May 2001

Before you read this review, take a few minutes to read a review of either Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy VIII. You done? OK. Final Fantasy IX is just like that… except more so.

The basic Final Fantasy gameplay still hasn’t changed much since the original NES game, and all the “cinematic”, “epic”, “movie-like” qualities of the Playstation iterations are still there. So instead of repeating all that, I’d rather focus on what FFIX does differently.

One nice addition is the Ability system, which like Materia and Guardian Forces before it, is the main method for learning skills and magical spells in the game. Abilities are attached to weapons and armor, and can be used by a character as long as the wear it. As you battle with the weapon/armor you slowly gain ability points. Gather the required number of points, and you learn the ability permanently, allowing you to change equipment without screwing up your character. The system leads to some interesting micromanagement decisions. Do you put on the better armor and lose an important ability, or wear the inferior armor until you get some more ability points and learn the skill? It’s a tough choice that makes the often mundane task of equipping your character more interesting.

Each character is also limited in which abilities they can learn from any given weapon or armor. This gives each character a unique list of skills that sets them apart from the others and helps to reinforce their characterization. This is something I felt was sorely missing from the Materia and Guardian Force systems, which let you equip any magic ability on any character you wanted.

The FMV cinemas that the FF games have become famous for have actually improved since the amazing showing in FFVIII. The characters look nicer and move more naturally than ever before. Explosions are more explosive and lighting effects are more, uh, light. It’s everything you’ve come to expect from Square’s team. The increased graphical detail spills over to the in-game graphics, which feature much more expressive and animated character models (Although I still think they look out of place in the pre-rendered backgrounds. Hopefully Square will utilize the polygon power of the PS2 in making some true 3D environments for FFX)

While these movies and cut-scenes are amazing to watch, I felt they were a bit overused, especially near the beginning of the game. In my first two hours of actual real-time game playing, I had direct control of my character for about 45 minutes. The rest of the time I was watching some beautiful movies, or jamming X to get through the characters’ dialog. While this ratio improved throughout the game, the non-interactive storyline elements tended to be clumped together at key points in the story. Forty minutes of running around and battling would be followed up by twenty minutes of storyline. Better spacing of smaller bits of the story would have been appreciated,

Most of this story was revealed through the new Active Time Event system, which prompts the player when an important event is happening away from the current character and then shows it to you. While this system led to some nice dramatic irony at times, in the end it felt tacked on. I got the feeling that the developers were trying to make the “sitting and reading dialog” part of the Final fantasy games more “interactive” by letting you choose which parts of the story to hear at what times. It’s like a “choose-your-own adventure” book, except your choices don’t change the outcome at all, they just change which part of it you see. Not exactly thrilling.

The overall form of the games story has taken a slight change from those of FFVII and VIII. In the previous games the story centered mainly on the one main character (Cloud, Squall) and his closely-knit band of heroes, fighting against an encompassing evil. In FFIX, the story feels more like a conglomeration of eight separate storylines, one for each character, than one overriding quest. This method of storytelling was executed surprisingly well, with each character being evenly developed and having believable motivations (Exception: The unexplainable Quina, who’s purpose in life is to “eat new and exciting things”). On the downside, this storytelling technique makes each of the characters feel like their own disconnected entity, and lessens the feeling of camaraderie among the playable characters. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, it’s a welcome change.

Another very welcome change in FFIX is the improved translation and localization for a U.S. audience. Character dialog sounds much more believable and less broken than it has in previous Square outings. The translation team went as far as to give each character consistent speech mannerisms throughout the game, making them all the more believable. A great example of this is princess Garnett, who has to consciously dumb down her speech when she is pretending to be one of the ‘common folk’. Zidane, the games main character and ‘bad boy’, has to essentially teach her how to speak like a normal person. As the game progresses, you see Garnett’s act getting better and better, until she actually sounds more like Zidane than a princess.

The improved translation makes possible another thing largely missing from the Final Fantasy series up to this point: humor. FFIX’s tension is often undercut by absurd situations that can catch the player totally by surprise. The main outlet for this comic relief is Steiner, a clanking, clueless guard whose sworn duty is to protect princess Garnett. His exasperated tirades against Zidane’s advances towards Garnett (complete with arm waving) are pretty amusing. Another scene casts Steiner and a few other characters in a scene of mistaken love based off a dropped love note. I won’t give anything away, but the ensuing mix-up is very engrossing and wholly entertaining to watch.

