Monday, April 4, 2011

The Ravaging of Cosmic Fantasy

A beloved series pays an ill-fated visit to the other side of the tracks...

We game-playing nerds must be an amusing lot. We harbor unyielding allegiances to cartridges that relinquished their spots on store shelves decades ago, consoles that delivered their swan songs during epochs of gaming antiquity, developers who landed on skid row last millennium. The disputes we engage in for the sake of dust-covered relics and their long-forgotten creators can be heated, indeed; but friendships with other living, breathing humans are frivolous fodder when a beloved character or franchise must be guarded from attack. Various aspects of video games can hold special appeal for us, and once sentimentality enters the frame, a transcendental bond is formed; provide us with precious memories, and we'll maintain and defend your legacy.

Few other games have done as much to earn my reverence as Cosmic Fantasy 2. When I'm paying homage to the characters that have charmed me, the tunes that bring tears of nostalgia to my eyes, the plotlines that entrenched themselves in my video-adventure recollections via moving moments, it's a given that my old friend CF2 will receive more than just a small share of accolades. I've taken four trips through it--four trips through the Japanese version, that is. The US rendition has hosted over a dozen of my excursions. But Van, Babs, and Pico--2's lovable trio of heroic misfits--aren't the only friends I've made in the CF universe; I've also forged alliances with stars of the opening episode and the subsequent ones, as they and I undertook similarly delightful endeavors together. True, I never hesitate to express my displeasure with the first chapter of CF4, but that's because I care far too much about the series to let such an egregious misstep slide.

And I hope that my willingness to decry an ill-executed episode demonstrates my reasonableness when it comes to assessing the saga on the whole. There's no doubt that I'm ferociously loyal to the CF titles, but as I do with my other game-related associations of affection, I try to remain sensible and call caps on their perceived virtues. I am well aware that CF2 comes nowhere close to achieving perfection, no matter how much it means to me. Thus, while I'm always happy to provide discourse on its merits, I have waged few arguments over the years in support of it. In many cases, the criticisms that people level at it are indisputably valid. In numerous ways, the game could have benefited from additional polishing, from more effort devoted to refinement, prior to its release.

Its strengths made it worthy of receiving proper treatment. Unfortunately, it was released for the PC Engine as a product with clear (and, in some instances, perplexingly odd) flaws. It was eventually given a shot at redemption, but not in the comfortable realm of the PCE where the series otherwise resided.

Now, anyone who is acquainted with me, who has partaken in discussions on video games with me, who reads the blather I post on this site, knows very well that I am fiercely devoted to one console in particular:

The Genesis, of course.

And that's where Cosmic Fantasy took its act when the time came for some makeup work. To be more specific, the first two episodes of the series were redone and released on a single disc for Sega's Mega CD system, equipped with a fresh new moniker: Cosmic Fantasy Stories.

What was so wonderful about all this was not merely that a couple of my favorite adventures were being all shined up for an appearance on a machine I'm enamored with. The true blessing here was that the people at Riot responsible for executing the port ably identified the aspects of the originals that needed to be improved. They knew that the opening episode made for but a fair frolic through primitiveness and that the followup had been allowed to leave the developers' shop in incomplete condition. They committed themselves to righting Laser Soft's wrongs, to giving these quaint questing stories the overhauls necessary for them to take the form of true epic masterpieces.

The project surely was epic, but only in the manner in which it failed. Cosmic Fantasy Stories is one of the most unabashedly awful disasters I've ever experienced in gaming.

The horrors I'd endure at its hands were completely unforeseen at the outset. A mere moment is all it took for the dual-game release to get me all psyched up for the seemingly certain delights it had in store for me, as it opens with an extremely cool cinema set to a superb adrenaline-pumping number.

Disappointment did not set in once the game proper began. No longer does the first episode come off as a victim of graphical garbage-work. The field visuals it sports here are at an appreciably higher level, roughly on par with PCE CF2's.

Town Scenes
(Top: PCE CD CF; bottom: MCD CF)

Strangely enough, after but a short time spent exploring the first maze area, I felt wistful for the simplistic looks of the original's labyrinths. It would be hard to present any sort of technical argument in defense of my outlook (though what I would consider "odd" color choices had detrimental effects on all areas of Stories' visuals), and in any event, the new-look battles only came off as more and more impressive as I made my way through the back-to-back journeys. The screen-wide combat artwork here is far more pleasing to the eye than are the limited background portraits sported by PCE CF and gives MCD CF2 an undeniable advantage over its PCE backdrop-deprived forebear.

Battle Scenes
(Top: MCD CF2; bottom-left: PCE CD CF; bottom-right: Turbo CD CF2)

The enemy art does come off as sharper and better in the Engine renditions, however. This is not the biggest deal in the world. I'm more perplexed by Stories' omission of background art for boss battles, a move that, ironically enough, leaves the first PCE CF with the best-looking boss fights of the games involved here.

