Posted on May 25, 2018
Star Ocean is one of the more revered SFC RPGs, not only for it’s graphical achievements and being yet another Japanese exclusive, but also for the fact that it was released an entire year and a half after the Japanese PlayStation had already been released!
Star Ocean was hailed as a showcase of the absolute limits that the Super Famicom could be pushed to. With graphics that rivaled early PS1 RPGs and some prototype voice acting included, Star Ocean helped the SFC go out with a final big bang!
Score – 32/40
Story – 6.5/10
Gameplay – 8/10
Graphics – 10/10
Music – 7.5/10
Style: Japanese Role-playing Game (Real-time)
Platform: Super Famicom
Release Date: JP: July 19, 1996
Developer: tri-Ace (or try-ace if you believe the box instead!)
Length: 15-30 Hours
Table of Contents
Star Ocean SFC/SNES Review
I think it’ll be best if I come right out and say it. I think Star Ocean was basically the “Crysis” of the SFC (if you aren’t familiar with Crysis, it was basically 90% visual tech demo, 10% game). While it’s not quite as severe as Crysis was, I personally feel that Star Ocean front-loads it’s graphical capabilities and sound/voice acting, while not delivering quite as much as I feel it could have in other areas.
For all that Star Ocean exhibits in visuals and audio, it lacks in story and other gameplay elements. Does this hurt the game so much that it ruins its reputation as one of the gems we all missed out on? Let’s take a look and see!
Why not also take a look at my (somewhat harsh) overview of the Star Ocean Official Guide Book / スターオーシャン公式ガイドブック!
The story begins with 3 characters Ratix, Milly, and Dorn defending their village from a bandit attack. After repelling the bandits, the party hears about the residents of a nearby village suddenly turning into stone. The main premise of Star Ocean’s story is that a disease breaks out that starts turning people into stone, which eventually turns one of the party members into stone as well. The remaining party members set out to find a cure for the disease, and later encounter some new party members who arrive from the future, who tell the original party about time travel and that this planet is still quite underdeveloped compared to other planets.
After this, the story basically comes to a screeching halt. There are side stories and personal character background development that can be told by doing what are called “Private Actions”. Private Actions are basically what they sound like. They involve spending some 1 on 1 time with party members in each new town that you arrive in.
While this has very little effect on gameplay (the only effect i’ve seen is that some characters seem to combo and help out Ratix a bit more often when they have higher affection ratings), it does flesh out the characters a bit more, which is almost necessary considering you don’t really learn much about the characters throughout the main story.
Around the last 15% or so of the game, the story comes roaring back from the middle of nowhere and progresses at a pretty fast pace. Suddenly, in order to make the cure you need to go back in time by accessing a portal to the Demon World (that escalated fast) and kill the original source of the disease, the Demon King Asmodeus. The party goes around and talks to every king on the planet to gather the resources in order to open the portal to the Demon World. Upon doing so, they enter and kill Asmodeus. While this allows the party to cure the disease, this doesn’t mean the end of their struggle just quite yet…
I’ll preface this section by saying Star Ocean has a pretty big cast of characters. I don’t know the exact amount, but it’s around 15 characters I believe. The thing is, I don’t think it’s possible to get every character in one playthrough. It seems that choosing one character leads to you not being able to recruit another character, or not recruiting a certain character at a certain time makes it impossible to recruit them later. So with this in mind, i’ll only introduce the characters that are talked about in the instruction manual (probably means these are core characters that will be recruited for sure).
ラティクス・ファーレンス、Ratikusu Faarensu、Ratix (nope, not Roddick) Farrence – Ratix is the main character in Star Ocean. Ratix is a young swordsman who begins as an adventurer who helps defend his village from attack. Ratix is what’s known as a “Felpool”, which is basically a human with a tail (think Goku without the super saiyan).
ミリー・キリート、Mirii Kiriito、Milly Killet (official is Killet, katakana says Kileet though..) – Milly is a friend of Ratix. She studies magic (but supposedly plays hooky a lot, according to the description in the manual), and focuses on healing magic. Milly is also a Felpool.
