Trying to understand how games work

Author Archives: Sam Howitt

One of the nice things about getting into Sonic the Hedgehog is that the community doesn’t tend to forget things. All the successes, failures, and obscurities are well documented. Strike up a conversation and they’ll have a lot to talk about (if they’re British they’ll probably insist on talking about Fleetway’s Sonic the Comic). They’ll often have stories of the first time they encountered the hedgehog.

I initially came to Sonic as a game that I’d play at the houses of friends and family. It was usually Sonic 2 or 3 and I was always playing as Tails. Eventually I bought a couple of the games myself on PC, thanks to the budget brand Xplosiv. Their releases were often found in the 3 for £10 section of Game, which made it easy for me to get more games as a child. One of the first I picked up from that was Sonic 3D: Flickies Island (the other two games I got in that deal were Sonic R and Theme Park World but those aren’t important right now).

The interesting novelty of Sonic 3D is that it’s not using polygons, it adopts an isometric viewpoint with pre-rendered sprites to make it look three-dimensional. This is probably down to it being a game intended for the Mega Drive (I’m aware of the Sega Saturn’s polygonal special stages, but those don’t feature in either version that I’ve played).

That novelty wore off very quickly when I returned to it recently, as it’s a frustrating game to play. It seemed as though developers of early “3D” games felt the need to facilitate some amount of exploration. There were more directions for travelling, so with that came more reasons to go all over the place. Sonic 3D: Flickies’ Island chooses to do this by making each level a compulsory egg hunt, with the titular flickies taking the place of the eggs hidden inside the various baddies to defeat within each level.

Many classic 3D platformers use similar structures so it’s not inherently a bad idea, but the mismatching of character movement and level design is what spoils the fun. Sonic is built for speed but the levels are not. To move through a lot of narrow spaces I felt as though I was constantly wrestling with momentum. It became especially annoying whenever I had to search every nook and cranny for a flicky that I missed along the way.

While the game was lacking, I admire that even Sega is happy to ensure this game isn’t forgotten, as they’re still including it on Mega Drive compilation releases that are available on current consoles. 

There’s an unofficial “director’s cut” of Sonic 3D, which makes the game a little less tedious to play, but it doesn’t make it into a good one. However the existence of this shows that the Sonic fan community makes a habit of not abandoning games that are considered bad. Even notable trainwrecks like Sonic ‘06 get another chance. To the community, a bad game isn’t something to be forgotten, it’s a mistake which could be fixed.

This article is part of the Sonic Mega Collaboration, a collection of articles from other writers about games found in the compilation release, Sonic Mega Collection Plus. This project was coordinated by Super Chart Island, a blog covering every UK No. 1 game in chronological order which I enjoy reading.

If you’ve come from that website to read this article, welcome to PixPen! Feel free to take a look at the articles on Final Fantasy I’ve been putting together, or read about other RPGs that I’ve been covering.


This article contains spoilers.

I can remember a time where Final Fantasy XII seemed more contentious. It still was largely well-liked, but when the game came up in a room full of nerds there was always someone who would react strongly to mere mention of it. They’d usually have some point about how it “isn’t Final Fantasy” mostly because of things like the big differences in combat, or the structural changes.

The years since have been kinder to the game. I’ve seen more rankings put this game at the top, and while I wouldn’t take these as fully definitive, it does seem to signify a change of consensus opinion. It may be because of the more recently released port of the game, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, which featured many changes and is the version I chose to play for this article.

That’s the version of the game that I ended up enamoured with after playing. I felt such a high with it, also declaring it one of the greatest Final Fantasy games when it was released on Playstation 4. This time around I’ve cooled down on it a little, but I still think it’s an excellent game. Playing it a second time meant that I noticed a few things that I hadn’t before.

The plot of this game is a war story (and not a particularly subtle one) about the effects of an arms race on the world. Most of the party members have dealt with tragedy related to this, especially Vaan, Ashe and Basch who all lost so much from one single event. The assassination of the King of Dalmasca by the Archadian Empire resulted in Basch losing his freedom, Vaan losing his brother, and Princess Ashe losing her father, husband, and country.

Despite what a lot of promotional material seems to show, Ashe is the central character of the story. It’s her motivation to take revenge on the Empire that drives everything forward. She is the character who most interfaces with the nethicite, the artefact central to the plot.

The nethicite is a blatant metaphor for nuclear power. In a previous war, the city of Nabudis was destroyed by nethicite. The Empire’s attempted meddling with it also caused an accidental explosion in its own fleet. These had devastating effects on the environment as well. It was initially provided by the godlike beings known as the Occuria, but the game’s villain, Vayne Solidor, sees it his mission to cut these beings off by beginning to have the Empire manufacture their own nethicite.

Throughout the game it feels as though Ashe cannot win. If she takes revenge by using the nethicite, she will only end up causing even more mass destruction. Many other options she’s given don’t feel like victories for herself, they feel more like acting in the interests of others, both man and godlike. When she gets the opportunity to destroy the Sun-Cryst, the source of nethicite, that’s when it really begins to feel like she gets a win because it also goes against the Occuria’s will.

The most striking details for me came from something completely missable: the NPC dialogue. Particularly from the people living in Rabanastre, a city in the kingdom of Dalmasca. It’s a shame that some of these conversations didn’t make their way onto the game’s critical path. More modern games may have recorded lines play out as a player passes by people, but that simply feels like passive eavesdropping. Walking up to them to initiate a conversation feels like taking an interest in their lives.

After a tutorial section elsewhere, Vayne Solidor, the new Consul of Rabanastre, arrives in the city to introduce himself. After his big speech the player is able to explore the place and talk to people. The area is divided in two, the surface and an underground area called Lowtown. Up above there’s a mix of opinions. Some people feel he might not be trustworthy since he comes from the country that defeated Dalmasca, but just as many people voice opinions that he’s going to sort the place out.

