Chrono Trigger: A fun day at the fair

(This is part of my journey going playing through Chrono Trigger. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Chrono Trigger! It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite RPGs (and I’m certainly not alone in this), and I still very much enjoy playing it even over two decades since it first released. It’s so well designed with a great story, incredible music, and a sheer fun factor that rides high all the way through. Even though I played it last year, I wanted to give the now-improved Steam version a shot for a true Retro Gaming series (as I’ve never done that before) and to do a few things, such as all of the game’s side quests (as I’ve never done those before). No more introduction, let’s get going!

What still impresses me after all these years is how Chrono Trigger does the exact opposite of how most JRPGs start. Usually there’s some immediate threat, a village gets burned down, hero vows to save stuff, and we’re off. Instead of that, CT delivers a slow, satisfying experience of… a day at the fair. It’s actually brilliant. It teaches you a lot about the game, ties in to some time travel elements later on, advances the plot, and gets you familiar enough with the world so that you actually start to care about it. And it does all of this casually, allowing the player to go as fast or slow through it as possible.

It’s 1000 A.D. in a fantasy world that’s somewhere around the Industrial Revolution in terms of development (well, there are gadgets and fridges and so on). You start out as Crono, a spikey-haired lad who’s woken up by his mother and told to behave as he heads off to the festival to celebrate the country’s 1,000th birthday. He also wants to check in with his best friend Lucca and see her latest invention. Again, you have freedom to explore the town and even head into the nearby forest for some early fights/grinding, but little of it is necessary. I appreciate “just for fun” options that are in this game.

Speaking of, I thought I’d quickly list everything that you can do at the the fair:

  • Bump into Marle, a strange tomboy with a strange pendant, and go on a date with her
  • Buy gear and potions from vendors
  • Bet on the outcome of a footrace (I never win this)
  • Play a minigame to hit a bell at the top of a pole (I almost never win this, either)
  • Go into the Tent of Horrors and play three tough minigames. These do pay out in items that then appear in your home, making this as close to a housing feature as this game has.
  • Challenge a man to a drinking contest
  • Dance at a prehistoric party
  • Return a lost kitty to her owner
  • Fight a singing robot named GATO (which is my preferred method for gaining festival points, since you’re also getting XP and levels)
  • Go watch Lucca’s invention demonstration

I am the very very sweetest! Also, I just drank my body weight in “soda,” so I’m pretty sure I’m dying right now.

What was so cool about this festival is that most players going through it the first time had no idea that it was actually preparing them for the game and even setting up some story beats to come in the future. It was especially trippy to realize that your actions would have consequences down the road, although it was mostly for flavor. I liked it, even still. And for the record, I try to do all of the “good” things for the trial later on. Well, most of them. I do eat the guy’s lunch because it’s an easy way to heal up between fights.

Does GATO’s stomach have a pokeball in it? Seems rather before its time.

So let’s talk about Crono Trigger’s combat. It’s a blend of turn-based and real-time, keeping the pace of battle flowing while players queue up choices. At the beginning it’s pretty simple, but eventually you get regular attacks, “tech” attacks, and magic spells — and then some of these can be combined with other character’s moves to do even more impressive skills. I love it.

But the best, seriously the BEST, part of all of this is that Crono Trigger doesn’t have a random encounter system. Enemies appear on screen (although sometimes they pop out of the environment) and can be avoided or engaged as you wish. Coming from the nonsense that was Final Fantasy’s random encounters, this was such a blessing and continues to be today. You feel like you’re coming to fights on your terms, not the game’s.

Ugh, I hate this particular minigame. You get an important item from it later in the game, but I absolutely stink at doing this rapid “Simon says” interaction.

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Alone in the Dark: Dance of death

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s Alone in the Dark. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Naturally, escape from the mansion is not easily achieved by waltzing back through the front door. An interdimensional worm now lives there and will suck me into its maw if I am audacious enough to try to leave.

