Retronauts 61, and why 4 means death in Japanese

This week’s Retronauts — episode 61, which is about 51 more than I actually ever figured we’d ever record — tackles the Persona series. I am a diligent RPG enthusiast and have purchased every Persona (and Shin Megami Tensei) title released in the U.S. to date, but such are the restrictions on my time that I’ve only ever dabbled in them. And these are not games in which one can really dabble; much like a baby or a sickly kitten, they require full and constant attention.

But I am storing them away for retirement. I’m gonna be the demon-summoning-est dude in the old folks home, just you wait.

The one part of the podcast that’s most stuck with me has been a listener-submitted letter that praises Persona 3 as a fantastic example of what can be done with a game on a limited budget. Because P3 had a much lower budget than something like Kingdom Hearts, the reasoning goes, it was far more creative than your typical blockbuster title. Since the team couldn’t afford to create a massive world with a vast cast of characters, they stuck to a very small and limited environment and developed their few characters with unprecedented depth, creating something with very little flash but plenty of substance.

I absolutely agree with this line of thought, and in fact it crystallizes perfect in light of recent news. Last week’s Metal Gear Solid 5 (maybe) teaser, for one; and then there was last night’s news that Dragon Quest X will be making its way to Wii, of all things. One of these tibits fills me with interest, the other with weary resignation. The funny thing is that the roles are swapped from what they were a year ago; if these new items had popped up last December, I would have said, “Yeah! More Metal Gear! And, eh, Dragon Quest keeps stagnating. Whatever.” Now, it’s the Metal Gear sequel that reeks of creative bankruptcy and the Dragon Quest plans that make me curious to see what lies in store.

And here’s why: 2008 was the year I stopped caring about AAA releases. They’re the grease that keeps the wheels of my job spinning, I realize; if it weren’t for the hype around Gears of War and the frothing fanboy brain seizures prompted by any mention of Killzone 2, I’d probably be out of work. But god, I’m so sick of vapid big-budget games. I guess they’re a sign that the games industry has finally achieved its goal of catching up with Hollywood, because most blockbuster game releases feel as mentally empty and emotionally void as your typical $200-million-budget-Don-LaFontaine-would-have-narrated-the-trailer-when-he-was-alive film. So well done, games industry. You’ve realized your dream at last. Too bad it wasn’t the right dream. Games aren’t movies, and the horrors of Siliwood should have proven that…yet the biggest and most visible games still use “Hollywood summer hit” as their model. Sometime around June, I finally got sick of it.

Specifically, it was the double feature of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV that did me in. Two giant games; two fantastically designed games; two games whose excellent interactive portions were constantly thwarted by their creators’ Hollywood pretensions. It makes me angry that reviewers actually called GTAIV’s narrative “Oscar worthy,” because (1) no, it really wasn’t and you guys seriously need to go and watch a good movie, OK?; and (2) that kind of empty praise is just going to encourage Rockstar to keep focusing on the sloppy, poorly-written pulp noir aspects of their creations to the detriment of the part that actually makes GTA unique and fun: the gameplay. I’ll save my irritation with GTAIV for another day, but playing it immediately after MGS4 made me realize that I don’t have to keep swallowing the games that the industry pays the most money to hype up, that I don’t have to accept these things as the limit and pinnacle of what this medium can achieve, that there’s more merit in games that are content to be games than in games that desperately want to be movies that you can sometimes control and in which the possibility of a temporary interactive setback interrupts the flow of the story.

Seriously, screw that stuff.

Well, no, don’t screw it. So long as it keeps things lively, building interest among the traditional 15-to-35-year-old male demographic by providing the shiny, expletive-laden explosions they do so love, games like Gears 2 and GTAIV have a place. But make no mistake: those games aren’t the future of gaming; they’re a part of the future. And Dragon Quest X, I hope, represents the other side of that coin.

