Double Agent
Today's menu - February 12, 2002 - Erin Mehlos

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this column are those of the participants and the moderator, and do not necessarily reflect those of the GIA. There is coarse language and potentially offensive material afoot. Cereal's for wusses. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Anselm sucks.

And, on an unrelated note, my own personal menu is now limited to anything made through the wonder that is crisping sleeves.

Let's go.

The curly Goth look

Agent Erin,

Give me text. If I want to do a slash attack, let me pick an option that says 'slash' from a menu, not pick between various similar pictures of swords. And while we're at it, make the text big enough to read, in a plain legible font rather than a curly Gothic thing, and in a colour that shows up against the background.

Give me silence when I want it. Let me scroll through my items without a 'bleep' sound every time I press the D-pad. If you must have voice actors, let me turn them off. If you give an hours-long dungeon one looping theme, let me mute it and put on a CD instead.

Give me speed. Let me summon monsters without having to take a break for lunch. Let me save and load games quickly. Let me scroll through conversations at my reading speed, not your letter-by-letter printing speed. Let me access a menu without a long pause to load the background graphics. Let me move across the map at a decent rate.

Give me, in short, a game geared towards the needs of the player, not what the designers think will look cool. Fancy touches are all well and good in their place, but not when they compromise functionality.

Greg A. Lamb

Your mention of "curly Gothic" text immediately evokes Alundra and Wild Arms. In both cases, semantic word games are difficult enough without having to make a charcoal rubbing of each new bit of dialogue to compare with your notes.

Although, I suppose, this is one of those regions in which it's difficult to appease everyone: I've known people who had no problem with WA's type that could hardly make out certain letters of FFVIII's straightforward (I thought) sans-serif.

The bleeps of a reproving God


The bleeps running like a typewriter in games like Dragon Quest are totally not functional. It irritates and doesn't simulates talking (or whatever they are trying to achieve) at all. Well, maybe I'm just missing the point. They should just put a option to turn it on or off.

What I want to find in every game, so also RPG's, is the option to change the buttons. I can't stand having different controls for every game (especially RPG's). For those of you who haven't notices yet, here's are the differences (if we're talking PSX):

USA - Confirm: X, Cancel: O, Menu: Triangle
Japan - Confirm: O, Cancel: X, Menu: Triangle
European - Confirm: X, Cancel: Triangle, Menu: Square

Why this different? And even then it's still different in games, Dragon Quest VII had X as menu, Square as Cancel and Triangle as use, Breath of Fire IV (if I recall correctly), Square as menu, instead of Triangle. And in games you can change controls (Wild Arms, Saga Frontier 2), the controls were changed everywhere, but in battle. And as I'm used to the SNES-style (US FFVII had this, but the later ones changed), which is the Japanese style, and had the setting that way, in battle the confirm became cancel and reversed.

Sometimes it's also nice to have the camera rotated 1 degree at every push, instead of 90 or 45. I don't think that's too hard to program. I don't know how many times it bothered my because I the angle showed too little (or nothing at all).

Oh yeah, another thing to complain about is the sensitivity of the analog controls, especially in the PS2-games. Gran Turismo 3 was more playable with the digital pad, instead of the analog.


Douggie (who probably wasted his time again)

Enix's time-honored typewriter bleeps are supposed to denote the vocal pitch of the speaker, I should think -- the women and children of DQVII, by way of an example, tend toward higher, soprano blips, while the tenors have a slightly deeper bleep and the the baritones a more resounding bloop.

I became so used to it getting killed by those bastard miniature soldiers in Soul Blazer and reawakening to the bleeps of my reproving God I kind of ceased to notice.

Omnipresent beep

I'm really glad you asked.

I think Final Fantasy has always had some of the best UI in RPGs. In fact, I was surprised by FFX, who had not only a useful UI, it looked very nice when compared to its 16 and 32 bit counterparts.

But (and thre is always a but) there is something that prevented this experience from being perfect, and it was that annoying 'beep' every time you move the cursor. I am a big fan of nostalgia, but after 10 games that annoying 8-bit 'beep' is really starting to get into my nerves, you know?

