Sunday, September 21, 2008

Final Fantasy VI: Transparency of Math

A couple days ago, I was looking at an algorithm FAQ for Final Fantasy VI on GameFAQs. Looking at the game's actual damage and hit formulas really reminded me who opaque the game's mechanics are to the player. In many ways, Final Fantasy VI can be very frustrating to play thanks to this lack of transparency, since unless the player does some in-depth research, it can be nearly impossible for the player to accurately predict the outcomes of his decisions.

Let's look at three Relics that can be equipped on a character in order to increase that character's physical attack power: the Hyper Wrist, the Atlas Armlet, and the Gauntlet. The Hyper Wrist boosts a character's Vigor stat, which is one of the attributes that determines attack power. The Atlas Armlet's description says that equipping it will boost the character's Fight damage. And finally, the Gauntlet doubles the Battle Power of the character's equipped weapon by wielding it with both hands. What is not clear at all is how effective these various Relics are in comparison to each other. While the Gauntlet sounds like it should double the damage output of the character equipped with it, the actual increase in damage is significantly less than that. So appraising which of these Relics is the right one to equip on a character is really difficult.

Another area where trouble arises is in determining which stats a character should raise. There are four main stats: Vigor, Speed, Stamina, and Magic Power. However, the game itself is tight-lipped on what each one does. Of these, the only one whose name is self-explanatory is Magic Power (Speed is a distant second). However, since the player can only guess at what each stat does, it is impossible to build stats up intelligently. The player can really only stumble around in the dark. Apparently, based on the FAQs I have read, the stats are not even all equally important. Stamina in particular gives only minor benefits, despite being listed alongside Vigor and Magic Power, which are really important stats. So the lack of info creates major traps that an unassuming player can walk right into.

Another major problem is that the game doesn't really tell the player which stats will affect which abilities or attacks. For example, I am still unsure which stats are important to Sabin's Blitz attacks, even after reading a detailed FAQ. It is unclear whether equipping him with better weapons will improve his damage, whether or not Vigor or Magic Power are used to calculate his Blitz's attack power, or even if it varies based on the individual Blitz. Since Sabin is obviously a big fighter type, and he has naturally high Vigor and low magic Power, it would make sense that Vigor is the pertinent stat and that Magic Power can be safely ignored. However, that common sense conclusion might not be the correct one.

All told, the lack of transparency about the math that Final Fantasy VI is built upon can make it very easy for a player to unintentionally gimp a character, and then leave that player struggling to figure out what went wrong. An RPG needs to be straightforward and clear about what statistics do what, the exact effects of equipment, and which stats abilities are dependent on. It is only with that knowledge can a player make reasonably informed decisions.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Final Fantasy VI: MP Damage

As my brother mentioned in an earlier post, I have been spending a lot of time lately playing through Final Fantasy VI again (using the Final Fantasy Anthology version). Amazingly enough, I really don't have a lot to say about the game. I have played it so much that I pretty much hold it as the archetypical console RPG, so I find it difficult to actually look at the game critically. However, one element of the game that I don't think I really payed much attention to before has been bugging me.

In Final Fantasy VI, one strategy that is available to the player is to use attacks that damage the enemies' MP, rather than their HP. In many ways this is usually a poor choice, since enemies tend to have very large MP totals and MP damage tends to be very low, so even using unreliable status conditions like Mute, Imp, or Stop would be a better option. However, the designers built into the game a few places where using MP damaging spells like Rasp is just as effective, if not better, than using a more straightforward form of attack, and he most important of these are the enemies who die if their MP total falls to zero.

