Shadow

I kriffing hate those clankers, Nora.

Footage from Praadost II: Encrypted

Location: River outside of Nembasa City Sewer System.

arc-trooper

A tarnished white figure, with a pack, and a black T-visor Mandalorian helmet swims through the water. Through the grainy lens of the surveillance camera, it is clear that the man is carrying a length of synth-rope across the current. He pauses as a bloated corpse floats by. Then, he continues for a time.

He is almost at the other side of the shore, until he stops. An Imperial aqua hunter-killer droid: a large, sleek mechanism with deadly synthetic tendrils. He floats in the water silently. He stands on the bottom of the river. His image wavers under the shifting current or out of the way of the camera’s specific focus. One blaster shot. It pierces the cranial carapace of the hunter-killer as the lights in its optics dim.

The man swims up to the large, immobilized droid. He does something to it and then it carries him on its back the remainder of the way, along with the synth rope. The images cut out and he swims back with a Sluissi as an assorted band wait for him at the sewer entrance.

Somehow, perhaps unconsciously, it seems as though the soldier is standing triumphantly on a large and successful trophy: the hunter having become the hunted. He’s leaning back, holding up the Sluissi with one arm, but his leg bends forward on the head of the droid: conquering it. It is a scene fit for a propaganda war holo-film from another time.

I’m scared, General Ro … Nora … that’s why I have to go. I have to sleep facing that man with the empty eyes, those dead eyes, every night. I have be the best I can be.

Footage from Praadost II: Encrypted

Location: Nembasa City Tunnels

The image swirls. It is as though the scene is being viewed through some kind of remote. There is blaster fire from a fleeing Twi’lek woman as three other floating spheres are destroyed. She, a Sluissi, and three humans run into different tunnels outside of some crumbling ancient pillars and a lake in the centre of the room.

This perspective remains undetected. The lens flickers and the time-stamp goes back a few minutes. There is an Iktotchi fighting a large dark armored man. The former holds a green energy blade, while the latter has a larger crimson one. The image is excellent, crisp, and clear with only a few moments of static due to the bad reception below Praadost II. The dark man dominates the Itkotchi, scoring a slash to his leg and burning it into a bladelock into his shoulder. But the Iktotchi is holding his own in a defensive stance: barely.

The lens flickers again to another perspective: the time-stamp indicating that this happening at the same time as the combat with the other two. The soldier in the white tarnished armor shoots his rapid-fire blaster rifle at another figure: a dark woman with a double-bladed red energy weapon. He’s visibly trembling. But he keeps shooting. She deflects most of his shots with lightning fast reflexes that the camera barely even captures.

One shot gets through. It singes her shoulder. But another burns across the right side of her face. It leaves a burn scar. The trooper backs behind a pillar. She waves her hand and three small droid spheres begin shooting him. Then the rest of the people in the tunnels separate and the Twi’lek shoots them all down.

The trooper runs backwards, keeping his distance, shooting at the woman as he runs towards another exit. She waves her hand and he trips and falls to the ground. He fires again rapidly as he goes down. She deflects most of the blasts again, with an equally rapid circular pattern, but a stray shot hits her in the leg. She staggers, even as another more powerful shot ricochets off her blade and into a pillar.

It falls between her and the trooper. She barely rolls out of the way of the crumbling debris and a large cloud of dust obscures the rest of the recording.

The image flickers again. The trooper blocks the dark man from the fleeing Iktotchi’s escape, throwing an object and forcing the other to jump out of the way into the lake. The trooper shoots his rifle one more time and runs as the dark man is suddenly attacked by a large reptilian creature. The dark woman climbs around the ruins of the pillar and engages the creature as the dark man runs after them.

The image flickers again: almost shaking. There is a shockwave as the dark man is flung out of the tunnel: crumpled and bleeding on the ground. Recording ends.

Elsewhere, Imperial Agent Aaron Garay and the two Inquisitors face their superior on a viewing screen: attempting to explain what happened.

It just never ends, Nora. It just keeps coming.

Footage from Praadost II: Encrypted

Location: Power Supply Room

A grainy surveillance camera lens. The battered Iktotchi’s energy blade is blocked by the arm guard of the stormtrooper captain as he stabs him in the abdomen multiple times with a vibro blade. Just moments before, the Iktotchi disarmed the captain of his blaster rifle, sending it into the chasm below. As the Iktotchi falls to the ground, the trooper with the Mandalorian helmet riddles the captain with blaster bolts, sending his body plummeting into the core below. The other stormtrooper attempts to fire on the tarnished soldier panickedly. Some of his shots even get through before, he too, joins his superior in the abyss.

