Switch Turns Four – Part Seven
Over the course of March, the SwitchRPG team will be creating and sharing a variety of Switch RPG content in honor of the console turning four this month! Next up, Nestor’s picks!
As you may or may not be well aware, when we here at SwitchRPG.com review games rather than use a numerated rating system like so many other gaming publications, we score games as either ‘Bad’, ‘OK’, ‘Good’, or ‘Great’. Yet, if you are anything like me, you probably have your own personal rating scale by which you judge the games you own or play. For as long as I have been a gamer, I’ve been ranking games in my private collection by a variety of methods, and the one that I have employed when evaluating games that I complete during the Switch-era is a 1-10 point scale (which includes halves, or .5’s).
Generally, I view anything above a ‘5/10’ as better than mediocre, and anything an ‘8/10’ or above to be a great game. While there are dozens of titles on the Switch that I would consider great, there are only four games in my library that I would term absolute masterpieces; these are perfect 10/10’s, games that nobody who is even moderately entertained by the medium, and particularly action-adventure/(J)RPGs, should go without experiencing at least once. In short, these are the gold standards. Thus, when the creator of SwitchRPG, Ben, approached us with the idea of publishing a variety of ‘lists-of-four’ in celebration of the Nintendo Switch turning four years old this month, it was only all too obvious for me what my list should center around. And so, in no particular order, I give you ‘My Four Perfect 10’s’ and what they personally mean to me:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
With a stellar Metacritic score of 97%, it’s no secret that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest games ever made. While the sheer scale of Breath of the Wild and everything that Nintendo was able to achieve in terms of open-world game design still continues to impress me, this will forever remain a game that shares a very special place in my heart for the profound impact that it has had on my personal gaming history. And if you will indulge me, I would like to share that with you.
For context, allow me to turn back the hands of Father Time to the summer of 1997. That was the summer that the Nintendo 64 first graced my household. At the time I was a nine-year old who had only casually dabbled in some of the NES and SNES games that we had around the house (but which I always found too difficult). Soon after acquiring Nintendo’s latest piece of hardware, I quickly discovered the addictive and immersive worlds of Super Mario 64 and Mario Kart 64. However, around that same time it was actually a Super Nintendo game that my brother and I had stumbled across in a bargain bin at Kmart which really turned me on to gaming. That $22 piece of software, the price of which we split evenly, was a little game called The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
I still warmly remember the utter fascination I felt playing A Link to the Past for the first time, the toils involved in solving some of its challenging puzzles, the feeling of ecstacy at finding some secret location (like the vagrant under the bridge) or hidden reward with which the game is replete. Naturally, being only nine-years old, I quickly and frequently found myself getting stuck and eventually hit an impenetrable wall during my escapades in the Dark Palace.
It never occurred to me that the only way to progress was to shoot a statue’s eye with an arrow, which in turn would cause a nearby wall to shift rightward and reveal a staircase that shortly thereafter led to the dungeon boss, the Helmasaur King. I would have never figured that out on my own but thankfully Nintendo was there to save the day via an Official Player’s Guide that they had published for helpless sojourners such as myself. In those days, and especially in the case of A Link to the Past, written guides weren’t just a series of carefully detailed instructions coupled with occasional screenshots.
Rather, these books were often works of art in their own right and I recall that this guide in particular contained beautifully drawn concept art of numerous characters and locations. It became almost as integral to my experience of A Link to the Past as the game itself, and one weekend when I had to go somewhere with my parents and be away from my Super Nintendo for a whopping two days(!), I took the guide with me. I read it. I studied it. I became immersed in the game even when I wasn’t playing the game. And I dreamt about the possibility of one day playing a Zelda game in crisp, lively, fully-rendered 3D animations that captured what the artwork of the Link to the Past Player’s Guide only teased in glimpses.
Fortunately, that same year, as a subscriber to Nintendo Power magazine, I didn’t have to wait long for my childhood fantasies to take root: Nintendo showed off their first 100 screenshots of the highly anticipated Zelda 64, as it was then known. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t set to launch for at least another year and an excruciatingly long waiting time ensued—after all, a year to a nine-year old feels like a hell of a lot longer than a year!
Flash forward now to the summer of 1998: I have made it a full decade on planet Earth and more information on The Ocarina of Time, as it was now officially called, continually entered my stratosphere in bits and pieces in the form of rumors and new screenshots, which I actively sought out and devoured at every opportunity. Our family didn’t yet have an internet connection then, so I was restricted to the scraps I could gather when visiting my friend’s house down the street or other gaming magazines which I’d read when accompanying my father or mother to Barnes and Noble or Borders (R.I.P.).
