people put up with it is because it's braindead easy and its fedora-tier story.

      But games were once structured around interesting gameplay first, and then the story formed naturally around what the player would be accomplishing.

      AC could be a root beer tapper clone or an FMV game and nothing meaningful would change about it. The shallow gameplay has little to do with what makes it liked.

      And that's a good chunk of the problem.

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    2. AC frustrates me because every game LOOKS like it will be great and by lights the idea of playing as an assassin in a secret organization in various interesting historical settings is fantastic, and it SHOULD be great. But every game I've actually played by them has been meh at BEST.

      Sly Cooper sticks out because of how it honestly, really is everything AC wants to be, only better.

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  5. Final Fantasy perplexes me. 1-6 were fairly standard fantasy stories (with varying amounts of steampunk thrown in), well told and with good gameplay, and the art reflected that. 7-9 each had their own identities, with 7 being a cyberpunk-lite deconstruction of previous JRPG tropes (the most glaring example is that the personalities of Aerith and Tifa are swapped from what they would have been in prior games, given their appearance). 8 is a weird futuristic fantasy with a lot of sci-fi elements and a love story meant to repay the fans for killing Aerith. 9 is a throwback to, primarily, FF4, though with weirder artwork.

    Everything since, including remakes of their own games, puts all the main characters in really stupid looking fetish gear. I cannot take Kefka seriously as a villain when he looks like a dime store court jester. As much as I like 12, the character designs nearly killed it for me.

    Who decided muscly dudes in plate armor wasn't a good look?

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    1. If you want to understand Final Fantasy, simply read your explanation of Final Fantasy.

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  6. Brian,

    While Final Fantasy 7 was my first JRPG and introduced me to deep story lines, I actually like the Lunar Silver Star series that was released by XSEED games for the PlayStation 1 and PSP better. Great story and one of the things I really liked was that they used anime, actual anime that didn't clash with the game but got the characters and tone right, for the cut scenes. I can't say why but it to me, it had a very timeless quality that newer games don't have.

    I have always regretted that there is not a Lunar Silver Star Story 3, but given modern games, that is probably a good thing.

    Corey.

    PS. XSeed games was the first company to do special editions in such a way that I always thought, "this game is special". Other companies tried to emulate them but they just didn't seem to get it right. Ver rarely do I get a special edition now and I think that market is mostly dead due to oversaturation and mediocre products.

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    1. I'd heard of Lunar but never played it. The first I knew of XSEED Games was due to Combat Frame XSeed readers informing me of it.

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    2. Gonna second the Lunar I & II recommendation. The originals were on Sega CD, but the best version I've played were the PSX versions. Same gameplay/graphics of the original but they did some really great animation work on the cutscene remasters (Sega CD video resolution for that was bad).

      And I also agree on their special editions. The stuff was simple compared to what you get now, but it was nice. I still have all that stuff. Lucia's pendant from the II special edition is solid enough you could probably use it as a flail.

      There were a couple sequels -just no Silver Star Story III- on some of the handhelds but they were eeeeeeeeeeh.

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    3. "Lucia's pendant from the II special edition is solid enough you could probably use it as a flail."

      Now that's a sales pitch!

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  7. It's fitting that the games from the PS1 era I remember the most fondly were the ones that either mostly or completely forsook the polygons to continue the 2d tradition.

    Namely, Suikoden 1 and 2, SaGa Frontier, Symphony of the Night, and Valkyrie Profile. I suppose Tactics Ogre as well, but that one's actually a Super Famicon port.

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    1. SotN is a classic. The Mega Man ports were fun, too.

      The 2D PS1 games have also aged the best.

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    2. It's a shame that the 64 didn't allow for 2D very well and that Sony hated the form so much they refused to bring so many games (like the Arc the Lad trilogy) over. The TG16, Neo Geo, and Sega CD showed how 2D could have progressed if it wasn't tossed to the back of the line during the 32-bit generation.

      Sega could have dug a better niche for themselves with the Saturn if they would have scratched the 2D itch instead of using their weak 3D. Imagine games like Sonic Mania or Streets of Rage 4 coming out back then instead of having to wait decades to be made.

      The sudden abandonment of 2D for "progress" was the first major blunder of the industry.

