Bury This One

Bury This One
That Podcast We Did

00:00 / 1:11:37

Brick & McClain discuss exploding rabbites, Rescue Ranger paternity issues, scratchy lotteries, rumschpringe, synchronized fireflies, synthetic meat, and fonetic speling.

FF5 Four Job Fiesta 2018: The Write-Up

Another Fiesta is in the can, and while I hope to get a decent clip reel of this year’s run up on YouTube, that project will likely take me a month or so to complete. In the meantime I thought you might enjoy a brief write-up detailing how the run went. But first, here’s a quick table of all the Fiesta runs I’ve completed through the years:

That’s seven Fiestas, and not one single Monk, Black Mage, Summoner, Dancer or Freelancer. I wouldn’t mind if my ’19 Fiesta were some combination of those jobs, especially considering they’re all pretty strong!

I’ve decided that #regpurechaos is my preferred Fiesta ruleset. Under pure chaos rules, you can roll any job (including Mime and Freelancer) for any crystal. You can end up with literally any combination of jobs, with no weight or bias towards or against any set of them. #reg tends to over-represent the earth jobs, since there are fewer of them, while #random over-represents the wind jobs, since they’re in the pool for all four rolls. #purechaos strikes just the right balance.

Standard #chaos is the same thing, but it re-orders your four jobs so you get the earliest ones first. The idea here is to minimize the time of the game you have to spend playing Freelancers. Well, the first two years I played the chaos variants, I got two fire jobs both times. This meant using Freelancers all the way through Liquid Flame. It’s a neat way to play the game, and Freelancers are actually really good — I spent a lot of this year’s run saying, “Gee, I hope I roll Freelancer for my next job!” — but I didn’t want it to happen a third year running.

My solution was to hack my GBA rom so all the jobs were available from the first crystal. This year, if I rolled a fire job into that first spot, I could switch to it right away. And that’s exactly what happened: I got Bard.

Since I’d be running the first few dungeons with a party full of Bards, Twitch chat suggested I name my hero Bardz. So I did that, and it was pretty funny.

A quick note about Bards…

Bard is one of the most powerful jobs in Final Fantasy V. They learn the !Hide ability, which lets them nope out of battle for as long as they want. This sounds like a joke ability but in truth it allows you to skip some really dangerous attacks in certain fights. From the moment the class is unlocked you can pick up a song called Romeo’s Ballad that acts as a free, virtually-guaranteed Stop effect. In the late game their stat-boosting songs can literally max out your Strength, Agility and even EXPERIENCE LEVEL.

The two superbosses of FFV, Omega and Shinryu, can each be defeated with nothing but Bard abilities. I don’t think there’s another job in the game that can make that claim, except maybe Chemist.

However, as soon as my run started I noticed I had a problem: because I had unlocked Bard using a cheat code, I was several hours away from gaining anything the class could actually use. Songs don’t start appearing until late in the first world.

In the past I’ve completed both of what I consider to be the toughest versions of the “single job slog”, that part of the game after you unlock your first job but before you unlock your second. Thief and White Mage are both grind-y and tedious, but I was able to make judicious use of their advantages to carry me through. Namely, Thief can !Steal better weapons at certain key points in the run, while White Mages are indestructable as long as their MP lasts.

Bards have neither advantage. I think, played by these rules, Bard is the absolute slowest possible start.

I don’t point this out for any particular reason, just pinning this badge of honor to my chest. So okay, how bad did it actually get?

The Single-Job Slog

Bards can do two things during the first few areas of the game: Daggers and Potions. And they don’t even start with the Daggers.

I invested all my money from the Wind Shrine into a small Potion supply, and took Karlabos down over the course of many rounds. At this point in the game one hero had a Knife, one had a Dagger, and the other two had nothing at all. I put those two heroes in the back row and had them Defend to minimize the amount of damage Karlabos could do; less damage meant fewer Potions used up. I expected to have to grind a few levels to bea tthis boss, but that ended up not being necessary. Still, I had a safety save in a second slot, because beating Karlabos locks you in the next dungeon without any means of getting back to town.

The next dungeon is the Ship Graveyard, where Daggers sometimes drop off of Skeletons. By the time I reached the end of this dungeon each of my Bards had a Dagger and the !Hide ability. The boss of the area is Siren, who has weak attacks until an abrupt phase shift where she “becomes one of the undead”. Her attacks get much stronger at this point, so I had everyone !Hide and waited until she was ready to be alive again, at which point I called the Bards forward and asked them to use their Daggers to make her not alive anymore after all.

!Hide was instrumental again in the next boss fight, against Magissa. She uses magic attacks constantly, and there aren’t enough Potions in the world to drink quickly enough to get on top of that damage, so I sent the Bards away and then went and made a sandwich while Magissa stupidly ran herself out of MP. She’s not entirely toothless at that point, though, because she can call her husband Forza forth to fight for her. Forza is essentially a tougher version of Karlabos, though, so moving the Bards to the back row and having them spam Potions was enough to (eventually) send him packing.

The next boss, Garula, marked the end of the single-job slog, but was the toughest boss by far. He dealt more damage than Forza, could inflict HP Leak, and after a phase change starts counterattacking with brutal double hits. On the back row the Bards were dealing single-digit damage, but each of Garula’s hits still took two Potions to get on top of. If I could just beat this guy I could roll my next job, and literally anything would smooth out the next part of the game. But for now he was a roadblock.

The only advantage I could reach was the Elven Mantle in the Walse Castle basement (which I abused Quicksave chicanery to grab). This accessory helps evade physical attacks, so I could, with some luck, potentially move one Bard to the front line to increase their Dagger damage.

I wasn’t sure how much leveling up was going to improve my odds. You gain HP at level up, but max HP wasn’t really the limiting factor. Garula was strong enough, and my Bards weak enough, that 1000 max HP wouldn’t be enough. The real problem was the paltry 50 healing from each Potion. To keep on top of Garula’s damage I needed three Bards spamming them at all times. If all leveling did was raise my HP, it was going to take a lot of leveling to get passed Garula.

All of the early Final Fantasy games seem to handle stats a little differently, and I get them mixed up a lot. I did some research and turned up this:

That’s a lot of jargon, but what it basically means is that, for knives, a character’s experience level factors directly into their damage output. Twice. At the beginning of the game, just a level or two should provide a noticable boost. An hour or so of grinding later my Bards had more than doubled their damage output.

There was still no way to stay ahead of the healing with everyone spamming Potions frantically, so I elected to send Faris out front with the Elven Mantle and focus on just healing her. The other Bards on the back line could Defend if they didn’t need to send a Potion Faris-ward, and Defending Bards didn’t take enough damage to need healing at all. Once or twice I did need to make Faris !Hide so everyone else could clean up the nickle-and-dime damage they’d been taking, but I still cleared the fight with about a dozen Potions to spare.

Job Fair Shenanigans

Going into this year’s Fiesta, I decided there were two jobs I absolutely did not want to see. Berserker is the undisputed worst job in the game, and I’ve played them three out of my seven Fiestas. Beastmaster is a dumb job with lousy abilities that don’t synergize with other classes and take lots of boring backtracking and carefully measuring enemy HP to make effective use of. I’ve only done one Fiesta with Beastmaster, but that was enough for me.

So of course my ’18 #water job was Berserker. Womp womp. I hit the Job Fair and plopped down a donation to get a reroll. The Job Fair rule is you can start using your new job right away, but I didn’t buy a new job, I bought a reroll, and I had no idea what my new job was going to be. Since these requests are manually processed I had no choice but to quit playing for the night.

When I woke up the next day, I noted my new #water job was Thief.

A quick note about Thieves…

After Bard, Thief is just about the worst start you can get. So you would think my Bard/Thief party would be pretty disheartening. But it wasn’t, for a few reasons.

First, I hadn’t rolled Thief since my very first Fiesta, and was looking forward to having one again.

Like Bard, Thief is a weak start, but picks up considerably in the mid-game. Thieves get lots of cool advantages no other job can replicate: they avoid back attacks entirely, they can steal items and equipment from monsters, they can skip random encounters, and they have the highest Agility score in the game. Their abilities synergize with basically every other class.

In my first Fiesta, I wasn’t really sure how to handle #fire jobs, since those jobs come at you in two sets. I didn’t know whether I should roll my job immediately upon breaking the crystal or wait until a little later when I had the whole set. I decided to wait, but “a little later” turned out to be on the other side of two of the most annoying bosses in the game. Rolling earlier wouldn’t have helped — my #fire job that year was Bard, which is one of the late #fire jobs — but that wasn’t going to be an issue this year with my All Jobs Unlocked cheat! No matter what #fire was, I was guaranteed to have it early.

With these thoughts in mind I plowed ahead to the Steamship.

The Other Job I Kinda Hate

The Steamship was no trouble at all. I took the opportunity to !Steal some Hi-Potions from the monsters there, and made use of !Hide again to run the boss out of MP to diminish its dangerous attacks. I rolled my #fire job and got…


This was a real bummer. I’m kinda tired of Geomancers in Fiesta runs; this is the third time I’ve gotten it. I can summarize the class like so: it’s “kinda good” in the places where it works, and absolutely worthless in the places where it doesn’t. In some areas the class gains access to decent attacks (which still pale in comparison to what any of the attacking mages can do), but in others they get bupkis. There’s nothing the player can do to influence this in any way; the class is hard-coded.

Even worse, Geomancer simply doesn’t synergize with anything. I’m not aware of any cool “Geomancer combos” or obscure killer strats. Through most of my run, my Geomancer made do with either Equip Harps (which grants a small Agility boost) or !Sing, turning them into a second Bard.

Having a second Bard on hand turned out to be okay, because this is the point in the game where !Sing becomes available. But man. Still a bummer. Part of the magic of the Fiesta is unwrapping each new job and thinking about how you’ll build your party, and Geomancer just isn’t exciting from that standpoint. It’s like a LEGO brick with no studs. It’s just a big frumpy blob that sits in your party throwing Wind Slash sometimes.

The Gil Grind

Geomancer sucks, but it sucks just little enough to clear Byblos and Sand Worm with no major difficulty. (These are the two bosses that would have been a nightmare with just Bard/Thief.) After this you get a ship, and sail around the world picking up new spells and equipment. For my purposes this meant finally getting some Songs:

  • Mighty March, which adds Regen to the whole party,
  • Alluring Air, which adds Confuse to all enemies, and
  • Romeo’s Ballad, which adds Stop to all enemies.

Now I had two options to completely shut down random encounters: I could !Flee to avoid them entirely, or !Sing Romeo’s Ballad to freeze all the monsters in place while I picked them apart. This was a big boost in power and I was pretty happy right up until I hit my next roadblock: Soul Cannon.

Soul Cannon is a big gun mounted in a flying robot airship. Before fighting it, you have to destroy lots of smaller guns mounted on the flying robot airship. The Geomancer actually came in pretty handy here, with the high-powered (for this stage of the game, anyway) Wind Slash attack. Unfortunately, and somewhat arbitrarily, Soul Cannon itself is immune to wind.

This means I had to kill the boss with just my knives and stockpile of Hi-Potions. Which would be fine, except the boss makes use of the Old status ailment. A hero with Old loses experience levels until they suck too much to matter.

I reasoned that if I could get one hero to avoid being Old’d, I could solo the fight if I had to. But the only way to guarantee that was to get an Angel Ring, an accessory that blocks several nasty status ailments but commands a $50k price tag.

It was again the Thief’s time to shine. After a short while of !Stealing from some local monsters, I had a big pile of Silver Bows, War Hammers and a couple of Death Sickles to sell off. I put the Angel Ring on my strongest party member and then proceeded to trounce the fight with zero difficulty. It could have been the levels I’d gained while farming up money, or it could have just been the god-like RNG I managed to get. Either way I was passed the fight and moving on.

Geomancer Is Actually Good, For Once

The Ronka Ruins is a big, maze-like dungeon filled with tough monsters and absolutely gruelling boss. Fortunately for me, this is one of the few spots in the game where Geomancer is hard-coded to kick ass. I burned the dungeon up without much thought and rolled my final job: Knight.

I was really, really excited to get Knight. It’s neither one of the best jobs nor most interesting; it’s just good and consistent. Knights are the most equipment-reliant job in the game, and as a result, there is a lot of really good Knight equipment. There are only like two interesting decisions a Knight gets to make about his battle plan, but that’s two more than a Geomancer ever gets to make. And besides, my team was kinda squishy and weak, so a big strong dude up front with a greatsword made for a nice addition.

But I was stoked for another reason: Thieves are able to !Steal the elusive Genji equipment during the second world, but this set is only useful if you have a Knight to wear it. I’d never explored this synergy in a Fiesta before, and it’s actually impossible under the base ruleset, since Thief and Knight are both #wind jobs!

Suffice it to say, with my Knight leading the way, my team had no real trouble mopping up the rest of world one. Quite a lot of FFV can be plowed through if you have one consistent damage-dealer with strong back-up, and my Knight had the Bard and Thief to prop him up.

World Two

Things were so smooth, in fact, that there’s almost nothing to report from world two. There are a couple of gimmick bosses that most of the difficulty of the world is situated around, but there’s no point where I hit a major snag. One boon we earned from our world two explorations was the Bard’s Swift Song, which can max out the party’s speed and break the whole game open.

Atomos is a gimmick boss that some teams can beat effortlessly while some bang their heads against for eons. My team was in neither camp. The “normal” way to win this fight is to let Atomos kill someone with his unrelenting Comet spam, then pile damage onto him as he drags the corpse across the map. Raise the corpse just before it gets snarfed up, then rinse and repeat. My team had no problem with damage output, but I still tried to be a little sneaky. I recalled Atomos was susceptible to Sleep, so I had my Knight hit him with the Sleep Sword. The animation played and everything, but then the Comets started flying, so I don’t know what the haps was.