I had become so enamored at the thought of playing as Link–see, in my mind he was no longer merely a cute little sprite on the TV screen but with the cutting-edge technology of the N64 I would actually be Link (the gaming device had the power to transport me into the 3D version of Hyrule that I foresaw in my dreams!)—that I yet remember counting the days down until the November 24, 1998 launch of Ocarina of Time. Quite literally. When I would see my aforementioned friend who lived down the street, who was a couple of years younger than me and also had an N64 (and whom I also convinced that Ocarina of Time was worth getting very excited about), we would greet each other by saying something like, ’43 more days until Ocarina!’ and so on. We did this everyday during those final months, and boy, let me tell you: those were extremely difficult months for a suburban white kid with a Nintendo 64 and a singularly focused Zelda obsession.
Finally, November 24th arrived. My mother took me and one of my older brothers to Funcoland (this was our GameStop back in the 1990s) and we brought home that beautiful gold N64 cartridge.
Typically, this is the point where one might write, ‘and the rest is history’, but for me, my relationship with Ocarina of Time turned out to be… more complicated. Actually, on the whole, I found it to be a very disappointing experience at the time. In retrospect, I realize that a) it was and remains a very well-made game, and b) my expectations for it were unrealistically high. Yet, I recollect, even as a ten-year old (or eleven-year old, as my birthday is in February) who beat it within the first 2-3 months of its launch, I had very particular criticisms of the game. For one, I thought Hyrule Field felt too empty, and uninteresting, and far too much of a chore to traverse the more time that I spent in it. I also remember seeing the mountains across Lake Hylia and feeling disappointed that they were nothing more than a walled boundary, that there was no swimming ‘across’ the lake.
I found Ocarina’s version of the Lost Woods and its pathetic excuse for ‘caves’ (holes in the ground that lacked the creativity or authenticity of the sprawling, winding caverns that filled Death Mountain and other areas in A Link to the Past) to be inferior to their SNES counterpart. Perhaps the biggest letdown of all that I still keenly recall is when I eventually got to Gerudo Fortress and saw a vast, rolling, sandy desert lying before me. It was a Sunday morning and I had woken up early to play some Zelda before I had to go to church with my parents. The entire service, while the preacher prattled on what about who-knows-what, I couldn’t stop thinking about the huge, new, unexplored section of Hyrule that I would get to scrutinize when I got home. And then, well, as they say, the rest is history: Gerudo Desert turned out to be nothing but a restrictive, linear obstacle that punished any desire I had to explore it further.
I don’t say any of this to knock Ocarina of Time. The game is a classic and well-deserving of all the praise it has received over the years. In truth, it’s a game that I didn’t allow myself to fully appreciate as a child because I anticipated it being something that, in hindsight, I don’t think would have really been possible to achieve given the technology of the time. Even so, I do say all of this to highlight the fact that A Link to Past remained my favorite Zelda game for decades to follow. None of the subsequent Zelda releases, on either console or handheld, ever came close to toppling it. In fact, in my eyes, each successive Zelda title only made Ocarina of Time seem to get better and better as the years went by.
Let’s return to March 3rd, 2017, and the release of Breath of the Wild. By this point, I hadn’t really been what I would consider to be a gamer for about a decade. I had owned a Wii for a brief amount of time but outside of Wii Sports, Mario Kart 7, and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (which I have never completed), I rarely played it. I owned an Xbox 360, an Xbox One, and a Nintendo DS, and I could count all of the software that I possessed for all three platforms on two hands. I simply didn’t consider myself to be that into video games anymore. I thought that they were a childhood hobby which I had simply ‘grown out’ of. But then, for some reason–and I still cannot say for certain what it was–a day or two before the Nintendo Switch officially launched I found myself with an inexplicable urge to buy a Switch and the latest Zelda adventure.
I had seen the trailer a couple of months earlier and my impressions of it were positive, but beyond that I hadn’t really given it much additional thought. And even when I did purchase Breath of the Wild, I can’t say that I really had any expectations for it except that I figured it would more or less stick to the formulaic, linear game design that the series had become known for over the previous twenty-five years, though perhaps execute that blueprint better than most of the recent Zelda games. But surely it would not top A Link to the Past. I didn’t think that was possible.
And I could not have been more wrong.
After calling around numerous stores, I was lucky enough to be able to snag a Switch by waiting outside of a Toys R Us on a Sunday morning two days after the console launched. That morning when I returned home and popped Breath of the Wild into my Switch to begin playing, I blinked and quickly realized an hour had passed. No, two hours had passed. I blinked again and five hours had passed. Before I knew it, it was nearing time for me to go to bed (I had work or university or something to attend the next day). Ten hours had flown by and I had played the game without taking a single break. My head was reeling, literally.
My brain felt as though it had been sucked into a vortex and spit out into some different universe. I couldn’t wrap my head around what I had encountered. In those first ten hours of playing Breath of the Wild, I had managed to get off the Great Plateau, visit Kakariko and Hateno Villages, and make my way to Zora’s Domain, getting lost in numerous little distractions along the way. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this world is big! But surely I must have already discovered most of it by now!’ I thought that the very first day!