The most famous enemy in Final Fantasy VI who is vulnerable to MP Damage is probably Atma Weapon, since using Rasp on him is listed as the best strategy in both an old Nintendo Power article and in the Final Fantasy Anthology Bestiary. Of course, why this is the best strategy is never explained, but from my own observations it is related to the fact that he has reasonably low MP and tends to use more powerful attacks as his HP decreases, and does not have an overly large MP total. As such, using the Rasp spell to lower Atma Weapon's MP will result in a battle of reasonable length in which Atma Weapon never uses his strongest attacks. This is actually a great example of building complexities and hidden strategies into a game, so battles don't end up all playing out the same way, but there is one big problem: it is almost impossible to figure out this strategy simply by playing the game. This is partly because the battle AI that controls Atma Weapon is hidden to the player (which is not really a problem, though sometimes making this more transparent helps), but this is largely due to the fact that the player has no way at all of knowing that Atma Weapon will die when his MP falls to zero. Certainly, Atma Weapon mentions at the start of the battle that he is "made of pure energy", but that is about it.

The Atma Weapon example is pretty typical of the strengths and flaws of MP damage in Final Fantasy VI. It is a great strategy for the player to use, but only if you know which enemies to use it on beforehand. This is due to the fact that the "dies when MP = 0" property is limited to only a fraction of the enemies and can not be detected with the games Scan spell. What is more, unlike the way all monsters with the "undead" property (essentially, the "HP restoration becomes damage" property) all tend to have a bony look, ghastly color scheme, or use "Zombie" attacks, monsters with the "dies when MP = 0" property don't have a clear unifying theme. The only real way to tell if an enemy will die when hit by a Rasp attack is to experiment, which means this strategy simply won't come up very often (why experiment to see if Rasp will kill it when a good physical or elemental attack will work just fine?). On the plus side, it was a very good idea to make Rasp such a cheap spell to use, since it means that every time you encounter an enemy vulnerable to MP damage Rasp becomes an inherently better choice than more expensive elemental attack spells.

A lot of problems with this element of the game could have been cleared up simply by adding the "dies when MP = 0" property to the list of things mentioned by the Scan spell, but other solutions exist. For example, in the game Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, every enemy has the "dies when MP = 0" property, and the game has a much wider array of attacks that deal MP damage, so using this particular strategy comes up much more often, is more interesting than casting the same spell over and over, and will work to some extent or another on every enemy. Actually, because MP damage is such an important strategy in Till the End of Time, the issue in that game is more built around imbalances between those characters who have MP damaging moves and those who do not. While that particular solution may not be a perfect fit for Final fantasy VI, it is nonetheless an improvement.

Final Fantasy VI: Rages and the Veldt

Gau from Final Fantasy VI is one of the most unique characters in RPG history thanks to his distinctive Rage ability. Instead of making basic attacks, Gau has the ability to enter a berserk-like state and thus emulate the characteristics of almost any monster in the game. If used properly, this ability can make Gau the most versatile and powerful character in the game. However, it seems that most players never discover this. Back when I was first playing FF VI, I rarely used Gau, particularly for major battles and dungeons. This contradiction comes from how user-unfriendly the Rage command is.

The Rage command has two major stumbling blocks that really prevented it from being really accessible: the process of acquiring rages on the Veldt, and being able to choose the correct Rage. First off, Gau could only acquire new Rages by encountering enemies on the Veldt (a place where all seen random monster encounters in the game can occur) and using the Leap command. Unfortunately, this is a very time-consuming and tedious process. Even early in the game, searching for a specific random encounter could take hours of work, and the process becomes even more difficult as the game progresses and the player encounters even more types of monster. While the monsters appear in a loose progression, going through a complete cycle can take an hour or more, and the player may need to go through several cycles in order to encounter the monster he is looking for. So while a dedicated player armed with foreknowledge about the Veldt's workings may be able to track down the best Rages by putting in hours of work, an inexperienced player who has no real clue to how the Veldt works will more than likely become daunted by the task and just give up and write off Gau completely (just as I originally did).

The other problem comes from how hard it is to actually use Rages once they are acquired. While there are 252 available Rages in Final Fantasy 6, the game itself gives no information to the player about what each individual Rage does. The player's only choice is to experiment and see what each Rage does individually. However, while this approach will yield knowledge about the Rage's special ability and automatic status effects in just one or two uses, discovering each Rage's built-in elemental affinities and Status immunities would require the payer to perform lots of dedicated testing (particularly since it is impossible to even get all of that information out of regular enemies). In addition to this lack of information about what Rage does what, the Rages are listed by the game in a single massive list, apparently in a completely random order. So just sorting through the list can take a minute or two.