Wind Slash is a great AoE spell, but Geomancers can only use it in hard-coded places, and the fight with the four crystals is not one of those places. The plan for this fight was to take the Flame Shield from the forest (this turns into an Aegis Shield after a story event, and Aegis is the better shield, but you can get another one later in the game) so my Knight would absorb fire damage, reduce the fire crystal’s HP enough that it spammed Firaga at me, and then use the free healing to whittle the other three crystals down. What I discovered was the wind and water crystals are just slightly faster, meaning I’d sometimes see two Aqua Breaths in between healing Firagas, wiping out my Knight. With liberal application of Swift Song to get the timing right, the fight didn’t turn into a roadblock.

The boss of world two is Exdeath, and this is for many parties the hardest boss in the game. The only way to win this fight is to stack up damage and keep ahead of the healing. Some fiesta parties have neither damage nor healing. My party was about average in both regards. Geomancer is maybe good in this fight, sometimes, because she can equip an Air Knife to boost the damage from Wind Slash. (But then she rolls any of the non-Wind Slash spells and wastes her turn.) Knight’s damage output is consistent but not exemplary. There are a couple ways I could play this, but what I settled on was equipping Bone Mail and the Flame Shield on my Knight, protecting him from Exdeath’s worst attacks. To heal, the Knight could equip the Flametongue and whack himself with it. Everyone else had to rely on Phoenix Downs and Hi-Potions, which were plentiful. As long as the items held this fight was in the bag — except for one caveat. If the Knight died, I could not revive him, because Bone Mail precludes using Phoenix Downs. Exdeath has a countdown attack, one of those “30 seconds to live!” things, which meant failure. All I needed was a fight where Exdeath chose a different Doom target, which happened on the second or third try.

World two also has an optional superboss who, when you account for all the equipment and abilities you don’t have access to yet, is probably on par with Omega in terms of sheer difficulty. The Gil Turtle has one trick up its sleeve: it counters every attack with two physical attacks, hilariously called “Turtle”, which just kill you in one hit. I had two excellent advantages for this fight: my !Singers had the Requiem song, which deals big damage to undead targets, and Gil Turtle is undead. And my Knight had the !Guard command, which reduces all physical attacks to 0 damage. If I triggered the fight with my three squishies in critical HP, my Knight would automatically take their hits for them, and reduce the damage to 0 with !Guard. So the plan was to go in, pick !Guard every round, and have the Bard and Geomancer whittle the boss’s HP down with Requiem.

The one attack I didn’t have a way to avoid was the turtle’s Earth Shaker, which he always uses upon death. I tried confusing a cat enemy in the underwater dungeon to cast Float on me, because that’s a thing cats do in world one, but it didn’t work. (I’ve since learned there are cat enemies on the dragon mountain that can do this for you.) Instead, I just had my Thief !Hide for the whole fight, so I won the battle with three dead heroes and a hidden Thief at critical HP. I tweeted the dead Gil Turtle to Gilgabot as a joke, because this boss should totally be tracked as an optional fiesta challenge. This is how I learned the victory approvals are automated, and Gilgabot counted my Gil Turtle victory as a Neo Exdeath victory. That was pretty hilarious.

Nothing to see here, except…

World three provided little more than a speedbump for my party. They had more than enough gold to purchase a full set of Hermes Sandals, the best accessory in the game, conveying permanent Haste. With Bards !Singing Requiem the pyramid was no issue at all. Geomancer proved useful again in the Great Sea Trench, with its innate ability to avoid damage on lava floors. Thief was rockin’ it from the front line, merrily !Mugging with the Chicken Knife. The Bard picked up a few new songs, including the game-breaking Hero’s Rime.

The one hiccup here was Omniscient, at the top of Fork Tower. At first I thought I could skip this area, since I didn’t need any of the rewards. (No White or Black magic, see.) I did want that replacement Aegis Shield, which is in the waterfall dungeon, which is only accessible by submarine… which only unlocks after clearing Fork Tower. Well, rats.

Fork Tower is split into two halves. One half locks out all magic attacks, by literally disabling the Magic command in battle. The other half locks out all physical attacks, but it does so inelegantly. Most of the standard magic — !White, !Black, !Summon, what-have-you — are allowed, but a lot of other magical-type commands are disallowed, including !Sing and !Gaia. Trying to use either of these commands against the boss causes him to cast Reset and start the battle over.

There are two ways to deal with this that I know of, and neither of them are very good. The first is to run Omniscient out of MPs, so he has no juice to cast Reset. He has about seventy-three million MPs, though, so this takes six hours. The other way is to nail him with a status ailment that disables spellcasting, like Stop or Mute, then damage him with an illegal attack before the ailment wears off. Since Omniscient is an endgame boss, status ailments last only a few literal seconds. The only way to sneak into that window is with a fast hero whose turn is already ready to go when the ailment lands.

I needed my accessory slots for Reflect Rings, to protect my heroes from Omniscient’s constant barrage of spells. Lacking some other way to apply Haste, I needed to rely on Swift Song to speedify my heroes up. (Omniscient will Reset !Sing, but only if the song targets him.)

My plan was to let my heroes’ ATB fill up, use Romeo’s Ballad to inflict Stop, then immedialy have the Thief !Mug with the Chicken Knife for big damage. Unfortunately this didn’t work, and I’m not sure I understand why. The animation for Romeo’s Ballad played, which is an indication that the song landed, but Omniscient immediately Reset the fight anyway. So that wasn’t going to work.

I had to fall back on one of the silliest strategies I’ve ever had to employ in FFV: equipping a Mage Masher, attacking my own heroes, hoping the Silence spell procs off the hit, bounces off the hero’s Reflect Ring, gets through Omniscients impressive magic defense, and Silences him just long enough for the other hero to !Mug. I could use Hero’s Rime to increase my levels as high as I wanted, so each !Mug could do thousands and thousands of damage here, but there was a weird trade-off I had to be careful of: the higher my levels were, the more damage I’d be doing to myself while searching for bounced Silence procs! I found a nice happy medium and set to work.

This is a painstaking way to approach Omniscient, but it does work eventually. You don’t have to kill him all the way, just enough that he undergoes a phase change and starts using -aga spells on you, which bounce off your Reflect Rings and finish the job.

And that was that. I collected my Aegis Shield and set off for the endgame.


To get the coveted Triple Crown, you need to defeat three endgame bosses: Omega, Shinryu and Neo Exdeath.

Omega is susceptible to Stop in the same way Omniscient is susceptible to Silence: he immediately erases the condition, but gets his ATB reset, so if you’re Hasted you have just enough time to queue up another Stop in order to keep him locked down. With good timing, two heroes !Singing Romeo’s Ballad can accomplish this. I set my third hero to !Sing Hero’s Rime, and my fourth to attack Omega with a Coral Sword. This is the only Knight weapon that hits with lightning, which is the only way to deal more than 0 damage to the boss. With my Knight’s level steadily rising, he dealt more and more damage each round until Omega died. Nice breezy fight.


I was excited to fight Shinryu this run because, unlike Omega, you actually get a tangible reward: the Ragnarok sword. Only Knights can equip this sword, so I could actually put it to use with my party. The problem was how to win the fight. Typically what you do is inflict Berserk on Shinryu, then employ some method of surviving his constant stream of 9999-damage hits. I could do the latter with the same auto-Cover strategy that worked with Gil Turtle, but had no way of Berserking the boss.

It was Bard to the rescue again, this time with !Hide. I got a monster earlier in the dungeon to inflict Zombie status on one of my heroes. Zombie is a loss condition; if all your heroes are some combination of Zombie, Stone or KO, you lose the game. The difference between Zombie and KO is that Zombie’d characters are still targetable. This means you can put a Reflect Ring on them, !Hide with the rest of your party, and as long as your opponent has at least one reflectable attack they take damage from, you win. Eventually.

Shinryu has about two dozen different attacks, only one of which is reflectable: Atomic Ray. He has a 1/3 chance of picking this attack something like every five or six combat rounds, and each one bounces off my Zombie for about 250 damage. Shinryu has 55,000 HPs. This was going to take hours.

I didn’t see another path to victory, though, so I set the fight up, engaged Picture-in-Picture mode, and played a full run of Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise while waiting for Shinryu to very, very slowly kill himself.

That happened, and I claimed my Ragnarok. One boss left.

Neo Exdeath

I overprepared for this fight. Exdeath’s first form doesn’t have any dangerous AoE attacks, so as long as you have Phoenix Downs and Gold Needles you can sandbag the fight forever. I had two Bards !Singing the broken buff songs, and before long my Agility and Experience Level were maxed out. I went into the final battle with Ragnarok, Excalibur and the Chicken Knife, weilded by blindingly-fast L255 characters. It was a massacre.

Final Thoughts

The difficulty on this party was really front-loaded. That can be typical of a lot of Fiesta parties. What I liked about my team, though, was that it avoided the World Two malaise I’ve gone through with some previous team; that sinking feeling of having kinda good jobs, that you just know will be breakaway strong once you get a couple World Three advantages, but first you have to push through all the World Two gimmickry with nothing but a twinkle in your eye and a prayer in your heart. My team had some fun advantages and wasn’t terrorizing the game, but neither did we get stalled out for dumb reasons.

Bard might be my favorite job in the game. It synergizes with absolutely everything, both in the sense of giving auxilary abilities to other jobs, or making other jobs more powerful during fights. !Sing is a game-breakingly good command. Equip Harps is a good Agility boost for basically everyone but Thief. !Hide allows for shenanigans. And, of course, Swift Song and Hero’s Rime magnifies the strengths of every other job in ways even a Chemist would salivate over.

Thief and Knight are solid jobs that are fun to play with. Thief gets great abilities that work well on their own or with other jobs. Knight gets great equipment that opens up a lot of solid options. Neither of these jobs are world-shattering on their own (though they can be, with Bard backing them up…) but there’s something to be said about building a party around a solid center core, rather than just blowing the game away.

Geomancer is boring and I’m tired of it. I’ll be Job Fair-ing them away at least for my next few runs.

Run #2

After completing my run this year, I went on vacation for a week. When I got home, I decided to roll up a second feista run, wherein my first job was… drumroll please…


Welp, here we go again!


That Podcast We Did

00:00 / 1:22:27

Brick & McClain discuss D&D as a moral shaming mechanism, liquor that makes them violently ill, the statute of limitations on spoilers, throat stabbing, nostalgia cakes, and muggle quidditch.

FF4: Free Enterprise Character Breakdown

Final Fantasy IV: Free Enterprise is one of the best randos I’ve played yet. I adore every version of Final Fantasy IV I’ve ever played, even that cash-grab sequel starring Cecil Jr. and Poochie, so a new way to revisit the game has been very exciting. I have lots of thoughts about the rando, but the most interesting ones are on the choice you can make regarding your team, so that’s what this post is about.

Most versions of FFIV don’t allow you to build your party, and the two versions that do have incentives to use all the characters at least once, and only at the very end of the game. It’s not like other JPRGs where you’re making decisions about your party through the entire story. It really wasn’t until Free Enterprise that I ever had cause to stop and think of the merits of one character vs. another. In this post I’m going to outline how characters are obtained in the rando and some general thoughts on who you ought to take or, failing that, how to make do with who you find.

Two Starting Characters

The basic rule is, Free Enterprise gives you a character anytime you reach a location where someone joined in the main story. I’ll call these “Join Spots”. Since you start with two characters in the main story, Free Enterprise rolls you two characters to start with. Depending on who you get will determine how easy your start is.

I’ll get into the merits of each individual character later, but the best possible start is probably to get Edge. Since Free Enterprise characters join the team with the same levels and equipment set they have in the base game, and Edge is one of the last characters you meet, any number of early game bosses will go down nice and easy. Fusoya is another great character to start with, but I play with a game flag that causes him to be weak until you kill some bosses, so Edge is still your best get.

The worst possible start would be something like Edward/Tellah, but even that is manageable if you know where the other Join Spots are.

Duplicate Characters

Some characters join the party more than once in FFIV, so in Free Enterprise there are more Join Spots than there are characters. This means some characters are found in multiple locations. A character can’t be in your party more than once (although that would be amazing, here’s hoping for a future version), so if you run into a duplicate character nothing special happens.

Freebie Characters

There are “free” Join Spots at Watery Pass, Damcyan, Mysidia and Mt. Ordeals. (These are the spots where Tellah, Edward, Palom/Porom, and Tellah again join in the main story.) If you’re playing with the No Free Lunch flag turned off, you can immediately fly to these spots to fill out your team. You’re not guaranteed to see everyone, so you don’t exactly get to pick and choose who you want, but it’s had to imagine not having a great party after seven rolls.

Nobody I know plays with this flag off, because I don’t consort with cowards, so let’s pretend the freebie characters don’t exist.

“Freebie” Characters

With No Free Lunch turned on, there are two characters you can reach without doing any treasure hunting. The first one you’re likely to check is in the Baron Inn, though he’ll be guarded by two boss fights. The other is on the Mt. Hobs summit, and is guarded by a much easier boss fight. If you’re not ready to start taking bosses yet you can check to see who they are before triggering the fight.

This early in the game, single-target damage is your goal. Ideally, between these two characters plus the two you start with, you’ll find some combination of Edge, Kain, and Yang. Casters aer great later on, but they all start out pretty weak (except for Fusoya, with an asterisk), and it’s likely you’ll find a good spear or ninja sword during your initial explorations. These single target bros are your moneymakers at first.