Every time that I’d wonder, ‘Can I really get to that mountain over there?’ or ‘That peak must be the edge of Hyrule,’ the game just kept opening up and getting bigger. This was the Zelda game that I had wanted as a child. This was the vision that I had conjured up in my nine-year old mind all those years ago, huddled around my Link to the Past Player’s Guide, waiting to return to that very small world (as it now seems by comparison) of Hyrule in the SNES classic.
Breath of the Wild is the easiest 10/10 for me to give. Sure, the game isn’t technically perfect: the Divine Beasts aren’t good enough substitutes for more traditional style Zelda dungeons, weapons break too frequently, the enemies could use more variety and (in my opinion) a less ‘cartoony’ look, and dammit, Nintendo, give us some real caves to explore in Breath of the Wild 2! (The trailer is at least promising on this front).
But these flaws aside, what the game does well–its open-world design first and foremost, its physics and how every enemy can be approached ever so slightly differently, its combat never feeling meaningless or dull, and the puzzles that predominantly come in the form of its 120 shrines scattered across the land, retaining that perfect balance of fun and difficulty that has become a staple of the series’ most challenging elements–it excels at all these features and more in ways that, for me, make it effortless to overlook the game’s few shortcomings. Most importantly, just as A Link to the Past did for the first time all those years ago, Breath of the Wild made me a passionate gamer once again.
And speaking of A Link to the Past, I should add that not only does it remain my second favorite Zelda game but it is still my fifth favorite game overall when I consider all that is currently available on the Nintendo Switch. That’s pretty good for a game that originally came out in 1991. Having played through Breath of the Wild twice since it launched, and A Link to the Past (for the fourth time) as recently as 2019, the latter holds up incredibly well.
It is timeless in a way that I can only hope Breath of the Wild will be should I be around and playing it again in twenty years’ time. But if I am trying to be as objective as possible, and if Breath of the Wild is a 10/10, then I have to give Link to the Past a 9.5 (these are differences of degrees, mind you, and the comparison is somewhat meaningless as these are two drastically different games that came out decades apart, which I am judging from a present-day perspective). Either way, precisely as I once doubted that A Link to the Past could ever really be bested, Breath of the Wild has set a new bar.
Indeed, this was arguably Nintendo’s biggest undertaking to date and the game that single-handedly put the company back on track after years of steady financial decline. While I’ll have to remember to moderate my expectations for the sequel this time around, less I doom myself to a second bout of inevitable disappointment, there’s really not much else that I can fairly demand from the next Zelda game. Breath of the Wild was the Zelda game that I waited my most of my life to experience, and I can die happily knowing that I was able to do so. Thank you, Nintendo… Now, please, do this same thing for the Pokemon franchise!
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
My personal sentiments surrounding CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, aren’t nearly as exhaustive and heartfelt as they are with Breath of the Wild. The series carries no significance with me into my childhood past. It didn’t propel me into gaming or reinvigorate my feelings about the medium.
It is, however, another example of a game that succeeded in completely obliterating whatever expectations I previously had before jumping into it, and one that I connected with on a level that few games are able to replicate.
My first encounter with The Witcher 3 was in 2017 when I rented it for the Xbox One. At this point, I knew essentially nothing about the game except that it was considered a Game of the Year-contender and boasted an open-world on the size and scale of Breath of the Wild, of which I was playing through the excellent ‘Master Trials’ DLC at the time. I’ll be totally honest, when I rented The Witcher 3, I played it for maybe an hour and felt uninterested in continuing further. Of course, it is impossible to fairly assess a game of this magnitude after such a short time, but I just remember finding the opening tutorial section and the first few moments on horseback in White Orchard to feel, if nothing else, clumsy.
Breath of the Wild was my main point of comparison at the time and I also recall (and I am bewildered about this now) thinking that Geralt of Rivia looked awkward riding around on Roach, his horse, as if the equine seemed too small and more like an oversized pooch rather than the majestic beasts of burden that I had grown used to catching and riding in Zelda. Part of the reason for my bias against The Witcher 3 from the start, I suspect, and I am somewhat embarrassed to say this as well, is that I simply didn’t care that much to play games on my Xbox One.
The chief cause of this, aside from loving my Switch through and through and wanting to spend all investments of time and money on it, is that on every occasion in which I booted up my Xbox there seemed to be a system update requirement that would take a ridiculously long amount of time and which usually resulted in me simply giving up on trying to play it. Hence, as a self-proclaimed shameless Nintendo fanboy, I think that part of my initial reluctance with The Witcher 3 on Xbox One was that I subconsciously didn’t want to get into playing this game on Microsoft’s platform.
