Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
The advantage of being on summer break is I have time to dig a little deeper into my backlog of games than I normally do. This week—after finally finishing Persona Q2: New Cinema Labyrinth—I picked up my mostly-unplayed copy of Great Ace Attorney 2, the second in a series spun off from the murder-mystery-slash-legal-drama visual novels that are Ace Attorney.
The Great Ace Attorney games are something of a reboot of the series. While the main series Ace Attorney games continue under a new creative team, the series’s original creator, Takumi Shu, wanted to move on to a fully new setting and set of characters, and thus Great Ace Attorney was born. The Great Ace Attorney games are set in the late Meiji Period—starting in the fall of 1902, specifically—and while the protagonist is a distant relation of the original Ace Attorney’s protagonist, the gap of a full 100 years ensures there’s no character overlap.
The series’s setting is its core strength. Takumi leans fully into the geopolitical dynamics of the day, portraying a time when Japan had already come a long way in the process of modernization and was continuing to push itself further, a time when Japan was striving to earn recognition as an equal player on the world stage. The basic premise is that a group of young Japanese legal scholars travel to London to learn about England’s legal system—the sort of thing that did happen in the Meiji period—and while the focus of the games remains on the individual mysteries, the historical context informs every case.
The Ace Attorney games in general are, to put it lightly, thematically unambitious. I really like them—they’re highly enjoyable mysteries—but they are meant exclusively to entertain. It was, for this reason, extremely interesting to me to see Great Ace Attorney grapple with historical ideas and geopolitical power dynamics, even if tangentially. It was a direction in which the series had never gone, and even though it didn’t really say anything, the fact that it was present at all added a bit of nuance to the first game.
The second, though, takes this a step further. Great Ace Attorney 2 was released in 2017, at a time when nationalistic tendencies were straining international relations across the globe and when Japan’s relationship with South Korea in particular was moving towards its lowest point in recent memory. The game’s first case—the only one I’ve read thus far—takes place back in Japan, following the first game’s secondary character rather than its hero. It seems at first to be a fairly straightforward case, but a certain twist near the end casts the thing in a somewhat more interesting light.
Essentially, the victim is an Englishwoman set to be extradited from Tokyo to Shanghai, where she is to face murder charges in a British-run court. The woman has already acknowledged her guilt to the Japanese authorities, but there remains some doubt as to whether the court in Shanghai will find the evidence gathered in Japan persuasive, and the woman believes she has a chance of getting away with her crime. The killer, then, takes it upon himself to kill the woman before she can leave Japan in order to ensure “justice” is served.
His reason for doing so is couched in what amounts to nationalism. A running gag in the Ace Attorney games is the killers’ dramatic breakdowns when they lose a trial. In this case, the killer launches into a rambling tirade about his motivations that scrolls by so fast it’s nearly impossible to read. If you look at the game’s backlog, however, you see a defense that echoes Japan’s frustrations in the half-century leading up to World War II. The culprit says, in essence, that a “civilized nation” shouldn’t have to bow its head submissively to the other nations of the world, and that Japan should have the authority to handle crimes committed on its own soil.
He is, in other words, frustrated with Japan’s lack of international recognition. After he calms down, he starts to explain his reasoning more thoroughly, expressing a desire for justice and a fear that the Englishwoman would have gone unpunished otherwise. He claims to have been acting from a standpoint of moral outrage.
The defense attorney for the case, however, interrupts his attempts at justification in order to assert that at the point he killed the woman and tried to frame someone else, he lost all right to speak about morality. In other words, there is a line that, when crossed, outweighs any possibly-legitimate grievances.
This is, I think, meant as something of a criticism of both Japan’s imperial history and the Japanese government’s response to South Korea’s recent anger. In other words, even though Japan had legitimate grievances on the international stage in the pre-WWII period, the country’s actions in China and Korea in particular were so horrific as to firmly establish Japan as being entirely “in the wrong” regardless. The sentiments expressed by the case’s killer—who is himself fascinated by “isms” of all types—are essentially the beginnings of what would develop into Japanese ultranationalism in the buildup to World War II.
