A Return to 16-Bit Form

It feels like I’ve been waiting over twenty years for a proper Japanese role-playing game to come along.

By waiting over twenty years I mean something that plays similar to Final Fantasy III (VI, for sticklers) just before game development moved on to CD covered pastures. While JRPG design has moved on over the coming years, my tastes have solely stuck to active time battles and super-deformed character sprites. I’ve tried things like Dragon Quest on multiple occasions in the hopes of recapturing that je ne sais quoi of the 16-bit JRPG design formula, but nothing sticks. Maybe I’m getting in my own way; it’s hard to compete with the nostalgia of Squaresoft’s output from the 90s. It felt like literally every release they had was a masterpiece without equal time and time again. From Final Fantasy II (or IV if you prefer) to Secret of Mana to Chrono Trigger, everything was grandiose, magnificent and the perfect time suck for a kid with a limited budget.

While I’ve given up on finding that game that would be a return to form a long time ago, I still hold out hope every now and again that I’ll find that something that scratches that itch again. Luckily I’ve found a truck stop back scratcher that goes by the name of I am Setsuna and it is gloriously retro in all the right ways.

If I were to say I am Setsuna has a passing resemblance to Chrono Trigger I’d be selling it woefully short. It follows the train of thought that enemies are visible on the field and your approach will dictate the first turn. The game will jump the characters around while keeping the battle contained in the area you’re in, although there’s no option to move your party anywhere for any advantage. You’re then treated to your standard active time battle where filling meters dictate turns while enemies are also beholden to a timer but not necessarily in waiting for you to complete your decisions. There’s even an option to set up combos with multiple characters by using their special abilities in tandem. In case you’re worried about any other pretenses to Chrono Trigger, there is literally a move called X Strike. It’s pretty much just Chrono Trigger.

I am Setsuna is a love letter to a specific era that nearly borders on clone and I am perfectly OK with that. I’m all for progress, but there’s something to be said for comfort food gaming and it’s been a damn long time since I’ve tasted this chicken noodle soup. But that’s not to say that I am Setsuna doesn’t have a dash of contemporary design in it, just that it’s subtle and fits in well with what it emulates.

I’m the type of person who loves filling in a codex or journal, and I am Setsuna has a similar feature called the Snow Chronicles. It lists everything from your completion percentages pertaining to what you’ve seen, battle statistics and your stock standard bestiary. Not only does it give you minute details like item drops and health, but a nice little lore write-up that helps flesh out the world for those who love sinking time into that kind of thing. Which, you know, I am.

But what really sets I am Setsuna apart from the games it’s inspired by is its story. You begin the game as a mercenary who it tasked with murdering a girl on a small island only to find yourself on a journey to take this girl to her predestined death anyways. As monsters gather across the countryside in growing numbers every few decades, a “chosen one” must be sacrificed to placate whatever god decides to unleash said plague of beasts upon the world. Rather than end her life swiftly, the mercenary instead joins the girl’s retinue to save the world in the most unsavory way.

It’s a somber tale so far, one that’s driven home by the bleak and snow-covered world in which it takes place. Folk in the small isle town in which the sacrifice is chosen from are curiously unemotional about the whole thing as they feel they can’t change fate. A third party member, a woman who has been on more than one sacrificial pilgrimage, adds an air of mystery to the whole thing because she infers that there’s more going on in the world than a simple ritual belies. The writing is pretty average JRPG fair, but the hooks in the plot are there and worth exploring.

While I earnestly expected to like I am Setsuna if only on a fundamental level, I didn’t expect to be quite so smitten by it. Granted I’m only a few hours in, but even at this point I think if the game tows the line and holds even, I’ll be satisfied by the end of it. If the plot goes in interesting directions while doing so, I may have found a new champion in my love for old school role-playing games.

Fuzzy Pickles: A Book Report on EarthBound by Ken Baumann

earthbound-coverI don’t think I would love videogames half as much as I do if it weren’t for nostalgia.

It’s almost like a drug — it warms you over with pleasurable feelings and you tend to miss it the moment it’s gone. Luckily it’s not harmful, supply is plentiful and the only side effect is that it can cloud your judgement when it comes to how you perceive things.

I’m a very associative person by nature; I link things to moments in time that give me that warm, fuzzy feeling. Everybody does it to an extent; I just find that I do it way too much.