I admit that this all sounds terribly silly to me now. Fortunately, a couple of years later, Saber Interactive did the unimaginable and found a way to port The Witcher 3 on to the Nintendo Switch. In the intervening two years I had finally played The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the first time, and in late 2019 when The Witcher 3 arrived on the Switch, I had an itch to dive into a game that I thought would resemble the kind of freedom and style of gameplay that I found so engrossing in Skyrim. During this second attempt, my impressions of The Witcher 3 were far more constructive. Sure, it was, as I eluded, probably helped by the fact that I was playing it on my favorite console of all time. It also helped that I had bought the game rather than renting it, thus ensuring some further level of commitment, since even if I didn’t like it I was more or less stuck with it (I had recently moved to Japan and ordered the U.S. version of the game online, so trading it in at my local game store was not, insofar as I am aware, feasible in any convenient manner).
That aside, the game still didn’t click with me right away, particularly its combat, and I was exceedingly skeptical when I ran too far afield in White Orchard and hit a boundary, the game automatically turning my character around to return to the playable map. Oh no, I feared… This was the Gerudo Desert-scenario from Ocarina of Time all over again. Perhaps, I began to worry, I had misunderstood… maybe this wasn’t truly an open-world game in the sense that Breath of the Wild or Skyrim had proven to be, wherein you can travel to practically any point in the distance so long as you can see it…
Happily, my concerns were alleviated when I got beyond Kaer Morhen, White Orchard, and the Royal Palace in Vizima, discovering not only that Velen, Novigrad, the Skellige Isles, and Toussaint are insanely large regions to explore, but also that they are beaming with spry details, from the smallest blades of grass and rustling leaves of trees to the various NPCs and the bustling towns and buildings that contain them. I can think of no game world in which I have lost myself so completely as I did in the realm of The Witcher 3, thanks in no small part to the excellent writing and voice-acting that compliments virtually every interaction.
While the game naturally lends itself to comparisons with other open-world adventure titles like Breath of the Wild and Skyrim (at least these were the two games that I had played within the year prior that seemed to be in the same ballpark), The Witcher 3 masterly forges its own identity while checking off all of the boxes that made those respective games and others of a similar ilk (I’d even toss the Grand Theft Auto franchise in here) so beloved. Do you cherish a sense of freedom in your games, to explore a vast landscape or cityscape at your own pace, to tackle or decline a huge variety of quests and side missions, or simply be given choices during dialogue that may affect how an event unfolds later? The Witcher 3 has you covered.
Do you like a game with slow and steady character progression, where you have to learn new skills to take on increasingly difficult challenges, planning your next course of action by saving up and seeking out the next best weapon to buy, or do you prefer to gather the right materials to craft all of your equipment and tools at the nearest blacksmith? The Witcher 3 has you covered. Do you like collecting cards and using them to compete in card-based mini-games? Oh boy, does The Witcher 3 have you covered, but I’ll return to ‘Gwent’, as its card-based mini-game is called, in a moment. In short, The Witcher 3 has it all: intelligent, witty writing, a moving soundtrack, a sprawling world, morally complex and interesting characters, hundreds of items to collect, buy, sell, and craft, an in-depth combat system, and so much more.
It is also that rare action-RPG where the long lists of uncompleted quests that I compiled when meeting new NPC’s never felt cumbersome (I’m looking at you, Xenoblade Chronicles). To the contrary, I always found myself seeking out more quests as the optional storylines I uncovered were every bit as, if not more, compelling than the main narrative that compels Geralt throughout his journey.
And speaking of that journey, the game takes you to some unforgettable places with even more unforgettable faces (though easily forgettable names). I’ll simply never forget the exhilaration and amazement that I felt when I sailed forth from Novigrad to the Skellige Isles and found myself in what seemed like an entirely different game, containing a brand new section of the world, the scope of which could almost justify itself as a standalone title. The network of islands and villages found in that particular region of the game, and the vast stretches of seafaring required to reach each isolated land mass, recalled a feeling of exploration and discovery that I had not experienced since playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the GameCube many years prior.
I think back to my rendezvous with Sigismund Dijkstra or Zoltan Chivay (yeah, totally had to Google those names) in Novigrad, or the dozens of other characters, each with their own unique personalities and whims, and the great variety of nail-biting situations that you find yourself in along the way; or the moment when I was alone, peacefully sailing the seas in Skellige and unexpectedly learned the fate of a certain woman named Birna who I had all but forgotten about in the hours that had intervened since I last encountered her.
Or, perhaps most vividly of all, there is a memory I have that continues to give me goosebumps in the way that only nostalgia can, that night with my old pals in Kaer Morhen, when we sat within the quiet, empty, rundown fortress getting drunk and reminiscing by candlelight, haunting shadows flickering on the walls… I knew then that things were about to hit the fan, that I–or rather Geralt and company–might not get the opportunity to let loose like this ever again, and it made that scene all the more potent, impactful, so much that I still occasionally think about it from time to time, and feel it even now upon reflection.