If you got the dreaded Edward/Tellah start, and there are no good bows to equip His Royal Spooniness with up front, you’ll probably have to take out a few lowbie bosses to get enough EXP to take on the bosses in Baron and on Mt. Hobs.

After you’ve checked these locations, everyone else is blocked off by key items. You’ll have to do some treasure hunting to find everyone else.

Key Item Characters

In addition to two characters, Free Enterprise starts you out with one key item. If you’re very lucky, it’ll be one of these, which unlock easy Join Spots:

Package – This is a cool item to get early. Fly this to Mist, and you’re rewarded with a short scene where you fight whichever character rolled into this slot. They’ll summon Titan and knock you out, then you’ll proceed to Kaipo where you’ll automatically fight a very easy boss to get them into the party. You might call this the vanilla start, since this is the item the king gives you at the beginning of FFIV.

SandRuby – You can check which character is asleep in Kaipo any time you want, but you can only wake them up if you find the SandRuby.

Hook – With the Hook, you can fly your Hoovercraft to the Eblan Cave. There’s a Join Spot at the end, where some poor character gets whooped by whichever boss rolled into Rubicant’s slot. They’ll join immediately.

Darkness Crystal – Flying to Mysidia with the Darkness Crystal triggers the Big Whale event, allowing you to travel to the moon and immediately access the Join Spot outside the crystal chamber at the start of the final dungeon.

It’s nice to get these items early, but don’t go into Free Enterprise counting on them. Chances are you’ll have to fight at least a few bosses or pop a few monster chests to fill out your numbers.

Guarded Characters

Here are the rest of the Join Spots, each of which is blocked by both a key item and two boss fights. I’ll list them in rough ascending order of difficulty, for what it’s worth, but you’ll probably have to make do with what items you find. (And some boss fights are dreadfully difficult no matter which slot they roll into.)

Baron Key – This item grants access to the equipment shops in Baron, as well as the Castle. There’s a Join Spot in the castle behind two boss fights. If you’re strong enough to beat the bosses in the Baron Inn, chances are you can take the two bosses inside as well. You don’t get a chance to check this character before triggering the bosses.

Earth Crystal – By flying to Troia and speaking to the green soldier you can explore the Tower of Zot whenever you want. There are two boss fights here, behind which is a Double Join Spot. You can fight the first of these bosses to see who the first character is, but once you trade the crystal to Golbez both characters join your party before the second boss fight. These are the toughest boss fights in the Overworld, so don’t be surprised to face a wall here if someone like Wyvern or Dark Knight Cecil rolls into their slots.

Magma Key or Hook – Either of these key items grants access to the Underworld, where you can reach the Join Spot in the Dwarf Castle. These bosses are about as tough as the ones in Zot. You don’t get to check this character, but they join in time for the second fight. If you’re using the Hook to reach the Underworld through the Eblan Cave, you’ll have to face two more bosses in Bab-il who are considerably tougher, making this potentially the most well-guarded character in the game.

Darkness Crystal – Talking to the soldier on the Big Whale grants access to the Giant of Bab-il, where one more Join Spot awaits you at the end, behind two of the toughest bosses in the main story. If you get very lucky with early equipment and easy boss rolls, it’s possible the Darkness Crystal grants you two early characters!

Now that we know where all the characters are, who should we take? Well, that largely depends on what you find and where you can check, but you’ll eventually have to make hard decisions regardless. Reaching a Join Spot with an already-full party will prompt you to dismiss someone, and dismissed characters are never seen again (unless they’re your duplicate for the seed). It’s tempting to think you’ll just take the characters you want and dismiss the rest, but in practice you usually won’t want to replace a developed character even if their replacement is strictly better.

I’ve arranged the characters in order of the general usefulness of each character’s role. Who you want to take will likely be a function of which roles you have filled and who you manage to find.

White Mages

You will need need need a white mage in your final party, and by “white mage” I mean “someone who can spam Cure4”. It is possible to defeat Zeromus without a dedicated healer, but the fight is much tougher, and the road there is much tougher as well. There are three good white mages in the game, so chances are you’ll roll into one. I would consider completing the rando without one of these characters to be a challenge run.

You only need one white mage. My general rule is to take whichever of Porom or Rosa I find first, or Fusoya if I find neither. The only reason to double up on healers is if you want someone casting White in the endgame.

Rosa – Pound for pound, Rosa is the most useful character in Free Enterprise. She has a higher Will stat than Porom, though that doesn’t matter much since equipment tends to equalize that. She learns all of the important spells (Cure4, Float, Wall, Life2) at earlier levels than Porom does, plus she can Aim. Bows and arrows are pretty good in the first half of the rando, especially if one of your shops carries Artemis or Samurai Arrows, and Rosa can never miss with them. I mentioned earlier how one solid martial character can mow down most of the early bosses. With just a tiny smidge of luck, Rosa can be that character.

Porom – Porom is worse than Rosa across the board, since she gains all the important spells later than Rosa does and can’t Aim. If you find her early and gain a bunch of levels before locating Rosa, though, she’ll carry you to the end with no difficulty. Her one advantage is she actually learns the Exit spell, which is very useful while treasure hunting. (Rosa only learns this spell if you complete the Tower of Zot!)

Fusoya – Fusoya is a special character with his own rando flag. If the flag is off, he joins your party with 1900 HPs and every spell in the game. If the flag is on he joins with way fewer resources, and gains some HPs and a few randomly-selected spells each time to defeat a boss. There are like six bosses you can kill effortlessly right at the start of the rando, so Fusoya is a good early get no matter what you do. His drawback is his small MP pool; he can’t cast as long as Rosa or Porom can, and you risk your Cure4 battery dying at a crucial moment in the Zeromus fight. You can mitigate this if you roll SomaDrops into one of your shops, but that’s janky and expensive. If you keep Fusoya in your team it will probably be in the role of secondary caster, and you’ll be using him for black magic or emergency revives.

Tellah – Tellah is not a viable white mage. Do not take him.

Top-Tier Martials

Winning the game with just casters is possible, but pretty tricky due to how many hard-hitting physical attacks you’ll have to face while treasure hunting. Outside of Adamant Armor, squishies can’t absorb these attacks; you’ll need someone on the front line with heavy armor and lots of HPs. These characters will also be your primary source of damage early in the rando, until you level up a black mage.

The only real consideration with these characters is you only have three front-line spots to use. If you have more martials than spots, someone has to sit in the back row where their usefulness is drastically decreased.

Cecil – Cecil weilds the strongest weapons, wears the best armor, has amazing HPs, and automatically tanks hits for other heroes if they’re near death. Even better, all his endgame equipment shows up in monster boxes. You are going to find more Crystal gear than you know what to do with. Cecil’s only drawback is you need to “level” him by completing Mt. Ordeals and turning him into a Paladin, and he’s useless before that. Since there are three bosses and a key item up there, you’ll probably do Mt. Ordeals early anyway. If you find Cecil before then just stick him in the party and tell him to sit tight. If you don’t, clear Mt. Ordeals then prioritize searching for him.

Kain – Kain has the same advantage Cecil does: strong gear that rolls into the monster box pool. His other major advantage is the Jump command, which deals damage from the back row. This has the benefit of making Kain basically invincible to physical attacks, and freeing up a front line spot for another martial, should you find one.

Edge – Edge is a little squishier than Cecil and Kain. He’s incredibly strong early on and tends to taper off by the time you hit the Underworld or the Moon. Still, he’s the only character with two endgame weapons in the key item pool, so it’s easy to gear him up. His Dart command deals huge single-target damage, which is excellent early on for getting through out-of-depth bosses if they’re blocking your progress. In a pinch, you can put Edge in the back row if you manage to find some FullMoons, but this isn’t optimal.

Yang – Yang starts out weak but ends up so incredibly strong it’s almost scary. He doesn’t need gear (though, certainly give him anything useful you find!) and his only relevant stat is his experience level. His damage output will probably never outpace Cecil’s or Edge’s without some concentrated grinding; if you get him, consider clearing out the monster boxes in the Sylph Cave or the Lunar Subterrane to charge him up.

Black Mages

Black mages are an important source of damage both in boss fights and monster boxes. The problem is they mostly start out knowing no useful spells, meaning their first few boss fights are going to be real tough going. Your casting strategy is also going to be very different depending on which of these mages you find and decide to stick with. Whomever you put in this role, remember the Stardust Rod is their best weapon. If you find this in a shop during your initial exploration, and you rolled a black mage as a starting character or one of your freebies, this is one of the most potent weapons you can buy. Its use ability casts Comet, which is enough to wipe out pretty much anything in the Overworld.

Unlike white mages, doubling up on black mages is actually viable, especially through the mid-game when you’re clearing a bunch of pesky monster boxes. Feel free to take two or more black mages with you if you’re feeling fiesty.

Palom – Palom is so much more powerful than the other black mage options that I will actually consider dismissing one I’ve leveled up a bit if I find him late. He has higher Wis. than the other black mages, which translates directly into more damage, plus he has the Bluff command to raise his own Wis. during battle. He also gains black magic at a much quicker rate than Rydia, most notably Ice-2 (which he gets after a single level) and Quake. Quake alone can destroy every monster box and most boss fights in the game. I’ve cleared the Lunar Subterrane of all its chests with an extremely under-leveled party just using Palom’s mighty Quake.

Rydia – Rydia is a distant second when it comes to black mage options. Her Wis. is lower than Palom’s, but that’s not really the issue. You won’t be able to make good early use of Rydia unless you find some useful Call magic (which are found randomly as treasures, or sometimes in item shops) or a path to the Underworld. By completing the event in the Dwarf Castle Rydia will grow up, immediately granting her all the *-2 elemental spells and most of her Call magic. If you don’t find a way to the Underworld, and don’t manage to luck into a Levia or Baham item, Rydia is stuck as a kid with probably not much to do with the scant experience you can win from Overworld bosses. That being said, an early Sylph spell can be a godsend, turning Rydia into a passable healer during the mid-game. It’s not really that she’s bad per se, it’s just that Palom is so much better so much earlier, and without any luck involved.

Fusoya – Fusoya is a decent black mage, with all the same caveats that make him a decent white mage. He has a smaller MP pool, and his randomly-selected magic sets might leave you hanging without a good attack option like Virus or Quake for way too long. Of course that flips the other way too; you might get super lucky and score Quake really early, in which case you can go ham. One good strat if you find Fusoya early is to commit to him plus one other caster, letting him take on the opposite role of whomever you find next.

Anyone – If you have the Japanese flag turned on (and you really, really should) you will find a lot of spellcasting items both in treasure boxes and in shops. Learn what these do. You will often find seeds where a bit of black magic can carry you through a really tough fight, and anyone can use items off the menu. GaiaDrum casts Quake, Vampire casts Drain, Coffin casts Fatal, and there are a few other useful ones besides. If you find a shop with some spellcasting items but no black mage in your early explorations, consider buying some to make your life easier.

Tellah – Tellah is not a viable black mage. Do not take him.

Mid-Tier Martials

There is only one character in this tier. It is Cid.

Cid – Cid has two drawbacks, but they are fatal ones. First, he has no endgame equipment. The best weapon he can use is the Rune Axe, which is fairly weak compared to what the other front-liners can use. (He has the Earth Wrench, which casts Quake when you use it, but not the Wis. stat to back it up, so it won’t stomp the game the way Palom can.) Second, he is incredibly slow. Consider giving him a Crystal Ring to enhance his Agility a bit, but even then, watch in awe as the other characters lap him. That being said, Cid’s HP pool gets pretty unreasonable at higher levels, effortlessly clearing 4000+ with just the EXP you pick up along the way. Worst case scenario, put him on the front line with Armor or Blink and let him tank the physical hits.


These characters are terrible and you should not use them. Well, usually. You might not have a choice at first. The only thing worse than starting with one of these characters is starting with one and then finding them again as your duplicate on Mt. Hobs.

Cecil – Before promoting to Paladin on Mt. Ordeals, Cecil is the weakest character in the game by a very, very large margin. His one and only benefit is that he starts with more HP and stronger gear than Edward or Rydia do; he probably won’t die to the bosses in the earliest slots. He’s the best garbo character because you can take him immediately to Mt. Ordeals to transform him into a powerhouse. If you don’t, he is not a viable character in the slightest.

Edward – Edward is just barely viable if you squint. His one and only asset is his high Agility (which isn’t even that high, on average; just “not worse than anyone else really”). If you find a really good bow and either Artemis or Samurai Arrows in a shop, Edward is good for 1200-ish damage from the back row. His HP is kind of the opposite of Cid’s; the developers didn’t intend for either character to reach high levels, so didn’t pay much attention to what their HPs curves did. Cid gets way too much, and Edward gets way too little. Plan on spending lots of money on Apples, if you can. Or, better yet, just dismiss Edward at the first opportunity.

Tellah – Tellah starts with pitiful spells, low casting stats, awful HP, no Agility, and it gets worse. His 90 MP looks like a lot at first, when compared to Rydia or the twins, but by the mid-game is not enough to carry the team as a white or black mage. His one and only saving grace is you can get him some useful spells by completing Mt. Ordeals. More than once I’ve used his Stone spell from there to clear the monster boxes in Eblan Castle or the Tower of Zot. Unless you want to spend a million GP on SomaDrops so he can keep barely-adequate pace with sub-par Cure4s, dismiss him as soon as you can.

Thank you for reading this post about characters from a video game that came out 500 years ago!

