Thursday, December 27, 2012

Three Great Ugly Game Soundtracks You Haven't Heard

at 2:00 PM
I was going to write about more than this, but I figured I'd focus on one kind of music. Here are three of my favorite creepy, tense, and just plain ugly soundtracks that you probably haven't given a listen.

Summer Carnival '92 Recca (NES, 1992)

Hopefully you like the one sound this game has, because that's all it's got.  The melodies here are short, and Summer Carnival '92 loves to repeat them. That said, it's got some nice drum and orchestra hit samples, and unless I'm mistaken, some tracks like Crisis even play two samples at the same time. For me, though, the track to really drive this one home is M.O.M.. By 30 seconds in, you've got two square waves going: one is about to vibrato right out of its chair, and the other is doing something beyond my vocabulary. It reminds me of the sound you make when you break the backboard in NBA Jam. Calling this one ugly may be a stretch, but it does strike plenty of tense and creepy notes.

You might dig this soundtrack just for the sounds it makes. At the very least, it's worth skimming just to hear the sound quality someone managed to get out of an NES. Of the three games here today, it's probably got the most appealing sound.

Contra Hard Corps (Genesis, 1994)

The Genesis could make some ugly, gritty sounds. When it happens by accident, it's a mess. Used purposefully, though, it quenches a thirst no other console touches. At its best, Contra Hard Corps is a top notch example. To my knowledge, its grit and dirt are second only to Streets of Rage 3, which should give you some idea if this soundtrack is for you. Moments like the bridge at 1:15 of Something Wonderful make the Genesis, creating intensity and desperation you can't get elsewhere.

A fair portion of the soundtrack is like R.A.V.E., which performs admirably in the vein of Something Wonderful, even if not as intensely. R.A.V.E. makes up for it by ramping up the tempo. That alone is silly until you remember Jurassic Dope, which tries embarrassingly hard to be 90s hip hop. Still, it's got plenty of cool sounds, like the pulsating synth that comes in at 0:57.

These two tracks might end up as guilty pleasures, but a rare few are outright obnoxious. Simon 1994RD takes a classic NES Castlevania tune, brings the tempo up, and adds some background elements that just don't fit. Granted, it is a joke tune, so I guess it's supposed to sound awkward. That doesn't mean I hesitate to skip it.

Snatcher (MSX, 1988)

It's easy to write off the MSX's sound chip as a dopey low quality piece of work, but Snatcher pulls that in its favor. Under Konami's guidance, it produces harsh, rough low notes and eerie, haunting high notes. The second part of Bio Hazard handily demonstrates both, using them in a melody that sets a mysterious and grim tone for the introduction of its titular villains. These underground robotic body snatchers seem like normal people, but they're hollow on the inside and want nothing less than your personal extermination.

Innocent Girl (only the first thirty seconds are there, sorry) is another notable track, showing off Konami's sound cartridge for the MSX. The cart provided extra channels, allowing Innocent Girl to spend two channels on melody and have plenty left over for filling in the background. There's also Merry X-Mas Neo Kobe City, which keeps itself simple to make an otherwise chilling instrument set almost unsettlingly cheery. The MSX channels that otherwise sound empty and cold now have a warmth to them.

The Snatcher soundtrack finds an excellent brother in the SD Snatcher soundtrack, which preserves the tone, but--being a JRPG--features more action.

Happy Blogmas!

at 12:08 AM
Have yourself a happy little Christmas, either two days late, or if you're reading this in the archives from 12/25/2013, or if you're somehow a time-traveler reading this on a day that is Christmas, and to all, a good night.

Make sure to share with your family and friends one of your favorite carols and mine:

And maybe I should mention that for Christmas, I finally got a 3DS! The first crop of games I'll be working on are Kid Icarus: Uprising, Mario Kart 7 (yeah it was a bundle so...), Mutant Mudds, Warioland: Super Mario Land 3, and Link's Awakening DX. Enjoy, me!

Friday, December 21, 2012

A logical stopping point to the discussion of logical stopping points.

at 2:32 PM
So we've now established that a session is the frame in which a game needs to develop its ideas and create impact, and we know how this session is defined: logical stopping points. Bookending save points, quests, or a flexibly sized series of micro-tasks. We acknowledge that it's important for every session to have a beginning, middle, and end, not just every quest/level/task, because once the session ends, the game is out of the player's mind. Now the question remains: if each sitting is its own unique experience, how do we justify that a game can be composed of anywhere from one to a hundred of these? How do game sessions differentiate themselves from repeated viewings of the same movie?

(by the way, I notice at this point that some kind of obvious comparison to television exists, because these "sessions" I'm discussing are awfully similar to "episodes". The biggest difference is that games (like books) are terminal, while television programs often aren't. TV can meander and float about without any overarching purpose. Regardless, I find it no more sufficient to end the conversation by saying "TV works, hence video games work" than I do to use film or literature identically.)

Fun is a factor, but saying "make the game fun" makes me feel a bit brain-matter-deprived.  If you can't trust your game to be good enough that players can't put it down, give them something to come back for. Dangle the carrot. Good example: XCOM. It's fun sure, but is that really what makes it addictive? The game keeps its portions small and the rewards coming, so you can stop anytime you want. It makes sure you don't want to stop (and that you want to come back after you do) by tying rewards into a linear chain. As soon as you reach one, the next becomes available. You play in anticipation of the immediate goal, then as soon as you reach that and start enjoying the payoff (like trying out that new lazer rifle), a new reward pops up on the horizon. This can be dragged out in the way that MMOs, action RPGs, and any games revolving around the word "loot" do it: randomizng the cycle. You don't know what the next treasure will be, and you don't know exactly when it'll come, but you know there's a virtually infinite supply out there and that it'll show up eventually. This establishes a player mentality of "maybe it's around the next corner" and keeps them coming back indefinitely, but gives enough reward that they can stop anytime and still be satisfied. Dark Souls uses an even more direct dangling carrot: place the reward right in front of the players face, just an inch out of reach, and then make it impossibly difficult to take a step forward.

It's not just a betimes dubious reward cycle that keeps us coming back though. That's implying a primitive dedication, an almost involuntary urge. Those games can be fun, challenging, and satisfying, and make for a great way to spend time, but let's not forget that ultimately we're discussing a narrative medium. Forget indefinitely repeating action for a second and look at how to promise a return will be worth the time. This seems an almost trivial question; make this session good, and they'll assume the next one will be. But each subsequent session requires a little bit more to make it play-worthy. What was awesome once isn't necessarily awesome twice, and you can't exactly get away with using the same plot point twice. It seems idiotic to even need to say this, but the entire length of a game needs to be supported with original content. A designer needs to be able to judge how many times they can repeat the same sequence before it gets old, and how draw that out by interspersing different ideas. How long can you keep me in one village, and how long after I leave it will I want to go back?

