Games of Lordly Caliber

In the last two weeks there have been two great releases on the dying WiiU.  In fact, not just on the dying WiiU, but on its also dying Virtual Console.  Both of them are n64 games and both are games that meant a lot to me as a youngster: Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber and Harvest Moon 64.

I was an RPG kid.  I fell in love with the genre thanks to Nintendo Power’s Final Fantasy 2 (I know it is actually 4, but it was originally released her as two, that is what the NP guide called it, and in my recollection it is always going to be 2) guide. That is right, the guide not the game. I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old when I saw that and it was everything I wanted to see. I hadn’t yet read Lord of the Rings or any similar fantasy, but I loved movies like Willow and The Princess Bride which transported me to fantastical worlds.  That was much like the joy I got out of games like The Legend of Zelda, Dragon Quest or Legacy of the Wizard.  That Nintendo Power guide made Final Fantasy 2 look like that turned up to 11.  Since I didn’t have an SNES, I set about looking for the first Final Fantasy. I eventually found it in a Wal-Mart bargain bin along with a treasure trove of NES classics that I knew nothing about.  I still wonder what all else was in that under $10 bin in which Wal-Mart was attempting to clear out it back NES stock to make room for the growing Genesis and newly released SNES.  Though I had played some RPGs before and despite that fact that Final Fantasy 1 was not much like Final Fantasy 2, finding that game thanks to reading that guide is what made me a JRPG fan.

That did not mean I actually got to play them.  I lost the Christmas console war to my brother, so at a date as late as 95 (I can’t recall exactly), we got a Genesis instead of an SNES.  In a happier world that would have led me to Phantasy Star, but I was not so lucky as to even know that it existed.  Instead, I spent a couple of years playing Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe and X-Men 2: The Clone Wars. Good games all, but nothing that could scratch my RPG itch.  Eventually I saved my allowance to buy my own SNES and finally seized my chance to experience that Golden Age of RPGs. After a few years SNES games got harder to find and it became obvious what must happen: we needed to upgrade consoles again.

I already knew that all the RPGs had gone to the PlayStation; it was 1999 and I was a tuned in 14-year-old.  I read EGM and Game Informer, not nonsense rags like Nintendo Power.  But as much as I wanted to play Final Fantasy VII or Xenogears, I knew I had to have Ocarina of Time.  Though I didn’t own either system, I had played both of them; I did have friends. I had played Mario 64 and it was a revelation.  I had also played Crash Bandicoot and it was a game I had played. If Ocarina of Time was the game that all the magazines made it out to be, then how could I not play it?  The other game for the N64 that I felt I had to play was Harvest Moon 64.

I can’t tell you precisely why that was.  Maybe it was my youthful iconoclasm.  My friends and playground acquaintances were enraptured over the violence of Goldeneye and Turok, but while I enjoyed playing games with my friends, the games themselves didn’t really do anything for me.  I didn’t object to the violence; I was 14 and that was objectively the coolest shit ever. That 90s extreme trash was still popular, though waning.  The ads for Harvest Moon 64 were like something from another planet. It features the main character running through the woodlands, trailed by his faithful dog, with a resolute look on his face. At the bottom an anime girl in coveralls fed birds out of the palm of her hand, while the text detailed the relaxing challenge the game would provide. It looked cute, though not childish; the characters looked familiar – the style is not too different from Pokémon – but the game looked different.  I was entranced by its pastoral siren’s song.

It looked like RPGs that I loved, but relocated to a new milieu.  That was a move that had paid off before.  While most RPGs stuck with the usual medieval fantasy, Earthbound had blown my mind by setting that same kind of game in familiar everyday territory.  Pokémon did something similar, with its regular town setting contrasted with the monster collecting and battling.  Harvest Moon 64 seemed to taking it to a more rural setting.  Once I played the game, I realized that it wasn’t quite what I had imagined.

