NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.
Going into this book, I was honestly skeptical that a 200 page book was sufficient enough to cover a topic as dense as “The History of Video Games” without glossing over large swaths of time, or focusing on things that weren’t as important as stated. The recent Netflix show “High Score” comes to mind with what it focused on – while important, not everything presented was actually warranting a full episode to cover, and LOTS of stuff was left out. That isn’t an issue with The History of Videogames by Charlie Fish, the book is jam-packed with plenty of information, and does a fine job as any other history book at presenting a general topic.
I quite enjoyed that the book didn’t just focus on the tried-and-true pop-culture history of games, it successfully goes over the full origin of games, going back to huge machines that played simple games such as tic-tac-toe using lightbulbs as a graphic interface dating all the way back to post-war America. This part of the lineage is almost NEVER discussed, usually people start with 1959s Spacewar! as “the first videogame” which is not correct in many ways. I appreciate the research that Fish put into this, and enjoyed his unique experience as a gamer based in the UK, as that scene never really gets elaborated on, seeing that its fairly divergent than either the Japanese or American scenes.
Perhaps my main quibble with the book was the formatting – about one-quarter of the book is the “history of videogames” all in one section, then it goes to a section on profiles of important people in the field, then a section on companies, social issues, a section on top ten lists (such as bestselling games) and more. I think the book could benefit form being reshuffled to being broken up a bit more and having those latter sections intertwined into the main section, as it feels a tad like a series of blog posts that have been collected as-is. What is here works well nonetheless, and this isn’t a huge deal-breaker. the book is still organized well, and contains pictures and screenshots to help illustrate certain points.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a fairly concise history of videogames, I’ve read a lot of similar books in the past (especially when I briefly worked for a gaming website), but honestly this is probably one of the best I’ve come across.
We all had to deal with schoolyard rumors and gossip as adolescents; whether directed at us or friends, it was usually never a good thing. Imagine, if you will, a world where these hurtful rumors are coming true, from the mundane to the utterly ridiculous. This is the world of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2: Innocent Sin. Originally released way back in 1999, this particular entry of the Persona franchise actually never left Japan back then, while the second part of this two part series, Eternal Punishment, did. Many reasons have been cited for why this exclusion originally occurred, most notably a homosexual relationship within the game and the inclusion of Adolf Hitler as a major villain. Thankfully for all “Megaten” fans with a PSP, there is now finally a legal way to play this game.
Fans of Revelations: Persona, and its later PSP port, will find that the game is vaguely similar in many ways, except for a huge facelift. First and foremost, gone are the first person dungeons, replaced by a familiar isometric over-the-head view made standard by many a Japanese RPG. This sounds like a minor change, but it makes the dungeons slightly less monotonous and confusing, especially in areas like a school building where all walls look the same. Other improvements include the ability to select between three difficulty levels, the ability to save almost anywhere, and a far more streamlined battle system.
The battle system is of the tried and true “random encounter” variety from yesteryear. Everything is turn-based, except the player is given almost complete control over character positioning, turn order, and other commands, including auto-battle. This comes in handy in two major ways. Firstly, when one is trying to obtain new “fusion attacks”, one needs to be able to re-order various spells as they need to be performed in a very specific order. The second example is when you see that the turn order is going to lead to a character dying (e.g. they are poisoned), all you have to do is open a menu and switch them around. I really enjoyed this, as the completely random nature of newer Persona games drives me up the wall even though I love the series.
All of the main characters are equipped with an initial Persona, a sort of multi-dimensional being that gives its user the ability to use magic. Aside from leveling up the actual characters in the game, one can also level up these Personae (Personas?) to learn new spells and abilities. If you tire of the “factory” models, you can always hunt for more. Of course, the legendary “contact system” is here in full force for franchise veterans.
For those new to the series, this system allows for players to communicate with the demons they are fighting. When on the “contact” screen a player has to negotiate with the target demon. One can ask for money, healing, items, or even a “pact” that allows for the player to summon that demon as their new Persona. Think of something similar to Pokémon (SMT did this first though), except on more of an intellectual field. The player has to figure out which character would be the best to speak to the demon, and what they need to say; say the wrong thing and you can provoke an extra attack from the monster rather than a shower of goodies.
