Tuesday, February 21, 2012

FFXIII-2's bullshit ending, and other musings on the series

I'm angry. Angry because I just put 40 hours into a video game and what did I get? I got a big "fuck you" from the game's developers. But let's rewind a bit.

Spoilers follow, obviously.

The era of the CGI cinematic didn't start with Final Fantasy VII, but it was the first game that really got it right. That game used the medium of the CD-ROM to tell an epic story along with its 60+ hours of gameplay, and it rewarded gamers both along the way and at the end with CG animated scenes. Here's its ending:

Crude animation by modern standards, but you can see how this is a fitting ending to a long and in-depth story. I still tear up a bit when I see Aeris in that last shot.

Square started to really perfect their animation skills with FFVIII, a game that was otherwise disappointing but did have a fantastic ending in both content and technique:

You can really see Square hitting their stride here. Still no voices, but they had learned to tell stories through visuals and music. It was like watching a great, modern silent movie. But as good as it looks and sounds, it's what's in that ending that makes it great. It wasn't all wine and roses, either - one of the characters dies, but you can see that her spirit lives on in her daughter. So it's bittersweet, but still satisfying.

And so the series went on like that for a while - I won't post all the endings but you get the idea. Great animation, beautifully told stories.

Even FFXIII still had a pretty good ending, despite being a basically crap game. I'll post that one because it leads directly into FFXIII-2, which is the problem here:

Not quite as emotional as the best FF endings, and a little derivative of FFVII, but not bad. Fang and Vanille save the world, Lightning's sister Serah wakes up from her crystal prison, and Lightning gives her blessing to Serah and Snow's wedding. And everyone lives happily ever after.

OR DO THEY? FFXIII-2: holy crap, what the fuck is this?

If you don't feel like sitting through 17 minutes, you can just fast forward to around the 12 minute mark below, where the real cinematic begins.

Saving the world? Failed. Restoring the timeline? Failed. Saving Lightning, who had disappeared? Failed. The game's main character Serah? Dead. And in the stupidest of ways - standing around fine, then suddenly falls down dead. What, did she have an aneurysm? (The game hinted this might happen but never really explains why it has to. Foreshadowing and cause/effect are two different things.)

And remember that Serah's a newlywed, to a different guy? Yeah, no mention of him either. She even chooses to live 500 years in the future before she dies (with Noel), leaving Snow behind without a second thought! Their love was one of the main driving forces behind the plot of FFXIII, and it's as if none of that ever happened in FFXIII-2.

Oh, but it's "to be continued" - we all know audiences love that shit.

It's as if Square had a brainstorming session about all the ways they could piss people off. Then they put those things in the ending. And purposely omitted resolutions to anything. Not only do you fail at every single thing you set out to do in the game, you actually undo all the things you did in FFXIII.

This is what you should see if you lose the game. Not if you win.

I'm not saying all Final Fantasy games need to have a happy ending that ties up all the loose ends... wait, yes I am. Because we paid $60 for this, and we invested 40+ hours of our lives into it. It's not like a film, where you're a voyeur watching other people's lives for a couple of hours, so you can just appreciate it on a detached, artistic level. Playing a Final Fantasy game can easily take over your own life for a month or more, and during that time you become the character you're playing, on some level. You control them directly, living and acting out events with them; you're not merely a spectator. And there is an expectation that you will be rewarded at the end.

FF games have killed major characters in the past - so that's not really the problem. Aeris dies in FFVII, Tidus disappears at the end of FFX. But those deaths meant something. Aeris dies to enter the lifestream and save the planet (yes, the writers were big Star Wars fans). Tidus has to disappear for the story to even make sense. Serah's death is meaningless to the story, and completely undignified. Why did you kill my Serah, Square?

The dumbest part? You can keep playing as zombie Serah. I assume she's a zombie; she looks the same but she is clearly dead up there. But the game keeps going. And it's not like the world is just still open for you to tie up loose ends, I mean there are whole quests that you actually can't undertake until the story is over. With a dead main character. You are even rewarded with items and materials to level her up after the credits roll.

Supposedly, the "to be continued" refers not to another upcoming sequel, but to downloadable content that you need to pay extra for. You'll be able to download individual character episodes, one of which is Lightning's, which supposedly "completes the story".  Yes, you have to pay extra for the real ending. Maybe. People aren't really sure yet if even that ending will tie everything up, because it's not out yet.

Sorry, Square Enix, this is not how it works. I pay for a game, I get the completed game for the money I pay you. And you give me a proper ending on the disc. If not, I do not buy your next game. Is that clear enough? That's the deal. Pissing off your customers is not how you sell products.

