Nov 01

Book Review- First Things First

Co-written by the same person who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First has an interesting thesis, boiling down to “Traditional time-management approaches are flawed. Yes, they’ll help you get more stuff done quicker…but is that stuff really the important stuff?”

The meat of the book discusses how tasks and activities can be broken down into 4 “quadrants”:

  1. Tasks which are both urgent and important
  2. Tasks which are important but not urgent
  3. Tasks which are urgent but not important
  4. Tasks which are neither urgent nor important

Of these four, the book argues that Quadrant II (Important but not urgent) is one that not enough time is spent in. It also discusses “urgency addiction”, where people live for the rush of metaphorically putting out fires and saving the day when some allegedly urgent task comes up. It notes that this won’t necessarily bring you fulfillment.

The book then basically challenges you to come up with some things that you think of as Quadrant II, and to rethink how you approach your day by adhering to some of the principles, called “true north” principles, derived from Quadrant II. Some of the examples of this are fascinating, particularly a company that, of all things, shut down. Instead of a top-down edict, the company involved employees of all levels when they were going through financial difficulties. It soon became clear that the operation was unsustainable–the company was, basically, obsolete. Realizing this, the company shifted their focus to finding future employment for its workers. The media came in to cover the company’s last day expecting a demoralized war zone, and instead got a giant farewell party where everyone was truly as happy as they could be given the circumstances.

Was the book worth it? Content-wise, I’d say yes–while I didn’t specifically perform any of the exercises, it did get me thinking about things I want to do that are important that I’ve been neglecting. Format-wise, though, is another story. I bought this as part of a Humble Book Bundle, and downloaded the Mobi onto my Kindle. Now, it’s possible I’m just too old for this whole “eBooks” thing, but the book mentions worksheets and appendices and other things that didn’t seem to be in my electronic version. Additionally, there were other minor issues–visible formatting characters, things are were/weren’t bolded/etc that should/n’t have been, etc. that served to temporarily take me out of the lessons the book was trying to teach me. And let’s not get into the fact that the title of the book is wrong on the top of each page in the version I read (It’s missing the “s” in “Things”). Still, I mentioned on Facebook that if I can pick up a useful concept or two from a book like this, it’ll have been worth it, and I can say I did that with First Things First.


Oct 26

Time For a Change

Over the last several years, probably since about 2011-2012, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time on Twitch.TV, either streaming myself or watching other people do so. Indeed, I’m watching/listening to a stream as I type this.

I recently realized that this has to change.

I don’t know what the exact trigger for this was, though the Humble Win At Work Book Bundle was a contributor (I bought the $8 tier, if you’re curious, because that contained the one book I’d actually heard of, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. Also, this link will be broken in about a week’s time [It is October 26, 2017 as I write this]). Being given additional responsibilities and deadlines at my primary job was also a factor. I don’t want to say that it’s make-or-break time for me, but changes are coming that I think will represent an opportunity for me.

I’m also 34 years old now (Note to self: Update the roughly 10 year old picture on the “About Emptyeye” page), and have been streaming in some capacity for over five years now, starting way back with the “point-a-webcam-at-a-TV” method. I don’t mean to say that I’m too old for this or that streaming is only for “kids”, but it is something of a young man’s game, and I’ve tried to “make it big” for that time without success. Call it giving up if you want.

I also recently had a doctor’s appointment, where I was told basically “lose weight and stop drinking so much soda”. This was another factor in my having an “a-ha” moment. I’m working on cutting my soda consumption from 2 cans a day (Which was what I told my doctor, and was truthfully probably an underestimate) to a couple a week. I’ve also started going to a gym 3-4 times a week, which is making me feel better and more productive combined with the reduction in soda. I’ve begun drinking black coffee (One cup in the morning, and sometimes some decaf in the afternoon) to get my caffeine fix, but coffee has other benefits besides the caffeine kick.

But mainly, I’ve realized that I have a bunch of other things I just want to do. I want to create things–music, games, etc. I want to read more, both in the self-improvement realm (Honestly, “Humble Self-Improvement Bundle” is probably a better term for the book bundle I bought than “Humble Win At Work Bundle”) and in terms of fields I want to explore, particularly personal finance. I’d like to write about these things more here. And I can’t do that if I’m whiling away hours on end watching Twitch streams.

I won’t lie. I’ve had a lot of fun watching Twitch over the years. I’ve even had a lot of fun streaming over the years, and playing games “for other people” got my to sit down and play games I never would have done otherwise. I’ve met a bunch of cool people on Twitch too. But at this point, for my quality of life, I need to cut back on the Twitch much like I’m cutting back on the soda.