ドーン・マルトー、Doon Marutoo、Dorn Martor – A friend of Ratix and Milly, who is also in the village defense force. The manual says Dorn is a pretty cheerful guy who is liked by his friends, but you don’t really see that in-game (well, you don’t really see Dorn that much in-game, for that matter…). Dorn is a Felpool, too.
ロニキス・J・ケニー、Ronikisu J Kenii、Ronixis J Kenny – Ronixis is a human Federation leader that arrives from the future. Usually takes the lead during diplomatic issues in the game. First non-Felpool character.
シウス・ウォーレン、Shius Uooren、Cius (official, katakana is Shius) Warren – Cius is a young man who’s a descendant of a famous warrior who defeated many demons during a past war. Cius is a bit of a hot-headed, strong-mouthed aggressive type who yearns to become a strong warrior himself. Cius is a “Highlander”, which I don’t think was explained in much detail, but I guess a decent description would be the “tall, strong, maybe barbaric” type. A subset of human, I believe.
イリア・シルベストリ、Iria Shirubesutori、Iria Sylvestri – A part of Ronixis’ ship crew, Iria also arrives from the future. Iria uses martial arts related abilities during battle, but is actually a researcher by trade. Iria is another human.
ヨシュア・ジェランド、Yoshua Jerando、Yoshua Jerland – Yoshua is what’s know as a “Featherfolk”, which are basically an angelic-type people with wings. Yoshua is a mage who is searching for his sister that was kidnapped during an attack that killed the rest of his family.
The manual only mentions these characters, so I guess that might mean the rest of the characters are optional, or at least don’t particularly impact the story very much? The other characters do interact with the party and whatnot, but I guess they either didn’t want to print extra pages in the manual, or perhaps keep the characters a bit of a secret?
Now, let’s dive right into Star Ocean’s main strength. The graphics in Star Ocean are pretty much the best you’ll see on the SFC/SNES. The graphics are so varied and full of animation/detail that the cartridge itself had to have a special graphics compression chip embedded into it.
Right from the beginning of the game, you’re hit by a cutscene with a faux-3d battleship flying through space. Soon after that, you’re throw into a town with a stream that reflects everything around it, including character and npc reflections. Trees blow in the wind, birds fly across the screen, the world is full of life right from the beginning. As if this isn’t enough, the game runs at a solid 60 fps while running around the overworld! How they got a game that looks this good to run that smooth, I have no idea…
As you continue through the game, you’ll almost never run into re-used map assets (excluding towns, towns pretty much recycle the same sprites throughout the whole game except for a few select cases). There are a variety of monsters in the game, with some being recolored versions of older monsters, but there’s enough variety that you won’t notice the re-used monsters too much. Speaking of monsters, combat is where most of the graphical problems actually pop up.
The first thing you’ll notice is that the game is much choppier during combat. Physical attacks are fast, but their actual animations are quite slow, so your damage and attack animations make the game feel out of sync. This might be due to the fact that you’ll have 4 party members running around doing their own attacks in real-time, as well as 1-5 enemies also doing the same. While I guess this can’t be helped, it’s quite a jarring change when you’re running around the map at lightning speed and then an encounter happens and the game grinds almost to a halt in comparison. While melee attacks aren’t very pleasing, magic spells don’t suffer from the slow performance problem.
Spells cause all characters to stop moving while the animation plays, so pretty much all spells play out at a nice 60 fps. Magic isn’t quite safe from graphical issues though…magic causes an actual annoying bug, especially later on as spells and character skills get flashier. Considering there’s already a good amount of detail and stuff in the background during fights, as well as a lot of different sprites running around and doing their own skills, sometimes when AoE skills or magic is used, characters and enemies will become invisible for a few seconds, even after the spells have ended. This is probably a layering issue, as I assume with all the stuff going on to specific sprites, there’s probably 4 or 5 layers of shit overlapping all at once which probably forces the RAM to either give out or be reallocated.