This is, as I understand it, something of a politically sensitive topic in Japan. It is extremely rare for it to show up in popular media—the only other example I can think of offhand is Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises—so to see it addressed in Ace Attorney of all things came as something of a shock. I’ll be curious to see whether the game and series continue with the idea or if it was just a one-off.
Detective fiction in general is not known for expressing sweeping societal criticisms or nuanced thematic ideas, but that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t. You see this somewhat more often—the idea of developing theme through mystery conceits—in Japanese fiction than elsewhere, I think, largely because of the influence of Edogawa Ranpo. Sometimes called the father of the Japanese mystery novel, Ranpo wrote “mysteries” that were more societal critiques than they were true mysteries, applying the twisty, suspenseful writing typical of detective fiction in order to paint a picture of a society that was unsettled and off-balance (primarily in the pre-WWII period, interestingly enough). Ranpo’s approach to writing mysteries has been profoundly influential on Japanese detective fiction as a whole, and his style still pops up here and there. Great Ace Attorney might be a similar case.
Regardless, it’s an impressive departure from Ace Attorney’s typical form, and I have to say I am impressed thus far.
As one final note, I will be on vacation during the next two weeks and as such will not be able to write my usual blog posts. Expect the next post on Monday, June 17th.
It’s been almost eight years since The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword released for the Nintendo Wii. When I first played the game back in 2011, it quickly established itself as my favorite Zelda game—which is something of an unpopular opinion in 2019, to put it lightly. Skyward Sword tends to get more criticism in online communities than any of the other 3D Zelda games, and it’s common to see it listed as the worst of the bunch. This is directly at odds with my experience playing the game almost a decade ago, so I decided to replay the game from start to finish to see if my opinion of the game would change, informed by both a broader base of completed Zelda games and a better understanding of games in general.
Long story short, my estimation of the game stands.
There are without question a lot of things wrong with Skyward Sword. Replaying the game has given me a better appreciation for the reasons many people dislike the game, and I could easily write a full post on the ways the game doesn’t quite measure up, but even so, it remains my favorite game in the series. The game doesn’t always work, but when it does work, it works brilliantly. It’s an ambitious game full of risky design choices, and it’s successful more often than not. I’m willing to forgive the game’s weaker moments—the repetitive Imprisoned fights, the boring sky sequences, and so on—because the elements the game gets right are the best the series has to offer.
My goal with this post is to go through the things the game does well, drawing attention to the ways Skyward Sword differentiates itself from the rest of the series. There are a number of things the game does well that other Zelda games also do well, so the focus here will be on the elements that make Skyward Sword unique—the things that put it above the other games in the series and solidify it as my favorite Zelda game.
But First, the Motion Controls
Skyward Sword is a game built around motion controls. If the motion controls don’t work for you for one reason or another, you will not like the game. This is the case for many of the game’s harshest detractors, I think, and the complaint is fair. If you can’t acclimate to the control system, you can’t enjoy the rest of what the game has to offer.
That said, in both my original playthrough of the game and my more recent one, I had no issues with the motion controls. They may not have worked perfectly, but they worked well enough for the creativity and novelty of the system to outweigh the occasional annoyance of a misplaced sword swing.
As I wrote above, Skyward Sword is a highly ambitious game, and much of its ambition comes in the form of its control scheme. Every single element of the control scheme relies on motion controls in full or in part. This could easily have been a recipe for disaster—plenty of motion-control-centric games just aren’t fun—but in this game the integration of the motion controls is natural enough that what usually plays as an annoying gimmick is actually fun.
Skyward Sword was designed around the promise of 1-to-1 swordplay. It was envisioned as a game where you could hold the Wii remote in front of you at any angle, and Link would move his sword to match. The game doesn’t offer quite that exact level of flexibility, but it does register eight directional sword swings, as well as a thrust, based on how you move the Wii remote. The game makes full use of this, and it’s full of enemies who require carefully-oriented sword strikes to defeat. Where combat in most Zelda games—most action games in general, really—fall into a pattern of “wait for an opening and then strike,” Skyward Sword challenges players to identify weak points in an opponent’s guard and target those points. Is there a hole in the center of the enemy’s armor? Go for a thrust. Is the enemy holding his sword to parry attacks from the left? Strike from the right.