You made your choice, shinie.

Shadow and Nora are flush with drink on Zeltros. The rest of Thorn Squad is there too, each brother also equally drunk and having a few of Nora’s sisters, brothers, and friends around their arms as well. Planetary leave.

All against regulations, of course, but you only die once. Besides, they’ve all earned it. Double celebration really. The completion of his ARC training and missions, and his marriage with Nora. You can never top a marriage on Zeltros.

“Being a Zeltron and a Jedi isn’t a mutually exclusive thing,” Nora said to him after he came back from his solo missions, “You have to remember your duty over selfishness, but duty also includes compassion for all living things. And compassion is a part of a greater empathy and love for all living beings. So you can say, Shadow, that it’s natural for a Jedi and a Zeltron — for anyone — to pursue love: without greed or attachment, but connection in its purest form.”

And boy, did he feel connected that day. Between brotherly congratulations, drink, good food, strong Zeltron pheromones and physical intimacy, Shadow is having a good time, even more awed by the fact that Nora is enjoying watching him have a good time when she isn’t participating.

This wasn’t anywhere in the manual on Kamino or the cadets. Neither is being a father. Shadow puts a hand on Nora’s abdomen and he can somehow feel her and their child. After the War, he tells himself, with her sisters’ arms around them both, his brothers cheering him, cheering them, after the War they will resign their commissions, and everything will be different.

I’m so kriffing tired, Nora. I miss you. I miss you every fierfeking day …

Footage from Praadost II: Encrypted

Location: River outside of Nembasa City Sewer System.

The battered trooper and Iktotchi stagger out of the Sewers. He places the Iktotchi behind an incline as he begins toggling with the remains of the hunter-killer droid. He reloads one torpedo into its compartments. Then he takes the Iktotchi and himself and they hide behind the droid.

The trooper maneuvers the broken droid to aim at the Sewer Entrance tunnels, like a makeshift ebweb cannon. And they wait.

I see this face. This face in my dreams. With its dead eyes. And I hate it. I hate it so much …

Slinger made the mistake of thinking it was his lieutenant waiting for him in their bivouac on the frontlines. But now he’s on the ground, a blaster bolt through his chest plate. The other trooper takes of his stolen brother’s helmet, and he sees another brother.

“Shadow …”

“Been waiting for years for this, Slinger.”

“You killed the others.”

“Yeah.” No-One cocks Mercy at Slinger’s face. Part of No-One feels bad. Slinger’s blaster is inches away from him. His brother … he still thinks of them all as his brothers, he was always good with a blaster. They practised together a lot. If he’d been feeling more charitable, he would’ve ended this with a blaster duel. But No-One never had a weapon named Charity.

“… fair enough.” Slinger coughs up some blood. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“Won’t bring back my wife, Slinger. Or my kid.”

“Please … Shadow.”

“You’re the last one, Slinger. I’m No-One.”

“I know.” Tears and snot stream down Slinger’s face. “We’re all gone. This War killed us. Those chips killed us.”

No-One’s gun trembles at Slinger’s temple. “… what?”

Slinger laughs through his blood. It’s so bitter. “That chip in you. Made you all barvy the General had to … send you to Mender. We all had it. It worked for us. Even all our training … good soldiers follow orders … had to be sure. Damn long-necks gave us those chips. Never … had a chance, Shadow.” Slinger coughs harder, deeper. “Had a good time on Zeltros, didn’t we. Heh. Heh … You were the lucky one, Shadow. You were …”

Slinger’s eyes roll back into his head and he breathes out the last of his blood. No-One stands over him. He’s stunned. Unconsciously, he turns off the audio of his stolen HUD. He falls to his knees. And, silently and alone, he screams.

We’ll bring down those clankers, Nora. We’ll take them down and get the hell out of here.

Footage from Praadost II: Encrypted

Location: River outside of Nembasa City Sewer System.

The camera captures a series of blaster bolts coming towards the trooper. Some are absorbed by the cover of the droid. But many hit him. He staggers, but keeps the droid at the entrance. He activates its weapon. The concussive torpedo hits. A squad of stormtroopers come flying out of the tunnel in various positions and pieces by the force of the blast.