This structure is open for escalation and variation, and allows one game to tell a lot of different stories, as a book or TV show may. I'll get more in depth with this some other time, but for now it's the only ending you're going to get for our discussion of session play.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

50 Movies to See on Netflix Instant Queue

at 10:24 AM
We're all familiar with my famous Mini Movie Mreviews, but here are some even microer recommendations at the behest of my recently graduated and free-time-laden co-bloggers. These 50 movies are all worth seeing, both for educational and entertainment purposes (I'll try to sum up why in a sentence each). They may not be my favorites, because you don't need me to tell you to go watch Lawrence of Arabia or Yojimbo - and anyway, I'm not sorting through Netflix in search of every movie I've ever liked.

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Jim who?
By Jim, you're gonna need a lot of popcorn for all these movies!
Ever notice that popcorn is actually an awful food to eat during a flick? The only things worse I think are tortilla chips and cereal. It makes such a loud crunchy sound in your head that you find yourself either missing lines of dialogue or chewing precariously slowly so you won't be.

I've linked directly to the Netflix page for each, though note that because IQ is so fickle, it's possible some of these may no longer be available by the time you read this. Listed roughly from least to most must-see-ability.

50.) Big Boss - Watch after Enter the Dragon makes up your opinion on Bruce Lee.

49.) Swordsman 2 - Super-corny '90s Jet Li. If you've never seen a '90s Chinese movie, you're in for a silly treat.

48.) Night of the Comet - Whoa dog, this movie has Chakotay! Otherwise a very '80s pastiche of scifi horror.

47.) Dreamscape - If I recall correctly, this movie is about Dennis Quaid having to save the president by going into his dreams. It delivers every bit of stupidity.

46.) Shinobi: Heart Under Blade - Very cool special-effecty ninja/samurai action.

45.) Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior - Thai humor might be baffling to an American, but the action kills.

44.) Sukiyaki Western Django - Basically this movie is just really weird.

43.) Hobo with a Shotgun - Gritty exploitation, but a lot darker than the title might mislead you to believe.

42.) Killer Klowns from Outer Space - It is what it promises.

41.) Grizzly Man - A documentary of a man's truly bizarre bear-centric journey into insanity. Herzog knows how to pick 'em.

40.) Supercop - Jackie Chan is hilarious, don't be a dick.

39.) Galaxy of Terror - A strange (and definitely NOT good) riff on Alien that contains the seed of Aliens (Cameron was the second unit director here)

38.) Groundhog Day - I'm assuming you've already seen this. It's quite clever really.

37.) I Know What You Did Last Summer - Come on man Jennifer Love Hewitt is so hot and remember that part where the trunk of her car is full of crabs? Crabs???

36.) TerrorVision - Ridiculously campy, everything you want from a silly '80s movie

35.) Memento - It's a good thriller and all, pretty funny too, just don't think too hard or the plot will fall apart

34.) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer - Kind of a weirdly even-handed... well it says it right there in the title.

33.) Coming to America -

32.) Tell No One - This thriller is so twisty it'll probably snap your neck (ha!)

31.) Sherlock Jr. - Ah Buster Keaton, so fucking wacky. But don't let the silliness obscure his pioneering technique.

30.) Starcrash - An outrageously bad Star Wars ripoff. Southern C3PO, a sexy scantily clad leading lady, and so many lines directly stolen. They even have lightsabers and the Force Jr.

29.) Wasabi - IQ is disappointingly short on Luc Besson (they took down Kiss of the Dragon!), but no fan of the French action king could be disappointed with this one. I guarantee you'll go straight to IMDB to find other films starring Reno.

28.) Humanoids from the Deep - Trying not to list TOO many exploitation films here, this one is really all you need. It's the kind of film where (and I'm not making this up) the producers say "okay this cut is good and all but go film one of the monsters having sex with a woman, because we need that."

27.) Red Cliff - Solid historical drama sure to get your heart a-pumpin' Braveheart-style.

26.) Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog - Simultaneously riotous and heart-wrenching, sold by the supremely catchy songs.

25.) Kagemusha - A slightly overblown Kurosawa period piece with gorgeous colors and Nakadai at his finest.

24.) Hellraiser - Great spooky music and twisted art design, an utter aesthetic success.

23.) Duck Soup - I think I was actually in pain from laughing so non-stop during this movie.

22.) Flash Point - Fucking kick-ass Chinese cop/martial arts movie. So kick-ass. Nothing more to say.

21.) House - An inventive little low budget horror/comedy, almost nothing like the Hugh Laurie television vehicle.

20.) Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky - Bizarrely outrageous gore. Not as smart as better B-films, but with a sort of shameless dedication to kitchen sink every weird idea the crew had.

19.) Prince of Darkness - The only scary movie I have ever seen. Hauntingly dire and apocalyptic.

18.) The Host - Have a look at how much Koreans hate America in this sprawling satirical allegorical monster movie.

17.) Troll 2 - Notorious as the "worst movie ever made", you simply have to see it. I bet it's a lot funnier than you imagine.

16.) Enter the Dragon - The quintessential martial arts tournament movie, it's fun enough to watch just for the Mortal Kombat future-references.
15.) Commando - Arnold's finest, just self-aware enough. It'll make you a fan.

14.) Faust - Everything you need to know about German expressionism, plus it's actually kinda creepy!

13.) Beverly Hills Cop - Murphy's dry straight-faced delivery at its most preposterously funny.

12.) Every Which Way but Loose - I don't like monkey humor and I still found Clint's ridiculous farce uproarious.

11.) 13 Assassins - If you're tired of thinky samurai movies, this is the sword-fest you seek.

10.) The Muppet Movie - As feel-good as they come, full of laugh-out-loud humor and catchy songs.

09.) Rare Exports - Blackly comic fantasy adventure and meaningful male-bonding (i.e. not fucking bromance).

08.) Time Bandits - Can you say "greatest villain ever"? Who is more quotable than Evil?
07.) The Secret of Kells - The idiosyncratic animation alone is worth the run-time.

06.) Ip Man - Martial arts good enough to convert you to a fan of the genre, with pure Chinese melodrama.

05.) Re-Animator - The epitome of nasty hilarious B-horror, with the hammiest performances of all time.

04.) RoboCop - Hilarious satire of everything from corporate culture to violent crime.

03.) The Thing - The perfect combination of intense psychological and blistering visceral horror.

02.) The Wind that Shakes the Barley - Unromanticized tragedy with ever-relevant social themes.

01.) The Graduate - If you've already seen it, watch it again - an easy contender for greatest film ever made.
Hey, even more fitting since Andrew and Ezio just graduated!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In Defense of the Suspend: A Respone to Yourself's Last Post

at 2:21 PM
In his post, Yourself draws a line betwixt fixed save points in games and save states, or the ability to save at any time and reload the save ad infinitum. Fixed save points are good because they create a structure for the narrative and provide stopping points. They suck because sometimes its really freaking hard to set aside four hours so that you can beat a dungeon. Save states have the opposite effect in that they weaken the structure of the narrative (e.g. the save states in Phoenix Wright), but allow you to pick up and play a game and quit as soon as you need to do something. Like go to work, finish that paper, or meet a girl for a date. 