The Podcat

The Podcat
That Podcast We Did

00:00 / 1:19:38

Brick & McClain discuss breaking up with fast food, bad high school poetry, the new $300 Atari, not wanting to be Chief Wiggum, what category this podcast is in, their time travel plans, and Roseanne’s legacy.

The Color of Freedom

The Color of Freedom
That Podcast We Did

00:00 / 1:03:09

Brick & McClain discuss Skyrim for Switch, the 1996 made-for-TV adaptation of The Lottery, thieves in Final Fantasy, why Jesus is crying, Daniel Tiger, mean D&D attacks and Florida Man.

FF5 Four Job Fiesta • Brick’s Tips for First-Timers

In about a week pre-registration will open for this year’s Final Fantasy V Four Job Fieta. The Fiesta is an annual community event in which players complete Final Fantasy V under some randomly-assigned restrictions. It’s a truly excellent way to enjoy the game and I frequently tell new players that it’s a fine introduction to the game. The Fiesta is such a treat that FFV has supplanted FFIV as my yearly go-to Final Fantasy.

That said, Final Fantasy V is not an easy game to complete on your first run through, Fiesta rules or no. As a 5-year Fiesta veteran, I thought I would share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned with first-time runners, or for people who are on the fence about signing up.

Should I play FFV before trying the Fiesta?

Most Fiesta players have completed the game many times, but I think the Fiesta is fine for FFV newbies for one specific reason: Fiesta rules help alleviate Decision Paralysis.

There are lots of jobs, abilities, equipment, magic, and combinations of all those things in FFV. The game does very little to explain how any of this works or where the good synergies are. It isn’t like Final Fantasy III, which clearly signposts what jobs to use with gimmick dungeons. It isn’t like Final Fantasy Tactics where you constantly see your jobs in use by enemy opposition, cluing you into strengths and weaknesses. I’ve known several players who stalled out on the game because the prospect of exploring 20 jobs’ worth of mechanics was too daunting a task.

In the Fiesta, you are locked into your jobs. Rather than a huge, expansive puzzle of “find the good abilities”, the game is reduced to a series of smaller, more meaningful puzzles involving using and combining abilities from the small pool you’re allowed to use.

Playing by Fiesta rules is technically a challenge run, but it’s a very different kind of challenge than playing the vanilla game, which is what I think makes it appropriate for new players. Instead of the nagging feeling that you could be blitzing the game if only you knew the ins-and-outs of your big massive list of jobs, you have a focused series of challenges involving knowledge of only a very few. It’s not, “what on this huge intimidating menu is helpful to me right now, and will it be helpful again later?” But rather, “here are the eight things I can do, what combination of those things will get me through this next boss fight?”

You’re Not Alone

Final Fantasy V is not a game you can figure out based on feedback alone. It is an old 16-bit RPG with a million little things, designed for a pre-Internet world. You do not get big obvious pop-ups when your status spells miss enemies, and there is no big in-game encyclopedia leading you to make good decisions. If you’re going to learn the game, you’re going to have to lean on people.

Fortunately, during Fiesta, there are thousands of enthusiastic people playing the game on pretty much every corner of the internet. When you get stuck — and you will get stuck — ask for advice! My own stream chat and Discord server can cheerfully answer any question you might have about the game, and mine is just one of the hundreds of communities that will have some active Fiesta involvement.

If you need help but don’t like talking to people, there’s the Four Job Fiesta Support Program, a helpful little app that sits in your system tray and helpfully provides pages and pages of easily-accessible, accurate data specifically tailored to clearing the Fiesta.

How Jobs Are Unlocked

If you’re new to Final Fantasy V, here’s a brief explanation on how new jobs are unlocked.

There are three worlds in the game, and the first world involves shattering four crystals. Each time a crystal shatters, several more jobs become available to use. This divides the job pool up by crystal; there are “Wind Jobs” and “Fire Jobs” and so on. This doesn’t mean that the Fire Jobs are jobs that use fire abilties, or whatever, just that they’re the jobs that happen to open up when you shatter the fire crystal.

When a crystal shatters (or, if you know the story, a few minutes ahead of time so you can allow for Twitter lag) you tweet at Gilgabot (@FF5ForFutures) to see what your next randomly-assigned job is. From that point on, that job is added to the ones you’re allowed to use.

The basic structure of a Fiesta run is something like this:

  • Play through the first dungeon and unlock your #wind job.
  • Assign that job to all your heroes, and play like that until you unlock your #water job. (We’ll call this the “single-job slog”.)
  • Figure out what combination of #wind and #water jobs you want to use, keeping in mind you must use at least one of each.
  • Play until you unlock the #fire jobs. These are broken up into two sets, so you might not be allowed to use this job right away.
  • Play to the end of the first world, where you unlock #earth jobs. One of your heroes leaves the team for a while, so one of your jobs will be momentarily unused.
  • Shortly into the second world there’s a solo section with the character who left earlier. He can any of the jobs you’ve unlocked.
  • Shortly after that your party is whole again, and from that point on you must make sure to always have one of each of your four jobs assigned at all times.

At this point you’re about 30%-ish through the story, so you do get to play the bulk of the game with all your jobs. There is a “secret” job that can be unlocked in the third world, and a few more in the GBA and Steam versions of the game, but those aren’t considered as part of the Fiesta.

Three Ways to Roll

There are lots of variants and modifiers on the standard Fiesta rules, based on what hashtags you include in your registration tweet to Gilgabot. I think first-timers should stick to one of these three:

#reg is the normal ruleset. Each time you roll for jobs Gilgabot will select one from the crystal you just shattered. This has the potential for a very sticky early game, depending what you roll, but also just about guarantees smooth sailing by the time you’re in the second world. This is because two of the #wind jobs (Thief and White Mage) are notoriously tricky during the single-job slog, while all of the #earth jobs are good enough to carry a team by themselves. It’s not possible to roll multiples of any job. If you can’t wrap your head around all the other fiesta jargon, just go with #reg and don’t sweat the small stuff.

#regrand is the random ruleset. Each time you roll for jobs, instead of getting one from the crystal you just shattered, you pull from a list of crystals you just shattered plus all previous crystals. This means the same potential for a sticky early game, as your #wind roll is unchanged. It also biases your party towards #wind and against #earth, since #wind jobs are in the pool for all four rolls, and #earth for only one. Without having crunched a spreadsheet on the topic, I’m betting the difficulty is about even here; you potentially lose the carry of a guaranteed #earth job, but you increase your chances of getting multiple #wind jobs, all of which are pretty good at supporting a team. Because three of your crystals are in the pool more than once, you might end up rolling the same job multiple times. If that happens, just make sure you have that many of that job in your team. If you roll, say, Thief for both #wind and #water, well, first of all, I’m sorry that happened to you. But you then need to have two
thieves in your party for the rest of the game.

#regchaos and #regpurechaos put all the jobs into the pool for all four rolls. The difference between the two is #regpurechaos includes Freelancer (the base “job” of not having any job) and Mime (the secret third world job). This does mean you might roll a job you don’t have access to yet; if you get an earth job on your #wind roll, you just have to use Freelancers for a little longer until you get to the proper point in the story. (This is basically okay since Freelancers are actually really good.) The worst case scenario here is if your #wind roll gives you something you can’t use yet, then your #water roll gives you Berserker, which brings us to…


Most jobs in Final Fantasy V are good, or at least “good enough”, but there is one in particular that is a real dud: the Berserker. The Fiesta event organizers know this, and created the #BERSERKERRISK tag. The way this works is, for every $x they raise for charity (oh, the Fiesta is a charity event, I guess I hadn’t mentioned that before) one Berserker is added to the #BERSERKERRISK pool. If you add #BERSERKERRISK to your registration tweet, one of your rolls is replaced with a Berserker from the pool. The more cash they take in, the more Berserkers they spit out, and there are a couple unlucky souls who end up running the dreaded QUADZERKER.

Berserkers can’t be controlled, can’t use abilities, are super slow, miss a lot, and waste lots of turns targeting the wrong enemies. They’re also a water crystal job, which means they appear pretty early, and there are several places in the first world where they are pure liability.

In general, having a Berserker on your team isn’t that bad. It’s just that Fiesta rules introduce a few edge cases where you end up using only Berserkers as your main source of damage, and that’s problematic. These edge cases don’t really make the run more challenging in any meaningful sense; the solution is always to either grind out levels or retry the fight until you get lucky. Most people who quit the Fiesta do so because of situations like this, so if it’s your first go-round, you might want to consider avoiding it.

There are still a few cases where you might find yourself saddled with a Berserker at lousy times. The worst possible #reg start is Thief/Berserker, which almost caused me to quit during my first year, and I’m an absolute Final Fantasy maniac. #regrand puts Berserker in your pool for three out of the four rolls, which means you may end up with multiples. #regchaos and #regpurechaos puts Berserker in your pool for all your rolls.

If you end up in one of these unlucky situations, though, you do have a remedy.

Buy Your Way to Victory

If you find yourself with an untenable party, and the expert feedback is something like “you can steal Hi-Potions from a rare monster in a forest halfway across the map”, you still have a way out: the Job Fair.

Job Fair is where you go to “buy away” bad jobs with cash money, in the form of charity donations. It’s $3 to re-roll a crystal, if all you want to do is get rid of your #water Berserker, or a set price to replace that Berserker with another job. Prices vary from $1 for “bad” jobs to $5 for the unquestionably best ones.

As for what to buy from the Job Fair, that’s going to depend largely on what the rest of your jobs are. In general, you’ll be replacing a job you don’t like with something you need. This is the kind of thing the great and knowledgable Internet hivemind can help you with. That being said, I feel like I can offer these useful tips:

  • The best buys for early Job Fair-ing are probably Knight or Red Mage. These are both classes that cost less than the price of a blind re-roll that can get you through the first world easily.
  • If you’re just buying away a class you hate, and don’t really care what else you get, consider a Thief. For $1 you get a job that prevents back attacks, quickly runs away from random encounters, gives you access to Steal, and doesn’t fall apart in the late game as long as you give him the Chicken Knife. (If you’re rolling away your Berserker because you have the dreaded Thief/Berserker combo, well, Monk is also $1.)
  • The best “easy job” in the game, hands down, is Samurai. They’re more expensive than a blind re-roll but they will also win the game for you without needing to learn a lot of the obscure claptrap FFV is famous for.
  • If you’re Job Fair-ing to solve a specific problem (e.g. not enough healing, not enough damage output, etc.) consider checking with the Internet hivemind to see if there’s some obscure claptrap solution you might be happier with. This is especially true if you already have one of the weirder jobs, like Blue Mage or Bard.
  • Any party with Bard can defeat Omega. Any party with White Mage can defeat Shinryu. There’s no easy one-job solution that defeats both, so far as I know. (Maybe Beastmaster.)
  • It’s for charity, so if you’re enjoying the Fiesta and like your team, maybe throw a dollar or two in anyway!

The Single-Job Slog

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about some of the more specific troubles you might have. The first of these is in the very early game, in between your #wind and #water rolls, where you’re forced to use four heroes with the same job. You have to get through four boss fights with your single-job team, including a dungeon that blocks you off from visiting town to re-stock. Kind of a mean trick, so here are some tips:

Thief has the hardest road. There are no good Thief weapons in the first town, so stock up on A LOT of Potions. There’s a free healing pot in the Wind Shrine; consider camping out there and gaining enough ABPs to learn !Flee. Once you’re in the Ship Graveyard (with A LOT of Potions!), the Skeletons there will drop Daggers for you to use. You can damage them with Potions, and !Flee from everything else. You can !Steal more Potions from the water weird guys and the rock golemn guys. Your next upgrade is in Walse Tower, where you can !Steal Mythril Knives from Wyverns. Hope your #water job isn’t Berserker!

White Mage is a slow start, but thanks to early Cure magic, not a particularly difficult one. You’ll find a Flail in a treasure box early in the Ship Graveyard, which is the best damage output you’ll have until #water. Your worst #water job is probably Time Mage, because that will mean going through the middle of world one with very little damage output, but take heart in the fact that both of these jobs are absolutely excellent in the late game.

Monk is a straightforward job; just punch things until they die. (Alternately: !Kick things until they die.) Keep in mind your only source of early healing is Potions, and you have no way to get more of them in the Ship Graveyard.

Knight is probably the easiest of the single-job slogs. You won’t have any major difficulties. The only top that makes sense is to make sure all four of your Knights are equipped before entering the canal, since that’s when you’ll lose access to shops for a while. (You can treat Freelancer like Knight in the early game, in case you rolled #regchaos and got a job you can’t use yet.)

Black Mage is one of the undisputed strongest jobs in the game, start to finish. As long as you buy the Fire, Blizzard and Thunder spells in the first town, you should breeze all the way to your #water job.

Blue Mage is like a slightly weaker Knight, and can clear the early game just on the strength of their equipment set. That being said, it’s a bit of a weird claptrap job, and will take some work to develop properly. In particular, make sure to get the Aero spell from Moldwynds in the Wind Shrine, and Vampire from the bats in the Pirate Cave. These two spells are excellent and can largely carry the job through the whole game if you can’t be arsed to go spell-hunting ever again.

Some Sticking Points

As awesome as the Fiesta is, FFV was obviously not designed with the challenge in mind. There are a few notorious points in the game where certain party configurations can stall out. Here’s some general tips for the most common ones:

Byblos makes use of Protect, Dischord, and countering attacks with Drain to make him a big roadblock for low-damage parties. The longer you can stay in this fight, the greater your chances of running him out of MP so he can no longer Drain for more damage than you can deal. Thieves can !Steal Hi-Potions on the steam ship, White Mages can make use of the Heal Staff to stall. Knights, Monks and the like may find themselves on the losing end here if they get their levels chopped too much with Dischord. There’s no clever “Aha!” solution to this fight, it’s just long and you may have to retry it a couple times.

