Friday, July 31, 2009

FFIV: Archetypes; Also: Moon Expeditionary Party

Two posts in one day! Maybe I'm going crazy, or maybe I'm just listening to too much FFIV music.

So to follow up on the OC Remix post, I wanted to talk about FFIV generally. It has a couple qualities that are interesting, and to contextualize them, we'll consider the game's role in Final Fantasy history (and thus JRPG history). The game represents a dramatic shift - that is, a shift toward drama!

See the original Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games were almost like Western RPGs in that they really didn't have preset characters - the characters were just empty shells for you to move around and use in combat. In Final Fantasy you didn't even have to use any characters in particular - you could have a party of four thieves if you really wanted to (not that it's advisable...). These games had a story, but they were really about "look, you can explore dungeons!", much like the original D&D was.

Sequels started to add more established characters with established party roles, but FFIV took this to a new level, with a huge cast of diverse and in some cases multi-faceted (I know, shocking) characters, FFIV was the forebearer of JRPGs that focus on character development and convoluted plots.

So the interesting thing is the sheer number of genre-defining archetypes, both good and bad, that appear in this game. It's almost as if the developers realized that this was a direction all future games of the genre would be going, and decided to explore the possibility space in order to figure out what worked. The game includes betrayal, redemption, regicide, patricide, fratricide, genocide, suicide, love triangles, tragic star-crossed lovers, strippers, people who wear masks only to reveal that they're incredibly beautiful underneath, revelations about the origin of the protagonist and the antagonist, a captured useless girlfriend who ends up in your final party, characters who become substantially more powerful and useful just before they die, boss fights that you have to win so you can watch a cutscene where you lose, a last surviving member of a species that joins your party, instant adultification, interplanetary travel, vehicles that carry other vehicles, a sampling of every D&D class, and lots and lots of character death. This game has everything.

So if you want to know if a given story element will work in your RPG, a good rule of thumb is to think about when it happened in FFIV (and trust me, it happened in FFIV), and whether or not it made the game better. So moral dilemmas, yeah that was pretty sweet. Having your girlfriend spend a big chunk of the game tied to a chair not doing anything, not so much.

So the second interesting thing about FFIV is that it's one of the few FF games where I honestly believe that the characters in your party are special and are qualified to go save the world. FFVI is also ok in this regard, but otherwise...really, why is Butz (excuse me, "Barts") saving the world again? He's a random guy with a chocobo. Yippee.

So for the second half of my post, we'll be going through a mental exercise. Let's say you had to select a team to go with you to the Moon to battle an elemental force of destruction based solely on the character summaries I give here. Who do you take?

[warning: mild spoilers ahead]

1. Cecil (FFIV) - This guy is a half-lunarian who became a dark knight and captain of the elite fighting force the Red Wings. He eventually rebels against his own king's tyranny and ascends a legendary mountain to perform a purification ritual and become a paladin. That's right, he's both a dark knight AND a paladin, and his ancestors are FROM THE MOON. That's not only the most interesting background of any FF protagonist, it makes him a rather obvious choice for the mission to the Moon.

2. Rydia (FFIV) - She's the last member of a race of magical humanoid "callers", and a personal friend of Leviathan, the king of mythical creatures (on Earth at least). She can use both black magic and summon things. Also, she has hair that partially covers one of her eyes. Yeah, she's clearly going to the Moon.

3. Kain (FFIV) - It's not immediately clear why he's extraordinary, since his apparent backstory is simply that he's a soldier, but Cecil will vouch for him. What's more, he can jump really really, really this-is-a-good-technique-for-beating-bosses-with-a-countdown-timer-before-they-attack kind of high. He's in.

4. Rosa (FFIV) - Here's my big FFIV exception. Rosa's story is this: she's Cecil's girlfriend. Wow, that's special. She's also a healer, which makes her useful, but we can probably find a better one. You can see Cecil when he gets back.

5. Edge (FFIV) - He's a ninja. Pretty cool by itself, but in order to determine how useful that makes him, we have to apply the Law of Ninja Quantity, which states that the power of ninja is inversely proportional to their quantity. So how many other ninja are in FFIV? What's that, none? That makes this guy a maximally powerful ninja. Also, he can convince a paladin that it's ok to steal an airship because "the ship wants us to have it." Those are some skills we can use on the Moon.