This isn’t bad during early game, but late game a lot of monsters get the ability to do persistant self-radius AoE stuff that can screw you over quite a bit. One mechanic that really screwed me over was a monster that is 2-3x bigger than your characters that bugs out and goes invisible while activating his AoE petrify, which essentially kills anyone in its vicinity. While this will probably be related to a complaint or two i’ll talk about in the gameplay section, overall it’s a graphical bug that actually affects gameplay, so it’s something I can’t overlook…
Bugs aside, Star Ocean’s graphics are pretty much the reason why it’s so well known among people who have yet to play the game. The graphics are definitely the game’s strongest point, and it’s almost hard to believe that this game is running on the same console as Romancing SaGa or Final Fantasy IV. Anyone looking to find out just how far the SFC/SNES could go in terms of graphics will probably not have to look much further than Star Ocean.
For the most part, Star Ocean plays like your standard SFC/SNES era RPG. You move from town to town progressing the storyline while occasionally delving into some dungeons along the way. The majority of Star Ocean’s gameplay isn’t really anything new, but there are a few areas that could be considered groundbreaking for their time. First would be the “Private Actions”.
Now i’ll be quite honest here, I never really used these much. The story does such a poor job of introducing characters and developing them to enough of a point that I would actually care enough to go out of my way to do optional events to learn more about them. Since Private Actions didn’t seem to enhance the actual main story itself, I didn’t see much reason to continue doing them after the first few times.
Private Actions do seem to have an influence on gameplay. It seemed to me that the only character I actually spent anytime with (Cius) actually helped Ratix out a bit more during battle sometimes, but that could have just been coincidental. Another influence, I don’t know if it’s actually even true or not so i’m just guessing, but I have a feeling that Private Actions might be required to recruit certain characters.
The next important gameplay element is combat. The battle system itself I think kinda sucks. It’s literally 95% spamming the A button as fast as you can to auto attack things to death. The other 4% is spamming L or R to use special attacks, and the last 1% is spamming Liquor Bottles to cure that stupid fuckin’ petrify in the last dungeon of the game. Instead of the battle system, I like how battles take place on a sort of 3d field. In all actuality the battles are still done horizontally and vertically, but the way the combat looks, it feels fully 3d. I’ve yet to come across another RPG on the SFC/SNES that has this kind of 3d feeling to it.
Another element I like is the amount of skills and abilities your characters can learn. Star Ocean has an absolute TON of skills that you can level up by spending AP that you gain upon leveling up. There’s just a stupid amount of things in the skill tree, such as separate skills to increase stats such as STR and AGI by %s, skills to learn how to cook, how to smith weapons, how to customize weapons, how to play instruments, as well as write songs. The amount of customization early on is incredible, and this amount of different AND useful skills is unseen in any rivaling SFC/SNES JRPG.
By the end of the game, you can basically max every skill for every character, but some characters have innate traits that help them excel in certain fields. An example is a character that has the two music-related traits, which increases the character’s ability to control rhythm and pitch. Having a character with these two traits and maxed music skills will allow the character to summon the most powerful monster in the game for massive EXP farming. Maxing music skills on a character without these two traits however, will not allow you to summon the same monster when playing the summoning song. So while everyone can max everything, it’s still common to have one character as your smith, one as your musician, one as your cook, things like that.
One sort of minus in regards to gameplay, for me at least, was how characters just kind of stealth-join your party. Even reading the important dialog during the story-driven parts of the game, the game never announces when you get new party members. I suddenly decided to try to switch out one party member for an old party member, only to see that I had 5 fuckin’ new members that I never even knew joined my party.
I didn’t do anything particularly special to recruit them, or at least I don’t think I did…so I guess that means that they probably aren’t optional, just probably don’t directly impact the events in the game. To be fair, the game is only about 15-20 hours in length, so I guess maybe there isn’t much time for introductions?
Overall, the gameplay is mostly stuff you’ve probably seen before, except for the combat setting and skill customization. To get the most out of the game, definitely make sure not to skip out on crafting skills, as you’ll have to craft all of the best equipment in the game.