Other small gameplay touch-ups help out FFIX. Little touches like word balloons over characters heads being used for dialog and the new “exclamation point” system for finding things hidden around the landscape make a world of difference. The card game system has been improved too, and is even more of a time-wasting diversion than before. And of course, FFIX is packed with the requisite optional Final Fantasy extras. Between finding crystals based on the constellations, delivering letters to moogles and countless other side-tasks, this game could keep you occupied for a long while.

I was disappointed with the way the storyline fell apart near the end of the game. Everything that had been building up throughout the games first three discs was seemingly thrown out the window for disc 4. An example of this is the final boss of the game. This boss remains unintroduced and unmentioned until about 5 minutes before you fight him, at which point he gives a lame “I want to destroy the universe” soliloquy. Your party proceeds to defeat him, and he is never heard from again. If it weren’t for this glaring storyline inconsistency, this game would have scored at least half a point higher. On the plus side, once you get through the absurdity of disc 4, you are treated to an amazing, 30+ minute FMV ending.

I couldn’t help feeling as I progressed through FFIX that, despite all the incidental changes, I had played this game before… twice. While I still enjoyed the game for what it was, I couldn’t shake the memories of Final Fantasy VII, and how much more engrossing and fun it was for me. But I’m just a jaded gamer who’s played one sequel too many. When it comes down to it you either like Final Fantasy or you don’t. FFIX won’t change your mind, but it will definitely affirm your position.

Final Score: 8.5/10

When Sega launched its Dreamcast system on September 9th, 1999, it was a company at the end of its rope. After the three straight home systems proved dismal failures (Sega CD, 32X, and Saturn), the Dreamcast was Sega’s last-ditch attempt to win back the loyal followers it had in the heyday of the Genesis. By beating the competition to the market by more than a year, Sega hoped to gain an insurmountable lead in the next generation of home video game consoles

For a while, it seemed like Sega’s gambit would pay off. The Dreamcast had a phenomenal launch, thanks in part to the largest marketing campaign ever for a video game system. Sega took home $97 million on the first day of Dreamcast sales in the US, surpassing the opening weekend gross of blockbusters like The Phantom Menace! With a great library of launch titles and many influential developers (with the notable exception of gaming giant Electronic Arts) pledging their support, the Dreamcast looked as if it might mark the end of Sega’s bad luck.

Unfortunately for Sega, this was not the case.

After the launch hysteria died down, Dreamcast sales leveled off to a rather unimpressive level. In Japan, Sega’s homeland, even the ailing Nintendo 64 was selling better than the Dreamcast. Despite many innovative, high quality games from Sega’s in-house development teams, the Dreamcast never developed very strong third party support. Many developers who had pledged support for Sega ended up devoting some of their development resources to the upcoming Playstation 2, which promised to be more popular among hardcore gamers and more powerful than the Dreamcast. Sega tried many innovative marketing schemes to keep its Dreamcast alive, such as offering a free system with a subscription to their SegaNet ISP, but nothing seemed to help.

The final nail in the Dreamcast’s coffin was last October’s launch of the Playstation 2 (PS2) in North America. Sony’s PS2 quickly rose to dominance, selling more consoles in 5 months than Dreamcast had sold in more than a year.

Early this year, rumors that Sega would no longer be able to support the ailing Dreamcast started flying. These rumors proved true, as Sega recently announced that they would stop producing the Dreamcast console at the end of March in favor of developing games for other systems.

Despite all this, there are still a few reasons to consider the Dreamcast if you’re planning to buy a new video game system. First off, at $99, the Dreamcast is priced a few hundred dollars lower than the PS2, and is likely to be much cheaper than other upcoming systems (Exact pricing for Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s X-Box have not been officially announced). Used Dreamcast systems are going for as low as $60 or $70 on Ebay, with many used games similarly low priced. You could easily buy a used Dreamcast and ten bargain bin games with the same money you might spend on a PS2 without any games. This makes Dreamcast the obvious choice for the console gamer on a budget.

Second, while the PS2’s library is rather slim at the moment, the Dreamcast already has a library of hundreds of games available. This library ranges from fun arcade-style titles like Crazy Taxi to quirky puzzle games like Chu Chu Rocket to serious RPG’s like ShenMue. With such a large and varied selection of games, you’re sure to find at least a few you’ll enjoy playing.