It was a pretty big shock for me when Dragon Quest IX was announced for Nintendo DS (good lord, has it really been two years?), but it makes perfect sense now that I’ve played more of the series. I understand what Dragon Quest is about now, and it’s not about the bleeding, ragged edge of technology. The series has had a tough time catching on here in the States because, generally speaking, gamers here are about the bleeding, ragged edge of technology. But you look at something like Dragon Quest VII, which was contemporaneous with Final Fantasy X, and it seems downright laughable. Even Dragon Quest VIII, which looked pretty dang good, had the same basic game mechanics as its 8-bit predecessors: turn-based combat, tons of battles, and fairly limited character-building, with Final Fantasy-style party-twinking to break the game being downright impossible.

But those things aren’t really the point of Dragon Quest; they’re the means to an end, and I’ve come to understand that the end the series aspires to is something different. Dragon Quest uses its modest visuals and familiar game systems to tell stories — not big, twisty, shocking stories, but variants on the traditional “legendary hero saves the world” stories. Each DQ title explores a different facet of that fundamental concept, and if you can look beyond the visuals and the somewhat stagnant mechanics, you can appreciate the series’ greatest strength: its heart.

Right now I’m playing a preview version of Dragon Quest V for DS, which I’m restricted from discussing in any detail until the usual stupid assortment of embargoes dissipates, but it’s an incredible game. It looks exactly the same as the DS version of Dragon Quest IV, and I’m fighting a lot of the same enemies with the same skills and tactics as in the previous title. But again…that’s not the point. The point is the game’s heart, and in that respect DQV is fairly unparalleled — maybe by Mother 3, or Skies of Arcadia, or a handful of smaller, more esoteric games. But I look at the efforts competing RPG series have made to explore similar concepts of family, personal duty and heroism through generations and I see well-intended but honestly sort of disastrous results like Phantasy Star III and Final Fantasy VIII.

And so it makes sense that Dragon Quest’s sequels are headed to DS and Wii. They don’t need PS3-level power to be heartwarming, and in fact too much tech would probably just get in the way. The hardcore gamers have their PS3s and Xbox 360s, but everyone has a DS or a Wii. The DQ series goes where the people are, because that’s where the money is; right now, that’s on Nintendo consoles, because Nintendo’s plan for disruptive technology is actually working out.

My biggest concern about the gaming industry right now is this nonsensical polarity between “hardcore” and “casual” games; I’d hoped the Wii would serve as a bridge between the two, but honestly Nintendo has done a terrible job of it, transforming all but a handful of their longest-running franchises into neutered, pandering messes while they focus their time and money on catering to the retirement home crowd. (That’s the current retirement home crowd, mind you — not the cool retirement home crowd of the future, the one with a stack of MegaTen games to work through.) I’m hoping that DQX is a sign of good things to come: a traditional, uncompromising franchise that’s found a home on Wii, where it can focus on its core strengths and be a great game without the need to run a $100 million ad campaign to convince everyone that it will make your brain explode due to visceral awesomeness.

High-end PS3 and Xbox 360 games aren’t the future, and neither is the current, pathetic state of the Wii. If any game can reconcile the two, I think, it will be DQX: it’s a major franchise, steeped in the traditional vocabulary of video games, but with broad appeal (at least in its home territory). Here’s hoping that other third parties take this as a cue to start focusing on the Wii for something other than embarrassing shovelware.

Then again, I’m not getting my hopes up. The games industry has a tendency to work against its own best interests sometimes.

32 thoughts on “Retronauts 61, and why 4 means death in Japanese

  1. clap. clap. clap clap clapclapclapapplausewhistlethunderousapplause.

    Seriously, “gamers here are about the bleeding, ragged edge of technology”…I was thinking earlier today, before I read a bazillion forum posts reiterating it, that Monster Hunter 3 is now coming to the Wii, too. P3 and P4 have come out on PS2 one and two years after the sixth generation ended. Is this a trend? Though I guess that doesn’t account for FFXIII. I guess I don’t have a point.

