Guess the Game: The bright star in an under-performing franchise

Today’s Guess the Game just saw a new release in its overarching franchise this past week, and as I crawl through it at a snail’s pace, I am sorely reminded about the reputation of both today’s Guess the Game and the series it belongs to.

It is a bright star trapped in a middling, horribly mediocre, and sometimes downright bad JRPG franchise, and we often base our opinions of the entire franchise on this single entry.

For the franchise itself, the RPG crowd, myself included, often gets deluded into looking back at it as a lovable underdog. The kind of series that is willing to spar with the Final Fantasies and Dragons Quests of the world and really challenge them to shake up their style. Final Fantasy often acquiesces and changes all the time. Of course, Dragon Quest does not.

While story progression and character development might not break from the norms in the same way Square Enix’s other franchise SaGa does, this series does break the mold by tearing down the boundaries between JRPG and action game. Long before such walls were as loosely defined as they are today, gamers were presented either with a typical menu-based line-fighter or a straight up action game. No memorable melding of the two styles existed until 1995 when Tales of Phantasia came into the world through Namco and the legendary JRPG developers at Wolf Team.

A bad break-up at the studio led a splinter group calling itself tri-Ace to flee into the welcoming arms of Enix, and it brought with them all the secrets of how to blend the action and JRPG genres together. This resulted in a Super Famicom game that never made it to the States, and then its sequel, today’s Guess the Game selection.

Thinking back about this game, it’s hard to really pinpoint why we thought it was special. On the surface, it is a very generic JRPG, one that features a cast of moderately memorable characters bounding from town to town on a mission to, of course, “save the world.” Our two protagonists, Claude and Rena, might not be the most original set of star crossed lovers in the genre, but some of their wacky companions stand out better.

There was Ashton, a luckless sword-fighter cursed to bare two warring dragons on his back for the remainder of his natural life. He was always my favorite. The martial artist married man, Bowman, was also a ton of fun, and let’s not forget the mage Celine either. She was one of the genre’s hotties back when the 13-year old demographic all had Tifa on the brain.

Yeah, Celine’s a babe.

To label this game as being totally generic, though, overlooks its achievements and does it a huge disservice. It had plenty of marvelous ideas that JRPGs weren’t doing at the time. The most prominent was, of course, the battle system. North American gamers had never experienced anything like it before, and being able to control your JRPG avatars just as silkily smooth as if they were Mega Man or Mario was a huge eye-opener. It might not be so unique on today’s market, but the impact that this game had in 2000 because of that mechanic can’t be overstated enough.

The battle system in this game was a revolution!

Another shining aspect of the title that often runs true throughout the series is the blending of science fiction and fantasy. One minute, our heroes are bounding through a medieval fantasy land battling goblins, skeletons, opposing armies, and the ultimate goal of global domination or destruction. And the next minute, they are soaring through the stars, making everything that transpired on the planet seem so insignificant in the grand scale of the game.

Oh look, a supreme power wants to control his world. That’s probably happening on a dozen of these floating rocks.

The franchise does keep it real by instilling a sort of Prime Directive rip-off in which advanced civilizations can’t contact under-developed planets. Our Guess the Game handles that theme with a glorious spin about two-thirds of the way into its story, and it will definitely get those following the meta-themes thinking.

As it often goes with tri-Ace games, this Guess the Game also allows for a massive amount of item creation through being an alchemist, blacksmith, and so on. You get the idea. It’s complicated to the point of being pointless, and even after three more games, tri-Ace still hasn’t quite gotten it right. The Guess the Game selection today had plenty of items worth creating, and this was a unique idea at the time. Today, though, I doubt I would sink nearly as many hours into creating those ultimate weapons.

These are all fair points in deciding why this was such a hit in 2000. This Guess the Game choice is a really solid title and survives as a nostalgic favorite of those who played it back then. The bigger question though is “What does this game do right that its successors do not?” There has to be a reason why this second entry in the series survives as a favorite, where the rest are remembered as just middling to outright bad.

Is it really because it was released at the right time and the right place into a JRPG dominated industry, or did it make development decisions that its successors actually took steps back from?

For what it’s worth, the later games did mess with the formula a bit. I remember one reason I turned off its PlayStation 2 successor was because using special abilities drained a character’s life points rather than a separate “magic point” meter. It might be a tactical decision that strictly forces players to balance normal attacks and special abilities, but come on! Who wants that?!

Today’s Guess the Game choice encouraged players to spam their special abilities because they got stronger with each passing usage, and even their animations just became plain silly! Before the end, Claude would be flying sky-high through the air, down-stabbing enemies from above, slashing up mountains from the earth, and launching comets from his fist. Bowman could generate massive fireballs to scorch his enemies or rain poisonous pills upon them. The special moves were so over-the-top, and to be restricted in such an off-handed manner in the sequel was a real turn-off that the series never really recovered from.

I could go on about what today’s Guess the Game did right that its sequels did not, but my ultimate point here is one of genuine curiosity. Does it hold up? I haven’t played it in a long time. The JRPG genre has had some rocky progression since the year 2000, and it really makes me wonder that if the sequels are not all up to snuff, is this game not either? Is it pure nostalgia, or is it still worthy of all the praise it gets as the best game in its middling franchise?

If Square Enix were to localize the PS Vita and PlayStation 4 ports, maybe we could have a fresh reminder! Guess the game, and let me know what you think below.

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