Everything in this house wants to kill me, but it keeps doing so in such inventive ways that I can’t help but be impressed with the effort. One room has a haunted cigar that will suffocate me with smoke unless I douse it with water. This painting of a frontiersman starts chucking tomahawks at me. His mortal weakness? An old Indian blanket, of course.

Across the hall, his Native American counterpart painting starts firing arrows at me. This is where naughty Hogwarts pictures come to live!

As I talked about before, the monsters in this game are extremely limited in polygons. While this can make them more frightening at times with their movements and whatnot, most often they just come off as ridiculous. I missed out on taking a picture of the ghost in the library, but honestly, it looked like the purple Grimace. Don’t really know what they were going for there.

And why not, one of the rooms has a pirate waiting to slash me in two! Feel bad for this guy, spending years cooped up in a room without any company or his old parrot. Probably dreams of the sea. Oh well. Now you must die. A sword fight between us ensues, and it’s easily the most fun I’ve had in the game so far. Wasn’t too tough, either.

Other than the attic, the ballroom is the one place that I always remembered from playing this back when I was a kid. You can only get the item from behind the ghosts if you put on the right record — Danse Macabre, of course — and then make your way through them to grab it. I’ve always associated that piece of music with this game ever since. Stupid games, teaching me about classical music!

With all of that done, I think I’m finished with the main house! I descend down into the basement, which is substantially larger than I would have thought. I guess if you’re going to build a house, might as well situate it over a font of unspeakable evil? Lovecraft is applauding your decision.

BEHOLD MY CHILDREN: THE WORM THAT WILL END THE WORLD. HIS NAME IS HAROLD.

Once the game hits this underground cavern section, I’m much less interested in what it has to offer. There’s little in the way of story or things to explore; mostly it’s just some weird platforming and action sequences while you try very hard not to die. I never did like it when developers ran out of time toward the end of their game and felt like they had to stretch it out with bland and tedious elements.

You know what would be a great idea to include in a game where your character functions like a drunk, scared baby? Platforming! Yes, let’s jump with a character that can barely walk. This will end well for all involved. I am not joking here when I say that I had to save after every single jump in this room, because falling is way, way too easy.

The books in Alone in the Dark are the primary vehicle to deliver the backstory, but honestly, I’ve been avoiding most of them due to the really atrocious voice acting. All you need know is that a pirate named Ezechiel got involved with Cthulu and stuff and now he’s merged with a tree underground and is perpetuating horrors while trying to possess people who come into the house.

This, by the way, is the worst room in the game. It’s a maze that’s pitch black, and even with your lamp, you can only see a very small part of it. Oh, and if you’ve run out of oil or matches, well then, you might as well start the game over again. Good luck! Fortunately, I had plenty of oil left, so I used the tried-and-true right-hand rule to keep following the right wall of the maze until I found the door out.

So here’s the final tree-boss in all his terrifying glory. I feel a bit bad for him, being stuck in a tree for hundreds of years with only a single monster nearby and the ability to shoot fireballs. Has to be boring. Welp, time to light him on fire!

With the pirate-tree turned into a flaming mini-volcano (?), all that’s left is to make my way out of the house. That takes a bit of time, but at least all of the enemies are now gone. Fresh daylight! Good has triumphed!

And this is where the game really got me all those years ago, because it was such a relief to know that I beat the game and got out of the house. Sunshine is beaming down, the music changes to this cheery little tune, and I flag down a car…

…only to have this cackling skeleton-zombie-thing turn around and FREAK ME THE HECK OUT. I freely admit it: I screamed so loud that my parents upstairs called down, sure that I hurt myself. The skeleton doesn’t do anything other than laugh and then drive you away, but still, that was totally unfair, game. Unfair.

And that’s it, Alone in the Dark finished in two relatively short play sessions! It’s a really quick game if you know what you’re doing, and while the polygons are pretty laughable today, there’s still an effectively creepy vibe that the house and its sounds delivers.