The story of Shin Megami Tensei Persona 2: Innocent Sin is initially fairly confusing, but rewards people for “hanging in there”. The game opens with the silent protagonist, Tatsuya, getting into trouble at Seven Sisters High School with the new principal. One can see that something is definitely wrong immediately as the comically evil-looking principal (complete with a scar over his eye) has apparently mysteriously won over the student body to the point where he gets cheered by passers-by and has had a statue built in his own honor. This coupled with a sudden rash of disfigured students has led to rumors of curses, demons, possessions, and other occult happenings. Tatsuya and his rag-tag group of friends (including his female companion Lisa, and visual-kei musician and overall comic relief character, Michael) assume that the urban legend of a person called “The Joker” who grants wishes must be true. It is said that if one calls their own number on their cellphone, they can summon him and get their greatest wish.
Without spoiling too much, it is revealed that these rumors are in fact coming true, and this plays a very significant role in the actual game. In most games, talking with non-player characters (NPCs) doesn’t get you very far. In this game, one can actually come across rumors in dialog, which, with the help of a certain detective agency and a nominal fee, can ultimately come true. Early on in the game one such rumor pops up in which a local Ramen shop is said to be a front for a black-market munitions shop. This is obviously nonsense… until you pay off the detectives to help spread the rumor. Once it hits critical mass you have access to your very first weapons shop. Players that explore every nook and cranny for rumor-mongers, gossip-peddlers, and other nosey people could end up with optional quests, optional weapons, and altered maps.
When looking at the graphics and audio in this game it is important to realize that it’s over a decade old, and originally ran on a console far less powerful than the PSP itself. Because of this, it’s hard to see this as much more than a nostalgia title – a “lost game” in a widely popular series. That doesn’t ruin this game at all, but when comparing the presentation to other PSP RPGs, like Valkyria Chronicles 2, for example, you can really see the age. There are cleaned-up “modernized” menus and an option to use the remixed music. Fans that like to keep things retro can toggle the music option off – a huge bonus for those that hated the musical revisions in Persona PSP. Keeping the above in mind, Persona 2 does have good graphics for its time, and with a few pre-rendered cut scenes here and there, it never feels too antiquated.
I mentioned earlier that one of the major stumbling blocks of this game’s release in the West was some of the content held within. There is good news and bad news, as almost all of the game is intact, including an implied homosexual relationship (assuming the player chooses that path), and the inclusion of Hitler as a boss character. The bad news is that Hitler is simply referred to as “Fuhrer” and is seen wearing a hilarious pair of sunglasses – just as he was in the Japanese version. This has caused many to jokingly call the character “cool Hitler”.
Assigning a value to this game can be hard as it will be loved by one generation of RPG fans, and possibly hated by the other. On one hand, the sheer length and content held within is staggering, especially compared to Persona PSP. While you could breeze through that game in no time at all, Innocent Sin could easily take 40-50 hours if you are a “completionist.” It took me a total of around 55, but bear in mind that I power leveled, talked to all NPCs and tried to do as many side quests as I could. People with less time on their hands might be able to finish it in around 25 or so, just breezing through the storyline. This is great for a handheld RPG, and makes it feel more like the real deal than other, sparser handheld RPGs out there.
All in all, Persona 2: Innocent Sin is a strong choice for any PSP RPG fan, and with PSP entering its twilight moments, this could very well be one of the system’s last hurrahs. The game shows its age with dated conventions such as mindless grinding, random encounters, and muddy graphics, but makes up for it in spades in both the storyline and gameplay departments. Fans of the newer Persona games will want to play it, as it is definitely the “missing link” between the old school mentality of Perosna PSP and the newer Personas (3 and 4 especially). So was the long wait worth it? Yes, and I loved every minute of it.
NOTE: I will leave this as spoiler free as possible and describe main themes rather than specific story notes. Be warned, some images will contain spoilers.