I'm actually going to pretend this ending never happened, and I'll keep playing the game until I'm really done with it, then I'll see what's going on with the downloadable content or a potential re-release of the game (a "game of the year" edition with all the downloadable content is probable). And I will buy one of those, this time, because I invested a lot of hours into this. But this is one of those "fool me once..." things. I'll be watching next time to see if Square repeats this in FFXV or FFXIII-3, and I won't make this same mistake twice. Square, you had better be careful with your signature series.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Japan trip 2012, and my first Japanese live concert

Welp, after less than a year, my wife and I are heading back to Japan this March. That's one of the perks of owning a Japanese business! Though it does mean we spend a lot of time working when we're there nowadays - Japan is no longer a vacation for me, it's a business trip. I haven't had a real vacation in years. The work we do is fun, though, so I can't complain. And we still have a few hours each day and a few days each trip to ourselves.

We don't yet have a lot of plans because we're still hoping to do the Twilight Express thing that I wrote about last year (before somehow mistakenly deleting that post), but it's just notoriously difficult to get tickets on that train, especially for the one room we want (the suite in the end car). We're keeping most of our days open for now, though.

One thing I've already mentioned we are doing is heading to NIPPON BUDOKAN (the Budokan) to see SCANDAL, who just happened to schedule their biggest show ever during the week we planned to be there. We just got our tickets! I'm excited - this isn't the first time I've ever seen a Japanese band (I've seen Dreams Come True, Puffy, and Boom Boom Satellites, all in NYC), but it will be the first time seeing one in Japan. Japanese shows always seem totally nuts on the one hand and supremely organized on the other - kind of like Japan itself.

I'm thinking it's gonna be something like this:

This was shot at Animax Musix, a yearly music festival for bands that have sung anime theme songs, basically (yes, this is a thing that exists in Japan). I don't think they could have attracted that big a crowd on their own at that time, but they obviously can now because this Budokan show sold out within fifteen minutes of going on sale to the general public. So even though we have some pretty bad seats, I'm just happy to be going - it's not easy to get tickets to a Japanese show from overseas, and we had to enlist my wife's sister-in-law in Japan to help us. Who the hell knew Scandal were so popular?? I've been following them since they were basically still college students making demo tapes. Now they're this big professional mainstream rock band selling out the 15,000 seat Budokan in fifteen minutes.

This is where our seats are - 2nd level, on the side of the stage. We are on an aisle, at least (I was a little imprecise with my circle drawing).

The system for buying tickets in Japan is pretty complicated, although it actually makes more logical sense than our system, where the general public often can't get tickets to popular shows at all until they pass to the professional scalpers (aka "ticket brokers") who will jack the prices up to ridiculous amounts. I remember the good old days, when that was illegal.

For this show, basically you had to be in the fan club to have gotten decent seats - they got first dibs. Probably the whole floor section is just fan club. Then there were about three other "tiers" that got to buy tickets before we could (people who had previously bought certain things in stores and had a code, or whatever). We signed up for the pre-sell lottery, the final tier before the general public sale. That meant if were among the winners, we were guaranteed seats somewhere. And we did win a spot in the lottery, meaning we didn't have to ask someone to stand in line waiting for 7-11 to open on the day tickets went on sale to the public. But these are the seats we were assigned - probably the best available by the time we were able to buy them. At least we're not behind the stage! Most of the tickets we've seen for sale on Yahoo! Auctions since we bought ours are even worse.

If you're overseas and don't have a Japanese address you can use or know anyone in Japan, then really the only two ways to get tickets to shows there are a) using a shopping service to physically go buy them for you or b) using a shopping service to bid on an auction for tickets after they've already been put on sale. Neither method is really all that reliable and both will cost some money. Or you can just go to a ticket broker when you get to Japan, but I don't think they really have tickets to sold out shows (or if they do, they're probably extremely expensive just like here).

We're actually hoping to go to some more shows while we're there but neither of us can find anything else we're interested in. We're still looking, though. I would like to go to a smaller club show somewhere, if we can find something good...

Anyway, watch for my regular updates on the stuff we're doing while we're there... I admit that I'm losing my ability to see things there from a tourist's point of view (it is my 12th visit to Japan), but I'm sure I'll still find some interesting things to talk about! And no doubt you'll see my Scandal vs. Budokan show report, at least.

I'll close with Scandal's latest single release, as performed on some Japanese TV show recently:

The US needs more all-girl bands. I'm going to have to start listening to The Bangles again.

Monday, February 06, 2012

CIJ/MIJ Fender Jazzmaster tremolo upgrade

Another in my surprisingly popular series of posts dedicated to the Japanese version of Fender's most famous "forgotten" electric guitar! How oddly specific.

One of the easiest upgrades that owners of Japanese (CIJ/MIJ) Fender Jazzmasters can make is the tremolo unit, aka the tailpiece. The tremolo in Japanese Jazzmasters is kind of a weak point in these mostly excellent guitars (another is the pickups), but luckily, it's really easy to just drop in an American one.

