A Couple’a Recommendations

Hey all! I just got back from ArmadilloCon, and boy are my arms tired. Seriously, they’re pretty tired. Anyway, I had a great time at the writer’s workshop and convention proper, met a lot of cool people and attended a lot of cool panels. I’ll have a writeup for that soon.

Today, though, I wanted to spread the love and highlight some cool books that you can totally buy RIGHT NOW LIKE RIGHT THIS MINUTE.  As a literary hipster, I’ve read both of these in early-draft form, and it’s amazing both to see them go from conception to perfection, and to see them shoved out in the wider world, available for everyone to enjoy.

But don’t take my word for it! Uh, actually … do take my word for it, I guess.

First up is Grey Matters, a short story anthology from A.C. Blackhall. I’ve highlighted his work on this blog before, and I continue to love it. This anthology gets you a MASSIVE chunk of his stories in one easy-to-digest package. Seriously, it’s sort of ridiculous how many stories are in here — 14 by my count, which is substantially more than you get from most single-author collections.

There are a lot of great tales in here, but my favorite is probably Human Seagulls. It’s hard to go into too much detail, as the ending revolves around one of those perfect twists, the kind that you don’t see coming but you absolutely should have because it’s not at all surprising in retrospect. The high-level concept, though, is a world where nanomachines keep everyone (moderately) healthy, but the economy itself is pretty much in shambles. Anyone who isn’t working on nanotechnology is out of a job, leading to the question of whether simply having our basic biological needs met is enough for a fulfilling life. It’s got some great parallels with our modern world, which is a theme you’ll notice in pretty much all of Blackhall’s SF-tinged work.

Oh, and, psst. A little birdie told me that it’s free on July 30th and a couple of days afterward. So grab it while it’s hot! It’s available on Kindle, and while you’re at it, check out Blackhall’s Amazon bio, which is probably the best thing I’ve ever read. Just an excerpt:

He used those talents to join a traveling circus, which is where most of his science fiction stories originate. He became so famous under the name “The Pale Pouncer” that his life was in constant danger from fanatical fans. After an assassination attempt involving three dwarves disguised as the tallest man in the world, he was forced to leave his three wives and two mistresses behind in Munich and run away to America.

Moving right along, we’ve got the fabulous debut novel from friend-of-the-blog Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson. One Night in Sixes is a fantasy-western (western-fantasy?) that draws some comparisons to The Dark Tower, but mainly because that’s the only western-fantasy (fantasy-western?) anyone can think of. It’s a remarkably original celebration and condemnation of American history, which is not something you hear said about a fantasy novel all that often.

I got to hear Tex talk about this some at ArmadilloCon. A lot of the audience seemed to be commenting about pre-Columbian history, which isn’t so much what this is about, but native/invader interactions are absolutely at the heart of this novel (funny enough, sort of on topic for the work-in-progress I’m currently hacking at, though with a vastly different milieu).

The narrative revolves around Sil, a purebred lord’s son and right little shit, and Elim, a loyal half-breed who’s scorned by just about everyone except those who want him to lift something heavy. It sort of reminds me of Of Mice and Men, if Lenny and George hated each other, and Lenny’s mental disability was a false perception. The two get into some shit when they cross over into native land still reeling from war. Oh, and there are fishmen. Men who are fish.

You can and should grab One Night in Sixes from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Tex also has a fantastic blog and Twitter (I even hear tell she’s runnin’ a contest right now), and if you can check out the novel’s prologue right here. You can also check out a longer dissection of the novel’s themes on John Scalzi’s blog, as Tex has written up a Big Idea for you to peruse.