6. Butz (FFV) - I think we covered this guy already, but here we go again. He ran across a meteor and decided to investigate, and somehow got caught up in a party that decided to save the world for no particular reason. He can only come if he's willing to wait inside the Fat Chocobo's belly.

7. Faris (FFV) - Now this character is more interesting - a cross-dressing pirate! Despite the inherent coolness of being a crossdressing's not obvious what they have to offer in particular, either. They're on the waiting list.

8. Cloud (FFVII) - This guy is a delusional terrorist who has somehow managed to convince himself that he was part of an elite fighting force when he wasn't. Yes, I know people think he's cool, but that's his actual backstory. Take your giant vegetable cleaver and go cook our heroes something, spiky-haired kid.

9. Barret (FFVII) - He's a guy with a gun instead of an arm. He's also a terrorist. That's about it. There's no explanation as to why this guy should be any better at saving the world than the mooks with guns you spend the game decimating.

10. Terra (FFVI) - She's a half-esper who was captured by the Empire and turned into a lethal weapon and a source of magitech research using a slave crown. She is the link between the human realm and the realm of magic, and the only non-FFIV protagonist to have a legitimate reason to be in a party that saves the world. She can also cast both black magic AND white magic, and wield swords, so we got our healer role covered in style. She's in.

11. Gogo (FFVI) - The other solid FFVI candidate, Gogo has spent an unspecified amount of time living inside an enormous monster. That's right, he literally knows what it's like to be in the belly of the beast. Also he can do everything...that's right, everything (he's a mimic by trade). I would definitely want to have this guy around as a wild card.

12. Locke (FFVI) - A good example of an FFVI character who probably doesn't have Moon chops. Don't get me wrong, Locke is very cool and stylish, but his background is that he's a thief (sorry, "treasure hunter"). Could be handy, but we already have a ninja, and when it comes time to fight an elemental force of destruction, what does he have to offer? Enthusiasm. He can join the ghosts that appear to cheerlead for the party before combat.

13. Squall (FFVIII) - He's a student at a school that's training kids to be commandos, or something like that. He also wields a gunblade, which is like a sword...with a gun inside it. I think the appropriate use for that weapon is to have Edge throw it at things. He's out.

14. Irvine (FFVIII) - Here's the depressing thing about this character: he's one of the more interesting characters in FFVIII. His backstory is that he's a sniper, but he doesn't actually like to shoot at people. I don't think we're going to be bringing someone to the Moon so that he can sit around and not shoot at things.

15. Zidane (FFIX) - This guy doesn't even have a backstory. He's a thief, like Locke, and his special characteristic is that he has a monkey tail. Why? I don't know! In theory that makes him non-human, but no one even seems to care that he has a tail, so I doubt it's an indication that he's part Moon-person. He's not coming.

16. Garnet (FFIX) - This girl is basically like Rosa, except she can also summon things and she's a princess. Those are nifty traits, but we already have Rydia on our team, who seems to be a lot more proficient, so this girl's out.

17. Tidus (FFX) - MAJOR SPOILERS [for remainder of Tidus description] Tidus is one of those characters that seems to have no particular reason to be important or part of the team, but is revealed at the end to have an inextricable connection to the force threatening the world with destruction. Also, he's a ghost. Potentially useful, but he's kind of specialized for the FFX world, and it's not like he has any special ghostly powers or anything. His special abilities include being good at Blitz Ball. I think we can move on.

18. Yuna (FFX) - Yeah, you'll never guess, she's another Rosa/Garnet. The main argument for her is that she's an important priestess of some religion. Again, kind of specific to the FFX setting - I don't see Zeromus really being intimidated by the ability to make people who are already dead rest peacefully.

19. Anonymous Hero (FFXI) - I believe the words I'm looking for are, "If everyone's super, then no one's super." This person is no better explained than the FFI heroes.

20. Vaan (FFXII) - He's an orphan who kills dire rats and dreams of being a sky pirate. He's not even a real pirate like Faris is. He's like Zidane, but without a tail, so we can be 100% certain that he's human and has nothing special going on.