Just kidding, no one will ever love you. Especially if you read a blog. 
The Suspend feature that the GBA ports of Final Fantasy games as well as the newer Fire Emblem games offer is a nice middle ground between the two systems Yourself described. For those unaware, a suspend lets you save your game and then turns the system off, and only lets you load up that save once. That way your suspend cannot act as a save state, keeping the integrity and importance of actual save points in the game intact. The narrative's structure is preserved and it has the same level of convenience as save states. For portable games a suspend system is pretty essential, but it could easily be transferred over for console games as well, it just has not been done yet, to the extent of my knowledge (maybe the Ike-era Fire Emblem games? They were really forgettable though, so I cannot be certain). It does not seem hard. Get on it all of the many game developers who read this blog. 

This miniature post is also an excuse to announce to all of the Ezio fans out there that I should be blogging significantly more in the future. Get excited to read something other than the grand total of the four posts I have made on this blog, which clearly you are reading over and over again in anticipation of more of my posts.

[Ed. Note: Sorry, I had to correct your terminology from "quick-save", because you meant "suspend". Quick-save is almost universally used to refer to what Oblivion or any other PC game has, where you can save anywhere, anytime, usually mapped to a keystroke. Suspends are generally popular in cartridge games (you can see how they manage space by allowing only one suspend slot) and rose to popularity in the N64 era with, you know it, Ogre Battle 64! So contrary to what you said, to my knowledge they existed on consoles before handhelds.]

The need for logical stopping points.

at 11:59 AM
This is probably stupid and unnecessary to explain, since "logical" implies that it's clear why you'd stop. I'm going to attempt it anyway, instead of leaping straight into the discussion of replayability. This is all tangentially or fundamentally or necessarily tied to a conversation about pacing, so I bet (if, as I am, I'm appending this sentence after finishing the post, so as not to completely surprise you with where I end!) we might talk about that too.

By this point in the conversation, your brain has already jumped straight to save points. Though originally driven by technical limitation, the artificially constructed save point still exists and facilitates session length. Save points are a specific subset of checkpoints (I guess by some definition you could say it goes the other way around), which are markers in a game's timeline or landscape before which your progress will never be reset, subject to optional conditions like a try counter (lives/continues). Save points are sometimes thought of as persistent checkpoints, but since plenty of games have checkpoints that are persistent anyway, there's not much reason to distinguish between the two. So checkpoints are the easiest way to define a session.
Traditional JRPGs (Ezio mentioned Final Fantasy IX in yesterday's comments) demonstrate the most rote implementation of this. By placing saves in safe locations like towns or the beginning of a dungeon, they communicate that a session is meant to begin and end in safety, with the middle composed of danger/exploration. This sets up a basic narrative formula: Act I contains the collection of information and development of plot, Act II is the search for the objective, and Act III is the peaking action and climax (e.g. boss battle). Games patterned after this architecture are thus stories within stories, each session analogous to a film or play. Whether you're playing something like Metroid Prime or Zelda, you're getting dozens of these.

More common in Western and contemporary gaming is the notion of save-anywhere, or save states so frequent that they are essentially continuous (see Basically Everything in this day and age of auto-saves). This has led to the abstraction of narrative chunks from saving; instead of a play session with a beginning-middle-end, we have a quest or level. This offers a great freedom in the portioning of content, along with the dangerous temptation of decompression. As a creator, it's too easy to be content with a narrative divided into quests, each quest instilled with purpose but not carefully measured.

Long adventures managed by a floating arrow or quest log reminding us what we're doing also remind us that we don't even care enough about the destination even to remember it. Current WRPGs like Fallout 3 and Oblivion/Skyrim try to excuse this by throwing lots of random shit all over your path. Hey, you were on your way to go rescue a book from a dungeon, but look, ants are attacking this town! Better stop to shoot humanity's way back to survival of the fittest! Whoa, and some kid is hanging about looking for his family! Better stop shooting ants to find his brother-in-law, before he has to spend Christmas all alone! What you get is a random-ass structure where the build-up from the first ten minutes of your play session may be supplanted by a completely different climax, and then two weeks later when you get back to saving that book, you don't even care what it's about enough to read the dialogue. The game pummels you with starting points without naturally pairing them with endings. I'm not dismissing or condemning spontaneous or uh, what do they call it these days, I think "emergent" gameplay (Arkham City is a successful example), but if you ignore the constraints of playtime and don't give the player somewhere to stop, they're going to turn off the console after forty-five minutes and take nothing away from it.

Equally precarious are tiny quests so small as not to demand any justification of their own, with the expectation that the player will plow through a half dozen every time he sits down. There are stopping points everywhere! You can determine your playtime however you want, be it five minutes or two hours! This is a common strategy for open-world random shit games, the "GTA with ____" class like Prototype and Red Dead Redemption, also rearing its semi-ugly head in post Super Mario 64 collectathon platformers. This can derail the player with meaningless forgettable content and over-stimulate them with variety. Prototype is definitely a case where tiny objectives make the game feel thinner than it should (Prototype 2 works better, though is still flawed), while Super Mario Galaxy (not to mention the rest of the post-64 series) and XCOM get away with it by being addictive as fuck. Animal Crossing sits somewhere in between, where some micro-missions are outrageously pointless and others build just enough toward a goal. But addiction is part of tomorrow's continuation into the subject of replay.

The foremost concern in pacing needs to be the length of time the player is intended to continuously play the game. Platform and genre provide restrictions on this, but at the end of the day it's dictated by the game itself. Establish a session with concrete aims, rewards, and progress, then bookend it with logical stopping points. Impact and memorability can be developed over a length of time and countless sittings, but only as the sum of parts. That means no part should count for nothing.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

15 games that everyone should have played, for <$20

at 8:22 PM
To Andrew: oh I thought it was rhetorical when you mentioned PS3; after you said something about camping I thought maybe that's why you were looking for handheld games. Here are ten games you can get for less than $20 (or if you happen to be my IRL friend, I'm happy to lend any of them if you want to hang out sometime).

