[25 February 2004]
Some time during the evolution of videogames, the cooperative experience was born. While single player games seem natural to the medium and competitive digital games are easy to model after their analog counterparts, cooperative gameplay is something of an anomaly. Note, here, that cooperative play is not synonymous with team play—traditionally, team events involve multiple teams, of ostensible “equals,” competing with each other. A cooperative videogame involves only one team trying to overcome the obstacles set forth by the game itself.
There is, of course, a “real life” model for this type of game in events like hunting, mountain climbing, and other sports styled as “man against nature.” The key distinction here is that one team stands opposed to something of immense proportions (nature, a mountain, or in videogames, an endless horde of monsters), or of subhuman stature (a deer). And, as someone who has never really participated in these real life counterparts, cooperative videogames are always a refreshing change of pace for me. It’s nice to shift from “us against them” and/or “me against the world” to just “us working together.”
In case you’ve been reading all the hype about this game, I’ll start with a disclaimer: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles (FF:CC) hasn’t taken any bold leaps in unforeseen directions. But it has taken some of the best elements of the cooperative form, within its current trendy genre (the action RPG) and distilled them into a fine product. There is, of course, a single player element to FF:CC, but it feels like it was added as more of an afterthought than anything else (as opposed to many games where the cooperative play feels tacked on). I spent enough time playing the single player mode to know that it exists and see the workarounds they developed to excise some of the necessary multiplayer elements, but beyond that the solo version of this game held little appeal.
The plot conveniently provides a reason for the players to stick together—a deadly substance called “miasma” threatens to kill anyone who wanders too far away from a protective crystal (of which the party only has one, of course). This forces everyone in the group to stay within a certain radius of each other or otherwise rapidly take damage. The group’s goal, such as it is, is to fetch more “myrrh” to replenish the energy of these crystals so your home village can survive another year. The myrrh trees, of course, only seem to grow in dangerous areas guarded by powerful monsters. Every three drops (one per tree) of myrrh you collect provide safety for your families for another year.
FF:CC also encourages cooperation over competition through its mechanics. Players can actually combine their abilities in a “more than the sum of their parts” fashion. This requires a little bit of timing, but a combined attack can be much more devastating than two (or three or four) separate ones. In this way, the game actually suggests that players should work together to coordinate their activities, instead of simply walking next to each other and then splitting off to fight independently. Also, the use of the Gameboy Advance (GBA) system as a controller allows each player access to a different “radar”—one showing treasure, one a local map, and one monsters. It’s a little like each person holding a separate piece of a treasure map—the best way to success is for everyone to let each other know what’s going on.
The most controversial aspect of FF:CC, in the months leading up to its release, was the decision by the developers to require GBA systems to be used in the multiplayer mode. While the game is sold for the GameCube (and requiring one to play no matter what), to utilize the cooperative mode (which the game is clearly designed for) requires each player to use a GBA instead of the standard GameCube controllers. This probably isn’t a detriment to most hardcore gamers as they most likely already own one (sales of GBA systems far outstrip those of GameCubes), but with a $99.99 price tag on a new GBA SP, this could be a major roadblock to people who don’t already own them.
And so, the big question—was it necessary to make this a requirement? Probably not. There are two main purposes to using the GBA as a controller. First, it adds an additional screen to display radar. This does add a little to the cooperative element, as mentioned above, but there’s no doubt that this could quite simply have been solved by a little overlay in the corner of the screen. The second reason for the GBA is that it speeds up gameplay by having each player handle all of their menu options off of the main screen. One player can futz around with his or her items and equipment, for instance, while the rest are engaged in combat or exploring the area. This definitely makes the experience more enjoyable (I’ve spent far too much of my life watching other people mess around in menus), but gripes from those who don’t own GBAs are understandable as the necessity of such a function is certainly debatable.