The trooper collapses to the side. He’s breathing heavily, very clearly as injured as his companion and utterly exhausted. A stormtrooper sergeant staggers out of the tunnel. He is firing randomly. He gets in front of the trooper and misses him by a wide margin. The trooper activates his gun and shoots the sergeant, his body trembling under the rapid shots from its barrel and being thrown away like a rag doll.

Steam comes from the trooper’s blaster rifle. The trooper is looking down at it. He falls to his knees. It’s almost like he is cradling it like a small child. Then the Sewer Entrance and its hill collapses, revealing the light of the Nembassa City, leaving the trooper with his damaged weapon.

Never had a weapon named Charity …

Drax Cole, one of the Cuy’Val Dar and instructors of Jango Fett’s myriad clones, watches one of the cadets looking at the weapons’ rack. The boy can feel the scarred older man watching him. Cole is one of the best firearms instructors of the rest.

“Hey.”

The boy looks up and stands to attention. “Yes sir.”

“Growing into those blaster rifles well, son.”

The boy understands. His growth spurts, like those of his brothers, are quick. Even with the genetic treatments, they are still painful. But at eight he is tall, lean and fast with a good eye. He will serve the Republic well. But praise from one of the Cuy’Val Dar is rare and he doesn’t know how to respond. Instead he defaults to the default.

“Thank you, sir.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“I am CT-24601.” The boy tells him by rote.

“No. I mean, what do you they call you?”

“… they call me Shadow.” It will be many years before the boy accepts this name from his last Squad working for the Republic, and a few more before he rejects the name, any name, completely. He has no idea. Right now he just wants to serve the Grand Army as best he can and to the best that his genetic perfection and rigorous training can provide.

“Shadow.” Drax Cole walks behind him and looks at the blaster rifles. “You do have a good eye. I see you looking at that rifle. You know the one.”

Shadow hesitates. But reaches out and takes it in his hands. It doesn’t take him long to calibrate and arm it. It’s second nature to him. Drax Cole nods.

“That blaster rifle, Shadow, it’s going to save your shlebs. You treat her right, you maintain and mod her, she’ll be at your side the rest of your life. More than your brothers, she’ll be your mother, your daughter, your wife. She’ll be your whole damn family. You got that, shinie?”

“Yes Instructor sir. I understand.”

“Good lad.”

It’s all right, you know. We’re disposable. As long as we complete the mission. The mission …

The trooper and T’Soth hide in the city. They hide in the garbage. They are buying Revenant Squad and the Praadost Rebel cell time. They barely escape notice even in the worn-torn city ripped apart by civil disorder and Imperial reprisals. Finally, the trooper hooks a grappling hook to a building. They climb up and hide. It’s a good spot … until more of those spherical droids are sent out to find them. The Inquisitors are not giving up.

They get into the building and run into a scared family. A cowering mother and her children. Then their father comes out swinging. T’Soth, trying to be the consummate Jedi, fails to calm him down. But it’s the trooper that does it. He almost takes his helmet off. Instead, he takes his gun, takes Mercy, and places her on the ground with his hands up. He lets T’Soth tell them that they are not scavengers or Imps.

The father tells them they need to leave. The trooper asks if he knows where they can hide. The man directs them to a warehouse. He gives them cloaks to hide them. The trooper turns back and thanks the man. He points up the stairs, where the man’s family is hiding.

“Take care of them.”

It hurts, Nora. I don’t want to feel anymore. I just want to see you again. But Ayla …

After his time, helping those early resistance cells, watching them get crushed, getting his own hollow revenge on his former brothers, he’s tired. He retires, in a way. He just doesn’t care anymore. Not about much. He takes all jobs. Even from Imps. All the money goes to Clan Pall, to Ardin … to his daughter.

As long as Ayla lives, as long she gets that chance …

But even that doesn’t stop the thoughts. It doesn’t stop from looking at Mercy. It doesn’t stop him from thinking about it. He’s lost so much already …

And then, one day, in a grimy motel on Nar Shaddaa as he’s pointing Mercy at his head he gets that transmission. He doesn’t know how they found him. How he found them. There is a central Resistance. They have unified. And they tell him they can help him. They can help his daughter.