Carlos Rodriguez

I also liked the looks of FFX's menus, but at the same time they inspired the gnawing feeling that I was not playing an FF, but rather, navigating a professional website pertaining to an FF -- a professional website with an affinity for Dreamweaver and colored tables. Hell, the game's start menu even has an ad banner.

Regarding the omnipresent cursor beep, I can't say I feel the same hostility everyone else seems to. On the contrary, I think it's a nice feedback device that goes a long way toward telling the player what's going on with the menus, particularly when, as we often do playing games like FF, our familiarity with the interface has us ripping through menus faster than we can actually read. One beep helps us subconsciously count cursor movements, another when we've de-equipped something, another when we've exited a sub-menu, another when we're trying to do something we aren't supposed to, still another when the sausages are done.

The master plan


First off, I love this topic. It's a bit unique and actually has to do with games.

Now, I think I'll just describe my ideal menu to you, to make things simple. My menu would appear and disappear with no load times, and would not take over the entire screen. It would certainly not be icon-based, (see: CT, BOF, etc). The whole thing would be slimmed down to show only the necessary information for the current menu, and the front page would not display character and game info--these would be in their appropriate submenus. There should actually be multiple primary menu screens: one should display a list of characters, and when a character is selected, you move on to a menu where you can choose to look at their status, equipment, skills, or whatnot; maybe a button could be assigned for use in this front menu for quickly switching people in and out of your party; the second menu, (perhaps a simple button press on the d-pad could switch between them), would give the options to display items, game info, any journal or tutorial systems, settings, and the save/load screens. If it suits the game, a third main menu could exist, for summon creatures, important field abilities/items, or for commands such as calling your vehicle, camping, and (hopefully) a command for automatically zipping you out of town once you're done with your shopping and NPC-terrorizing. As for sound effects, I suppose we could install an option for turning them on/off if the beta testers think it's necessary. Oh, and the wallpaper has to be simple, and not, I repeat, NOT, colorful. Who the heck wants Fat Chocobo's bright yellow face as a menu wallpaper? Ick. Although, I'll admit, some subtle line drawings, (in other words: watermarks), made to fit each menu would be a nice touch.

~Live and Let Live

Sounds good to me.

X for exit

Ooh, nice topic! And I will be supremely surprised if anyone else got that Last Unicorn reference yesterday... quite possibly the most underrated fantasy novel I've ever read, but I digress. Then again, that makes me normal.

Xenogear's UI was one of the biggest things that turned me off from it (er, besides the lack of text speed-up and the fact that 90% of its gameplay was in the first disc and 90% of its story was in the second disc). Not only was it uncommonly slow, switching between screens was annoying, most of the screens managed to confuse you so you had no clue what you were looking at, and there was no customization at all.

The Tales of Phantasia/Star Ocean menu system is actually a great runner-up to the Final Fantasy menus (FF9, IMO, had one of the best menu systems out there - very easy to use and to switch through screens, and you could find what you want fast. Plus online help - how much better can it get? By that line, FF Tactics was pretty damn good as well. Whoops, I'm digressing again). Star Ocean 2 had quite possibly THE most complicated menu system of any "normal" RPG I've played, but their menu screen made getting through the myriad skills, specialties, moves, and over 1000 items a cinch. (Well, a "manual rearrange" would have been nice, but you can't win 'em all).

Hmmm, anything else? A good menu system will take advantage of all those little buttons littered over every new system's controller. SO2 did a great job of that. Pressing Triangle to switch characters, L and R to scroll through items, Square to see more info, etc... them's the way to go! Easy and fast. And definitely have a "customize" option, preferably with ways to speed up text, change buttons, and allow a "cursor remember" option!

Oh, and being easy on the eyes is another must. Some of those menu options for FF6 were just plain old WHACKED. O_o

--Cidolfas, hit X to exit

Backgrounds that nullify the readable aspects of text tend to defeat their purpose, yeah -- and the Fat Chocobo, I thought, fit that particular bill pretty well. But they'll always be two sides to the coin, proving that, as always, you can't please everyone....

