Song of the Day: Masashi Hamauzu – Saber’s Edge, from Final Fantasy XIII


If you frequented this blog back in 2012, you probably remember a 68 post series I ran on the history of video game music. While no one website served as my main source for it all, Final Fantasy Shrine definitely inspired the idea. As that community aged, it developed a unique trend towards game, anime, and film music discussion. I discovered a lot of obscure composers there, and that got the ball rolling for my series. One of the things we’ve been doing on FFShrine for ages now is making music compilations to showcase in a sort of knock-out tournament. Themes have ranged from the predictable mainstream to obscurities like “Best of Tim Follin”, but we never actually did Final Fantasy until last year. It turned out to be surprisingly novel, because I hadn’t heard anything since Square-Enix and Nobuo Uematsu parted ways. “Saber’s Edge”, a battle theme from Final Fantasy XIII composed by Masashi Hamauzu, ended up becoming one of my favorite songs in the series.

It’s been a year now, and (probably because I’ve been staying up until 5am watching a baby with absolutely nothing to entertain me) I decided to resurrect the Final Fantasy music knock-out game for a second run. FFShrine is a lot smaller than it used to be, though, and I’m not expecting much participation. So hey, if you’re bored and want to rehash some old RPG tunes, maybe discover a few new ones, stop by FFShrine and check the game out.

Neon Dream #1: Maserati – Inventions


On a bit of a lark, I posted an article last week about some of my odd experiences as a kid on the internet in the 90s. That got me listening to a bunch of music that has no obvious connection to the things I wrote about. My metal choices became more industrial. I fired up the Lost in Translation soundtrack for the first time in ages. I fell in love with vaporwave’s sardonic spin on muzak and smooth jazz… Hey, this sounds like an excuse to post a music series!

90s internet was obsessed with fantasy and science fiction. “Nerds” were more likely to be online. (My family got dial-up because my mother was a computer programmer.) Free online gaming was dominated by MUDs and forum RPGs, as they were well suited for text-based environments and stemmed from a long tradition. Most of all, it was the easiest place for that demographic to congregate. (Why do we have Sports Bars but not Dungeon Masters’ Taverns?) If you came to the internet enjoying console RPGs, you might well leave loving anime and Dungeons & Dragons, too, and sharing an odd obsession with that island off the east coast of Asia that gave us so much of it. Japan was an exotic world full of technologically advanced cities, as I imagined it, and its number one export for me was high-tech fiction.

That is how I came to engage futuristic universes like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Japan brought cyberpunk into the mainstream for my generation. (It was years before I watched Blade Runner.) The internet was the new frontier of technology, so the genre sort of resonated with the medium through which I encountered it. Ghost in the Shell in particular asked a lot of relevant questions regarding how technology impacted identity. On the internet, anonymity was a sort of virtue, and that always fascinated me. I also saw, as time went by, a lot of commonalities between the internet and cyberpunk’s dystopian societies. Corporate monopolies replaced niche vendors. Advertising expanded wildly, still all in-your-face pop-up adds pushing pornography and all-you-can-eat, 0%-down, free trial chances to become an instant winner. Forums became overcrowded, scaling up from hundreds of active users to tens of thousands. Screen names ceased to provide even temporary identification as people no longer bothered looking at them. Copycat conformity and superficial cheap thrills dominated where people had once engaged each other with thought and imagination.

In both cyberpunk and the internet, you had an acknowledged gap between the corporate world and the masses. In Final Fantasy VII, for instance, Midgar’s dark, towering inner city emitted a filth of neon commercial sleaze and ill-earned luxury that opposed the sunshine and suffering warmth of its dilapidated ghettos. This disparity was clear, both to the player and to Midgar’s fictional inhabitants. The antagonists were balding, broad-wasted businessmen and corporate gangsters. The heroes toppled the system through sabotage, creating a ripple effect that rocked the masses and–not so much in FF7, but definitely elsewhere–turned them against their corporate overlords. The fact that capitalism felt evil or sleazy, both online and in the fiction, proved awareness of the gap. If the system was working properly, the masses would willingly accept their position and not eye commercialism warily or respond to tremors beneath. There would be no vulnerability–no means to revolution–and subsequently, in a lot of these stories, nothing to drive the plot forward.

The gap emerged in fiction because it made for an interesting story. It emerged in real life because the internet simply hadn’t been reigned in yet. Corporations were still scrambling to keep up with rapidly changing demands emanating from an unregulated hive mind. In both cases, the appeal was a sense of empowerment. Anonymity within an unstable system enabled anyone, theoretically, to mastermind changes in behavior of the masses and then slip back into the shadows. It was a utopian dystopia. It was too easy.