Alone in the Dark: Knock knock

(This is part of my journey going playing through 1992’s Alone in the Dark. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

I’m 42 years old. I shouldn’t still be scared — or at least intimidated by — a scary video game that I played back in 1992 but I am. I really am. I think it’s because Alone in the Dark was the first real horror game I ever experienced, and while it was pretty cool to go through, it also ended up scarring my psyche.

Similar to how I dealt with my lingering fear of System Shock 2, I figured the best way to get this out of my system (and generate a new retro gaming series) was just to play it. Anyone miss these playthroughs? Probably not, but that’s OK! They entertain me!

I don’t really know much of the video horror games prior to 1992, but I do know that Alone in the Dark marked a big step in the direction of what would become known as the “survival horror” genre. Essentially, this was a style of game where you were put in a frightening situation and made to feel vulnerable by being given a character that wasn’t especially fast, maneuverable, or a good fighter. In short, you were monster bait in the middle of Monster Central.

It was surprisingly effective.

Games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Amnesia all followed in this vein, but Alone in the Dark really pioneered a lot of the design elements. Yes, it has laughably crude and early polygon graphics (which were revolutionary on computers in 1992), but if you can get past it, you know what? Still downright creepy.

Even the introduction, which has my character investigating the suicide of a relative in the attic of his mansion, instantly put me back on edge. The sound design and music gets a lot of credit for this, as does the angles and that shot of a monster’s point-of-view looking out of a window at me as I approached.

Here’s where the fun begins. I start in the attic of this place, so already I’m in the thick of the house and can’t get out. Not easily, that is. To make matters more interesting, two monsters are coming into the room very shortly, so I had to move quickly… well, immediately to block their entrance.

Alone in the Dark functions as an adventure game with light fighting and stealth elements. So while your normal adventure game has you taking your time exploring every pixel of every room, these kinds of games have you doing so frantically, hoping that you won’t be caught and killed by the bad guy.

Wardrobe and chest moved, monsters blocked. Score one for Syp!

Should probably mention how hard it is to do anything in this game. It’s intentional, but moving and performing actions with this character is annoying. She turns and operates like a tank, and you have to go to a separate screen to activate commands and see your health. Fighting is even worse and I don’t want to try to describe it. Just trust me, it’s slow and awkward. It’s almost always better in this game if you can avoid fights.

Jeremy, the guy who killed himself, left his suicide in the attic. Now, what needs to be mentioned is that while the sound design is good, the voice acting is… what’s the term? Hilariously abysmal. I don’t recall there being voice acting in the version that I played back in the day, but man, they should not have added it. This guy reading the letter is so over-the-top, so bizarrely dramatic, that it had me laughing my head off. Seriously, go to 11:20 in this video and listen to this guy’s “acting.” Let me know what you think.

Down one floor and it’s time for room searching and item thieving! Because of the graphical style and limitations, there are no shadows or dark areas, so a bulk of the atmosphere is carried by the sound effects and the environment acting wonky (floors collapsing, doors closing mysteriously).

Oh, and I’m attacked by the POLYGONAL ZOMBIE FROM HELL! Always thought this guy looked like an anthropomorphic frog in a lounge suit, which is slightly less scary. Slightly more scary is the game’s combat system which is so very awkward to use. It took me a while, but I figured out how to win: You have to wait until the zombie starts its attack animation and take one tiny step back, then step forward and kick. Rinse and repeat.

By the way, when I died, the zombie was considerate enough to drag me all the way to an altar in the basement before the Game Over screen flashed.

Monsters abound on the second floor here. One goofy-looking bird thing jumps through a window in a neat POV moment. Then these purple scorpion dudes have to be defeated via mirrors. I think that the fact you can see so little of their details works well with this game, because your imagination fills in the gaps.

Alone in the Dark is very old school in its adventure game roots, which means that there are a LOT of “do one thing wrong and you’ll die instantly.” Like get too near to this ghost sitting in the chair here. She doesn’t like me much.