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    3. The whole industry going all-in on 3D was a mistake, but if you consider the devs' mindset, it was probably the right mistake. They'd done everything they could in the 2D medium, from a technical standpoint. Hoeing the same old row again just wasn't gonna keep them interested.

      It's interesting that you bring up the Saturn, because in Japan it had a solid 2D library. The Capcom fighters made it the console of choice for region-unlock modding back in the day.

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    4. Athletic and WhitesplosiveMay 13, 2020 at 1:38 PM

      SAGA Frontier, what a gem, the best mix of classical fantasy elements with scifi in any game I've ever seen. Having multiple different main stories (complete with unique end bosses) throughout a common setting is the greatest video game trope that is largely never used, it was addictive.

      I particularly loved the final part of T260G's story, attacking the genocide ship. Fighting the core while it's ultimate attack flashes 'NO FUTURE' across the screen is one of the most viscerally cool boss fights in vidya, up there with the Magus and penultimate Lavos fights, along with the Emperor of Hell in FF2.

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    5. FF2 is the one installment I missed. I've heard mixed reviews. What's your take?

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    6. Athletic and WhitesplosiveMay 13, 2020 at 10:57 PM

      My experience is entirely based on the dawn of souls release on the GB advance.

      It has a very unorthodox levelling system for a JRPG (which was actually the precursor to what system the SAGA series would generally make use of), where you exclusively develope the skills you exercise (fighting with weapons raises that particular weapon type's skill and strength, casting white magic raises a spell's level as well as spirit, black magic raising the same plus the magic stat, even to the point of taking damage raising HP).

      This system has some quirks as well as a few soft 'exploits' like wailing barehanded on your own party to boost HP (it's not terribly overpowered though, I just think of it as sparring), but overall I think it's very fun and offers a lot of flexibility.

      The story and setting however really shine, it's very dark and pessimistic without being edgy, and it really had a feeling of being 'alive' (even with the somewhat minimal town dialogue which was common in early JRPGs). The story's not Shakespeare but it's got a good rhythm, I wouldn't want to give too much away but the mood goes from bad, to worse, to alright, to terrible. And I've already given away that it culminates in an attack on the lord of the underworld's palace. That final stretch assaulting Pandaemonium is as cool as it sounds and features some great mini-bosses (including the fallen angel astaroth and giant demon-fly beelzebub). Overall the story does a good job of putting you in the situation of a real rebellion taking on an overpowering evil empire; the bad guys aren't cartoonish lex luthors that are always just one step ahead, it's just that your small victories are often tempered by a devestating route or new offensive that real empires often put on small upstarts.

      So overall bretty good/10, five thumbs up.

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    7. Hey, you played my favorite version of 2. They re-balanced the leveling system which makes it more fun.

      I agree, it's great.

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    8. The PS1 version has been gathering dust on my shelf for years, now. Sounds like it's past time I gave it a shot.

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  8. Any Genesis heads? One of my favorites was Shadowrunner. The Genesis version is completely different from the SNES and imo blew it away. Right now I'm playing Streets of Rage 4 which is a new sequel to the original beat 'em up series and it is quite faithful to the old school.

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    1. The best part of the only good console war is that it made both systems crank out bangers left and right. For every classic on the SNES there was another on the Genesis just as great. Throw in the TG16 as well as the Gameboy during peak performance and the rise of the PC to the mainstream and you have the perfect storm of gaming.

      The Genesis is kind of overlooked today, which is a shame.

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    2. One vanished aspect of Gen X and Y's childhoods is the single-console family. You were either a Sega household or a Nintendo household, which is curious since the hardware cost so much less back then, even adjusted for inflation.

      We were always a Nintendo family, and so were the families of all my friends up through high school.

      It's fascinating to go back now and experience the Sega games I missed the first time around--like looking back along an alternate timeline.

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    3. "The Genesis is kind of overlooked today, which is a shame."

      Yes. I remember when Sega got Dennis Miller of all people to speak at their Dreamcast reveal to make jokes about their disastrous post-Genesis systems (Sega CD, Saturn. *ooof*). Sadly, not even deflective humor could save them.

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    4. The story of the Dreamcast makes for grand tragedy. Sega righted their course, but just a hair too late.