Third, the Dreamcast is the only console currently available that comes with a built in 56K modem. This allows you to play popular games like NFL2K1 and Phantasy Star Online with millions of people around the world through SegaNet’s online service. Playing on-line with the Dreamcast, however, isn’t painless; the SegaNet service costs $22 a month and the modem requires you to unplug your phone. Playing games through a dial-up modem can also be pretty slow when compared with playing on a PC through the campus network. Still, it’s nice to know the option for on-line play is there if you want it.

Finally, the Dreamcast isn’t quite dead yet. Even though the system itself isn’t being produced, dozens of games that were in development when the Dreamcast was discontinued are still forthcoming. Big name games like Sonic Adventure 2 and a new version of the popular PC shooter Half-Life are still on their way. After this year the supply of new games will likely dwindle down to nothing, but for now Dreamcast owners still have some new titles to look forward to.

The Dreamcast may not be around in the future, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it now. With tons of great games at bargain prices and more titles to come, there’s no reason to write it off just yet.

I’ve often thought of Nintendo as the Disney of video games. Many Nintendo franchises, such as Kirby, Mario, and Pokèmon, are geared towards the 8-13 year old market, just like Disney’s animated features. Despite their kiddy focus, however, Disney movies remain popular with many teens and adults. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s the hidden in-jokes geared towards older audiences, or maybe it’s because Disney movies are just so well made that people can’t help but love them. Paper Mario should be loved for these same reasons.

Paper Mario is the semi-sequel to the semi-popular “Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars” (SMRPG) for the Super Nintendo. I say ‘semi-sequel’ because the original was co-developed by Nintendo and popular RPG maker SquareSoft (Of Final Fantasy fame). SquareSoft had nothing to do with the making of Paper Mario. This led many to speculate, before the games release, that Paper Mario would botch the successful formula of SMRPG. This is not the case, as Paper Mario is almost everything its predecessor was and more.

Paper Mario’s gameplay is a mix of action and RPG elements, much like it’s prequel. You control a paper-thin, 2D Mario that runs and jumps around a 3D world. When Mario touches one of the many enemies he encounters, a turn based battle starts. There’s a twist though: If Mario jumps on an enemy to start the battle, the enemy will start out slightly damaged. If instead the enemy charged into Mario to initiate the battle, Mario starts out with damage. This system made the game feel a lot like the old, action-oriented Mario games without taking away from the RPG battle system.

Another interesting gameplay twist, back from the original SMRPG, is the timed attack system. When Mario attacks an enemy in the turn-based battle sequence, you can increase the damage he does by performing certain actions with the control pad at specific times. These actions vary from hitting the A button at exactly the right time to flicking the control stick quickly from left to right. It’s a simple addition, but it keeps the player on their toes and prevents battles from becoming the usual “jam on the attack button until it’s over” affair.

In contrast to the innovative gameplay, the story behind Paper Mario is about as deep as a kiddy pool. When people in the Mushroom Kingdom make wishes, they go up to Star Haven, where they are granted by the Star Spirits using the magical Star Rod. (original names, eh?) King Koopa (yes, the same King Koopa that’s been around since Super Mario Bros.) steals the Star Rod and uses its power to capture the Star Spirits and Princess Toadstool. Of course, this will not stand. Mario to the rescue!

This storyline is augmented by lots of little side-quests for Mario to complete. For instance, when Mario goes to Shiver City to find the seventh Star Spirit, he finds the mayor of the town has been murdered! Mario finds himself the prime suspect in an investigation conducted by the security officer, and isn’t allowed to leave the city until he clears his name. Interesting twists like this keep the game from getting too predictable and make the player want to keep playing just to see what’ll happen next (Just so you know, the mayor wasn’t actually murdered. He just tripped and hit his head. This is a Nintendo game after all).

As is evidenced by this story, Paper Mario is not for those with a low “cute” tolerance. The dark blood and gore of games like Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 are replaced with bright colors and cheerful music. This can be a good or bad thing depending on your tastes. I personally didn’t find it too distracting, but some players may feel the need to take a Goldeneye break after about an hour of playing.

As you might expect with a game this cute, the challenge level in Paper Mario is not that high. Even my seven-year-old sister was able to get through the first part of the game without assistance. Veteran RPG players may be frustrated by this simplicity, as well as the linear nature of the story. (It’s often obvious what is going to happen next, because the story can’t move on unless it does.) This makes Paper Mario perfect for beginners, but perhaps a little too basic for experienced players. The latter group may want to check out games like Chrono Cross or Final Fantasy IX instead.