It doesn’t take much for No-One to accept Spectre-7’s proposal.

It’s all right if I go. As long as Ayla’s safe, and a proper Jedi trains her. I did my job. I had something to fight for. I did my duty. I made up for my kriff-ups. I can finally rest.

Footage from Praadost II [Currently Restricted]

Location: Nembassa Warehouse

It’s an amateur Praadostian camera. It keeps moving around, but the jist of it is seen well enough. An A-Wing and Z-95 Headhunter are dogfighting TIE Fighters in the sky above the city. Two figures are on the roof, seen through the rudimentary lens of the civilian camera uploading to an illegal HoloFeed. It is a figure in tattered robes and a bounty hunter. The hunter sends up a flare and a U-Wing comes to hover over the roof.

The figure in the robes leaps up with impossible velocity into the ramp of the ship. The bounty hunter, or soldier stands there. He looks like he is about to jump. A TIE Bomber comes in. It releases a volley of proton torpedoes at the U-Wing.

The U-Wing’s shields flicker dangerously and it lurches, but the shock wave destroys the warehouse roof. The trooper is caught in the fire. He goes flying with the wreckage. Then he falls, flaming, into the ruins below.

The feed cuts out.

I will see you soon. I love you, Nora Ro.

Footage from Praadost II: Encrypted

Location: Nebassa City District [Currently Restricted]

Another feed flickers back onto another scene. A figure leaps out of the ship as the U-Wing engages the TIE Bomber. It picks up another figure from the wreckage of the Warehouse. Then it goes back into the ship.

… live, Shadow. Our daughter needs you.

Live vode. Live brother. Someone needs to avenge us.

“Spectre-7.” T’Soth says.

“Jedi T’Soth. I’ve heard from the Bantha Special that the mission has been successful.”

“Yes. But our plans have changed. We’re not going to Ord Rodama. Tell the Senator that we need to call in another favour. We will be at Arda.”

I hate clankers. I hate this face. Clankers … this face … I can’t see them. Dead eyes. I can’t feel it …

A tattered figure floats in a bacta tank.

“Live, Shadow.” T’Soth says. “Revenant Squad needs you.”

Yes. Good soldiers … follow orders …

Spectre-7 looks at his monitor. He has captured all of Praadost II’s footage of the event: from the Imperial censored civilian cameras to the Sewer Entrance.

“Pity we couldn’t get footage from the fight in the Tunnels. Maybe his helmet recorded the event.” He turns to the technicians. “Meantime, send out these recordings. Some good propaganda. Even better for morale. This will be enough.”

“The Unknown Soldier finally has a name.”

My name is Shadow. I’m Shadow. And I’m not finished yet.

My Creation, My Past, My Challenge

It’s a strange thing to encounter your past, even when it is a fictionalized past.

Especially when it’s a fictionalized past.

In about 2001, I started playing a homemade table-top role-playing game with some friends of mine. Before that, I was more interested in playing the customized Star Wars game we had going on that took place many years after the Old Trilogy. But this particular game, the one I was invited to participate in, had been going on for a very long time. This time around, it was in the fantasy genre.

I was hesitant. I had played a few games of Dungeons and Dragons before this point and, more often than not, we spent more time arguing about the rules and I had very little time to play as I had curfews back in the day.

In the Star Wars game, I was a master manipulator and I destroyed my opponents or undermined them with indirect attacks and insinuations. As other players died, I got stronger and the ones left me alone, I left alone or made alliances with. Here, though, I was treading into a universe I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t have a lot of in-world knowledge and I was cautious. But, after hearing a bit about its history, lore and the games that the previous players had I decided I’d find it fascinating to be a part of that story.

Now, at this time, we used to roll our backgrounds as a matter of course. I decided to play as a dark elf wizard. Unfortunately, my roll was low and he started off as a slave.

That was the beginning of Vrael-Saar.

Vrael-Saar was actually the name of an ancient Sith Lord I made in a juvenile fanfic long ago, or a character in a Computer Paint choose your own adventure game with the same idea. But I applied it to my character because I already knew what he would be like. He grew up in a society and family that believed in survival of the most cunning. He had siblings who actually killed each other and he barely proved himself to his own master: only to be enslaved by humans.

Vrael-Saar was like my Sith character in Star Wars. He was manipulative, vengeful and clever. He started off from Level 1 and only had the rags on his back and a broom to channel his magic. Almost anyone could beat the crap out of him. One friend made that very clear as he wanted to establish dominance right away.