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  9. Genesis Nerd here. NES was the last Nintendo system I owned. I was a huge Phantasy Star 2 & 3 player back in the day. Shadowrun was fun! Better than the TTRPG, in my opinion, due to how needlessly complex the TT character generation was.

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  10. The Lunar games are great fun, although the first is tainted for me by its anti-religious subtext. On the other hand, it has Mia Ausa. :)

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    1. The subtext doesn't even make sense. They literally needed the goddess's magic to do save the world, but now they don't need it? And then another Magic Emperor comes along and then no one can stop him.

      Silly.

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    2. Yeah. While I enjoyed the first Lunar game, I don't think the series lived up to its hype one bit, and those weaknesses in the story were the culprit. It was the "wait a minute, what?" of trying to parse that out and it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

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  11. As a Gen Y myself the 8-bit/16-bit era I consider the best of what the video game has to offer. That said I also consider the PS2/Xbox/Gamecube/Dreamcast era to be the final great generation of gaming. Developers have figured out 3D by this point and a lot of those games still hold up for the most part compared to the N64/PS1 era games. Bonus points for no signs of SJW's utilizing wokeness in the industry at this point as well. You could say that the gaming industry peaked in the 6th generation, and everything since has been downhill. Though there were gems on the PS3/360 the writing was clearly on the wall at this point. And what games will people look back on in this current generation and proclaim them to be hidden gems? Indie titles mostly with the occasional AAA product (the Doom games perhaps) added to the mix. I think honest gamers will look back on this generation with dread and anger on what has become of a once great past time.

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    1. The 6th generation had a lot going for it and occasioned some good times. The fact remains that 3D games are a different medium than 2D games--more like interactive movies.

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    2. The first HD generation only benefited AAA. No one else benefited from it, and in fact many were outright killed by the move.

      That was the sign of the decline. No one listened because of the shiny bells and whistles distracting them.

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    3. A common theme.

      It's like poetry. It rhymes.

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    4. "The first HD generation only benefitted AAA."
      I can't disagree. I do believe there were good games made during this time frame though.

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  12. @Brian - Nintendo household as well, same with my friends. Besides catching up on the Sefaria classics, also see if you can find games that were on the Nintendo but never made it over seas. A game that fits this category that I think you may enjoy if you liked Ogre Battle is Bahamut Lagoon.

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    1. Sefaria is supposed to be Sega. Not sure why that’s my autocorrect option.

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    2. Right there with you. I've got a couple buddies who are big into the retro game collecting scene. One of them has an import Famicom with the floppy drive.

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  13. Some of the best 16-bit RPGs never got official translations but are available in both updated ports and fan translations. Dragon Quest V is considered by many fans, including myself, as well as creator Yuji Horii, to be the pinnacle of the series. (I played the DS version through twice. Nera. Forever Nera. :) )

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    1. We never even got Terranigma here, and that's one of the best SNES games. You could probably solely be a retro gamer and never run out of hidden gems to play.

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  14. You could argue that 2D games draw from several millennia of cultural traditions (both West and East) of two-dimensional representations, with techniques like foreshortening and perspective and antecedents like Byzantine icons and ukiyo-e prints somewhere in the long chain of influence leading back to Lascaux cave paintings (or the Eastern equivalent).

    For my part, my parents refused to buy consoles and I was stuck with PC games. I beat the entire gold box series and Eye of the Beholder trilogy multiple times. And Doom 1 and 2. Then I had to try to get into college.

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    1. You raise an excellent point. The human brain doesn't just process visual information differently than other sensory inputs, it processes different kinds of visual info differently.

      One area where we can see this is in how people think of direction and physical orientation. Now we tend to think in top-down 2D terms like, "Location X is 2 blocks north of location Y," but pre-Moderns didn't think like that. They described their surroundings in terms of 3D landmarks. "Go 50 paces past that big rock."

      It wasn't even digital GPS tech that brought about that shift in thinking. It was the wide publication of reliable maps.

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  15. In terms out artistry and how FFVI just inspires it - Jeremy Soule did a fantastic version of Terra's theme at OCREMIX years ago - it's one of my favorite things, certainly one of my favorites of his works, along with his Dawn of War soundtrack.

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