The end result is a combat system that’s far more engaging and difficult than in any other Zelda game. You still have classic-style enemies and bosses, too—the “use an item to make a weakness and then slash wildly” types—but the real highlights are the direct swordfights. The three fights against Ghirahim, in particular, are a joy, as they fully make use of the motion control combat system to create the sensation of a true swordfight while also requiring the sort of pattern recognition and on-the-fly puzzle solving Zelda bosses are known for.
There’s also a duel with a robot pirate where you have to push him off the plank and into the ocean below, and it’s amazing.
The tracking isn’t perfect, and I would often attempt to swing from one direction and accidentally trigger a swing in another direction entirely, but I was very rarely frustrated with the mechanics. When it’s working—and it usually is—it’s unique, novel, and incredibly cool.
An Actual Narrative
Zelda games aren’t known for their storytelling, and I don’t go into a Zelda game expecting narrative excellence. That said, Skyward Sword makes an attempt at storytelling beyond what’s typical of the series, and it’s largely successful. The game’s narrative isn’t anything particularly fancy, but it humanizes Link and Zelda to an extent rarely seen in the series, primarily by establishing an existing and personal connection between the two in the first hour or so of the game. The friendship between the two characters—and a desire to reunite—serves as the primary motivator for the eventual quest rather than the more abstract concept of “saving the world.” The character motivations function as a more grounded foundation for the game as a whole than most Zelda games can offer.
The game then proceeds to subvert the expectations established in the rest of the series in subtle ways. Zelda isn’t a damsel-in-distress—in fact, initially she’s the one on a quest to save the world, and Link is just trying to catch up to her. There’s a really fantastic moment early in the game where Link almost reaches her, but her escort—a woman named Impa—stops him, telling him that he’s too late. He failed to protect her early in the game and therefore lost his right to be her guardian. It’s pretty gutsy for the game to say this directly to the player, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when I reached this point on my recent playthrough.
Despite being a silent protagonist in Skyward Sword, Link retains his own personality and character arc, developed primarily through the words of the other characters. He’s not quite the blank-slate player insert Link’s other iterations are. Instead we have a more complete hero’s journey, with established and multifaceted personal goals, as well as notable setbacks. Skyward Sword Link isn’t an especially unusual or nuanced protagonist by the standards of video gaming as a whole, but he does have far more texture than most other interpretations of Link, which is cool.
The game also benefits from a major-minor side character with an actual character arc—a serious rarity in the Zelda games. Skyward Sword’s Groose is introduced as an arrogant, self-absorbed jock-type character. His antics provide the primary elements of conflict in the first hour or so of the game, and he seems like nothing more than a comic-relief nuisance.
But then, about a third of the way through the game, Groose follows Link down from their home above the clouds to the surface world. Groose is stunned by how big the world is, and by all the strange and unfamiliar things it contains. He sees Link fight off the imprisoned form of the game’s big bad, Malice, and he is struck by his own unearned arrogance and his past uselessness.
Groose then reappears later having developed a system to help keep Malice under control. His time on the surface, and his experiences meeting those who live on the world below, inspire him to reform himself. By the end of the game, he’s still the same ridiculous, haughty character he was before, but he’s much more self-aware, and he works to help others rather than just himself.
Again, this isn’t all that unusual of a character arc in the broader sense, but for Zelda it’s highly unique and quite refreshing. Skyward Sword’s story and characters wouldn’t stand on their own, but they provide a wonderful backdrop for what is primarily a gameplay-driven game. They don’t get in the way of the meat of the game, but they do make the game richer.
Ghirahim and Fi
You can’t talk about the good parts of Skyward Sword without addressing the fabulous demon sword that is Ghirahim. Ghirahim is the game’s main antagonist (even though Malice is ostensibly the real threat and also the final boss). Ghirahim is an incarnation of Malice’s sword, and his whole goal is just to revive Malice. Ghirahim could easily have been a boring character—the “revive the big bad” goal has been done to death—but Ghirahim has so much personality he gets away with having a textbook generic villain scheme.