A few of you might be wondering where I’ve been hiding this month. I wish I had a great reason that involves international espionage or something, but the truth happens to be that I’ve been spending most of my free time playing a new RPG from Atlus called Persona 5. As of this writing, I just saw the end credits roll and with a tear in my eye I wish that I could play more. Usually a lot of JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games) tend to be good for about 25-30 hours, then fetch quest you to a final boss that you don’t care about. My Playthrough of Persona 5 was 110 hours and I didn’t have time to do everything I wanted – I’m not one to immediately re-play a game, but I kind of want to with this one. I actually started to write this review a few weeks ago, but decided to stop in case the game “crapped the bed” at the end like so many do – thankfully that was not the case, and if there was any way to eloquently describe the opposite act I would write that instead.
For those unaware of the series my gushing pertains to, Persona is a long running spin-off of another series called Shin Megami Tensei which dates back to the NES days. If you want to see more info, I did a write-up a while back about how controversial the series was, that sort of shows you some themes and ideas within. SMT or “Megaten” games tend to be pretty hardcore, and for a while Persona has existed as a more casual friendly entry into the series, full of anime tropes and cut-scenes. As this series has matured, the staff has shifted the balance around a bit until they finally hit the sweet spot. I’m honestly leaning towards a “student surpassing the teacher” moment, and I think Persona 5 has been my favorite SMT game ever made.
So, what makes this game so good? Does the near unanimous praise this game has garnered from review sites come from anywhere or is this just weebs hyping something? The answer is – Persona 5 is a near perfect classic turn-based Japanese RPG – a genre that everyone has been abandoning due to age and lack of innovation. And while many former genre-mates like Final Fantasy have gone to action-RPG land, Atlus has doubled down and it paid off. At the game’s core are two gameplay features that define the series – demon negotiating and the press-turn battle system.
Demon negotiations are what led some to call this series “goth Pokémon”, but in truth Megami Tensei, the first game in this series, was released nearly a decade before Pikachu was a glimmer in anyone’s mind. So yeah, you do go around capturing monsters to force into battles, but it’s a bit different here, as these creatures (from gods to toilet demons) act as a way for the characters to use magic and strengthen attacks rather than actually throwing down. The concept here is that these creatures, called Persona, are shards of the mind of the psyche of the characters and embracing their power will lead the characters to self-discovery, and in this case, stand up for themselves. I’ll talk more about this later, once I finish up this thought.
The Press-turn battle system is perhaps one of my favorite RPG battle systems, as it forces you to think about strategy rather than plowing throw every encounter doing the same attacks. Basically, one attack is allotted per character deployed in battle. How you use these opportunities is crucial to your chance at winning the fight. By executing an attack (physical, magical, or using an item) one press turn will be used up. To make things more interesting, is the fact that you can lose and gain turns in a few ways. If an attack hits the enemies weak point or triggers a critical hit, you will gain a press turn (essentially an extra attack when all is said and done). Thus, making enemy exploitation and knowledge of your foes a primary factor in winning the battle. Be aware though that enemies can do the very same things to you. Therefore, if you are unprepared and caught off guard, even a much lower level group of enemies can defeat you quickly in a string of critical strikes. This exact situation happened to me in a few of these games, most notably SMT: Nocturne, where the game would constantly put you in situations where battles seemed almost impossible to win sometimes.
Now a great battle system can make or break a game, but the story is where it really counts right? Yes – and with this game the story was nearly flawless for me. I’m a sucker for anything related to western esotericism and Gnosticism, and this game is basically a media representation of many of the books and podcasts I like to study in my free time. For me, playing this game is almost like having the feeling of an epiphany the entire time which is a feeling I rarely have with games. In the past, The Persona games have been about the idea of secret inner beings that we force out of our mind. This concept is taken nearly directly from the pages of Swiss Philosopher and Psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. When writing about his concept of a persona, Jung explained that many lack a persona –
“The alternative is to endure living with the absence of the persona—and for Jung “the man with no persona… is blind to the reality of the world, which for him has merely the value of an amusing or fantastic playground. […] Those trapped at such a stage remain “blind to the world, hopeless dreamers… spectral Cassandras dreaded for their tactlessness, eternally misunderstood.”