21. Fran (FFXII) - She's a viera who wears completely absurd looking armor. That said, the outfit makes her very distracting, so she might be handy to have around as a decoy. She's on the waiting list.

And that's it. I didn't have time to cover everyone, but it's a pretty representative list of SNES-and-onward characters, and based solely on background story and powers they are claimed to have in the narrative, I really would choose the cast of FFIV (plus Terra and Gogo) to be my Moon Expeditionary Party. Apparently the existence of an explanation for how or why a given character is saving the world has been deemed unnecessary in recent FF games, which I think is unfortunate. Also note that just because a character didn't get to come with us to the Moon doesn't mean that I don't think they're cool (as in the case of Locke) - just that there's no particular reason to believe this character is qualified to save the world.

-Silent Ellipsis


First thing's first, it's my blog's birthday today! Happy birthday, Dreamscape.

Next on the agenda - I've been listening to the OC Remix of the FFIV soundtrack. You can grab it here. I don't know why they have Yang on the cover art and not Cid/Pallom&Porom/Tellah/Edward, but whatever. It covers the whole of FFIV and is pretty faithful (though obviously with more techno beats and electric guitars than the original had).

Personally, it's kind of hit-and-miss: some of the tracks are awesome, like Tundra of Dwarves, Evoking the Dawn, or Somewhere to Hide, and some are less awesome (I'm not going to name names). The Zeromus music seems to encapsulate this by being both awesome and bad at the same time. It's like they had a good song going, and then ended up cooking it too long and burnt it. There's also seems to be an implicit admission that the song has something wrong with it, since there's another version included by most of the same people (and a couple by other people). The second attempt is somehow worse, though. And by somehow, I mean because what passes for evil villain speech when executed with a death metal voice sounds simply absurd when executed with a voice that sounds vaguely human.

Despite my being frustrated with it, I keep listening to the Zeromus music, and it reminds me of something - writing good music is really hard. This might seem obvious, but every once in a while I do stop and wonder if I like the music I do simply because I gave it time to grow on me. This is more likely to pop in my head if I go for a while listening only to music I like (and thus have little standard of comparison). So I find it really fascinating to listen to things that are close to being awesome - the "less awesome" tracks here aren't really bad, they're just unbalanced in one way or another, and when I listen to them a couple times I feel like I can start to pick out exactly where they started going wrong.

Anyway, despite my having some reservations, I recommend you download the music (it's free, afterall!).

-Silent Ellipsis

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Crazy Ideas for Crazy Times: Pre-Pre-Ordering

There's a very relevant and well-put article on Jeff's blog about funding for indie game development. The summary is this: the situation looks bleak. On most platforms, financially survivable options are surprisingly narrow. And yet AAA games are trending towards larger budgets and banking on blockbusters, which means there's very little room for "risky" development.

The article also addresses a recent proposal by Gabe Newell of Valve: public funding for games. Basically, instead of starting with publishers, the game begins with funding from the games community, that can choose what kind of games get developped and potentially get a return on their investment. Jeff doesn't think this sounds like a particularly viable option, pointing out, among other things, that if every player is an investor, they may have legal rights relative to the developer that would get, well, messy.

In my opinion, the public funding idea is really interesting, but it seems like the wrong part of it is getting emphasized - if I put down $50 for a cool game idea to be developed, it's not because I'm hoping for a return on my investment, it's because I want the game to be made! That's giving me my $50 of value - I don't also need to get my money back two years later (from what, selling copies to the fans...the one who provided the money to create it in the first place?)

The way to make an idea like this more viable is to focus on the part where players want cool games and are theoretically willing to pay to have them. Here's my variant: pre-pre-ordering. The idea is very simple, and similar to what was proposed above - players want to see cool games made, so they're willing to put down money to have them made, but trying to make it a standard investment relationship is messy, so instead they put down money just to own the game when it's made, on the condition that it actually does get made.

That is, the game developer comes up with a cool idea, maybe some concept art/writing/prototype mechanics, and presents them to the potential players. If the players want the game to be made, they basically agree "I will buy this game if it is made" (which is legally binding, like saying you'll pay for an item on ebay is). Now if a sufficient amount of "potential" funding is raised to make the game, then the players' credit cards are charged, and production begins. If not, then the players keep their money. Of course, once the game is completed, those who pre-pre-ordered get sent a copy without having to pay again.

