Friday, January 1, 2010

RPG Showdown: Final Thoughts

Hey! Happy New Year! What goes on with Chrontendo? Well, the holidays are over so I'm back to work on Episode 27. Let's see... the comments section of this blog are getting hit with spam from Japanese dating services and the like. And, I guess I'll do a quick debriefing on the "RPG Showdown" from Chronsega 4 and Chrontendo 26.

What exactly was this RPG showdown you ask? While checking my game list, I noticed that Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy, the two most well known (outside of Japan) 8-bit RPGs had originally come out within two days of each other. I couldn't pass up such a coincidence, so decided to run those two episodes back-to-back, in order to compare those games' respective merits.

We've now seen both, so who won the showdown? Let's break everything down to take a closer look.

In terms of visual appeal, Phantasy Star has a clear advantage. The Master System hardware allowed for brighter colors, more detailed artwork, bigger sprites, and smother animation. The first person dungeons in PS are a wonder to behold - they put every similar attempt on the Famicom to shame. With its detailed character portraits and huge, animated monsters, PS is perhaps the best looking 8-bit video game ever made. Yet, Amano's art gives Final Fantasy its own unique character. The monster designs in FF are very impressive, even if they aren't as beautiful as the graphics in PS.

Advantage: Phantasy Star

In terms of sound, the Master System has a hardware advantage, at least in the Japanese version. The FM enhanced version of Tokuhiko Uwabo's score is one of the most impressive sounding game soundtracks we've encountered so far. On the other hand, Nobuo Uematsu's music for FF is one of the all time classics of game music, despite the Famicom's inferior sound. This category probably boils down to personal preference. I'll call it a tie.

Advantage: None

Modern JRPGs tend to serve up elaborate narratives, but this wasn't exactly the case in 1987. Neither game has much of a a true plot, but both do attempt to provide a rudimentary storyline. Phantasy Star produces the traditional Wizardry/Dragon Quest setup: there's a bad guy, and you need to kill him. However, there are enough interesting events along the way to hold the player's attention. You'll need to round up the other party members, break a rocket scientist out of jail, obtain a fake passport, and so on. But ultimately, there is not too much to distinguish PS's plot from that of other RPGs like Dragon Quest II. But Final Fantasy breaks tradition with a bizarre story involving environmental devastation, magical orbs, lost civilizations and then wraps the whole thing up with a completely unexpected ending involving a time travel loop. FF offers a far more original storyline, and is the clear winner.

Advantage: Final Fantasy

Again, you can't expect too much in the way of characterization from games like this. But with its well drawn character portraits and actual dialog between party members, Phantasy Star is the clear winner. Final Fantasy's Warriors of Light don't even speak, though the game does throw in some amusing NPCs, and an arrogant, talkative villain.

Advantage: Phantasy Star

What would any RPG be without tons of loot, armor, weapons, and the like? Phantasy
Star offers a fine selections of goodies, including a light saber, a very cool laser gun, and special armor and weapons for Myiau the cat. But Sega's game is clearly outclassed by FF's vast assortment of swords, nunchucks, hammers, headgear, robes, gauntlets and rings. Aside from sheer numbers, FF adds elemental properties to weapons and armor and even throws in armor that casts magical spells. In other words, the equipable items in FF don't just exist to improve your stats, they actually add a additional dimension to the game. And while PS gives you a spaceship, hovercraft and a futuristic zamboni, none of these hold a candle to FF's incredibly useful Airship. Final Fantasy stands head and shoulders above PS in this category.

Advantage: Final Fantasy

A good part of the appeal of any RPG is the way it immerses you in a created, miniature world. Both Sega and Square fare well here. Phantasy Star gives us three distinct planets, alien races and villages that range from the glittering, high-tech Camineet to the dilapidated, poverty stricken Gothic. Final Fantasy gives each of its more traditional villages a distinct look and layout, and then throws in towns full of dwarfs, elves and talking dragons. However, one of Phantasy Star's greatest strengths turns out to be the cause of one of its major weaknesses. Those great looking first person dungeon graphics are, undoubtedly for reasons of space, used in every single dungeon. In comparison to PS's many identical dungeons, each of Final Fantasy's dungeons are completely unique. You'll explore an abandoned temple, a lava filled volcano, and an underwater palace -- the sheer variety of FF's dungeons makes FF the clear winner in the category of world design.

Advantage: Final Fantasy

Lastly, we have combat; something you'll spend a lot of time engaged in while playing an RPG of this vintage. If there's one category in which Final Fantasy completely trounces Phantasy Star, its this one. Combat in PS is exceedingly simple and often painfully repetitive. In most cases, it's simpley a matter of hitting the attack button repeatedly. Occasionally a heal spell or buff spell will come in handy, and Noah/Lutz might need to pull out a lightning bolt on occasion. Damage, while randomized, always falls within certain constraints, and enemies will never do anything surprising. At the start of each battle, you know in advance how it is going to play out; as long as you have enough HP, the outcome of battles is rarely in question. Final Fantasy, however, adds more spells, status effects, elemental affinities, and, mostly importantly, a combat system that allows you to target an individual enemy. This adds an element of strategy to battles that is completely missing from Phantasy Star. Furthermore, there is always an element of danger in Final Fantasy. You explore dungeons knowing that the next battle could be your last, if the next random encounter happens to be a wall of Sorcerers or Cockatrices.

