Archive for the ‘Video Games’ Category

Break Time! Persona 4 for the Playstation 2

Friday, January 30th, 2009

[Break Time! is a series of posts about video games that Rick has spent entirely too much time with over the years.]


The Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 have both been out for some time now, but did you know there was still good gaming to be had on the relatively ancient Playstation 2?  Just this past December, the Playstation 2 got what might be its last great game: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4.

Persona 4, for the Playstation 2

Persona 4, for the Playstation 2

The Shin Megami Tensei (“MegaTen”) games, brought to us by Atlus, are for the most part turn-based role-playing games that feature themes that are darker and more adult-oriented than the typical Japanese role-playing game that’s brought over to the USA.  The Persona series is something of a spinoff series, featuring some of the same gameplay elements as the main line of games, but with more emphasis on character interaction than the others.

Like its predecessor, Persona 4 takes place in a Japanese high school (a somewhat ironic setting given that in the USA the game is rated “M”).  You take on the role of “the protagonist” – a character who you name and control throughout the game.  You start off your new life as a big-city boy who goes to live for a year with his uncle in the quiet town of Inaba.  Quiet, that is, until two things happen:

  1. Dead bodies start turning up hanging upside down from TV antennas, and …
  2. You discover that you’re able to jump into television screens.

Inside the television, you discover you have a power to summon and breed your own monsters (the “persona”s in the game’s title).  Using these monsters, you do battle with other monsters inside the television, hoping to both prevent more people from showing up dead and discover just what the heck is going on with this weird world inside the television.

Graphics and sound

For a Playstation 2 game, the graphics are done quite well.  Environments look like what they’re supposed to represent, and dungeons are sufficiently colorful and weird.  Some of the models for the Personas are qutie bland, but since they are not onscreen very often, it’s not a big deal.

If you’re a veteran to the Persona series, you will also notice that quite a few of the monsters and personas were simply lifted from Persona 3.

The game’s sound effects are servicable.  Things sound, more or less, like they’re supposed to.  The background music is primarily Japanese pop songs with English (or should I say “Engrish”) lyrics.  A typical example of the Engrish lyrics, from the song that plays when you’re inside your uncle’s house: “Signs of love overshadowed by dreams / baby, don’t worry ’cause you ain’t alone / only time running days without nights / tears pass through“. Say what?

The music is appropriate for a game set at a high school, and (either fortunately or unfortunately) some of the songs will get stuck in your head.   In case you don’t get enough of the music in the game itself, the game comes with a soundtrack CD which contains some of the game’s tracks.


Persona 4 is, like its predecessor, heavily focused on time.  You are only in Inaba for a year, so you know the game will end at about a certain time.  As each day progresses, you’re able to perform actions that take up your time.  At the end of the day, you go to bed and the next day starts.  So what do you do all day?

You spend part of your time in the real world, going to school, taking tests (yes, taking tests), studying, doing part-time work, and making friends.  Many of these activities make you money, and develop things that the game calls “Social Links” – essentially friendships between your character and other game characters.  These social links will allow you to breed more powerful monsters.  They also serve to develop the personalities of characters in the game.  For characters that eventually join your party, enhancing their social links also gives those characters more abilities in battles.

You can also spend time in the television world, where you’ll be battling monsters and trying to save the latest victim of Inaba’s serial killer.  Each potential victim has their own 10-or-so level dungeon to explore, but don’t take too much time exploring.  If you fail to rescue a victim before the required day, it’s “game over”.

Rescuing a victim, of course, means more than just walking in and grabbing them.  It means battles.  Persona 4 uses a turn-based system where you (and the monsters) take turns executing either normal or special attacks on one another.  To liven things up, the game includes elemental weaknesses.  If you hit the weakness of an enemy, you get an extra turn and the enemy gets knocked down.  If you knock all the enemies down, you can execute an “all-out attack”, where all your party menbers attack at once for big damage.  To further spice up combat, there are two types of instant-kill attacks (light and dark) which can eliminate monsters immediately if they’re vulnerable.  There are also the usual status effects like poisoning, silence, etc.

Sound good?  Feeling godly?  With the exception of the “all-out attack”, your enemies have access to all of this stuff, too.  Expect them to exploit your party’s weaknesses almost as ruthlessly as you exploit theirs.  It is not unheard of in Persona games for you to be wiped out before you get to take a turn at all, if you’re either unlucky or unprepared for a battle.  Expect, by the eay, to see the “game over” screen a lot.  A typical strategy for bosses, by the way,  is to fight them once just to find the boss’s strengths and weaknesses are, die, then come back the next day to actually beat it.