But the most important thing about Vrael-Saar that you have to understand right off the bat is that he was, even as he advanced, never a power character. What I mean is: he never flat-out went into a mystical slugging match unless he absolutely had to. Because, you see, Vrael-Saar was one other thing too.

He was clever.

I admit that Dragonlance‘s Raistlin influenced me and, consequently, Vrael-Saar himself. He would often wait and let his allies expend themselves or allow his enemies to overextend themselves. He was also not adverse to using the powers of Light or Darkness or Chaos to advance himself, or have them do a lot of the work for him before he would take advantage of a situation. He was patient, mostly, and he waited.

Of course, he took some major risks: including a bid for immortality that could have ended quite badly for him had he rolled anything below a 16 on a D20. And he succeeded. One humid rainy night with some lightning in the sky, as I walked home from my friends, I gave Vrael-Saar immortality: the one thing he had sought for ages while constantly studying their lore.

Even though he suffered setbacks, he was almost Level 20 by the time that game wound down in about 2004. He had learned how to spirit-walk and see the ghostly reality underneath the material facade of things. He also learned how to enter people’s souls.

He changed in other ways too. Vrael-Saar started off as a being with no regard for other peoples’ feelings and cared very little for sentient life. He only looked out for himself. Ironically, it was only after he carried out a Demon Lord’s orders to butcher an entire village and feed them to demons, and when a betrayal and a mutation changed him into something far less than humanoid that he began to change. It’s ironic that the more monstrous he became, the more “human” the character was becoming as well.

Vrael-Saar didn’t like to serve masters, but Demons and Dark Lords used him in their own agendas: even as he learned how to subvert them and use what was given to him to his advantage. He liked to be independent. One day, he even had a companion: a former enemy whom he helped corrupt for his former master, but who ended up becoming one of the few people who actually understood him. I wrote some stories about that. In the end, he saved the life of another immortal whose soul was being corrupted: and whom he healed at risk to his own essence and the Demon taint inside of it. Whether he did it out of a sense of compassion, leverage, or as a way to create a further blood debt between potential enemies who would be better disposed to him and his own plans for independence is open-ended.

That was where I left Vrael-Saar in 2004. I had almost four years of Journal Notes–The Chronicles of Vrael-Saar–before my travel drive died and I lost all of it. Even my friend, who was DM, kept track of matters with those Journals: though we still have yet to see if any survived.

It is now 2014. This homemade world, which I ended up contributing a lot to based on my actions and my own writing, got rebooted and there are new rules and histories now. However, it’s much in the way that mythologies can be retold: the details might be different, but the essence of the narrative is still the same. I am now a human Imperial Alchemist named Marcus Arctrurian: who is also the Baron of Wrengardt. As we did long ago, I rolled my background class and made out a little better than that first time years ago.

The Baron is a character I am fleshing out now, but he and his companions have infiltrated a secret stronghold where some cultists are performing some terrifying experiments on captive farmers. And after he defeated one of their leaders, a corrupt town guard, we found a parchment with a skull and a snake coming out of it.

A little before this, we played another game that was another variation of our homemade universe. Many of our old characters either long since passed or, if they had been immortal or particularly powerful, had become demigods. My DM friend informed me then that Vrael-Saar had become one of these gods, but we only encountered him peripherally: as followers to another character I created (as a story character or NPC) were using one of his artifacts. In that world, he was called The Snake Tongue.

But this time, in this game, in another variant of that world, we are dealing with a massive network of Demon-worshippers and agents known as The Cult of Saar.

I created Vrael-Saar, long ago, from a lot of young adult frustration, anger and general angst. He grew over the years and became something else. While this is another reboot, there are some characteristics about him that I would imagine to be exactly the same. He is also called The Snake Tongue in this world, but he has another epithet.

He is called The Lord of Lies.

And he is basically a Demon Lord now, if not the equivalent of a demon god. Essentially, I have come face to face with my creation as an idea transmitted overtime and taken to the nth degree from what I had been planning to do with him. And while I even wrote a new story about him as a Demon Lord, for all my educated guesses even I don’t know what he is planning.

And that frightens me: even as it thrills.