And yeah, it is weirdly creepy that this ghost lady is just sitting here looking at nothing.

Strange and unsettling angles are another survival horror staple and very much in effect here. And by the way, if you see anything with polygons, chances are it’s going to attack or kill you in some way.

Oh hai, bathtub jellyfish monster!

I actually felt a little bad taking out this haunted suit of armor by chucking a statuette at it. Poor guy was just standing his post, you know?

This is definitely the nicest room I’ve visited yet. Very peaceful and serene. Probably going to kill me ten ways from Sunday. Nearby, the kitchen has a pot of HUMAN REMAINS dun dun dunnn. This place really goes the extra effort to hit all of those horror tropes.

Now that I got the sword from the suit of armor, I’m a terror to the zombies. They can’t even get close before I cut them down. HI-KEEBA!

Remember that human flesh soup I picked up? Well it’s got a really funny use in the dining room. I put it on the table here and all five zombies in the room politely refrain from chowing down on me to sit in their chairs instead. The chairs are all pulled really far back from the table and no one is eating (most likely a restriction of the graphics and spacing here), but it’s still kind of humorous to watch.

Retro Gaming: Pharaoh

(Retro Gaming is a series in which I get some hands-on time with classic video games of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. Check out this game and others on the Retro Gaming page.)

I can never, ever type the word “pharaoh” correctly. It is my everlasting shame.

So it’s been a year since I started KOTOR 2, and obviously both the sheer busyness of life and declining interest in finishing it up has forced me to put it on hiatus. One of my personal guidelines for the Retro Gaming series is to play a title only as long as it is fun or captivating, and if I hit the end of that… to move on.

There are many bigger retro games to cover, but at least until this fall, my time is going to be quite limited and I don’t want to get sucked into a massive run. Instead, I’m going to be going through my 200-plus GOG library and selecting a few candidates that would make for shorter (1-3 session) playthroughs.

To start us off, I’m going back to a city builder game that I loved back in college, which is Pharoah. I would say that Caesar III was probably more popular among my friends, but I was partial to the ancient Egyptian focus of Pharoah (and its expansion, Cleopatra). Its twist, if you wanted to call it that, was that you had to factor in the Nile’s flooding and subsequent fertile planting seasons in your building plans.

So here is the basic view of the Pharaoh screen, minus a bit chopped off at the top and bottom. Back in the day, it was very common to have most of your action buttons and minimap taking up 1/4 to 1/3 of your screen’s real estate on the left or right side. Eventually that moved to the bottom, but this game came out in 1999, which was before that shift.

We have an isometric view with decent sprite graphics. Somewhat colorful, but there’s a lot of desert color schemes going on, so it’s not as bright and bold as the Caesar games. As for animations, there’s a few with production buildings and with characters walking about, but it’s pretty crude stuff by modern standards.

One thing I really did like, coming back to this game, was the hieroglyphic menu. It’s absolutely beautiful and so well done with the theme of ancient Egypt. Even the border has some color and “pop” to it, and it’s little touches like this that draw me into a title.

The gameplay loop here is basically a juggling act. Your main goal is to create a growing and thriving population, as evidenced by the type and complexity of their houses. To do this, you have to keep adding new supporting systems to provide comforts, necessities, entertainment, and so on. All of it has to be laid out just so, because each building has a radius of effectiveness, so if you get your houses too far away, they won’t be receiving water or food or whatever else they want.

It might sound silly if you’re not into these games, but there is a real satisfaction of seeing a well-designed and organized metropolis thrive and hum. Of course, if things get too complex or there are disasters, then it could bring your carefully constructed deck of cards down.

I rand through a couple of scenarios to re-familiarize myself with the game. It’s still enjoyable in a way and devilishly challenging once all of the building types are unlocked, but I might be ruined by some of the more modern city and base-building games that I play like Rimworld. And while Pharaoh was newer than Caesar III, I don’t feel that it managed to eclipse the Roman-themed game in its visuals or gameplay features. Just a different coat of paint for people who had already played the heck out of that game.