Legacy of the Force: A Postmortem

Since Disney has jettisoned the Star Wars EU, I’ve been recently motivated to read all the stuff I’ve missed now that it doesn’t feel like I’m paddling against a neverending current of releases. Since I finished NJO a while back, I figured I’d start with Legacy of the Force, even though it doesn’t have the best reputation with fans. Due to a weeklong vacation, I finished it pretty quickly. My verdict? It was all right. It probably could have been trimmed a little bit, but it felt tighter than New Jedi Order, even if it wasn’t quite as creative a storyline. There were good parts and bad parts. I’ve summed up my reaction below.
Just as a heads up, there will be spoilers.
The Good
  • Jacen/Caedus’s characterization. Seriously? Yeah, really! Once you can get past the handwavery that leads him to becoming a Sith (“…he went on some five year journey that completely changed his character. We don’t know what happened, don’t worry about it, stop asking.”), his thought process is very interesting, and I found myself more intrigued by his point-of-view than any other character. He’s clearly misguided and often amoral, but unlike many of the Sith we see in this series, he’s hardly deranged. I love complex villains, and Jacen is one of the best examples.
  • I like … Karen Traviss? It’s even more a surprise to me than the previous bullet point. I’ve always thought she came off extraordinarily bristly in her interactions online, and her novelization of The Clone Wars film is possibly the worst Star Wars novel I’ve read. To be fair, that might be the fault of the script, though it has to be said that R.A. Salvatore took the worst Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, and made a perfectly enjoyable novel out of it. Add to that the poor reputation Traviss’s books have in the EU community, and I expected to loathe her entries. I did not. In fact, I found her novels to be the most compelling. She’s given a lot of shit for “anti-Jedi” viewpoints, but really, I only found a single scene to be overly preachy, and even then only because Jaina seemed unwilling to defend her entire family and ideology to the Mando badmouthing them.
  • Interesting side characters. The Mon Calamari admiral Niathal was a great addition, as were some of Ben Skywalker’s spy buddies. I also liked Lumiya, though I’m glad she wasn’t allowed to wear out her welcome, as she was becoming a little bit repetitive near the end.
  • The space battles. I’m normally not a huge fan of space battles in prose — I skimmed through many of the NJO examples. But the Legacy battles seemed short and interesting enough to hold my attention. I particularly loved the Second Battle of Fondor from the novel Revelations (my favorite book in the series). Beautifully complex and personal.
  • I can’t forget Lando Calrissian piloting The Love Commander, complete with what I imagine to be shag carpet and rotating bed.
The Bad
  • Mara Jade’s actions make no sense, and are clearly there solely for the sake of plot and stretching out the series. There is no world in which an experienced assassin would go after a secret Sith Lord alone, without telling anyone or even leaving a Dead Man’s Switch so that in the event of her (more than probable) death, someone other than her will know what happened. It’s ludicrous and almost inexcusable.
  • Jaina’s character is handled poorly. In the last two books the series, she’s billed a Big Fuckin’ Deal, what with being the Sword of the Jedi, destined to take out Darth Caedus before he can wrap his hands around the galaxy, and being trained in combat by the Madalorians in a way no other Jedi has even attempted. The problem, though, is that she’s barely even present in the rest of the series. For the most part, she’s sent on pointless sidequests and given an awful romantic subplot that goes nowhere (which is just more of the same of her awful development from the New Jedi Order series). Even worse, her Mando training amounts to nothing. More on that below.
  • The finale is just bad. Especially the climactic battle. As I said, Jaina’s Mando training means nothing. You’d think the final climactic battle would be influenced by it, somehow. Maybe a more intense version of the Jag vs. Alema fight where he takes her out using brains, brawn and some neat gadgets? Nope. Jaina happens on Jacen in a hallway, he’s surprised and she cuts him in half. There’s a tiny bit of sadness because he’s focused on saving his daughter at the time, though this is hardly a revelation. That’s it. The only thing Jaina learns from the Mandalorians is that when you fight, you should really go all-out and show no mercy. Wow. What an amazing insight. That absolutely required months of training and preparation, as well as two full novels of build up.
  • Troy Denning’s point-of-view shifts are unforgivable. There’s no other way to say this. He arbitrarily shifts POV inside chapters, jumping into other characters heads without warning, without indication and irreparably muddling the narrative. He does it in battle scenes. He does it in dialogue scenes. I can’t believe this got past an editor. Even for licensed fiction, it’s just awful.
  • The author’s pet characters can get pretty annoying. Alema Rar especially, but the sprawling, mostly unnecessary Boba Fett and Wedge Antilles subplots aren’t much better. 

News from the Litosphere

Things are happening! And I have opinions about them!

First up is Amazon’s fight with mega publisher Hachette. Amazon wanted a better contract — what exactly that entails isn’t clear, but it doesn’t really matter. Their response to it has been reportedly pretty dramatic. Raising prices on Hachette books, suggesting books from other publishers to customers, and even, supposedly, delaying shipping when a customer actually orders a Hachette book.

What to think of all this? Well, back when Amazon was fighting with Macmillan over the high price of eBooks. I was firmly on Amazon’s side here, since they were directly acting on behalf of their customers. Here, their position is less sympathetic. One because we’re not really sure what Amazon is trying to extract from the publisher. Two because, to get what they want, they’re actively making life harder for their customers. And that’s a shitty thing to do.