I just hope I can pull it off.


Sep 28

The RPG Lounge- The Bard’s Tale

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

In the 80s, especially in the early part of the decade, there were two computer RPG series vying for supremacy with one another. At first, Sir-Tech’s Wizardry, one of the earliest dungeon-crawlers, was king. As the decade went on, though, and the Wizardry series started showing its age, Origin Systems’s Ultima series took the crown.

The “why”s of the Wizardry series’s rise and fall are fascinating, and beyond the scope of the RPG Lounge today–I recommend this Digital Antiquarian post for a bit more about that. But suffice to say that, as the time between Wizardry III and IV grew longer and longer, other people took it upon themselves to design a “next-generation Wizardry” in all but name. Enter The Bard’s Tale.

First released in 1985 by Interplay (Developer) and Electronic Arts (Publisher), The Bard’s Tale is the story of a town called Skara Brae. In this town, an evil wizard named Mangar has cast a spell of eternal winter, trapping the citizens inside the city. Mangar is holed up in his tower on the corner of the city, and it’s the job of your party to “persuade” him to undo his spell.

To do so, you create a party of six characters, similar to Wizardry. The Armor Class system, the 8-item-per-character limit, the seven levels of spells, it’s all very Wizardry-esque. In fact, the systems are similar enough that you can import Wizardry 1-3 characters from the same PC architecture into The Bard’s Tale. As a tribute to its immense popularity at the time, The Bard’s Tale also allows imports of characters from Ultima III, despite its character advancement being almost nothing like Wizardry or The Bard’s Tale.

Once you’ve assembled your roster, or selected the pre-existing party, you’ll exit the Adventurer’s Guild and find yourself on the streets of Skara Brae. Yes, that’s right, instead of a single dungeon, there’s a whole city to wander about, filled with temples, taverns, and towers. Of course, figuring out how to get into those towers is a lot of the challenge.

Another good portion of the challenge is simply getting started. The city is not a safe place, as monsters wander the streets and take up residence inside of buildings. Plus, while battles themselves are turn-based, the game proceeds in real-time. You’ll be minding your own business in the streets, possibly looking at your map, and suddenly find yourself in battle with a pack of mad dogs. Double battles are more common than they should be. The game does offer a pause function to prevent this, which you’ll need.

More than that, though, recovering damage is expensive in the early game, recovering from death even more so, and you have no way around paying for those services until you gain a couple levels. Indeed, going in blind, this may be the hardest start I ever had in an RPG. The manual for the game, besides offering a tip or two on where to begin your search of the city, also instructs you, basically, “Just delete a dead Level 1 character and create another rather than paying for resurrection. Also, go ahead and quit the game without saving if things go really badly; just be aware that you’ll lose any progress since your last save.” Suffice to say I did both of those, particularly the first…and made sure to poach the character’s equipment and gold before deleting them too.

Get past that beginning, though, and The Bard’s Tale becomes a good deal more forgiving than Wizardry (Disregarding the fact that, according to comments on this Digital Antiquarian post, almost no one even back in the day played Wizardry “honestly”). For one, instead of level-based spell charges, your spellcasters are given a Final Fantasy-like pool of MP to do as they will with (Yes, several years before Final Fantasy was a thing). For another, if you’re unfortunate enough to fall victim to a total party wipe, your bodies are transported back to the Adventurer’s Guild, making resurrecting them a good deal easier than in Wizardry–you’ll still need to make additional characters (Or use a pre-made one) to get your characters to a Temple to revive them, but the trek is much less harrowing than in Wizardry, and revival will always succeed provided you have the cash for it. For a third, enemies themselves have fairly low HP for most of the game, meaning you can use spells to easily take them out. Once you get a few levels in your characters–which will probably involve deleting and recreating them several times–the game feels much more “fair” than Wizardry. My perception of this, of course, may be aided by the instruction manual all but encouraging you to manipulate things to be more favorable for you at the start, as I mentioned earlier.

I played the Apple ][ GS version included as a bonus in the 2004 Bard’s Tale. From what I can find, though, even the original Apple ][ version is a step forward graphically from Wizardry, at least in terms of the Wizardries that were out at the time. It’s also a step forward musically from the early Wizardries, in so much as the game has any music at all. The Bard’s Tale, in this way, integrates its biggest innovation (The Bard class wasn’t something seen in computer RPGs to this point) into its presentation, as the Bard can sing or play various songs that have beneficial effects on the party.

Overall, The Bard’s Tale does an admirable job advancing the “Wizardry formula”, moreso than Wizardry itself did for the longest time. This paid off handsomely for Interplay and Electronic Arts, as the game would go on to become one of the biggest selling titles of the 80s. With its multiple dungeons, and overall more forgiving difficulty curve once you get past the sadistic beginning, it’s definitely worth a try if you like dungeons crawlers at all.


Jun 06

A Way-Too-Detailed Analysis of Final Fight’s Continue Screen

Final Fight is a beat-em-up classic. It was one of the first games, possibly the first, to utilize your classic three-character strong-fast-balanced selectable character archetypes, and the huge sprites, fluid gameplay, and variety of moves helped take beat-em-ups to the next level.
Probably Not Safe For Work-ish

May 05

What Is My Stream?

Just some idle musings about my stream, and “what it is”.

  • In an objective sense, I stream RPGs. I alternate JRPGs and dungeon-crawlers, selected by polls of my viewers/fans from lists of 3 to 4 of each. For the most part, these are games I’ve never beaten before, although that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. These can be broken up by games people donate for.
  • In terms of games that can be donated for, I’m pretty lenient in terms of what’s allowed. Really, I only have a few rules:

    1. I must be able to reasonably easily obtain your game (And I define “reasonably easily obtain” rather liberally).
    2. The game cannot break Twitch’s Terms of Service. That should be an obvious one; I’m not trying to get my stream shut down.
    3. Your game must be an actual game, and not something like Kris Kross: Make My Video.
    4. I ask, though don’t demand, that you pick something that gets to the core gameplay quickly. As an example, Final Fantasy VIII with its half-hour-plus before you get into any battles would make a poor choice for me to play, though I wouldn’t say no.
    5. Finally, I have veto power over any suggestion. I only plan on invoking this if someone suggests something that breaks the above rule, or sneaks in some weird edge case that isn’t covered by the above. Even then, I won’t leave a donator out in the lurch; I’ll just ask them to pick another game.
  • As far as my stream environment goes, I try to keep the stream pretty family-friendly overall. I didn’t start off with that as a conscious goal, although it was helpful as an alternative to the various “rageaholic” streams that seemed to be the norm when I started 6-ish years ago. It’s just kind of who I am, especially now that I’ve retired from speedrunning. There are exceptions to this. I have the “mature stream” warning enabled, mainly because I want the flexibility to branch off into more “adult” discussions if I decide to. Plus, with the warning on, it’s on you if your 5-year-old sees some of my FrankerFaceZ emotes and asks you “Mommy what’s a bondage burrito?”
  • Am I a successful streamer? I suppose I am, in a few senses. I’m currently a Twitch affiliate, which apparently only 6 percent of people on Twitch qualify for despite the seemingly meager requirements. That isn’t bad. I also actually get around 10 viewers per stream, despite my currently streaming a dungeon-crawler for what feels like the last twenty streams. That’s pretty good too. On a more personal level, streaming is a nice way for me to get through my backlog of games and play things I’ve never played before, such as The Bard’s Tale or Akalabeth.
  • What isn’t my stream? Even though it started off as one, it’s no longer a speedrun stream, unless you stretch the definition of “speedrun stream” to include “One of the very few people who announced a retirement from speedrunning and actually has stayed retired sometimes gives scorching hot takes on the current state of it.” I still occasionally commentate on races and things, and of course I still watch speedrun streams (Here are a few you should watch), but I remain as happily retired from active speedrunning as Neil Peart is from drumming.
  • And despite my position as one of the most hardcore “Heck yeah! Capitalism!” people among my circle of Twitch friends when it comes to the question of streaming for money, I would hope that I’m not a “sellout stream”, whatever that entails. Frankly, selling out is hard–even when I decided to run a game in a popular series, as opposed to my usual modus operandi of “Take a free world record in a game no one has ever heard of, let alone played before” (A technique that doesn’t really work now that speedrunning is as big as it is), I couldn’t fully commit to the “selling out” aspect of it and wound up picking Metroid II, the one game in the Metroid series that may be even more of a black sheep than Metroid: Other M (People at least have strong feelings about Other M, whereas they just kind of forget Metroid II even existed). In other words, I’m not sure I could sell out even if I wanted to. Either way, though, I hope I can strike a balance between being appreciative of donations/bits/etc. without crossing the line into pandering/begging for them.


Apr 30

Thoughts on Twitch Affiliatehood

Recently, Twitch announced and rolled out a a new program for non-partnered streamers called the Affiliate program. You can read the post for the full scoop, but the basic summary is that some non-partnered streamers can accept “bits”, a currency used on Twitch, and the end goal is for Affiliates to basically be “Partners-lite”, with a single subscription emote.

A disclaimer that I was one of the first people accepted into this program (It launched on the 24th, and I got my notification about it on the 25th), which probably colors my view of it.

Having said that, I love this program in concept. One of Twitch’s issues from the start has been that its structure promotes “The rich get richer, the 99% can go jump in an outhouse”. This is in terms of both obvious things, such as sorting stream in descending order by number of viewers, and less conscious decisions that nonetheless make you go “WTF?”. As one example, and this may have been fixed more recently, Twitch liked to recommend games like League of Legends, Halo, and Call of Duty to viewers of my stream if you actually bothered to use the leftmost twitch column (I have nothing personally against any of these games, other than Twitch’s tendency to promote anything and everything related to LoL at the expense of literally everything else(1) in its early days. They just aren’t for me.).

And so, there have been other features added to Twitch over the years (Communities, etc), but this might be the first time Twitch has actually acknowledged a problem and really worked to consciously assist smaller streamers in pursuing “the dream” as it were. It’s awesome to see them taking that step.

I do question how effective the program will be in its implied aim of actually helping more streamers make the jump to partner. Even with this, there’s so much competition that the odds of it happening are super long. I’ve ranted about it in the past, but “get lucky in one form or another” is still the way to actually make it to partnership. In that light, there are a couple ways of looking at the program with varying degrees of cynicism.

One is that Twitch are trying to get more money into “The Twitch ecosystem” as it were. A couple years ago, Twitch were bought by Amazon for nearly a billion (Yes, with a B) dollars. I suppose this could have happened just because Jeff Bezos is a big fan of MANvsGAME, Witwix, TheMexicanRunner, or some other big streamer, similar to Ted Turner using his practically infinite financial resources to keep WCW alive in the late 1980s/early 1990s just because he loved pro wrestling. More likely, though, Amazon wants some kind of return on their investment, and this program is one step toward that. If you don’t know how bits work, each bit is worth 1 cent to the recipient. As a “bit giver”, you can either get them through watching ads, or purchase them at an upcharge to hand out (So 100 bits may cost $1.40 to purchase, for instance, with that extra 40 cents going to Twitch). The more streamers that a person watches that can accept bits, the more likely a person is to purchase them (Which gives Twitch a cut), as opposed to just donating to that person directly through PayPal/Patreon/etc (Which does not give Twitch a cut). It makes sense from Twitch’s perspective, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense from the donator’s. There’s a kind of symbiotic relationship there–Twitch wouldn’t be what it is without the streamers, but those streamers wouldn’t have a place to stream without Twitch(2).

The second cynical take here is that it’s a way for Twitch to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, without saying specifically that that’s what they’re doing. What I mean by this is that some people believe that, if they could only get partnership and a sub button, they can then just sit back and watch the money roll in. Most actual partners will tell you that’s not the case (Particularly if you want to go full-time with streaming, they’ll say partnership is just the starting point, not the end goal), but the affiliate program may be a way to “show, don’t tell” on Twitch’s end. “Okay smaller streamers, here are some of the financial aspects of partnership to get you started. Now you can see how easy this REALLY is,” they seem to be saying.

Still, overall, I view this as a major positive. The requirements are quite lenient in my view, and it harkens back in a way to the “old days” when partnership and having a subscription button were two separate “tiers” on Twitch.

Now I just need to figure out how I want to adjust the stream, if at all.


(1) Fellow “twitch oldbois” will no doubt remember the Bad Old Days when, every weekend without fail, chat would break horribly. “Oh, it’s the weekend and chat’s broken. Must be a League tournament going on.” Just about always, there was.

(2) Yes, other streaming services exist, but let’s be realistic here, there’s a reason why every time Twitch angered the speedrunning community to the point of a threatened “mass exodus”, pretty much everyone who left came crawling back to Twitch within days. That reason is “Oh, right, despite all the platitudes of ‘stream like nobody’s watching’ we like to spew forth, streaming to zero viewers actually sucks, and almost no one watches non-Twitch streams.”

Mar 22

The RPG Lounge- Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

The “classic” Phantasy Star series has four games, each unique in their own way. The original is a hybrid JRPG/dungeon crawler whose main character is one of the earliest female protagonists in video game history. The second game was the closest thing to a “killer app” the Sega Genesis had until Sonic the Hedgehog. Now, it’s known as the quintessential “old-school” JRPG, with all that entails. The fourth game is the series’ masterpiece, regarded as one of the best JRPGs of its era, and one that holds up even today.

And then…there’s Phantasy Star III.

Subtitled Generations of Doom, Phantasy Star III is the series’s black sheep. Its reputation ranges from “An abomination” to “Pretty good for what it is, but not really a Phantasy Star game”. The game was developed and released a little over a year after Phantasy Star II, by a different team. And it shows.

One thousand years before the game’s events, there was a near-cataclysmic war. Before disappearing, Orakio and Laya, the two leaders in the war, gave their respective followers the same commandment: “Never harm another”. But the two factions utilize a loophole–the Orakians send cyborgs after the Layans, while the Layans command monsters to do their bidding. As the game begins, Rhys, an Orakian prince, is about to get married. Maia, his bride, is an amnesiac who washed up on the shores of Landen two months prior. But at the altar, Maia is kidnapped by a Layan, and your quest to get her back kicks the game off.

Phantasy Star III’s main “gimmick”, if you can call it that, is hinted at by its subtitle. At a certain point, you’ll be given a choice of two characters to marry. This will determine your character and quest for the next portion of the game; that character will also be given a choice of wife, for a total of four possible paths through the game.

The concept is neat, but the execution leaves something to be desired. As an example, in the path I chose, I was given the choice of two women to marry, neither of whom had exchanged so much as a romantic pleasantry with my character up to that point.

Indeed, Phantasy Star III is rife with “so close, yet so far” moments. Whether due to rushed development, or the limitations of the Genesis, you’ll be a lot of points where the developers’ ambition shows through despite the execution not living up to it. The first generation of the game goes for a political intrigue sort of storyline, as you learn that the Layans may not be the heartless monsters Orakians see them as–and that the Layans themselves have some interesting beliefs about Orakians. But the game’s translation limits the effectiveness. Similarly, poor word choice ruins what should be a poignant moment on at least one occasion.

Still, there are enough positive aspects to call the game “not as bad as its reputation”. So why is it regarded as the worst of the first four “main” Phantasy Stars, to the point that Sega effectively declared a do-over with Phantasy Star IV? Part of it is the game’s beginning, which feels more like a standard JRPG in the vein of Dragon Quest than a Phantasy Star game. The sci-fi elements that set Phantasy Star games apart from their brethren show up early enough, but I won’t lie, it took me four or five tries throughout the years to get to the “Now this is Phantasy Star!” point of the game. Even then, I only did so after forcing myself to stop thinking of the game as a Phantasy Star game, and just judge it as an independent creation. For that reason, the game might, paradoxically, work best as an entry to the Phantasy Star series, free of the expectation of what a Phantasy Star “should be”.

The game’s biggest flaw, though, is its random encounter rate. Even by old-school RPG standards, the number of random battles you’ll get into is ridiculous; I was ready for the experience to be over by the end of the second generation. The problem is aggravated by two other factors. First, like many old-school JRPGs, triggers to advance sometimes boil down to “find and talk to one random NPC hidden away in the corner of a village”, leading to more wandering about the world than is necessary. Secondly, for about 80% of the game, there’s no way to alleviate the encounter rate. Even Phantasy Star II had spells, teleportation stations, and items to remove some of the backtracking from place to place. Phantasy Star III has Escapipes, which return you to the entrance of the dungeon you’re currently in…and that’s it. This means a lot of walking, a lot of backtracking, and a lot of fighting enemies every five steps or so.

There are two silver linings to this. An individual battle is almost never a problem. Rather, the game employs a “death by thousand cuts” methodology to achieve its difficulty, bleeding out your resources via sheer number of encounters. And the dungeons are much simpler than Phantasy Star II’s infamous labyrinths, though you may wish to have maps handy regardless.

I have a soft spot in my heart for “ambitious failures”. Phantasy Star III is certainly ambitious. It’s also frustrating for how close it comes to being something great without quite getting there. Did I enjoy it? On balance, yes. Do I recommend it? That’s trickier. If you can handle random battles for days, give it a shot. Otherwise, since Sega themselves have all but disowned it, you aren’t missing much if you pass on it.

Mar 08

The RPG Lounge- Wizardry II: The Knight of Diamonds (NES)

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

I was born in 1983. While I try to avoid curmudgeonly “Back in MY day…” statements about gaming when I was growing up versus now, it’s safe to say that things were different in computer gaming in particular in the 1980s. For one, people weren’t as spoiled for choice then–according to Wikipedia Ultima III: Exodus, a game released in 1983, won Computer Gaming World’s reader’s poll for Adventure Game of the Year…in 1985. For another, the style of challenge catered to was a bit different. Mapping out dungeons yourself, with no automap, was a huge portion of gameplay, and one that people flocked to, relatively speaking. And without common access to what we know now as the World Wide Web, mapping out one of these games could take months, or even years.

Finally, the concept of an “Expansion Pack”, or what would probably be “DLC” nowadays, didn’t exist in the ’80s. For the original computer version of Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (Or Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn, for that matter), you needed to import a party from Wizardry I: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. And not just any party–a party that had beaten, or at least was of a level such that it was capable of beating, Wizardry I (Wizardry III at least had the courtesy to not require an endgame Wizardry I party via a plot contrivance that reset your characters levels to 1, the idea being they were actually the descendants of the exported-from-Wiz-I party).

Fortunately, the version of Wizardry II I played, the NES version, was rebalanced. Due to there not being a way to transfer characters from NES game to NES game, Wizardry II NES functions as a standalone title. This is good, because it’s brutally hard if you try to play “fair”, for reasons I’ll get into later.

For now, though, the plot, such that it is. The City of Llylgamyn was protected by an artifact called the Staff of Gnilda. The Staff kept people with evil intentions out of the city, while those with pure hearts could freely enter and leave. It had only one design flaw: People born in Llylgamyn were unaffected by it, making it easy for the evil Davalpus, a Llylgamyn native, to overthrow the royalty of the city. But Princess Margda and her brother, Prince Alavik, survived the coup. Gathering the armor of the legendary Knight of Diamonds, along with the Staff of Gnilda (Idiotically, since, as mentioned above, the Staff wouldn’t work on him anyway), Alavik engaged Davalpus in combat in Llylgamyn. Alavik won the battle, but not before Davalpus uttered a curse so unspeakable that it brought the battleground down around both of them, leaving only a smoking, six-level-deep dungeon in its wake. Alavik, Davalpus, the Knight of Diamonds equipment, and the Staff of Gnilda were all gone. If someone doesn’t recover the Staff of Gnilda, Llylgamyn will fall to outside invasion.

“Someone”, of course, is you and your band of adventurers. The game allows for a roster of 20 characters total, of which six can be in your party at any one time. In the NES version’s default state (Which you can return to by deleting your entire roster, then selecting “Delete” one more time), it provides you with six characters to use, though you can, and probably will want to, create your own. Each character gets assigned a random amount of bonus points to allocate to their stats, and each class has minimum statistical and alignment requirements. You’ll want a diverse group to survive the various perils of the maze.

And survival is key, because Wizardry II does not have “save points” in the traditional sense. Should your entire party be struck down in the maze….their corpses simply stay down there. Yes, playing Wizardry II “fairly” means that, each time you die, you’ll need to send a second party down to retrieve their belongings/corpses. You can see the glaring design flaw here–if you’ve built up a second party to the point where it’s strong enough to rescue the first, it’s probably also strong enough to just continue on from where the first party left off, rendering the original group redundant. This is particularly true when you consider that to actually acquire the corpses, you need to get to them with spare party slots. In other words, the rescue mission needs to be “shorthanded”, plus you’ll need to make two trips to rescue everybody.

Less-than-total defeat offers only a small consolation. A high-level Cleric, or the Temple of Cant in town, can attempt to resurrect a dead party member. But those can fail, reducing the character to a pile of Ash. The Temple, or a Cleric leveled to effectively endgame levels, can make another attempt at bringing the character back. Yet this, too, can fail, in which case the character is lost forever. Yep. Just gone. Deleted from the game for good, with no way to get them back.

I have a philosophy about spoilers in video games. It applies primarily to storyline spoilers, though it can also be applied to gameplay spoilers. It boils down to “If your great game relies on the player not being spoiled to get the full effect, your great game may not be as great as everyone thinks it is” (See my writings on Portal, especially its endgame, for that in action). So it’s a bit odd that I love the Wizardry series as much as I do. Much of the challenge of Wizardry comes from exploring and mapping out the dungeons on your own, constantly wondering whether to push your luck to explore just a few more squares of the lowest floor you’ve reached, or whether to return to the castle. Playing it with a map in front of you is certainly an option, but it removes most of the challenge (And, frankly, throws off the balance of the game–you’re expected to wander around and kill monsters to increase your level. Remove the wandering and encounters that come with it, and you’re likely to get destroyed). Without getting too spoiler-tastic, I’ll say that unlike Wizardry I, you’ll need to do at least cursory exploration of every floor of the dungeon to succeed in your quest. Also, in part to accommodate the rebalancing of the game, the dungeon has been redesigned from the PC version.

I played through the game “straight”, meaning I didn’t reset to a prior spot when things went bad for me. I’ll admit I didn’t play through the game “blind”, choosing to rely on knowledge from a prior playthrough many years ago. This served me well, although I did party wipe once and had to create a second one regardless. This was actually my first time playing through a Wizardry almost totally straight, and it was incredibly fun. All the grinding I put myself through did little to alleviate the tension of wondering whether a battle would kill me, especially later on. Enemies have all sorts of nasty attacks–even if they don’t kill you outright, there’s the possibility of being turned to stone, or level drained–which means you lose experience, and the effect persists on leaving the dungeon. Being level drained can leave you weaker than you were even when you gain back the level.

The brutal difficulty and self-mapping of dungeons being integral to the experience means that Wizardry II is not for everyone. And indeed, I’m glad most RPGs aren’t this punishing and tense. Sometimes, though, I’m in the mood for that style of game, from dungeon-crawling and mapping out manually, to wondering if I’ve pushed too far and won’t have the resources to bail myself of a battle or dungeon. And when I am in that mood, Wizardry, and indeed this game, scratches that particular itch wonderfully.

Jan 09

The RPG Lounge- Robotrek

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

The lamented developer Quintet–according to Wikipedia, they’re believed to be long defunct, although no one is quite sure when it actually happened–are responsible for, among other games, a list of beloved SNES games. Quintet may be best known for the “Soul Blazer trilogy”, a loosely-connected set of three games. The company’s connection to the Ys series–Quintet’s president was the scenario designer for the first three games in the series–allowed them to get Yuzo Koshiro to compose the music for the Actraiser games, and he’s credited as the “Sound Producer” for several other games.

One of those games is 1994’s Robotrek, published by Enix. Called “Slapstick” in Japan (To give you an idea of how DARK AND GRITTY this game is), Robotrek involves a planet called Quintenix (Yes, really), and a small village called Rococo, which the game calls “A livable town”. The issue is that a rogue group called “Hackers” have invaded Rococo, and are “Robbing…destroying….disrupting” the village. In the meantime, your character is the son of a great inventor, Dr. Akihabara, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and runs into the Hackers as a side effect of his quest.

The setting–a more-or-less modern-day style world–is one thing that sets it apart from most RPGs. Another thing that sets it apart from most RPGs is its combat system. There aren’t random battles, which was a rarity in 1994. You also don’t fight enemies directly. Instead, you command robots to do your bidding in a battle with up to three foes at a time. The battle system itself is styled after SNES-era Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, but with some twists. For one, your robot can have up to three distinct weapon types (Melee, Weapon, Bomb), and each type takes up a different portion of your meter before you can take another action. Not only that, but you can combine these commands using what the game calls Programs. These Programs offer additional unique attacks that might have other effects, such as knocking enemies back. Each weapon type, especially Melee, has several different weapons that do different things as well.

You begin with a single robot, and can build up to two more throughout the course of the game. Each one specializes in a specific kind of combat, and they can be further customized via stat allocation. Each level up gives you ten additional points to distribute among five different stats (HP, Power, Defense, Speed–which actually governs accuracy and evasion–and Charge, a measure of how fast your battle meter refills). These points, including points already distributed, can be re-assigned upon level-up, or when you find a Research & Development center, essentially the game’s version of an inn.

In keeping with the game’s theme of invention, besides purchasing them, you can acquire items by either creating them, or by combining items to make new ones. It’s a neat way to get both items and new weapons, as you can combine items to create common curative items, or combine weapons and scraps to make new weaponry that’s more powerful than your old weaponry. It’s a neat tweak of the typical item acquisition formula.

One thing bares special mention in Robotrek: The translation is all kinds of awful, though it inadvertantly leads to some great lines like a Hacker telling your father, “[…] But evil is good. Evil is the job.” Just as often, though, it leads to the game literally losing the plot–there’s a point about two thirds of the way through the game that I’m not entirely sure in what time period it actually takes place.

There’s a lot to like in Robotrek. Unfortunately, there are also a number of frustrating elements about it. The game allows you to save almost anywhere, making it surprisingly easy to put yourself into a situation that is very difficult to get yourself out of, since enemies respawn when you exit and re-enter a room. To give Quintet credit, they seem to have anticipated this, as you get a brief spot of invincibility where you can’t get into battles upon reloading a save. In theory, you can load, then a second later while still in invincibility, save again, slowly creeping your way out of your predicament. The bigger issue is that healing resources are pretty limited, and at times it seems like two different teams balanced the regular enemies versus the bosses. You’ll be cruising along, beating enemies without a problem, and just run into a boss and get destroyed with no warning. Further, while it isn’t a huge issue due to the re-assignable stats, the most important stats change all of a sudden about midway through the game. Finally, for all of the customization possible, there’s one melee weapon type that’s so obviously superior that you’ll never go back to the others.

Other minor frustrations: The game itself never tells you that Programs can have unique effects besides being “chains of commands” (There was apparently an insert originally included with the game that mentioned this), nor does it explain that “Program” is an “element” along the lines of “fire” or “lightning” in a traditional JRPG that enemies can be resistant to.

Still, despite these frustrations, Robotrek is worth playing. First of all, while I love Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest/etc, it’s nice to play a game in a setting that isn’t “Generic Mostly Medieval Fantasy World BUT WITH AN AIRSHIP!!! #743”, and the customization with the numerous weapons and stat allocations make the actual battles and creation fun as well. It’s also refreshing that a mid-1990s game wasn’t trying to out-DARK-AND-ADULT everything else around it.

Dec 31

The RPG Lounge- Ys II Chronicles +

Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.

Falcom’s Ys series has been hugely popular and influential in Japan for a long time. Yet, despite a few releases of the early games in the series in the late 80s and early 90s (In particular, the ahead-of-its-time Turbo-Grafx CD had an even-more-ahead-of-its-time compilation of Ys I & II, featuring professional voice actors ten-plus years before most game companies realized that was a thing you could do in video games), plus a Playstation 2 release of The Ark of Napishtim in the mid-2000s, it’s only in the last 5 or so years that the series really gained momentum in the US, as XSEED Games has worked to bring English translations over to the States.

Besides the newest Ys games, one of the packages released is a compilation of the first two games. This compilation, titled Ys I & II Chronicles + (The unwieldy title is partly due to the fact that this is about the fourth or fifth re-release of these games, counting Japanese titles), adds some new wrinkles to the games if you’ve ever played the versions that made it to the States in the 1980s/1990s.

Before that, though, a basic overview of Ys II. It takes place immediately after the ending of Ys I, as Adol Christin, the hero of most of the series, has just recovered the six books of Ys, which causes him to shoot up into the sky, into the land of Ys. There, he’s found by Lilia, a girl from Lance Village. Meanwhile, Dalles the Wizard and his boss, Darm, prepare to put their evil plan to take over Ys into action.

Ys II is, as one would expect from the name, the second game in the series. And it’s a good deal longer and more balanced than the first. For one, the leveling curve is much more gradual–you won’t need (And won’t be able to, at least not in any reasonable amount of time) to max your level by the halfway point of the game, as in the first game. There are also a higher number of dungeons, versus the original game’s three, although some of those come at the cost of not having a proper “overworld”, if you will. Another element introduced in Ys II is the use of magic spells. In particular, Fire magic adds a new dimension to the crash-into-enemies-to-kill-them combat. The magic makes it possible to kill enemies from a distance, which can be quite helpful.

As Chronicles is a re-release/update of the original game, it adds some audiovisual goodies and creature comforts. First, you can choose portrait styles between the Chronicles and Complete releases of the game. You can also choose from one of three soundtracks, which you can switch between at any time–the PC-88 original, or the Chronicles and Complete releases. Finally, you have a much greater freedom of movement than the original’s four-directional system. This games the combat a more frantic feel, and makes actually engaging enemies directly a more attractive proposition than it was in earlier versions.

While Yuzo Koshiro didn’t compose all the music in Ys II–he shared credit with Mieko Ishikawa and Hideya Nagata for the PC-88 version, and other people arranged subsequent versions–his style is all over the soundtrack (And you can continue to hear his influence even in more modern Ys games). The music is, in general, upbeat, driving you forward on your quest to defeat Darm.

The greater emphasis on hand-to-hand combat in this version of the game as compared to previous versions does have an unintended side-effect–because magic isn’t as useful in this version in a general sense, it might be hard for the first-time player to figure out how to hurt bosses if they don’t pay close attention to what they hear in the early game. Also, Ys II Chronicles changes just enough things that you do have to pay attention and can’t just coast through based on previous knowledge. There was one item that evaded me for longer than it probably should have, until I realized I had to drop my preconceptions of where I was expecting that item to be from previous versions and just went with what the game was telling me. Some bosses have new attacks and phases as well, to keep players of previous versions on their toes.

Ys II Chronicles + is available as part of the Ys I & II Chronicles + compilation. While you can honestly give Ys I Chronicles a pass, the compilation itself is worth it just for Ys II Chronicles. It’s a much longer experience than Ys I, with a wider variety of combat and environments. The new elements make it worth playing even if you’re a fan of previous versions.