Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Let's Listen: Don't Press Start

at 3:54 PM
Game music assists role play, getting you in the mood to take on the role of Samus, Toejam or Master Chief. If Streets of Rage was accompanied by the Parodius soundtrack, the tone of Axel's mission would be entirely different.

The music that plays before you even start up the game occupies a special role, introducing you to the role and preparing your mindset before you get a chance to take it on.

Donkey Kong Country 3

Are you ready for an energetic funtime adventure? That's what this track asks you, the player. My feet are a-tappin', and I'm ready for this to be a fun game.
It takes an already strong track, the bonus theme from Donkey Kong Country, and gives it a new coat of paint. In this case, the opening song is drawing on the memory of a previous game to set the tone, but the track is also good enough to stand on its own--otherwise, it wouldn't be worth remembering from the first game.
Also worth noting is that this is one of the few tracks on the DKC3 OST composed by David Wise. You can view the game's intro to accompany this song here.


This one breaks the rules a little. Yes, it's an introduction tune, since it plays before you play the game, but you can't press start to skip it. This is the loading theme for Sanxion; you'll hear this every time you boot it up. I don't know how much of it plays before you get to the actual game, but I've heard it's pretty bad.
Which is a pretty good thing in Sanxion's case. Within the first 30 seconds, you've got an extremely hummable hook. You'll hear that hook quite a bit, but different phases keep the tune fresh. For instance, I don't think there's any particular reason the breakdown at 1:21 is followed by the haunting bit at 1:29, but it maintains the rhythm and general mood of the song, so I'm happy. It keeps coming up with new bits right up to the 5:36 completion time.
The job of Sanxion's loader tune is to keep you interested in blowing up space ships while it loads the actual game, however long that may take. In that sense, this is a great tune.
Also, those interested in focusing on some awesome SID drums should stick around for 2:19.

Crusader of Centy

For these writeups, I like to lead with something catchy, put the stuff I'm not sure about in the middle, and close with the cream of the crop. In its four minutes, Crusader of Centy's opening manages to cover a wide scope, from foreboding omens (0:00) to a world of temporary peace (1:20), finally ending on a grand sendoff to adventure. And there's plenty in between.
Fantasy commonly relies on a storied setting to draw readers, and that's what this opening theme affords Crusader of Centy. The tune strings together a series of moods, taking the listener on a journey through the land before so much as creating a save file.
And it does a good job of matching the tale told by the opening scrawl, as you can see here.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

LPGA Terranigma, at great length

at 5:00 PM
The origins of the Terranigma Let's Play actually predate this blog (is that even possible? survey says: maybe?), which is why it's so special to my heart. Not really. It's just more terribility in line with our other videos. The true specialty of LPGA Terranigma is that it's now spanned the course of a year, becoming our longest running and most popular video series. Over 15 views! Over 5 videos! Ten months of zero activity! That's a success story if I ever heard one. So rejoin us here, about halfway through the game's prologue, for an LPGA you'll never remember to forget.

Friday, May 24, 2013

It's the Imperial Age of consoles, and the gamer is a worthless commodity

at 11:35 AM
Sorry, I had to get in just one more post about Xbox One this week. This is maybe kinda slightly a rehash of my EA post a few weeks ago. Apologies all around.

Needless to say, the gamer-community reaction to the One has been overwhelmingly negative. It has in turn been called "the worst conference since Nintendo's Vitality Sensor", a "travesty", "a clear win for Sony", and "gay. just plain gay". And I made up all of those quotes! Seriously, just pop by GamesRadar, Joystiq, or Kotaku for a few minutes: not just the comment threads, but even the published articles carry outright condemnation. What it all comes down to is outrage over a simple fact:

You, the gamer, do not matter anymore.

This presentation was not intended to please you. You are no longer the audience for console manufacturers, or even most (mega) software developers. They are not targeting the 10% demographic who finish their games, or the 5% who utilize backwards compatibility. Why would they? Any veteran of Business 101 (and let's remember that I failed Business 101) could tell you that a company aims to please the majority demographic. A 5% increase in sales is nothing to scoff at, but if it comes at the cost of a successful launch with the other 95%, it's not worth it. It sucks, but the game market is no longer home to gamers. You are a tiny minority.