Sand Worm isn’t a terribly tricky fight, but it’s the first major one where Berserkers are a huge liability. Attacking empty holes in this fight causes a Gravity counterattack, which will sap your HP much faster than you can heal it back. The way to deal with this is to go into the fight with your Berserker already dead.

Purobolos are a big group of gimmick-y bombs. Their HP is low, but if you kill one it will cast a revive spell that brings all the dead ones back to life. If they Self-Destruct they won’t revive anyone, but it will also deal a huge amount of damage. Unless you can kill them all at the same time, you’re going to have to get clever. One way to do it is to wait for one to explode, then immediately revive the hero they killed, and do that until the last one is gone.

Titan will use Earth Shaker when you kill him. If your party doesn’t have enough HP to survive this, chances are they have some way of inflicting Confuse. Go back to North Mountain, confuse a Gaelicat, and it will put Float on your heroes for you.

Atomos is a gimmick fight. He’ll spam Comet at you until someone dies, then slowly drag the dead hero across the map. Pile on damage while this hs happening, then revive the dead hero just before they get engulfed. This maximizes the time you can spend attacking while minimizing the time spent eating Comets. There are some hilariously easy ways to win this fight, but a few teams have access to none of them.

Crystal Guardians are the four nameless crystal monsters you fight at the end of the big tree. Each of these is attuned to a particular element, and will spam powerful spells of that element at below half health. The trick here is to deal about ~4500 damage to one, then slam it with all your most powerful attacks at once to take it out before things get out of hand. (How best to do that is going to vary from party to party.) One trick to keep in mind is none of the crystals are immune to instand death attacks, if you have access to them.

Exdeath is the final boss of the second world. In some ways this is the hardest boss in the game. Except for one strategy involving a Bard, some ridiculous setup, and hours of waiting, there’s no way to win this fight without just piling on the damage and keeping ahead of the healing. Parties which can’t put out damage and can’t heal themselves have a lot of trouble here. This is a case where tapping the hivemind can pay off in spades, although be advised there are some specific setups where the only good advice is “level up and then get lucky”. One thing that’s easy to control is avoiding his L3 Flare spell; simply make sure no hero has a level divisible by three, and these rounds turn into freebies.

World three is where the game opens up quite a bit, and you gain access to a great deal of secondary advantages in the form of new equipment. If you’ve made it to world three, you’re a savvy enough player to go all the way. A lot of the troublesome bosses in this stage of the game are optional, so step one is to make sure you know a boss is gating off something you want to get for the jobs you have. If not, the only reason to fight them is for street cred. The good news is that, with some clever planning, most any party now has access to most forms of status effects, and some universally-good damage options become available. Know what’s available and where to go, and you should be able to navigate to the endgame with only a little fuss.

The Triple Crown

The triple crown refers to the three endgame bosses of Final Fantasy V: Neo Exdeath (who needs to be destroyed in order to complete the game and claim victory), Omega and Shinryu. You don’t have to beat Omega and Shinryu in order to claim you finished the Fiesta, but Gilgabot might think less of you unless you do.

In truth, these bosses are difficult but not implausibly so. It’s very rare for a fiesta party to have literally no answer to these fights, and in some cases they can be won with clever application of just one single ability. For example, any party capable of inflicting Berserk can win against Shinryu, and ten out of the twenty-ish jobs can do this.

As a matter of fact, during one year’s Fiesta, Neo Exdeath was my big problem — not either of the “super” bosses!

I guess my advice here is, give the Triple Crown an honest try. It’s fun to just throw a party against these heavyweights and just laughing at how quickly you get destroyed, but there are ways to fell them and you could explore that. Think of how fun it would be if you got the Triple Crown on your very first Fiesta.

With three Berserkers.

Okay, maybe not that last thing.

Your DM Toolbox

If you’re a new DM running your first campaign and looking for advice, one of the worst things you could do would be to read the various D&D blogs and subreddits and take what they say as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of excellent and experienced DMs out there, each with their own well of wisdom from which you might drink. But there are also a lot of memes and ideas floating around the current D&D culture which, if applied without care, would preclude a lot of the types of fun you could be having with the game.

Put another way: Critical Role is an excellent example of D&D, but it’s not the only thing D&D is.

In this post I’ll explore four of the most pervasive pieces of New DM Advice I see bandied about and explain why it might be appropriate to ignore them. To be very clear: all of these points are things you should be familiar with, as a DM. They are powerful storytelling and adjucation tools. But they are not a Bible. They should be in your toolbox, to be applied properly and with care, not axioms to slavishly adhere to.

In general, any DM advice that includes words like “always” and “never” should be taken with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that every DM who gives you advice, including me, is speaking from a biased position. Nobody knows your table except for you, and even you don’t know your table if you’re still new. DMing is a skill, and like all skills, you’re going to be bad at it until you’re good.

But playing is a skill too, and your players are going to take their cues from you. They might not be reading the same subreddits you are. Applying advice you got on the internet without really examining it may send dangerous messages to new players and result in Bad Funtimes. The goal of this bloggy-post is to minimize that damage at your table.

With that in mind, let’s crack some popular DM memes!

“Yes, and…”

The idea here is, when your players have an idea, you should not shut them down. Instead of saying “No,” you find a way to build the scene by saying, “Yes, and this is what happens next.” (Or, “Yes, but this happens too.”) The practice stems from the improv scene, where trained actors build spontaneous stories by taking each others’ suggestions and adding to them. In some sense, D&D is a form of improv, and the concept does translate in a lot of circumstances.

But D&D is a game of rules, and your players are not trained actors. If you commit to “yes, and…” you can expect your game to immediately go in directions you did not intend, and aren’t equipped to handle.

What your players might hear: “I will never say no.”

Like spoiled little chocolate-smeared children, your players are going to have to hear “no” a lot. It’s the only way they’ll learn. For one, because D&D is a game with rules, “yes, and…” is not an appropriate response to any action that breaks a rule. If you allow this kind of thing at your table players are going to pick up on the idea that breaking rules is fine, and they’ll do it more and more, until you may as well just burn all your books. And for another, new players tend to not act in good faith. They want to do things they think are cool or funny without any regard to how it will affect your world.

Worst of all, if you’ve trained your players that “no” isn’t in your vocabulary, and your game gets into a terrible state as a result, you now cannot fix the problem by starting to say “no”. Players who have gotten away with murder (literally, in some cases!) will feel like you’ve broken a promise if you suddenly take away their “yes, and…” superpowers.

Here are some actions new players are notorious for trying, in case you’re still considering a primarily “yes, and…” approach to the game:

  • “I punch [other player] in the face for no reason.”
  • “My mount is a talking war elephant who eats halflings.”
  • “I throw acid splash at the wall over and over until I tunnel through it.”
  • “I stealth up to the king’s throne and take the crown off his head.”
  • “I toss the busty bar wench on the counter and rape her.”

If those all sound conducive to a reasonable heroic fantasy adventure story that you’d like to tell, by all means, let your players run amok.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Find reasons to say no.”

Your first instinct, when players declare an action that sounds a little strange or unorthodox, should not be to shut it down. This is especially true if it’s tied to a spell or class feature. Players take these things because they sound cool and they want to use them; nothing degrades their faith and good cheer faster than not being told they can’t!

The spirit of “yes, and…” is to take reasonable-sounding suggestions and build memorable scenes out of them. With some experience, you’ll learn which suggestions are good for your world and which aren’t. If you’re going out of your way to say no as often as possible you are being unnecessarily adversarial. In this case you’re training your players to not try interesting things, because they know beforehand you’ll shut them down, and months of tepid statblock reading shall be your reward.

Here’s what I suggest: “Say yes as often as possible, unless you need to say no, then for the love of god SAY NO.”

Instead of training your playes that any lulzy thing that pops into their head is fair game, or that actions not strictly codified on their character sheets are verboten, train them to know the limits of your setting and of the rules, and to act within them. Commit to building scenes that work, rather than just any old scene your players come up with.

Fail Forward

Or, “Success at a Cost”. The idea here is that players should advance even when they fail. This is usually applied to skill checks, but not universally so; I also see the concept applied to saving throws and, in extreme cases, party wipes. New players hate failing, so twisting their failures into interesting story beats is a good way to soften the blow.

Of all the points on this list, I am least convinced Fail Forward is a universal storytelling tool. It’s surely the least-used tool in my box, maybe like an awl. I see Fail Forward preached as a way to keep the story moving when the players get stuck, or to alleviate the sting of an uninteresting roll outcome, or to make sure adventures don’t get bottlenecked by a single un-repeatable check. I try to avoid these things too, I just have other methods for handling them.

I’ve read countless examples of Fail Forward stories on this here internet of ours, and while some have made for memorable stories others just seem contrived and arbitrary. One example that pops up time and time again is a rogue picking the lock on a door. The rest of the adventure is behind the door, so if the rogue fails on the lockpick check, the party can’t continue. Some examples of how to Fail Forward in this situation include:

  • the door opens anyway, but there are guards on the other side!
  • the door opens anyway, but the rogue’s lockpicks break!
  • the door opens anyway, but it took so long a monster patrol has snuck up behind the party!
  • the door opens anyway, but the rogue sprung a trap and takes damage!

In my estimation, these are all terrible resolutions to the problem of this stupid door, and the real solution is something like “there are other ways to get through the door.” Telling the rogue her failed roll pops the door anyway except now there are guards there is robbing the barbarian of the chance to bash it down, the wizard of the chance to cast knock, or the bard of the chance to sweet-talk a housemaid out of a key.

What your players might hear: “Success is guaranteed.”

If you don’t let your players fail, they won’t learn to deal with failure. They won’t learn to come up with creative solutions to problems. Instead, they will learn that every door opens, no matter what, just sometimes there are guards waiting on the other side. There’s no incentive to think laterally or prepare backup plans, because the first thing they try will work and the penalty that’s applied for “failure” is just a fact of life. (And probably not even that big a deal. What self-respecting rogue runs around with only one lockpick?)

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Failure should result in punishment.”

The flip side of this coin is being unnecessarily punitive on a failed check. A creative DM can no doubt think of ways to punish every bad skill check in the book, from rocks falling to alarm klaxons blaring to god-only-knows-what. This is of course just as absurd as guards materializing on the other side of a locked door.

In practice, most skill checks don’t result in an actual fail state; they simply maintain the status quo. The rogue failed with her lockpicks; the door remains closed. The cleric failed his Athletics check; he’s still at the bottom of the cliff. The ranger failed on Perception; he doesn’t know there are orcs nearby (and didn’t a moment ago, either). These situations don’t need an extra layer of punishment and there’s nothing sporting about concocting one.

Here’s what I suggest: “Know what failure means beforehand.”

When planning encounters with skill checks, know ahead of time what failure is going to mean. Cases where failure and success both lead to interesting results are usually pretty apparent. A quick line in your notes explaining what happens on a pass and what happens on a fail is probably all you need: “The guard captain can be convinced to release the prisoner with an Intimidation check, but on a failure he demands a 20 gp bribe.” For the rest of the cases where failure simply leads to the status quo, leave it alone and let the players think around the problem.

This does require planning, and it takes practice to get right. Every DM has a horror story about players failing to answer some magic mouth riddle, and then all failing their Intelligence checks, and having to spawn in a helper NPC who just so happens to know the solution. These are bad scenes and the only real way to deal with them is to use Plot Spackle for now and do a better job next time.

Player Agency

There is a very long list of things the DM can do to “remove player agency”. As best I can figure, player agency means something like “the player’s ability to make choices for his or her character.” This is utter nonsense and you would do well to discard such silly notions. Players do not make choices, for their characters or otherwise, and they are not in control.

If you’ve played in or watched one of my D&D campaigns, it may surprise you that I take such a hardline stance. But it is necessary to maintain my sanity. You might say you’ve seen lots of instances where my players made choices, or declared actions, and then things happened in the game. Like maybe one of my players said, “I attack that orc,” and then they attacked that orc. What you witnessed, though, was a tacit agreement between my players and I to simply cut out the redundant middle-man. What actually happened was my player asked me, very politely, for permission to attack that orc. And then I — not they — made the choice to allow that to happen in my game world.

“Yes, you may attack that orc” may be the most common response to the implied question of an attack roll, but it is by no means the only one. Other perfectly valid choices on my behalf would be, “No, you may not attack that orc.” Or, “No, the orc attacks you instead.” Or, “Zap! You’re all cows now! Moooooo!”

No player has ever overruled a DM at his own table, without that DM’s cooperation. Simply by virtue of being the DM, anything he says happens and anything he doesn’t say doesn’t happen. I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe otherwise, but no, players simply do not have any sort of agency in that kind of environment.

What your players might hear: “You’re more important than I am.”

If you insist on allowing your players to have real agency, rather than the carefully-crafted illusion of same, prepare for many arguments. It is trivially easy to find examples of players running roughshod over their DM in practically every D&D community that shares horror stories. In the most extreme cases you will find players (who have never DM’d a game, in all likelihood) who preach the DM’s job is to provide a fun world for the players, full stop.

In actuality, the DM is a player himself, and is also trying to have fun. If he’s not having fun, the game will cease to exist in every meaningful way. The DM is the most important guy at the table, bar none. It’s not even a contest.