There are so many special moments like that in The Witcher 3 to which I continually harken back with deep fondness, occasions that almost seem to transcend what should be possible for a mere video game. When it comes to the degree of detail implemented into every facet of this masterpiece, I have to rank The Witcher 3 as my favorite game ever made, full stop, which was not a conclusion I ever considered possible when I first played it on the Xbox One in 2017, or even in 2019 when I gave it another (actual) chance to win me over. I especially never thought a game could recreate that pure childlike bliss which I had only rediscovered with Breath of the Wild.
But for me, The Witcher 3 was the sort of game that even after playing it for well over 200 hours and completing all of the DLC content, I still did not want it to end and was immediately struck by a profound and lingering sadness when I knew it was all over with. Never again, I thought, will I get to experience this game for the first time, or in the same way, and it’s entirely possible that it will be a very long time before anything comes along that is even remotely able to match the magic that it captured.
And all of these feelings, mind you, were created from my only having experienced it on the Nintendo Switch! By all accounts the Switch version is somewhat ugly compared to the more powerful console and PC versions of the game (I really don’t remember how it looked on the Xbox One considering that my time with it there was so brief). And while it’s true that the game is pretty blurry on Nintendo’s platform, especially when docked–though there has been an update since it launched that apparently makes things a bit better–after adjusting to the game’s look I found myself completely in love with it. If there is but one game that I think everyone should experience just once, and for at least more than the initial hour that I spent with it (I’d say give it no less than five to win you over), it has to be The Witcher 3.
Oh, and about Gwent, the card game featured in The Witcher 3? I cannot say that I have played a ton of card-based video games; most encounters have come in the form of RPG mini-games where they often feel tacked on or unessential, but Gwent is a genuinely well-made and addicting distraction in The Witcher 3. I would often take a break from whatever sidequest I was preoccupied with and seek out NPCs to challenge in Gwent. Thus, it was a very pleasant surprise when CD Projekt Red decided to release Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales on the Switch a mere weeks after I had completed Geralt’s adventure.
It’s basically a spin-off that focuses on some minor characters from The Witcher 3 but centers around a more advanced version of Gwent. It is a pretty niche title that I imagine could only really appeal to people who liked Gwent or enjoy playing card-based video games. For me, it was a great deal of fun and served to soften my break-up with the game that I had played obsessively during the month prior. As should be obvious by now, I cannot recommend The Witcher 3 enough, and if you want more, I’d easily advise you to check out Thronebreaker on the Nintendo Switch eShop.
Final Fantasy IX
For many people (including myself), the mid-to-late 1990s represent a sort of golden era for the developer once known as Squaresoft (Square Enix since its merger with Enix in 2003). From 1994 to the turn of the century, Squaresoft churned out a string of hits, including such classics as Chrono Trigger, Super Mario RPG (in partnership with Nintendo), Final Fantasy VI, VII, and VIII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Xenogears, and Parasite Eve, among others.
As we entered the dawn of a new millennium, their momentum and penchant for producing big-budget, high-quality RPGs appeared to show no signs of slowing down: in the second half of the year 2000, the U.S. saw the release of both Final Fantasy IX and Chrono Chross, the latter an indirect sequel to Chrono Trigger that, while considered by very few to be on par with the SNES original, was still a unique and worthy successor.
For me, Final Fantasy IX represents the end of an era. It was one of the last major titles to hit the original Playstation as the PS2 had launched but a month earlier; it was also the final Final Fantasy game that saw series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi closely involved during the development process. Indeed, following the massive flop that was his immensely ambitious cinematic debut, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, a film with a reported budget of 137 million USD that only managed to recoup just over half that at the box office, the future of a company that once seemed brimming with justified confidence in its mastery over the craft appeared uncertain; the god-like statue of Squaresoft hovering over the domain of JRPGs brought down to earth.
There are, of course, a number of diehard fans that swear by Final Fantasy X on the PS2 as one of the greatest games ever made (I never could get into it, but I admit it deserves a second look as the English-language voice acting was my biggest hurdle that I couldn’t look past at the time). And it’s true that I later spent hundreds of hours in the online MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI.
Still, there does seem to have been something special about the company, specifically the quality and quantity of games that it delivered on the SNES and Playstation in those years already mentioned. In my opinion, Final Fantasy IX is the crowning achievement not only of the Final Fantasy series but also the last great game developed by the company once known as Squaresoft.
Where does one even begin with a masterpiece like Final Fantasy IX? I suppose it is natural to talk about its competition, its closest kin, the other two behemoths in the franchise that Squaresoft released in 1997 and 1999, respectively, Final Fantasy VII and VIII. The first obvious difference between IX and the two that preceded it is the aesthetics of the game. With Final Fantasy VI on the Super Nintendo, the series had taken a noticeable turn from being straight-up medieval fantasy games to fantasy games featuring advanced industrial-age technologies.