  2. The new appropriate and later harmful analogy for games should be paper products. Games are where paper products were in the 16th century!

    It’s true.

  3. I enjoyed GTAIV, and I resent any implications (albeit not necessarily ones gathered from this post; more like the reactions to the PC rerelease) that I, at least on a game-consumer level, was duped by a hype machine or lowered my standards to enjoy it. It’s a perfectly good example of pulp fiction with a couple minor but nagging flaws, and overall it left me with a generally positive impression. (While we’re at it, feel free to quote that last sentence, with my attribution, for each and every subsequent discussion related to The Dark Knight.)

    And oh christ, the casual/hardcore divide. Someday I’m going to complete this Gamer Legitimacy graph I’ve been working on, just so I can see if it’s possible to quantify how much more true to the Real Spirit of Gaming Cooking Mama is than your typical EA Sports game, and a Shin Megami Tensei game is to both. (NOTE: it will be a satire-based graph. Mostly.) Me, I feel like some kind of weird mutant who is somehow, inexplicably, able to enjoy hyped blockbusters and low-budget/cult indie titles. Next thing you know, kids’ll start liking both Van Halen and the Replacements.

  4. Well said. I prefer games that focus on being games, and less on being Hollywood movies.

    I recently got an Xbox 360 because I was in need of some new JRPGs that I didn’t need to look at a small screen for, so I got Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey. While neither RPG is the greatest RPG every, or even especially great, I find that I enjoyed Blue Dragon far more than I’m currently enjoying Lost Odyssey. This is mainly because Lost Odyssey consists of 15 minute cutscene –> walk 5 steps –> another 10-20 minute cut scene lather rinse repeat. Blue Dragon has it’s fair share of cinemas too (sadly), but there’s far more playing of game inbetween said cutscenes.

    I miss when the majority of RPGs were gameplay drove the story, not the other way around.

  5. “not the cool retirement home crowd of the future, the one with a stack of MegaTen games to work through.”

    That’ll be me, and Persona 4 just arrived from Amazon yesterday. I’ll get around to them all one day… hopefully…

    Don’t have much else to say except: thank you so much for this post. Made my day.

  6. I still don’t see why people keep wanting to point at Nintendo, as a developer, when it comes to the lack of nice meaty solid GC games. On every system (generally speaking), they plop down the holy trinity of Mario/Zelda/Metroid sequels, some party oriented franchaise fun (Mario Kart etc.) maybe one or two other experiments/revivals, then sit back and let third parties have at it. What series has had its teeth removed, exactly?

    Which games get praised story wise though, when they’re first released, that one has always baffled me. When I think of games that did really memorable jobs of story telling, I think of Super Metroid, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and to a lesser extent, certain aspects of the first Silent Hill. None of these take a hollywood inspired approach to things, rely on long dialog filled cutscenes, or really go in for any sort of lengthy cut scenes. It’s all just the subtle little details, the pacing, body language, the subtext to what little dialog there is if any. The medium’s strength story wise is its ability to force the audience to pay attention to the little details and think.

    When you go in for the whole game-stopping cut scene angle, no matter how you try and write good dialog or show off sophisticated camera work, the best you can hope for is not completely embarrassing yourself. You’ve already thrown out the strength of your medium.

  7. @astrobastard: I implied no such thing. In fact, I said most AAA games are targeted toward you. There’s no shame in liking them…I’m just burnt out.

    And it’s a shame the person who wrote that lengthy screed above didn’t bother to leave a name, because there’s a bug in this blogging backend that deletes unsigned comments when the next one is entered. In any case, GTAIV is a trainwreck that constantly breaks the series’ open-ended gameplay so it can force story on you, then breaks its story with complete thematic gameplay contradictions. Like Kojima, the Houser brothers fancy themselves film auteurs — if only that darned video game didn’t keep getting in the way!

