mark cerqueira well-rounded nerd

Stuck in Super Mario RPG

Writing about how Super Mario RPG was my first love the other day brought back another memory that has stuck with me. This is a great story that features:

  • Super Mario RPG - my first JRPG and an amazing game all-around
  • The redemption of Nelson, the cousin who deleted my save file in the aforementioned story
  • No internet connection, knowledge of GameFAQs, or friends who were also playing this game
  • Immigrant parents who don’t speak English

It’s 1998, I’m 10 years old, and I’m in the Sunken Ship in Super Mario RPG. To unlock a door in the cellar I need to input a 6-character word given these clues:

  1. There is an “s” in the word.
  2. It is found on the bed of the ocean.
  3. It has two vowels.
  4. It has four consonants.
  5. At least… two consonants are side by side.
  6. The “r” comes before the “l”.

Boom! I’m stuck. I have no idea what the word is. A jump box controls each of the 6 letters, offering 5 options for each character:

1. m c o t p
2. o t e s y
3. a r e t s
4. a t r s c
5. t e r l o
6. s t e k r

I have no idea how to solve this. I’m (only a little) clever now, but I certainly wasn’t back in fourth grade.

My parents (Portuguese immigrants) don’t speak much English but I take the “It is found on the bed of the ocean” clue and try to get info out of them. No luck. The computers at school only let us read Encyclopedia Britannica and play Oregon Trail so the Internet is not an option. Even if I had access to the Internet, I don’t have confidence that my fourth grade self had the technical know-how to search for the solution here.

And so I’m stuck.

I fought this battle hundreds of times...

In a room before this puzzle room there is a Dry Bones you can fight over and over again so I just grind all my characters to the max level. And then when that’s done, I’m stuck and I don’t have anything more to grind: the ultimate pain in a JRPG! Also worth mentioning: near where this Dry Bones hangs out is a shaman merchant who tells you how many characters of the puzzle you got correct. This merchant will play a critical role in what’s to come.

Enter my cousin Nelson – tragic hero who deleted my save file – but will now redeem himself and save me from this impasse. I tell him about my issues and he realizes we can brute force the puzzle but use the merchant to help make that strategy more tractable. We shuffle between the puzzle and the merchant trying each character until the correct number of characters increases.

And so we finally arrive at the password: PEARLS.

I was finally unstuck! With my now overpowered party, I’d go on to finish the game without any major hurdles. Most importantly, Nelson went from a tragic hero to a true hero!

赶着投胎 - Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Chinese has a bunch of pithy four-character idioms that capture a teaching. Think fables but much shorter. One of my favorites is: 赶着投胎 (gǎn zhe tóu tāi). It translates to “rush reincarnation” and is used to describe people who are in a rush to meet their end through some dangerous action so they can be reincarnated. Imagine the Darwin Awards but in Chinese.

Situations that are 赶着投胎:

  • Texting while driving
  • Speeding and swerving through a congested highway
  • Driving in the left lane below the speed limit
  • Changing lanes without using your turn signal

Today we can add another thing to this list that isn’t directly related to the terrible driving conditions in California: wearing noise-cancelling headphones outside. It’s something I’ve been seeing more and more of late and it makes absolutely zero sense to me. Yes, humans are rely primarily on their visual sense to get around and dodge trouble but it is incredibly myopic to cut off a sense that gives you coverage of things going on to your sides and rear.

Does your friend wear noise-cancelling headphones outside? Help them see the light and help them hear the incoming trouble.

P.S. My other favorite pithy idiom is 脱裤子放屁 (tuō kùzi fàngpì) which translates to “take off pants to fart.” Throw it at someone doing something completely unnecessary, serving only complicate something. We should all strive to fart with our pants on.

Valentine's Day - First Love

On this Valentine’s Day, love is in the air! It’s a great time to love, be loved, and think about your first love. Mine is easy: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars for the Super Nintendo.

My first video game love!

This was my first JRPG and I totally did not get it at first. I recall running through the first area, Mushroom Way, avoiding all the enemies and then when I faced off against the two Hammer Bros I just couldn’t beat them. I kept doing this same strategy over and over again and eventually I did beat them and got to Mushroom Kingdom.

Evil incarnate to my younger self.

But that same day my cousin overwrote my save file. I literally cried. My mom didn’t understand what a save file was so no luck getting comfort there.

After tears were wiped away I started over. But this time instead of avoiding all those enemies in Mushroom Way I got the bright idea to fight all of them. I got experience points, I levelled up, I got more powerful, and I crushed the Hammer Bros. Like Columbus discovered America, I had discovered grinding.

I would go on to complete and fall in love with Super Mario RPG. I didn’t know at the time, but not only had I found an amazing game, I also found an amazing genre I’m still in love with to this day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

P.S. Super Mario RPG has an amazing ending theme.

Storytelling in Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild is now the first game I’ve replayed (on the Switch) within a year of my first playthrough (on the Wii U). The game is that good, especially since I can now play it on-the-go. The game is engrossing and massive. Before you know it, you’ll be a hundred hours in and the world still feels mysterious and teeming with things to do.

Having recently wrapped up The Champions’ Ballads DLC. The DLC included 15 minutes of exposition on Zelda recruiting the Champions; while short, added more oomph to the tragic events that took place 100 years before the game begins. Looking back on the game as a whole, Breath of the Wild told a moving and deep story with a very minimal amount of actual story presentation.

And it did this so well by throwing this expression on Link’s face over and over again.

Next stop: most likely some depressing memories.

The 18 memories you unlock during the main game amount to 31 minutes of exposition. If we apply a more liberal definition that amount bumps up to about 1 hour and 40 minutes. In short, we’re looking at about 2 hours of exposition in an easily 100+ hour game.

Yes, almost all of the content in Breath of the Wild is technically optional, but exploring a vast and mostly empty world serves to emphasize the failure highlighted in the small amount of exposition the game does present. It’s an amazingly large period to the simple story presented in this single sentence: “100 years ago Zelda, Link, and the Champions failed to destroy Calamity Ganon.” The entirety of Breath of the Wild is reconciling the wrong in that sentence.

It’s an effective formula that allows skipping over all the mundane and filler segments a balanced story contains and laser focusing on the truly important pieces. A story delivered in small but dense, heavy doses and given time to simmer with lots amount of gameplay in between: that’s top-notch storytelling in Breath of the Wild.

Ask For and Take Feedback Like Octopath Traveler

We could all learn a thing about great feedback loops from the developers of the oddly-named Octopath Traveler. The team put out a demo in September, asked for feedback over the holidays, and just released a video detailing some feedback they got and the steps they are taking to address said feedback.

The majority of the items addressed could be seen as minor quality-of-life tweaks. But it’s fixing all these small papercuts that let a great game be perceived as the great game it is instead of a great game marred with small annonyances. For example, I loved Xenoblade Chronicles 2 but found there were several quality-of-life issues affecting the overall experience of the game.

So I tip my hat to the Octopath developers for asking for feedback and more importantly, sifting through it and addressing things. Their 1.0 release will be even better for it and I’m very much looking forward to more classic JRPG goodness on my Switch!