So, two things need to be done to improve the Rage command so that more people would give a character like Gau a chance: it should be easier to acquire Rages, and it should be easier for the player to know what Rages do and use them in combat. So, here are various thoughts on ways to modify the system to be easier to use, in no particular order:

1) Sub-dividing the Veldt into separate zones, each with their own random encounter chart, would make it easier for the player to perform more focused searches for individual monsters. There could be a a forest section full of forest-type monsters, for example.

2) It might make a lot more sense for each family of monster (all monsters that are recolors of each other) to have a Rage instead of each individual monster. That way, the number of Rages could be cut down significantly, which would make things easier to track and cut down on the amount of overlap between individual Rages.

3) Letting the player look up information on his known Rages would not hurt the game. Heck, letting the player use Scan on Gau to get detailed information (as was possible in some later Final Fantasy games) would have been an improvement.

4) Letting the player manually re-order the Rage list, like is possible for the item list in most FFs and the magic list in FF IV, would have let the player categorize and rank his Rages based on his preferences. It would have been nice to have been able to move more commonly used Rages to the top of the list too.

5) As an alternative to the Veldt, it might not be a bad idea to let the player acquire new Rages anywhere in the world. Perhaps instead of using a command like Leap, the player could kill an enemy using a certain special attack (like Morph or Eat in other FF installments)?

I would love to see a new version of Rage appear in a future Final Fantasy game. Many similar abilities, such as Geomancy and Blue Magic, have improved significantly over the years as they were refined with each new version. It is a bit of a shame that an ability as unique and powerful as Rage hasn't been revisited once yet.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: Best Combo

As I continue my discussion of the various game system elements in Megaman Starforce 2, I think it is time to discuss the "Best Combo" system.

One of the most significant side-effects of the change from the Megaman Battle Network "Battle Chip" system to the Megaman Starforce "Battle Card" system is that it removed the structure that made the special chip combinations called "Program Advances" possible. With a Program Advance, it was possible to do things like combine three Cannon chips into a much more powerful GigaCannon attack, but this is only possible by combining the letter codes in certain specific orders, and as such the system is simply incompatible with the Battle Card system that does not use letter codes. Program Advances that relied on using battle chips of different types at the same time would be even harder to create and use in the Battle Card system. As such, Program Advances needed to be replaced, and the resulting system is the new Best Combo system.

The basic idea of the Best Combo is that, if you achieve certain conditions within certain battles, the player can record a chain of battle cards he used in battle as a "Best Combo", which allows that sequence of attacks to be used again as an unstoppable super-attack at a later time. Unlike the pre-built Program Advances, Best Combo attacks are designed by the person playing the game, giving them a lot of variety (though at the cost of making them less flashy and distinct). Of particular note is the fact that this system is thoroughly connected with the BrotherBand system, and encourages sharing Best Combo attacks with other players, so your own chosen "Personal Best Combo" becomes a way of showing off your own battle style and accomplishments to other players in a very useful and fun way. I love the basic concept of this system, but it does have a few flaws that still need to be sorted out.

One problem is that acquiring new Best Combo attacks can be extremely tricky. In Megaman Starforce 2, the rules for acquiring them are a bit unclear (as always, better documentation would have helped), and the changes in these rules from Starforce 1 have made it harder to deliberately set up an intricate combo, since an enemy attack will break the attack chain you are trying to put together. Also, the fact that you can only create a Best Combo against an EX or SP boss means that you can't create them early in the game. Fortunatley, these problems are minor, and it is easy enough to create decent Best Combos simply as a byproduct of fighting a boss well, so I will not complain too much about this.