Beyond all the used game and backward compatibility talk, the underlying criticism of Microsoft's platform is that they seem to be completely skipping over games. They are showing zero new games to headline their console (wonder why all the publicity stills are just images of the box sitting on a pedestal?) and seem to care more about TV and Skype functionality. Because they do care more about those things, because Jeff Public Daniels spends a whole lot more time watching footballs and Two and a Half CSIs than he does playing Halo 8. And hardcorers are saying "but I don't, and neither do my friends!" But the very fact that you play Halo 8 has already put you in Microsoft's pocket, and you're only a tiny piece of the market anyway. They don't even care whether they lose you. Try to open up your perspective a bit and watch the presentation from the eyes of someone who has never owned a console before. All that TV shit suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

The Wii was perhaps not the first, but certainly the most prominent harbinger of the transitioning mentality. In the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations, we all talked about "console wars". Which company could grab the biggest slice of the gamer pie? Wii came around and showed that this was a paltry squabble; the real competition was not to grab the most gamers, but to convert the most non-gamers. The existing "hardcore" population became a given, and the war transformed into a campaign of conquest.

It's kinda like how Britain and France spent most of their existence up til the 17th century biting at each other's dicks, and then all of a sudden realized "hey - there's the rest of the world out there. Let's try to take over the biggest chunk of that", and hence, colonialism, imperialism, etc. They (for the most part - Napoleon being an obvious exception) no longer tried to conquer the rest of Europe, instead setting their sights on Africa, Asia, and America. That is the turn that video games have taken. Console giants Sony and Microsoft are England and France, and we, the gamers, are the English and French, depending on which box we have in our TV cabinets. And as our overlords turn their attention to colonizing the rest of the population, we've become jealous that no one is fighting over us anymore. Of course, to continue the analogy a little further, a few years down the line, the rest of the world got tired of European rule and kicked those bastards to the curb. Which equates to the looming death-of-consoles at the hands of even casualer gaming on social networks, tablets, and phones - devices not tied to proprietary software.
The British Empire. Note that at NO point did Britain ever conquer France (or vice-versa) - just as MS and Sony have no interest in conquering each other's hardcore fanbase
Let me leave you with the worldwide console sales of the last 30 years, by hardware generation. Notice that I split PS2 sales at 2006, as it was a legitimate 7th generation competitor. I'd include handhelds, but it's very difficult to track numbers on gaming usage of smartphones and tablets, so it'd make a misleading comparison with DS, GBA, etc.
3rd gen: NES (62) + SMS (10) = 73 mil
4th gen: SNES (49) + Genesis (42) + Turbo (10) = 101 mil
5th gen: N64 (32) + PSX (102) + Saturn (9) = 143 mil
6th gen: PS2 (106) + GCN (21) + Xbox (24) + Dreamcast (10) = 161 mil
7th gen: PS2 (49) + PS3 (77) + Wii (100) + 360 (77) = 303 mil

Look at that massive jump from 6th to 7th. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo aren't battling over that 300 million. They know that if they play their cards right, they can turn it into 600 million, and the way to do that isn't infighting over the 15 million loyalists who care about backwards compatibility.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Let's Listen: Beasts as Black as Night

at 10:42 AM
You're probably familiar with the old saying, "You can always judge an RPG soundtrack by its boss tune." Boss anthems are hardly ever the most emotive or interesting songs on a soundtrack, but there's something irresistible about their sense of dire emergency. I'm here today to talk about Beasts as Black as Night, the boss theme for Ys III.
What happens when you release the same RPG across multiple platforms? Ys III takes the route of using the same soundtrack on each console.


This is why that route is oft regrettable. In a Controversial Blogging Choice, I'm leading an article about one song with a bad example of that song.

Say what you will about the SNES, its synths hold up pretty well. The SNES version of Beasts as Black as Night, however, doesn't understand what to do with them. The lead instrument (0:12) is too contemplative to fit the urgent role of the lead melody. Equally puzzling is the pan flute used for the rapidly moving background instrument (0:00) which works more by chance than anything.

(Look to Nobuo Uematsu's SNES Final Fantasy soundtracks for songs that don't press the hardware but still pack in plenty of emotion and panache. For a soundtrack that tailors its sound to the console, check out Mortal Kombat SNES vs. Genesis.)


The Genesis version finds siblings in the PC-88 and X68000 versions, but its production takes the lead by a nose. Just like the title, every instrument in here is dark and searing. Am I getting too flowery?

The fun of Beasts as Black as Night kicks off immediately (well, 0:05) with a guitar that spirals violently downward, marked spooky by a whistle in the distant background. Out of the soundtracks limited to hardware synths, the Genesis version is the best-produced not only for its synths but for its attention to mastering.


But the TurboGrafx-CD version wasn't limited to hardware synths. It may be cheating, but the TG-CD version is my personal favorite. Most CD consoles back in the day (early 90s) had a penchant for overblown rock music, but Ys III does that one better and mixes in plenty of weird synths. I like to think that the lead synth is a bassoon!! The point is, this version--without going too far--has flakes of the unusual in its instrumentation.
Notable features of this version are the solo at 1:21 and the breakdown + solo at 2:52.