Harvest Moon 64 is largely an RPG with farming replacing the fighting, but it ends up feeling more like The Sims than RPGs that came out around the same time.  It combined a surprisingly addictive farm management game with a simple but solid life sim.  The main gameplay might be the farming, but what drew me back for months were the relationships I built up with the townsfolk in the game.  Despite a cast that would now be called limited and the player’s limited ability to interact with them, at the time it was brand new.  That the game had even somewhat life-like townsfolk back then was amazing to me.  I spent tons of time learning the routines of the various shopkeepers and eligible bachelorettes.  I spent even more time going to the library to use their dial-up internet to look up character’s favorite foods or when special events happened.  

That dial-up internet part is a big part of the appeal, I believe.  I never had a lot of information while playing HM64, and that I did manage to get off the internet often proved unreliable.  Sussing everything out was entirely up to me.  I think that is part of the reason no Harvest Moon game has grabbed like HM64 in the years since. I’ve played some and had fun with them, but I usually make it through couple of seasons before wandering off for some a little more immediately rewarding.  Usually, I spend some time looking up how to romance or befriend various characters before getting a little annoyed that it takes more time than I am willing to put into.

If opaque games with little documentation about how they work are your thing, then the other sort of RPG for the N64 that hit VC is for you.  I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game as purposefully obtuse as Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber.  Nowadays it would likely drive me crazy; back then it just seemed deep and mysterious.

I love Ogre Battle 64, but I didn’t have that time of intense longing for it that I did for Harvest Moon 64.  The only real story about me wanting it is about Final Fantasy Tactics.  Before we got that N64, I did borrow a PlayStation from a cousin and one of the games he had was Final Fantasy Tactics.  Unfortunately, he didn’t loan us a memory card, so I never saw more than the first few battles, but those were enough to convince me that it was one of my all-time favorite games.  I looked into other games like that and learned about Tactics Ogre, but I never saw or had the opportunity to play. When my family went N64 over PS, I thought I would never have the chance to play either of them.  Then I saw Ogre Battle 64 in EGM.  It looked like everything I wanted and it was on the system I had.  So on our annual trip to Toys’R’Us, I used my saved up mowing money to pay the $60+ asking price for the game. I’ve never regretted it.

While it doesn’t play much like FFT, it is a game with a very similar focus, understandable since both the Ogre Battle series and the Ivalice Final Fantasy games sprang from the mind of Yasumi Matsuno.  They are both game that are about war in much closer detail than other RPGs and they are games with more complex looks at characters than the simplistic good vs evil that most games presented.  It had the same look and feel, while presenting a game that was more than good enough.

I love this game, but that is in spite of its various systems, some of them hidden, that determine how you proceed in the game.  Class unlock when you have characters that meet the requirements, but the game doesn’t even hint at what those requirements are.  That includes owning the classes starting equipment.  There is a morality system for both the army and the individual units.  Your current standing is visible, but it is not spelled out how to affect that standing.  Maps have things hidden about them, but it takes either knowing where to look or systematically scouring each map after it has been beaten.  Now nearly all of this game’s secrets are available on the internet for you to find, playing it back in 2000 I felt like a pioneer, venturing out into the great unknown. Finding out that there are other spell casting pedras, but now where they are meant searching for missing elements. Looking for the equipment to unlock the Dragoon or Princess or Lich classes.  Learning how to get the good ending, or the bad ending, or any of the other four endings.

My first, and to date only complete, play through started out well, but somewhere about ⅔ through the game I somehow switched from the good path to the bad path, meaning I missed out on both the awesome characters you get for being good, cool carry-overs from the SNES game I never played, and I missed out on the badass evil characters you can recruit instead. I took the mediocre path.  I have long wanted to go back and do it right.  And do it wrong.  
I can’t currently speak to the specific details of how these games play, I haven’t put more than an hour or so into either of them for more than a decade, but they are chief among the games I think of when I think back to my days playing the N64.  Yes, I spent the better part of a year playing Smash Bros with a few friends most days after school; yes, I played through Ocarina of Time no less than four times.  However, Harvest Moon 64 and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber are certainly their equal in my memories of that system being my primary gaming platform.  I am glad they are on the VC for new fans to find them.

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