Space travel? No thanks, it’s a bit too chilly for me

star ocean

Star Ocean (1996)

Look, I can understand it, but it still really astounds me just how many children want to become astronauts and go into space when they grow up. They don’t know anything about what that entails, of course. They just want to wear a cool suit and they think space is cool and they think rocket ships and meteors and lasers are cool as well.

They must see it as the car journey to end all car journeys – maybe they yearn for a day when their dads can bring them to the Moon in the morning, have a McDonald’s lunch and orbit around Mars for a while, take part in an exciting laser battle with their pals all before retiring home to an early evening of Nickelodeon. Sounds just swell.

Well, call me windy but I was perfectly alright leaving them to it. Space? Who’d want to go up there, I wondered? It’s cold and dark and spooky and nothing lives there and it’s far too big and open for an unassuming guy like me. It also required an awful lot of intense physical training, if Moonraker taught me anything. Although conversely, The Simpsons showed us that a fatty can hack it perfectly well up there in the black abyss, so who knows? Either way, I didn’t fancy it.

Look, there is an undeniable element of coolness about something so vast and unknown that we humans cannot even comprehend it. And even things like stars, comets and what have you carry with them a certain amount of otherworldly mystique that will always arouse human curiosity.

But I, in typical conservative fashion, have to ask: do we really need to know? You’ve surely done it before, but just take a moment to sit back and think about the universe. Infinite, yet always expanding. We don’t know where it came from, we don’t know where it’s headed. It’s Donald Trump but magnified by billions of light years, if you can imagine that, and we are all little specks of stardust in the cosmos. When I go to blow dust off an NES cartridge, that’s us – that’s us I’m blowing away.

Do you see what I mean? I don’t want to know what goes on in galaxies beyond our vision because my head’s vast enough already. A realisation as incredible as that may very well prove to be literally mind-blowing and leave me with a combusted nut.

So you mean to tell me that we’re not standing on a nice, relatively flat plain? That we’re actually on a gigantic baseball being pitched at frightful speeds towards exploding stars in the great beyond? And the only escape from this is to take a giant leap into infinite black nothingness – nothingness that, if it doesn’t kill you immediately, will depressurise your skin, melt your face off, wrinkle your fingers and give you ebullism (which you will have seen faithfully and scientifically recreated in Total Recall)?

No, I’d much prefer to keep my feet planted on the old terracotta, and I’ll stick to reading about space in trashy sci-fi comics, thank you very much. Mind you, there’s no better battleground for a vertical shooter. And we wouldn’t have a fine library of Star Wars games without space either.

But a space RPG? Surely not. Yes, there’s that Mass Effect series that drones on for goodness knows how long before ending badly. But how about a JRPG that takes us away from the sweepingly generic plains and mountains and puts us into an expanse of stars for just a little bit?

Well, that’s exactly what Tri-Ace’s Star Ocean does, and even from the game’s opening you realise that this one is just a bit special. Before we pop the game in the cartridge slot (or load up the dodgy ROM, as it were), a few boring notes about the technical aspects of the game: first, it shares a stat with Tales of Phantasia as being one of only two SNES games released on 48 Megabit cartridges, more than some Nintendo 64 games.

This allowed for some pretty lush graphics, a large soundtrack of bass-heavy tunes and even digitised speech – in the case of Star Ocean, this meant a fully voice-acted intro and in-battle voice samples and phrases. OK, games like B-17 Bomber for the Intellivision infamously had voices as well, but not without surgically bolting a whole new module onto your console. If Tales of Phantasia was considered ‘the game that sings’, then Star Ocean could quite easily be ‘the game where the characters swap dialogue in Japanese while you wait until you’re able to move again’.

And it’s interesting to mention Tales of Phantasia in tandem with Star Ocean, because Tri-Ace are a team of developers who had originally been working on Phantasia but got the hump during development. Faces pouted, they stormed off and made their own unbelievably Japanese RPG instead. But it’s a good thing they were prima donnas at the time, because they managed to put out a marvel for the SNES late in its life.

And they’re still around to this day too, making colourful RPGs with vaguely paedophilic cutscenes. Yes, the Tales series can be a bit embarrassing, but the subsequent Star Ocean releases must be absolutely mutilating to play if someone walks in at the wrong time. If you don’t believe me, look for the Nappy Time scene from Star Ocean 4 on YouTube and tell me if you think that’s acceptable – and get a good lawyer.

Back to the SNES. You play as Ratix, your generic sort of RPG dullard who’s good with a sword, bad with female suitors and has a tail poking out of his bum. Oh! That last one’s not generic at all, but it’s the standard for Fellpools, the feline-descended race of people who live on the planet Roak.

Ratix was a happy catboy until a biological weapon of some sort is unleashed on his planet which turns people to stone, which is obviously disappointing and a real poor one to take when his best friend gets afflicted by the disease. Unhappy with his friend being replaced by a lump of granite, Ratix goes in search of a cure. In doing so, he meets interstellar travellers keen to establish the cause and villainous parties behind this stony disorder. They take Ratix onto their ship, big culture shock for him, and blah blah blah, you know the rest.

There’s time travel, there’s space, there’s special moves, there’s hundreds of items, there’s irreverent dialogue, and all the staples of an RPG. It must be noted that until the PSP brought us Star Ocean: The First Departure, this game was strictly Japan only, necessitating a translation patch from the guys at DeJap, the mentally ill crew who had also translated Phantasia.

But even then, that wasn’t enough, because the game was so advanced that the cartridge would decompress the sumptuous graphics in real time, and it could therefore explode any emulator at a thousand paces. Our basement dwelling boys couldn’t figure out how to faithfully get this running on a PC for a long time either.

We were kind of stuck for a while, and the game is pretty well obscure as a result. Even considering its obscurity, Star Ocean always seems to go without mention when people list their favourite SNES RPGs, and probably rightly so if I’m honest. The reasons for this could be that the combat can become inane, the story a bit disjointed, and the game a bit short overall.

And I must note that towards the end of this short voyage, the backtracking becomes beyond belief. Travelling all the way around the half-baked overworld to trigger the one line of dialogue that will open a new dungeon, way back where you started? If you fancy this sort of masochism, then Star Ocean may just be the adventure for you.

But if you have the means to play it, and you’re a veteran of SNES RPGs, then it’d behove you to suffer past the slow opening and button-mashing combat and drag yourself in. It’s not a Phantasia beater as the developers probably intended. It’s not in the top 10 RPGs for the SNES and it certainly isn’t a sprawling epic that’d take months for the uninitiated to beat.

But it’s a great piece of SNES history, it scores plenty of points for obscurity (which are worth their weight in gold at retro gaming junkets, believe me) and it’s got replay value too, due to the different routes you can take and characters you can recruit in the game. It probably won’t blow you all the way to the moon, but why not strap yourself in and see where it launches you?

5 October 2018

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