The number one killer of campaigns, in my own 20+ years of experience, is DM burnout. The biggest contributor to DM burnout is a loss of interest because of entitled players making demands, provoking ceaseless arguments, or blatantly sabotaging the game. And players can only get to that point if the DM cedes control to them.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Be a merciless god-tyrant!”

Of course, in practice, I am not a tyrant and I do not treat my players like slaves. Because there is one important choice players get to make, and they are making it constantly: “Should I keep playing in this campaign?” A DM who runs his game like an unyeilding control freak is a DM who eventually finds himself without any players.

It’s one thing to be in control. It’s another thing to abuse that control to the point where players no longer want to play. For every “my players went berserk and I burned out” story, there are ten “my DM was a sack of butts so I quit playing” stories.

Here’s what I suggest: “Players are at your mercy, but they’re still your friends.”

If a group of players do you the honor of putting you in a position of power over them, you should banish from your mind any thought of betraying that trust. Ostensibly these people are your friends, your co-workers, your IRC buddies, or your fellow game store enthusiasts. Treat them as such.

Own up to mistakes. Listen to criticism. Laugh at yourself. Be humble. Most importantly, don’t make rulings that would cause you, as a player, to quit a game. Find a way to be a benevolent dictator, and your players will love you for it.

“Did everyone have fun?”

Perhaps the most common response I see to new DMs soliciting feedback from the internet hivemind is some form of, “Did you ask everyone if they had fun? They said yes? Then there’s no problem!”

But there is a problem. Even though everyone had a good time, that DM still felt some niggling doubt that caused him to go seeking advice. That means there’s something wrong, and it can be very difficult to pinpoint what that something might be.

D&D is fun, but as we all know, fun comes in lots of shapes and sizes. It’s entirely possible for a new DM to have a vision in his head about what running the game will be like, but then the actual session didn’t meet those expectations, for whatever reason. Yeah, everyone enjoyed themselves, but he was expecting 100 Fun Units™ and ended up only getting 70 Fun Units™.

Maybe our poor new DM just had unrealistic ideas about his game fueled by too many professional podcasts. But maybe, just maybe, his vision is attainable if he could only figure out the trick to make it all work.

What your players might hear: “This is the most fun we can be having.”

You played D&D and it was fun. That’s great! But you could be having more fun, or a different kind of fun. Setting the goodtimes bar too low is a great way to make players lose interest in a campaign. New players will have a fine time with pretty much any style of D&D, from carefully constructed professional modules all the way down to wanton slaughter of the peasantry. It’s new to them, and novelty breeds excitement.

But that excitement will fade, and what you’re left with is what you’re left with.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “There are wrong ways to have fun!”

If wanton slaughter of the peasantry is what your table wants, and you’re happy to provide, then that’s the game you ought to run. I don’t kinkshame. You do you.

Lots of DMs will read this post and insist that my table isn’t fun. After all, I earned my kicks back in Second Edition, when men were Men, lawful good meant Lawful Good, magic-users feared housecats, and THAC0 charts spread across the landscape as far as the eye could see. I let my players fail, I let them get stuck, and I do nothing to hide my delight as I murder them with encounters designed for parties twice their strength. I make them track ammo and roleplay through mind control and force them into impossibly depraved moral quandaries.

Not everyone wants to play at my table. Maybe you don’t. And maybe I don’t want to play at yours. This is all fine, and perfectly natural. What we should both be doing though, with every session, is searching for new ways to have fun. We should be challenging ourselves to squeeze more and more out of the game.

Here’s what I suggest: “Solicit feedback. Act on it. And practice, practice, practice!”

Sometimes I ask my players if they had fun, and they tell me, “No, and here’s why.” Repeated iterations of this process is what has helped me to skill up as a DM.

The reason this tepid mantra has calcified in the community is because it’s easy. “You had fun, job done, hands washed!” is a decent way to encourage a new DM to keep doing what they’re doing, despite their misgivings, without actually addressing the misgivings. The real answer is a lot harder: figure out what your players want, figure out what you want, find the space where those things overlap, and then keep doing new things in that space for as long as you can hold it together. This is really tough to do.

You’re not going to find that spot without putting in the work. You’re going to have to actually talk to your players, and they’re going to have to be honest with you. They’re going to tell you that you suck, and you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board to fix the things that didn’t work and highlight the things that did. It’s a never-ending process, and at times, it can be exhausting.

But it’s worth it. If you commit to growing as a DM, to keep trying new things and pushing for new experiences, you will be having More Fun™ than groups who just stack up the orcs week after week. And every so often you’ll touch a raw nerve that really shocks and excites everyone, and those are the stories players and DMs alike will remember forever. Those are the stories that draw new players to the game.

D&D is not a video game.

There are no cheat codes, no killer strats, and no instruction manual. Advice can be great, but all any DM can really offer you is an explanation for what works at their table, with the hope that the same will work at yours.

Best of luck to you and your table. Thanks for reading!

Answers to 30 “Unanswered” Metal Gear Questions

Doesn’t matter, I’m here anyway.

So wait, [impossible thing]!?

For most of these answers I’m going to assume the question is being asked in good faith, and respond appropriately. Before that, though, I need to swat away many thousands of mildly obnoxious questions by assuming they aren’t asked in good faith. It’s important to understand that “Unanswered Questions in X!” style clickbait lists are usually not written from the standpoint of a sincere fan seeking clarification, but from that of an internet humorist making fun of confusing stories. The story of the Metal Gear saga is so confusing that it’s become something of a poster child.

These questions often take the form of an eye-rolling “so wait.” So wait, are you telling me that Bumblebee Man can really spit hornets? And Quiet has to always be naked? And trained combat veterans think it’s nighttime because they heard an owl? And a gun can have infinite ammo? And angry ghosts and 6-year-old computer programmers and voodoo dolls and diaper monkey?

Yes, that’s what I’m telling you. The answer to the question of why these things happen is because those are the things that happened. When folks ask “what’s the deal with diaper monkey” what they mean is “diaper monkey is stupid.” They’re posing their opinion as a rhetorical question.

It’s okay to think things are stupid, especially in Metal Gear, which contains 65% of your daily allotment of stupid by volume. But let’s call it what it is. I’m fine with folks thinking Quiet’s nakedness is dumb; I take issue with folks pretending as though the game doesn’t offer an explantion, dumb as that explanation might be.

But no really, why does Quiet have to be naked?

She breathes through her skin, and wearing clothes or being submerged in water causes her to suffocate.

And there’s a mod to make her even naked-er, because of course there is.

Yeah, but see, that’s stupid!

Sure, but that doesn’t make it not the answer to the question.

It also brings us to this uncomfortable truth: the answers aren’t going to please everyone. There comes a point where a given person will find no possible answer satisfying, because of some fundamental disconnect with the source material as presented.

I find the biggest disconnect when it comes to Metal Gear is this: in the Metal Gear universe, magic is real. To a lot of burning questions, the answer is simply, “Magic, full stop.” And by magic I mean literal, supernatural, Harry-Potter-and-Gandalf magic. Mushrooms recharge batteries because magic. Infinite ammo bandana, because magic. Guy takes headshot and runs on water because magic. Mean psychic ghost because magic. Immortal horse because magic. Kuwabara kuwabara, because magic.

Sometimes the magic hides behind SCIENCE!. Vampire man because SCIENCE!, perfect stealth camo because SCIENCE!, flying rocket arm because SCIENCE!. But when you dig deep into these and try to explain the science, eventually you hit magic. The Phantom Pain falls all over itself desperately trying to explain the biology behind vocal chord parasites, but the idea is just incompatible with our understanding of the physical sciences, and it’s magic the rest of the way down.

Whether you start at Metal Gear, the first published game, or Snake Eater, the first chapter chronologically, the series establishes supernatural elements early on and never lets up. If “a wizard did it” doesn’t sate your curiosity as to why there are insta-death hamsters and talking ghost arms in your sci-fi tactical espionage story, it’s likely because some part of you just doesn’t want them there.

Are nanomachines magic?

No, but kinda.

Nanomachines (or, in The Phantom Pain parlance, parasites) are not, in the “magic is real” sense outlined above, magic. They aren’t supernatural, and there is at least one person — Naomi Hunter — who knows exactly how they work and what they can do. Shortest explanation ever: they are cell-sized machines injected into the bloodstream which re-program the human body.

In the narrative sense, they are a kind of “plot magic”. They’re a catch-all explanation for any weird or nonsensical thing characters need to be able to do in Metal Gear, which Kojima did not want to attribute to supernatural forces.

Have we established enough of a baseline now to start asking real questions?

Yes. Yes we have. Let’s start with an easy one.

Which games are canon?

The Metal Gear timeline consists of nine games:

  • Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (1964)
  • Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (1974)
  • Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (1975)
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (1984)
  • Metal Gear (1995)
  • Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (1999)
  • Metal Gear Solid (2005)
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2007/2009)
  • Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2014)

This series is mostly about guns and mustaches.

Are Portable Ops and Rising canon?

They are if you want them to be. Truth is, it doesn’t matter. Nothing happens in these two titles that directly contradicts the other games; the timeline works whether you include or omit them.

Why does Naked Snake have a Raiden mask in his inventory?

He doesn’t. He has an Ivan Raidenovich Raikov mask.

In a radio conversation about the mask, SIGINT explains he developed the eerily lifelike Raikov mask for an operation to infiltrate GRU. The operation was scrapped before the mask was used, but SIGINT was so impressed with his own work that he squirreled it onto Snake’s person before Operation: Snake Eater, you know, just in case he needed it.

There is no in-universe reason for Raikov and Raiden’s similarities. Sometimes people — even weird albino prettyboy people — look like one another.

Where was Grey Fox during The Phantom Pain? (etc.)

This is the most common form of “unanswered” Metal Gear question. In a franchise featuring dozens of characters and spanning six console generations, some folks are unsatisfied without a complete accurate timeline of every character’s life. Grey Fox is the fan favorite, but there are others: Ocelot during Peace Walker? Raiden during Metal Gear Solid? Colonel Campbell during Sons of Liberty? Dr. Madnar during, well, any of it?

The answer is: it doesn’t matter. Wherever those characters were, and whatever they were doing, they weren’t integral to the story in question, and their actions didn’t shape the structure of the narrative as a whole. They weren’t in those games because they weren’t in them.

Still, it’s pretty easy to infer what a character was doing during the gaps in their timeline. We know Grey Fox kills Naomi Hunter’s parents at some point in the late 70s or early 80s while Big Boss is in a coma. Over a decade later he becomes a decorated member of FOXHOUND, gets punched to death by Snake in Zanzibar Land, then is revived as the Cyborg Ninja. In the intervening time, during the late 80s and early 90s, he was probably working with Big Boss.

Remember, we don’t actually play as Big Boss in The Phantom Pain; we play as Venom Snake. It makes perfect sense for a character to be working for Big Boss during that timeframe, because Big Boss is off somewhere else, doing Big Boss things. While Venom is playing grab-ass with Skull Face in Afghanistan, Big Boss is elsewhere, making contact with Sniper Wolf, Vulcan Raven, Decoy Octopus and, yes, Grey Fox.

What does Code Talker mean by “Eyes on Kazuhira”?

This is a particularly frustrating loose end, because it stinks of a plot thread abandoned because The Phantom Pain was woefully unfinished.

Lacking some definitive answer, we can infer what Code Talker probably meant in the context of the rest of his other nonsensical parasite-stasis word salad. Kaz Miller is, putting it delicately, not the most well-adjusted man on the oil rig. He has been viciously tortured, mind and body. He has been cruelly and — from his perspective, unnecessarily — manipulated by Cipher. Everything he ever built has been destroyed, and then he finds out the man he reveres most, Big Boss, abandoned him and pawned him off on a secret doppelganger. This fact was revealed in trust to Ocelot rather than himself.

Kaz doesn’t work with Venom or Big Boss at any point after The Phantom Pain, and the break-up is not amicable. He chooses to support Solid Snake instead, and as of Metal Gear 2 is actively working against Big Boss’s interests. He is a bitter man, obsessed with revenge, who spends the entirety of The Phantom Pain railing against the other Diamond Dogs high-ups. Oh, and he extorts money to secretly invest in a hamburger restaurant.

So hey, “Big Boss”, keep your eyes on that Kazuhira Miller. He’s a loose cannon set to go off.

When did Big Boss become a villain?

This is one of the hottest Metal Gear questions out there, and one of the easiest to tackle, because the answer is “…seriously?” As in, “Weren’t you paying attention?”

The marketing blitz for The Phantom Pain led a lot of players to believe we would get a definitive, clear-cut moment where Big Boss stopped being a “good guy” and started being a “bad guy”. This ended up not happening, which should be not at all surprising to anyone who played the previous few games. Depending on your perspective, Big Boss was never a “good guy” in the first place.

Pictured: a good guy. (Maybe.)

During his denouement in Guns of the Patriots, Big Boss says, “Ever since the day I killed The Boss… with my own hands… I was already dead.” If you need a singular moment in time where Big Boss lost his path, that was probably it.

Or, you could answer this by simply saying “Peace Walker“. That game has Big Boss doing all the things that made him the villain of the MSX games: building a private army, stealing resources, deploying child soldiers, seizing nuclear weapons, developing Metal Gear. Of course, we-the-player didn’t recognize Big Boss as a “bad guy” in that game because the story is told from his perspective. When he’s up to all those same shenanigans in Zanzibar Land, and our controller is plugged into Solid Snake instead, things look very different to us.

The broadest explanation is that Metal Gear is not a story about “good guys” and “bad guys”. It is not Star Wars. With the possible exceptions of Colonel Volgin and Psycho Mantis, most every character in the saga has sympathetic motives. Even Ocelot, in his own crazy way.