While FFVI introduced large mechanical armored suits that somewhat resemble robotic chocobos, FFVII took everything—and I mean everything—a gigantic step further, including its embrace of a fully modernized vision complete with gun-arms, rocket ships, and of course, the grim, slimy, and beautifully realized industrial hellhole that is the city of Midgar. FFVIII continued this trend, albeit in a world where everything and everyone appeared a lot sleeker, cleaner, and, well, bitchier.
Final Fantasy IX was a return to form in more ways than one. Here we are squarely nestled back into the world of Final Fantasy as players had discovered it over the first five entries in the series. There is futuristic technology, in one sense, as there are flying ships, but like the older games, these airships look like giant wooden boats carried aloft by propellers and ‘Mist’, a sort of foggy cloud that permeates Gaia (not the most original name for the planet, admittedly) and is an integral part of its ecosystem.
The characters in FFIX are also purposefully given an exaggerated, almost deformed appearance (especially opposed to FFVIII, released but a year earlier), though nothing that I did not immediately fall in love with as a twelve-year old. I still vividly recall sitting at a bookstore late on a Saturday night, reading Electronic Gaming Monthly in the months leading up to its November, 2000 release, full of excitement and anticipation as I learned more about Zidane, Vivi, Steiner, and its full cast of colorful personalities (this is in contrast to the recently released Bravely Default II, of which the character designs I find hideous and want nothing to do with). With regards to the look of FFIX’s rugged band of protagonists, I have actually heard them criticized as being ‘too kiddy’.
While I do not agree in the slightest, I can somewhat understand that they won’t appeal to everyone, though I found them extremely personable and interesting from the start, so perhaps it simply boils down to a difference in tastes. However, I do hope that if you find the character designs unattractive that at least it won’t prevent you from discovering and/or finishing one of the greatest JRPGs known to humankind–and no, that is not hyperbole.
It is not my intention to write a detailed exposé about the game here, so allow me to be brief (to a point) and merely highlight what I love about this game: As mentioned, the aesthetics stand out for their return to a medieval fantasy style. But now imagine that style rendered to utmost perfection, with enormous cities to explore, small towns and villages to stumble upon, castles and ruins and everything else in between associated with the genre of fantasy art, pieced together with elegance and affection permeating every scene. FFIX is like its Playstation predecessors in that most of its background environments are prerendered, which of course limits the vantage point from which one can view any given area; still, in my estimation this allows for an appearance and overall flair that is not only in-itself pleasant to absorb but also has aged surprisingly well. On the other hand, the combat in FFIX is fun but I won’t pretend that it does anything particularly spectacular or off the beaten path. It is fairly typical as far as JRPGs go but, like all else with this game, its execution is flawless.
Aside from the combat and environments, FFIX really shines in two specific areas for me: its writing and its soundtrack. Longtime series composer Nobuo Uematsu returned to gift us his genius and FFIX’s musical score is nothing short of the excellence that one would expect after playing through some of the previous Final Fantasy games, specifically VII and VIII. The game’s lead single, ‘Melodies of Life’, is a powerful ballad that continues to persist with me but is all the more impactful when utilized during some of the game’s more emotional scenes.
Another standout tune worth mentioning is ‘You’re Not Alone’. And if you’re looking for that classic JRPG village song, then immediately stop reading this and go listen to the excellent theme of the village Dali, a sleepy track called… ‘The Village of Dali’. To put it concisely, FFIX has one of my favorite soundtracks of any game, but again, its Uematsu… players familiar with his work had already known by 2000 that whatever he had a hand in was bound to be memorable.
So then, let’s talk about the writing. I’m not here to criticize FFVII or FFVIII—my experience of them as a prepubescent boy was mostly positive and FFVII remains one of my favorite RPGs—but re-experiencing all three Playstation Final Fantasy games as an adult within the past few years, after they were each ported to the Nintendo Switch, I have to say, the writing in FFVIII is basically… trash (I stand by it). FFVII‘s is, at best… ‘meh’.
This is also true of their overwritten, convoluted, melodramatic narratives, especially in the case of FFVIII. FFVII’s plot is somewhat interesting but too confusing and all over the place to really hit home (notwithstanding that one heart-wrenching episode involving Sephiroth’s most infamous act). With FFIX, however, completing it once when I was twelve and then a second time as a thirty year old, it’s very clear to me: unlike those other two, FFIX pretty much has perfect writing.
I don’t mean only the story, which is solid and deals with a number of heavy themes that I’m sure my childhood self couldn’t have fully grasped, ranging from the social and political (the realities of war and its devastation on the common folk, love, loss, friendship, etc.) to the philosophical—questions of personal identity and meaning in the face of death. Rather, more or less every line of dialogue in this game is thoughtful to some extent or another. And though it has many grave moments it never takes itself too seriously (another problem that I have with VII and VIII); there is a lot of humor to be found in the writing, both explicit and unspoken.