A much bigger problem is that, in Megaman Starforce 2, there is almost no real practical way to make use of Best Combo attacks. In Megaman Starforce 1, it was possible to use a friend's Best Combo through the "On Air" system, but since the On Air system was removed from Starforce 2, you can only use Best Combo attacks through Legend Cards, cards that can be bothersome or expensive to acquire and disappear after a single use. As a result, it is simply impossible to make regular use of Best Combo attacks in this game, since valuable Legend Cards are only really worth using in SP boss battles and the occasional difficult plot battle. I don't think this is the best situation, so something should change. Simple solutions would be to either link Best Combos to Brother Cards again as they were with the On Air system, or to remove the unusual "can only use once" limit from Legend Cards. Since a freely-useable Legend Card would be about equal to a Giga Class card (which like Legend Cards is also limited to a single card per folder), I think it would work well enough with the latter solution. Certainly, the current situation, which limits the Best Combo system so much that it is nearly useless, is far from ideal.

Megaman Starforce: Scavenger Hunts

A few days ago, I accepted a side-quest in Megaman Starforce 2 that has lead to me taking a short break from the game. The basic premise of the job was simple enough: the player has to follow a clue and examine the corresponding object, which would give the player a new clue, and so on. However, the moment I read the first clue I was immediately stumped and overwhelmed.

The first clue was two simple words: "Ancient fish". Immediately, several possibilities jumped into my mind, such as the bottom of a lake I visited earlier in the game and the ancient drawings and fossils of sea life in the desert. Unfortunately, getting to those areas could some time, so I was looking forward to spending half an hour running around the game world. Thanks to a suggestion from my brother though, I did find the correct location pretty quickly; it was a fish fossil in the nearby museum. The next clue was where things really got hectic. I was told to look for "four wings that catch the air". Naively thinking the second location was somewhere nearby, I spent a long time checking nearby areas for anything matching that description. Nothing. So I followed my instincts and went to check out the only thing I could think of: a dragonfly fossil tucked away in a remote, hard to reach corner of the desert area. When I finally got there, I discovered that there was no clue, and that the entire trip was one big waste of time. Shortly thereafter, and after having spent an entire hour on this minor sidequest, I gave up in frustration and checked GameFAQs. It turns out I needed to go to the lake town's windmill.

This is a pretty good example of why it can be a very bad idea to put a riddle into a videogame. When some developer came up with the "four wings that catch the air" riddle, he must have thought that the answer was pretty obvious. Unfortunately, game developers can't afford to assume that the players will think the same way that they they do; what may be obvious to one person may be the last possibility on someone else's mind. Compounding the problem in this case, the developers overlooked an obvious alternate solution: the four winged dragonfly. Honestly, I had completely forgotten about the existence of the windmill by the time I accepted the sidequest. I would have figured it out as soon as I saw the windmill again, but the lake town would have been the last place I would look, since it is the hardest area to reach from where I was. After my initial guesses failed, I had only two recourses: go over every area in the game with a fine-toothed comb (which can take hours), or cheat and look up the answer.

Honestly, I think puzzles like this one should never be put into video games. Scavenger hunts with vague clues can be fun only as long as the conditions are reasonable. As long as the area of the scavenger hunt is restricted to a small size, the player has the luxury of getting to know the area in detail and being able to use the brute force approach without wasting an undue amount of time (this was the case in the underwater scavenger hunt earlier in the game). Alternatively, the game can provide the player with additional clues if the player gets stumped earlier on, so the player's brain has more information to chew on. However, demanding that the player go over the entire game world with only a vague clue to go on is simply a bad idea. It only leads to frustration.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: Tribe On

As has been the case for every iteration of the Megaman Battle Network/Starforce series since Battle Network 2, the hero of Megaman Starforce 2 can transform into several different special forms that are unique to this particular entry in the series. This time around, the system is called the "Tribe On" system, in which Megaman can fuse with an artifact left behind by one of the "Tribes" in order to transform into a more powerful state. At the surface level, it looks like a cheap gimmick like some previous versions of the concept, but it actually works quite well, and I like the system quite a bit. It has some flaws, but it does add some value to the game.