Down below in Lowtown it’s different. Many of the people there are locals who have been priced out of their own homes, barely scraping by to survive. The place has fallen into disrepair, almost out of deliberate neglect. The guards stationed around the city don’t even go into the place. The people there all don’t trust the new rulers, and some don’t even share opinions because they’re too busy worrying about their own life. A lot of this information is simply found from looking around and having conversations with people.

I feel as though it’s important to highlight this precisely because it reinforces the game’s narrative as a whole. There are also other areas with play with a similar situation, such as the Empire’s capital city, Archadia. The party members all come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Vaan and Ashe especially and Final Fantasy XII uses that as an opportunity for good storytelling. Both of them lost family in the war, but their circumstances are very different. Many upper class people in Ivalice have a lot of interest in Ashe because of her status as a princess (but many of them have ulterior motives), but Vaan had to look out for himself often. He is introduced in a scene where he fights rats in a sewer to pass the time, before having to do menial tasks and thievery to earn a living.

Vaan is the one with first-hand experience of the effect of war on poor people because of what happened to him and many other people he knows. While Ashe is the central character of the story, it’s Vaan who’s controlled in all non-combat areas. He’s the one doing all the talking to the NPCs. He’s the one hearing about their experiences. He is the one who encourages Ashe to destroy the Sun-Cryst and not use it for revenge. Even though he has lost a lot because of the Empire, he knows that when the privileged choose violence, it’s the poor that get the biggest casualties.

Stories of haves and have-nots have been done before throughout Final Fantasy, and they’ve been done well, in the case of Final Fantasy VII. The story of a thief joining with an escaped princess was also done before in Final Fantasy IX, but that wasn’t without its flaws. Final Fantasy XII does better at this because it keeps things grounded. There’s more perspectives to consider, and the villains aren’t afflicted by darkness that makes them evil, they’re simply infected with selfish ideas which they rationalise with morals. Bringing the “reins of history back into the hands of man” becomes a reasoning for the erosion of democracy.

There’s a real struggle going on in the world of Ivalice, but that wasn’t felt by me when I went to explore the world. The battles of Final Fantasy XII use a real-time system where each action takes place after a small per-character timer. It’s backed up with an automation mechanic referred to as “Gambits”, which a player can program themselves with simple if statements (for example if an ally’s health is below a certain percentage, a cure spell should be cast). With the right kind of planning it means that the game’s combat ends up playing itself. While it is nice to see a plan come together nicely, it is very easy to do so and most enemies don’t need much more than “if you see it, attack it”. There’s much more satisfying encounters in some of the game’s sidequests, but I do wish I didn’t have to go out of my way for that. For a large portion of the game I was simply running through areas on fast-forward, watching enemies fall over and picking up the loot to sell later.

That’s another thing, the fast-forward function was a later addition to this game. There’s a reason I didn’t simply write “Final Fantasy XII” for the title of this blog post. The Zodiac Age is a complete rebalancing of the game with all sorts of things changed like character progression, item placement and many more small changes. When I wrote about Final Fantasy X, I stressed the importance of how that game’s mechanics work in tandem with the storytelling. One thing I didn’t mention in that piece was that the optional Expert Sphere Grid found in later versions of the game removes that mechanic’s ties to the game’s narrative because the character’s positions on that grid are no longer tied to their relationships. I wondered how many more changes like that are present here. Though I might have had more fun and an easier time with this version, would that have meant that I missed out on a version of the game where other systems better inform the narrative?

Even the visuals have had a big overhaul in order to suit higher resolutions. While it still keeps somewhat true to how it originally looked on the Playstation 2, it’s still different. This is still an excellent looking game, with some brilliant use of lighting, fantastic facial animation and great cutscene direction but the increase in detail makes the imperfections more apparent. I suppose it’s in the nature of games moving onto platforms that they were not intended for, they do end up losing something in the process.

Before I finished Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, I made one last trip to Rabanastre. I had to have a talk with the NPCs again. Not much had changed except that Lowtown was a little more full. It served as a good reminder for what the party was fighting for.

The game’s ending initially comes across as triumphant. Vayne Solidor has been defeated, Dalmasca has been reinstated, and the Occuria’s meddling has been cut off. It’s actually more of a quiet tragedy. In becoming Queen of Dalmasca, Ashe has been forced to cut herself off from the party due to her much higher status. Life has returned to normal, but in this world normal means that the class divide doesn’t go because the bad apples have been thrown out. While the party was able to come together to avert a crisis, the systems of the world ensured it couldn’t stay that way.


This article contains spoilers.

For me there are two moments when I am most excited about a good game: when I start it and when I finish it. I get the appeal of a game I can go back to and keep playing continuously, but in my experience that usually fizzles out after a while. When I had recently played Final Fantasy XI, I found it overwhelming that the game seemed to go on forever (though that game does have “endings” to its own story arcs and ironically I wasn’t even able to reach the first one). The protagonist’s primary objective in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance isn’t to defeat a villain or save the world, it’s to end the videogame.

In this game Marche, his brother Doned, and a few of his friends from school end up being transported by a magic book into the world of “Final Fantasy”. It’s not the setting from any particular game in the series, even though the world does share the name Ivalice with Final Fantasy Tactics. The main characters are people who’ve played a game called “Final Fantasy” that is very similar to the place they’ve ended up. Within this new world the kids find that things they have wished for have been granted, and they have much more freedom here. But Marche knows that it’s just a game, and because of this he makes it his mission to end it and return home.

A tactical RPG is an excellent sort of game to tell this story. The structure of turn-based combat, the blocky terrain found in all environments, the fact that all situations have to be resolved through fighting. All of these things highlight the artificiality of the world. The job system this game has also feels more appropriate than it ever has since Marche has more freedom in this world, so he’s able to easily change his role in combat. That this game makes it much easier to unlock more jobs for everyone to change into highlights that even more. These are all systems that have seen use in many other games in the genre, but here they feel like they were purpose built for what Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is doing (it’s also similar to how Final Fantasy X used this to great effect).