A quick word about the Switch port: The characters were given the HD treatment while the prerendered backgrounds were not. It makes for a visually questionable contrast but overall a minor distraction if any issue at all. The best thing about replaying FFIX on Nintendo’s console-handheld hybrid is, without a doubt, the ability to toggle ‘fast forward’ on and off. Like many JRPGs, especially from the late 90s/early 00s, the game features random battles. That isn’t a problem if you’re into that or willing to deal with them, but for me, as I get older, I find myself having less tolerance for such things. Thankfully, with the ability to speed up the game whenever the urge struck, the fact of FFIX‘s random battles or its painfully long camera movements when they’re initiated weren’t the extreme annoyance that they may have been otherwise.
I’ll end my rant about FFIX on this note. There are not many games that evoke a visceral reaction from me. That’s not to say that I haven’t played my share of games which have elicited some type of emotional response. Actually, just off the top of my head, I can think of many titles: Gris, What Remains of Edith Finch, hell, even Octopath Traveler, for example, contained moments where I felt myself getting ‘in my feels’, knots in my stomach forming, my insides swelling up. What happened when I revisited FFIX in 2019, however, has never happened to me before.
I don’t know if it was nostalgia, the connection that I felt to the memories of playing this game as a kid for the very first time, or the sense that this game was not only the swan song of the Playstation but also of a certain period of innocence for myself; or if the full impact of this game’s narrative, especially how the arcs of each character and the plights and trials they endure develop, if this all only came bearing down in its entirety now, as I was older, more mature and able to completely grasp the implications of everything that the game portrays. Whatever it was, I am not ashamed to say that when the credits finally rolled after about 50 hours, I wholly and utterly broke down. Not just a few tears. I found myself sobbing. I remember thinking that it was odd… though also that the game is truly beautiful. Sure, the ending is somewhat bittersweet, but it didn’t seem to warrant the torrent of raw sentiment that I experienced.
Perhaps, to the credit of its creators, the game is simply that well-written, and you really feel the heart and soul that went into its narrative, its characters, every detail of its world, seen and unseen. I felt it, and I felt it again when I watched this video about the creation of FFIX that is certainly worth checking out after you have completed the game yourself. Most importantly, I found myself grateful for having had the opportunity to experience this game, which is truly a work of art and a perfect 10/10, one more time on the Switch.
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age
As a kid, I never played a Dragon Warrior game (as the series was known stateside until the mid-00s). I only knew that the series went by a different name in Japan where it was a respectable rival to Square’s Final Fantasy franchise. Even as Dragon Quest, as we now call it, received wider appeal in the U.S. with the release of Dragon Quest VII and subsequent follow-ups, it was not until Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age that I actually experienced my very first Dragon Quest game. I did have some inkling as to what to expect, however; my older brother had picked up DQXI when it launched for the PS4 in 2018 and so I was aware that the game was reasonably ambitious, in terms of its size and scope, and that it sported a gorgeous look.
Fortunately, Switch owners only had to wait one additional year for DQXIS to find its way into our hands, or on to our TVs, depending on how you prefer to play. Moreover, the version that landed on to the Switch was no simple port: it boasted a neat, classic 2D-mode (that can be switched on or off at virtually any point), allowing more retro-minded players to experience the game as if it had been developed and released decades earlier on 16-bit hardware. More importantly, Square Enix updated the score to include fully-fleshed out orchestral versions of the game’s full tracklist (the original DQXI on PS4 only supported MIDI files, which again can be toggled on or off in DQXIS if you so prefer), as well as adding Japanese-voice language options. This last bonus was especially key as I typically have a difficult time playing through JRPGs with English dubs, which for me often sound too cheesy and unnatural (see, ahem, FFX).
The world of Dragon Quest XI S is not only enormous, with huge swaths of land and sea to explore by horse, boat, and flying… um… whale; it is also one of the prettiest games on the Switch, its graphical fidelity somehow even maintained while playing in handheld mode, which is truly a worthy accomplishment. As has been the case since Enix (prior to its merger with Square) first released Dragon Quest on the NES in 1986, the character and enemy designs are handled by a Japanese manga artist named Akira Toriyama. You might be familiar with his work in some other video games as he was also responsible for the character designs in Chrono Trigger and Blue Dragon (the debut RPG of Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, following his departure from Square Enix and formation of the development studio, Mistwalker).
Oh, and Toriyama-san is also popular for creating a little known franchise called ‘Dragonball’ and its various spin-offs, such as ‘Dragonball Z’. Yeah, that guy… you may have heard of him. In all seriousness though, experiencing the artwork of Toriyama in a vibrant 3D environment, which somehow succeeds at blending his animation style (which I was infatuated with as a child) with beautiful, high-definition, modern-day graphics, was at times nostalgic and always impressive. Beneath the pretty coat of paint, however, there is more than a really solid game here. In fact, and I’m somewhat sorry to say this, FFIX–as much as I love you–but this is probably the greatest JRPG that I have ever played.