I’ve heard some more serious talk, though, that this might be an antitrust violation. That Amazon’s status as the number one bookseller constitutes a monopoly, and these negotiations with Hachette are therefore illegal. Which … I don’t know if I agree with.

With the caveat that I’m not a lawyer, simply having a high market share doesn’t make you a monopoly. Do Amazon’s practices prevent others from competing fairly? Not hardly. Plenty of local, independent bookstores manage to succeed in spite of Amazon, and Barnes and Noble is much more aggressive and choosy about what they stock and carry.

Plus, it’s hard to argue that Amazon is monopolistic when they allow (and actually make it easy) eBooks from competitors on their Kindle device. If you want to sell your eBook outside of Amazon, there is literally nothing stopping you. The only thing Amazon provides is publicity and familiarity with consumers, neither of which I see them as required to provide to every single publisher and self-publisher.

That said, given that Amazon is getting into the publishing game with imprints like 47North, they’re under a lot more scrutiny now. Could it be said that their actions toward Hachette are being done as a way to promote their own published works? If so, I could easily see the government frowning on that (though, the likelihood of any big company getting dinged for anything these days is pretty low).

Next on my list is the 2014 Hugos. Normally, the publishers and authors nominated for Hugos provide the voters with the nominated works free of charge. So, you know, the voters can read them and vote. Kind of an important thing.

This year has made news for two reasons. One is that Tor is giving out the entire Wheel of Time series, which has been nominated for Best Novel (yes, the whole series, don’t get me started), in the Hugo packet. Which is awesome!

Not so awesome? Orbit, publisher of Best Novel nominees Parasite, Ancillary Justice and Neptune’s Brood, has opted to provide only excerpts. I find this incredibly problematic. Not because I demand FREE BOOKZ! That’s not the point, and anyone made because they think they’re entitled to the work is in the wrong here.

But reading the Hugo packet is a pretty big time commitment for me in general, especially given that I read fairly slowly and we don’t have a whole lot of lead time. I will probably not seek out the Orbit novels in their entirety by the voting date, and I will not vote for them if I haven’t read them.

That’s not punishing the authors or being spitefully entitled. I really like Seanan’s work, and I’ve heard great things about Ancillary Justice. It’s just the reality of the situation — including full works makes it easy and convenient for me to get them, and removing that convenience makes it a lot less likely I’m going to read everything in time.

The authors themselves have actually stepped back from the decision. They didn’t quite decry it, but they did make it clear that it the decision was entirely the publishers, and they had no input or choice in the matter. Curious, especially since Orbit’s justification is that they’re looking out for their authors.

Clearly Orbit thinks that giving out the full novels with the packet will hurt sales. Which, frankly, I find offensive. They’re viewing Hugo voters as direct income sources. Imagine if an indie film distributor got nominated for an Oscar, then refused to provide the film to Academy voters on the basis that those deadbeats should just go out and buy a ticket! It’s ridiculous.

I don’t know if they’ll change their decision. I hope they do, and if not, I hope I can get around to reading the novels anyway. But I’m not going to guarantee it.

Two Companies Diverge

It’s not too difficult to name the two video game developers that had the most influence on my childhood. The first is Square-Enix, formerly Squaresoft and Enix, creators of such games as Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, etc. There is no other developer that even comes close.

The second, though, has to be Nintendo. It probably doesn’t need to be said that games like Zelda and Metroid are some of the best in creation, but even more than that, Nintendo created much of the hardware that facilitated Squaresoft’s game development. So, you know, there’s that.

It’s sad but interesting that both companies have fallen on somewhat hard times. Huge losses, wayward philosophies and lots of Internet jokes at their expense. It’s also interesting that the cause of these problems are actually blamed on opposite factors. For Square-Enix, it’s said that they’ve ignored their old school fans and design ethos and focused too much on the mobile, social future of games. For Nintendo, they’re said to be stuck in the past, refusing to create a robust online system and creating hardware that’s at least a generation out of date.

I’m not sure what to say about that disparity other than to point of the humor in it. But this week did bring some new revelations for both companies. The first is good news: Square-Enix is revising its profit estimates upward because of strong sales, especially of its flagship MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV. It’s impossible to see this as anything but proof of the power of focusing on your core games; notice that the story isn’t “Square-Enix Forecast Bolstered By Success Of Facebook Games.” I expect this is good news for fans of SE’s classic games. I expect continued support of the Final Fantasy brand because of this, and maybe even some revivals of some old favorites (I want more SaGa!)