Every element of Ghirahim’s design is fantastic. He’s visually interesting, with his odd costuming and his diamond-shaped particle effects giving him a disctint visual character. His animations are fantastic, filled with strange gestures and poses that feel like something out of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Most importantly, though, his dialogue is phenomenal. Ghirahim’s dialogue oozes a casual flamboyance that makes him impossible to dislike even as he’s insulting Link and trying to destroy the world. He’s an unapologetically fun character, and he’s easily the most interesting villain in the series if only for that reason.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the much-maligned Fi. Fi is the navigator character in Skyward Sword, and she’s often listed as one of the primary reasons people dislike the game, along with the motion controls. This is partially because Fi tends to interrupt the player to draw attention to things that really don’t need to be noted—I’m still not sure why she feels the need to observe that the very obvious boss doors probably have something important behind them—but her issues run deeper than that.
Fi was probably meant to be a foil to Ghirahim. As Ghirahim is Malice’s sword, Fi is Link’s. She is the spirit of the Master Sword, able to take human form to give Link advice and to channel messages from the goddess Hylia. Like Ghirahim, her design, animations, and dialogue are remarkably distinct. Her art is pretty good, I think, but unfortunately, her dialogue falls flat. While Ghirahim is strikingly—perhaps exaggeratedly--human, Fi is mechanical, robotic. Her dialogue is intentionally stilted, and her incessant tendency to list the odds of random things makes her feel like an off-brand C-3PO. Any time Fi speaks, the game drags.
Ghirahim acts human but ultimately behaves fully mechanically, unhesitatingly working towards Malice’s revival with no thought to personal desires or meaning. Ghirahim actually succeeds at his goal, completely and without qualification—Link ultimately beats Malice, but Ghirahim’s goal was just to summon Malice and had no real requirements beyond that—but in his moment of success Ghirahim seems dissatisfied. He loses his final duel against Link, but he manages to buy just enough time to allow Malice to be reborn. Rather than relish the fact that he succeeded at reviving his master, though, he expresses frustration and confusion at his inability to fully best Link—and then Malice rips Ghirahim’s soul out of his body.
Fi then has a scene at the very end of the game, when she is going to be sealed permanently within the Master Sword, where she basically says she followed Link not just because it was her duty but also because she wanted to, and where she indicates that she has developed a sense of emotion. This paints her as a reversal of Ghirahim. He acted out of direct obligation, while she acted out of emotional loyalty. She ends the game satisfied, while he ends the game dissatisfied—even though both technically succeeded at their stated goals.
This link isn’t developed well enough to be effective. I think if Fi’s emotional development had taken place over the course of the whole game, rather than right at the end, and if Fi and Ghirahim had actually spoken to each other about these ideas, Fi would have been a much more effective character. As it is, we’re left with one sword who’s forgettable-to-annoying, and one who’s absolutely fantastic but lacking a strong foil.
This is another situation where I’m willing to overlook the game’s weaknesses because of the height of its strengths. Fi could have been a lot better, sure, but Ghirahim is already highly entertaining, and I’ll take the strength of Ghirahim’s character over the weaker antagonists of the other Zelda games even if it means I also have to deal with Fi.
A Little Old For My Taste
One thing I noticed on my recent playthrough of the game that I thought was particularly interesting—and really liked—is the way Skyward Sword builds its world. Skyward Sword is the most linear of the 3D Zelda games, forgoing an actual overworld (unless you count the sky, and nobody counts the sky) in favor of three disconnected areas that you explore in an essentially linear fashion. While this pretty much completely eliminates any sense of exploration, it gave the developers a lot more flexibility to tell the story of the world through the elements of the places the player visits. As each element of the world will be seen in a particular order, the world-building becomes its own form of linear narrative.
Skyward Sword capitalizes on its structure to use its world as an avenue to reflect on the concepts of history and time. Skyward Sword is currently the earliest game in the Zelda series timeline—none of the other games are set earlier in the history of the world. Rather than fill the game with Easter eggs and teasers for later games, though, the developers opted to create a game that is primarily concerned with the past. Despite being set at the earliest point in the timeline, the game is filled with ancient ruins, fallen societies, old legends, and so on. The first inhabitant of the surface world Link meets is an archaeologist, and an archaeological feel pervades the whole game. The first dungeon is a temple the aforementioned archaeologist is interested in mapping. The second dungeon is an ancient ruin filled with treasure-hunting moles exploring the place—and it even has an Indiana-Jones-esque boulder segment. (The boulder then rolls into the next room, where Ghirahim animates it and turns it into the boss fight, which is pretty amusing).