Bottom Line: If you can get past the inherent simplicity and cuteness in Paper Mario, you’ll probably end up enjoying it immensely. Sure, it isn’t a ground breaking, epic, cinematic experience, but it’s a fun, nostalgic ride nonetheless. 8/10

INTRO: In order to give you a clearer picture of Nintendo’s chances in the superconsole wars — their upcoming Gamecube will be going head-to-head against the Xbox, PS2 and Dreamcast — it may be helpful to look to their past business practices. And a great place to do that is by checking out (or, for some of you, *re-checking out*) "Game Over: Press Start to Continue", by David Sheff (with Andy Eddy). The original hardback edition, "Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, & Enslaved Your Children", was published in 1993 and written by Sheff. An updated January 1999 paperback edition, the one we’re reviewing here, contains extra chapters by Eddy, as well as a "picture history of Nintendo". And now, Kyle Orland’s assessment of the book.

Did you know that Hiroshi Yamauchi is a fifth-level Go master? Or that Nintendo once owned a Chuck-E-Cheese franchise? Or that Alexey Pajitnov had the build of a medium sized bear? You’ll learn all this and more useless trivia (useless but interesting, that is) after reading "Game Over: Press Start to Continue". Not only that, but you’ll also get a detailed history of Nintendo, plus a look at the people behind the games, all in one handy book! Operators are standing by…

"Game Over" encompasses more than a hundred years of Nintendo history in its 400-plus pages. From its start as a playing card manufacturer to its current role as an electronics giant on the verge of world takeover, Sheff takes the reader along for all the ups and downs that the growing company faces. Instead of a standard step-by step history, however, Sheff focuses on a few key points in Nintendo history and uses them as anchors for the rest of the story.

The style takes some getting used to, but it doesn’t really hamper the narrative, which becomes as tense as a good spy novel at points. (The chapters detailing the fight over the rights to Tetris could have made Tom Clancy millions.) Indeed, it’s this narrative that makes "Game Over" so damn special. You not only read about how Minoru Arakawa was appointed as head of Nintendo of America, you find out how it almost drove him and his wife Yoko apart. You not only get a detailed account of Shigeru Miyamato’s conversion from artist to game designer, but also of how his experiences in the vast hillsides of Kyoto inspired the environments in his "Legend of Zelda" series.

The stories behind the story draw the reader into the world of Nintendo, and make this highly entertaining/informative book instantly accessible to gamers and non-gamers alike. For example, even if you’d never heard of Nintendo, you’d be hard pressed not to find the hard fought courtroom battle that went on with Atari back in the day to be intriguing (we won’t give away any specific plot details, or the ending).

For gamers, the appeal of "Game Over" is different. While most who have read this book are at least vaguely familiar with the situations it contains, just as many probably don’t know the details that shaped the events. If there’s one thing that "Game Over" is full of, it’s details, details and more details. From the aforementioned meaningless trivia to loads of accurate statistics to quotes from virtually everybody alive in the game industry at the time, everything in the book is excruciatingly detailed — one gets the sense that Sheff really did his homework here.

While Sheff has succeeded in creating a kick-ass reference book for Nintendo fans and observers, this isn’t to say "Game Over" isn’t without its faults. The main portion was written in ‘92 (the original book came out in ‘93), and it does show its age in places — most notably in its extended coverage of the Nintendo Network (which never, in fact, launched in the U.S.). The book also portrays Nintendo as an invincible 800-pound gorilla, a concept that a modern reader might find hard to swallow given Nintendo’s current subservient market position. The new chapters by Andy Eddy in this ‘99 paperback edition don’t do much to solve these problems; in fact, they amount to little more than a short retelling of Sheff’s chapters with some "Mortal Kombat" thrown in.

Also, in the last few chapters especially, Sheff paints a picture of a world where a true multimedia videogame system sits on every TV, transforming what was once a plaything into a true communications and information hub for the home. While it’s a nice vision, it’s also perhaps a tad utopian — one feels that Sheff got too caught up in the hype behind 3DO and other multimedia boxes that promised to change the world. These faults are easily forgivable when you look at them as part of the interesting and well-researched whole.

"Game Over" is one of those rare books about games which gamers and non-gamers alike will find difficult to put down. One can only hope that a true sequel covering the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 years in as much loving detail will follow.