Advantage: Final Fantasy


Playing both games again virtually back-to-back turned out to be an insightful experience. Phantasy Star is often held up as being the ne plus ultra of 8-bit RPGs. I'll grant that it is the most aesthetically pleasing game of its time, and every aspect is extraordinarily well crafted. On the other hand, many folks, especially those raised on FF VII, speak of the first Final Fantasy as being a primitive, unbalanced and borderline unplayable game. Strangely, I've found the opposite to be true: put next to Phantasy Star and almost every contemporary RPG, Final Fantasy is surprisingly sophisticated, and makes major advances in its implentation of magic, combat and dungeon design. PS seems, quite frankly, old fashioned in comparison.

Of course, individual preferences may be influenced by personal tastes, nostalgia or a predisposition to a certain platform or publisher. A player who finds Nero's dying words to Alis to be heart-wrenching or Final Fantasy's sometimes punitive difficulty level to exasperating will undoubtedly disagree with my assessment. And the fact that the Phantasy Star series has sold a fraction of the copies that Final Fantasy has will give it a certain cachet among a particular set of gamers. Still, as great as both games are, Final Fantasy edges out Phantasy Star as the superior title.


qaylIS / Kahless_GOA said...

And at last, it is interesting how the series turned out, Phantasy Star went more in the MMO direction, while Final Fantasy is a very streamlined story driven RPG (though I heard FF XIII is far to linear for a J-RPG).
So, you could say, Phantasy Star is a niche game, while Final Fantasy is mainstream...though if the Master System would have been more popular, it could have been the other way.

Anonymous said...

I like Phantasy Star alot more than the first Final Fantasy. I don't know what it is with me and Final Fantasy 1 on the NES but I really don't like it - and I have given it many many chances. I do love Phantasy Star, but I guess it has alot to do with the nostalgia as I grew up with it, and played FF1 for the first time in the 90's when NES emulators became popular, since it was never released in Europe. But there is something with the feeling I get from FF1 that I don't like. Maybe it's the fact that it's giving you too much of an option. I often like when games keep it simple. And I don't like that your characters can attack thin air if you attack a monster which has already been killed. And it feels a little, jumpy. You run from place to place while never really getting the time to familiarise yourself with them.

Oh well, I think we can all agree on that Dragon Quest III is much better than both FF1 and PS1. :)

CJ Lowery said...

Alas, posting via mobile doesn't leave much room for eloquence, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention a Let's Play a friend of mine did that utterly broke the mechanics of FF1 over his knee:

He also did a competing solo run with another associate each playing a white or black mage that was somehow even more fascinating, but it remains unarchived.

Doctor Sparkle said...

One of the weird things about the first FF is how much it resembles western RPGs - letting you choose your class, name all your characters and offering more freedom in equipments - reportedly the exact opposite of FF XIII! Despite its lack of resemblance to later FF games, it still holds a lot of fascination today. As CJ points out, people are still analyzing it and doing crazy things like a playthrough using a White Wizard only.

The whole thing of party members not automatically re-targeting enemies IS annoying, but presumably it was added to keep from combat from being a matter of simply pushing attack 4 times each turn. And I find it less frustrating that the way PS randomly attacks enemies. Especially when you have a couple enemies that could be finished off with one more hit, and party keeps attacking everyone but those guys.

CJ Lowery said...

To be fair a white Mage playthrough just consists of running a lot and casting ruse twice and plinking away 1-2 damage on bosses. It's good white noise for reading, so if you ever wanted to plow through Infinite Jest, a White Mage solo game might not be your worst bet.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Ha! Has anyone has ever managed to plow through Infinite Jest? It seems everyone has "finish reading Infinite Jest" somewhere on their to-do list. Myself included. It was so sad about Wallace, however.

killias2 said...

Although I've beaten both games, they were played at very different times of my life. Final Fantasy was the first JRPG I ever played, but Phantasy Star III was the -second- JRPG I ever played. By the time I got around to playing PS1 (through massage emulation, actually, which was my first experiment with it), FF1 was a distant memory.

Finally, I got around to playing FF1 again a few years later, as well as its immediate sequels. However, by then, PS1 was also not fresh on my mind.

In retrospect, I can definitely see the argument for picking FF over PS. I love PS, but that game really peaks in 4 (with 2 being next in line). I enjoyed the first one, but the plot was sub-par. I also never really enjoyed FP dungeon crawlers. If nothing else, FF's class selection system deserves special mention, especially when the class advancement system is thrown in as well. Adding elemental effects and better balancing between attacks and magic just really breaks the scale. As sad as it makes the "phan" inside me, I'll also say FF over PS.

Sidenote: FF3 is my personal choice for top Famicom JRPG, although I haven't played nearly as many as you. FF2, however, needs to go away and never come back. Worst progresion system ever.