  8. It warms the cockles (that’s right–the cockles) of my heart to see that you’ve become a Dragon Quest enthusiast. It was, allow me to tell anyone who will listen, a pretty lonely experience playing DWVII right after FFX and thinking, hey, uh, guys, this awful-looking, poorly-translated PS1 game kinda kicks the crap outta the praised-to-the-heavens bleeding edge of Square’s PS2 software. Double-you tee eff is that all about?

  9. I actually think Nintendo’s game development strategy has been purposeful and pretty soundly executed. People lament Nintendo’s all out push for the casual market now, but honestly, if they don’t do it, who will? I think Nintendo is either

    1. Hoping that third party devs who are more comfortable making traditional style games, and honestly haven’t showed much ability to be more imaginitive anyway, will fill the hardcore gap and satisfy their natural market.


    2. Honestly doesn’t really care about the hardcore market anymore.

    The hardcore market is fickle, bratty, and only buys games for two weeks.

    The casual market is open, easier to please, and buy games for years.

    The hardcore market is arrogant and insecure, polarizing itself from the mainstream and generally looked down upon by the rest of society, causing the hardcore to look down at the rest of society in return. As time goes on, these fellows gain more cash, buying more games, but dwindle in number.. and are usually smelly.

    The casual market is everybody. It is the mainstream. It’s the thing you saw on the Today show. Its the toy you feel more comfortable giving your kids. It’s the game you can play *WITH* your kids. It’s the thing that doesn’t involve your kids pretending to murder other people as they curse violently at strangers, sitting in your living room all day as you wonder when they’ll get a job and finally move out.

    If anything, Nintendo needs to go *more* mainstream; if they want to survive. IMHO, Apple/smart phones are finding a strong market on the other end of the spectrum. Nintendo’s on top of the world now, but if the future is mobile, they may soon find themselves between an iPhone Pro and a PSP2. And with the crazy ease of developing for the mobile market these days… I seriously wonder if there will be any reason to buy a DS2.

  10. I’ve actually made this observation regarding technological constraints. In Punchout!, for example, the charming “Little Mac” player was created due to technological restraints of the NES hardware, though he improved on the “transparent wireframe dude” of the arcades. This issue has become especially noticeable now that hardware improves so quickly and costs so much to develop for.

    If you consider the refined gameplay experience offered by Chess or Go, you realize how little detail it takes to create a game too complex for most human brains to master, and, alternately, it becomes a phenomenal challenge to design quality gameplay for virtual worlds that come close to mirroring our own in terms of physical detail. All this is to say that in an ideal world video game designers would spend more time refining old experiences. Which is the case with Persona 4, the only game to captivate me in a long time.

    That being said, you’re dead wrong about the writing and acting in GTA. I’m actually surprised at you rashly dismissing the game’s narrative — while it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, nobody could call it bad. The writing actually is of exceptional quality for a game, and really in general, and the technical prowess of the artists on this game is through the roof. I don’t even tend to gravitate toward the setting of the game and I was impressed. And I didn’t experience anything that detracted from the gameplay. A titanic budget in capable hands certainly can lead to a memorable experience. Frankly, as much as I love DQ titles (prefer them, due to their gameplay and setting), they’re really not playing in the same league.

  11. @Parish: yeah, I know you implied no such thing, which is why I added the parenthetical pinning most of my resentment on stuff I’ve read elsewhere. Like, for instance, the “haha, just kidding, GTA IV’s a B” review of the PC version on 1up, which seems to be the culmination of seven months’ worth of “boo overrated” complaining. I don’t really want to pin too much on you, actually, especially if it’s just a matter of your own personal taste and the blockbuster fatigue that comes with your position; most of this is just me being irrationally cranky about where my own gamer personality’s supposed to fit in the scheme of things.

