Sunday, November 29, 2009

Star Ocean, redux

These PSP games are the reason that somewhat unpopular Sony platform continues to exist, imho. Star Ocean First Departure made its original debut on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Star Ocean Second Evolution appeared on the Playstation One (PS1), and both are roughly comparable in the history of art and storytelling to Moby Dick — i.e., they take forever to play, the story is engrossing, the characters appealingly light-hearted, but in no way, like the white whale, are these games mere adventure stories. Stories, yes, adventures, yes, "mere"... not hardly!

These are remakes of the old games, not identical to their originals. Like ancient coins, some familiar details have been rubbed and blurred out by wear (sometimes literally). For example, the SNES edition of the first Star Ocean had a couple of villages named Hot and Cool — the same village, actually, but 300 years apart. In the PSP version, competent but unsympathetic, or possibly even ignorant, translators have rendered these names as Coule and Haute; the effect is jarring, as though the text passed through the gauntlet of a committee and emerged... "new and improved." Was it necessary, for example, to rechristen Ratix, Roddick? Maybe the idea was that a new generation of players will have never heard this hero's name before? I think I'll start over and change his name back to Ratix, q.e.d.

Change is not good, always. The journey to Mt. Metox in the original, for example, was winding and mazelike, with treasure chests and signposts scattered here and there (the signs occasionally more droll than informative.) The old signposts are gone, sadly, even, on the flanks of "Mt. Metorx," to blurred illegibility. And the mountain climb itself is faded, too short, and not especially challenging — just a Cliff 's Notes version of the original. But compared to rest of the game, maybe a little minor throat-clearing at the beginning is acceptable.

The anime-style graphics in both games are smooth and superior to the pixellations of their respective precursors, as befits the speed and detail of modern PSP hardware. Truth to tell, I'm not far into either, yet. (I'm still playing Final Fantasy II, another favorite; the wyvern has just flown us to our destination.)

Update, December 7: I finished playing Final Fantasy I, just a fast runthrough to get my bearings. Wiped out the Emperor with only 85% of the bestiary revealed. Play was very similar to the original, with a few extra graphic elements tacked on, although I have to say I found all the modern Final Fantasy genderbending images annoying. The boy Firion is drawn in a style that I can only describe as Pre-Deluge Pretty French, but this only applies to a few cutscenes and incidental overlays. It's funny to see the original, droll characters, drawn as sprites in the 8-bit graphics of SNES ported to a modern video platform orders of magnitude better — rendering each single pixel of the original as maybe 64 in the port! This is NOT a re-imagined re-visioning, so a huge element of fun from the original tiny screen is accidentally preserved, thankfully.

Oddly enough, Star Ocean Second Evolution is almost a pixel for pixel port of the PS1's Star Ocean: Second Story. The game is very playable. A few minor, discardable scenes involving sea voyages have turned into snaking red lines on maps instead of views of mysterious islands in the offing. (Everyone has just woken from the darkness and found themselves in the Outer Gardens, in my current game.) I do find some of the renaming of characters, weapons and items, jarring, but understandable — the original Japanglish was just as odd, but it became familiar.

My gripes about the revisions in Star Ocean First Departure stand. Some backgrounds appear blurry, as though they were taken from Gameboy Advance and enlarged to fit the PSP screen. Others have a peculiar stretch at the margins, as though the scene had been shot through a 23mm fisheye lens — another porting artifact. Much that was droll and captivating about the original lay in throwaway, tossoff details in the background, like signposts, hidden chests, meandering paths and mazes, no direct path to destinations anywhere. They've been largely thrown out and tossed away. I don't think the redesigners even knew they were being vandals. It's like replacing a mile of Rube Goldberg invention with a bachelor's groggy resolve to wake up at 6:30 in the morning, shower, shave and make breakfast. It ain't gonna happen.

Enix didn't invent whimsy, of course. My favorite precursor was Carl Barks' backgrounds for Disney comic books — mysterious goldish bowls crammed with goldfish, unexplained bicyclists on oldfashioned standards (big front wheel) and unicycles, etc.

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