How did Big Boss go back to the US? And why?

He didn’t. Venom Snake did, posing as Big Boss.

Okay, smart ass, how did Venom Snake go back to the US? And why?

We don’t have a lot of data on the particulars. When the games do reference this, it’s always in passing. The timeline roll from The Phantom Pain simply says “1995: While commanding special forces unit FOXHOUND from a position in the US military…” and glosses over the transition. I’m betting the answer is surprisingly boring, though. The US didn’t want Big Boss to leave in the first place, so when “he” offered to come back, they welcomed “him” openly.

Big Boss (or Venom Snake, who from the perspective of the US military effectively is Big Boss) spent the decade after Snake Eater trying to build his private army, somewhat unsuccessfully. He finally gets established in Peace Walker, but doesn’t actively work against the US’s interests. He stops the maniacal plan of a rogue CIA chief, saving America from a huge headache. During that mission he speaks directly to agents at NORAD, and those Americans who know him personally have great veneration for him.

Absent any evidence of MSF or Diamond Dogs openly declaring war against the US or one of its allies, it’s reasonable to conclude that Venom-as-Big-Boss just rolled up at some point in the early ’90s and said, “Hey guys, I got all that private army stuff out of my system, I’m ready to come home and work for Uncle Sam again.”

As for why, well, one of the most useful places you can be if you’re setting up a rogue military country like Outer Heaven or Zanzibar Land would be amidst America’s top brass. Indeed, the big twist of the original Metal Gear is that “Big Boss” tried to sabotage the mission by sending an unproven soldier on what was supposed to be a suicide mission.

Unfortunately that soldier was Solid Snake and things did not end well for either Big Boss.

Where was Solid Snake raised?

The Les Enfants Terribles program was masterminded by Zero and The Patriots, but was officially developed by the US government. Eli (Liquid Snake) was sent to the UK and eventually escaped. We’re never explicitly told what happened to David (Solid Snake), except that by 1991 he was “sent to the battlefield”. We do know that Snake was a Green Beret and later a member of FOXHOUND, both of which are American military organizations.

All signs point to Liquid’s infodump at the end of Metal Gear Solid being accurate: the US military kept a watchful eye on Solid Snake, grooming him to eventually become the next Big Boss.

What ever happened with OILIX?

Nothing. For some reason, Dr. Marv’s research was never implemented, and his work was never duplicated after he died. There are numerous possible explanations. Maybe the data cartridge recovered at the end of Metal Gear 2 was corrupted by chocolate or hamster droppings. Maybe it was stolen by Russian double agents or supressed by The Patriots. Maybe OILIX was Marv’s scientific superpower and it was just impossible to implement without him. Maybe there was a critical flaw in the production process that wasn’t spotted until after Marv’s death. Maybe it was eaten by Y2k.

At some point in the five years between Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid the oil crisis was resolved to such satisfaction that OILIX became unnecessary.

Is Dr. Clark male or female?

Female. Dr. Clark is Para-medic.

There is a lot of in-universe misinformation surrounding Dr. Clark. There are conflicting reports as to her identity in the ’90s because she is a Patriots founding member doing cutting edge (and highly illegal) research involving cloning, cybernetics, and just a smidge of human torture. People who know of her work but have never met her personally, such as Naomi Hunter, assume Dr. Clark is a man because most mad scientists turn out to be men. The people who have met her personally were probably all murdered by the Cyborg Ninja.

Which Metal Gear Solid ending is canon?

Whichever one you want. The two endings exist in a kind of continuity superposition, and the rest of the timeline works whether Snake escapes with Meryl or Otacon. Whichever one he doesn’t rescue somehow miraculously survives. If there’s one thing Metal Gear is good at, it’s having important (and sometimes not-so-important) characters miraculously survive offscreen. (And sometimes onscreen!)

Either way, Snake and Meryl persue a brief romantic interlude, then go their separate ways. Meryl ends up working for the Army in Rat Patrol 01, Snake ends up founding Philanthropy with Otacon, and he has both the stealth camo and infinite ammo bandana as of Sons of Liberty. Lucky bastard.

“…where we immediately break up and go back to what we were already doing.”

What does La-li-lu-le-lo mean?

The La-li-lu-le-lo are The Patriots. Specifically, it’s the string of syllables second-level agents of The Patriots are programmed by nanomachines to hear and say instead of “The Patriots”.

It works a bit like content filters on web forums. When an agent’s nanomachines detects the phrase “The Patriots” in reference to the secret shadowy organization nobody is supposed to know about, they covertly replace the words with “La-li-lu-le-lo” in the agent’s brain. Such second-level agents include Scott Dolph, Richard Ames, and Meryl Silverburgh; basically anyone The Patriots want to make use of without revealing themselves to.

It is never revealed how the nanomachines can differentiate usage of their name from, say, the sportsball team.

Why is Solidus so much older than Liquid and Solid Snake?

Solidus is actually younger, by a couple of years.

All of Big Boss’s clones were genetically modified to age faster than normal humans. This is why Snake looks like a 70-year-old math teacher in Guns of the Patriots. Solidus must have been modified to age at an even more accelerated rate.

Why would The Patriots do this? Les Enfants Terribles was the final straw for Big Boss, and the moment he decided to break away from Zero. Once this happened, Zero must have been more desperate than ever for a Big Boss figurehead to his organization. When the perfect clone — Solidus — was implanted, he put a rush job on things. 25 years later Solidus looks like a 50-year-old man, and is put into place as POTUS.

Why does Raiden keep leaving Rose?

Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots both end with Raiden reconnecting with his lady lover Rosemary, only to be back to his old emo-ninja’ing self in time for the next title. Leaving aside the joke answer of Rose being a horrible shrew nobody would want to stay married to, it turns out it’s pretty hard for a genetically-altered and deeply-traumatized homicidal supersoldier jacked up on nanomachines to stay settled. After a short time playing house Raiden feels drawn back to the battlefield, just like the countless legendary soldiers before him.

What happened to Naomi and Mei-Ling’s accents?

Canonically, these two characters have American accents.

Around the time of Sons of Liberty, a remake of the original Metal Gear Solid came out for Nintendo Gamecube called The Twin Snakes. The game had updated graphics, re-dubbed audio, and improved gameplay, but is considered non-canonical by later sequels. Whenever flashback footage of Metal Gear Solid is shown in later games, it is consistently pulled from the PS1 original, as though the whole Metal Gear universe were made of low-poly models in the mid-aughts.

The one exception is the voice acting. Metal Gear Solid has legendarily poor quality voice acting, so when it came time to put various audio clips into Guns of the Patriots cutscenes, they were pulled from The Twin Snakes instead.

As for why the accents were changed for The Twin Snakes, that’s anyone’s guess.

How have The Patriots been dead for over 100 years?

They aren’t dead, at least, not all of them. As of the end of Sons of Liberty, when this twist is revealed, Patriots founders Ocelot and EVA are still alive and working. Big Boss and Zero are biologically alive, but no longer active because of various Patriots machinations. And none of them are 100 years old.

It is revealed in Guns of the Patriots that the identities Snake and Raiden pulled out of GW were bogus, because part of how Cipher hides The Patriots is with layers and layers of confusing misinformation. Controlling information is Cipher’s most powerful weapon throughout the years, and is central to his many schemes.

As it turns out, the information wasn’t really bogus so much as useless. The identities revealed to Snake were probably the members of the Wisemen’s Committee, the original alliance of American, Russian and Chinese contributors which amassed the Philosopher’s Legacy. This happened just after World War I… or about a hundred years before the events of Sons of Liberty. Historically interesting information, but totally unhelpful to Snake’s current situation.

Who is really in charge of The Patriots? Why are they so corrupt?

As of Donald Anderson’s death in Metal Gear Solid, nobody.

Dr. Strangelove began development of The Patriots AI in the 1980s, but she died before its completion. AI was Strangelove’s scientific superpower, so after her death no one else comes close to what she was able to accomplish. (This explains why her AI machines were so sophisticated in Peace Walker, while the Metal Gears in Guns of the Patriots moo and fall down a lot.)

Major Zero continued development on the AI in its imperfect state, but he wasn’t able to oversee it either, since Skull Face had poisoned him and he spent the next 30-ish years slowly losing his mind.

Zero mentions that Donald (aka SIGINT) was running a lot of the day-to-day tasks in one of his tapes in The Phantom Pain. And this was probably fine until Ocelot tortured him to death in Shadow Moses. From that point on, the AI was spinning without supervision, running the same processes over and over, causing trouble for everyone. Over the decades, random mutations in the AI’s subroutines ended up having a corrupting influence. The AI organized the S3 plan in Sons of Liberty and eventually invented the War Economy in Guns of the Patriots.

What is the S3 Plan, and what the hell happens at the end of Sons of Liberty?

The last hour or so of Sons of Liberty is where Kojima intentionally went full-on batsplat banana sandwich on his players. The one-line summary of this 40-minute labyrinthine infodump is, “The Patriots AI went crazy.”

The S3 Plan is the Mutant Crazy AI playing its hand at being Cipher.

Solidus tells Raiden that S3 stands for “Solid Snake Simulation”, and he believes this to be true. The idea is The Patriots concocted a Shadow Moses-like live exercise to see if a green recruit with minimal combat experience could be turned into the next Solid Snake. It’s kind of a 21st century version of Les Enfants Terribles — instead of growing a new supersoldier from scratch as a clone, now we can make one on the fly with rudimentary VR training and extreme live fire.

Solidus was fed bad information by The Patriots, however, and the AI explains to Raiden what S3 really is: Selection for Societal Sanity. The AI has decided that there is too much raw information out there, and wants to control the flow of it to such a degree that a person’s entire life can be fabricated around him. That’s what happens to Raiden: he’s given a fake girlfriend, a fake colonel, a fake Shadow Moses playground to kick around in, a fake FOXHOUND to join, etc. Virtually nothing Raiden believes to be true actually is, thanks to The Patriots running circles around him.

In other news, Raiden beat Quiet to full frontal by 14 years.

Who does Revolver Ocelot work for?

In Snake Eater Ocelot works for the CIA. After Snake Eater Ocelot works for Big Boss.

Ocelot is the first of many characters who becomes absolutely infatuated with Big Boss. Even way back as Naked Snake, Big Boss has a sort of inspiring magnetism that made people want to follow him. This magnetism is so inexplicably powerful that even people who want to kill him — Quiet, Paz, countless soon-to-be-Fultoned nameless grunts, and of course Ocelot — end up seeking his approval. This overwhelming charisma is what makes him so special to The Boss, and so integral to Cipher and The Patriots.

And Ocelot falls hard. He so badly wants senpai to notice him that, at one point in Snake Eater, he steals all of Snake’s food and eats it in an effort to be more like him. More tellingly, in an unguarded moment towards the end of the game, Ocelot insists he and Snake learn each other’s real names. This is perhaps the one moment in the entire saga where Ocelot is being purely genuine.

After Big Boss is burned to death in Metal Gear 2 and his biomass is swept up by The Patriots, Ocelot makes it his life’s mission to recover the remains and destroy The Patriots. This isn’t sentimentality; Big Boss’s remains are the literal, physical key to locating The Patriots. At this point in time the AI still sees Ocelot as an especially valuable asset, so Ocelot is very careful to position himself without blowing his cover.

At his most convoluted, Ocelot is four levels deep: Liquid doesn’t know he works for Solidus, who doesn’t know he works for The Patriots, who don’t know he works for Big Boss. The masterstroke here is that, on some level, Ocelot actually does work for Liquid and Solidus. They both want the same thing he does. If either of their crazy terrorism plans succeeds, he can end the charade and assist them directly. If they fail, he has just enough plausible deniability to maintain the ruse and bide his time.

So who or what is Liquid Ocelot?

Ocelot, pretending to be Liquid Snake.

There was a point when Liquid’s ghost arm was actually in partial control. During the cutscenes in Sons of Liberty where Liquid speaks through the arm, that is really Liquid and he is really taking over. This doesn’t sit well with Ocelot,0 so he has the arm removed and replaces it with a synthetic one. He doesn’t reveal his new robot arm until the end of Guns of the Patriots.

According to Big Boss, Ocelot kept up the Liquid ruse by undergoing a treatment of drugs and nanomachines to trick his mind into believing he was Liquid Snake in a new body. (A similar process worked once before, in The Phantom Pain, to trick his mind into believing Venom Snake was the real Big Boss.)

After Big Boss is burned to death in Metal Gear 2, Ocelot’s goal is to locate his body and bring down The Patriots. The AI doesn’t realize this, though, which is why it seems like Ocelot is a good little Patriots soldier all through Sons of Liberty. In that game, what comes across to the player is that Ocelot and Liquid’s ghost arm are working at cross purposes.

We’re given an explanation for why Ocelot re-writes his brain during Big Boss’s exposition at the end of Guns of the Patriots: “in order to fool the System”. Becoming Liquid’s mental doppelganger allows Ocelot to actively work to destroy The Patriots without The Patriots twigging to his betrayal. The AI believes he’s Liquid and acts accordingly: by tapping Solid Snake and sending him to the battlefield.

How can Snake be part Japanese, if his parents are EVA and Big Boss?

In the same conversation where EVA reveals she is Snake’s mother, she explains he was conceived via in vitro fertilization. The egg donor was a lab assistant of Dr. Clark, a character who is only ever identified as “a healthy Japanese woman”.

Apparently, Vulcan Raven can sense the influence of healthy Japanese women even years after they’ve been murdered by Cyborg Ninjas.

How is REX still operable, and how is it a match for RAY?

