Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting classics of PC gaming days gone by. Today, Andy brushes up on his Triple Triad skills and revisits the vivid world of Final Fantasy VIII.
Every morning before school I’d play Triple Triad. The repetitive bong-abong- a-bong of the music—Nobuo Uematsu’s ‘Shuffle or Boogie’—was as much a part of my morning routine as getting dressed and eating cereal.
Triple Triad is a fiendishly addictive grid-based card game, and I was obsessed. Not just with the game itself, but with building my collection of rare cards. The only reason I spent countless frustrating hours trying to beat Ultima Weapon, the game’s second most difficult boss, was to get the Eden card it drops.
Most minigames are throwaway distractions, but Triple Triad is not only a fun, strategic card game, but also attached to a series of brilliant sidequests. There’s the Card Club, a group of skilled players whose identities you have to reveal, and who hold some of the game’s rarest cards. There’s the PuPu card, which involves destroying a UFO and feeding a tiny blue alien elixirs. And, of course, the Queen of Cards, who can be manipulated to spread different game-altering rules around the world. I spent as much time playing Triple Triad and completing these quests as I did playing the main game.
I remember reluctantly losing my Ifrit card to General Caraway to get the Rinoa card. I remember playing Zell’s mum about 50 times until she finally played her son’s card. I remember the sheer terror of the ‘all’ rule spreading, which gives your entire hand to your opponent if you lose. There have been a lot of great minigames—pazaak in Knights of the Old Republic, Resident Evil 4’s Mercenaries mode, chocobo racing in Final Fantasy VII—but none of them have captured my imagination quite like Triple Triad.
So I decided to play Final Fantasy VIII again, almost a decade after the first time I finished it. It’s by no means the best game in the series, and it has a lot of problems, but I’m surprised by how well it still holds up – and Triple Triad is every bit as compelling as it was 14 years ago. The game’s backgrounds, which were designed to be viewed at 256x224 on a CRT television, don’t look great on modern monitors, but that distinct atmosphere, which is notably darker than previous games, is still there thanks to the strong art direction and Uematsu’s evocative score, which is one of his best.
However, if you’re going to follow in my footsteps, do yourself a favour and install a mod that makes the music sound like the original PlayStation version. You can find one here. The MIDI sounds are all wrong on PC—both the original version and last year’s re-release – and it sounds horribly cheap. As Ross Atherton put it in our original review back in issue 79, it’s “like being followed around by an over-enthusiastic Bontempi organist.” Modern eyes might weep at the sight of the game’s low-res visuals, even with sharper fonts and character models in the 2013 version, but seriously: get past it. You’ll stop caring once you’re sufficiently lost in the story, and you’ll be missing out on one of the best RPGs on PC if you don’t.
Let’s talk about junctioning. People hated this, and it’s easily exploited to make your characters overpowered, but it’s such a brilliant idea. Unlike previous Final Fantasy games where, if equipped, you can cast a spell endlessly until your MP was drained, VIII adds a limit of 100 and has no MP bar whatsoever. The twist is, you can ‘junction’ spells to your character to boost their stats. Say you have 100 fire spells junctioned to Squall’s attack. He’d get a huge melee boost, as well as fire elemental damage, but if you started casting your stockpile, the effects would be steadily weakened.
You can junction spells to pretty much every major stat, including HP, which lets you create some interesting character builds by doling out different spells to your party. Compared to Final Fantasy VII’s elegant materia system it seems overcomplicated and bloated – not helped by slow, tedious, text-based tutorials—but give it some time and it becomes increasingly rewarding as your collection of magic increases. VIII also adds some real-time elements to the series’ trademark turn-based battles, allowing you to fire Squall’s ridiculousbut- cool-looking ‘gunblade’ by hitting a button just as he attacks.
Squall is the archetypal Final Fantasy hero: a surly teenager with a big sword and a fringe. He’s a deeply unremarkable character, but the colourful supporting cast prop him up. There’s hyperactive brawler Zell who’s obsessed with hotdogs, which always seem to run out whenever he gets to the front of the lunch queue. Irvine is a cocky cowboy sniper who hits relentlessly on the girls in the party, but never succeeds. The initially mysterious Laguna’s awkward relationship with Julia is genuinely sweet. Both Tetsuya Nomura’s designs and the script do a good job of fleshing the cast out, even if they aren’t among the series’ all-time best.
The game is big on saccharine melodrama, and the story is like a soap opera at times, but it has a sense of humour too, and is often surprisingly funny. This was when the Final Fantasy series’ mix of pathos and comedy was at its peak, which it sadly seems to have lost in recent years. The story arc seriously loses it towards the end, but there are enough great moments to make up for it: the occupation of Timber, the desert prison escape, the assassination attempt, the Laguna flashbacks. It’s also fairly open, giving you the freedom to explore the world map and complete sidequests at your leisure.
On purely technical terms, Final Fantasy VIII has not aged well at all. It’s an ugly game. But it’s over a decade old, so give it a break. I’m about 40 hours into my replay now, and I’m still totally engaged by it. Yes, my Triple Triad obsession is back, and the bong-a-bong of ‘Shuffle or Boogie’ has once again become part of my daily routine.