For over a decade, my group of friends and I created a mythos. It will continue for as long as we do. It is a legacy in a way now. While our own bodies age and our own possibilities are a little more limited than when we began, with some potential to grow from there even now, our game grows with us.

I’m a different player now than I was then, though I am still more than capable of being evil when I need to. The question is: can I defeat what I created so long ago?

My only answer is that we will see how long this game will last, and how far we will go. It has really come full-circle now. Let us see if we can triumph over what we have helped to make.

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Peering at the Plumbing of a Classic: Super Mario RPG

From what I could remember, I’d never played a video game RPG. It was the mid-nineties and I’d played a few adventure games, but I never really thought of them at all. Whenever I did, I heard mostly about Secret of Evermore, Legend of Mana, or the Final Fantasy games. But it was still the era of Nintendo Power Magazine and I really loved its Epic Center section: a place where they discussed new and upcoming RPGs.

I actually loved the descriptions of these games and the wonderful illustrations that found their way into the magazines more than anything. It was just a pleasure to read through these hints and images of games. So in a way my game voyeurism–of watching or seeing games as opposed to playing them–started around that time. And then, one day, two years after Nintendo and Rare’s Donkey Kong Country and its very exciting “32-bit graphics” (I’d got a video cassette with previews of said game), another game came out for the Super Nintendo.

It was Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.

I don’t even know where to begin with this game. You might wonder why I would be talking about it on this Blog and what it has to do with the spirit of Mythic Bios until you realize that until this point I’d never played a video game RPG. So my brother and I rented it from Hollywood Movies–an old store that used to exist in the plaza closest to us–and we kept it in our possession for a while.

What can I tell you? Mario RPG–as Nintendo and Square’s baby–had the same graphics as Donkey Kong Country, except instead of being a two-dimensional side-scroller venture–or a 2D game–it attempted to simulate a 3D environment. But it was more like having a bird’s view of a well painted clay animated demented doll’s house diorama that was always on an angle. I can’t begin to tell you how that strange perspective both awed and pissed me the hell off.

If you’ve ever played this game, and you have hand-eye coordination issues you know exactly what I’m talking about.

The endless times I would fall through the gaps of floating platforms, or had to manoeuvre the platforms by jumping properly, or just missing something by inches but the perspective or parallax didn’t register properly in my brain. Also, like I may have intimated, my hand-eye-coordination was not that good in those days and it led to swearing. A lot of swearing.

However, once these hurdles were passed, it was a brilliant game. Now that I have my complaining out of the way, I want to talk about what really struck me. First, you start off playing as Mario as a distant third-person character. You go to rescue the Princess from the bad guy as per usual and then …

Shit goes down.

A giant Sword plunges into Bowser’s Keep and throws Mario, Princess Peach, and Bowser in all different directions as the Mushroom Kingdom and the world face a whole new danger … and a whole new game.

That is how Mario RPG begins. Then it gets helpful. There are mushroom-headed Toads and various other beings that are more than willing to give you tutorials as to how to navigate in a RPG. I mean think about it: Mario has always been in a side-scrolling platform world and now he finds himself in a turn-based role-playing world with a fairly structured story. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that his world had changed, and so has your playing experience with him.

You also begin to realize that the Mushroom Kingdom is only a small part of a much greater world of weirdness and old enemies, and new ones come into the fore. You also get new allies as you realize that Mario can’t fight this new enemy and undertake his new quest on its own.

Remember when I said that Mario RPG reminds me of a weird angled doll-house? I think it would be more appropriate to compare it to a interactive reality bento-box. Yes, that’s right. A bento box. Not an Italian plumber’s feast. I went there. 🙂 At first the jumping and angling can be as awkward as learning how to use chopsticks for the first time (and in my case you never learn how to use them properly), but when you learn the basics you realize that the contents of the open-lidded box are compact, well-organized, elegant, and heart-warming.

This seemingly simple game is complex. There are so many in-jokes and easter-eggs–hidden secrets–it is positively ridiculous. And when actually sit down and take the time to think about Mario RPG, it influences me to add another criterion to what I think defines a classic game. This criterion is replay value and a different experience each time you play it. I can tell you now, if I replayed this game, and I have seen others replay it, my knowledge of some of its secrets now as an adult would change how I played it when I was much younger. Hidden chests, and puzzles, and knowing how to fulfill certain tasks changes a lot of things. You can tell, just by watching someone interact with this strange little world, just how skilled and experienced a gamer they truly are. I feel like was–and is–one of those litmus tests.