Before I go any further, I have to say that I think the particular "Tribes" that are used in this game are all ridiculous. I'd admit that I think ninjas, dinosaurs, and medieval berserkers are all cool things just as readily as the next guy, but throwing them all together with no rhyme or reason like they do in this game is just cheesy, and it gets worse when you start using the "Double Tribe" system to get Ninja Dinosaur Megaman. The game has enough trouble trying to replace the coherent and fun constellation-based naming scheme and alien-based plot established in Starforce 1 with some plot based around a tenuous connection between the lost civilization of Mu and UMAs like the Abominable Snowman and the Loch Ness monster, and adding a group of randomly selected "Tribes" with no clear connection to anything else does not help that uphill battle in the least. If the Tribes were rooted in UMA creatures and ancient or mythical civilizations like the Mayans or Atlantis, it might have worked, but as it stands it just doesn't. Fortunately, once the poor naming scheme is safely ignored, we are left with one of the best Megaman transformation systems to date.

The advantages of the Tribe On system start with the actual mechanism used to enter the form. Starforce 1 used a clunky system of "Starforce Cards" in which you had a single Battle Card in your folder that let you transform if you got lucky enough to draw it, which became rarer and rarer as you slowly acquire things like Brother Cards and Legend Cards that dilute your Folder. Starforce 2 replaces this by linking the Tribe On ability to Brother Cards, so you actually greatly increase your odds of transforming by forming more BrotherBands, which is far more appropriate given the themes of the Starforce series and is a lot more fun. In addition to this, Starforce 2 gives you an optional ability that lets you start every battle in Tribe On form, which adds to the visibility and usability of the form.

Starforce 2's system has a few more advantages over the Starforce 1 system in that different forms actually have enough variation and power in order to make using the different forms worthwhile. These forms combine the traditional abilities like passive elemental bonuses, the "Super Armor" and ninja substitution abilities, the ability to charge Battle Cards to get new effects, and modified Megabuster charge shots with Starforce 1's incredibly fun Star Force Big Bang attacks to get a very solid result. These forms have weaknesses, but they are unquestionably worth using, and just as importantly they are all clearly differentiate enough that each Tribe On form has its own unique value and can be used with its own strategy. While this is not unique to Starforce 2, it is certainly an improvement over Starforce 1's lackluster forms.

My biggest praise, though, goes to the development of the "Double Tribe" system, which strikes a fine balance between giving proper emphasis to the Tribe form corresponding to the player's version that is important to the story and allowing the player to experiment with the abilities of the other Tribes. With this scheme, you can add the power of a Brother's Tribe on top of the Tribe determined by which version you are using, so if you choose "Saurian" as your Tribe you can use the base Fire Saurian form, as well as the Saurian Ninja and Saurian Zerker forms that use the element and weapon of Ninja or Zerker but use the same basic powers as Saurian. As a whole, this system has the same focus on a specific form that some older Battle Network games had, such as Battle Network 6's focus on the Gregar and Falzar forms, which helps keep the story and gameplay in sync and makes version important (avoiding the pitfall of Starforce 1 where, once you form a few BrotherBands, you can use forms from different versions equally well). At the same time, it gives you a fair amount of flexibility and rewards forming BrotherBands with people of different versions. I particularly like the way Megaman's character model and abilities are different depending on whether he is in Saurian Ninja or Ninja Saurian forms. The only flaw I can think of with this set-up is in the Double Tribe Link force Big Bang attacks, because they don't make the distinction between whether you are Zerker Ninja or Ninja Zerker, which leads to problems like the fact that I can never make use of the Zerker-style triple slash Big Bang attack, or the fact that Ninja Saurian uses a shuriken volley even though he is not holding any shuriken (and is using the Dino Cannon instead).