I can remember Christmas Eve 1995 being slightly off-put by getting Secret of Evermore, not because it’s a terrible game (on the contrary, I wish Square would re-release it) but because I was confused that I was granted the chance to open such a big present that was usually reserved for the actual holiday. Turns out my parents appreciated all my help tending to their little store that year, so they also got me Donkey Kong Country 2 as a kind of reward. Back in those days, getting two games was a monumental treat.

I can remember saving lawn-mowing money for a copy of Star Fox that I never ended up getting or selling my entire comic book collection to buy a Nintendo 64 or when my wife told me she would never buy me anything videogame related yet gave me a wireless Guitar Hero controller. I could go on and on.

The point isn’t that I could wistfully recall my past via videogames all day, but that I derive stories worth telling from them. Sometimes there’s more to games than just the games themselves. They’re just a launching point.

“To say this more clearly: The more I examine EarthBound, the more I want to examine it. The more I want to keep using it as a portal, a lever by which I can lift my childhood and the bacterial growth of my aesthetic tastes into a better, truer light.” – Ken Baumann, EarthBound

I like Baumann’s book because he writes a lot like I do. He wants to find some kind of enlightenment by looking in the nooks and crannies most people would rather gloss over. He gets from point A to point B like everybody else, but the path in between is windy and hard and listless. It opens with him recalling spending time with his brother playing EarthBound and how he’d like to replay it to see why he deemed it so important. He loses focus on just enjoying the game proper and realizes that he’d just as much like to look behind the big green curtain as he would just going through the motions.

While I’ll use a game as a whole as this jumping off point to life stories, Baumann uses specific moments of a game as allegories for his life thus far. From a quirky family life to attempting to make a name for himself as a child actor and everything in between, he starts to not only scrutinize EarthBound, but his own life story up to that point. What starts out as a dissertation on a videogame turns into a full-blown psychoanalysis under the guise of one.

I can appreciate a good, clinical approach to games writing, but Baumann’s EarthBound is the kind of thing that reminds you that you’re human. Viewing life from a different perspective is refreshing, and sometimes even eye-opening.

That’s kind of the beauty of what Boss Fight Books, the publisher of this and many other similar works in the series is doing: telling the stories of a writer through the lens of a videogame. Whether you’re familiar with the game in question or not is irrelevant; you’ll find that the person behind the words is a far more interesting study than the subject matter at hand. If a book can be this transcendental, it’s a book worth reading.

Now Playing | I am Setsuna

  • Developer: Tokyo RPG Factory
  • Publisher: Square Enix
  • Release Date: March 3rd, 2017
  • Playing on: Nintendo Switch

The Gist

If anyone even whispers the name Chrono Trigger I perk up a little bit because, Breath of the Wild aside, it is perhaps my favorite videogame of all time.

It came at a time in my life where I thought maybe I was starting to outgrow my hobby and overthought the social ramifications of going into high school with the type of geek cred that was all but damning to an anxious teenager. Instead it cemented in my mind why I love them by being this perfect encapsulation of everything that was good about them and why it will continue to grow as a medium. I’ve never waivered since.

Although I always look for that spark again and again, especially when someone name drops it in association with another role-playing game, I realize that it’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime shot in the dark that somehow managed to hit its mark. However, I can’t fault developers for taking Chrono Trigger and trying to apply its lessons to their work. They may never live up to my extremely lofty expectations, but it’s usually still pretty fun to watch them try.

While Square Enix pushes Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest ever forward, there’s a division called Tokyo RPG Factory that’s more interested in recapturing the feel of 16-bit JRPGs than seeing how many zippers they can add to a leather jacket or how spiky they can make hair. Their first effort, I am Setsuna, takes a lot of mechanical cues from Chrono Trigger as well as a dash of the more melodramatic story elements, but it stands out on its own for its morose plot and frigid environments. It’s not an attempt at surpassing Chrono Trigger, it’s a love letter to it.

The Goal

According to How Long to Beat I am Setsuna is roughly a 20-30 hour adventure, a tidy but lean amount of time for a JRPG. For the most part it’s a very linear journey that lacks the perceived expansiveness that a lot of older Final Fantasy games used to dupe us with. Each party member has a main side quest you can dive into in order to do a little backtracking and lore digging, but there’s also the tempting Snow Chronicles, which works as an in-game journal that tracks everything from your bestiary to the locations you’ve been to the items you’ve collected. Under normal circumstances I can usually take or leave such a feature, but there are completion percentages at the main page that make it every tempting to try and find everything. I fear there may be some Knights of the Round type quests that might deter me, but we’ll see.

Regardless of any dalliances of completionism, I’ll be satisfied discovering the truth about the sacrificial pilgrimage and watching the credits roll.