However, those freedoms contrast harshly against certain restrictions which is the nature of living in a systems-driven videogame. The most blatant way in which it demonstrates this is through the use of “laws”. Most combat encounters will feature a seemingly arbitrary set of laws that will prevent certain skills or weapons from being used. They also reward other actions, encouraging a player to work those into combat as well. Marche’s school friend Mewt has some control over this world, so these regulations do fit in with a child’s idea of changing a game’s rules to suit themself. As this is a videogame, these laws work like a fundamental rule of the world and cannot be broken without making use of another system to do so. Choosing to ignore the laws will only result in progressively harsher punishments that eventually lead to losing the fight. The judges that enforce them also prevent people from being killed in combat, further emphasizing how much this is simply a game.

Fights are what make up most of this game. Any location where a fight doesn’t take place exists to either facilitate missions that lead to combat, or provide items for sale which are used in combat. After a while, no matter how fun these fights can be (which they are, I’ve had a great time playing this game) it can’t go on forever otherwise it would be fatiguing. Even children have a limit to their energy. There are also other people around from the world of Ivalice who aren’t there to fight, who often end up as victims as a result of bandit or monster attacks. The world being in a state of constant conflict for the sake of a child’s wish fulfilment is causing harm to the people that live there.

I also can’t help but view this game as somewhat reflective of the state of Squaresoft at the time. This is speculative since I haven’t come across any first-hand accounts of this game’s development. Producer Yasumi Matsuno has gone on record saying that Final Fantasy Tactics, a previous game he directed, was inspired by his own experience at the company. The company was also working on Final Fantasy XI around the same time, a game with odd and at times punishing systems that still looks like it will go on forever. Having played both games so closely together and knowing they released fairly close to each other, I can’t help but think about this comparison.

In many other contexts I could see the ending of this game as being a little weak. It moves much too fast towards its conclusion and feels a little sudden when it gets there. Within Final Fantasy Tactics Advance it makes perfect sense. This is a game about children playing and after a child spends enough time playing an adult often comes to tell them to finish. It doesn’t take a pessimistic view on the whole subject either. The game begins and ends with a snowball fight, showing that even though playtime has to end eventually, that doesn’t mean it can’t begin again.

Knowing when to stop has been a key part of my own project to play through a lot of Final Fantasy for this blog. If I simply wanted to play through all of them I could have been much further along through the games, but I took breaks when I felt as though I needed to. I’m only roughly halfway through this series, and I haven’t felt too tired from it all yet. Square Enix hasn’t stopped making Final Fantasy, and I can’t picture them stopping any time soon. I could still be playing these games for a very long time, but if I allow myself time to rest it will be easier.


Covering Final Fantasy games on this blog has been great because of how different each one is. Even with the games I don’t like as much there’s a lot for me to think about. The hardest part about writing those other pieces was cutting them down into something readable, as I could personally ramble on about all of those games for quite some time. I have hundreds of pages of notes relating to the series so far.

Now I’ve come to a game where I barely managed to muster half a page of notes. There’s just not many interesting things to say about Chocobo Racing. It’s a derivative game lacking in its own identity, which makes it hard for me to not constantly compare it to other games.

This is a kart racing game, where items litter each track which racers can use to gain advantages or hinder competitors. It’s like Mario Kart, you probably know what Mario Kart is like and if you don’t, you know someone who does. Nintendo has a cultural near-monopoly on kart racing videogames, which means that no matter how good it is, every other game in the genre has to be compared to Mario Kart, even if it’s better but especially if it’s worse. While it’s unfair on many games (Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great game in its own right) the copycat nature of Chocobo Racing actively invites comparison. Pre-rendered sprites in 3D environments, the particular theming of the stages, and even the fonts used just scream Mario Kart 64.

It’s not a good version of that either. The characters control well enough on the race tracks, but the items are constant interruptions. Items in Mario Kart are varied and act as boosts or hazards which also help give racers behind the leader a chance to catch up. Most of the items in Chocobo Racing just stop other players from moving temporarily and can easily be used to increase the gap between the leader and everyone else.

There’s also a “Story Mode” to play here that has some amusing writing, but it’s brief and mostly acts as a tutorial for the items. Unlike in Mario Kart it’s very difficult to tell what a lot of them do by simply playing the game and seeing them in action, you have to be told. A manual that came with the game probably would have done the same thing. 

After finishing the story I was given some points which could be spent to increase statistics on a racer. Once I improved the speed, grip, and acceleration on a chocobo I attempted some races with it but I was getting so far ahead of everyone else I lost interest in playing. There was no challenge. No item could stop me (well actually they could literally stop me, that’s what they do, but they didn’t prevent me from winning).

I hate that I’m comparing everything to Mario Kart here, but it’s difficult to take this game on its own terms when they’re liberally borrowed. When I say all this I don’t mean that games shouldn’t copy from others; they should be doing it with good reasons. The strengths of games like Final Fantasy X come from building on existing RPG ideas, many of which Squaresoft didn’t invent themselves. I also don’t want to paint it as though Mario Kart is the “right way” to do things, I’m just certain Chocobo Racing has found the wrong one. All this game has done is made me think of kart racing games where I’ll have more fun. Does anybody fancy playing some Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed?


It feels weird to start playing Final Fantasy XI in 2021. There’s a 20-year history to this game that’s immediately apparent from the title screen. A version number of “30210327_1” is in the corner. Pictures representing the game’s expansions are also listed here to show off the sheer amount of stuff that’s been added in since it first came out. It’s not even over as Square Enix are still adding more. I got a distinct feeling that they will never truly be finished with this.

When I started playing it was overwhelming. There were a lot of things I didn’t fully understand, so I had to do research. It’s not as easy to just pick up and play this one, which is what I’ve managed for several other Final Fantasy games. This one is more of a commitment (a commitment I abandoned after a few weeks but I’ll get to that). Even just getting this game ready to play required more effort than usual, as I had to set up an account and also change some settings to make sure the game actually ran on my PC.