There is still a question about what happens if a developer fails to deliver a game. In theory they would have to return as much of the money as they can, but it's theoretically impossible for them to return all of it, and this only needs to happen a few times for players to become disillusioned with the system. An alternative setup is that the players aren't charged anything until the game is actually released - in this case, the pre-pre-orders are used to secure immediate funding from another source (and in theory, it should be easy to do so if you're guaranteed a certain amount of revenue).

The second question is, do players who pre-pre-order get some kind of say in the development of the game? Generally speaking, I don't want players to be making major design decisions (for that matter, I don't want publishers making major design decisions), but I do think the model would benefit from giving players a vote in certain aspects of development. This could also be something that costs extra: you can pre-pre-order at the basic cost of purchasing the game, or offer more to be able to vote on community decisions, get guaranteed access to beta testing (or even alpha testing), get your name in the credits, etc.

So that's the idea, minus a marketable name.

-Silent Ellipsis

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Natural Funativity: The Rant

As part of Ian Schreiber's online course on game design this summer, I've just come from reading Natural Funativity, by Noah Falstein. I would like to preface this whole post by saying that the author seems like an intelligent person and that I agree with most of the general (rough, approximate, vague) points he wants to make about fun being related to skills that could be potentially useful (whether or not they in fact are).

Now that I've said that, I'll proceed with the short version of this post: ugh.

Longer version: Apparently the word "natural" means the same thing when applied to game design it does in all other contexts - from the African veldt! Falstein's argument is that what makes an activity fun today is that it was useful to our paleolithic ancestors. Not an absurd idea on its face, but Falstein proceeds as though this were a clear fact, despite providing next to zero evidence for it.

The evidence he does provide is generally in the form of hypothetical anecdotes or examples of analogies between common modern and supposedly common paleolithic activities. Now, as a student of philosophy, I'm all about hypothetical examples, but in philosophy we generally apply them to questions for which there is no way to gather empirical evidence, like "is determinism incompatible with free will?" or "how many people are on this chair, the one on which I'm sitting?" (if you think the answer is obviously one, you're probably not a philosopher or much of a party animal)*.

There are several reasons this bothers me. For one, I have a lot of respect for biologists and evolutionary theory, so when people start throwing around stories about our ancestors and pretending like they're facts and not fabrications of their imagination, it bugs me. Secondly, it creates some instant associations with evo-psych, which I'm not a fan of. Thirdly, I think it's wrong on some level. Fourthly, there's no real reason to go back to cavemen to explain these things.

Let's go back to thirdly - the part where Falstein is wrong. The hypothesis is that things are fun because they were useful to our ancestors, but not to us. Yet from early on in the article:

"So not surprisingly, when you really look at not only games, but all human entertainment, you see that at its heart it is all about learning about survival and reproduction and the necessary associated social rules and behaviors."

Yes, social rules. Falstein doesn't think we're operating with the same social rules we were x-thousand years ago**, does he? And yet this is immediately brought up as one of the first examples of things we learn from games and entertainment. Generally speaking, it seems that Falstein is completely forgetting that genetic evolution is only part of the explanation for our behavior. I'm ok with people leaning toward the nature side of the "nurture vs. nature" debate, but he seems to not even recognize that any such debate exists.

This brings me to fourthly again: we don't need the cavemen frame to understand what we're talking about. We just need the "human people" frame. For instance, Falstein attributes all collecting and gathering behaviors as being derived from the need to gather berries, as in:

"There are a huge number of popular entertainments that involve gathering. Casinos packed with slot machines recreate berry-picking, abstracted and refined into an RSS-related compulsion."

Why does it have to be about berries? I mean, isn't it just as easy to say, "people like collecting things because it results in them having more things"? It also lets me avoid the burden of having extra assertions to back up. I think this is an important point for anyone writing an essay, about anything. Examples are good, but each time you include one, you're also usually introducing a new assertion (at the very least, that your example is an instance of X). Thus, examples only help your cause when you can convincingly show that they support your main point. Otherwise, they're just one more thing for someone to object to (for instance, I think comparing casinos to berry-picking is a pretty bad analogy). Falstein seems to think that more assertions are always better.