The third section of the game is where this gets interesting, though. The central premise of the third area is that a civilization of robots destroyed the environment by mining a source of energy to excess. What once was a lush province turned into a scorching desert, and everyone living there died out.
To be honest, I never thought a Zelda game would include commentary on climate change, and yet here we are.
The area is interesting from a mechanical standpoint—it’s filled with stones you can hit to “shift” the area back to the past in order to solve puzzles—but there’s something subtly grim about speaking with the area’s residents only to watch them turn to skeletons and petrified lumps of metal when you turn off the nearby timeshift stones. The area is also filled with industrial imagery, from conveyor belts to exhaust chimneys to huge metal shipping containers. It’s nothing like anything in any other Zelda game, but it doesn’t feel out-of-place either. It’s just… a bit of a surprise. In a good way.
I’m not entirely sure why the game is so interested in history. It’s all subtle enough that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways—and I’m not confident enough in any one interpretation to expand on one here—but the fact remains that there is a consistent theme underneath all of the level design and world building, which definitely sets Skyward Sword apart.
The Spider's Thread
The biggest reason I love Skyward Sword, though, is its dungeon design. The dungeons are full of interesting environments and puzzles, and they’re definitely the highlight of the game. I wish there were more of them, but at the same time, with seven dungeons, Skyward Sword is already ahead of most of the 3D Zeldas in terms of dungeon count.
Just as the game’s overall world has unifying themes and concepts, the dungeons also share similarities. Where most Zelda games feature an eclectic mix of dungeons with varying premises and architectural styles, Skyward Sword’s all have ambiguously East-Asian architecture. This plays out in varying degrees of directness, ranging from small details in the textures lining the walls and floors to a dungeon that’s a Buddhist temple in all but name.
The Buddhist temple dungeon is called Ancient Cistern, and it happens to be my favorite dungeon in the entire series. It’s also a great example of why I enjoy Skyward Sword’s dungeon design so much. The dungeon is built around a central puzzle—a statue of the Buddha that you raise and lower to proceed through the dungeon. This is visually neat, if nothing else—and the Ancient Cistern is an exceptionally pretty dungeon—but the dungeon as a whole plays with Buddhist concepts and stories in a way that makes it an absolute joy to play through, especially if you’re familiar with what it’s based on.
The majority of the dungeon has the look of a typical-if-exaggerated Buddhist temple. The central statue is surrounded by a pond with lily pads and lotus flowers floating here and there. You progress through side hallways to open new pathways, and the dungeon’s puzzles are fairly clever. There are also some crafty details scattered about—there are silver rupees (worth 100 of the game’s currency) sitting above the Buddha’s palms, for example, but if you try to take them the statue grabs you and throws you across the room.
The dungeon really comes into its own, though, when you fall down to the basement floor. Initially you’re washed into an underground jail cell, and you have to use the dungeon’s whip item to steal a key from the jailer and escape—a clever touch in itself—but then before you climb out you see through a window into the rest of the basement floor, which is roughly inspired by interpretations of the Buddhist underworld. Neat!
It gets better, though. In the jailbreak sequence, there are spider enemies that you have to drop onto lily pads to open the way forward. The spider enemies dangle from the ceiling from a single thread, and you have to use a certain item to cut the thread. This calls to mind a short story written by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke in 1918 where the Buddha looks through a lotus-filled pond into hell, takes pity on someone he sees down there, and extends a single spider’s thread to help the person escape. The person starts climbing, but others start climbing after him, and the first climber tries to kick them off the thread—but the shaking from his kicking motion snaps the thread, sending everyone back down to the ground below.
I wasn’t familiar with this story when I first played the game, so replaying the game and discovering that Ancient Cistern was as a whole based around a short story from an author I’ve studied in my undergraduate classes made me smile.