There’s one other thing I should mention about battles.  The game has resurrection spells and items, and if one of your party members dies during combat, you can revive them.  Or, you can simply leave them dead on the floor until the end of the battle, where they’ll automatically get up (but with only minimal health).  This does not apply to your main character.  If he dies, it’s an instant “game over” – no matter what the status of your other party members is.  Apparently, your other party members are too stupid to use their powerful revive skills/items on your character, while they use them with wild abandon on each other.  (Or perhaps they simply hate your character’s guts?)  It’s an odd quirk of the battle system that adds an extra strategic element to battles, but makes absolutely no sense otherwise.

While the gameplay is, on the whole, entertaining, Persona 4 suffers to some extent from the same disease that plagues all the MegaTen games:  tedium.  While figuring out how to attack new monsters with new weaknesses/strengths is interesting, you will quite frequently be fighting the same groups of monsters over, and over, and over again.  This can get old fast – especially when you find that you need an extra level or three to beat the next boss.  Breeding new personas is also entertaining, except when you have to try over, and over, and over to get one with a usable set of skills and special attacks.  (This happens because there is some randomness in the skills you get when combining old personas to make new ones.)  There are also periods of time in the game’s “real world” where nothing interesting is happening.

Overall, the gameplay is good, but it is definitely tarnished by too much repetition.

Story / Plot

Role-playing games aren’t just about battles.  They’re also about story.  Without getting into any big spoilers, the plot in this game revolves around the serial killer in Inaba.  You try to prevent more killings while uncovering the identity of the killer.  Interesting, but like the game’s battles, it gets repetitive after a while.

The game has several endings, and what ending you get depends on some key choices you make late in the game.  (Tip:  Save at the first opportunity you get in December, and don’t overwrite that save.)  There are a few variants of the (depressing) “bad” ending.  The game also has a “normal” ending, and a “true” ending (which is similar to the normal ending but with an extra dungeon and more cutscenes).  The game seems to go out of its way to prevent you from having any sense of closure with all these different endings – none of which are entirely satisfactory.  But, that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise good game.


Like I said before, this is perhaps the last great Playstation 2 game we’ll ever see.  So, if you still have a Playstation 2 or are lucky enough to have a Playstation 3 which features backwards compatibility and you’re even a casual fan of Japanese role-playing games, you should pick this one up.  Plus, it’s cheaper than buying a new game for either the Playstation 3 or the Xbox 360!

Break Time! Infinite Undiscovery for the Xbox 360

Friday, October 17th, 2008

[Break Time! is a series of posts about video games that Rick has spent entirely too much time with over the years.]

Infinite Undiscovery is the latest JRPG for the Xbox 360 from Tri-Ace, one of my favorite developers.  Tri-Ace is known for producing RPGs with innovative and entertaining battle systems.  Tri-Ace games usually focus more on real-time action rather than slow, turn-based battles.  So how does Infinite Undiscovery look, feel, and play?

Read on for my impressions.


XBOX 360: The little media center that couldn’t

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

I’ve had an XBOX 360 “Elite” (the one with the 120 GB hard drive) for a while now. Since the hard drive in my 360 is largely empty, I thought it might be nice to use the 360 as a media center. More specifically, I thought the 360 might be useful as a music center, since it’s got the ability to play mp3 files.

I’ve ripped all of the family’s CDs. It’s nice to be able to listen to anything in the music collection without going to the CD racks and searching. But listening to these music files on the stereo in the living room is a bit awkward. The DVD player will play mp3 files from CD, but that still means I have to shuffle discs around. Plus, the DVD player’s interface for doing this is clunky at best.

So why not use the 360? It’s got plenty of disk space for holding our music collection, and it’s already hooked into the stereo. Unfortunately, the 360 is a typical Microsoft product. By that, I mean it’s been hobbled – either accidentally or by design. How?

  • You can – albeit very slowly – rip audio CDs to the 360’s hard drive.
  • You can play mp3 files from a data CD.
  • You can plug an external hard drive into one of the 360’s USB ports and play the mp3 files on the drive.
  • You cannot transfer mp3 files from the external hard drive or a data CD to the 360’s internal hard drive***. If you put in an audio CD, there’s an option to copy the music to the hard drive. If you hook up an external drive or put in a CD with mp3 files on it, that option disappears. (What the f#%?)