KOTOR 2: Korriban

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

With appearances in KOTOR, KOTOR 2, and SWTOR, Korriban is one of the very few locations to be visited in all three Old Republic games to date. As I’ve never been this far in KOTOR 2 before, I’ve never seen this game’s version yet, but I assume it’s a lot of repurposed maps from the first title.

It is, indeed, a very familiar planet to my SWTOR eyes, and a very short one as well. The big bad on this planet is Darth Scion, the craggy scarred Sith who looks to be in dire need of moisturizer. After picking our way through the valley of the tombs (in KOTOR 2, these tombs are not explorable), I find my way to a dark side cave.

This is kind of interesting, actually. If you ever thought the dark caves in Empire or Last Jedi were a keen peek into how the Force works, at least you get a small taste of that here as well. I guess if you’re a light side player, you can view this as a test for your character, and if you’re a dark side player, this is… basically a vacation resort? I was never clear on that.

The cave is essentially these illusionary setpieces with notable figures. First there is pre-jaw-ripped-off Malak from the first game giving a pep talk to troops. Then Kreia shows up and everyone calls her out on how evil she is, which is what we call in the biz “foreshadowing.”

And there is a fight with Revan, which presents an existential crisis for players who were that character in the first game. He still looks hecka cool here.

After that is the Sith Academy, another reprise from the first game. Like Dantooine, it’s no longer a learning facility but just a dungeon crawl. A pretty enjoyable one, all things considered, but nothing more.

We do find Master Vash dead in a cell, so I guess I don’t get to kill my allotted planetary Jedi. I found it bizarrely humorous how Vash’s corpse has a lightsaber on her, which mean that she could have carved her way out of here and fought. Maybe she had a death wish.

After that, it’s a way-too-quick confrontation with Scion. It’s supposed to be this nerve-wracking confrontation, but you don’t get to kill him because Kreia telepathically yanks you out of there saying that he’s too dangerous. Speak for yourself, sister.

Back on the ship, we get a call urging us to come back to Onderon. Meanwhile, Kreia is shown stalking crew members while invisible. I’m sure the twist will be that she’s really a good guy in the end. Maybe the taller version of Yoda.

KOTOR 2: Onderon and Dxun

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Next up on our galactic Jedi scavenger hunt, Onderon! Which might be a more difficult planet to get to considering that some local general has it out for me and is attacking my ship. For some reason. The solution? We duck down to the moon of Dxun instead.

Once again, Kreia goes Mob Boss crazy behind my back, threatening Atton to keep the Ebon Hawk (I keep wanting to type “the Ethan Hawke”) grounded until she says so. At this point, the game is completely telegraphing THIS GIRL IS EEEEVIL in all of her scenes. It’s not the fun kind of evil, either, which is what I’m going for.

Dxun is a jungle moon that is overgrown with graphical bugs. My characters kept disappearing — or parts of them at least — until I finally realized that it was the panes of grass that weren’t being transparent for some reason. I disabled foliage and went on with my day. Weird.

Dxun is home to the Mandalorians, the behind-the-scenes antagonists of the first game that are now licking their wounds and regrouping. I have to suck up to them to curry enough favor to get a shuttle ride over to Onderon, so cue lots of side quests.

At least I get to have some fun. One side quest saw a Mandalorian treed (well, “rocked”) by some local beasts, and I set off some explosives with him in the middle. You know that I’m accruing dark side points when HK is praising me.

Oh, and there’s a fight with about two dozen droids that’s all kinds of awesome. By this time I’m wrecking droids left and right with my force powers, so it’s not even a fair fight.

Hey Kreia’s back! She’s back everyone! Bullying like usual! Good show, Kreia!

