['Parallax Memories' is a regular weekly column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Squaresoft’s Live A Live]
When I initially started this column I made up a list of the best games from the 16bit era, and asked some friends to make up their own. I have since thrown that out the window. Most of the games considered “best” from that time are too sterile, too safe. Most are looked at through the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia. Great games sometimes aren’t the best: they took risks.
The results varied from good concepts and bad controls to interesting mechanics with poor presentation, but they were never perfect. Some of these are what we now refer to as ahead of their time (which is really just an excuse for why we ignored them in the first place). But what happens when one of the most routine game creators decides to go a little crazy? Live A Live.
After Squaresoft had released the three (or four) games that they would be most remembered for on the Super Famicom, a quirky little title appeared in Japan, but never made it to the outside world. While the basics remained a Role Playing Game, the story is broken up into a sort of novella format. The game contains nine unique scenarios that initially have no apparent connection to each other, and have varying play mechanics.
Even though the game is broken up into different stories, the divide is greater than just the main character. The stories range from primitive man, through old west and feudal Japan, all the way to a science fiction future. The game encompasses almost every range of time that is popular with modern fiction. Because of the theme it was very easy to have different popular manga artists do the character designs and write the stories for each chapter (the most popular of which, Yoshihide Fujiwara, went on to create and illustrate the Dragon Quest manga).
To Tell a Tale
I believe the stories are the focus of the game over everything else. While there is a generic grid based battle system that’s fairly malleable, but not really anything special, the combat isn’t the main focus. The battles range from a mild action to tactical RPG in style depending on the story, but never neatly fitting into any category. In one scenario, there is an arcade game called Captain Square that is designed to train you in the basics of the fight mechanics (I recommend playing “Mechanical Heart” first to get some time in training, though it is completely ignorable).
In “Mechanical Heart” the only combat for the entire level is at the very end. My small affection for robots spurred me to try this chapter first and it drove home that the game wanted to tell a story - nine of them, really. Each chapter is fairly short, and the overall game is a nice length if you have gotten to the point in your life that you can no longer devote 40+ hours to a single title.
Some of the stories are charming, others involve double crosses and revenge, and some even offer a little suspense. Often the game will leave you with little information on where to go or what to do to progress the story, but even then reflecting on the story will usually lead you to a clue.
The Great Divide
Many games are lacking in the story-telling department. Even recently such developers as David Jaffe have expressed their lack of interest in story. What separates most games from film is their length, as many will require ten or more hours of your time to get a story that is paper thin and offers little reward. Compared to novels, the modern RPG doesn’t have a leg to stand on. While the time lengths involved may be similar for completing a large novel as to an RPG, the depth of characters and plot are rarely comparable.
Live A Live tries to break away, and tell an engaging story in a short amount of time. Comparable to a film, and with better quality than most RPGs (though we aren’t talking masterpiece theatre here) Live A Live will engage you for each chapter despite it’s brevity. One of the touches that I enjoyed most was in the “Mechanical Heart” chapter, where you are given the opportunity to pull a lever while the other characters are talking in an air lock compartment. The overwhelming urge to pull the lever took control and I did it; the main characters were then sucked into space and the chapter ended.
Now, again, none of these stories are amazingly written. Some are heavily influenced by pop culture, and pale in comparison to outside contemporaries. But the game tried, and it was ahead of its time. Though we haven’t seen anything quite like it (Eternal Darkness comes to mind), I don’t think it will be too long before we start to see more chapter based, story heavy, structures in games soon. The translation of the ROM was done by Gideon Zhi of Aeon Genesis, and it is an admirable job considering it was completed in about two months. Pick it up and give it a shot - it probably won’t blow you away, but it may just open your eyes.
[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]