I guess it’s all for the best. It’s rather difficult to hear quiet music over the roar of the 360’s jet-engine-like fans.

***If you can actually copy mp3 files to the 360’s internal hard drive and play them from there, clue me in on the method. In the meantime, there’s always my TVisto

Game over: The battle over violent video games.

Thursday, November 8th, 2007

You might remember, if you’re somewhat close to my age, the dawn of video games. Early games were not beautiful. In fact, they were quite ugly!

[Death Race screenshot, from Wikipedia]

Death Race (1976) – Screen shot from Wikipedia

If you’re lucky, you might be able to guess what the graphics in that screen shot are supposed to represent. It might be surprising, but this almost indistinguishable pattern of lights was one of the first shots in a thirty year battle: the battle over violence in video games.

The screen shot is from the game Death Race. The object of the game was to run people down to score points. This didn’t go over too well with many folks, and led to quite a bit of outrage. The outrage, of course, made this otherwise unremarkable game famous.

Skirmishes over video game violence continued throughout the 1980s. Later, in 1992, Midway released Mortal Kombat, which was condemned in the Senate by none other than Senator Joe Lieberman (who seems to prefer violence directed at real people to on-screen violence). More recently, there’s been controversy over the Grand Theft Auto series of games.

After video game ratings became popular (after Mortal Kombat), it seemed that the outrage against violent games got its teeth pulled. So, even though some people still get upset over the latest violent (and mature-rated) game, nobody’s very serious about it.

If you don’t believe me, look at what’s happening with the most popular violent game currently available: Halo 3. Churches are using it to lure teenagers to church youth groups!

Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out.

Even the churches are embracing violent games. The battle over violent games is over, and gamers won.

Postscript: I wonder how effective the Halo series can be as a recruiting tool for churches. The central idea of Halo is that the humans (who aren’t portrayed as religious) are attacked by the Covenant. The Covenant is a group of fanatical and dangerously deluded religious zealots. One of your objects as the player is to prevent these deluded religious fanatics from destroying all sentient life in the galaxy. It’s not a game that presents a favorable picture of believers.

Vice, Vice, Baby?

Friday, July 27th, 2007

A little while ago, I pointed out that

[O]ne of [Cate’s] favorite games so far is Frogger – though her usual strategy is to jump the frogs directly into cars. Given her love of running stuff into and underneath cars, maybe Grand Theft Auto 3 will be her next favorite?

Well, I was almost right.


Coleco’s Sega Master System Handheld

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

As a kid, I missed part of the evolution of video games. When my Atari 2600 was knocked out by a power surge, I moved on to the Commodore 64 for my gaming fix. And from there, I moved to the Commodore Amiga (a computer that it took Microsoft and Apple a decade to equal). I didn’t get another console until well into the lifespan of the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo.

So I missed out, by and large, on console games for the original Nintendo NES and Sega’s Master System. I’ve since purchased a NES, but I never did buy a Master System. That’s changed a little bit with my latest find in the Target clearance bin.


Start ’em early!

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6

[Cate playing Castlevania]

Cate enjoys a quick game of Castlevania

So we’re training!

Cate is fascinated by the buttons on this machine and the colorful graphics of the older games it plays. In particular, one of her favorite games so far is Frogger – though her usual strategy is to jump the frogs directly into cars. Given her love of running stuff into and underneath cars, maybe Grand Theft Auto 3 will be her next favorite?

Break time! Cosmic Ark for the Atari 2600

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

[Break Time! is a series of posts about video games that Rick has spent entirely too much time with over the years.]

Due to my busy summer at work, I haven’t been very good about keeping this blog updated over the past couple of weeks. But … it’s time to squeeze in another “break”!

Another one of the Imagic titles in my closet of games is Cosmic Ark.

[Cosmic Ark Title Screen]

At first glance, Cosmic Ark appears to be an Atari 2600 knock-off of Midway’s Space Zap***. Your “Ark” is stuck in the center of the screen, and you fire at asteroids by moving the joystick in whatever direction you want to fire.

[Cosmic Ark: Shooting at asteroids]

First, the asteroids come right at you. Later, they weave and dodge your shots****. As is usual for this sort of game, the asteroids come at you faster the farther you progress.

Sounds a little … dull, though. Wouldn’t it be more interesting if – instead of sitting in one place waiting for asteroids to destroy it – your Ark actually went somewhere and did something useful?

[Cosmic Ark: Exploring a planet]

It turns out that the your Ark’s real mission is to do more than serve as a large target for asteroids. It’s supposed to collect animal specimens from different planets. After each wave of asteroids passes, your Ark visits a planet surface to collect these specimens. You fly out of the Ark in a landing craft and use its tractor beam to pick up your targets.

Your targets, though, are understandably wary of being abducted by alien spacecraft. They’ll dodge your tractor beam. Once you’ve locked on to them, though, you can bring them up into your landing craft without further trouble.

[Cosmic Ark: Picking up cargo]

After you pick up all your targets, you fly your landing craft back up into the Ark and depart. Most of the time, there will be an asteroid you must blast (with the Ark) first.

On later planets, your targets become a little more sophisticated. They put up planetary defense lasers that move up and down and blast across the screen. If your landing craft gets zapped, your captured creatures go back down to the planet surface and you have to hunt them down again.

[Cosmic Ark: Planetary defense system]

The lasers, combined with the fact that the creatures you want to grab move faster with each wave, make your job much more difficult. Even so, you can’t loiter around the planet too long. If you do, an asteroid will show up and destroy your Ark.

[Cosmic Ark: Death is not patient]

You can fly back into the Ark and blast the asteroid – even if you haven’t caught all your targets. But, there’s a price. You’ll have to fight off another wave of asteroids and then come back to the same planet again to finish collecting your creatures.

Cosmic Ark is another Atari 2600 game that’s still worth popping into your system today. You can pick up the actual cartridge cheaply on Ebay – it’s not a “rare” title. It’s fast-paced, simple, and fun. Plus, it’s a good example of the kind of variety a developer could cram into such a small package.

***…but I didn’t know that back in 1982. Space Zap wasn’t in our local arcades.

****Wait a minute! Asteroids weaving and dodging?

Break time! Demon Attack for the Atari 2600

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

[Break Time! is a series of posts about video games that Rick has spent entirely too much time with over the years.]

If you’ve glanced at this series before, you’ll know that I’m a game collector, and have a decent library of Atari 2600 titles to choose from. Most of them aren’t worth pulling out in 2007, but there are still a few that still manage to be fun.

Demon Attack, by Imagic, is one of the fun ones.

[Demon Attack attract mode]
Demon Attack’s attract mode***

The premise of Demon Attack is pretty simple. You control a ship at the bottom of the screen, and your mission is to shoot wave after wave of flying “demons”. The demons? Well, their mission is to destroy you by any means possible.

Part of the fun of Demon Attack is that the game is very simple to play – yet there’s a bit of variety. As is the case in almost all of these games, the aliens get faster as the game progresses. Demon Attack also varies the aliens and their tactics a bit.

First, the aliens change their appearance and how they shoot at you – varying between beams and small clusters of bullets (the small clusters seem a little easier to dodge).

[Demon Attack aliens]
Another variety of aliens

The first few waves of aliens simply die when you blast them. Later on, each alien will split into two smaller ones.

[Demon Attack aliens … these split!]
Still more aliens. These aliens split into pairs of smaller ones when you shoot them!

These smaller aliens are not just hard to hit. They have an entirely new tactic. If you shoot one member of the pair, the other member dives at your ship. In later waves, dodging these little guys becomes extremely difficult.

[Demon Attack’s kamikaze aliens]
If you shoot one of the pair, the other one tries to dive into your ship!

Like Dark Cavern, Demon Attack is surprisingly intense – and a nice test of your reflexes. It is simple, fast, and fun – well worth looking at if you have an old Atari 2600 or an emulator around.

***An arcade-like attract mode is somewhat uncommon for Atari 2600 games. Often, game coders didn’t bother with them on the machine, or would show a nearly static screen with cycling colors!

Break time! Star Ocean: The Second Story for the Playstation

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

[Break Time! is a series of posts about video games that Rick has spent entirely too much time with over the years.]

I’m a game collector. It’s not rare for me to have multiple copies of the same game in my collection, since I often buy games in large lots along with other games. It is rare for me to buy two copies of a new game, though. Star Ocean 2: The Second Story is the only game I have ever bought twice – while it was still a new game.

Why did I buy the game twice? The short answer is that my copy got damaged to the point that it wouldn’t play anymore. Here’s the long answer.

Star Ocean: The Second Story (which I’ll call SO2 from now on) is a Japanese-style role playing game for the original Playstation.

Star Ocean 2 Title Screen
Title screen

SO2 boasts some unique gameplay elements (for its time). First, there’s the combat system.

In the twentieth century, most Japanese-style role playing games had what I’ll call a “whack-a-mole” combat system.*** Your party would stand on one side of a battlefield, while your enemy would line up on the other. You and the enemy would take turns attacking each other. Sometimes, the only actions you could take would be to choose what enemy to attack, or use an item or magic spell. Some of these combat systems made your position on the field important, and some didn’t. But these systems, by and large, had one thing in common – extremely tedious combat. There’s only so many times you can mindlessly select “attack” from a menu before you want to throw the controller down onto the floor and stomp on it. Add to this the fact that battles could occur randomly and frequently, and these games could get rather frustrating.

SO2, though, features a real-time combat system. You control one of your four combatants, while the computer controls the other three. You’re free to run around the battlefield and attack enemies. You can evade many attacks by … moving out of the way. You can surround an enemy and beat him to a pulp. (But they can do the same to you, so you have to be careful!)

Star Ocean 2: Combat (#1)

Combat is fast and furious. Characters have many special moves, which you use much like the moves in a fighting game. Battles are usually fairly short, and there’s always something going on.

Star Ocean 2: Combat (#2)

If your characters are strong enough, you can sometimes sit back and watch the computer kick enemy butt. (This is good for random battles with weak enemies.)

In short, combat in SO2 is actually entertaining, which means that the battles necessary to progress through the game’s storyline don’t seem like a chore.

Speaking of the story, that’s another area where SO2 tries some new things. For one, there are two main characters. You choose your main character at the beginning of the game, and the story is told from that character’s perspective. The events in the story are often similar for both characters, since the two meet each other within the first hour of play. Your choice of main character, though, dictates how you’ll see the story unfold. Some events will only be seen by one of the characters, and some secondary characters will join you only if you’re playing the right main character.

You will see many of the usual Japanese-style RPG cliches. There’s a young girl with a mysterious past and strange powers, a world to save, etc. – but SO2 keeps it entertaining.

You can also influence the outcome of the story. SO2 has about eighty or so different endings (you get more than one “ending” per game – each of your party members gets one) – which depend on your actions in the game. Most Japanese-style RPGs have a single ending. You either get “the ending” at the end of the game, or you die in battle somewhere and get a “game over” screen. But SO2 allows you to interact with your party members. What you say to them (or do to them) influences how much they like you, and will change their fate at the end of the game. You can even pair characters up at the end of the game if you like. How? Mainly through something called “Private actions”:

Star Ocean 2: Private Action (#1)
Private actions

When you enter a town, you usually have the option for your party members to enter either as a group or individually. Entering the town individually starts a “private action”, and you can go find your characters in the town and talk to them.

Star Ocean 2: Private Action (#2)
Private actions

Your choices in these conversations – or your actions in the little quests they may want you to go on – cause characters to like you more or less. There are even characters that may join your party (or not) as a result of these private actions. This adds a lot of variety to the game.

There are mini games (a bunny race, a combat arena, an “Iron Chef” cooking competition) and side quests to keep you entertained as well. You can build custom weapons and armor using items you find or buy. You can customize your characters by buying all sorts of “skills”. You can write novels to earn money or influence how much characters like each other. You can even make your character into a pickpocket who can steal items from the people you meet in your travels. Just don’t steal in front of (or from) your other characters, or they’ll start to dislike you! There’s also a huge bonus dungeon for those who want even more challenge. You won’t be hurting for something to do in this game!

The game isn’t quite flawless, though. The English translation leaves a little to be desired. There are random battles, so it’s sometimes difficult to explore areas without getting disoriented by combat. Plus, the game crashes occasionally in the last dungeon (so make sure to save your game!)

Even with those flaws, Star Ocean: The Second Story is an excellent game. And it’s one I’ve probably spent far too much time on over the years.

***Sadly, this trend of boring, annoying combat systems has continued into the twenty-first century. I’m looking at you, Xenosaga!