Atari Natsukashii

"Video game publisher Atari announced that it will seek approval from shareholders to effect a one-for-ten reverse stock split, in an attempt to raise the company's sagging $0.50 share price above the Nasdaq's $1 minimum requirement for continued listing.

In addition to the stock split, the company is also asking for shareholders' approval to reduce the company's outstanding shares to one-tenth their current number."

I must admit, I haven't given a hell about Atari's success since I sold off all my 2600 stuff way way back in the day (kicks self). I couldn't even tell you the name of any of the games they've released since than. Nevertheless, hearing that Atari my soon vanish off the face of the Earth is a little sad.

I owe an awful lot of myself to Atari and their humble 2600 system. Sure, I was standing on bar-stools to reach the controls of Gorf and Space Invaders before I ever had (or had heard of) Atari, but Atari were the first ones to bring video games into my bedroom. The arcade versions may have been bigger and louder and flashier, but nothing could compare to wrapping up in a blanket and playing Enduro late into the night on those long Minnesota winters. Atari (you were always "playing Atari" or "playing Nintendo" in those simpler days) was a much more personal experience than the loud and (back then) overcrowded arcades. It's no wonder button mashers like Mortal Kombat did so well in the mall while things like Zork had taken over the home computing scene. Simple could be beautiful if you just spent a little more time with it.

Now Nolan Bushnell (did you know he also started Chuck E. Cheese? Man...) is talking trash about Sony (Sony was an accident...) while his long-lost world-changing company is going down the tubes. Again, I couldn't care less about the man or the company. It's the fond memories of burning blocky dots and lines into the back of my eyeballs that I wonder about. Will I be able to hold on to them as the world moves on?

First Impressions: Final Fantasy XII

Oh man. Only 13 days to go until I can quit my job and finally devote my life to video games! (OK, wishful thinking.) But seriously, the Wii arrives two Sundays from now, and with it the new Zelda! (Which the press is loving, BTW.) So close! I'm also expecting to grab a few virtual console games if we can manage to figure out how to set up the wireless network. Any of my tech friends want to help us? Please? (Cable modem to computer to Wii, FYI.)

As for what I'm currently playing, that would be Final Fantasy XII. The short story is that I have issues with it, but it's starting to grow on me.

The longer story is that I think that Squeenix is very close to making a game the completely plays itself.

We all know ("we" being anyone that has played video-games for the past few years) that classic RPGs are becoming more like movies and less like games, often touting their lengthy cut-scenes as a major selling point. (Side-note: when does a cut-scene become a movie anyway? Doesn't Xenosaga have some that are over thirty minutes? If Battlestar Galactica can get away with five minute "webisodes" then I tend to think we've long since crossed into the realm of game-as-film.) FFXII takes this lack of user control one more step by including the "gambit" system. Basically, each character can be given a list of orders to follow when engaging in battle. You can have them fight the closest enemy while at the same time watching out for anyone whose HP drops below fifty percent. If that happens, they will cast a cure spell or toss them a healing potion before jumping back into battle. All without a single button press from the player. These can be sent for the entire party, and there is an almost infinite range of commands. All the user needs to do is steer the party around the field. Sure, boss battles might require a few breaks in the fight while the user changes a few setting or, gasp!, actually turns off the gambits and bravely takes control themselves. Doing so, however, shows us where the conspiracy against self-control truly shines.

It is very difficult to effectively control the entire party manually. First off, no one will do anything until you tell them to. That sounds obvious, but what I mean is that usually a character's "ready" meter will automatically start to fill at the start of a battle. Not so in FFXII. You must issue an order first, then the character will start to get ready. This is OK for one character, but try doing it with three and things start to fall apart. Characters can spend more time waiting for your commands and just standing around taking hits than laying the smack down themselves. This doesn't even take into account the cumbersome field menu system. It would seem that players are forced to use the hands-off gambit system to hope for anything close to success.

The other major game system I have problems with is the "license grid." This is similar to the "sphere grid" from FFX, only totally broken. A character needs to buy a license in order to be able to cast certain spells, wear certain armor, use certain weapons and learn certain skills. You can spend a million gil buying every cool new weapon, but unless you've also bought the corresponding license (using license points) you cannot use them. On the other hand, you can buy licenses far in advance of your chance to pick up the equipment at a shop. This would seem to be the best route, planning for the future, but here's the catch: instead of making each character unique, this makes them all exactly the same. Everyone's grid is the same. There's no way of knowing what skill or equipment will work best just by looking at the license grid, so why potentially waste the points on something you won't want to use? Plus, it could be a very long time before you can even make use of a license, so why bother? What results is constantly having to go to a shop, see what's new and what's better than what you already have, go to the license grid, see what you can learn, see if anything on the grid matches the best item in the shop and on and on for every character.

Both of these new systems only serve to bog the game down with numbers. Each character is only a set of numbers to be built up to bigger numbers. Their path through the game in meaningless when every path has the potential to be exactly the same. It's like (nerd alert) simple handing your D&D character sheet over to the DM and just watching him roll dice. "You're fighting. You won. You're fighting. You won. You all buy that new sword. Cut-scene!"

I've never been one to enjoy war sims and the like, games where you are a general and give orders to troops, then stand back and watch the carnage. I want to be a character. I want to feel as if I'm helping them on their individual path to greatness. So far, FFXII is nothing but a hoop-jump through bland eye-candy with an overbearing and muddled plot. Still, I'm only about 10 hours into the game, so things may sort themselves out. Either way, this is a sad note for the PS2 and the classic Final Fantasy series we've all grown-up with to go out on.

(Oh, and why did they record all of the dialog in a stainless-steel bathroom?)

All of this really makes me look forward to the DS remake of Final Fantasy III 'cause, you know, that is going to be fun.