What you need:

* Fender USA Jazzmaster tremolo unit part #0054466000
* Fender USA Jazzmaster tremolo arm part #0054473000
* If you don't have any, you also need a Stratocaster tremolo arm tip (the Japanese one won't fit. See part #'s here, depending on color).

I found my trem unit and arm on Ebay; they can be hard to find. (Ironically, real vintage ones seem to be easier right now.) Many reputable stores that used to have them seem to be perpetually sold out these days (e.g. Angela.com). Be sure you're actually buying a genuine Fender USA unit; there are a lot of cheap imports out there, many of which are labeled as "for" American Vintage Jazzmasters. That's not the same as saying they are American Vintage Jazzmaster tremolos. You really need to be careful. The label should look something like this:

None of the cheap imports is an upgrade over Fender Japan's tremolos, which aren't that bad as it is; the only real upgrade is an American one. One clue you've found an American unit (though definitely not a foolproof one) is the price - a USA tremolo should be around $60 just for the unit, and $10-$15 more if it comes with the arm. The imports are almost always priced much less than that.

Onto the surgery! Here's a Japanese tremolo unit in place:

Remove all the strings and the tremolo arm (it will be tight, but just grab it at the bend and pull straight out) and unscrew the tremolo unit, making sure to only unscrew the screws along the outside edge:

Here's what it looks like ready to come out:

And it's out! 

If you're lucky (like I was), it won't stick. If it sticks, just try to figure out where it's sticking and gently pry it up with your fingernail if you can. There's nothing holding it on but the finish at that point, so you just want to try to avoid chipping the polyurethane when you pull it out.

Here are the two units side by side - let's play spot the differences!

There's no size difference - they kind of lay at different angles so there's a perspective effect in that photo.  But, there are some actual differences:

* The lock button is nickel-finished on the US unit, the Japanese is chrome
* The metal on the collet (the part that holds the arm) is thicker on the US unit
* The collet hole is round on the US unit, and oval on the Japanese
* Oddly, the Fender and patent number typefaces are slightly different

A more functional difference: the string spacing is correct on the US version, and incorrect on the Japanese.

The base plate is slightly thicker on the US version. Honestly, though, it's not a huge difference, and both units are pretty hefty. (It may even be slightly exaggerated here; it looks like I may have been holding the US unit closer to the camera without realizing it.)

Here's the underside:

US is on the left; Japanese on the right. Again, there are some differences, but they're not really that dramatic. The US one is slightly chunkier in general.

Here are the arms:

US on the bottom, Japanese on top. The US one has a smoother bend and a little less of a shiny chrome finish. Different arms do have different bends so I don't know if this is representative overall. I've seen some goofy looking US arms.

More importantly, the US arm is a little thinner and has screw threads for the tip. A Japanese arm won't fit in a US tremolo, and neither will a Japanese tip fit on a US arm. I had actually jammed a US tip onto my Japanese arm so I was able to just reuse that; it hadn't deformed it too much. (And I had "aged" it in tea myself, so I was happy about that!)

Reverse the process laid out for removal and... done! When you put in your arm, be sure to press it all the way in. Many people are afraid to do this and end up with floppy arms and a sloppy-feeling tremolo and wonder why. Kevin Shields famously used to leave his arms hanging out for a bit more height, but he actually used to have to tape them to the tremolo collet so they wouldn't fall out.

This is all really a five minute procedure - I spent way more time taking these photos for this blog post. Be sure to set up your tremolo after installing it! (The trem arm will probably be very close to the strings if it's really set up properly for the trem lock - I usually keep mine adjusted so the tip is a bit higher, even though it makes the lock useless.)

So, does it feel different, and is it worth it?

As a cheap upgrade, I think it's worth doing. Honestly, I think the Japanese tremolos are not bad, but the US ones are slightly better. Japanese tremolos do feel a little "loose", in that there's a little play in the system where you can press the bar down a half inch or so before it "catches", and if you're hard on it, it'll do so with an audible click. And it does this every single time. I'm not sure what causes that (probably the collet itself), but it doesn't seem to be present in the US version. Also, it's nice to have the correct string spacing, which means the strings aren't being pulled both vertically and horizontally against the bridge saddles. That can lead to broken strings - not a good thing. It also reduces sustain.

I don't actually believe there's anything wrong with the metal itself, or the spring in Japanese tremolos, as some do. My US tremolo doesn't feel any "stronger" than my Japanese did. But it does feel a bit smoother, and I have more confidence in my string longevity, and I do believe I am getting more sustain. Of course, it's hard to objectively measure any of that. But I believe it to be true.

My next upgrade: new shielding!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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