REX is the best Metal Gear ever built. It is the Cadillac of Metal Gear. It is an artisinal, home-brew Metal Gear whose secret ingredient is love.

I keep mentioning this idea of a “scientific superpower”. Sometimes, a scientist in Metal Gear has such incredible aptitude for a field of study that their accomplishments and insights are presented as being literally unique. As in, if they die, their field dies with them, never to be replicated. There’s a good reason so many Metal Gear games start you off by sneaking into a base to rescue a scientist.

Dr. Strangelove’s scientific superpower was developing AI. Naomi Hunter’s was the implementation of nanomachines. And Hal Emmerich’s is building Metal Gear.

While REX is not as big as Sahelanthropus nor as versatile as RAY, it is the only Metal Gear model that displays human characteristics. Otacon speaks of REX as a person; he specificially designed it with a weakness to give it a certain je ne sais quoi. None of the Metal Gear superscientists like to see their creations destroyed, but Otacon actually takes it personally. To him it’s not, “Liquid has a really powerful battle tank,” but rather “Liquid stole my friend, who happens to be a powerful battle tank.” He takes it personally again, nine years later, when he realizes what Liquid Ocelot wants with its railgun.

It’s this connection between a boy and his bestest battle tank buddy that accounts for REX’s ʜᴜᴍᴀɴ ᴇʟᴇᴍᴇɴᴛ. Otacon is so good at Metal Gear that you can cover REX in chaff, pelt it with stingers, carpet bomb it, leave it to rust for ten years in a wet Alaskan bunker, and all it takes to get it back up and running is a pep talk and some Street Fighter moves.

REX’s little brother is pretty awesome, too.

I have another question?

That’s not a question.

Okay but I have one anyway?

Sure, leave it as a comment to this post and I’ll do what I can to write a follow-up someday.

Didn’t you do a bizarre and hilarious rap song about Ocelot?

Yes. Yes I did. Thanks for reading!

It’s Really a Shame about Fantasy Strike

Fantasy Strike is a neat fighting game. If you’re ever in a position to try it out without having to buy it, I highly recommend it. You’ll have fun tinkering with it until the novelty wears off and you move on. And if you’re like me, your parting thought will be something like, “Shame there wasn’t more to it.”

The game is still in Early Access, but all the characters are in and other than a 1P story mode it’s pretty much feature complete. What you see is what you get with this one. The crowdfunding is over, it’s made its way around the trade shows and fighting game tournaments, and the community it’s built is probably the community it’s going to have. Absent a miraculously successful marketing blitz on the full launch, I think Fantasy Strike has done all it’s gonna do.

The concept of Fantasy Strike is wonderful. It was designed from the ground up by fighting game veteran David Sirlin to be as accessible as possible. The game is billed as being easy to pick up, but very challenging to master — appealing both to new players and tournament experts.

There are two critical flaws that kill the game though, both stemming from mistaken assumptions on Sirlin’s part. And as much as I love the guy, Sirlin strikes me as being too stubborn to admit these mistakes, which would be the first step in correcting them and fixing Fantasy Strike. In this post, I’ll go into each of them in some detail.

First of all, I really love David Sirlin.

There are very few game developers I’m a fanboy of. David Sirlin is one of them. He’s maintained a general game design blog for decades, and I’ve spent that time hanging on practically his every word. He’s got old design articles on every subject from the fun value of hidden collectibles in Donkey Kong Country to in-depth analysis about incorporating fun game bugs as standard features in remakes and sequels. I learned more about fighting games by reading his balance articles for Street Fighter II HD Remix than in all the combined time I’ve spent actually playing Street Fighter titles.

I don’t actually own a lot of Sirlin’s games, outside of Fantasy Strike and his silly panda poker game, because most of what he designs are card battle games in the vein of Magic: The Gathering. This hasn’t dissuaded me from reading pages and pages of his analysis and design theory about card games, though, all of which I’ve found fascinating.

So I know the man’s work, and I know something about his game design philosophy. I also know he has a stubborn streak that has resulted in some burned bridges across various internet communities. For example, when most reviewers were championing the decision to make the online edition of Street Fighter 3: Third Strike arcade perfect, Sirlin had the audacity to point out that the arcade version of Third Strike was kinda butts, and a re-balanced version would have made for a much better game*. He was totally right about this, and I was on his side every step of the way, but the manner in which he argued his points, dismissing out of hand that Third Strike fans with different priorities might have a valid argument, earned him no small amount of abuse.

And it’s this stubborn streak, this sense of I’m right gosh durnit, why can’t everyone just see that, that I see in his responses to feedback Fantasy Strike has received. I find myself disagreeing with Sirlin on some key aspects of what Fantasy Strike is supposed to be, and what could make it great.

*Third Strike had 19 playable characters, but at the highest competitive level only three could win fights. It was a boring meta both for competitors and spectators. Sirlin’s argument was that rebalancing the game to make more of the characters viable would increase depth and attract more players to the game.

Second of all, I’m a filthy casual.

And this has the unfortunate side effect of Sirlin assuming I don’t exist.

Fantasy Strike is billed as “the strategic fighting game for EVERYONE”, but what Sirlin really means by this is that he is targeting two kinds of players: expert fighters who will enjoy the game’s strategic depth, and newbie fighters who he hopes will speed through the learning stages to become experts.

He’s not aiming at people who are neither experts, nor want to be. I’m standing here waving my hands around, and senpai is not noticing me.

I approach a fighting game the way I approach any sort of game: I play it until I either finish it or it stops being fun, then I move on to the next game. I feel like 30-40 hours of playtime out of a $20 Steam game is pretty good value. The most I’ve played any fighting game is Super Street Fighter IV, where Steam says I have just shy of 100 hours logged. 100 hours is a long time for me to play a game, but it’s a fraction of a fraction of what is required to become an expert player, even in a game with single-button specials.

Accessibility is still an unsolved problem.

This is the first of Sirlin’s misconceptions: he thinks people quit playing fighting games — or avoid getting into them in the first place — because the moves are too hard to do. In his mind the barrier to entry is the controller, the physical interface between player and game, and if you can just push through that you can begin what he calls “actually playing”. You’re not spending brain cycles on whether you can physically perform a move, but rather should you perform it. If you read the HD Remix articles I linked earlier, you will see him repeat this phrasing again and again.

It’s easy to see why Sirlin thinks this. He learned to play fighting games in the Bad Old Days, when Capcom and SNK arcades ruled the roost. In those days the special moves really were difficult to do. You were lucky if the specials were listed on a cabinet decal or instruction manual, and even then, the motions were notoriously finnicky. I bet Sirlin spent a lot of time back in the ’90s fumbling with bad control schemes before he got güd, and those memories were probably front and center when he drafted the Fantasy Strike design doc.

But this is a solved problem. Sirlin himself implemented many of the solutions in his work on HD Remix: he widened input windows, relaxed directional requirements, and reduced button mashing. These changes are a big reason why HD Remix is my favorite iteration of Street Fighter II — I can do a dragon punch now!

What he didn’t realize, though, is that every other modern fighting game has adopted this design philosophy. The motions for specials in Street Fighter IV are even more lenient than HD Remix; nobody has quit playing that game because they can’t throw a fireball. This design trend probably started with Super Smash Bros., where every move is as simple as “button plus direction”. The Bad Old Days are gone.

The real barrier to entry is the competition, not the controller. It’s when you haven’t yet learned enough to make good decisions, nor developed the muscle memory to implement those decisions. It’s true that Fantasy Strike gets you to that point faster than Street Fighter does, maybe a couple hours versus a couple days. But it still has combos to master, matchups to learn, and frame data to study. Jaina’s fireball being on a single button rather than QCF isn’t very helpful when what you really need is the knowledge that Geiger’s move has a long recovery, the presence of mind to recognize the situation, and the muscle memory to react quickly enough to make that fireball count.

In a world where everyone is having trouble driving stick on icy roads, Sirlin is patting himself on the back for implementing push button ignition.

Babby’s First Fighting Game

Being the Sirlin fanboy I am, and seeing his previous work on HD Remix, I have full confidence that Fantasy Strike is a deep, well-balanced and strategically interesting game. As we’ve established, though, that’s not really what I’m in the market for. The players he needs to sell that line to are the established fighting game community, and by most accounts they’re not buying it.

Part of this just comes from the man himself being such a polarizing personality for such a long time in established fighting game circles. There are lots of people out there who don’t like Sirlin, for one reason or another, and just won’t buy his game no matter how good it is. That leaves two other places to potentially cultivate interest: veteran players who are intrigued by what Fantasy Strike has to offer, and veteran players who don’t have a game to play.

We can discount the second group pretty much immediately. If you’re a fighting game veteran, you already have a game to play. You’re not going to move from that game to Fantasy Strike unless it becomes a blockbuster smash, and it’s not doing that.

To the remaining fighting game veterans, Fantasy Strike is a hard sell. If you have what it takes to climb the ranked ladders, you are not concerned about accessibility. The idea that the hard part of fighting games are the QCFs must sound absurd to, say, the 98th best Blanka in North America. The #1 selling point fails to land, and I really don’t know that Fantasy Strike has a #2 selling point.

Passed all that, though, even veterans who want to actively support Fantasy Strike are going to have a hard time doing so, because nobody is playing it. steamcharts.org lists Fantasy Strike as having an average user base in the single digits. Contrast that with Skullgirls, an indie-developed fighter that’s been out for several years, but has cultivated a dedicated playerbase by leveraging unique gameplay features. In terms of active playerbase Fantasy Strike is more in the neighborhood of Divekick, and that’s not a good look.

So why doesn’t Brickroad like it?

Okay, the game’s not appealing to newbie players looking for an easy in, and it’s not appealing to veteran players who want a new playfield. I’ve already established I’m not in either of those groups, so why doesn’t Fantasy Strike appeal to me?

There are no online lobbies. And there never will be.

My usual rule regarding Early Access titles is not to buy them unless I’m happy with the state the game is currently in. I broke this rule with Fantasy Strike for three reasons. First, the game looked cool and colorful and fun. Second, I was very happy Sirlin had finally developed a video game I was interested in playing rather than simply reading design articles about. And third, I was absolutely certain online lobbies would be added to the game.

If you’re not familiar with lobbies in online fighting games, here’s how they work. You open a room and invite a bunch of friends. The game then matches two of you up while the rest spectate the match. The winner of the fight moves on to the next match and the loser goes to the back of the list. It’s a way for a group of people to all play the same two-player game together. This feature is an industry standard. The only major series I’m aware of without lobbies is Super Smash Bros., but those games have 4-player simultaneous play, which is functionally the same thing.

Lobbies are important to me as a player because fighting games are stressful to play, even with a group of friends at about my skill level. I much prefer playing a few matches at a time to grinding out an endless row of them. I really like playing as hard as I can while I’m on a win streak, but once I lose I appreciate being able to take a break and spectate.

Lobbies are important to me as a Twitch streamer, too, because it makes for the best viewing experience. Viewers are either watching my match and listening to my friends commentate on it, or they’re watching the same match I’m spectating and listening to me commentate for my friends. It also makes it easy for viewers to get matches with me, without either of us having to screw with our friends list or manually send invites.

So when I learned online lobbies was not a feature Fantasy Strike was ever going to have, I immediately regretted my purchase. Here’s Sirlin’s response on the Fantasy Strike forums when asked about it:

This reveals the second mistaken assumption Sirlin has: that Quick Match is the best way to play fighting games online, to the exclusion of all other possible ways to play. (I don’t know what the comment about Hearthstone is supposed to mean. It seems weird he’d conflate two entirely different genres of competitive game like this.)

Again, I can follow his logic here. Quick Match is the default method of playing for experts and for people trying to be experts. The way it works is you push a button, and some guy in Germany pushes a button, and then the game throws the two of you into a match. The loser is given an option to rematch, and then both of you are dropped back into the queue so you’re available for the next guy who pushes a button.

Notice, though, that the only other way to play Fantasy Strike is to challenge someone on your friends list. When you do this you are locked into an endless series of matches with that friend until one of you decides to leave.

Fantasy Strike makes it easy to play with randos, and it makes it easy to play with a single friend, but there’s no easy way to play with four friends at once, or to make yourself available to a small group of people who happen to be watching and want to jump in. I know from experience that trying to organize a Fight Night in a game using just these features is a major hassle, and my solution in the end was to stop playing that game.

If you’re looking for a steady stream of competition, Quick Match is your jam. And if you want to spar against one person, the single button invite is an elegant solution. But if you want a fun, casual night with a couple friends on Discord chat, Fantasy Strike can’t really accomodate you.

Sirlin is very, very wrong when he says “custom rooms take away from Quick Match”. The two game modes appeal to very different kinds of players, and it’s his own tunnel vision that prevents him from seeing that. In his mind there is one particular correct way to play his game, and he won’t spend development resources on a feature that allows people like me to play it wrong.

So, unfortunately, I’m just going to stop playing it altogether. Which, yeah, is really a shame.

I wonder if David Sirlin is the type of guy who Googles himself.

If so, I just want to say I’m still a big fan. Thank you for Playing to Win, and for fixing Chess, and for giving T. Hawk that hilarious throw whiff animation. I want you to know I think it’s a travesty that HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter aren’t in that big Street Fighter collection that’s coming out.

I urge you to reconsider your decision to leave out the one standard gameplay feature that would enable me to enjoy your game. Even if you don’t, I hope Fantasy Strike eventually finds its audience and that you get what you want out of it. I’m still following the game on Twitch.tv, for what that’s worth.

And to everyone else, thanks for reading!