After escaping from jail, you get access to the switch that lowers the Buddha statue, and its feet touch down in the underworld. You climb out of the statue and fight your way through the underworld, looking for yet another exit—and eventually you come to a circular room with a single spider’s thread dangling from above. True to the dungeon’s influence, when you start climbing the rope, a horde of zombies start climbing after you. The rope doesn’t break—perhaps because Link isn’t a bad person?—but the whole scene is ripped straight from Akutagawa’s classic story, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
The dungeon’s boss key is underneath the Buddha statue’s feet, so you have to lift the statue up, go back down to the underworld area via the thread, and return to the statue area to get the key. Upon retrieving the key, though, another horde of the zombie enemies appears, and the statue overhead starts to descend. For me, there was a moment of panic where I worried I would be unable to defeat all of the enemies in time—followed by a realization that the way out of the pit wasn’t barred.
As soon as you run out of the shadow of the statue, the Buddha statue finishes its descent, crushing all the undead creatures underfoot. It’s simultaneously a clever timed puzzle, a neat play on Buddhist thought, and a hilarious visual gag. There would be no better way to end the dungeon.
In some ways it’s a little odd to see a section of the game that’s based so directly on Buddhism and on a real-world work of Japanese fiction, given Zelda’s general lack of references to real-world literature, but I would say this speaks more to a relative lack of creativity elsewhere in the series than to a weakness of Skyward Sword. While Ancient Cistern is the top of the pack, all of Skyward Sword’s dungeons have some sort of story or unusual concept to them. They aren’t just a set of trials leading up to a MacGuffin, which makes them considerably more interesting than your typical Zelda fare.
A Few Closing Remarks
This is far from an exhaustive list of the things that make Skyward Sword great. I could go into detail about its pseudo-impressionist art style, or about how it’s the first Zelda game to record its music live, or about its clever sidequests—but this post has gone on for long enough already, and you probably get the idea by now.
The long and short of it is the game tries to do a whole bunch of really interesting and unusual things, and they mostly work. The motion controls can be clunky at times, but for the most part they’re novel, distinct, and fun. Fi is a weak character, but in exchange we get Ghirahim, Groose, and so on. The lack of an overworld means the game loses the fun of exploration, but as a result the experience is much more focused and faster-paced than most other Zelda games.
Skyward Sword is a game of trade-offs, and I can understand not liking it, especially if you’re a longtime Zelda fan. Skyward Sword followed what was probably the “safest” and least-ambitious game in the series--Twilight Princess could easily have been billed as a re-imagining of Ocarina of Time—and if you went into Skyward Sword expecting another game in that vein, you would have been disappointed. But for everything the game removes, or skips, or messes up, there’s twice as much that’s been added, or expanded, or improved. Skyward Sword is not trying to do “everything a Zelda game should do” in the way a game like Twilight Princess does, but in exchange it expands upon its elements of focus—its combat, its world, and its dungeon design—in ways that make for an exceptionally strong overall experience.
It is, in some ways, similar in philosophy to its immediate successor, Breath of the Wild. Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild are ostensibly opposite games. Skyward Sword is a highly linear game with barely any exploration. It’s built around direct, controlled, and continuous development of its narrative and mechanical concepts. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, is focused on exploration and experimentation at the expense of everything else. The two games are unified, though, in the way they eschew series conventions and focus intensely on specific aspects of the Zelda experience, polishing those elements as much as possible even as other facets of the game fall by the wayside.
This approach is neither “right” nor “wrong.” A game that tries to do everything well can be great—just look at Skyrim, which released a mere seven days before Skyward Sword did—and games that ostensibly take a focus strategy can end up backing into all-around excellence through strong teamwork and a unified thematic vision--The World Ends With You is my favored example of this.
That said, I think it’s good for a long-running franchise to vary its approach from time to time. It’s good that Zelda has both styles. Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, take a primarily generalist approach, while Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild each focus on a particular aspect of the overall experience. If Nintendo were to take the same approach with each game, the series would quickly grow stale—which is interesting considering Nintendo had that exact problem with the Mario games in the years leading up to Super Mario Odyssey.
Dungeon-crawling and puzzle-solving tend to be my favorite parts of Zelda games, and Skyward Sword’s focus on those elements is a large part of why I like the game so much. I also continue to appreciate the novelty of the motion controls, and I love the game’s aesthetic. Contrary to what some might say, it is a good game. It’s just different from its direct competitors, and that can be off-putting.