On top of this "fun is about cavemen behavior" center there is an organizing strucural part of the essay, about how there's three kinds of fun activities: physical, mental, and social. My main objection here is, "doesn't that include the entirety of human activities?" I mean, it's presented as a practical tool for thinking about what kinds of activities might be fun, but if it includes the entire set of activities, I don't see what's practical about it. It's like saying "human beings tend to like the taste of just two things: organic things and inorganic things. For instance, they like both pig flesh and salt." Of course, not everyone eats pig flesh, but I'm pretty sure prehistoric people did, which is why we eat it today (see, I just used science)!

To conclude, I don't think I would have had any problem with this essay if it were framed as "I find that a useful thought experiment when designing a feature is thinking, what might a cavemen need to do?" Instead, Falstein feels the need to have his thought experiment carry the authority of fact, but without taking the time to convince us that it actually is fact.

And that's the rant (for now).

-Silent Ellipsis

*Or you're both an animal and an animalist. Shout out to all the animalists out there! By the way, I think your theory is ridiculous. Text me if you want a QED.

**The vagueness about timing also kind of bugs me. I mean, human societies have seen a lot of variety in a lot of places over the last 10,000+ years, but we're asked to imagine that there's modern man, and then before that we were all living on the African veldt since forever.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why MMO?

Massively has an article up about the trend in MMOs to allow for easier and easier solo play. This hearkens back to a post I made a while back on the same topic, but it still seems like most of the other arguments I'm seeing on the topic travel in the opposite direction of mine. The Massively question is: Given an MMO, why make it more single-player? For me the question is: Given a game concept, why make it an MMO?

I'm not uniformly against MMOs or anything - I actually believe that they have a huge amount of untapped potential. The keyword, though, is "untapped." The kind of gameplay we see in existing MMOs is, by and large, very similar to what you can get in a single-player game (or a merely-multiplayer game, like Neverwinter Nights, Halo, Mario-Kart, or anything that has less than 100 people in the server at once). However, in an MMO the content is more strictly gated, the space between levels is artificially extended, and you can't have any effect on the game world. So I guess what I mean is they're watered-down versions of single-player games.

So what I see isn't an evolution of MMOs, but rather a presumption that MMOs are the standard, causing them to open up to audiences that weren't originally interested. So again, if the game is trying to appeal to people who want to play solo, then why is it an MMO? The actual answer seems obvious when I'm in a cynical mood: because MMOs are trendy and offer high profitability. The profitability portion comes from the fact that you can make more money from each committed user in an online game than you could by selling them a traditional game for a set price - if addicted they'll keep shelling out. Also, online games are relatively immune to piracy, because in addition to a working, hacked version of the client software, you need an actual server to play on.

That said, MMOs are a very risky investment, for several reasons (ooh, time for a list, I love this part):

1) Since standard MMOs rely on being addictive, it's not enough to convince someone to play it - you have to convince them to live your MMO.

2) Since MMOs rely on being addictive, most players won't play more than one at a time. That means that most of your potential audience is already occupied playing WoW, so you need to give them a reason to play your game instead of another (whereas a player who bought Halo 3 can, and probably will, also buy Gears of War 2).

3) They're friggin multiplayer. Even though many of the developers at this point have a lot of experience making multiplayer online games, it's still no easy feat to make the game work properly, and this fact makes both programming and designing the game harder, which is final nail in the coffin of anyone who dreams of making a low-budget MMO.

And since they're so high-risk, clearly the publisher is going to try and minimize risk by insisting that the title is as similar to existing MMOs as possible.

So is the tradeoff worthwhile? It certainly is if you're Activision-Blizzard, but given the sheer number of MMOs in development, I can't help thinking that many of these developers would have been better off with a different strategy.

-Silent Ellipsis

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Japanese and American Hero Stories

This post is going to be about an over-generalization, but one that I think is interesting: a couple differences in popular representations of heroes in Japan and America.

Firstly, order of operations. I've noticed that one stereotypical anime/video game hero story in Japan goes something like this: There is a group of powerful/supernatural beings X, which threaten civilians/humans; one special member of X, who happens to also be unusually powerful, stands up against his group in order to protect the civilians/humans.