Finally, I have to mention the Tribe King, the ultimate form you achieve by combining all three Tribes. This is probably the first form in the history of the Megaman franchise that really deserves the term "ultimate form" (I always found Megaman X's "Ultimate Armor" to be more bark than bite). The fact that it has all of the abilities of the three Tribes combined, a very powerful Megabuster charged shot, and an unstoppable Big Bang attack would be enough to cement that title, but the Tribe King's ability to double the power of every Battle Card goes well over the top and wanders into the realm of "much too powerful". I like the fact that it makes gathering all three tribes worth the effort, and I like that an "ultimate form" actually exists, but it is just a little bit too much. Getting Tribe King essentially means instant victory, which means a boss fight or multiplayer match can be decided simply by a player getting a little bit of luck. Also, I am sure the game artists put in a valiant effort, but any attempt at making a fusion of Megaman (himself a fusion between a kid and an alien), a dinosaur, a ninja, and a medieval warrior look impressive and cool was doomed from the start.

Final Fantasy VI: Opera Scene

My brother has been playing through Final Fantasy VI (the Playstation FF: Anthology version) recently. He has just played through the Opera scene, one of the most renowned and celebrated sequences in console RPG history. Over the years, many other scenes in other games have been compared to it. In particular, I remember reading reviews of Final Fantasy VIII that compared the Dance scene from that game to the FF VI Opera scene. In my opinion however, there are very few scenes that actually do compare to the Opera scene. Thanks to brilliant directing, the Final Fantasy VI Opera scene is a nearly peerless work of art.

To start with, the Final Fantasy VI Opera sequence was a simply beautiful sequence that took advantage of everything the original SNES hardware had to offer. It had the same gorgeous background and sprite art that was everywhere in Final Fantasy VI taken to a new level with the detailed and animated crowd and band placed alongside a shifting main stage. However, the most extraordinary part of the sequence is its use of sound and music. Back in the days before voice acting was possible, Final Fantasy VI managed to create the illusion that the characters were actually singing by syncing sound effects that emulated the pitch and pacing of the singers' voices to the game text.

Another important part of the success of the Opera scene was how it masterfully wove together several different plot threads into a fluid whole. On one level, the entire thing was a crazy plot concocted by the heroes to meet Setzer, who himself was planning on kidnapping the leading actress. In addition to that, there were the attempts of Ultros (the game's recurring comedic villain) to thwart the whole Opera in order to spite the good guys, a significant amount of development in the romance between two of the central characters, and the poor plight of Impresario, who was simply trying to put on a decent performance and keep his job. This complexity lent a lot of drama to the scene as a whole and cemented it as an important scene in the game.

Just as important as the rest of these elements is the way that the Opera sequence fluidly flowed between cut scenes the player watched and sections where the player had control. When the curtain is raised, the Opera flows automatically, while the characters watch on from their balcony seats. However, the opera itself is pushed into the background while the player takes control over Locke and the focus shifts to the relationship between him and Celes. However, as soon as Celes steps out onto the stage, the game places the success or failure of the Opera in the player's hands. After Celes finishes her big scene, the game flips back and forth between watched cutscenes and player control until the countdown timer to stop Ultros begins, and the whole sequence comes to its climax with a desperate rush to stop Ultros and a dramatic boss battle on the main stage. The entire sequence is a masterful intertwining of big beautiful cut scenes and exciting gameplay, that never gets distracted by unnecessary material.

The reason I don't think that the Final Fantasy VIII dance sequence really compares to the Opera scene is that it is just a straightforward FMV sequence. The isn't any complicated editing or integration of any gameplay elements into it. Furthermore, the scene itself is simply a way to further the Squall-Rinoa romance, with little drama in of itself. However, there is one sequence in the game that does come close to the FF VI Opera scene in FF VIII: the massive battle between Balamb Garden and Galbadia Garden at the end of the second disc. In that sequence, there is a lot of really effective splicing of beautiful FMV clips, intense gameplay, and a well-executed intertwining of various plot threads. The whole thing comes together at its climix when Squall is engaged in a fist-fight minigame with a Galbadia soldier in order to steal a flying craft so he can rescue Rinoa, while dangling mid-air from said flying craft, while an epic FMV battle sequence goes on in the background. I consider the whole sequence the climax of FF VIII.