It’s not surprising why many longtime Final Fantasy fans I’ve spoken to choose to write off this game entirely. The immense scope of it gives completionists plenty of anxiety, and it still continuing to require a subscription fee is off-putting. I’ve gone through this as part of a larger project to play through Final Fantasy from the start and it’s always seemed like the one that would be too much work.

So what was it actually like for me to play this? Surprisingly lonely. One thing added into the game at some point was something called “Trusts”, which are simply AI-controlled party members which you can summon to assist in battle. This gives an impression that the game can be played alone, as trusts of many different classes can be summoned to accommodate what the playable character can’t do. They were somewhat limited in how they could help, so they weren’t a full replacement for real players. Even with that caveat they helped me make a fair amount of progress.

The game’s cutscenes also emphasize a solo nature to the game. They position every player as a lone hero, which is normal for most RPGs, but strange in a game purpose built for grouping people together. I do understand that writing a videogame where you’re told that millions of people are also doing the same things to save the world is potentially difficult, but sticking to conventions here doesn’t feel quite right.

Because the main character is also a player-created silent protagonist, it brings a much different style of storytelling compared to what I was used to with the series. The protagonist of Final Fantasy XI is effectively an extension of the player. A blank slate for anyone to project their own feelings on or roleplay with. With main characters from prior games, such as Cloud, Squall, and Tidus, I was able to see how they grew over time because I spent most of the game with them. Although some of those characters started off emotionally isolated, they weren’t always lonely because the characters that followed them gave support, both emotionally and in combat. Those games were big open doors into pivotal points in their lives. To contrast, my created character would almost never speak, and the party of trusts that accompanied me didn’t say much either.

Defined characters that develop over time exist here as the NPCs but those are still limited by comparison. I only had small amounts of time with them before having to spend many hours on an adventure before I could see them again. It felt as though I was only peering in small windows into their lives. The moments I had to find out more about people were often when they were giving me missions. Short functional scenes with a bit of character flavour.

I also didn’t find many other players when I was adventuring. There were crowds of them in towns and cities, but forests, fields, and dungeons had significantly lower amounts of players hanging around.

On the day I began playing I found another player in a starting dungeon. They were killing all of the enemies before I even had a chance to, meaning that I had to wait like I was in a queue for a theme park ride. They did apologise for this, but I didn’t know the right buttons for sending messages at that moment so I just left an awkward silence. It gave a bad first impression of the game, but it turned out this would not be a common occurrence for me. 

I also encountered another player who seemed very proud that they were controlling two characters at once. It was very bold of them to tell me through the in-game chat function. They were having the second character follow them, but I wonder if they ever tried having them in two different places at the same time. 

While it might have been more convenient for me to not come across many players, as my initial anecdote suggested, these moments highlighted how much time I was spending entirely alone.

It’s an odd feeling as many of the systems seem intended to encourage cooperation. There isn’t much in the way of tutorials and the game doesn’t always pinpoint on a map where you need to go (and the version I bought on Steam doesn’t seem to come with a manual either). I would assume that this would have encouraged players to work together in order to figure some things out back in the day. 

These days it’s become more common to share information through indirect methods such as fan wikis and Reddit. These are also a small window into the communities that still exist, and the history of the game too. Sometimes I would read a comment thread complaining about something that led to people joining forces. There were also plenty of “back in my day” posts which often brought up how comparably convenient the game has become.

I looked through a fair amount of these so that I could know what I was doing and where I needed to go. This would lead to me having the game display in a smaller on-screen window so that I could have pages up on the screen while I was playing. It could have created more distance from the game but I actually felt a little more connected to it, as it meshed well with the in-game systems.

This is more of an involved game than any of the other Final Fantasies I’ve played so far. Having to do research in order to understand the game feels like preparing for an adventure. The game itself features a few systems to make it feel that way too. Maps have to be bought from vendors, many areas have to be reached on foot (or by mount), enemies can be sized up to see if they’re safe to fight, and quest items have to be handed in using the same systems used to trade with players. What’s interesting is that they are all simply options in a menu. It evokes enough to spark my imagination without the need to recreate a physical gesture within the game to seem “immersive”.

There became a point where I started to feel comfortable with Final Fantasy XI. I was gaining levels at a fast rate. Travelling around the world was much easier to do once I was able to connect more fast-travel points. With the help of the trusts I was able to get through many encounters quite easily. Until they failed me.

I was almost finished with the base game. All that was left to do was a fight with the big bad, the Shadow Lord. A boss fight that ended up becoming a brick wall. After a certain amount of time in the encounter, he becomes immune to physical attacks. My trusts had foolishly used up all of their magic points before that moment, so they just kept trying to hit him with attacks that did no damage at all. The Shadow Lord then proceeded to slowly defeat each party member one by one until the fight was over. I tried the fight multiple times with all sorts of different trusts and it just didn’t work out. There were things I could have done to become stronger, but it was so much of a grind that I decided to give up on the game.

If anything I don’t necessarily feel that this is a fault with the game. I made assumptions that I could power through a game built for multiplayer on my own. I could have taken the opportunity to engage with the community of Final Fantasy XI but it seemed unfair for me to do so, as I was only planning on being a tourist on a short stay in Vana’diel.

It really feels as though I can’t give a fair assessment on this game as a whole because I wasn’t able to break past that wall. Things I disliked could have gotten better, things I liked could have gotten worse. So much could have been different or even the same after it, but at this point I won’t know.

Maybe if I had roped some other people in before starting, I might have been able to see more of it. For now I’m going to move on to something else.


Last year I decided to commit to playing as much of Final Fantasy as I could. It’s been a very fun journey so far but I thought it would be useful to look back at Dragon Quest, a game Final Fantasy owes a lot to. Final Fantasy wouldn’t exist without this game (though Japanese RPGs might still exist since efforts like The Black Onyx, Dragon Slayer and Hydlide predate it).

I was surprised to find that the original Dragon Quest is a fairly relaxing game. That’s partly true with some of the other games in the series I have played, but those other ones also had tense moments. Fighting Psaro the Manslayer in Dragon Quest IV was not calming in any sense. If you want something to wind down with at the end of the day, the first Dragon Quest works well.