Now for the bad news. Nintendo posted a half-billion dollar loss for their most recent fiscal year, mainly because of poor Wii U sales. Unlike the SE example, it’s hard to pinpoint this on an exact cause. I mean, yeah, the Wii U isn’t selling. But why isn’t it selling? And more to the point, why is Nintendo refusing to do anything about it? Thusfar, any changes have been minor to say the least. I like my Wii U, and I’m not one of those who think they need to release a brand new uber system ASAP. But they need to do something, and like many conservative Japanese companies, they’re resisting that.

Yes, more games would be nice. But more than that, we need some surprises. We’ve got Mario, and yeah, it was good, but Mario games are expected to be good at this point. Mario Kart 8 is on its way, and it looks … like Mario Kart. Fun, of course, but not something that will make Wii U’s fly off the shelf. E3 is coming up, and if Nintendo wants any chance of turning this ship around, they need a “wow” moment. Something wholly unexpected that gets people’s attention. I don’t know what it is, but I’m really hoping for it.

What I’ve Been Reading

Just wanted to give some shout-outs to some recent reads, so without further ado!

First up, Vessel of Kali, the debut novel from Richard Milner! A story I’d describe as dark and ponderous, full of intrigue and strange cultish philosophies that might seem a little bit familiar to us Earthians (which is a good thing!)

Who would I recommend it to? Well, fans of competent, highly literary fantasy. If you like China Miéville, I suspect you’ll fall in love with Milner’s writing. Like Miéville, Milner has a fantastic ear for description (there’s nary a chapter without a few evocative lines that make me incredibly jealous). But unlike a few of Miéville’s more plodding moments, Milner’s descriptions never get in the way of the story. The words are there to reveal the story, not obscure it.

Next, I have to highlight the latest in Barbara Ann Wright’s Starbride and Katya series. What began in The Pyramid Waltz and continued in For Want of a Fiend reaches epic new heights in A Kingdom Lost. I had the privilege of reading this before release, and have no qualms about saying it’s the best yet in the series. Starbride and Katya are separated, the wicked Roland’s suddenly got all kinds of power, and for once our heroines are forced to navigate the world as underdogs. Highly enjoyable, and I recommend it highly to fans of the series, or romantic and adventure fantasy in general.

And what else? Well, I’ve got a huge backlog to catch up on because of the last Humble eBook Bundle. I started with John Scalzi’s novella “The God Engines,” and it didn’t quite grab me, so I’m putting it aside. I’ve also read the first few chapters of Yahtzee Croshaw (of Zero Punctuation fame). I’m not a fan of his highly cynical video game “reviews,” so I was totally prepared to hate this in the ultimate show of justice/irony/obstinacy. To my surprise, I’ve actually been enjoying it. It’s Discworld Meets HHG2G Meets Warcraft, and while so far it’s not gut-bustingly hilarious or brain-meltingly challenging, it’s enjoyable enough for me to keep reading.

I’m also reading some more Star Wars pulp fiction. Now that Disney has officially announced that the old EU (now called Legends) is finished, and it’s very unlikely we’ll see any more stories in that universe, I’m actually optimistic that I can catch up. So, silver linings?

Have a good week!

Just a quick nostalgia trip

I don’t have much to say today, but I did want to share a trailer that proves that even after a lot of disappointments and cynicism, I can still get a bit misty-eyed. Have a good weekend!

2014 Hugos

So the nominations for the 2014 Hugos have been announced. You can see a full list here. There is some good stuff. There is also some … bad stuff. If you want to vote, you can still sign up for a supporting membership through LonCon.

Of course this is the genre fiction community and we can’t have anything without lots of controversy. This one involves a racist shitbag and literary nobody Vox Day (What? You haven’t heard of him?) asking his racist shitbag fans to vote him in,a campaign along with conservative shitbag and much more popular and better writer Larry Correia. So yeah. Vox got his nomination and people are pissed. The general response has been a promise to vote his story below “Give No Award,” which basically means you’d rather they give no award this year than give it to Vox. Which, I can’t really blame those people.

There have been a couple interesting reaction posts in the blogosphere. The first comes from Scalzi, who essentially says that, no, asking for nominations is not “rigging the vote,” and at this point, Vox’s work should be judged on its merits. I agree with the first part. And I guess I mostly agree with the second, in that I will be reading Vox’s story and basing my vote on the work itself, rather than the fact that it’s by a horrific human being who literally called a black woman a “savage” and has absolutely no shame about it.