    As for the cutscenes, I didn’t see them as any more invasive than the ones in past GTA games — or, I don’t know, God Hand or No More Heroes. (Though the one thing all three games had in common was that I actually liked the stories enough to not care, anyways.) I still think the 100% (or at least 90%) gameplay-immersive approach to storytelling is the ideal, though it’s kind of funny that the three best examples that come to mind immediately are blockbuster-status themselves — BioShock, Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3. I suppose the dichotomy Gabe & Tycho outlined a while back- appreciating a game for its gameplay challenges vs. enjoying it for its environs and stories and aesthetics- puts me largely in the latter category. If something’s has an overwhelmingly captivating a setting as, say, Liberty City, I’m less prone to being bummed out that I can’t blow up a dude’s car before the designated endpoint of a chase scene. This is because my brain is wired a bit wrong, maybe.

    On the other hand, oh man was MGS4 boring as shit. (And I worship the ground MGS3 walks on.)

  12. I sat through 30 hours of GTAIV before getting sick of it and putting it away; I’m pretty sure that doesn’t qualify as “rash.”

    Also, dear anonymous moron: once again, leave your name or don’t bother posting. The site automatically deletes nameless posts due to a bug.

  13. Patience, Parish. Eventually the industry (and by extension, games journalism) will expand – not in terms of money, but in terms of content and demographic – so that, one day, it will be easy to ignore the AAA releases. Just as other industries have grown (Hollywood, even comics), and just as movie buffs can ignore the next big trashy summer film and still focus on the smaller, better stuff.

    But yeah, sure sucks to be in the present, though.

  14. Wow… I think you summed up my feelings perfectly… It’s articles like these that make me realize how much further I have to go as a writer.

  15. I couldn’t agree more. This year has really made it clear just how little correlation there is between the production values/AAA status of a game and the degree that I will enjoy it.

  16. It’s a sad story when someone convinces themself they like the latest blockbuster smash when their heart is really leading them to somewhere else.

  17. @rukiri: “The casual market is open, easier to please, and buy games for years.”

    That would directly contradict your premise number 1. The expanded market is HARDER to please, otherwise everybody would be doing it with success. That’s why they’re not active gamers, they demand more from games than was being offered. “More” is something like Wii Sports, “less” is something like EA’s yearly sport rehashes, dating back three generations. And yet EA wonders why their sport games don’t sell on Wii. It’s because their games offer less to the expanded audience than Wii Sports, while the yearly updates’ existing audience with lowered expectations gobbles them up.

  18. Add me to the list of people who were done in by MGS4. I was so incredibly hyped for that game and now, looking back on it… it’s mostly just a blur to me. A lot of it was just white noise. When you make the story such a huge, intrusive part of the game, you’d better be damn sure you don’t mess that story up or charge full-speed into an anti-climax or.. well, you get MGS4.

  19. Great post – my sentiments exactly. Although costs and complexity keep rising for AAA-esque titles, the non-AAA games benefit from simpler programming toolsets and relatively cheaper development costs (as compared to games of equivalent complexity 10 years ago). Thus far, if this generation has said anything, it’s that there’s definitely a market for those types of games (wii games, Xbox Live), and super-high budget AAA titles are treading dangerous water. I think the market is still trying to fix itself and game developers will soon realize they can put a lot less in and get the same amount of substance. After that, I think that the two “types” of games will coexist in much less defined roles than they do now.

  20. While I agree that a lot of blockbuster games lately have been underwhelming precisely because they’re trying to emulate popcorn movie blockbusters…I have to disagree on the Dragon Quest thing. Take my opinion on the series with a huge grain of salt, because I’ve only ever played DQVIII, but…while the graphics were charming, I realized about 3/4 the way through the game that
    1. the battle system was boring as hell and playing the game felt like a chore
    2. the story in DQVIII was so horribly bland and boring that I didn’t really care about any of the main characters or even how the game ended. I don’t really remember anything about any of the story or characters in that game except that Yangus had a forced cockney accent, Jessica had a “firey” personality (groan) and had way-too-big breats, and the other guy had Vegeta eyes. Maybe i’m alone here, but I find Dragon Quest VIII’s story to be inferior to any of the PS1 or PS2-era FF games.