My locker is full

Back in the day, it was Final Fantasy VI's menu system that kicked my ass. The little squeak accompanying cursor movement was the perfect, unobtrusive RPG menu sound: that squeaking sound is the sound I still expect a finger-shaped cursor to make. When I first played Final Fantasy Anthology, it took me several hours to get over the slightly tweaked cursor sound.

The selectable backgrounds -- even the wacky chocobo one -- were wonderful. The ability to change colors was welcome. Let's set our backgrounds to the slate-colored one with the ornate frame. Now, change the color to a deep, imperial purple. For effect, make it fade into a nearly black purple. Make the frame as gold as you can. There. Now you're playing with my personal frame. I'd give exact numbers if I was enough of a geek to remember such things. (Then again, my Super Famicom is sitting right here)

Options such as "optimum" equip were glorious, as was the materia interface in FFVII.

Back when I was still playing FFVI (1994, not two months ago), Earthbound came out. I bought the game and loved it like a brother. The menu system, while greatly limiting the amount of items each character can carry, really stood out for me. I rather liked the approach. I rather liked the challenge. I rather liked when my sister told me, "My locker is full." I rather liked ordering pizza.

The ringing "tweet" sound that accompanied confirmation, however, I did not like. Nor did I like the "wood-knock" sound that signified canceling. The sounds were too long, too bulky. Dragon Warrior handles this style of menu system with more speed and grace. Though many have complained about overall button presses and menus to navigate, witness how efficiently navigable are those many plain menus of DWVII.

I loved FFIX's inclusion of the "classic" background. It was a step both up and back from FFVIII, which offered no choice of background color at all. The "textured" look of the blue background seemed, if nothing else, exactly how a next-generation old-school Final Fantasy should look.

And now, with Final Fantasy X, which I just finished yesterday, we see a further limiting of options. Then again, why should we have the choice to color our text boxes, if there are no text boxes? All the same, I love FFX's approach. I don't even mind the fact that the cursor has been changed, for the first time, from a finger to an arrow. It makes the same sound. That's all that matters.

The Sphere Board is gorgeous and functional. The fading colors on each hero's menu nameplate, however, are neither gorgeous nor functional. They just look tacky.

Now, on personalization.

As FF becomes more movie-like, we're seeing less opportunities to personalize the FF experience. Remember in FFVI? You could name each character? There was no real "hero." You named the person you liked the most after yourself, and considered that person the "hero." You included all your friends, who you sometimes showed your quest and tried to convince them: "This game is really cool. It's, like, a really big book." You had a menu setting that was yours. You developed a control setting that was "better." You even made a friend who'd heard of the game, and you and that friend started a quest together. You played the game with the elusive "multiple controller" method. Did you argue about the window color? Did you argue about the control setting?

Someone at Square had something against the control setting. Since FFIV, the "confirm" button has been in the "A" button location -- the "O" button on the PlayStation controller -- and the "cancel" button has been "B" -- "X" on PlayStation. Yet, strangely, in the American version of FFVIII, this changed. Suddenly, "X" is the confirm button, and "O" is the cancel button. This change remains in FFIX and FFX.

Now, in the Japanese versions of FFIX and FFX, I know as a fact that "O" remains the "confirm" button. So what the hell happened? Why switch it to "X" for Americans?

I actually know the answer, believe it or not. Not like I'm going to tell you people. I've run out of time, and I've got stuff to do. Yeah.

Meanwhile, reunited with my Dreamcast at last, I resume my quest of Grandia II. The little "slipping on a banana peel" whoosh sound that accompanies canceling out of a menu nearly makes my ears bleed. The battle system is damned fun, though, so I forgive. I even forgive the as-of-ten-hours boring story, because a friend says, "It gets better, dude, seriously."

Yeah, we'll see about that.

--tim rogers, who suggested this topic to Chris last year

On the matter of DWVII's menus being so faultlessly negotiable ... we'll just have to agree to disagree. I found there to be a needless number of sub-menus in some areas, far too few in others, and the whole thing rather counter-intuitive. I believe Earthbound to be the more successful specimen of the breed, but of course this is all largely another messy matter of opinion.