There are a few more such scenes across the Final Fantasy series; the WEAPON attack on Junon in Final Fantasy VII, and the opening sequence of Final Fantasy IX both incorporate many of the elements that made the FF VI Opera scene so great, and in turn are some of the most memorable sequences in their respective games. So, I think that there are a lot of good lessons to be learned from studying the Opera sequence.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Megaman Starforce 2: Star Cards

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, I want to write a bit about the Star Card system introduced in Megaman Starforce 2. Basically, in Starforce 2 you can occasionally acquire rare "Star Cards" that are improved versions of normal Battle Cards. You can only use three of them at a time, but while a Star Card is in your folder all other Cards in your folder that share the same name will have increased power to match the power of the Star Card. It lets you both slightly break the "maximum of three cards of the same kind" limitation, and lets you improve the effectiveness of certain kinds of cards. It is essentially just a replacement for a bonus provided by the "On Air" system in the original Starforce game, but at the same time it is one of the greatest improvements to the Battle Chip/Card system since Megaman Battle Network 3 introduced the three-tier categorization system.

One of my favorite aspects of the new Star Card system is that it helps keep older Battle Cards from becoming totally obsolete. In previous versions of the system, a lot of cards can become obsolete and almost useless incredibly quickly. For example, basic PlasmaGun 1 cards are the kind of card that you begin the game with, and have such low attack power that they become a poor choice very quickly, even though their paralysis effect is very useful. However, in Megaman Starforce 2 it is possible to acquire a 3-star PlasmaGun 1 that has more than twice the attack power of a normal PlasmaGun 1 card (which is more power than a PlasmaGun 2 has, in fact), which transforms an attack that is obsolete by the time you get the Star Card into an attack that will remain useful for some time to come. There are many other examples where older cards manage to surpass newer versions of the same card through the use of Star Cards, which creates an interesting choice for the player between giving up a precious Star Card slot to get a stronger effect or using the slightly weaker new version instead and leaving the Star Card slot open to be used by something else. Overall, Star Cards add a lot of flexibility and strategy into the system without adding a bothersome level of complexity.

Another thing I like about Star Cards is that they make it easier to use the cards you like to use. You can only equip 3 Star Cards, which means you can only improve 3 card types in your folder (usually 9 out of the 30 primary cards, 12 out of 33 if you count the Star Cards themselves). The added power and increased chance of drawing one of these cards in battle automatically increases the relative importance and visibility of those three card types. Because of this, it means that if you want to use a particular card type as the center of some kind of strategy, or you just want to use a particular card type more often because you like using it, then all you have to do is equip the equivalent Star Card.

Despite the strength of the system, though, I do think it has a few flaws. One problem is that the effectiveness of Star Cards is perhaps a bit too uneven. Some cards, particularly high attack power, single hit cards, get very minimal effect from Star Cards (a mere +15 or so to damage), while some cards, such as those with low attack power and a large number of attacks, can double or triple their effectiveness with a Star Card. In some problematic extremes, it leads to situations where one card may be very weak if used on its own but excessively powerful when used with a Star Card, while another card may be good on its own but a very poor choice for wasting a Star Card slot on, which may be a game balance problem and is certainly a problem that offsets some of the advantages I laid out above. Since the investment is the same regardless of the card type, it seems the benefits should be more even as well.

My other criticism of the system is that the current system for acquiring Star Cards is imperfect. In order to acquire a Star Card, you need to find and defeat a giant version of the virus that drops that card, and in order to get a good Star Card you need to defeat such a virus with a very high Busting Rank, which is often only possible under the most favorable conditions. Since most of these giant viruses only show up with a very small random chance, and since it requires even more luck than that to get the conditions set up to get a high Busting rank against them, acquiring good Star Cards is more a matter of luck than skill. The fact that you are guaranteed to at least get some kind of Star Card when you defeat a giant virus, as well as the fact that some of these viruses can be found reliably, makes this a lot more bearable, but it doesn't do enough to make up for the flaws. I don't even know how I am supposed to get Star Cards for the card types that are not dropped by viruses, other than rely on the unreliable Card Trader or find them as treasure or in a shop. Not to mention there is the problem that this role for giant viruses prevents them from being used as regular opponents like they were in Starforce 1. Maybe, in addition to making such cards available through these means, they should have done something to link in Star Cards to the Brother Band/Link Power system, in order to better tie it in to the original On Air system.