I, for one, am all for experimentation. Keep it up, Nintendo.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been on something of a “breaking games” kick, by which I mean finding ways to trivialize games in order to strip them of any difficulty they may or may not otherwise have had. There is an appeal, I think, to building teams that are so defensively stable they literally cannot lose, or that can topple powerful boss fights in a single hit, or that can lock enemies down with debilitating status ailments, and so on. In some respects, this saps the strategy and difficulty out of a game—I most often do this in games like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, chess-esque tactical RPGs that ostensibly necessitate strategic thinking to win—but I find the planning and effort involved in building “broken” setups to be its own sort of strategic thinking. It is, essentially, an alternative and more general solution to the puzzles the games present. While breaking a game in some ways goes against the spirit of the game, I do think having the ability to “solve” a game generally rather than specifically can add a lot of potential depth and value.
Fire Emblem provides the simplest case of this. I’ve been gradually replaying Fates and Awakening, taking a different approach from my initial plays of the games. As a tactical RPG, Fire Emblem is built to encourage strategic placement of units. For the unfamiliar, the game plays out on gridded boards—again, not unlike chess—and you can move your units across the board to attack other units. Smart Fire Emblem play involves a combination of monitoring enemy attack ranges, blocking off chokepoints, and ensuring you always go to battle with favorable unit matchups. It’s not a complicated series, relatively speaking—if you want a tactical RPG that actually involves a high degree of flexible strategic thinking, I’d recommend the Devil Survivor games—but on a “normal” playthrough victory is dependent on learning the maps and developing tactical approaches that solve each individual fight.
I went into my current runs of Fates and Awakening, though, with a different approach. I wanted to build teams that were so absurdly powerful they could win every fight with essentially zero strategy—in other words, I wanted a “general solution” to the game rather than a collection of “specific solutions” for each individual fight. I played the Birthright version of Fates specifically as it allows for level-grinding (which is helpful for the general-solution approach), and much of my playtime in both Fates and Awakening was spent grinding to build up my ideal teams.
Theoretically, this shouldn’t be as fun as playing “normally.” Fighting generic enemies for experience in order to get powerful units that can steamroll everything sounds pretty boring in the abstract. The games have just enough customization, though, that the process ended up being quite fun, particularly in Awakening with its potentially-powerful second-generation units. The planning involved in creating the ideal skill- and stat-distributions needed for a ridiculously powerful team held my interest throughout the long level-grinding periods, and seeing my team gradually come together—an army of Aether-spamming Snipers and Swordmasters in Fates and a horde of super tanks and Galeforce-fueled glass cannons in Awakening—was highly satisfying.
There comes a point in a playthrough like this were motivation to actually finish the game dwindles. You build a ridiculously powerful team, you steamroll through a few fights, and you start to feel done. Because you have solved the game generally, there’s little need to actually play through each of the specific fights. You get the sense that you’ve pre-emptively beaten the game. It’s a fundamentally different experience from a “normal” playthrough, but not, I would say, an inferior one.
Some would say that breaking a game in this way eliminates the fun of actually playing the game, and I half agree with this. It hinders the fun of playing through the game’s fights in that the game is already generally “solved,” as noted, but I wouldn’t say it removes the fun of the playing the game so much as shifts it. The enjoyment isn’t in actually playing through the individual story quests so much as it is in building up the general solution. It’s a different sort of enjoyment that appeals to a different sort of player.
Some games actively try to inhibit this sort of play. The aforementioned Devil Survivor games approach this in multiple ways. Most importantly, the AI in the Devil Survivor games has access to all of the tools that the player does, so any potentially “broken” abilities the player can make use of can and will be used by the enemy. This unifies the “general-solution” and “specific-solution” approaches, as the player needs to build a strong team and plan in advance in order to do well—the general-solution approach—and then the player has to respond to the powerful combinations and smart play that comes from the AI—the specific-solution approach. The games also feature severe experience scaling, mitigating the ability for the player to level-grind and become overly powerful, and the games reward playing through the entire story without grinding. The player remains on roughly even footing with the enemy throughout the game, ensuring the focus remains on the actual in-battle strategy, albeit without removing the customization and planning elements that tend to make tactical RPGs fun to play.