Today’s social media, integrated subliminal advertising, and tailor-made instant-gratification entertainment indicate a highly functional, invulnerable corporate society. The internet is a bleak, soulless place where people narrate their artificial lives to the wind, proudly displaying every ounce of their shallow identities. You might grasp the banality for a moment and try to spread the word, but open ears are hard to come by, and before you seek them you just have to watch this Youtube video about the 10 craziest moments in… something. C’est la vie.

But that is why internet and the 90s makes me reflect nostalgically on sweaty used car dealers in crooked toupees; Tokyo as an exotic, futuristic world; Groomed corporate elites snorting cocaine on their private jets; Sleazy, shameless advertising; Revolutions begun by untraceable, nameless figures in archaic chatrooms; The machine consuming itself and collapsing into anarchy; Most of all, the freedom to roam a vast, incomprehensible urban landscape without consequence.

Maserati are a post-rock band from the music capital of the southeast: Athens, Georgia. “Inventions” appears on their 2007 release, Inventions for the New Season (which I always thought was a really awkward title). Their line-up at the time included the late Jerry Fuchs, who was involved in a lot of significant acts before his tragic death: !!!, MSTRKRFT, LCD Soundsystem.

This song found its way into my mix as a result of my brief foray into RPGMaker. I got it in my head to make a cyberpunk RPG based loosely around a collaborative story that I took part in back on the Nintendo.com forums in ’98. Futuristic tile sets were pretty hard to come by, and I turned to music to set the tone of the game. I put “Inventions” to work when the player finished up the introduction sequence and became free to explore. The song captured for me the feeling of walking along the massive streets of a futuristic city in the dead of night.

On the Old Internet, I was Destined for Greatness


My childhood heroes all had the first name “NOA”. They were the living, breathing avatars of Nintendo of America. And Nintendo was God, for all practical purposes. But like Jesus, they were simultaneously divine and human. NOAPaul was a tough guy. A real street thug, with a tongue ring and everything. NOATravis, he was your boyband jock. Oh, the envy. And NOAAmy… did you know that she played Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger? I did. Imagine it: a girl who played RPGs.

One day, I was going to be a Nintendo Power Cyberjock too. It was my highest aspiration. Forget astronauts and fire fighters. If Paul and Travis could become Nintendo of America, so could I. And maybe I would make Amy my wife, though she was a withering old spinster of 24.

At 11 years old, I was dedicated to my future career. To become a professional avatar of Nintendo, you had to really know your facts. I was already on the right track, because I owned all 84 issues of Nintendo Power magazine. The knowledge was at my fingertips, but it was vast… so I decided to cheat.

I booted up my Gateway 2000 386/25–it was mine in practice, since my mother finished college–and I headed straight to WordPerfect. If I could quickly search a game name and know exactly which issue and page to check for information… A month later, I possessed a complete index of the entire Nintendo Power catalog. And you thought you were a lame kid.

But there I was, equipped for battle. Ask me about a game. I dare you. I had it down to a science. I could look up a relevant article and spit out an answer within a minute, and Nintendo of America would never know that I cheated. They would think I was just that good. I sent in my job application right then and there, along with a crayola masterpiece of Samus Aran battling Ridley.

I didn’t get the job, but that was probably for the best, since we did not actually subscribe to dial-up internet for another six months and “Cyberjocks” worked online. A minor technicality. Still, I kept Nintendo Power Issue 84 close at hand.

The fame. The glory. The honor.


*Section removed due to copyright issues. They were compressed scans of an out of print magazine spread welcoming you to the Nintendo Loud House with some amazingly dorky-looking staff members striking a pose.*

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My first actual experience on http://www.nintendo.com, some time in 1996, was overwhelming. I had waited so long for this. Line by line, the pixels of that jpeg unfurled in slow motion. “Nintendo Power Source”. “Welcome to www.nintendo.com”. I was there. And it was wonderful.

Nintendo.com was a disorganized sea of information that you could spend all day exploring (especially on a 14.4k modem). There was a frame up top filled with totally nondescript or misleading images that would link you to different parts of the site, and each of those sections had its own upper frame of links. They could take you anywhere. The internet had no rules yet, you see. For instance, there was a really buried subsection called the “N-List” that linked all kinds of random fan sites totally unmoderated by Nintendo, mostly hosted on Geocities. As a consequence, through Nintendo.com you discovered such wonders as this flattering photo of the founder of popular present-day gaming website RPGamer:

(Sorry.)

Ultimately though, I went to the Loud House. That was where the NOA gods resided. To get there, I had to travel underground, down an elevator shaft that consisted of scrolling really far in a narrow frame to the left. If I thought the main site enormous, the Loud House was madness. They had a proto-forum–everyone still called them bulletin board systems then, though it was not an authentic BBS–where topics appeared in a single endless list set to a fire-engine red background with the texture of an aluminum tool box. Damn was it beautiful.