This "special" member of X is often half-human, or has a relationship with a human/civilian that is the foundation of their dissent from group X. The key part here is that group X exists prior to the dissent of its special member. Consider some examples (warning, some of the examples may contain mild spoilers, key word being mild):

Shikabane Hime - The recent anime that brought this to mind. In it undead creatures called shikabane terrorize humans, but one such shikabane (the title character) stands up against them in order to protect humanity.

Devil May Cry - Devils once freely traveled between their world and the human world, terrorizing humans, until the Legendary Dark Knight Sparda stood against his devil kin and sealed the gate between the worlds. Now his half-human son Dante has to maintain his father's legacy by killing devils that make it across to the human world and preventing cultists from re-opening the gate.

Vampire Hunter D - Vampires once freely traveled the world terrorizing humans. One half-vampires, however, stands up against them and protects common humans.

Vampire Princess Miyu - Shinma are supernatural creatueres that feed on humans. At any time one shinma (currently Miyu) is allowed to live in the human world as a "guardian", on the condition that they protect humans from any other shinma that try to pass into the human world. Awesome aside in this case: as long as Miyu protects humans from OTHER shinma, she's allowed to feed on their blood.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - Dracula's castle appears once every hundred years, but when it mysteriously appears only 5 years after its last disappearance, Dracula's own half-vampire son rises from a 300 year sleep to enter the castle and protect humanity from the threat it represents.

Rurouni Kenshin - In a time when swordsmen of skill are regularly deployed as a weapon of oppression, the hiten mitsurugi school was created with the following principles: owe allegiance to no one and protect the defenseless from those with power. Kenshin wanders around protecting civilians from other swordsmen that try to use their martial prowess unjustly.

Gundam - The Earth federation is threatened by the Principality of Zeon, which has at its disposal a "newtype" named Char. The Earth forces start to gain momentum once Amuro, who happens to also be a newtype, happens to pilot the experimental mobile suit Gundam and show a startling affinity for it.

Evangelion - Mysterious alien entities called angels descend upon the Earth and threaten humanity. Humans study them and create an angel-like being in their own image to protect themselves (note, though, that the "hero" status and Eva Unit 1 and its pilot become extremly ambiguous here).

Final Fantasy IV - The Baron's Army has begun aggressively attacking other cities in order to seize magical crystals. The Dark Knight Cecil, captain of the Red Wings, is overcome by guilt and turns against his king and the evil he has come to represent.

Kung-Fu Hustle - Not an anime, but the rule applies. The protagonist is a wannabe gang member trying to break into the famous Axe Gang. As the over-the-top martial arts being used to vie fro control of a tiny town continue getting more ridiculous, he must eventually face his destiny and become "the one" to save the town.

Ninja Gaiden, Trigun - These are two examples where the explanation might qualify as too much of a spoiler.

The point is that this a very prevalent structure. The hero arises as a response to some imminent or ever-present threat, especially if their own empowerment has a direct relationship to the threat.

Now the contrast: in many American hero stories, the hero arises first, and then a threat emerges as an implicit or explicit response to the presence of the hero. This structure is used largely for the nice narrative rhythm it creates (small conflicts are resolved by the pseudo-climax of the hero's rise, and then a true threat creates a greater conflict with a greater climax). Villains are supernatural or otherwise powerful, but are often represented as being poor derivatives or corrupt versions of the hero(es). Some examples that come to mind:

Spiderman - A guy is bitten by a radioactive (movie version: genetically modified) spider and gains spider-related powers. He starts cleaning up crime in his city until unnaturally powerful super-villains start emerging to threaten his crime-fighting work. In one comic, I believe written by JMS, attention is specifically drawn to the fact that so many of his opponents have also had a totemic relationship with an animal (such as Doctor Octopus, Lizard Man, etc.), but suggests they are all poor imitations.

Iron Man - In the movie version, Tony Stark creates a basic armor suit early on, and later creates a much more advanced model capable of flight. A villain gets their hands on the original suit's design and manages to create their own, evil version of it. They fight.

X-Men - As part of the natural evolution of humanity, some people are born with super powers (hey, evolution, stop slacking off and give us super powers already!). A backlash based on the fear of mundane humans causes some of the mutants to become bitter and cynical, and follow Magneto in aggressively and violently overthrowing the non-mutant controlled system.