The part that irks me about Scalzi’s post, though, is that it get uncomfortably close to the whole merit defense people use to justify a lack of diversity. “Well, if African Americans/women/gays were better at X, there would be more of them in X! You can’t complain that we don’t have enough diversity, because all these straight white men just happened to be the best candidates!” And I know Scalzi’s one of the people that gets it, and that’s not what he’s saying. But it still seems uncomfortably close. Yes, we can judge Vox’s story on its merits. But the fact that the nominations aren’t based on merit is pretty bad.

Another reaction I really like is Kameron Hurley’s. I don’t have much to say about it — you should read it — but I will comment that I totally agree that the Wheel of Time being nominated for Best Novel (that’s the ENTIRE SERIES recognized as a single serialized work) is more absurd even than Vox or Correia’s nominations.

Finally, the most HILARIOUS reaction comes from Vox Day himself. Seriously. Just check this shit out. I don’t want to respond point by point, but I do want to point out some of the more gut-busting entries.

3- [Our] purpose …  to prove that the awards are a mere popularity contest, contra the insistence of those who have repeatedly asserted they are evidence of literary quality and the intrinsic superiority of the nominated works. We have shown that it is.

Vox is straight up admitting that his work has no evidence of literary quality. That does not make me excited to read it.

Referring to someone’s criticism of his story’s theology: And anyone who is sufficiently educated will recognize that the theology is not “adolescent”, it is paraphrased Thomas Aquinas from the Summa Theologica.

Bahahahahaha …. *breath* …. BAHAHAHA. Wow. Yes, Thomas Aquinas! Basic theology written almost 1000 years ago and that most people read in high school, or as a college freshman. Yup. That’s absolutely the height of fresh and complex theology. Fuck!

The Wheel of Time is dreadful. It has always been dreadful, in sum and in part. I find it mildly amazing that people are more offended about my novelette being nominated than that gigantic insult to literature.

I … agree with Vox Day. Hm.

Anyway, I’ve got a lot of reading to do, especially when the Hugo Packet gets sent out. I won’t be reading the entire Wheel of Time series (seriously, I just won’t — I’ve gotten far enough to know it’s not for me), but I do plan to read as much of the rest as I can.

Games of Yesteryear: Final Fantasy III, or How Four Onion Kids Fostered an Obsession

Welcome to the first installment of my Games of Yesteryear series! I’ll be talking about a lot of games from my past, a lot of which you hopefully haven’t seen discussed a whole lot. This entry might be the most popular and well known of the games I’ll feature here, simply because of the series it’s in. I originally wrote this for a Final Fantasy retrospective anthology that unfortunately went under, but now you get to read it for free! Hooray!

There are Final Fantasy fans, and then there are Final Fantasy fanatics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about Final Fantasy III. The third entry in the series was released in 1990 in Japan on the Famicom. While it was well-received in its homeland, its massive size combined with the Super Nintendo looming on the horizon meant the original game would never make the hop over the Pacific. Over 16 years later (the largest localization gap for any Final Fantasy game), North America finally saw a version of the game, although heavily updated from the original 8-bit release. Prior to this, fan-translated (technically illegal) rips of the game were the only hope for English speakers to experience a missing link in the series. And when the remake finally landed, I, like a quintessential RPG hipster — equipped with a fingerprint-smeared Nintendo DS and NES emulator instead of a six-string and six-pack of PBR — sauntered through my pack of friends chanting, “Oh, I played that before it had named characters.”
Ah yes, those characters — those were what drew me in. The Onion Knights (or Onion Kids, depending on your translation) are the strangest leading characters in the series, if not in the entire jRPG genre. We’re never filled in on what in the world an “Onion Knight” is (though, I always like to think George R.R. Martin took his inspiration here), and the characters themselves are blank slates. While that sounds like a relic that hasn’t aged well, it’s also charming in its own way. The remake gave the kids names and personalities, but when I first booted up that fan-translated ROM a few years after Final Fantasy VII had brought the series into the mainstream, the sight of those odd, genderless youths with funny hats drew me in just as quickly as booming music and CG visuals ever could.