And then you have games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne that essentially require players to look for the most powerful options available in order to even survive most boss fights. Nocturne has a number of tools that are quite powerful when they become available, but it also has fights like the infamous Matador that are nearly impossible without the use of the aforementioned powerful options. A lot of people love the way Nocturne plays (and I do think it’s an excellent game overall), but mechanically it often devolves into a game of odds, with the strength of the player’s strategy only serving to reduce the likelihood of dying to bad luck. It’s often described as a hard game, but I wouldn’t categorize it as “difficult” so much as “frustrating” or “time-consuming”—It’s more a game of patience and perseverance than one of strategy.
My favorite games to break tend to be those where getting really strong is more dependent on customization and team synergy than on raw level-grinding. Persona Q and Persona Q2 are fabulous examples of this. You can play these games “normally” and do just fine, but there are also several ways you can break the game by manipulating the customization systems and building synergistic teams. In Persona Q2 (which I’m still not finished with, 105 hours in), I’ve built a team that can tear through most boss fights in exactly four turns, dealing thousands of damage per turn in a game where doing a few hundred at once is a lot. I’ve spent barely any time grinding—and what grinding I’ve done was more because I wanted to test out different team comps against powerful enemies than out of a need for levels or money—but with understanding of the game’s systems and a cohesive plan I was able to build a ridiculously powerful team. It’s all the fun and satisfaction of the “general-solution” approach to Fire Emblem but without the hours upon hours of monotony.
The best part about PQ2 in particular is that the game retains variety and difficulty even with a completely busted-good team. In the original Persona Q, bosses were mostly uniform in function (with only the fabulous second boss, the Merciful Clergyman, being notably interesting from a mechanical standpoint), so a powerful team burned through everything with ease. In PQ2, however, bosses have a lot more variety, and certain fights can still stymie powerful builds depending on how the boss operates. Similarly, PQ had a simple solution for most random encounters—Naoto, my favorite party member, could just instantly wipe most enemies with her instant-kill spells—but that solution is far less reliable in PQ2, which makes late-game random encounters surprisingly threatening, especially for a team built around boss-killing. As a result, the game avoids becoming boring even once it’s been “solved,” and you get the impressive dual sense of being absurdly powerful and yet still needing to think during battle. It’s super cool.
While Persona Q2 is among the best games I’ve played in this regard, I think I like the Final Fantasy Tactics games slightly more in this regard. The FFT games are not balanced nearly as well—on the contrary, the balance in those games is terrible—but that is itself a large part of the charm. Final Fantasy Tactics is full of hilariously powerful tools, as well as ostensibly well-balanced tools that become hilariously powerful in conjunction with other ostensibly well-balanced tools. The classic example of this is the Arithmetician class in the original Final Fantasy Tactics, which can drop expensive, high-level, single-target spells on the entire enemy team, at once, for free, with just a little bit of planning. It’s the kind of thing that you look at and go, “The developers made no attempt to balance this whatsoever.” And it’s glorious.
There are all kinds of ways to create “general-solution” teams in the Final Fantasy Tactics games, and they range from obvious to non-obvious answers. A personal favorite of mine involves the Assassin class in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. Assassins get instant-kill abilities that have a low chance to hit. There are, however, certain status ailments, like sleep and stop, that raise the accuracy of all attacks and skills to 100%. If you put an enemy to sleep, Assassins can then kill that enemy immediately 100% of the time. It’s not hard to do, and there’s little actual “strategy” that goes into it, but stumbling upon and/or building those sorts of combinations is a ton of fun, and it’s what keeps me coming back to the games.
I really do appreciate games that are balanced carefully and that require actual case-by-case strategy in order to win. The Devil Survivor games remain my favorite tactical RPGs for this reason (although it helps that they’re also fantastically-written games with intriguing philosophical implications). That said, good difficulty is super hard to achieve in RPGs, and if I’m presented with a choice between unsatisfying or luck-based difficulty and ridiculously broken team planning, I’ll choose the latter any day of the week. Building a team that’s strong enough to break a game requires its own form of strategy, and there’s fun to be had in being absurdly powerful.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition