BITMAPS 68: Japan’s Fallen Star

Star Ocean is a fundamentally troubling game. There are a number of superficial reasons for this. The game is – and I mean this in the most negative way possible – absurdly anime. By that I mean the main character is a hydrocephalic neon-haired waif named Edge Maverick. A number of characters speak in registers that only dogs and dolphins can hear. You will not be surprised to find your ears bleeding after an hour of play – half from the terrible screeching and half from the so-bad-it’s-bad dialogue. Terrible anime chops notwithstanding, though, Star Ocean is also an incredibly dated game. It feels like a PS2 game with bloom and in higher resolution. For some reason this deeply troubles me.

Star Ocean 4

I guess it could be worse, he could have a tail.

Back in the NES days, RPGs were always the forward-looking genre. Although granted, it’s not hard to be forward-looking when placed next to a game that challenges your fundamental levels of bad-dudeness. RPGs always seemed to try and push beyond their technical limitations and create a setting and story that lived in spaces far removed from the rudimentary RISC processes of the NES. They fed your mind and allowed your fantasies to run free.

Things continued in this way through the SNES and PSX eras (following the consoles with the best RPGs, naturally). Games like Final Fantasy VI and Tactics Ogre experimented with story and characters, creating a world much bigger and profound than the sweet looking explosions of Contra III. There was a whole world in these games. Yet again, RPGs pushed that artistic boundary of immersion and setting beyond the interface and beyond the technology.

Japanese developers were at the forefront of this movement. Westerners were having their heyday on the PC at the time with RPGs like Ultima, Fallout, and Baldur’s Gate, but that’s subject matter for other columns. Developers from Enix and Square came to represent this enterprising spirit – these were the guys that had a vision for games. They had all these ideas and pushed whatever technology they had as far as it would go just to share a piece of that vision.

Man, how awesome would this city look if the NES had more than four colors?

Back in those days, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of game I could experience if those limitations weren’t there at all. If it was possible to remove constraints and allow artists to fully express their settings, stories, and characters, what sort of game would emerge? This wild and fantastic question is still alive and kicking in the west. Developers on this side of the ocean are still pushing the envelope within the confines of current technology with games like Bioshock, Mirror’s Edge, and Rock Band. So what do we get in the East, the once-king of imagination and forward-thinking? We get exactly what we got last generation.

Does that mean they’re finished? Was Star Ocean: Till the End of Time the perfect representation of their artistic vision? Did it capture their expression so thoroughly that only minor changes needed to be made for Star Ocean: The Last Hope? If so, then I feel sad, because that means the development world has truly left the East (or Tri-Ace at least) behind.

Don’t take this to mean that I’m upset by anything as superficial as similar gameplay. Take Super Mario for instance – the game has formulaically been the same since Super Mario Brothers on the NES. You run around, explore some stuff, jump on some things, and eventually end the level. However, there’s a vast difference in immersion and artistic expression between Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario Galaxy, largely due to less limiting hardware. Galaxy boasts motion controls, improved animation, and a level of creativity so sweet it hurts my teeth. Such artistic enthusiasm could not be reproduced as faithfully by older hardware. While the game plays the same, its expression and artistic resolution has evolved with the times to constantly deliver a new experience.

Super Mario Galaxy – way more than jumping on Goombas ™

Similarly speaking, the one eastern game that stands out in this generation is Mistwalker’s excellent Lost Odyssey. The game is, without question, old-school Final Fantasy reborn under the sheen of modern hardware, but done properly. All of the settings in the game bristle with detail and the characters are more expressive. Every aspect of the game is clearer when the artist is given less limitation in conveying his or her vision.

Maybe the folks at Tri-Ace have lost their hunger, or merely run out of ideas. In the past, when I’d see a room full of boxes in a game, I’d assume that they didn’t have the memory or texture space to do something really cool with that room. Seeing those same rooms in Star Ocean reveals that that room full of crates, once full of promise and unfulfilled potential, is really just a room of crates after all. Boring old crates probably filled with something boring like stacks of Highlights magazines with all the puzzles finished already.

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