When you get past the awkwardness of navigation, you have something really compact and very dynamic. You are not attacked randomly. You either run into enemies, or you don’t: which is awesome because while Final Fantasy VI is an awesome game, the random enemy encounters got annoying fast: just yanking you rudely and obnoxiously out of the immersion of this world you find yourself in. Mario RPG doesn’t have this as much. Moreover, if you press a button– and you time it just right–in combat, you can double hit your opponents, block damage, and even get extra items.

The timed hit mechanism made it seem like the characters have actual reflexes: which was a brilliant piece of innovation in what can become an almost robotic and boring turn-based fight of dealing damage. And then there is also a very personal touch in healing your characters–like Mario–with an item in battle and having him turn to the screen with a dialogue bubble of “Thank you” coming out of his mouth. There is just something really nice about your character thanking you for helping them: especially some you’ve known since childhood.

As the Mario games have continued, they seem a lot like interactive slapstick comedy and this was definitely in Mario RPG: especially with the hilarious dialogue, the Mario-pantomiming that would occur from time-to-time, and the game’s often lighthearted and alternatively epic carnival-toned music box soundtrack.

This game influenced me a lot in more ways than I care to admit, or even know. I was very disappointed when the other Mario RPG games were not direct sequels, but–while really good in their own rights (having played Paper Mario and–even more enthusiastically– Super Paper Mario)–were their own standalone worlds. I mean, they brought all these new characters into play: Croco (who was the humanoid alligator equivalent of the octopus Ultros from FF VI who pissed me to no end in those early days), the sentimental marsh-mellow weather-controlling Mallow (who I didn’t mind), Smithy (who was a bad-ass villain) and his minions, and–of course–Geno: the animated wooden walking puppet guardian seeking to restore the Star Road so that people could have their wishes granted again. I guess at the very least, the game was not going to cop out by stating that it was “just a dream” like another Mario game we all know. ;P *Cough*Mario 2*cough*

I loved to play with Geno and Bowser in my team: Geno because of his powers, and Bowser because he was strong and scary. But they were all awesome and especially Mario. You know, Mario RPG really hit home just how unlikely Mario is as a hero. A plumber that finds himself in a weird world almost defying Alice’s Wonderland who turns into a giant from eating mushrooms, throws fire after finding a flower, and becomes invincible for a brief time with a star and jumps so high. This plumber goes to save a princess and fight a monster. He is quiet and he looks one of the least menacing figures ever. He never speaks but he has a definite affable personality.

In fact, aside from Kirby from Kirby’s Dreamland, the only other heroic figure who is so unlikely is The Doctor from his own television series. But he has that same heart-warming quality and care along with his enemies–even Bowser–and they have continued throughout the years to the point of having their own epic role-playing game. I would have once laughed and found this silly–which it is–but there is just so much packed in just this one little game that it is simply incredible.

So yes, tangents aside I give this awesome classic a five out of five. It was well-made and a joy. As Boltage McGammar in his own “Let’s Play” of this same game liked to say, “later plumbers.”

Games I Never Played: Mage and Castle Falkenstein

My last post was about the role-playing game that my friends and I have played on and off for some years now. But what began to change my attitudes about table-top role-playing–and what it is actually about–was something else.

For years, I’d played Dungeons and Dragons. I was typically a mage character that backed up the warriors and clerics in my group of friends. We fought generic monsters and all that lovely stuff. Basically, I was used to the Nordic medieval model of what a table-top role-playing fantasy world usually is: often taken from the influential J.R.R. Tolkien model of Middle-Earth. This was often augmented with my own readings of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series as well as those strange and multifarious wonders found in Forgotten Realms.

White Wolf’s Mage series also changed my attitudes about what I thought a game should be. Mage–as part of White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness line–introduced me to a lot of metaphysical concepts as well as new ways of looking at what a mage should be.

In the Old World of Darkness, a mage was much more than a person in robes, with a spell book and a staff: they could be wuxia-adept martial artists (wuxia being a fictionally depicted form of martial art that lets its practitioners unleash supernatural feats), mad scientists, Matrix-like computer-hackers, secret adept societies, shamans, pagan witches and all the different interpretations you could get away with. They even had these people called The Hollow Ones: essentially magic-wielding Goths that delved into countless different sources of knowledge from the Romantic period to the present time while taking their joy as the world burned.