The "slightly tweaked" cursor sound of FFVI's Anthology edition was actually what I had in mind yesterday when I referred to sounds capable of making your ears bleed, and somehow I think I'm hardly alone in that....


Erin -

Menus? Well, I really don't care how the menu looks (pictures, text, etc). With all the "standard elements" the RPG genre is burdened with, playing with the overall appearance just seems like a pointless cosmetic thing. I'm open to everything, as long as it's not too counterintuitive or anything.

But thinking harder, there are a few things that get to me, mostly related to user-unfriendliness. The first is endless sub-menus. I hope I speak for the gaming community when I say that we don't want to spend our lives scrolling through different categories trying to figure out whether the "Crossblade" we just picked up is a sword, a knife, a blacksmith's tool, etc. And on the other extreme, programmers who stick everything into one big menu and then are too lazy to give the option to sort the stuff should be punished.

To take a break from the complaining, let me wholeheartedly commend the Tales Of Phantasia main menu system that allows the player to auto-sort items alphabetically, by type (healing stuff first, armor first, etc.), or newest-first, all with a minimal amount of button-pressing. Too bad the side menus didn't use anything that nice (okay, I guess I'm still complaining). [I'm hoping that Namco kept their heads in the right place for the other "Tales Of..." games, since they're my next 'project.']

Funny that you should mention beeping sounds. They actually are quite annoying now that I think of it, but I'm quite used to them, and I don't oppose their existance in general. But in some games, the volume of the beeps is turned up louder than the volume of the music. Thus, if you raise the volume enough to bring the music to "moderately loud," the beeping sounds reach the level of "excruciating." And that, my Agent friend, is a travesty.

Oh, about yesterday's column - lame attempts at oneupsmanship (is that a word?) aren't really so unique to the video game industry. A lot of generic movies try to top the movies that "inspired" them ("funnier than 'Ghandi!' Smarter than 'Dumb And Dumber!'") I remember a commerical a few years ago for some generic monster horror movie - "It doesn't _care_ if you scream... it doesn't _care_ what you did last summer!" And readers of those 800-page-per-volume commerical fantasy books surely have heard Jordan, Goodkind, Martin, etc. described as "killers" of each other.

-Toma Levine

Maybe it was the particular stereo system through which I patched my PSX in playing FFVI, but that sound rose above all the rest, crackling across the speakers with piercing intensity and generally making it impossible for me to crank the volume and revel like the perennial geek I am in the much-touted FFVI score. It was just that bad.

Typing of the dead

Agent -

What with the ability of the PS2 to use PC peripherals through its USB ports, I'd like to see someone make a game with a command line UI. The sheer flexibility and speed of the command prompt beats the pants off most any graphical interface. In the time it takes to scroll through the menu options on the first page of any given FF menu, a reasonably fast typist could have unequipped and re-equipped every one of their characters with a command prompt.

Face it, the command line interface is true menu-surfing power. And it builds muscles, too. Don't believe me? You should see the sixty pound Unix manual I'm sitting on.

The only other option I could really feel comfortable with is a trippy white rabbit. I've always wanted to work with a trippy white rabbit.

- An'Desha - Pulling command lines out of hats since 1989.

I don't know, man. I've played my share of of text adventures and gone MUDdin' many a time, but I don't know if I want wholly command line-based menu systems. It could make for a lot of confusion when, say, you don't remember the exact spelling of the item you just received in battle and want to check up on it and see what it is. Moreover, while you might type at 80 WPM and I at 75, chances are not every console gamer out there is has logged enough time out in DOS or DALnet to keep up.

Although ... some kind of text parser working in concert with a more conventional GUI... now that has potential. Typing "gi*" would instantly bring up any items beginning with the letters gi in your inventory, typing "heal" could, perhaps, list all curative items currently in your possession, and so on and so forth.

Lord of the rings

Yo to the beautiful and caring Erin whose delightful text graces my screen!