The Power Puff Girls - Sugar, spice, everything nice, and Chemical X create super-powered kindergarteners. Otherwise mediocre villains become highly annoyed and start accumulating power in order to thwart the super-powered kids. Their ultimate rival, Mojo-Jojo, was also created by Chemical X. As a super-hero parody, this show reflects the creator's perceptions of super-hero stereotypes.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Four turtles and a rat living in the sewers encounter a chemical called "the ooze" and become pizza-eating ninjas that fight crime. Eventually Shredder, a discontent student of the rat's former master, has been finding street kids and training them to become his ninja army of the foot! (also a super-hero parody, as well as a martial-arts parody)

Harry Potter - A young boy discovers that he is a wizard, and spends half a book delighting in the joys of magic and broom-riding. He slowly comes to discover, however, that there is a lurking threat from the Dark Lord Voldemort, who repeatedly tries to use his mysterious connection to Harry to return to life (this one's British, not American, but who cares).

Ghostbusters - A group of paranormal investigating pseudo-scientists develop techniques that somehow actually work and allow them to capture ghosts. They start acquiring fame and fortune, but an alarming increase in the amount of paranormal activity in the area suggests the emergence of a powerful new ghostly threat.

There are obviously counter-examples, as well, but I'm not trying to demonstrate a law, just a trend. It seems much more likely to be the case in an American/western hero story for the heroes to be a boon to civilization, and for the evil forces they fight to have "eliminate the heroes" as a principal goal. In Japanese stories it's more common for the threat to exist and for the heroes to arise in an effort to return things to a state of normalcy.

Other trends in the Japanese stories include an increased likelihood that the hero is a subset of the threatening group, and an increased likelihood that the hero will retire or give up their power at the end of the story. The Japanese hero is more likely to be operating in secret (I don't mean with a hidden identity, I mean without normal people even being aware that a hero exists). Finally, the Japanese hero is more likely than the American hero to NOT be the protagonist of the story. If the protagonist is a hero in the Japanese story, they are often surrounded by much more supernatural/powerful allies. I'm not going to give a lot of examples for all the claims here, because this post is already way too long, but this last point is pretty prevalent, and I'll give a few examples of it in list form:

Tenchi Muyo - One normal guy surrounded by a half-dozen extraordinary alien women...who all want him.

Fushigi Yugi - One normal girl surrounded by a half-dozen extraordinary men from mythical China...who all want her.

Escaflowne - Hitomi is an average high school girl who can read tarot cards. Her two love interests both pilot giant semi-magical armored suits, one of which turns into a dragon.

Chrono Trigger - Chrono is so uninteresting that he literally never speaks. His allies include a spunky princess, a frog-knight, and a robot from the future.

Final Fantasy V, VII, IX, X, XII - Butz, Cloud, Tidus, etc. are fairly mundane guys with swords who have much more interesting people team up with them, including a cross-dressed pirate, a talking flame-tailed tiger, and a bunny-girl in a thong. (FFVI is notable for having the protagonist being the strange and powerful character, not to mention being female, and FFVIII is notable for having no interesting characters at all).

Metal Gears Solid IV - Seriously, why is Raiden like 800 times cooler than Snake?

Half the examples I gave before - In the following examples from the beginning, the story, at least at the very beginning, is focused on a mundane person who observes the hero, rather than on the hero directly: Shikabane Hime, Vampire Princess Miyu (in the OVA, at least), Trigun, Rurouni Kenshin (in the series). In Evangelion Shinji seems weaker than everyone else, but ultimately that's just because we see his vulnerabilities up front, while every other character takes a while to reveal their weakness.

Again, there are plenty of counter-examples, too, but there's a strong tendency in Japanese stories to have an everyman stand in and observe interesting and unusual heroes who, in the case of video games, have predetermined personalities you don't have much control over. In the American/Western game, this is highly unusual - the fan is obviously intended to fantasize about BEING the hero who's interestnig and unusual. In video games the American game tends to give the player more control not only over themselves, but over NPCs, as well, and how they evolve (at least in the case of RPGs).

I'm not going to jump to any conclusions about what this means about the respective cultures, since I'm already over-generalizing just in identifying these trends, but they're interesting trends to notice either way.

-Silent Ellipsis