The simplicity of the game allows for that. While it is about saving the world from some evil wizard, there’s never any tension. Because it’s a turn-based RPG the pace of the game is extremely player-dictated. While there’s artifacts to be found and a princess to be saved, there’s no pressing need to do all of that immediately. Dragon Quest’s world is a place without difficulty and deadlines.

As this game was made for older hardware, there was a need to condense the experience in a way that was easy for the system to display but still understandable for a player. This is why battles play out simply with a picture of the enemy, some stats numbers on the left and a menu at the bottom. The removal of all of this context means I can’t help but not think of it as a tense battle, but instead a contest to see who can get a number down faster. A contest heavily weighted in my favour, and increasingly so as the main character’s level goes up. Losing isn’t much of a setback either. It reduces the in-game money earned to half, but that can easily be regained.

Many older RPGs are similar, Phantasy Star is one example. But Dragon Quest is a little different. It centres on one specific location: a castle. It’s where the game begins. It’s the home of the main character. It’s where you go to save the game. It’s where you go when you lose a battle. It’s where the game ends.

Having a specific home that needs to be returned to combined with the game’s simplicity makes it play like a game a child would think up. I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense. If anything I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic. I suppose this may be one of the reasons that Dragon Quest has lasting appeal.

It’s less like a hero embarking on a dangerous adventure and more like a child going out to play. The hero can only venture out so far, but as he grows he can go a little further. If the hero gets defeated in battle, the king tells him off like a concerned parent. When it’s time to finish playing, the hero must go home.

If you do decide to give Dragon Quest a go, just know that the more easily available ports on mobile phones and the Switch look terrible. A lot of the art in the game feels very mismatched. The environments, characters, and monsters all feel like they are drawn for separate games. It’s strange for a foundational game in a series that continues to sell large numbers gets something that looks this bad.

However you go about playing it, I think it’s worth going back onto Dragon Quest especially if you’ve been playing a lot of RPGs like myself. I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to get to it myself. 

I can easily see how this works as a foundation for many games after it, but it’s also interesting in its own way. It’s a shame that a lot of discussion of this game in particular seems to stop at how “old-fashioned” it is. This game didn’t always exist as being a predecessor to something else.

You could probably finish the whole thing on a lazy afternoon anyway, so it’s worth a shot to find out what you make of it for yourself.


I have a bit of an odd relationship with Mega Man. I’m generally fascinated by the series but I haven’t enjoyed a lot of the games. In the past I’ve made attempts to get into the classic platformers like Mega Man 2 and found that they aren’t for me. The 90s-anime look of the Mega Man X series appeals to me more, but even then the only ones of those I’ve actually put time into are X4 and X7.

Eleven-year-old me adored Mega Man X7. I don’t think I could think of a game as being bad back then, only that some just seemed very difficult. I just didn’t have big expectations for what a game should be like in three dimensions, as I only had a console capable of playing 3D games for a few months at that time. The only way I could manage to get through the game as a child was by using a cheat device.

That led to me getting Mega Man X Command Mission later that year, which I played, didn’t finish and my copy has sat on various shelves for about 16 years. There was a lot more novelty about an RPG being made out of a platformer back in the mid-00s. Nowadays it’s more of a surprise when a game doesn’t feature some kind of RPG growth system.

This is a full-on turn-based RPG that doesn’t carry over many mechanics from the platformers it relates to. Instead it’s more concerned with moving the characters and aesthetics into a new genre. More thought was put into how X and Zero work as RPG party members, rather than how something like jumping and shooting would work.

That said, this game is full of missed opportunities. A lot of it feels underdeveloped, from repetitive combat to paper-thin characters. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for Mega Man X Command Mission, but I was surprised by how disappointing it was.

Narratively it’s very strange. X and friends have to fight against a group called the Rebellion Army. Why are they rebelling? I don’t actually know. Their leader Epsilon talks about pursuing nebulous goals like some sort of sentient motivational video. To fight them X joins a group called the Resistance, which may have been their second choice for a name as Rebellion was already taken.

The game also doesn’t take advantage of the fact that there’s a party with seven characters in it. Outside of their introductory stages, most of them seem to barely appear outside of combat.

It’s all told with an exceptionally Canadian-sounding dub of low quality, which strangely enough I actually liked. It’s a specific sort of bad game voice-acting which you just don’t hear anymore. The professional quality of acting in games seems to have gone up a lot in the last couple decades, which sadly means that a bad performance is often a dull one rather than a weird one.

Even with that to keep me mildly fascinated, I ended up bored because of how the game played. Combat is extremely repetitive, which wouldn’t be too much of an issue if it wasn’t exceptionally button-mashy at times. One of the healing moves requires such an excessive amount of analogue stick-twirling that it was hurting my wrists. It was unavoidable due to how limited other means of healing were.

There isn’t much excitement to the exploration either, as most places consist of futuristic warehouse corridors. It all blends together so that no area can stick out in my mind.

However, the movement is really fun. The one major thing that this game takes from Mega Man X is the ability to dash. I never stopped dashing to move around as it has a good amount of control and covers a good amount of distance without losing momentum. It’s a nice thing to keep fidgeting with over the course of the game.

Some of the complaints I have could be thrown at other RPGs that I like, but the difference here is that there isn’t much to tie it all together. The aspects I like work in isolation. The dash is fun and the voice-acting is silly but those don’t build on anything else. It’s also much more difficult to ignore the things I don’t like surrounding that.

Playing this game has actually been worthwhile. It’s made me think more about what I like about videogames, and how I’m able to express that. I would be more annoyed if I only played this to pass time. Even though I had some issues with Mega Man X Command Mission, it was nice to find some joy in it.


This article contains spoilers for both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2.

At the end of Final Fantasy X the world has dramatically changed. Sin is no longer a constant threat and major organisations have fallen apart. The game doesn’t actually do much to show you the results of that. A big speech is given and the game ends.

So Final Fantasy X-2 shows very quickly how the world has changed. For a start this isn’t the mostly linear journey like the preceding game. Almost every area is open to be explored from the beginning, which felt a little overwhelming to me.

Yuna, the summoner from FFX, is now a “sphere hunter”, one of many in search of ball-shaped recorded videos showing Spira’s history. Most sphere hunters seem to be doing it for the sense of adventure found in hunting for these items. Yuna started because she received a sphere showing someone who looked like Tidus, who died at the end of the last game.

But how has the world of Spira changed materially? This game has a reputation for being seen as the “fun and frivolous one”, but I was surprised by how bleak it actually seemed from the start. Things have gotten better in some ways (less people are dying from random monster attacks), but it doesn’t feel as though much work is being done to improve the world in other ways.

The Mi’ihen Highroad, a place many summoners walked down, no longer has anyone travelling on foot. When Yuna and the party walk through it, people remark how strange that is. Most travel across it is now done by hovercraft, which costs money. The place is now also patrolled by sentry machines which are supposed to take care of monsters, but haven’t had the best history of safety, and at one point start attacking people.

The former final stop on a summoner’s journey, Zanarkand, is now a tourist hotspot. People travel from all over the world to feel like they’re going on an adventure. There are even treasure chests for sale. The Zanarkand of the old Spira was a very traumatic place. It was the place where many summoners would go to die in order to maintain the lies of Yevon. Now it has been transformed into a theme park.

These are only a few examples. Industry and commerce have moved into places previously dominated by religious dogma, and haven’t proven to be a good replacement either. Factions have been set up with the intention of taking places for themselves. The villain of the game is a victim of a war that took place 1,000 years ago who feels unhappy that the world just hasn’t changed enough.

But it isn’t beyond saving. Final Fantasy X-2 actually has a much more positive and optimistic outlook on all of this, it just makes one thing very clear: it takes a lot of work to fix everything. Yuna looks around at the world and sees that not many people are doing anything to save it, so she feels she has to.

Yuna can stop the dangerous machines at the Mi’ihen Highroad by dismantling them. Yuna can reduce the level of tourism in Zanarkand by encouraging wildlife to breed. Yuna can resolve conflicts between others. It genuinely takes a lot of work for a player to do this and most of it is optional and can be easily missed.

I ended up burning out on it and only resolved a fraction of the problems. Partly because in some cases I couldn’t because of something I missed at an earlier stage. This is all tracked in-game by a completion percentage. I’ve been told by many that to achieve 100% on the first go, a guide needs to be checked considerably often.

Areas have to be visited several times over and over. After a while they get boring to travel through, as most of them retain the same structure as seen in Final Fantasy X, so very few of them have something new. The straight-line structure many of these places have doesn’t suit repeat visits well, and the music that plays in them is annoying and repetitive.

Battles got tiring too. They initially seemed interesting, as they brought back the Active Time Battle system from older games, and also included mechanics that built off of it being in real time. For one example, if party member attacks happen around the same time, they can become a combo which increases the amount of damage done. Eventually my party became powerful enough that I didn’t need to think about that, and I spent most combat encounters on auto-pilot.

It doesn’t feel like these sorts of annoyances are in conflict with the game itself. It’s all things that make it feel as though Spira is very resistant to change. Yuna’s personality also seems to provide context for the game structure too, as she seems to have taken on Tidus’ desires to actively provide help to people, even if it requires a detour.

Putting in all of this effort pays off too. Do enough work and Tidus will be brought back to life. The only way to unlock the game’s perfect ending is by achieving 100% completion (of course that’s not the only way to actually see it, thanks Youtube). This adds on an extra scene which is a conversation where Tidus tells Yuna that there’s a possibility he could still disappear again. This also underscores that they have to actively work to keep things how they want them, much like how Yuna did for the rest of the world.

Playing through Final Fantasy X-2 was a strange experience for me. I wasn’t really enjoying it so much in the second half. When I finished it, I began to put everything together and really appreciated what it was doing. In writing this piece I actually grew fonder for the game. Maybe I’ll like it more on a second go with all of this in mind.


This article contains major spoilers.

The first playable moment of Final Fantasy X put into perspective a lot of what this game does for me. Main character Tidus has to make his way to the big blitzball stadium, he’s the star player for the Zanarkand Abes so he needs to be there on time, especially since it’s a home game. When he almost reaches the stadium he has to push through a crowd to get to it. When this game came out it was a very impressive moment, the crowd reacted to the player’s movement like a real one would react to a celebrity athlete. It’s nearly a 20-year-old game now so the graphical spectacle didn’t hit the same way but I still found something surprising.

I had actually put my controller down when I got to that part. I can’t remember why exactly but because I hadn’t pressed any buttons for a short amount of time Tidus pushed through all by himself. It makes sense of course, there’s no reason for him to be stuck in there being mobbed by fans. It could have been something they put in because people testing the game were spending too long playing with the crowd or couldn’t see where to go on smaller TVs, but it doesn’t just feel like a functional moment. It feels like the character is doing something he reasonably would.

If you take a reductive look at Final Fantasy X, it’s a role-playing game like many others. You control a party of characters  as they explore many locations with random bouts of turn-based combat and light puzzle solving serving as interruptions. Every so often there’s a boss or a cutscene too. That could just be a description of several other videogames. What sets this apart from others is how thoughtfully put together many of its aspects are. The game’s systems and structure are closely intertwined with its character writing and worldbuilding.

So what’s that world like? After that opening moment, Tidus only gets to play in his big blitzball for a short amount of time before it’s attacked by a giant monster that sends him 1,000 years into the future. Completely lost in this new world called Spira, he eventually meets a party of adventurers led by a woman named Yuna. She is a summoner, one of many on a pilgrimage to destroy Sin, the monster that attacked Zanarkand earlier. Tidus joins them as one of Yuna’s guardians.

The party’s journey is one that’s constantly moving forward. It’s one many other summoners and their guardians have taken. Most have failed and some have succeeded, but Sin always comes back. It’s a very linear journey, moving from one place to the next without going back. There’s no reason to backtrack as the path to defeating Sin is always forward. Save points also fully heal the party on approach, meaning that there’s very little reason to return to a town. All of that helps the game to move forward at a good pace. It also gives a real sense of adventure because every step forward takes the party further from where they started and into somewhere new.

Summoners also have another job, which is to send the souls of the dead to the afterlife. If this isn’t done and they remain for too long, they will turn into fiends, which are the monsters often encountered in random battles. It gives good reasoning for why the strength of monsters increases as the party gets further through the game, as in later areas summoners and their guardians are more likely to have died, and the ones that made it further are likely to be more powerful.

But what about the biggest monster of them all? Sin is an embodiment of grief; a source of mass destruction and constant reminder of all that has been lost. Even Sin’s origin itself is a way of dealing with loss as it exists to preserve a society which is long dead. Grief and loss is something all of the characters experience. It’s what gives the party motivation to move ahead.

Almost all members of the party have a different experience with loss and a different way of dealing with it. Yuna lost her father at a young age and wants to honour him. Tidus also lost his father at the same age but wants to forget him. Wakka lost his brother Chappu and uses his religious beliefs to help guide himself through mourning. Lulu was also close to Chappu and was previously guardian to summoners who died on their pilgrimage, but she chooses to hide her feelings. Auron saw his friends die trying to defeat Sin and wants that to never happen again. Because of this and the time they spend together, the party gets closer to each other.

Those relationships come through in the game’s cinematic direction too, though a more appropriate phrase would be televisual direction. During cutscenes the camera feels closer than it often did in prior Final Fantasies and its movements don’t seem very intricate. It does give more of a TV drama vibe, but that only serves to further highlight how friendships develop. It’s noticeable when looking at the blocking throughout the game too. The party members seem to initially have scenes in pairs: Tidus and Yuna, Wakka and Lulu, Auron and Tidus. There’s also an early section of the game that takes place on a boat, and to find everyone you have to go through different rooms. As the game progresses further more scenes happen with bigger groups. When the party eventually reaches the ruins of Zanarkand towards the end of the game, they all sit together at a campfire.

Another means in which it demonstrates growing friendships is through its character growth system, the Sphere Grid. It looks like a board game map where many of the spaces provide stat upgrades and abilities. It’s an abstract system to show how characters learn to fight and how they learn from each other. Each character starts off in their own section of the grid upgrading stats and learning abilities that seem tailored for them, before eventually having to move into other sections and gaining skills from the others.

The placement of characters even correlates to how they feel about each other. Tidus and Yuna hit things off very quickly when they first meet and later fall in love with each other. If you follow Tidus’ standard path on the grid, it links up with Yuna’s multiple times. Wakka and Lulu have known each other for a long time too, which is why their paths are close together too. Auron watched Tidus grow up, so they’re next to each other. Kimahri is able to go onto other characters’ sections faster than any other, mostly down to his skill at mimicking others’ abilities. Interestingly the quickest one for him to get into is Tidus’, likely because Kimahri keeps a close eye on him around the start, as he doesn’t know him as well as the others.

Plenty of RPGs have relationship mechanics in them these days because of the popularity of games like Persona (which isn’t an originator itself, but certainly a trendsetter). The thing that tends to irk me with Persona’s friendship systems is that they feel very transactional. You put enough points into a relationship and eventually they will give you something that will make progressing through the game easier. The difference with the Sphere Grid is that it’s not a relationship mechanic, it’s one that happens as a result of relationships.

It’s really cool to see this all play out in battle too. At the start of the game most of the characters are best suited to fight specific enemy types. Once they get more powerful through the Sphere Grid they can start filling in for others. By the end of the game I was only making use of three out of the seven available party members, which I could only do because of what they learned from the other four.

So now I want to focus on one character in particular: Tidus. They made the right sort of protagonist for this kind of RPG. He’s got a very energetic curiosity for the new world that he recently came to and a tendency to get easily distracted. His good nature also results in him taking the party with him to help others off the beaten path. When they all reach the Mi’ihen highroad they hear about a monster called the “Chocobo Eater” which is causing trouble in the area. Tidus says that they should help get rid of the monster because it’s “the right thing to do”. The Chocobo Eater isn’t an optional boss but this is a character moment that justifies the tendency to get sidetracked from the journey like many RPG players do.

It’s also shown through blitzball as well, which is a minigame that plays out very similarly to rugby or football. It’s something that’s likely on Tidus’ mind a lot, as every save point comes with an option to “Play Blitzball”. During portions of the game where playing blitzball isn’t possible, the option still shows at a save point, just greyed out. Even when he can’t play he still thinks of it. 

But the reason he starts playing it is because he is helping out a struggling team, the Besaid Aurochs. The first playable match is very difficult, it’s set up so that it’s almost impossible to win. I lost but I couldn’t leave it at that. While there is a whole system of recruiting players to build a better team, I chose not to engage with that and stick with the original team. It made sense to do this, as this game is all about sticking together. Turns out the game supported this too as I ended up winning multiple leagues.

However blitzball is a distraction, both in the fiction and in the game design. It is popular in Spira simply because it allows people to take their minds off of Sin. I was having a lot of fun with it myself, but there was a journey I had to continue with.

One thing I was wondering about while playing the game was why none of the party really gave much resistance to the many distractions they were dragged along to. It’s because they didn’t want to accept the end result of the journey, something which Tidus didn’t know from the start. Going along with the pilgrimage through to the end and defeating Sin results in the summoner dying. None of them want Yuna to die as every single one of the party members has a close relationship with her. 

Yuna has a quiet determination to do what she wants, but even she doesn’t want to rush to the end right away. I think about the often misunderstood laughing scene where Tidus and her make fools of themselves. It’s a sweet moment of them stopping to have fun with each other. At the end of that she says she wants her journey to be “full of laughter”. She wants plenty of time in her journey to stop and appreciate the friends she has around her. All of this recontextualizes the standard pacing of an RPG, as it just feels right to have these people stay with each other a bit longer. I’d feel guilty if I chose to rush to that conclusion. It’s no accident that the Calm Lands, an area where more side content begins to crop up, comes soon after a scene where Tidus and Yuna’s romance deepens.

But they find a way to defeat Sin forever where Yuna doesn’t die, but Tidus and Auron go instead. Because of what they’ve gone through with Yuna they don’t tell anyone until it’s too late. Things would just slow down and Sin can’t be left alive. Of course the player is told long before they all are, so you could choose to continue at a slower pace if you wanted.

The importance of slowing down even extends to the music. The Hymn of the Fayth is a motif that recurs throughout the game. It plays at important moments such as when Yuna gains more summons to fight with, when important characters are introduced and when big decisions are made. There’s also a track that sounds very similar to it called The Travel Agency, which plays during visits to certain inns where the party decides to stop and rest. It doesn’t have the exact melody, but it’s very close, almost like a reharmonized version with some of the timing changed. During some parts of the song I could hum the Hymn over it, and it sounded like it belonged. It helps to highlight that moments where the party stops are just as vital.

Of course so much of the music is excellent, though I near enough say this about most Final Fantasy games anyway. It’s all music that fits together perfectly, but surprisingly from three composers who manage to keep their tracks distinct from each other. Nobuo Uematsu keeps true to the dad-prog sensibilities that he is best at. Masashi Hamauzu bolsters beautiful melodies with sustained harmonies that give great depth to his tracks. Junya Nakano layers many melodies to create more atmospheric pieces that sound wonderful. Of course three people working together with their own strengths is true to this game (sorry that is a bit cheesy).

All of these aspects would serve to strengthen a standard JRPG story about friendship and coming together to fight a big bad guy, but there’s a bit more to it than that here. So much of the themes of the game centre around death and grief, so by having a lot of details that put the character relationships to the front it makes all of it hit much harder. They’re only able to make progress in the game by confronting their own fears of death and of losing friends. The Sphere Grid shows that the impressions these characters leave on each other are long lasting. When Tidus disappears at the end after giving Yuna one last embrace, it’s a powerful moment because I saw those characters grow in multiple ways. I know he won’t be forgotten.

Final Fantasy X is such a holistically designed game. Each element of it has me thinking about how it interlinks with others. It’s not as though the sum is greater than its parts because those parts are fantastic. The characters are great, it still looks very nice, and the battle system is so much fun. There are some exceptions to this (I would never like to see the chocobo minigames again), but still so much of these things come together to build an excellent game.

There are so many things about this game I could talk about, but I feel as though that would bloat out the article and it would be less focused. It’s just like how there are so many things to get distracted with travelling across Spira, but at some point this has to end.

If you liked reading this, why not check out other pieces I’ve written on Final Fantasy here!


When I had played through the initial three Final Fantasy games, I found that the playable characters didn’t have a lot going for them. Especially in the first one as they were deliberately blank slates. This gave these videogames more world-driven stories rather than character-focused ones which the series eventually became more known for. It’s not a fully black-and-white comparison as those NES games had moments about how characters felt, but there weren’t a lot of them. It favoured particular methods of story delivery over others.

There would be some things that were entirely visual and didn’t require text, but most of the games’ exposition would come from monologues delivered from quest-givers and villains. Usually to fill in blanks resulting from the technical limitations or the inherent aspects of the format. However more details about the world could also be teased from one-sided conversations from various villagers and townspeople.

Knowing all that had me extremely curious to look at Final Fantasy I II III: Memory of Heroes, a novelisation of those games written by Takashi Umemura and translated by Jennifer Ward. I thought it would be interesting to see what carried over into a different medium, so I read the book and sadly I don’t have good news. I had thought about writing about each game’s section individually, but I would be repeating myself as the same problems show up throughout.

Most issues stem from the fact that it’s a short book, containing all three stories in less than 200 pages. Clunky steps are taken in order to do this and it’s hard for me to know whether it’s the fault of the original Japanese text or the translation so I’m not going to blame either of those. All I know for sure is that the end result is bad.

While most of the major events happen within the books, everything else is removed entirely. The first game has the worst of this. There will be a moment where someone tells them where to go, after which it just goes straight to a major fight, which gives the feeling of reading a videogame boss rush summary. I don’t necessarily expect this book to contain chapters about journeys across fields where random monsters show up, or making their way through the many rooms of a large dungeon, but something in between would have helped. 

The time between major events in the games gave it space to breathe, and allowed for them to be more than a collection of fights and exposition. A lot of my memories associated with playing those games is how I explored those worlds. The stories of the NES Final Fantasies (and many other similar games) are more than the written text on the screen. When I tell someone about a game I’ve been playing, I often mention what I’ve actually done in the game. This has been removed from this book and nothing is there to replace it.

Another method of storytelling used here that got on my nerves was a habit of skipping over a sequence that was in the game, and then characters would speak with each other to recap it, because it included some necessary details. It gives it more of the feeling of a bad stream-of-consciousness recounting where someone has to interrupt themselves because they forgot to mention something important.

There’s also very little time put into making the party members into actual characters. People in the books speak about what others are like, but there are very few moments where that’s actually demonstrated. What it ultimately spends more time on is the action sequences, which are mostly fights against boss monsters. 

Reading that also felt a little strange because I only ever think of those fights as the abstract battle mechanics whenever I remember the games. I think about battling the four fiends as selecting options from menus, not the violent clashes described in these books. I’m not incapable of imagining fights between fictional characters, and I know turn-based combat is an abstraction of conflict to make it a game to play. It’s like my mind thinks of those menus as part of those worlds

I don’t think stories belong to particular mediums, but these ones haven’t made a comfortable fit. It’s short and it took me less time than it did to play the original Final Fantasy, but I got much less out of it. The book comes across more like a bad summary as a result of its restructuring. It’s a shame because the written form can be used to expand on a story and add detail that the games did not or could not show, but that potential has been wasted here.



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