I was in a very pessimistic and cynical mind-set in those days and the idea of a World of Darkness: where everything was degrading and there were secret fonts of knowledge intrigued me a lot. The esoteric and abstract rule-system also fascinated me: by having dots in various skills and attributes and Spheres of Magic. You also had something called Arete–the Greek word for honours or excellence–which was a dot-metre that determined how much of reality you understood and how much enlightenment you had. The more dots you had, the more Sphere dots you could get. That said, it also relied a lot on actual role-playing: on acting out your character.

I did have issues with the fact that there was this thing called Paradox. Essentially, a Mage affects Reality with their power, but Reality is made from consent: Consensual Reality being created from what a majority of people unconsciously believe in. So if you used a blatant display of magic in a reality that did not accept that such a thing could happen (like throwing a fireball from your hand), you would suffer Paradox and if you gained enough of it bad stuff would happen. Of course, this was not counting the fact that some of your spells might not even happen at all because reality doesn’t except it.

So I had issues with that. In retrospect though, the impetus on making subtle magics: on combining minor spells with major overt actions and creating some plausible deniability towards reality is really cool.

But it wasn’t always a very positive world-view and after a while I started to think back on another strange role-playing world I was introduced to. A friend introduced me to a world called Castle Falkenstein. I found it … really bizarre at the time, but in a weird way that was very compelling. Bear in mind that I had up until that moment never even heard of steampunk or understood what it was.

In Castle Falkenstein, I found an alternate Victorian world where fictional and historical characters existed side by side along with magickal lodges, secret societies, spies, mad scientists, Dwarven engineers, Faerie Lords and Dragons. The core book introduces you to the world through a character from our own–Tom Olam–who was a computer game designer and was essentially kidnapped by a wizard and a Faerie Lord to save their version of Earth. Tom Olam actually makes it his duty to make sure that the alternate Earth in Falkenstein does not enter into two World Wars and become like ours. He attempts to save magick, the Faeries and even the Victorian societies and utopian ideals that he sees there.

The plot and structure of Castle Falkenstein is heavily influenced by Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda: a story about a man who poses as a king to save a kingdom and a whole lot of other goodies. It does take a very unrealistic view of what our Victorian Age was like–with emphasis on “the good old days where science was always considered good and there was a strong honour-system in place” and ignoring things like the vast divide between social classes and other such lovely things–but it is also an alternate world where these noble things may have actually happened. I like the continent of New Europa and the nation-state issues between Bayern (or Bavaria) and Prussia. Also, America is divided into different nations as well: which is a really cool thing to see.

Castle Falkenstein also had its own unique playing system where you used playing cards instead of dice. Apparently among the upper elite, a die was considered a vulgar form of entertainment while playing cards were perfectly acceptable. I even tried learning and adapting their system to some games I tried to make: with varying degrees of results.You could also be a great many things: various forms of Faerie (including the Daoine Sidhe that looked very elven), a Dragon Lord, a Dwarf inventor, an adventurer, a scientist, a mad scientist, a mage (whose magick actually seemed to involve something like String Theory with its subetheric knots and what-not), a journalist, a diplomat, and all that fun stuff.

But I think the real reason I loved this game so much–one I never actually had the opportunity to play–was because of its emphasis on hope and the alternative ways history could have turned out with fantastic elements. It also showed me that fantasy games could occur in other eras besides a medieval one and also alongside some elements of history.

Where Mage was delightfully dystopian, Castle Falkenstein was unashamedly utopian, swashbuckling and romantic in all the connotations you can take. And there was greater emphasis on role-play and creating a three-dimensional character. You were encouraged to keep journal entries of your exploits so that other people could see them. It was just an awesome idea and I actually all the books long after the series went out of print. I felt a lot like Don Quixote: like a person who wanted to be part of something that no longer existed, that was lost over time, but felt like it should. There is your romanticism again for you. Maybe I also liked having these game books because I needed something good and positive in my life at the time.

I think it says something that I went back to collect the Falkenstein books instead of the Mage ones: though those are awesome as well. I think that in some ways my change from thinking about fantasy as D&D to looking at it from the perspective of these books began my change in how I looked at writing in general. I also think I need to play more games to talk more about them. But I will say that each of these had both their time and their dream.