Star Ocean’s soundtrack sits in kind of a weird spot for me. There’s nothing bad about the soundtrack at all, but to the opposite effect, I didn’t really feel that the soundtrack had anything amazing in it. Usually i’m a sucker for MIDI music, and even if a soundtrack isn’t too great, i’ll still find a song or two that gets stuck in my head. Star Ocean just didn’t seem to have anything that particularly stood out among the rest.
The soundtrack doesn’t have a single bad track (except for the regular boss theme I guess, not sure what that was about…), but it also doesn’t have that song. Which is a damn shame, as the game actually includes an Audio Player right on the main menu, where you can listen to the OST at will. While there isn’t any particular track that I feel that I just have to share, there are some that I think are worth checking out.
First up is the main menu theme, which is a surprise. I think this is the first time i’ve recommended a main menu theme (whenever I decided to throw up a Chrono Trigger review i’ll definitely recommend the main theme for that too), so that’s that I guess!
Next up is a town theme that you’ll hear quite a bit throughout the game. I think the song fits the feel of most of the towns, and the speed of your characters walking around also fits the tempo!
Last is just a calm piece that’s used often while the party is talking amongst themselves.
OST aside, the game is filled with various sound effects for all of the different skills and magic. Characters are also voiced during battles, letting characters taunt enemies and call out the names of their skills/battle cries. If you pick Marvel and set all of her skill slots to “Hail Orb” (you will), you’ll hear her repeating the same line 5 or 10 times every few seconds which sucks, but from a technical standpoint, it’s still pretty cool having separate voiced clips for each ability back on the SFC/SNES! Hell, voice acting didn’t even become a mainstream thing in games until about 5 years later on the PS2! As far as Final Fantasy games go, it didn’t happen until FFX!
Should you play it?
Up until now I probably accidentally made it seem like I thought Star Ocean is a shitty game, but I don’t think it is. I think that maybe my expectations were a bit too high. I never really read up on the game before playing it so I didn’t go in expecting anything in particular, but I did know of the game’s reputation. Not only that, the game throws all of it’s punches right in the beginning, which will probably set up most players to think that the game is going to be consistent all the way through.
I think this is my biggest thing about Star Ocean, it doesn’t have consistency. It flies out of the gates with the cool simulated 3d space ship and voice acted cutscene, but the game never uses 3d graphics or voice acting during cutscenes again after that. The story comes on strong in the beginning, but after about 2 hours in the story grinds to an absolute halt until the last 15% of the game. If the middle 80% of the game was even half as good as the first and last 10% of the game, Star Ocean would probably be in my top 5 SFC RPGs.
Overall, Star Ocean is definitely worth playing. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the game, save a few inconvenient bugs. Just seeing how ambitious of a game it was, I would have loved to see the game given a bit more time to really let all of its systems shine. Story and music aside, the game was ground-breaking for its time, introducing a ridiculous amount of skills, crafting, and beautiful sprites to look at. If you love customizing your characters and being able to complete bonus dungeons/content after beating the game, you won’t be disappointed with Star Ocean!
Which version should you play?
Gonna have to recommend the original, which is only the Japanese SFC version. Reading around about the game, a lot of people who emulated the game were complaining about tons of bugs that don’t seem to be in the original cartridge. There was a remake for I believe…the psp? I haven’t played it, but it seems to add some new stuff/characters, and (maybe) change the story a bit or fill/make plot holes.
I think, especially if you’re interested in the graphical side of the game, playing a remake would be absolutely pointless. The reason Star Ocean is what it is, is because it does what it does with the Super Famicom (what a pain in the ass sentence to read, sorry…), so you HAVE to play it on the original hardware!
If you’re looking to grab a copy for yourself, you can find them from Amazon below! (i’ll earn a small commission if purchased through these links)
Star Ocean (Requires a Super Famicom or modded Super Nintendo!) – Grab Star Ocean here! (affiliate link!)
Final Score – 32/40
Story – 6.5/10
Gameplay – 8/10
Graphics – 10/10
Music – 7.5/10