Boss Battles
(Top: MCD CF2; bottom-left: PCE CD CF; bottom-right: Turbo CD CF2)

Even if they had been augmented with backdrops (as they should have been), Stories' "climactic" battles would have ended up throwaways, as the bosses are absurdly easy to beat. Only a single CF2 fiend takes a respectable stand here; his cohorts all disgrace themselves by making the trip as lowly pushovers. (It should be mentioned in Stories' favor, though, that some significant confrontations that played out with regular enemies in PCE CF2 feature true bosses here.)

That these fellows are so easily hammered is not due to the fact that Stories' version of the first episode allows you to take more than two characters into battle--but this does bring us to another of Riot's improvements. While other characters tag along with Yuu and Saya for stretches at a time in PCE CF, the player is never allowed to make use of these allies during combat, which makes absolutely no sense at all. MCD CD remedies the situation by granting you control of your entire party when monsters approach.

This was a common-sense alteration. And Riot's remodeling crew no doubt felt they were making similarly sensible adjustments by eliminating segments of the PCE game that seemed to have very little purpose. Stories does away with required antics such as stumbling around a makeshift prison cell until a rescuer arrives.

Unfortunately, in some cases, Riot went a little too far in their endeavors to do away with time-wasting activities. A memorable PCE CF scene sees Yuu and Saya come under attack by an infinite number of mighty enemies. It's fun to see just how long you can hold out against evil's illimitable forces, but the outcome is always the same: the heroes end up battered in necessary defeat.

Stories dispatches with that "enemy forces" stuff, choosing instead to suddenly show the heroes as battered following an ambiguous, hacked-into sequence--which is really stupid.

And that's hardly the only instance of stupidity on Riot's part. In what was surely another misguided move intended to make life a little more pleasant for the player, certain dungeons here act as homes to not a single enemy inhabitant. Perhaps that sounds like a good thing, as such dungeons contain no random battles to button through. Unfortunately, there isn't much of anything at all to do in these large, labyrinthine sections of very-dead space save for trudging along, bumping into countless dead-ends, and finding unnecessary and unexciting healing trinkets. One wonders why these locations weren't simply omitted altogether.

Oddly enough, that same crew so hellbent on saving our time decided to redesign and enlarge certain mazes that really didn't require any sort of reworking. Yes, most of these locations contain random battles; but there is seldom anything to stumble upon within them save for dead-end wall after dead-end wall and the occasional worthless junk-item.

I can live with a few botched maze jobs, though. I have a harder time tolerating the "remixed" soundtrack here. Many of the PCE versions' tunes were reworked into cacophonous renditions of their old selves (with CF2's classic numbers the victims of especially offensive mutilation). A few wonderful tunes were removed entirely to make way for lackluster new tracks. Stories also puts us through misery via terrible sound effects.

But even with all the questionable decisions and unnecessary changes that were made in its creation, Stories' take on the first CF is tolerable except perhaps for an irritating cave maze housing horrible creatures that can turn your party members to stone with a glance. You're certain to experience a good bit of terror in that awful place...

...but just wait. It's a very small taste of what awaits you in Stories CF2.

You might recall that PCE CF2 left out status effects entirely, much to the chagrin of players who enjoy delivering diatribes regarding "lack of depth." Well, once you've had your fair share of run-ins with the countless paralysis-causing monstrosities in Stories 2, you won't want to know from another status inducer ever again. The effects that MCD CF2's merciless and terrifyingly powerful monsters afflict you with over and over again make what was once a wonderful role-playing experience into something unbelievably awful and annoying. Even more of a problem are the "super attacks" that enemies are granted (in both episodes, but they become far more of a concern in 2). Valiantly made progress can come to an immediate halt should irritable foes decide to stop your party members right in their tracks or wipe out most of their remaining vitality with single brutal swipes.

A few areas are inexplicably easy in Stories 2--"breaks," apparently. One of these areas is not the post-final-boss celebration scene. Yes... after the final boss... when you're just supposed to walk around and say your farewells to everyone... will be ATTACKED. Repeatedly. Truly, this game establishes a new definition for "merciless."

At least, you would think, you have the traditionally wonderful Cosmic Fantasy cutscenes to look forward to for all your troubles. Yeah, you would think that. Stories actually DROPS some of the original cinemas in favor of text-based skits. Occasional improvements in animation hardly make up for such noticeable omissions; indeed, dropping cinemas from a Cosmic Fantasy game (good ones, at that) is simply unforgivable. This entire "effort," in fact, is an unforgivable maiming of material that I love.

Cinematic Scenes
(Top: PCE CD CF2; bottom: MCD CF2)

But let's have some fun (for once here) and take a look at how the Rim shower scene fares in Stories. Perhaps we should be thankful that it, unlike some of its fellow interludes, was spared from execution.

Shower Scenes
(Top: MCD CF2; bottom-left: PCE CD CF2; bottom-right: PCE CD CF Visual Collection)

Well, no surprise here. Stories doesn't even offer the best shower scene. It does give us this, though...

Nice. Not nice enough to earn my allegiance, though. Nor my forgiveness.

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