Those quirky kids held my interest long enough for the gameplay to really kick in. The job system, now a staple of the series, is Final Fantasy III’s most visible innovation. To some, “innovation” might seem a strong word. After all, Dragon Quest III used a similar class-switching paradigm years earlier, and static classes have been used in games for years, including the original Final Fantasy. Heck, we could probably trace the original idea back to chess. But Final Fantasy III’s use felt different, deeper, and it inspired the growth systems of Final Fantasy V, XI, Tactics, and even games outside the series.

The remake gave the kids names and personalities, but when I first booted up that fan-translated ROM a few years after Final Fantasy VII had brought the series into the mainstream, the sight of those odd, genderless youths with funny hats drew me in just as quickly as booming music and CG visuals ever could.

What makes FFIII diverge from previous class-based role-playing games? In my opinion, it’s simply diversity of the classes. Dragon Warrior III hewed pretty closely to the same classes seen in the original Final Fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons and pretty much every fantasy role-playing game, be they computer or pen-and-paper. Fighter. Cleric. Wizard. Along with a couple of silly classes that are more about solving some specific puzzles rather than battle. This classic combination is pragmatic, sure, but it reduces the combat decision tree essentially to “should I attack, heal or fireball?”
Final Fantasy III significantly expands this. Why have a generic Fighter when you can have a Dragoon, a mashup of a dragon hunter and 17th century European mounted infantry? Why summon banal lightning bolts and shards of ice when you can strap on your pointy Summoner cap and call down Bahamut, the God of Eidolons himself?
Those are just two of now-defining classes in the series that Final Fantasy III created; others include Geomancer, Scholar, and Dark Knight. And while those classes add some much-needed flavor, they also add strategic value in the same way the original game’s Red Mage played the jack of all trades, master of none role. Dragoons trade the ability to take heavy damage for the ability to jump out of harm’s way and dodge all of it. A Scholar will key in on an enemy’s weakness (invaluable before the age of GameFAQs), while the Geomancer sacrifices consistency and choice in attacks for an unlimited casting pool. To be sure, some of these classes are better than others, and in the end, you’re best served by beefing up a quartet of overpowered Sages and Ninjas. The idea of class balance came much later; most of Final Fantasy III’s classes were designed for use in a specific dungeon or two. But still, just the fact that a myriad of class options existed at all was a big step forward for the genre.
Of course, gameplay is only one aspect of a successful Final Fantasy game. Story and characters are just as important. In this, the game admittedly feels dated. The story is told mostly through the supporting characters, your motivation for proceeding is never really more than “save the world,” and the setting simply seems stagnant. The plot, unfortunately, does not have the same gut-wrenching emotion of Cloud sending Aeris to her watery grave, or Squall wrapping his arms around Rinoa in the frozen black emptiness of outer space. The story here is much more simple: evil sorcerer Xande threatens to upset balance of light and darkness by seeking immortality. A group of light warriors, aided by Xande’s former allies, Unei and Doga, gather the plot coupons necessary to find him, kill him and push back the darkness. Roll credits.
But even with the simplistic series of events, there are plenty of memorable story elements. The revelation that the respectably-sized continent where the game begins is actually a tiny portion of the entire world, floating above the ancient lands below. The village of the gnomes, which requires the player to shrink their characters to enter. Uncovering the Invincible, a massive airship fully equipped with a bed, shops and storage (a pretty damned cool feature for the time). And the old sage Doga and his moogles — the first appearance of the furry little winged creatures.
The unreleased Wonderswan Color port

Final Fantasy III also introduces a theme which would become common in future games: the idea that the game’s main villain is actually just a henchman for a larger, more destructive force. In FFIII’s case, Xande is revealed to be a simple servant for the Cloud of Darkness, an almost literal embodiment of death and chaos. This sort of switcheroo left some players of Final Fantasy IX mystified, but Final Fantasy III used the same plot device years earlier. In fact, the last-minute appearance of Necron in FFIX is almost certainly a reference to Final Fantasy III. The two battles even share similar music — a slow, moody progression of ambience progressing into an uptempo electric theme that’s more thrilling than doleful, especially when compared to the operatic climaxes of Final Fantasy VI and VII.

