hard to port

I’m worried that Square Enix has forgotten how the process of porting works.

A store page for Final Fantasy IX has just appeared on Steam, just the latest in a long line of one of the biggest JRPGs ever to exist being brought to the largest PC gaming platform out there. It’s introducing Final Fantasy to an audience of players who don’t game on consoles, including updated graphics and gameplay and Steam achievements. What’s not to like?

A lot, apparently. According to the Steam store page for the game, Final Fantasy IX will require 20GB of hard drive space. Keep in mind, this is a game that originally released on four PlayStation discs, which at the time had a maximum capacity of 650MB. Assuming Square used every single bit of space on those discs, that’s 2.6GB total. This is just speculation with no real information behind it, but here’s something better: when the game was released on PSN as a download, the size was revealed to be 1550MB, a perfectly reasonable size for a multi-disc PS1 game. Somewhere between the two, the game’s size apparently increased by nearly a factor of thirteen.

The first response that comes to mind is that the game’s quality has been scaled up significantly. This isn’t without precendent, as the recent trend (and main motivation) behind all these oldies coming back is the use of the original uncompressed textures. But FF9 doesn’t seem to make use of that. Character models have been improved significantly, but the backgrounds are quite clearly the original artwork from the PS1 release. The resulting image is an epic Wagnerian symphony of discord. It is awful.

Surely, you say, there is a reason for this. The original, high-resolution artwork must have been lost in the intervening years since release. Worse things have happened to bigger projects.

But at least some of the original artwork is easily available. Two years ago, a neogaf user found, compailed and posted over 40 images of original background art; and as if that weren’t enough, also included high-resolution images of character models and concept art, all of which could be very effectively utilized in the process of an HD remaster.

But this is Square Enix. They seem pathologically fixated on phoning it in on almost any matter imaginable. It’s a sad truth–the gaming industry as a whole these days seems to be obsessed with trying to look as indifferent as possible to their customers and their products.

Final Fantasy V and VI were ported to PC from the mobile ports, except their graphics were smoothed in a way that made the games look like a Saturday morning cartoon with oversaturated colors. Not only that, but they featured badly-tiled textures with badly-rounded edges, and it all combines to create an environment that doesn’t feel cohesive. Then Square Enix came back with a port of FF6, which was again based on the mobile port…except this time, they decided to up their own ante by implementing the worst possible way to upscale pixel art, as well as stretching the game into a wide aspect ratio, on top of everything else.

But this isn’t a sprite-based game, therefore it needs a closer analog for comparison. Thus, the blog presents its next exhibit: Final Fantasy IV. Ported, yet again, from the mobile version, which itself was ported from the DS release, FF4 is the only other from the original six games to be ported in its 3D form. While the later 3D releases also suffered somewhat from bad background graphics clashing with higher-quality characters, FF4 goes the extra mile and adds framerate problems. Not only is the main game locked to 30 frames per second, but the battle screen is locked…to 15 frames per second. Sometimes it just boggles the mind, how game developers seem to hate this whole high performance fad going around.

Last-minute disclaimer: these are pre-release images, and as such very much at risk of changing by the time the game officially drops, which as of yet is unknown. But based on Square Enix’s recent history of porting their older (and newer) games to PC, hopes aren’t terribly high.

control fantasy: the buttons within

I recently resumed my playthrough of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King. Besides the name being long in the tooth (not that that’s unusual for Japanese games), it has some of the typical issues with Wii games, those being developers not properly considering the implications of the hardware and its use.

First, a primer. MLaaK is a city-building sim game, in which you play the leader of a kingdom that was destroyed in the first Crystal Chronicles game, who is attempting to refound his father’s realm. In a third-person over-the-head perspective, you run around deciding where to place buildings such as homes, which then allow families to move in and in turn make adventurers available for you to send into the wilderness to bring back loot and riches.
The first failing of this game’s design is that the Wiimote’s forward sensor is unused. When you’re running around with a camera hovering over your back, the precision of that sensor is pretty much mandatory. But no. You simply use the D-pad to move about your town, and even that isn’t as precise as it should be–the King turns at nearly right angles, meaning if you’re not aligned with a street’s length you end up making an awkward zigzag to keep from bashing your head into buildings. Thank Romero the game doesn’t have character collision, or it would be a nightmare just to go for a stroll.
Apparently wanting to add to the inelegance, the Wiimote is used in its “normal” orientation, that is you hold it lengthwise, with the D-pad under your thumb. Why? If you’re not going to use the motion sensor, why not have it turned into “retro” orientation and make use of the extra buttons in a much more comfortable way? Many Wii game designers don’t seem to realize what they’re making can use other modes than what you see in the advertisements.
Another case in point: Metal Slug Anthology. It’s your typical sidescrolling platformer game (well, a colection of games), and smartly makes use of the Wiimote’s retro configuration. Okay, not so smartly. The game has no totally retro control scheme. In its simplest setting, it’s played much like it was an NES game, with one very annoying exception–throwing grenades requires the Wiimote be snapped quickly with the wrist. Obviously this makes gameplay extremely difficult, as moving the controller this way means you either can’t move or can’t shoot, and doing neither for even a second in a game like Metal Slug means death. Meanwhile, the “B” trigger is entirely unused. Why is the grenade function not mapped to this button?
Is this intentional? If so, why do developers feel the need to do this? It only makes gameplay awkward, at best, and in the case of Metal Slug‘s grenades, painful after a time. The game dev’s aim is to make it comfortable to play; otherwise there is little incentive to play. Not every unique feature of the Wii hardware needs to be exploited for every game–conversely, useful design mechanics should never be ignored when they will complement gameplay.
Or, at very least, games should allow full freedom of customization when it comes to command mapping. Personally, this is my preferred solution, but I can see reasons why it would be problematic for some developers.