In rough order of preference, NO ONE should miss:
1.) Knights in the Nightmare (DS)
2.) Muramasa (Wii)
3.) Vanquish (PS3/360)
4.) Sin & Punishment: Star Successor (Wii)
5.) No More Heroes 1 or 2 (Wii)
6.) Dead Space (PS3/360)
7.) Bastion  (360)
8.) The Witcher 2 (360)
9.) El Shaddai (PS3/360)
10.) Red Steel 2 (Wii)
11.) Shadows of the Damned (PS3/360)

Don't forget the litany of VC classics that I shouldn't need to tell you about. There are far too many to open the can of worms implied by 'best', but 5 absolute MUST-play retro games available for download are:
1.) Ogre Battle 64 (VC - N64) / Ogre Battle (VC - SNES) / Tactics Ogre (PSN - PSX)
2.) Rez (XBLA - PS2)
3.) Alien Soldier (VC - Genesis)
4.) Wonder Boy III (VC - SMS)
5.) ActRaiser (VC - SNES)

(oh and P.S. to Andrew: I assume Mikey has Skyward Sword, so although that isn't as cheap as those listed here, you should definitely play it)

If you had all day to play video games....

at 2:27 PM
What would you play?  

This question isn't rhetorical.  I now have much more time on my hands than during the semester trudge.  Ezio and I are both graduating.  One of us has a job lined up.  One of us has enough money in the bank to support themselves for quite some time.  One of us isn't moving back home.  One of us is graduating with a double major.  One of us is more handsome.

Now while you sleuthers (?) are puzzling away at that little riddle-and-a-half, let's get back to the matter at hand.  What am I going to do with all this time?

Well I'm going to do a lot of hiking/camping.  But all that means is a lot of car trips with the ol' 3DS and a copy of Paper Mario Super Sticker Man, or whatever.  But my question is what other 3DS/DS games?  Because jesus I have not touched that system in months.  I ask this question knowing that no one play 3DS, so I do not have high hopes.  How about hidden DS gems though?  
Have I written a blog yet that didn't have some old dude's portrait in it?

And I'm going to try and put a dent in the reading list.  But, books?  Really?  What is this, 17th century Paris?  Who do I look like?  Jean Racine?  Moliere?  God I hope not.  My considerable (they can be considered) talents in the field of history have led some of my professors to encourage graduate school in the field (Ezio hasn't faced similar pressure for some reason), but I'm not going to sit around book-learnin'.  So there's Assassin's Creed games, to teach me everything there is to know about, like, all sorts of historical things, right?  Right!?  Honestly, I did spend way too much time in AC2 reading building histories.  Played that game the way it was meant to be played.

I am also going to watch a lot of Netflix.  Heck maybe I'll even peruse Yourself's MMM column for some tips!  Also I found this list which looks fairly solid.  But one can only stare at a TV screen for around 48 hours, tops, before one goes absolutely, incurably, utterly insane and starts gnawing at things in the living room.  And that's why we can't have nice things, Netflix!  So when the aching hunger sets in, the kind that leaves one feeling like nothing but fake leather upholstery will sate it, I will need to first take a deep breath, then a second, then plug in the PS3.  So what came out for that system again?

I need help here.  It's not like reviews are a good indication of quality.  Fellow bloggers, and *readers,* let me know if there is one must play game out there to fill my waking hours.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A day for Session Play

at 4:13 PM
Really not feeling the energy to grind out a post today. Mayhaps the fog lies heavy on the soul. Allow me to enjoy you with a poem:
the rain falls sad and slow
as I look out my bedroom window
Not much of a poem, was it? More along the lines of a maudlin goth platitude. I'm not even in my bedroom, nor is it raining. I guess true sorrow is always a fabrication.

Let's crack into a new topic. Maybe we can muster the strength just to make a scratch and leave all the hard work for later. I kinda wanted to talk about logical stopping points - those places where the game tells you "set down your controller and power down for a little while". That balloons into a massive subject quickly; the nature of session play and longevity. Strangely, this is one respect where games and books have a lot in common and movies are bumped to the sideline. I read a piece by some dude at some point in the last year or two that you don't need to bother with, because I'm going to summarize it right here. He posed the question: if it takes you the same amount of time to complete Dark Souls or A Tale of Two Cities (or it mighta been War and Peace), shouldn't you come away from each similarly enriched?

The immediate response (and I think I read a companion piece that covered this) is that, well, games are play. They satisfy a completely different desire in our mentality, which would need to be satiated regardless, and which War and Peace can't touch.

I'm not going to tackle this debate head-on because I find it to be, you know, contrived. Frankly I don't give a shit how long it takes to read a book, and regardless, it's my personal observation that books only seem to be effective at a very specific window in an individual's life. As if citing the lame kitchen-sink tomes doesn't discredit the argument immediately. Nonetheless. Part of the fabric of gaming is the understanding that you'll be returning to the same work repeatedly.

A long time ago, this separated games into two categories: those where you could save, and those where you couldn't. Shit, back even further the division was between the games that let you continue and those that reset when you died. These days you can't tell as easily, but the divide is still there. It's something about games to play vs. games to experience. Some games (Sleeping Dogs, Skyrim) draw you back with predictability. You know you're going to get the same beginning-middle-end experience each time you sit down, and each session functions as a game within a game. These games take after Mega Man. The other kind draws you back with unpredictability. You pick up the controller because you want to know what the next giant boss will be or when a train will unexpectedly crash into a helicopter (e.g. Vanquish, El Shaddai). These take after... Alien Soldier? To get arbitrary up in here.

Alright, there's your starter. Gets that topic going.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Welcome to Hellevator: Your favorite stage of every game

at 9:04 PM
Whoa, between writing that title and tabbing over to this box to enter text, I had a fantastic idea. Sometimes they hit you fast and furious like that. So [the] Fast and [the] Furious, in fact, that between that last sentence and this one I had the idea to make a joke about that car movie. That last sentence was the joke, unfortunately. Alas, they can't all be winners. Probably what the makers of that The Fast and the Furious movie told themselves. Maybe it was the lesson of the movie - it was about racing cars, after all. Not everyone can win a car race. A valuable lesson, though a familiar one to we lifelong fans of Wacky Races.
If you'll allow me to go two full paragraphs without once addressing the title/subject of the post, did you know there was a Wacky Races adaptation for NES, brought to you by the ever-wacky Atlus? And while the premise of the show is certainly begging to be brought to a racing game, since it essentially invented the idea of weaponized kart-racing, I'm sure the designers at Atlus would be proud to tell you that they exceeded all expectations and made it a fucking platformer. You play solely as Muttley, that snickering dog. Because that's what the kids loved about Wacky Raves, apparently. The dog running and jumping across the American countryside, throwing bones at things. Christ, they could've at least tossed in another character or two, since the colorful cast WAS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE SHOW. Just imagine the fucking disappointment a seven-year-old would feel, looking at this cartridge with dreams of sugar-plums and sugar-cavemen-cars-powered-by-hitting-each-other-on-the-head dancing through his head, to then power it up and find out it's Super Mario Bros. with a dog. It'd be like buying a Superman game and discovering that it's about flying through rings a la Pilotwings.
Of course, that's assuming anyone gives a shit about the integrity of the Wacky Races franchise, which is a pretty hilarious assumption.

One thing Wacky Races probably doesn't have, since it was a pain to pull off vertical scrolling on the NES, is a Hellevator level. Before I've already confused the fuck out of you, let me clarify that by Hellevator, I'm neither referring to the Japsploitation flick of the same name, nor the M. Night Shyamalan filmic expression about the Devil being late to an interview because of an elevator malfunction. Spoiler warning: the Devil didn't get that promotion. M. Night Twistalan warning: the promotion was actually a ghost. I'm going to stop using the word Hellevator before spell-check has a heart attack (and moreover because it's not very funny); what I mean are elevator stages or segments.

The elevator stage is a 2D classic: the doors lock, the screen takes a break from scrolling horizontally, and you take off toward the stars. Or uh, just the top floor. Brawlers loved this gimmick because it's a great justification for an arena fight, and back in the early '90s, the big bad was for some reason always a high-powered executive with an office on the top floor of a skyscraper. Often the elevator served as the penultimate stage, whether it be Streets of Rage, TMNT II, or Final Fight. It's a build-up where often the entire game's enemies are recycled at you, bosses and all. These days, it's all but tradition for the brawler - frankly you aren't welcome in the genre without an elevator. Even a medieval game like Castle Crashers finds a way to jam it in. 3D actioners have picked up the trend too, though it's not as charming or necessary.
But it's not brawlers that get to have all the fun, for all heroes must at some point make the journey from one floor to a different one. I hate to sound like a person that cites Joseph Campbell everyday (though I try, simply for health's sake), but he did dedicate an entire episode of his PBS special The Power of Myth to multistory buildings and their role in the monomyth. Basically the Zeitgeist of his dissertation, if you will, was that the ascension between floors represents a "leveling up" of the hero to a "higher power level", in the vein of the Buddhist cycle of rebirth (and I discuss Buddhism with the utmost confidence, having once kinda read like half of Siddharta in high school). In Shinobi III, for instance, Joe Musashi enters an elevator as a ninja, yet emerges a mere few minutes later as a ninja with probably a bit less health and ammo. This is what Campbell would have called a "The Way of the Celestial Lights".

I don't think there's a ton to say about the elevator level - once a simple way to pad out the length and difficulty of your arcade game (Metal Slug... 5 I think has one?), it's now more a trope for those who want to give a small nod to the glory days of 2D. Black Knight Sword has one, which was what inspired me to write this piece. Platformers like New Super Mario Bros. and Kirby's Epic Yarn use it as an implementation of forced scrolling, a friendlier flavor of rising lava a la Donkey Kong Country Returns. In these cases it speeds up the platforming and adds some risk to greedy collection, though it can be frustrating for making you replay the entire level if you miss just one MacGuffin.

So next time you're sharing a drink round the bar, pour one out for the old Hellevator. Over the head of the prettiest girl. I promise you, it's a pickup line that'll never fail.

Edit 12/15: My schizophrenic writing actually caused me to completely forget to mention the "fantastic idea" I had in the first sentence of this post. It was to be a game called Hellevator, entirely composed of elevator levels. And yes I just patented that, so don't even bother.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Blogpology

at 8:03 PM
Ezio confirms my worst fears. My post about Skyrim was pretty awful. 'Don't blame me, blame my upbringing' (what is that from?). Just you wait, my next post is going to exceed all expectations. I'm seeing the hobbit so maybe I'll share my much sought-after thoughts on another high-budget, self indulgent, high fantasy romp.

Black Knight Sword: First Impressions

at 4:06 PM
What an inconvenient time to release a downloadable game. Two weeks into December, after the holiday AAA rush? I haven't seen one mention of Black Knight Sword in the media this week, despite coming from Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality, the creators of the acclaimed Sine Mora. If anything, it goes to show that Suda 51 gets little respect as an innovator and is only followed by the press when he's up to something controversial like Lollipop Chainsaw. Then again, 2D platformers are now as quickly falling from public favor as they were rising in '08-'09.

Black Knight Sword begs to be remembered, though. The introduction smashes one out of the park with a haunting yet instantly humable tune that could only be composed by Akira Yamaoka, a Trine/Bastion-like narrator who is way too enthusiastic for his poetic script, and, naturally, the protagonist in the midst of a hanging suicide. Yes, the first task Sword assigns the player is to dangle from a noose, struggling back and forth until the rope snaps and releases the limp avatar to crumple on the floor. Since this is the beginning of the game and not the end, he pulls himself to his feet and slouches to the far end of the room. This sets the stage with ambiguity: has this man actually swung himself free from the rope, or is everything we're seeing a fever dream of his final moments? Perhaps he's taking his first steps into some kind of afterlife - we don't know any better than does he, so we put on our video game caps and do what we know best - walk right. Approaching a conspicuous heap of coal-black metal, the player employs a careful press of the X button to summon the spirit of what is revealed to be a suit of armor that seizes the surprised man and transforms him into the eponymous Black Knight. And off we set on our twisted fairy tale journey.

Beyond that opening, I haven't delved deeply enough into Sword to comment much on its thematic aspirations. The game has a very creepy look and sound, from the goofy babbling heads-with-legs that march straight toward you into their bloody demise, to the ghostly Phanto-esque masked female face that serves as your companion and utility ranged attack. By the time the first boss rips off his suit of armor to reveal that his torso is actually a gigantic, skinless mutant face, you really will start to suspect you've gone to hell. This suspicion will ring even truer for those who've played Grasshopper's 2011 Shinji Mikami collaboration, Shadows of the Damned. The gas-lamp streets conjure turn-of-the-century Europe, but the strange denizens could have walked out of Hellraiser or Nightmare Before Christmas. The characters are brought to life with a sort of papercraft style and the environments are composed of flat stage-dressings that are charmingly pulled behind the curtains and reset as you pass from screen to screen, presenting the entire game as a kind of stage-play or puppet show.
Super Mario Bros. 3 by way ofTerry Gilliam.
The idiosyncratic visuals aren't the only thing that evokes mid-'90s 2D, as much as they will remind you of Yoshi's Story and Symphony of the Night. The platforming itself also hearkens back to the 32- and 64-bit era, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on just yet. There are certainly some overt throwbacks, like collectible hearts and cat-head grass (?), one-ups buried off the beaten path, and secret alternate paths. Yet there's something about the whole game that just screams Actraiser 2 or Klonoa. Maybe it's the rigid jumps and patterned enemies, or the fragility of your character. I'll have to think on it more as I play. Until then, I think it's your turn to check it out.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I don't know that it's possible to put on a prayer or a brain.

at 3:21 PM
Hey, I ain't the one who said it.

MMM: This feature probably should indicate in the name that it's about Horror Movies

at 2:59 PM
Welcome to Mini Movie Mreviews, a feature where I take you through the movies I've watched in the last week or two. These reviews are geared toward those who haven't seen the film and just want to know if they should watch - so don't not read it and then say "oh well I've never seen any of those movies" - that's the point. I give my condensed recommendation in italics at the end of each review.

Hey look, it's Zach Galligan! That old boy was in Gremlins! Unfortunately he's kind of an annoying actor to watch. He has that awkward '80s doofy loser thing down to a science. This one is a string of references to old monster movies, immortalized as wax exhibits that prove to be gateways into their according worlds. The lightly comic tone didn't work for me (no good jokes), but the variety of sets and shifting atmospheres provide a lot to keep you entertained. There's also a preeeettttty seXXXy sequence wherein one of the leading girls finds herself enjoying life with the Marquis de Sade a little more than she expects. An inventive creeper that won't leave you bored.

Man this has some of the most obnoxious Nazi-sploitation I've ever seen. There's a scene where the villain stands in his attic watching an old filmstrip of Nazi marches with incomprehensible Hitler yelling playing on the sound system, and he stands in front of it shouting "HEIL!" This is a kinda bizarre slasher in the Peeping Tom vein in which an old ex-Nazi landlord spies on and eventually murders his tenants. The focal character here is the peeper, not any of his carefully chosen attractive young female victims. This thankfully spares us from the stock innocent young girl Jamie Lee Curtis slasher protagonist, but also provides very little to draw the viewer in personally. The creepy murderer is just really bizarre and his motives are so conflicting and nonsensical that you won't care for him and his daily game of Russian roulette in the least. A particular piano-themed murder makes for a memorable image, but otherwise there's little in the way of entertaining violence. Not much reason to bother.

If you know the word giallo or the name Dario Argento, you've probably already seen this one. For those of you in the dark, giallo is a subgenre of Italian horror film primarily popular in the 1970s, noted for distinctively expressionist visuals, seas of faker-than-fake blood, and mind-bending patchwork plots. Suspiria is very much a poster child for this movement. The sets are striking enough to be paintings, the story is an utter headache, the acting is over-the-top cheesy, and the nail-polish blood splatters enough to make you sick. It's great downfall is that aesthetics are the only thing going for it. The plot is, I struggle to put this nicely, just plain retarded. Something about witches shows up like 3/4 through the runtime without any warning - apparently the whole movie was about a coven of witches who run a German dancing school as a front for... well primarily it's just a dancing school, but I guess every once in a while they feel like murdering someone. It makes me angry to think about how stupid it is. The film opens with the preposterous death of two on the school's students, but only one of them is ever mentioned again. At first it seems like the identify of the second girl is being kept a secret and carries some significance... then you realize the filmmakers clearly forgot about her / wrote it out of the script. Worst of all, the movie is just fucking boring. So many scenes drag on for six to seven times what should be their length, leaving you wondering if you're actually watching Journey to the Center of the Hallway. It's sad what an awful film this is, because the imagery is indeed gorgeous and the polarizing music is fantastic as well. Unless you really need another giallo, skip it. It'll go over the head of or annoy the shit out of any but genre-fans.

House on Haunted Hill
I think it's safe to say I'm developing quite the affection for Vincent Price. The guy is just a joy to watch on screen. His every line of dialogue begs to be savored and his smirk makes me smile just thinking about it. The movie's other redeeming feature is one of the most classic skeleton scenes this side of Army of Darkness (see below). Yes, I say redeeming, because unfortunately this is just kind of a stupid movie with a gimmicky premise that doesn't even begin to hold up.

Presumably the filmmakers want us to believe the House on Haunted Hill is Haunted, as the villain wants the rest of the characters to believe. But the tricks are far too shabby to keep any but the most naive viewer going, and the goal of this Scooby-Doo scheme turns out to be so stupid that, well, it may as well be an episode of Scooby-Doo. I'm going to go ahead and spoil it because you shouldn't watch anyway: the villain goes along with her husband inviting a handful of people to the "haunted" house, goes along with her husband giving them all guns, and then tries to drive one of them crazy enough that they'll accidentally shoot her husband in their hysteria. The problem is that again the filmmakers fail to make sense of their ruse - they want us to believe Vincent Price is the villain, then when the true mastermind is unveiled, the logic of the plot falls apart. Why would he have been the one to set everything up for his wife's murder scheme? Ugh. Just dumb. Don't bother, even for Price's sake. All you need to see is in the gif above.

House on Haunted Hill, again
And then we have the 1999 remake. The '90s were not good to horror cinema, so it's almost shocking to find this so much more effective than the "classic" on which it's based. Critics complained that it wasn't scary enough - I'm sorry, critics, but are any movies really scary at all? You either get atmospheric dread, gruesome imagery, or startling jumps. I don't see how it's fair to ask for something no film delivers. It's just a fucking movie, and sooner or later you grow older than 12. Anyway, allow me to rerail this discussion. The remake is smart enough to devise its own twists and turns while drawing on enough similar sequences to remain grounded in the original. While I just made clear that I don't like that 1959 piece, the connection still serves to heighten this revisitation and makes for good paired viewing, if only to show where one goes right and the other wrong. One welcome '90s trapping is that the female cast is easy on the eyes and the content is now very R-rated, while the original would today be considered pretty safely PG. Overall it's a pretty by-the-books 'good' movie, never great or hugely memorable. Well-paced, functionally scripted, nice to look at,  and occasionally funny. Check it out with friends for a fun B-movie romp.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Skyrim: Job

at 11:50 PM
^Did you see what I did there?

Welcome to the world of Tamriel, or more specifically the Alaska-portion of Tamriel sans those lucrative and wildlife-annihilating oil reserves, called Skyrim.

I'm not going to waste anyone's time reviewing this game because if you are ever going to buy it you already did.  I got it fairly close to release and played a good 40 hours or so and then went back to school for the semester and forgot about it.  I recently picked it up again and my housemates and I have been skipping some serious amounts of class getting all coked up on dragons and shit.

The Elder Scrolls games have always been a blast for me, since Morrowind anyway.  I can't think of anyone who would honestly say they can't have a good time picking up one of these games, building a character, naming him something stupid, playing for 3 minutes, starting a new character because why do wood elves even exist, and then running around doing random shit.  That's the beauty of the series: you can take multiple approaches to playing the game.  And I don't mean that you can kill things with magic or you can kill things with swords.  I mean that if you want to play Skyrim like its a Lord of the Rings expansion to Grand Theft Auto, you can have a veritable shitton of fun doing that.  Or you can role-play to your heart's content, getting that sweeeeeet new gear and that axe the werewolf guild has, and putting way more time into taking care of your character than you spend in the gym or bathing for that matter.  Or you can pick and chose the best quests, or just do the main story line, and make it a similar experience to a more linear RPG.

Or all these things.  Probably all these things to some extent.  I mean everyone who has touched these games gets this point.  Let's talk about *maybe* a more contentious issue I have with Skyrim in particular but which can also apply to the two previous titles in the series.  That's of the incredibly shallow characterization and storytelling.

I know, I know, that's not supposed to be the strength of the game.  But it is such a let down that it takes away from what the strengths should be.  Let me illustrate this right quick.  In theory, Ulfric Stormcloak, leader of the rag-tag rebellion and the other dude who can speak dragonese, should atleast have some, I don't know, character traits?  Well spoiler alert, he has zero.  He likes giving nicknames.  That's just about it.
Dude sure can lounge though.
And this isn't OK just because the game has thousands of characters.  When I'm doing the Stormcloak questline I feel no attachment to the faction, the leader, or even my senseless murder of Imperials.  Even the battles themselves feel absolutely tame when they're supposed to be pitched castle-storming affairs against serious armies.  The game, at almost every major point in the main quest and the major faction quests, does a terrible job of making the player feel like he's done something important.  Furthermore, when you walk around after doing something supposedly world-altering, you get maybe a reference to it from some guard in a random city.  I got a "derrrr aren't you the mage dude deerrrr" once for beating the mage's guild and it blew my socks off because that happens almost never in this game.  I understand how difficult it would be to have the entire world changing based on such a huge variety of character choices.  I'm not asking for the impossible here, I'm just asking for more weight on character actions.  It's hard with a game this big, but if you going to be ambitious you have to be held accountable. 

If this game wasn't a Bethesda "sure to make millions because of its name and ungodly amounts of adspace" classic, then I would say, yeah well tradeoffs had to be made.  You can't have 5 gazillion caves to spelunck AND multifaceted characters!  Jeez, you are a greedy mcgreedystein.  But come on, its an Elder Scrolls game and I don't think it would have been too big a deal to work in both.  Just a little bit?

XCOM: is it survival horror? Hafta think.

at 4:42 PM
Let me note that I'm again referring to Enemy Unknown, though this discussion will also mostly apply to the original UFO Defense, and it is specific to the higher difficulties, though not necessarily Iron Man mode (for those who haven't played the game, Iron Man is a one-file-only auto-saving mode that prevents the practice of "save scumming", i.e. reverting to an earlier save when you're losing).

As usual, we need to start from a definition of survival horror. Seriously, at this point it won't be long before I've defined just about every genre ever, I'm moving at such an annoying rate. Horror is something in which video games can really excel beyond any other medium, because the player has a much more vested stake in the action. They can't look away from the screen, because the character in the horrifying situation is an extension of themselves. Yet that notion is not what makes the genre - that's why there's that whole other word in the title. Horror can show up in action games like RE4 or Devil May Cry, RPGs like Shin Megami Tensei, or shooters like DOOM. Survival is the real gameplay meat here. Survival. What the hell does that mean. Not dying?
That creature you see before you is the antithesis of survival
That's quite the insight, "not dying". But that's common to nearly all games. If all we want to do is survive these games, surely dying must factor in more prominently than it does elsewhere. Constant threat of death? That's closer. Survival horrors are going to go for unexpected kills. Unpredictability is part of it. That's not good enough though. Jumps scares, eh. You can unexpectedly fall into a pit in Super Mario Bros. and it'll make for a hilarious moment rather than a terrifying one. I'm gonna go from my gut here. Forget the semantics. I think... survival horror is gameplay in which every forward progress the player takes raises a lethal threat to his success. A game where everything is always at risk. Because when I think about it, RE4, BioShock, and Dead Space were when the genre started to transcend itself. And why did that happen? What was lost, that made these games no longer about survival? That there were conflicts in which you felt no life-threatening stake.

Whew. That felt good. These definitions aren't always easy, because it has to be simple. If it can't fit in one sentence, you've lost it. I'm happy with this one though. Survival horror means you put your life on the line with every step. I'm not really interested in conventions and all that baggage, that's what I mean when I say the definition has to be short and snappy. We want the heart that drives the classics, so we can look at it in a new light.

XCOM is a good way to do that. Taken through the lens of SRPG, it's still a smashing game, but a familiar one. Units are fragile and expendable, weapons are inaccurate, fog of war. That about covers it. But if we look at it as a survival horror, it's a unique and expansive experiment. Now I know the other Greg out there reading is all riled up right about now and gonna tell me this is completely a writing gimmick, but hear me out. I think the game very much invites this analysis and reflects some interesting ideas back at surv-hor.
The very premise of the game is to operate a military force which ensures the survival of humanity against otherworldly invaders. On the large scale this "survival" is represented as "panic", though clearly the understanding is that if the player loses the game, civilization ceases to exist. So this is kinda like the mother of all survival games! Where the risk/progress core really unveils itself is in the individual battles. Every mission requires you to deploy 4-6 soldiers. Each soldier deployed may not come back.

You can plan and strategize and play it safe as much as you want, but in the end you just never know who might die. The situation can always escalate. This is worked into the turn-based gameplay with simple die-roll statistics. For everything that should happen, you never know that it will. This tension builds up with every move, as you ask yourself whether you want to take that step into the dark.

Yeah. I think the answer to the title is yes. XCOM is survival horror, in its own way. So the genre's not as dead as someone wants you to think you believe. There's Dark Souls too.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Uh... whoops!

at 10:04 PM
So I did a terrible job of keeping my schedule last week and I'm not gonna bother posting another one right now. I got randomly busy at work and then realized I scheduled two posts about Ogre Battle 64 in the same week and whatever. I'll get back on track sooner or later.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

All my life, I've been workin' them clockwork angels

at 4:52 PM
Haven't gotten enough time with Zeno Clash for that one, so let's jump off the rails again.

Are Rush Clockwork Angels? Some might say so. Many, in fact. No, all might say so. All have said so. It should come as little surprise, you were one of them. But what did you mean when you said it? Here's what I'm thinking. You were probably trying to articulate that the band has so faultlessly produced such a stellar body of work that they must be some kind of ageless heavenly automatons of unearthly origin.

For the most part you've got a good point, though I have to point out that Presto wasn't particularly great. "Superconductor"? "Anagram for Mongo"? "Presto" itself is probably the worst song they ever recorded (excluding, as I usually do, their initial, pre-Peart, self-titled album (commas)). There's a reason that of all the songs they still play in concert, only "The Pass" ever shows up from Presto.

But woe be to the Clockwork Angels review that spends all of its time discussing Presto. God said that, in the Bible. You can tell because of the word "whoa". God was played by Keanu Reeves in the Bible, don't you remember? Wait... or in The Matrix. One or the other. Sweet, more religious imagery. This is such an @+++ review. Quick, say one thing you've learned about the album so far. Don't blame me, I have no clue how to write a music review. All I ever learned from Mark Prindle is that he had an awful habit of saying "I hate it when reviewers do ____... but I'm lazy so I'm going to do it right now". Definitely it's a bad idea to describe individual songs though. So let's try giving some words of wisdom.
Crockwork Anjers is probably the best thing the band has done since 1997's Test for Echo. It's a culmination of the moody, bitter atmosphere that wove in and out of the past two albums in tracks like "Armor and Sword" and "Vapor Trails", again coupled with a sharp, accusatory tone and overall autobiographical feel (the album actually does have a unifying narrative, though it's more Pilgrim's Progress allegory than Hemispheres epic). If Snakes & Arrows had an undercurrent of pissed-off-at-religion-ness, CA borders on diatribe. It may be over a decade since Peart's family tragedies that nearly broke up the band, but his turmoil still seems at the forefront. To put it simply, Clockwork Angels kinda feels like a big "LIFE SUCKS" that lurks somewhere between DRI/Agent Orange me-against-everyone and Blood on the Tracks confessional.

Still, a kind of wistful sadness emerges here and there, particularly toward the ends in "BU2B2" and the closing "The Garden". It's certainly an album by old men about young men, bringing perspective to the revolutionary declarations ("Going where I want / instead of where I should") and framing them as part of the narrative.

While this is no Signals, Geddy Lee is on form playing bass in a way that's been missed for years. There are times when the bass lines simply echo the guitar, which actually works great for songs like "BU2B" (Bring Ur [own] 2 Beverages?) where a powerful opening guitar/bass double riff gives way to a speedy divergent chorus segment. The songs are on the lengthy side (the 12 tracks run about 65 minutes), though this is well enough justified by multiple parts showcasing instrumental prowess. The title-track is a nigh-epic spanning twangy acoustic country to metal guitar and bass solos. The segmented songs also contribute to the uniformity and tangling that give the concept album its epic appeal.

I went into Clockwork Angels expecting another middling effort with a handful of standout tracks, but Rush has proven that they can still break the formula. For those fans that haven't loved the band since the '80s, this is definitely the time to give them another chance. This is a standout album that shines as both stellar rock AND stellar Rush.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Top of the Ten SRPGs: Ogre Battle 64

at 4:09 PM
What dost thou hold within thy sword? Ardor? Passion? Belief?
Just try to answer that question disingenuously. What player, confronted by that choice, could try to lever it toward a concrete goal? This question, as part of a series, serves as an introduction to the vaunted, Shakespearean tone of Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber. This, you know as soon as you start, is going to be a fucking serious game. It wants you to think beyond the notion of dialogue as a minigame.

You know what really struck me about Person of Lordly Caliber when I first played it? The element that made the strongest impression on my 12-year-old brain? It was the profanity. I'd heard the "fucking damn"-word before, but this was different. This was in a video game that my mom bought me. Suddenly I had my hands on something rare and precious. A real adult world. 

Imagine a game where murder is considered bad...
It went beyond profanity. The game portrays bigotry, murder, and even rape with an uncompromising frankness, simply as a part of the unromanticized truth of humanity. Though the setting may be fantasy, the heroes and villains are people, victim to human vices and real-world injustice. The set-dressing creatures, from the titular ogres, to Greco-Roman inspired griffins, gorgons, and cerberuses, are natural beings, simply a part of the earth and subject to humanity's whims. They don't create evil - it comes from men's hearts. The only monsters, according to Ogre Battle, are greed, lust, and ambition.

The dark and pessimistic nature of this tale is magnified by the struggle undergone by the player avatar. While a lawful/chaotic meter does serve as a vague indicator of the character your actions are creating, the consequences run deeper. While the general structure of the plot remains the same regardless of how it's played, the tone of these events is set by choices between revolutionary factions, whether one executes opponents or allows them to surrender, and the manner in which civilian populations are treated. One of the watershed moments for the narrative comes a few chapters into the game, when the player is given a choice whether to release or execute the leader of the enemy forces. Whichever you choose, this enemy survives and you soon find yourself on his side of the war. Nonetheless, the option makes all the difference to the character. Fate is inevitable - so does one take the wheel and steer his own life, or allow himself to be washed along? This is the type of dilemma that Ogre Battle presents.

If I haven't said much about the gameplay, it's because the mechanics aren't what make the work beautiful. It'd be like starting an analysis of a painting by discussing the brushstrokes. Yet don't take that as an assertion that story is everything. Far from it. Everything about Ogre Battle 64 revolves around the themes of fate, mercy, and order, from the battlefield to the dialogue. The game can't be understood as simply a series of real-time unit-based battles or class evolution and statistical systems. We have to go from the top down to look at how these elements are woven into the greater tapestry, how they play into each other to create a whole.
...B, Battle!?
Of course that wasn't much of a discussion of it's SRPG-iness, but I'd rather take the time to properly introduce the game, since it's something I'm going to be revisiting often. It'd be worth writing a thesis if I had time to go around writing theses all over the place.

Monday, December 3, 2012

LPGA: Christmas Xnights 2

at 4:32 PM
Sometimes you just have to be me to be as weird as me and understand why I would break from my schedule the very first day after posting it. No, on second thought, being me isn't good enough. I don't know why I do it either. Regardless, that #1 SRPG post (I'll spoil it right now: it's Ogre Battle 64) needs a bit more time in the cooker. The oven-cooker. It's a touchy subject and I don't want to go blasting all over everyone before we're ready. Instead you get a much delightfuller surprise! More Christmas NiGHTS A-Ho-Ho-Ho-How lucky can you be?

We comment in the video about the lack of Sonic in Christmasnights - I assume a licensing issue was afoot. Just because I'm your special buddy, I've tossed in a vid of the original Sonic/NiGHTS crossover gameplay below. And you think his latter-day 3D appearances have been bad.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Week in Preview: What's to come in the next five days

at 9:13 PM
So I'm trying out a new idea here. I kinda want a better way to work this into the page as like a sidebar or something, and the same on my Facebook, but for now it'll just be a post every Sunday.

I've been keeping to five posts a week pretty successfully for a few weeks now, I've got loads of drafts waiting in the wings, and I'm kinda getting ahead of myself on the ideas front. On top of that, I've evidenced that I'm not great at following up on features or multi-part articles: remember Will Smith? Back in the CCCR? XCOM Blogdiers? The other bloggers?
I imagine your visage is currently graced with a similar demeanor
It's not exactly a solution to the problem, but I'm going to start scheduling posts. Every Sunday night I'm going to put up a "Week in Preview" which will tell you what to expect for the upcoming week. It serves me to keep myself on track, and it serves you as a reminder when to check back. I'll also put links in this post as the posts go up, so you can bookmark this if you want.

So make sure you stop by every Sunday!

This week, we've got: the conclusion of some features, an album review, and more movies!
Monday: Top Ten SRPGs: View from the Summit (ended up being Tuesday)
Tuesday: Punch Out that Red Steel Final: Zeno Clash
Wednesday: Workin' Them Clockwork Angels: Rush' new album, reviewed
Thursday: Grab bag (maybe Topicality: Part Three of game's fantasy politics)
Friday: Mini Movie Mreviews: Yep, still all horror

And that's not necessarily all inclusive, so keep your eyes peeled for surprised treaty birds!