And that’s as good a transition as any into my absolute favorite part of Final Fantasy III. The music. My God. Even if you don’t play the game, you owe it to yourself to listen to the soundtrack. And make it the original soundtrack, not the DS port. There’s nothing wrong with the port, but it takes listening to the 8-bit original to appreciate how much work and originality was produced from so small a palette as the Famicom’s sound chip was. I can truly say, without exaggeration, that it’s some of Uematsu’s best work. He pushes the Famicom to its limit and squeezes out every bit of musical power and variation it has to offer.
The battle theme is simply the best standard Final Fantasy battle music there is, no question (all right, all right, Blinded By Light from Final Fantasy XIII comes pretty close). Two separate airship themes, both fantastic. Some of the most oft-remixed tunes of the series in the forms of Elia Maiden of Water, the theme for one of the game’s supporting characters, Tozas, the spritely theme of the gnomish village, and the solemn, Asian-inspired overworld theme, Eternal Wind. Several renditions of these songs can be found on official albums and from amateur mixers, but my favorite versions happen to be vocal mixes sung by Risa Ohki on the Pray and Love Will Grow albums.
All that, and I haven’t even mentioned my favorite song yet. Not just my favorite from the game’s many admirable tracks, but my favorite song from the entire series. Entitled Forbidden Land, it’s the song that plays in Eureka, the game’s optional dungeon. I forgive you if you haven’t heard it. To my knowledge, it’s never been remixed on any of the thousands (exaggeration, but only barely) of Final Fantasy remix albums, nor is there any representation in the fan remix community (a single Japanese remixer has tackled the song on YouTube). I’ll give you a second to go dig up the tune. Finished? Cool.
I remember entering Eureka and literally sitting back in my chair to listen to the music. Even in the best games, that’s an exceedingly rare reaction for me these days. I was blown away by the epic creepiness, the irresistibly catchy melody, the spooky minor chords and the key changing to a brief, hopeful major bar before falling back into dejection. I allowed the song to loop once, twice, and halfway into a third time before taking a step forward and promptly getting slaughtered by Eureka’s beefy inhabitants. Oh well. A chance to spend more time there.
Job concept art from the DS version

For all I’ve talked about the ins and outs of Final Fantasy III, a large portion of the American fandom’s introduction to the game came in the form of references from other entries in the series, most of which would be completely missed by unfamiliar players. I’ve talked some about the core Final Fantasy concepts that FFIII introduced, but even beyond Dragoons and moogles, there have been a handful of winks and nods that intrepid fans may have spotted. I’ve already mentioned FFIX’s use of the Invincible, but even more obvious is the existence of two key items named Doga’s Artifact and Unei’s Mirror which play an enhanced version of the sages’ song from Final Fantasy III when gathered together. “Onion” monikered weapons have also appeared in several of the later games as beginner equipment, and in Final Fantasy X, a plush version of the Onion Knight himself was Lulu’s ultimate weapon. And little oft-forgotten Final Fantasy III finally got some due recognition when it was included in spinoffs such as Dissidia and Theatrhythm with just as much reverence as any other game in the series.

I can’t claim that Final Fantasy III is the best game in the series; that would be somewhat disingenuous. I can claim that it did a whole lot of work in shaping the series that we know today.

Now Final Fantasy III has been remade and ported to multiple devices, which means the younger generation can appreciate the allusions somewhat effortlessly. Back in my day (he said, tapping his cane on the tile) we had to take the word of a friend-of-a-friend who had supposedly lived in Japan for a few years. Today, FFIII is playable on the DS, PSP, mobile phones, and it’s even being held up as a launch title for the recently-Kickstarted OUYA console. From unreleased and all-but-forgotten to a flagship title in just a few years. Not bad.
I can’t claim that Final Fantasy III is the best game in the series; that would be somewhat disingenuous. I can claim that it did a whole lot of work in shaping the series that we know today. Most of us will name Final Fantasy IV, VI or VII as our introductions to the series, and I’m in the same boat. But Final Fantasy III was the first game that really made me sit up and examine the series as a whole. It was the first game that made me think about the themes, art styles, musical motifs and game design decisions that make Final Fantasy more than just a bunch of games marketed together. It was the game that made me realize the entire series, with all its strengths, faults, evolutions and tropes, is something intensely unique.
The later games made me a fan. But Final Fantasy III made me a fanatic.

New Schedule!

So, my posts around here have been pretty sporadic as of late. And by sporadic, I mean nonexistent. Some of it is due to my novel projects (Chanter is being shopped, Daughters is being revised), but that’s not the only reason, and it’s no excuse anyway. So starting tomorrow(!), I’m going to be getting onto a strict twice a week schedule. What will that entail?

Tuesdays: Literature type posts. Musings about writing, book reviews, maybe even some fiction here or there. This is where my Women of A Feast For Crows series will continue (and I promise, it’s coming!)