I knew there had to be at least a few dozen RPG fans out there besides myself and NOAAmy, but I never predicted this. The realization that I could be a part of a secret society of hundreds of Square(soft) aficionados must have waylaid my dreams of working for Nintendo for a time, because I don’t remember doing anything but theorycrafting Final Fantasy III (sic) for the next few months. I would spend every school bus ride studying my official players guide, looking for minute typographical errors that could be exploded into radical theories to share with my peers. I actually killed 4,000 dinosaurs in that forest near the Veldt in the false hope of resurrecting General Leo.

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Eventually the forums changed, and so did I. They became more manageable and subdivided into “boards”. Me, I became 12, and that meant responsibility. I couldn’t just be another anonymous Joe researching Final Fantasy VI anymore, aging in obscurity as fame and fortune passed me by. I needed to get back to my dreams, and that required becoming involved in the social community. So I did what anyone would have done back then to turn the page: I changed my name.

That was a principle of the Old Internet that runs totally counter to modern social media culture and may have culminated with 4chan and the birth of Anonymous–the hactivist organization that never actually existed yet frequented headline news throughout 2008. You were really empowered to dictate how a community perceived you. You could completely ‘reset’ your identity at the click of a button, experimenting with different personas until you found one that jived with the community. Nintendo Power even encouraged this behavior in Issue 72:

So died BobaFett207, and a new entity dove into the RPGs board with a mission to earn the unrivaled respect and adoration of its citizens. (His mom also lifted the half hour limit on web browsing, so he actually had time to read replies and stuff.)

<(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)> ^( ‘-‘ )^ <(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)>

What I found was appalling. My plans were immediately surmounted by a more pressing issue. The release of Final Fantasy VII was rapidly approaching, and people were actually discussing the Playstation.

The Playstation. The Sony Playstation, in what would one day be my Nintendo kingdom. These were the filthy traitors who planned to endorse Squaresoft’s debauchery, and they had to be destroyed. I charged head-first, furious and uncaring of the consequences. “JERK!” “IDIOT!” “HOW COULD U!” I let the hatred flow through me, channeling it into dozens of single-sentence replies, until a thread title appeared that gave me pause. It said “ATTN: SHADOW 4000”. That was me! Registered only one day, and my new identity was already known to the community! The post, no doubt, would praise me for my heroic defense of truth and the Nintendo 64.

It did. This was where, in retrospect, things got weird. I wasn’t banned by a forum moderator, or even told to shut up. No, I was invited to join the NES Knights–a legion of warriors who, like me, vowed to fight against the evils of the Sony Playstation. I was promptly recruited and informed that we were at war with the Freedom Knights, who had organized to defend forum-goers’ rights to enjoy non-Nintendo products.

I earned my first stripes when the PSX Invaders came to town. They were a band of ruffians that would show up every few weeks and ravage the RPGs board by posting hundreds of threads titled “N64 SUX”, “PSX 4 LIFE”, etc. Certain that I could stop the incessant barrage of spam posts, I set a clever trap. “ATTN: PSX INVADERS” the thread title ran, and when they clicked it… BAM! “***FIRE LANCE X***” As I am sure you expected, this worked phenomenally. Two invaders stopped spamming and engaged me with their own barrage of attacks. I parried them as best I could, while fellow forum-goers engaged them similarly in other threads. The battle was long and bloody, but we were victorious.

<(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)> ^( ‘-‘ )^ <(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)>

I had found my true calling. Every evening, after school, I would log on to the Loud House RPGs board and train with my allies or engage rival groups. I even started my own, which amassed over 100 members. This was clearly my best route to becoming an official Nintendo-employed Cyberjock… while that dream lasted. It all came crashing down on Thanksgiving Day 1997. Nintendo deleted the Loud House.

And in its place, they created NSider. NSider was ugly, stupid, and it featured Diddy Kong instead of Fulgore.

>

Worst of all, by far, they renamed my precious board “Other RPGs”. Other! Lesser! Inconsequential! And why? The only reasonable explanation was to emphasize the Zelda board. Practically in tears, I called my RPGs brothers to arms. The Zelda board must pay. That war would last for weeks, because the Zelda board was well organized under the Zelda Alliance. (This same game had been going on there all along, despite there being almost no overlap in users.)

<(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)> ^( ‘-‘ )^ <(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)>

As it turned out, the game was not just an RPGs board thing or a Nintendo.com thing, but a common trend throughout the internet. As we transitioned away from NSider to Geocities and forum hosts like VantageNet and InsideTheWeb, we encountered more of the same everywhere. It was as if thousands of kids were dumped into an empty field and told: “Play. No one is watching.” You will never find a Wayback Machine record of the bizarre, seemingly pandemic consequences, but if you were socially engaged in the 90s internet before high school, you probably belonged to some sort of guild.

I tended to see a change in people when they got to be 13 or 14, and the game for them might transition into an interactive story. These were shared universe worlds in which participants would write a collaborative fiction story through their individual characters’ perspectives. It wasn’t RP, but rather a real (poorly written and highly derivative) novel, and it could go on for years. The one that began on the Loud House RPGs board amassed thousands of pages (which were archived). Alternatively, the game would evolve into cyberbullying. Account security was non-existent and cracking tools were a dime a dozen on Yahoo!. A lot of sites also used forms to password protect their content, and the redirect link was usually embedded right in the HTML code. As a high school freshman, you were too “mature” to pretend you were a wizard anymore, so you pretended you were a 1337 hacker instead. It was not uncommon to see a Geocities site vanish over night, replaced by “Conquered by” so-and-so. My first email address got hijacked. It was actually kind of stressful.

But that was the 90s internet as I remember it. …Am I supposed to inject some sort of closing point or moral here?

BlizzCon 2013: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor


After a one year hiatus, BlizzCon is back. As I watched the opening ceremonies and subsequent World of Warcraft panel yesterday, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to another RPG powerhouse all but forgotten in the western world today: Squaresoft. The series of marketing failures that sent Square spiraling towards bankruptcy in the early 2000s felt eerily close at hand as Blizzard Entertainment unrolled one new project announcement after another yesterday in Anaheim.

Square’s troubles from a western perspective began in 1999. They had, prior to that year, released a handful of non-RPG titles in North America–I remember purchasing shmup Einhänder and enjoying Kenichiro Fukui’s soundtrack if nothing else–but these were Easter eggs not marketed to Square’s traditional fan base. In 1999, Square ported and pushed Ehrgeiz. It was a fighting game marketed specifically for RPG fans, incorporating popular Square franchise characters such as Sephiroth and Cloud Strife, and it was the first Square release in North America that I knew about and did not buy. I thought the game was a really cool idea at the time, but that didn’t change my fundamental disinterest in fighting games.

Next came Final Fantasy VIII. The game was definitely a short term marketing success, but it divided Square’s fan base unlike ever before, because it focused on aspects of the game that fans were traditionally disinterested in. It was the first Final Fantasy title to feature really impressive graphics, it introduced a highly developed card-based mini-game, it reenvisioned a lot of elements of the battle system, and it replaced a traditionally heroic cast with none-too-glamorous introverts. These features drew an audience, but they dulled the interest of loyal series fans who loved the epic tragedies and encompassing global struggle-styled plots of games gone by.

Last came The Spirits Within. Square decided to release a movie geared towards their newer fan base. They had no experience in this field, their diehard fans had already lost interest, and their new fans had no loyalty to the company. It flopped, really badly, and whatever the financial statements of Square Enix say, they never fully recovered their foothold in the western market. They found themselves desperately grasping to reel in a fan base that was too broad to take interest in any single product, until they ultimately faded into obscurity in every market. This can be seen in the fact that most Final Fantasy IX fans disliked Final Fantasy X and vice versa.

I say all of this because it is painfully relevant today. Here are two obvious reasons:

BLIZZARD ANNOUNCED A FIGHTING GAME

This isn’t nearly as misguided as Ehrgeiz. As I understand it, Heroes of the Storm will be styled after DotA, not traditional fighters. (The BlizzCon feed for HotS is hopelessly lagging on me, so I can’t confirm much.) But the idea of duking it out with your favorite characters from Blizzard’s three major franchises is only going to succeed if the gameplay drastically outclasses other games of its genre. They aren’t going to draw fans by letting you play as Kerrigan or Thrall, because most Blizzard loyalists are not convinced by the company’s character development. I would also argue that, following the massive hype and disappointment of Diablo III, Blizzard fans aren’t going to be very compelled by a new title beyond their franchises of choice that is not a wholesale break from what we’re used to. Heroes of the Storm will be free, and that is a huge plus, but it is going to have to be really freakin good to make it off the ground. As was the case with Square’s Ehrgeiz, the franchise card isn’t going to hold much weight in this field of play.

BLIZZARD ANNOUNCED A MOVIE

Yes, Warcraft: The Movie is under production. More will be revealed about this project at 1pm PST Saturday on the Main Stage, but absolutely nothing good can possibly come of it. Like The Spirits Within for Final Fantasy, it will only interest a small portion of the Warcraft fan base and hardly anyone beyond. Blizzard has never been a promising plot engine, and their cinematics are hopelessly cliche. It’s not like there’s any precedent for failure along the console to cinema highway, but I give Blizzard’s shot at turning a profit here about one in zero.

WARLORDS OF DRAENOR OVERVIEW

Now, I’ve claimed that Blizzard does not keep fans based on plot and character development. Am I right? Well, I’ve certainly known WoW players who cared about the plot, but they form a minority in my experience. That’s not to say that I or any other WoW fan would not love to see a really awesome plot. It’s to say we won’t get one. This is something Blizzard is particularly bad at, and it’s not the reason we play their games. That is one of the reasons World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor concerns me. The hour and a half of feature coverage yesterday focused heavily on the game’s plot and characters. Blizzard staff went on at length about the progression forward from Mists of Pandaria and the various NPCs you will encounter. In a comically self-defeating slide, they summed it up like this:

That’s all the more a Blizzard plot has ever really amounted to, and it’s why no one cares. Looking beyond the attempted plot hype, what else does Warlords of Draenor have to offer?

SETTING

WoW 6.0 will take place in Outlands, utilizing another weak time-travel plot device to set the zone prior to its cataclysmic restructuring as experienced in The Burning Crusade. Shattrath will now be an independent Draenei city, and the alliance and horde will have their capitals in Shadowmoon Valley and western Blade’s Edge Mountains respectively. These will be known as Karabor for alliance and Bladspire Citadel for horde, and the Blade’s Edge Mountains themselves will not yet exist as such. Their memorable spikey peaks having formed during Draenor’s later destruction, they will be separated into a western, mountainous winter zone (Frostfire Ridge) and an eastern desert (Gorgrond). Shadowmoon Valley will here be a lush land of forests and meadows, not a desolate fel-ridden waste, and Karabor will be the site of what later becomes Black Temple. There will be seven zones in all: Nagrand, Shadowmoon Valley, Tanaan Jungle (Hellfire Penninsula), Talador (Terokkar Forest), Frostfire Ridge (western Blade’s Edge), Gorgrond (eastern Blade’s Edge), and a new zone–Spires of Arak. None of these seem, in my opinion, to offer much of a unique flavor. That is somewhat inevitable, since Outlands is not an unfamiliar world.

The world will loosely resemble Outlands, and like most WoW continents, it will form an image when viewed as a whole:

GARRISONS

Garrisons were described at BlizzCon as “the [Valley of the Four Winds] farm times one thousand“. A garrison is a full town which you can build inside any zone within Draenor, and which you can move from one location to the next. Like the farm, a garrison will involve setting actions into motion which will occur over night (anywhere from a few hours to a full week), but the payout will be much higher. You’ll gain NPC followers who quest and raid for you to bring home epic gear, you’ll be able to tap into other professions beyond your main ones, you can pick and choose what buildings are constructed (armory, stables, etc), and you’ll be able to customize the garrison’s appearance any way you like as it grows. You can even hang a boss’s head from your front gates!

Sounds pretty cool, right? I think it’s riddled with problems. First of all, Blizzard reps claim: “This isn’t a cottage in a far away instance corner that doesn’t actually exist in the world. This is your ability to actually build a base almost as you do in the RTS games, in the actual world, that you’ll be able to see as you fly through the zones. You’ll be able to see it as you go by it. You’ll be able to invite your friends to come and see it if you want to.”

That is horribly misleading. Under the current developmental scheme, your garrison will exist for you and you alone. It’s true, like they said, that it will be smack in the middle of any map you care to put it in, and that it will be visible from afar, but it will be entirely isolated from all other players. It is a solitary bastion in an MMO world. No one will be able to see it (unless you invite them, presumably to role play); no one will be able to attack it; no one will ever know it exists. As such, it’s not much different from the average farming game on your cellphone. The only real reward is the production payout, whatever that may be. Let’s look at a few:

You can choose which buildings to include.

Ok, but what are buildings good for? An inn and stables aside, all buildings in WoW are used almost exclusively for profession and class trainers. But at level 100 you won’t need a class trainer, and Mists of Pandaria drastically nerfed the amount of time and energy necessary to max out a profession, so much so that grinds which once took a month or upwards of 100k gold can now be accomplished in an evening for petty change. (I think that was an awesome improvement in MoP. Don’t get me wrong.) Unless Blizzard invent new uses for these buildings, they will have none. Or if they add such features as transmog, upgrading, and reforging, then Karabor and Bladespire Citadel will be ghost towns. The screen shot Blizzard offered showed the blacksmith being used to learn new patterns. If that’s anything like the daily leatherworking and tailoring pattern rewards in MoP, it will be pretty useless.

It allows access to mats/It farms for you while you’re offline.

What does it farm? Blizzard have still yet to introduce any sort of access to solid gear outside of raiding or valor/conquest points. If this gear isn’t up to par, it will be a waste of time. Does it farm mats? If it’s anything like the Valley of the Four Winds farm in MoP, this will be a completely useless feature unless the mats are BoP. There is a reason you only farm Motes of Harmony in MoP: non-binding general profession mats always have and always will be the domain of bot farmers. You might not like them, but your auction house could not exist without them. They are what make ore and herbs affordable on your server, and the farm system alternative to gathering in MoP has never paid out in time spent to profit earned.

It gives you access to professions you don’t have.

MoP’s profession grind nerf still necessitates six toons at 85 to max everything out, so this could definitely come in handy, but at what cost? The more Blizzard takes away from the auction house, the more inflation will rise.

You can win trophies, and hang your enemies heads upon pikes at the castle wall! Yarrrgh!

The first note I jotted down while watching this BlizzCon session was “wtf is the point of building a castle in an mmo that is not mmo?” That pretty well sums it up. The whole purpose of a trophy case is to brag to other people about your accomplishments.

The bottom line is this: Blizzard couldn’t have given every player in the game a Garrison that existed out there in the real, massive multiplayer world, because it would have been a spam-ridden nightmare. But they could have given one to say, every level 25 guild with at least 20 exclusive active accounts, and they could have taken this in all sorts of promising directions, ranging from pvp sieges to player-made home cities instead of another Shattrath or Dalaran. But they didn’t. Instead, we all get a bigger farm.

GRAPHICS

This is actually pretty sweet. Blizzard is making a massive graphic overhaul to all races in the game, and will now offer visuals competitive with new MMOs on the market.

BOOST TO 90

In an attempt to lure back old players, Blizzard if giving every account a free boost to level 90 for one toon at any level. This is a pretty nice deal, but it could have some unintended consequences. I for one will be employing it as that long-awaited character transfer I was always unwilling to pay money for. By-by dying low population server, hello Sargeras, Kil’jaeden, or Kel’Thuzad. Expect this feature to increase urban migration and server balance polarization.

CROSS-SERVER ITEMS

Blizzard is increasing the types of items that will be available cross-server. In addition to mounts and battle pets, you will now be able to access BoA leveling gear heirlooms on any toon, anywhere. It’s about damn time, I think. They are also making tabards and toys account wide, which is just silly.

DUNGEONS & RAIDS

Warlords of Draenor will launch with 7 dungeons and 2 raids containing a total of 16 raid bosses. Only 4 of the 7 dungeons will be available below level 100, for maximum alt leveling boredom. Upper Blackrock Spire (UBRS) is getting a remake, and the level 100-only dungeons will have non-heroic versions in order to “help players prepare for heroic mode”. … Since no one would voluntarily run non-heroic dungeons at level cap, I interpret this to mean “expect more tedious grinding before you are eligible for real gear.” The reason behind this move is incomprehensible, as no one who is unready for heroic dungeons for reasons other than gear is any less unready for regular dungeons. They are called “noobs”, or “nubs” in some dialects, they are typically too disinterested in the finer details of the game to ever figure it out, and they will be carried by my epic hunter deeps. NEED that agi ring my DK friend! It will definitely help boost you over 10k dps!

Raids are getting a fourth tier. There will now be LFR, Normal, Heroic, and Mythic. LFR through Heroic will all be available under the relatively new and quite successful flex raiding system, and Mythic will be 20-man only. While this all sounds like a fine idea to me, the Blizzard reps did show once again how out of tune they were with the game they developed when they explained flex’s utility: We’ve all been in that annoying situation where a few dps or a healer bail in LFR right before a boss pull and we have to reenter queue and wait, they said. Flex will scale the LFR boss down so we can pull anyway!

Well, no, we haven’t. In fact, that never, ever, ever happens. DPS and healers are replaced in LFR in a matter of seconds. There is a 60 minute long queue line of them ffs. Long waits before boss pulls happen because TANKS leave, and you can’t rescale for that.

PVP

Blizzard is bringing back a world pvp zone, and it’s going to be a 24/7 battle rather than a timed instance. They compared it to classic Alterac Valley, and I’m pretty stoked about that. Unfortunately but necessarily, this is going to be a cross-server zone. That means that you’ll never form a collaborative relationship with your team mates, probably, but with a ton of servers reaching 90:10 faction polarization these days, I for one see no viable alternative.

In the world of arena, Blizzard is creating a separate ladder system called Trial of Gladiators. These ladder fights will only be available at certain dates and times, and they, rather than regular arena queues, will determine season champions. This was supposedly developed to eliminate late-night pairing exploitation, which I wholly intended to get in on to knock out some of my arena achievements, but I’m all for it. One really cool thing is that they’re eliminating gear for the event. You will be given the same premade gear set when you roll in, regardless of your ilevel or resilience, so victory will depend entirely on skill and class balance.

ODDS AND ENDS

Blizzard focused on a number of additional changes that Warlords of Draenor will offer, and most of them are complete rubbish that ought to just be quietly implemented on the next routine patch update.

* Battleground progression information — Blizzard are basically integrating PVP DBM into the game proper. But I’ve got an addon for that.

* Random favorite mount summoning — This will be an option. But I’ve got an addon for that.

* Enhanced bag sorting options — You will now be able to control which bags particular types of loot fall into. But I’ve got an addon for that.

* Battleground scores — You will now be able to see a conglomerate score of your performance in a battleground, incorporating traditional stats such as hks and damage done along with your involvement in objection completions. I am not very confident about Blizzard’s capacity to rate my performance, especially considering there are multiple strategies for winning just about any bg. This is also potentially really dangerous, because they suggested that there might be rewards for high scores. Does this mean that, even if you already have the Cap Five X achievement in a bg, you’re still encouraged to spam the hell out of the flag instead of fighting around it for a shot at the prize?

* Quest items will no longer be stored in bags — Yay!

* You can craft with items in your bank, not just your bag — Yay!

* Item stack caps raised from 20 to 100 — Yay!

But I fear that the few positive changes here and there aren’t going to make a difference in the big picture. Blizzard announced WoW 6 this BlizzCon, as expected, but they had very little to show for it. Plot and characters aren’t what keep us playing this particular game, the Garrison system is a single player entity isolated within an MMO world, and almost every other new thing they emphasized was astoundingly petty. There will be modest improvements here and there–to bag space, to raiding opportunities, to free server migration–but in previous expansions these would be afterthoughts. A lot of interface changes amount to nothing more than addon incorporation, but the players who don’t use say, a battleground objective addon, are probably oblivious to battleground objectives in the first place. The most depressing announcement towards this end was the ADVENTURE GUIDE. This is a menu like the Dungeon Guide, but designed for inexperienced players who don’t have a clue what’s going on. It will tell you what zone you ought to be questing in, where you can go for better gear (a dungeon. a raid. mmhmm…), what battlegrounds are available at your level, and so on. Did it ever cross Blizzard’s mind that the people who can’t figure out the dungeon finder or pvp menus aren’t going to figure out the adventure guide either? Obviously not, because the emphasis once again seems to be “hand more fine details to the players who don’t care and won’t read them.” I’m not trying to insult anybody here. My wife’s been happily bouncing around Eastern Kingdoms leveling gnome locks to 40 for a year now. There are players who want to “win” to the capacity that WoW allows, and there are players who just enjoy a little pew pew before they go to bed and have zero interest in learning more. Last I visited Blasted Lands, there was not a sea of confused level 60s unable to figure out how to walk into the Outlands portal. So just who do Blizzard think they’re helping with these improvements?

Has Blizzard lost touch with their fan base? Mists of Pandaria does not lead me to believe so, but the showcase for Warlords of Draenor looks bleak. With little more than a dime-a-dozen farming mini-game and new zones, dungeons, and raids to offer, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking forward to here. I don’t need a new class or a new race to keep me entertained–I’ll be a dwarf hunter until the day I quit–but I need something. Whatever that thing will be, it wasn’t revealed at BlizzCon.

But enough being a Negative Nancy. I’m off to watch Jaedong whoop ass in the Starcraft II World Championship Series Finals. For the swarm!

Trailer: Dragon Age: Inquisition (Official E3 Trailer)


DragonAgeInquisition

With Mass Effect 3 now over a year gone it’s time for BioWare to concentrate on moving forward with it’s fantasy rpg franchise which seems to have languished on the sidelines after the very controversial second title in the series. I speak of BioWare’s Dragon Age series and what fans of the title seem to consider a lost opportunity to make it the fantasy equivalent of Mass Effect.

The first game in the franchise was well-received but not without some complaints about the title’s gameplay mechanics being too reliant on micromanaging and less on intuitive controls. The second title was suppose to fix the problem when it came to combat which it did, but then this sequel brought up complaints about a storyline that felt rushed and game environments which relied too much of reusing the same backgrounds and layouts.

Now we have the announcement from EA and BioWare that the third game in the franchise will look to combine the good things about the first two games while looking to fix the problems which many saw as keeping the franchise from reaching great status.

Dragon Age: Inquisition arrives at this year’s E3 with a trailer which looks to be pre-rendered cinematics but with the title set to be released on the upcoming nextgen systems of the Xbox One and PS4 there’s a good chance that future gameplay trailers will look exactly like this trailer. Only time will tell whether that’s the case or not.

Dragon Age: Inquisition looks to drop on the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and Microsoft Windows in the Fall of 2014.

Oh yeah: Morrigan and Varric are back!

Ten Years #45: Miki Higashino


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
45. 東野美紀 (Miki Higashino) (705 plays)
Top track (31 plays): Beautiful Golden City, from Suikoden (1995)

Ms. Higashino is the first of a handful of video game music composers to have risen through my ranks over the years, thanks almost entirely to her beautiful contributions to the soundtracks of Genso Suikoden I and II. (Funny, I would rank Suikoden II in a three way tie for my favorite video game ever, and all three relevant composers made it onto the charts.) Her discography is small but compelling, showcasing an appreciation for traditional Asian and European folk music that rarely surfaces with such force among her contemporaries. Paying special attention to Japanese and Irish folk in particular, she managed to imbue the first two Suikoden titles with a lively earthiness ideal for an unprecedented model of gameplay made possible by the Playstation. The Suikoden games eschewed fantasy in the raw for an appeal to political and military strife in which the hero moves from town to town gathering an army and waging war along grey lines, the quintessential naivete of the RPG hero being frequently exploited to generate scenarios in which the moral high ground stood open to debate. If the main plots centered around those characters most aware of war’s many faces, the hero and the bulk of his officers–108 recruitable characters in all–were simple folk, fighting for personal reasons without a grasp of the big picture. Miki Higashino’s success in the Suikoden soundtracks rested in her ability to score appropriate music for the simple majority–those characters with deep ties to the land, who lacked a grand vision and swallowed whole the political propaganda which cast their homes and country in jeopardy. Songs like Beautiful Golden City capture what the majority of the Suikoden cast fought to preserve.

Higashino has a long history in the video game music industry in spite of her short list of works. She composed her first two soundtracks–Gradius and Yie Ar Kung-Fu–in 1985, at the surprisingly young age of 17. Yie Ar Kung-Fu in particular reveals that Higashino bore an appreciation for folk music from the very beginning of her career. I’ll leave you with the NES version of this remarkably early score.

VGM Entry 68: Final Fantasy VI


VGM Entry 68: Final Fantasy VI
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Square released quite a number of games for the Super Nintendo, but everyone looked forward above all else to their annual blockbuster, appearing in the latter half of the year, from 1993 until 1995. Secret of Mana was the first of these. Final Fantasy VI was the second.

There is only one logical place to begin a discussion of the music of Final Fantasy VI.

And that would be at the beginning. Final Fantasy VI did not begin like other games. Sure, it was by no means the first to fade out on the title screen and play through an introduction to the plot, but this was different in a lot of respects. It provided barely any background to the story. Ok, there was a devastating war 1000 years ago in which the destructive art of “magic” was lost, and an emerging industrial revolution is beginning to recover remnants of that past. That’s all you directly get. The rest plays out more like a movie. You get hints and clues to what’s going on–a new face here, a key term there–but you’re left curious rather than informed. The intro to this game doesn’t set the plot; it sets the mood. (The revised English translation tragically lost sight of this, such that the original SNES “Final Fantasy III” is really the only port of the game worth playing.)

Nobuo Uematsu’s music went hand in hand with this approach. There is no opening anthem–no catchy piece to hum along to. The sinister organ, the harp-like transition, the windy sound effects, and ultimately the opening credit music all flow from one point to the next, breaking only for the sake of the cinematic experience, not because a particular track is over or the next scene has new “bgm”. Final Fantasy VI had perhaps the first really cinematic introduction for a video game.

It might be argued that Nobuo Uematsu revolutionized the use of music in video games from the very opening sequence, but nothing made this more apparent than the events at the Jidoor Opera House, where an odd twist in the plot leads the cast of heroes to become involved in a backstage operation during a musical performance. Not only does the opera take place in the backdrop as you work your way through the mission, but as part of the plot device the heroine Celes takes on the lead female roll in the show. Events transition back and forth between action behind the scenes and the live show, and part of the outcome is determined by your ability, as a player, to regurgitate Celes’ lines from the script.

The video I’ve linked here includes the first two songs in a four-part performance. What makes this sequence so important for the history of gaming music is that Nobuo Uematsu’s amazing score plays a direct role in the plot and gameplay. While the simulated pseudo-vocals might sound silly in hindsight, this was also a real first in gaming music in its day. Square’s sound team might not have possessed the technology to incorporate real words, but nothing prevented them from displaying them as part of the script. As an odd consequence, one of the first video games to make extensive use of lyrics had no vocals.

Uematsu’s third major accomplishment, the indisputable quality of his score aside, was to completely derail the limits of acceptable song length. Granted Commodore 64 artists had been busting out 6-8 minute epics back in the mid-80s, the standard by and large still remained firmly below the 3 minute mark. If we take the opera as a single piece (it’s divided into four tracks), Final Fantasy VI had three songs that pushed 20 minutes.

“Dancing Mad” probably remains today the longest final battle music ever written, with the original ost version clocking in at 17 minutes and 39 seconds. This might seem excessive if you haven’t played the game, but within its context nothing less could have possibly sufficed. Kefka was pretty much the greatest video game villain of all time (Luca Blight from Suikoden II might surpass him), and Final Fantasy VI might have had the most apocalyptic plot in the series. Sure, series fans had saved the world from imminent destruction five times before and plenty more since, but Zeromus, Exdeath, they were just icons of evil. In Final Fantasy VI, Square’s obsession with mass destruction finally found a human face. Kefka’s psychopathy was something you could buy into. He was entirely capable of emotion even as he slipped progressively further into insanity. He just attached no moral value to life. Where enemies before and since sought to destroy the world for destruction’s sake, Kefka was in it for the experience of the ultimate tragedy. For once it actually made sense for a final boss to let the heroes creep up on him; the whole agenda would have been pointless if no one was there to experience it with him.

Both visually and musically, the final battle of Final Fantasy VI was beautiful. Nothing else–certainly no 1-2 minute fight theme–would have been appropriate in the context of the story.