Personally, I prefer the graphically based menus over the novellas that are presented in the later FFs. The text worked fine in everything before VII, but once it hit VII, it just got too big. I mean, look at that box in VII when you get everything loaded as materia. Even worse is X, where, god forbid that you get a multitude of skills, where you scroll down one menu, then a huger one, and finally to the chance of doing what you want. Keep it simple, is the best way, I think to handle it. Personally, Secret of Mana had the best UI that I could find. It was simple, quick, handy, and effective. Not just that, you could manage everything anytime. It wasn't just a UI, it was THE UI! Close second is Lufia II's streamlined UI. Just as simple, and more effective for a traditional RPG.

As well, customizable UIs are easier on the eyes. A different color, or interchangable graphics (the person who thought of putting that in WA should be praised forever) are great, as well as options for music volume, effect volume are just as great. Nothing's worse that having a grating background with hideous beeps perpetually playing... unless there is no way to scroll down your inventory than more than one line! Developers who do not include a quick-scroll option for the L1/R1, or L2/R2, or whatever buttons, should be shot.

A final note for the UI developers: STOP MAKING TINY INVENTORIES THAT YOU HAVE TO CLEAN OUT PERPETUALLY! I don't knowe about everyone, but it seems that most gamers I know hate to sell everything at the next town because of the crap they got in random battles. There is no reason for tiny inventories anymore, so don't cry 'disc space'.

-Sir Blaze, who thinks that the people who make the horridly useless interfaces are the same people who suggest Hoshigami to a person for his first Strategy RPG...

Secret of Mana's ring menus were a bit of a two-edged sword. On one hand, they were quick, responsive and generally easy to understand. On the other, one could flip through them in the wrong direction, making finding anything take four times longer, and it was always easy to bring up the wrong person's menu and accidentally shut them altogether in your attempt to switch to who you wanted, allowing a boss to whack your ass in the half a second before you got into what you wanted.

Stick that in your pipe (whatever it may look like) and smoke it

Mehlos, the Freshmaker:

It still amazes me how much a game's presentation and overall enjoyability can be enhanced by a little attention to detail, a great menu system and great menu content. Two games are particularly outstanding in this regard - Final Fantasy Tactics and Shadow Hearts.

FFT had immensely deep menus to match its immensely deep gameplay. Not only was the presentation style and color scheme pleasing, the treasure item content couldn't be beat. Sure, the translation of some of the background info for these treasure items wasn't so hot, but at least they spent the time developing that extra art/content.

Shadow Hearts, a GROSSLY underrated and, unfortunately, overshadowed gem, features the same concept in spades. S. Hearts features not only a well designed menu system, (from both utilitarian and asthetic perspectives) but Sacnoth went ahead and fully designed every, single item in the game and gave each item its own back story. Even further, every monster and NPS from the game can be viewed and manipulated, in real time 3D - and each halso has its own background info text.

Tell FFX to put that in its pipe and smoke it.

The obvious point here is that Square should repeat their own and Sacnoth's efforts and do this on every RPG it releases. Imagine how much better FFX would be if there were just a few more menu choices showcasing at least some of the items from the damn game (I thought they'd do this in FFX Int'l with the Celestial Weapons and maybe the Aeons, as they did in FFVII Int'l.). If more companies went the extra mile like FFT and SH, we'd have better RPG content and less of a reason to bitch about paying the $50 and change for every new title that comes down the pike.

DLemasa, who wants to see what a Saturn Sigil, a Doorway to Tomorrow and a Gambler's Spirit looks like.

Well, that's me out of stuff to say. Try again tomorrow -- we should be getting more in.

Closing Comments:

Well, nothing warms my heart like seeing you people at each other's throats over the implications of some hugely significant debate, so for tomorrow let's revisit a DA classic long dormant:

Religion in gaming.

FFX and DWVII are but the latest in a long line of games taking on religious institutions at times not wholly un-reminiscent of the Western church. Are the parallels intentional? What does it say about the inherent differences between Japanese and American/European culture pervading the medium? How does this make you feel?

- Erin Mehlos

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