Thursdays: Video gaming stuff. I know, I know, if you go back far in the archives, you’ll see me specifically saying that I didn’t want to cover video gaming here. But you know what? Games are one of my primary passions, so why not write about them? I’ll try to make these posts outside the normal gaming-blog stuff. No talk of why Titanfall is OMG TEH BEST or why Kinect is OMG TEH SUCK. Expect a lot of retro focus.

In between, it’s possible I’ll have smaller stuff. But Tuesdays and Thursdays are the guaranteed posting days, so be on the lookout. And if you read a post, consider sharing or leaving a comment, even if it’s just “lol” — it helps me know that this is at least reaching some eyeballs!

See you tomorrow!

Review: Breathing Machine, A Memoir of Computers, by Leigh Alexander

“The secret sadness that underlies the proliferation of interactive entertainment and technology isn’t only that we may lose their mystery. It isn’t only that we’ll lose the pioneer feel of uncharted islands wreathed in newness, the half-finished thoughts of strangers surfacing in the distance. It isn’t even so much that we may be disappointed by the thin realizations of virtual worlds and repetitive, static online games, or the barrage of social media. It’s that our appetites, wishes and fantasies are cool now, sanctioned and monetizable, and we are open to being exploited.”

Leigh Alexander has long been one of my favorite writers on the Internet. I originally found her on Kotaku (where she still occasionally contributes), where her pieces on story, diversity and exploration in gaming serve as stellar counterpoints to the dudebro commenters giggling over “make me a sammich” jokes and wondering why anyone cares about that whole feminism thing.

Her announcement, seemingly out of nowhere, that she’d written a memoir about her youthful relationship to technology had me salivating (even if those dastardly Apple users got the book a few days earlier than I did). Anyone who’s a fan of Alexander needs no convincing — Breathing Machine is the Leigh you know and love. What about for everyone else? Well, it depends.

I say “it depends” not to disparage Alexander or her writing, but only to point out that the book is a very personal, very time-specific piece of writing. It’s not about computers as much as it is about interaction — interaction with machines, and our interaction with each other through machines, the evolution of which occurred mainly in the early to mid-nineties, when the Internet came out of universities and basements, but wasn’t quite mainstream yet. To anyone who was an adult during this time, it likely seems a lot less mystical. To anyone born afterward, being entranced by text games and seedy chatrooms probably sounds a bit silly.

But to those of us in adolescence in that oh so perfect and mysterious time period, we understand. We understand GOing NORTH to PUNCH RATs. We understand the allure of anime, traded on IRC and watched in dark rooms with shitty projectors and shittier subtitles, back before anime was a billion dollar craze in the Western world. We understand pretending to be Final Fantasy and Dragon Ball Z characters, creating a world together and taking epic actions while ::speaking in brackets::.

The reminiscing reminded me of one of my most poignant online experiences, one that still sticks with me to this day. I remember being in class (sixth grade, maybe?) and being encouraged to participate in an international pen pal program. I didn’t. What would I talk about? I asked myself. What would I say to someone a world away that wouldn’t sound trite and ignorant?

A few days later, I logged onto one of my favorite chatrooms to talk about whatever miscellany normally occupied us (probably video games, anime and porn). I got into a discussion with one particularly brusque fellow about some minor Final Fantasy plot point, and when he declared he needed to get ready for work in the middle of the night, I discovered he lived in Australia.

In one fell swoop, the entire concept of pen pals was obsolete. It’s easy to take for granted how much the Internet has expanded the scope of our social interactions, but for 13-year-old me, it was astounding. These are the memories Alexander’s book forces me to regurgitate.

It might be fair to criticize the book as overly nostalgic. After all, who would go back to AOL chatrooms, given the choice? But though Alexander recalls her electric explorations fondly, she never pretends they were perfect, and doesn’t assert that we could or should go back, even if they were.

She does end on a somewhat sad note by pointing out some troubling trends in the evolution of technology. Our shared language that was once used to build a community is now used to exclude those who look like past (or even imagined) tormentors. We erect barriers, not welcome mats. And the moneyed interests prey on our fears, make us suspicious of Outsiders so that we might buy, buy, buy in order to protect our Cred.

Breathing Machines is not a long book. It is not a thematically challenging book. You will not learn any grand truths reading this book. There are no historical tidbits or shocking answers to big questions. You may, however, recognize yourself in the author. And that in itself can be a sobering experience.