So Mandalore decides to tag along, although he never takes off his helmet (HINT HINT says the game). We trek on over to Onderon, where the city is on lockdown as a tense standoff between the General and the Queen, which represent the dark side and light side… er, sides, I guess. It’s a powder keg waiting to go off and I’m a happy zippo lighter running through the place.

I go through great lengths to try to meet up with the next sucker, Jedi Master Kavar, which takes me through the local politics and a murder investigation. Also, I end up getting FORCE STORM which is the BEST POWER EVER and I’m using it on ANY RANDOM PASSERBY because I’m 40 HOURS INTO THIS GAME after a year of playing it and AM A LITTLE LOOPY.

The meeting with Kavar does not go as I had imagined. He does half-heartedly apologizing for the Jedi council going overboard in exiling me, but soon enough he runs back to the palace. The general then shows up and mentions something about some Sith Lord manipulating things behind the scenes. Whatever. I just want to be emperor of the galaxy or at least my own pleasure planet.

And that’s it for Onderon, at least for now. On to Korriban!

KOTOR 2: Dantooine

(This is part of my journey going playing through Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Before leaving Nar Shaddaa, I had to defeat Jedi Moustache up there, which was no easy task. The game is balanced around the idea that you’re using a lightsaber or some other melee weapon, so trying to pew-pew him with blasters is a rough go (especially with the whole blaster bolts-deflecting abilities that Jedi have). I had to save scum a lot and use my Kill power excessively, but in the end I conquered him and absorbed his force points into my own being. Didn’t get any loot, despite him using that lightsaber up there, though.

The good news is that with the completion of Nar Shaddaa and a few fights with HK units, I had enough spare parts to put together fan favorite HK-47! Man, I missed you, buddy. How’s it hanging? Still assassinating meatbags everywhere?

I also tried to pry into Atton’s mind with my Force powers, which he didn’t appreciate for some reason. Whatever. I’ve given up on the whining pup.

On to Dantooine! KOTOR 2 mixes it up between familiar locales (reusing maps) and new places, and this is definitely a regifting situation. Still, I now have a fully evil party as I took Hanharr and HK with me.

Truth be told, as much as I like HK-47, he wasn’t as good of a fighter as other characters. I’m debating whether or not to keep him for future planets. Oh geez, I probably will, just for the quips alone. Plus, he appreciates my villainous moves.

Dantooine is looking a bit different than in KOTOR 1, and none for the better. Between games, the Sith ended up razing the Jedi enclave here and the survivors ended up fleeing (which is why I’m chasing them down all over the galaxy). The locales aren’t too happy with the Jedi for abandoning them, although it does seem strange that there wasn’t a single bad word said about the Sith for, you know, the mass damage and all.

There’s a weird interlude on the Ebon Hawke where HK realizes that someone’s locked down the history settings for the navicomputer and then T3 zaps him. HK is completely fine, of course, and this is not spoken of again. What in Sam Hill was that about?

Dantooine is, essentially, two dungeons and a quest hub. There’s a small cave and the larger basement of the Jedi enclave, both crawling with oversized insects and other threats. It’s a great place to farm XP and get some loot. Plus, bonus, I killed a Jedi novice and took her lightsaber, my first in the game so far. Gave it to Visas, since she can do a lot more damage with it.

The planetary storyline convenes with a showdown between the settlers and the encroaching mercenaries. You can take either side, so naturally I’m all Team Mercs and got a talking to by the good guys. It was a fun battle, oh yes it was.

What wasn’t so fun was the showdown with the planet’s last remaining Jedi, Vrook. Baldy here is an absolute terror to fight, chopping right through shields and hit points while healing himself up any time he dips below half health. I didn’t have the best skills to defeat him, and the game makes you fight him one-on-one for some reason, so it took a long, long time to get past him — and only then on the sheerest of luck. I tell you, playing a bad guy in KOTOR 2 is actually harder than a good guy in some ways.

At least the planet is done and we are up by two lightsabers and a nice new armor set for myself!