What makes Dragon Quest XI S so amazing? As mentioned, I found its graphical style dazzling. Add to that a colossal, meticulous, and thoroughly intriguing world to explore, though, to be honest, words alone hardly do it justice; exploration in DQXIS, which maintains the classic overworld view when traveling by boat or by, uh, flying whale, is really breathtaking to behold. It arguably represents JRPG world design at its absolute finest, transposing the traditional overworld perspective, to which many of us have grown accustomed over the years, in a way that feels both modern and majestic.
While it is not technically an open-world game, it often very much feels that way. As I have already suggested similarly of games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, and even The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, DQXIS earns its rightful place among those games where I can truly say: It was utterly gratifying to travel across its plains, valleys, mountains, and seas in anticipation of the magnificent sights that I would take in next, always ready to capture the moment with the Switch’s suitable screenshot feature.
It also helps that the game is superbly written, again striking what I consider to be a perfect balance of sombreness and humor. Like the protagonist of the Zelda series, Dragon Quest’s ‘Hero’ never speaks and yet, with the wide cast of characters he encounters and the various obstacles and plot devices that are thrown his way, I felt myself growing increasingly connected to his role as the game wore on. The length of DQXIS, judging from other JRPGs that I have played or completed, is longer than most, and that’s probably an understatement. I didn’t spend any extended duration of my playthrough grinding or doing sidequests, though I don’t usually flee from battles either (and I tended to complete sidequests as they arose), and still it was only around the 100-hour mark that the credits finally rolled.
Even then, I realized, I wasn’t finished–not even close! There was a sizable chunk of post-game content left, including a good deal of story to hash out and the game’s true final boss. This section alone more or less constituted another quarter of the actual game. Hence, this game requires a fair amount of dedication and patience; and incredibly, there was not a single moment during my entire experience in Erdrea (the world in which everything occurs) where it ever felt dull. I never felt like I had to force myself to see it through to the end, as happens with so many JRPGs–especially after hitting the 60 or 70-hour mark.
That last point is probably the most memorable element of Dragon Quest XI S for me. It seems to happen regularly when I play JRPGs that the first few hours of a game, when I am beginning a quest and setting forth on my journey, meeting new characters, discovering for the first time what problems must be solved or which enchanting locales and future destinations must be explored in an exciting new world; in a word, JRPGs often feel very magical at the outset. There is mystery involved. And I am but an unknown figure still trying to find my way through it all. The initial struggle of acquainting one’s self with new mechanics and the sometimes treacherous tutorials involved aside, it is usually those initial hours that I find myself having the most fun in JRPGs.
Then, once the villainous head honcho has been unmasked and the game becomes a fairly standard good vs. evil epic (as so many JRPGs replicate, relying on the same old clichés), the world fully opening up and everything that once felt new and mysterious becoming overly familiarized if not instinctual, it feels as if the magic has completely worn off. Those first half dozen or so hours in Midgar, in Final Fantasy VII, embody the sense that I am aiming to describe. That opening section was as good as–if not better than–any other point in that game, in my humble opinion. And the same holds true for many JRPGs that I have played.
Yet, with Dragon Quest XI S, this feeling of freshness, of mystery and adventure and excitement at all the discoveries entailed therein, never left. Even over 130 hours later, when I was finally nearing the end (the actual end), it struck me that the game somehow maintained this magical element throughout its entirety. And sure, one could argue, its combat isn’t particularly innovative. Its musical score can sometimes feel repetitive. For better or worse, it seems to pride itself on emulating core traditional JRPG formulas–though, with regards to combat specifically, DQXIS employs an optional auto-battle system that allows you to dictate a stratagem to your party members and then just let them go at it on their own.
I found this extremely welcoming. And in terms of narrative, as well-written as it is, it never invoked the sort of philosophical musings that lie at the heart of FFIX’s storyline, with some exceptions toward the latter half of the quest. Yet, all criticisms aside, I maintain that Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age is the perfect JRPG. It represents Square Enix firing on all cylinders in such a way that harkens back to the golden age of RPGs, or at least when you knew what you were getting if you bought one with the name ‘Square’ printed somewhere on the box.
In conclusion, I cannot say enough good things about Dragon Quest XI S, or Final Fantasy IX, or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. These are, in my view, the cream of the crop. They represent the pinnacle of gaming, the best that life is ever going to get…insofar as video games are concerned, of course. As the hypothetical often goes, if you were stranded on an island and could only have some selection of games to take along with you—in this case four—what would they be?
Well, assuming that island has an electrical grid and a place for me to spend hundreds of hours playing the Nintendo Switch, my answer is obvious. I would bring my four perfect 10/10s, the games that embody so much personal history for myself, the history of the action/adventure and JRPG genres, and highlight the incredible privilege we have as gamers to be granted a console-handheld hybrid that boasts of so many classics, from every generation and platform.
All of this, needless to say, begs the question: What four games would you bring?