Then, there was the concept of recovery of these personas:
“Recovery, the aim of individuation, is not only achieved by work on the inside figures but also, as conditio sine qua non, by a readaptation in outer life—including the recreation of a new and more viable persona. To develop a stronger persona… might feel inauthentic, like learning to “play a role”… but if one cannot perform a social role then one will suffer. Thus, one goal for individuation is for people to develop a more realistic, flexible persona that helps them navigate in society but does not collide with nor hide their true self. Eventually, in the best case, the persona is appropriate and tasteful, a true reflection of our inner individuality and our outward sense of self.”
Within these few paragraphs lies the entire theme of this game – people are mere husks until they embrace a persona, nurture it through social interactions, and evolve it to better oneself.
On top of this, Persona 5 is about bad people doing bad things, and good people feeling hopeless about it. The problem is, genuinely evil people doing genuinely evil things are commonplace in our world. This might be as small as somebody cheating on their spouse or a policeman taking bribes all the way up to mass murder. For the most part, few have the courage or intention to go against this, since that is what our society has conformed to. We do many things to uphold collectivism, and feel that order brings “the greater good”. We listen to people in authority because we’re afraid that going against it will change our lives for the worse, no matter how much we disagree with them. If someone hides their bad intentions behind the media’s manipulation and lies, we believe it, because that’s all that we’re able to see. Without going into a political rant here, this game is very true to our current times.
Persona 5 is also about breaking free from those conventions, standing up for what’s right and basically throwing a big middle finger up to “the greater good”. In the game, our rag tag group of heroes assemble to help people that don’t have the power or courage to help themselves. They are all social outcasts in their own ways – a pair of juvenile delinquents, a foreigner judged for her looks, a stoic class president, a daughter of a powerful man, an artist seen as “eccentric” and even a person that shuts themselves away from the outside world. It would be easy for any of these characters to turn into bitter horrible people, but they don’t because they still have hope. Hope that humanity can turn away from evil.
Easily, one of the most fulfilling parts of this game – and the reason it made me emotional more than a couple of times was the way it handles relationships between characters, and even NPCs. This isn’t a new thing for persona, as all of the games since Persona 3 have had a “Social Link” system in place wherein one gets stronger as they nurture friendships between characters. in most games, interactions with NPCs are a few bland moments of time filling exposition and that’s it – here one can easily fall in love with even the simplest characters. Aside from dealing with your own problems, the main protagonist becomes friends and helps a slew of other people, all similarly down on their luck and wanting to give up. One example is a back-alley Doctor that ultimately supplies the party with medicines and other goods, Early in the game you discover that she has a troubling past and has basically given up on all of her dreams. and only after you push her to be her best, does she finally accept her faults and move forward with her life. and that’s only one of many characters you interact with
These interactions are not mandatory, as the game allows the player the ability to choose how to progress the game. with a limited number of things that can be done in any given day, as well as the need to place some needs above others, means that some friendships will not be as fulfilling as others – much as with real life. It seems that at any given time, you know you really need to level a character up, but tests are starting soon and you better study! And what’s that 6 other people want to hang out! Socializing in the world of Persona can be just as hard as in the real world it seems.
I promised that I wouldn’t go too far into spoiler territory, so I better leave it there. I would say this this is easily one of the best RPGs, scratch that, GAMES that I’ve played in the last decade. when most RPGs roll down a checklist of boring cliches, the Persona series continues to break new ground and re-invent itself each time. If you are looking for something different to play, and are willing to stick with a game that could clock in over 100 hours, you won’t find any more fulfilling game that came out all year. Here’s hoping that an inevitable “sequel” spinoff game comes out soon so I can hang with these characters again, and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait eight years for Persona 6!
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Okay, that’s a bit over the top, but we finally have a glimpse of gameplay footage of the upcoming Final Fantasy VII remake. These were apparently revealed today at a convention called The Monaco Anime Game International Conference (MAGIC). As you can see from the images below, the initial bombing raid is in full force as members of AVALANCHE infiltrate the Sector 1 reactor of Shinra Electric Power Company. It’s hard to tell 100%, but the game appears to be running on some version of the Final Fantasy XV engine which really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Here’s hoping E3 gives us a new trailer or something this year.