    Anyway. I hope that the industry grows large enough to support lower-budget high-quality games, casual games for casuals, and the high-budget blockbusters…and I hope that developers will learn from the mistakes of, say, MGS4 and make games with narratives and presentations that fit their medium.

  21. I’ve been reading the NeoGAF response to the 1UP crosspost. It’s amazing how easy it is for people to go into blind rages about this sort of thing. lol internet

    I’ll admit I enjoy the gameplay and presentation of some of those bleeding edge in-your-face titles, but I think Gears gets it right moreso than MGS4 simply by letting you play more of the damn thing.

    A parallel to the movie industry here is pretty apt: big-budget shooters and the like will always be my summer action movie, a guaranteed good time. But it’ll never top things with the majesty of Ocarina of Time or Chrono Trigger. Those are some Casablancas.

  22. Magnificent, sir.

    Many AAA games look like films because there is this idea that “films are artistic and socially respectable so they are a model games can follow” and a fear of “games won’t be accepted by the world as they are, they must become something different” but all this can achieve is a bad imitation of film that will always make games look worse. When games are so desperate to be like films that only convinces the critics on the outside that games are shallow and limited and have no virtues of their own to rely on. It’s a short-term fix that is hurting games in the long-term.

    Also the whole concepts of ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’ need to die, seriously. They are nebulous overused terms and all they do is cause meaningless arguments and smug finger-pointing elitism (from BOTH sides, let’s not discriminate here).

  23. Parish – Not that I’d even assume you’ve played it, but what’s your opinion on Saint’s Row 2 then?

    The only reason I ask is that the argument goes that Saint’s Row 2, while still having a good share of Hollywood style cutscenes, is more aware of the tongue in its cheek by being colorful, having variety and more focused on its humor than GTAIV. Is that more credit to it, that it seems to be aware that its a video game than GTA?

    Personally, I’d say I would agree, but I was curious if you had any thoughts on the matter.

    Great, great post, btw.

  24. Stepping away from Fanboy crap on whether or not the platform choice is a good idea, let me tell you what I would like to see done with the controls. This is not an accelerometer appropriate game. This is an RPG. Make the whole thing play with just the remote.

    1. On the world map your character follows the cursor like link follows the stylus in Phantom Hourglass. Hold a and the party moves toward the pointer. Want to talk to someone in town click on them.

    2. Battle, you click on an enemy or ally and a context sensitive menu pops up showing your options. You select with A cancel with B.

    3. Accessing party menu/inventory management is any of the other buttons on the remote.

    There, a game that does not use motion unnecessarily, requires no extra peripheral, takes advantage of the hardware and the controls take a two minute explanation. With that done they can then focus on the story and battle mechanics. Who do I email this to?

  25. good post, and i have to agree. i have to ask though: what took so long?

    it was the halo series that did it for me… fun multiplayer, but man the ad campaigns and reviews grated something fierce

  26. I still consider the harsh criticism of GTA 4 rash. I guess I’m of the opinion that if something so obviously exudes quality (say, a classic novel), criticism should be either take up specific content, should be political, or should be couched as personal taste.

    GTA 4 is in no way sloppy, be it the writing, acting, or gameplay. It just isn’t. Comparing its dialogue to that of Gears of War is completely absurd. The characters in GTA actually don’t swear constantly or speak in catch phrases.

    Look, I’m a huge fan. Love retronauts and this site. But flat-out dismissing GTA 4 (even after playing 30 hours) doesn’t seem well thought-out. And yes, I liked “Titanic.”

  27. So this entirely sorta off-topic but an honest question: what do you mean by “Nintendo’s plan for disruptive technology”? A link or something to answer my question would be nice. Or just some standard flame-baiting responses, whatever I get.

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