Still, despite the flaws I do consider Star Cards to be a remarkable improvement to the series. I am looking forward to how this particular system will continue to be improved upon in future iterations of the series.

GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark Multiplayer modes

Back during the era of the Nintendo 64, playing multiplayer matches against my two brothers in GoldenEye 007 was practically part of my daily routine. For some reason or another, the three of us settled on License to Kill mode as pretty much the only multiplayer mode we used regularly, usually using either Pistols or Automatics as our weapon set, though we sometimes used mines, throwing knives, or slappers only. That set-up kept us happy for years. A few years later though, when we rented Perfect Dark, GoldenEye's spiritual sequel, we ended up using a completely different set of options. Instead of playing on one-shot kill modes, we ended up abusing the Simulants to create chaotic army vs. army King of the Hill battles with lots of explosives, sniper rifles, and automatic weapons. Considering how similar GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark play, I have always wondered why our multiplayer matches in the two games were so different. I can't help but feel that there were some factors in the two games that encouraged one set-up over the other.

Certainly one big difference between GoldenEye and Perfect Dark was in what multiplayer options they offered and how those options were organized. Starting a multiplayer match in Goldeneye was a pretty straightforward affair: the players first select a game mode from a short list (such as Normal or License to Kill), then select a pre-built set of weapons from a similarly sized list, select an arena, select game length, set handicaps, and finally let each player choose their characters. All told, the process was very simple and straightforward, but allowed for only a limited number of possible game combinations. In comparison, Perfect Dark had several menus worth of options, including AI controlled bots (called Simulants), customizable weapon lists, and customizable characters. So Perfect Dark allowed for a much wider array of game options, but those choosing from those options involved digging through multiple menus and was thus much more time consuming. Looking back at it, One-Shot Kills was an accessible option in Perfect Dark. In fact, Pistol One Hit Kills was a prebuilt game type. However, it wasn't possible to load up a Pistol One Hit Kills game and then change the weapons to automatics without opening up all of the option menus, making the changes to available weapons, and saving a new Automatics One Hit Kills game type. So the Perfect Dark system wasn't as well geared towards experimenting with minor alterations.

The number of options itself might have had an effect on our playstyle. In GoldenEye 007, using various weapon types, in various arenas, on Normal or License to Kill mode covered most of the available options. However, playing a similar 1-on-1 deathmatch-style game type in Perfect Dark would have meant not using quite a few of the available options, such as simulants and the various newly added game types such as King of the Hill. So it kind of felt like a waste to not use those options, which is probably what lead to our big army vs. army battles.

Another factor to consider is weapons, which were one of the most noticeable differences between the two games. In GoldenEye, most guns were based directly on real guns, and thus were generally slight variations on basic archetypes. There were three pistols, three sub-machine guns, a machine pistol, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, a few assault rifles, and various kinds of explosive, plus the throwing knives. In Perfect Dark though, all weapons were equipped with secondary fire modes, most of which were extremely flashy. One assault rifle could be turned into a proximity mine, one pistol could fire explosive rounds, and a common machine gun could be turned into an automatic turret. Many of these functions were not really appropriate for the ambush and kill gameplay of a typical One Hit Kill match, particularly once you got past pistols. However, the weapons were well suited for large, chaotic, high-casualty rate matches.

I do think that my change in playstyle moving from GoldenEye to Perfect Dark was influenced by game design, rather than simply changing tastes. When I was looking around at GameFAQs to do research for this post, I noticed that other people may have had similar experiences. A couple GoldenEye FAQs referenced License to Kill mode as a particularly popular choice. However, a big list of Perfect Dark multiplayer set-ups (apparently compiled from a large thread asking for people's favorites) universally included lots of Simulants and rarely involved One Hit Kills.