Kingdom Hearts 3 was also showing off some new screens
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LONG Before I even decided to get a PlayStation 3, I would check the various recommendation threads and other such things on a lot of gaming forums to see what games were seen as the “killer apps” that I should definitely play. I was honestly sort of cranky with Sony after the PS3 launch, pricing especially. I needed something that stood out, a game that I couldn’t get anywhere else, and one game, more than any other, was constantly touted as being not only one of the most underrated games on the PS3, but one of the best RPGs out there on any system. That game was the first Valkyria Chronicles. I finally got the system, and immediately snagged a copy of it.
I was taken aback by how mature the game was, and no I don’t mean “blood and guts and boobs” mature like the many games that misuse the term today, but an honest mature game done in such a way that most folks of the teenage persuasion, except maybe anime fans, would probably scoff at it. Yes the game deals with war, but in concentrates on the heroics and struggles with fighting rather than the bleak horrors of any battlefield.
For those that haven’t heard of the series, all of the games follow a fictitious war that somewhat closely resembles World War II if you squint really hard and drop some pixie dust on it. In this fantasy world, a small country called Gallia suddenly comes under attack from a huge land grabbing conglomerate of nations dubbed the East Europan Imperial Alliance. This is a shock because these Nazi analogues (if you equate them to our terms) are at war with another federation of countries that dub themselves the Atlantic Federation, and there is no real reason for such an invasion to occur (other than energy reserves to fuel the war). The game places you in the shoes of a rag-tag group of militia members that are suddenly forced to repel the most powerful army on earth on the verge of world conquest. This is of course the stage for a game that breathed an icy breath of fresh air into a somewhat played out genre – the strategy RPG.
The immediate thing that struck me about both games in the series that I’ve played is that they have some huge balls, and exist as a true asset to the RPG genre, especially in how they portray war. For years we have been playing hundreds of World War II games, and very few of them have actually managed to mention the holocaust or the Jewish people for fear of getting the game banned in some random countries. Here, however, we have a game that revolves around a group of people called the Darcsens that have literally been blamed for just about every bad thing in the world for hundreds of years, and are the targets of ethnic cleansing campaigns (in Valkyria Chronicles 2 most notably) and even forced to work in labor camps. The fact that any series had the cajones to even attempt to have a storyline closely mirroring this sort of world event makes SEGA go up in my books quite a bit.
Flash forward just a few years and it seems that a series with such promise, critical acclaim, big sales in Japan, and a cult following in America should be running strong; sadly this is not the case. Valkyria Chronicles may already be dead, especially in the west. A few years back news rang out about the possible release of the third Valkyria Chronicles game in America specifically. SEGA West had been pretty tight lipped about it, and its no-show at E3 that year was amongst about a dozen or so games that seemed absent from localization plans. game journalists apparently talked to some of the SEGA reps at E3 and asked if the new Valkyria Chronicles and Phantasy Star games would be heading to the west and the news wasn’t good.
Valkyria Chronicles III (or pretty much any other Japanese PSP game that year) never came to the west. This was largely because the PSP was on life support when the game released. You see, in their grand wisdom, Sega decided to make a quick buck by churning the games out far too quickly on a completely other system as before (more on that later). Valkyria Chronicles II, a direct sequel to the first PS3 game, was confusingly a now handheld title. Granted, at the time the PSP had a userbase of more than 50 million users (a lot more than the PS3 at the time), but how many outside of Japan would buy it? How many had the first game? Series Producer Shuntaro Tanaka told Famitsu that the second game was being developed for the PSP instead of the PS3, in order “to allow a broader spectrum of users to discover and enjoy what makes Valkyria special.” Tanaka added that the series could return to consoles in the future, though.
There are rumors that SEGA decided to release the games on the PSP in order to capitalize on the TV anime that was running, using it to hock a host of toys and such that were hot on the market. Moving a flagship title for any series across platforms is a tough decision, and especially ludicrous when we have to realize that Valkyria Chronicles II was, not shockingly, only the second game in the series. Usually, handheld spinoff games come well into the lifespan of a series, ala Final Fantasy and it’s numerous side-games. While it did decently well in Japan, the sales were still under that of the first game, but the real story is the American Market. VGchartz has the game listed at an estimated 80k for the American Market. That’s basically an estimated eight times less than what the first game obtained in the same region.
Here are some graphs to speak for themselves, these are old screen-grabs I took when I first published this article but they still stand:
Please note the scaling difference between the two graphs.
I’m not going to jump on the anti-piracy bandwagon, but when you have a system that is cheap and easy to develop for, but is plagued with piracy and doesn’t perform well in all areas versus a system that does a bit better in all areas, and isn’t hit hard (until recently) by any sort of hackers, I wonder why you’d choose the former. SEGA obviously wanted a quick buck rather than letting a franchise grow a bit more naturally, and it’s hurt the series pretty bad. Since its release the third game in series had barely cracked 160k units in sales, a far cry from the previous games.
Sadly, Japanese gaming companies really hit a rut about five years ago, and honestly they are still there, they don’t take chances and seemingly have regressed back into a Japan-only mindset that pretty much guarantees failure. Putting anything on the PSP during that time, or the Vita currently, pretty much guarantees a niche game that few will play. But why is this happening? Take, for example, words by Keiji Inafune, the once prominent mind behind many Capcom classics such as Mega Man and Dead Rising:
“The mainstream industry in Japan is like a large tree that’s just begun to wilt. It’s still standing strong, it hasn’t collapsed just yet, but it’s not doing all that well,” Inafune told The Verge at BitSummit, a Kyoto indie-games festival in its second year. Inafune himself went independent in 2010, leaving giant developer Capcom to start his own studio called Comcept. He believes that indie games are the most exciting thing happening within the Japanese industry. “Indies have just sprouted above the ground. There’s still this monolithic large tree over the industry, but indies have popped up. Whether or not the big tree will fall, whether or not the indie scene will grow into a tree itself, I don’t know.”
Inafune is just one of many big name studio guys leaving “wilting trees”, perhaps the most prominent was Hideo Kojima and his epic battles with Konami leading up to the release of the last Metal Gear game. He now works for Sony and Konami is making cellphone and pachinko games.
I wish more of these big Japanese companies with American publishing arms would look at companies like Atlus (owned by SEGA now) and XSeed for how to treat localizations. XSeed, for example, has released a few games in the Record of Agarest War series digitally, that way they could obtain a cheap license and keep costs down. These smaller publishers also set realistic goals for sales of these games, instead of assuming that a niche strategy RPG will be a huge blockbuster, NIS and Atlus both learned a ton about the market, and learned how to market, publicize, and keep costs down on a ton of games like La Pucelle Tactics, Disgaea, and even Phantom Brave. They don’t always sell crazily well, but they have rabid followings that keep buying the games, and keeping them going.
So, where do we stand now? well, there might be a glimmer of hope shining through. While the third installment is still the last game in the series so far, many fans are hoping that a recent HD remaster of Valkyria Chronicles and a new spinoff game will re-ignite interest in the series. The spinoff, Valkyria Revolution, is planned to be released by SEGA in Japan on January 19, 2017, and in North America in early 2017. It is also planned to be released by Deep Silver in Europe in early 2017 as well. For the Western releases, an Xbox One version will also be available.
This shows a big change for SEGA in that they seem to be switching back to home consoles for games like this, and are trusting the west to support more niche games. Namco-Bandai recently did a similar thing and finally got the Tales series back on track over here, so who knows… As for Valkyria Chronicles III? I guess there is always hope that SEGA could do a PSP Remake edition for the PS4, but if they think the game won’t sell well, where is the incentive? Even a digital release with original dialog would be good, but I’m not holding my breath.
If Valkyria Revolution bombs, the fans are not to blame – a decade of poor and largely short-sighted business decisions are. If it does happen, only one thing comes to mind – Sorry SEGA, but you guys ruined your own franchise.
Disclaimer: A version of this article was originally produced for a now-defunct video game website that I worked for in the past. I have decided to rescue some of this stuff so it doesn’t disappear from the internet forever. If you enjoy this, let me know and I might just do more!
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