Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles is generating discussion for many reasons, but the most prominent is the fact that it is the first Final Fantasy game since FF VI to appear on a Nintendo console. Yes, true, there were all those petitions, but the only people who really cared that the series had moved to Sony were those who had rushed out to buy N64s. It is far more worthwhile to discuss FF:CC's other unique aspects, such as its multi-player mode. That being said, the game's Nintendo relation does bring some obvious advantages, such as the input and advice of Shigeru "Without-Me-You'd-Still-Be-Playing-Atari" Miyamoto, but not all of the "benefits" are so clear cut. But we'll return to the two-headed connectivity monster later.
FF:CC follows the adventures of the Crystal Caravan, a group of kids on a quest to collect Mirula droplets from mana trees. This magical dew is necessary to maintain the sparkle of the crystals, which mankind needs to keep the poisonous Miasma air at bay. This simple narrative is designed to fit any number of players regardless of what point in the game they join in. Indeed, the entire setup of the game aims to facilitate the multi-player process. Players can join or leave a game without any difficulty - they can even bring their own memory card to avoid re-creating their character. This whole "come and go" philosophy is reminiscent of multi-player gameplay in online games or at the arcade. Unfortunately, the developers and publishers did not take advantage of this opportunity by enabling online play, moreover, the previewer suspects that he wouldn't be the only person to bring quarters and a memory card to a Crystal Chronicles arcade console... but he digresses.
The pick-up-and-playability of the title also lends itself to episodic adventures and a reformed character development system. As players fight their way to the mana trees (found, naturally, at the bottom of the deepest dungeons,) they do not collect experience points, but instead just items, spells (in the forms of Magicite), and funds to buy equipment. This relatively impermanent means of character building ensures that every player has the chance to build up his or her character in a short playing time, so nobody ends up feeling like a third wheel. The developers also promise that there will be plenty of goods for everybody, eliminating any possible competition.
If an RPG without experience points isn't enough to gall purists, the fact that this FF title does away with menu combat to embrace hack 'n slash action should put them over the edge. Of course, a nice little spell combination mechanic will probably win them back... even if it does effectively take the place of summons in the game. These combos are performed simply by having multiple players cast a spell at the same target. Though it is worth noting that the game adjusts the difficulty level depending on the number of players, these combos create an additional reason to link up with other RPGamers, if only to experiment with the possible combinations. Also, someone needs to carry the Crystal Cage. This is the device that stores the Mirula droplets and keeps the party safe from the deadly air. In a one-player game, the party's pet Moogle carries the cage, but he is a tad unreliable, and prone to dropping the Cage when he gets tired. In a multi-player game, the responsibility falls on one of the party members, who needs to be protected by the rest of the crew.
Perhaps now it would be worth exploring the means by which multi-player can happen. Despite earlier development plans to the contrary, if more than one player is playing, then EVERY player must connect a Game Boy Advance (or GBA SP) to the GameCube and use that for their controller. If there is ONLY one user playing the game, then and only then may he or she use the GameCube controller. That means that a four-player game entails four GBAs and a whole mess of connection wires. Still, anyone who has played a game that involves both friends and menus can see the advantages of having an extra, personal screen handy. The GBA screen allows for each player to leisurely scroll through their inventory of items or spells with the L and R buttons, without any pauses or cursor tug-of-war. In addition to these command lists, the player can also access maps, radar, and shop inventories. Sometimes, one player will be privy to certain information that the others need to know.
As a controller, the GBA functions well - not that it needs to do anything spectacular. The A button activates all the commands, and holding the button gives the commands additional charge and power. While charging, the party member is vulnerable and needs to be protected. By all accounts the GBA connection is a novel idea that adds much to the game, but making it absolutely necessary for every player, without exception, threatens to greatly limit the appeal of the multi-player mode - which is integral to the game itself. Getting more than one GBA together is easy for those with many gamer friends, but for light entertaining, Crystal Chronicles falls short on the technical accessibility.
Aesthetically, the game is reminiscent of FFIX, and in particular that game's espousal of a classic fantasy theme and short, big-headed characters. The medieval-tinged music also seems taken from good ol' Revolution Number Nine, even though CC's music was composed not by Uematsu, but by one Kumi Tanioka. Happily, though the characters do seem a bit polygonal at times, the (progressive-scan compatible) graphics fully meet modern standards. Even though there can be plenty of action filling the screen at one time, slowdown doesn't seem to be a major problem, and every character is color coded to minimize confusion. The animation is smooth, and the spell effects are pleasing to the eye. The visuals are strong enough overall that one doesn't miss the CG movies - all of the cinemas are done with the regular engine.
From beginning to end, CC only clocks in at about 30 hours, but multi-player opportunities always add to replay value. Plus, there are always the Moogle-related sidequests. At the time of character creation, players choose the occupation of their character's parents. The parents send letters to each character (delivered by a Moogle after each mana tree,) and depending on the replies players give, send items appropriate to their occupation. Also, players have the unique chance to give the Moogle a makeover. Why not?
Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, like many modern multi-player games, comes with some frustrating additional requirements. However, it also has much to offer in the way of compensation. Whether or not consumers will bite still remains to be seen (but they probably will).