(For an overblown rock CD soundtrack, I think everyone's favorite example is Lords of Thunder.)

Unfortunately, there are some versions I couldn't find. I'd love to hear the MSX version, for instance. However, I would be remiss if I didn't at least link you to the Oath in Felghana version, which is overblown in a more orchestral and less weirdo synth way. Most of my talk was about instrument choice, but I guess that's what happens when you take a simple song and discuss it three times over.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

That being said, it [Xbox One] looks to be a complete travesty

at 5:41 PM
I'm not going to reiterate news coverage for no one to read, but One is everything that has been feared by the gaming public in the last few months and years. All I can say is that unless Microsoft does a complete 180 and contradicts what they've said today and yesterday, they have officially lost me as a customer. The only real reason I have to buy a console is convenience and exclusives. As One will not play my 360 games, will not allow me to play used games, and will not allow me to have shitty Comcast internet, it has completely lost its convenience advantage over PS4 or PC. And since exclusives are a three-way game, I'm not that bothered by what I'll be missing. I'm not so sure 360 really beat out PS3 in that department; it just remained competitive enough that I didn't feel the need to get a PlayStation. And Nintendo tends to have the best exclusives anyway - especially if they get Platinum in their pocket, as a successful Bayonetta 2 might permit.

"Xbox One" is a pretty good name for a console

at 10:56 AM
Sometimes I'm truly baffled by the insane reactivity of the insular, narrow-minded gaming community, as I was yesterday after Microsoft's Xbox One presentation. I'm not interested in speculating on the prospects of One's future or whether I'll buy one, I just want to talk about the name. What is a product name supposed to convey? The raison d'etre of the product, or more specifically, the reason you should buy it. Microsoft is trying to sell a box (for the third time around) that is supposed to be the sole multi-functional device sitting in your TV cabinet. It is supposed to be the one box that does it all. Which "Xbox One" pretty succinctly conveys. When I heard the name, before I even read on, I immediately knew what their marketing focus was going to be.

As for the "but it's not the first Xbox!", who cares? Is there seriously a concern that your grandma is going to accidentally buy you an original Xbox when you ask her for a One at Christmas? Was the Xbox 360 frequently mistaken for the 360th Xbox? The Nintendo 64 the 64th machine from Nintendo? Let's not forget that Sony is the only manufacturer to have latched onto the iterative numerical scheme, which seems dumber each and every time they reuse it. What am I supposed to derive from the name "PlayStation 4"? It's not even clear that it's the newest one.

Think in advertising terms for just one fucking second. "PlayStation" is a place to play games. "Wii", setting aside the silly spelling and urine jokes, is intended to bring people together around games. "Super NES" is a souped-up Nintendo entertainment system. These names are concise, identifiable, and communicate purpose. I know what they are with zero explanation. "Wii U", despite its awkward sound and failure to achieve its promise, indicates a move toward universality (similar to "One"). It should've been called the "Nintendo U", but Nintendo mistakenly overestimated the strength of the "Wii" brand (which was is fact more an albatross than a boon).

On the flipside, "Dreamcast" sounds like a fishing rod. "Gamecube" describes the shape of the physical device, which is good for identifiability, but fails to clarify a market position - what made it different from Nintendo 64. "Wonderswan" probably knocks it out of the park for weirdest and most nonsensical - then again, it wasn't really destined for English-speaking markets. "Turbo-Graphx 16" is too direct and hard to spell. It sounds more like a graphics chip or processor.
Ah yes, the Dreamcast
I could do more one-sentence reviews of console names if there's a lot of demand for that, but suffice to say that some are good and others are bad. If you have Asperger's or other diseases that make it hard to perceive the world from a generalized social standpoint, you may have trouble identifying which are which. Just wanted to get in a quick jab at the mentally unbalanced. But you're probably an idiot in one way or another if you made a forum post or comment about what a "terrible" name "Xbox One" is.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Read Dead Reademption: A second take

at 3:06 PM
I was kinda tricked into playing this game by co-blogger Andrew, because I really wanted it to not be as bad as I knew it was going to be. I want there to be a good Western game (and Gun was just OK). But Rockstar Games is not the company to do it. They are not the company to do anything - as a matter of fact, they pretty much suck. They just have no grasp of gameplay fundamentals or storytelling logic or technical competence. I feel like I'm stuck in 1999 every time I make the stupid decision to try one of their games. Unfortunately, they also have nailed the business aspect of the game marketplace, and know how to sell millions of copies to millions of idiots. They're our Michael Bay. They make an awfully exciting trailer, but that's where their talent ends. Max Payne 3 is my runner-up for worst game of the decade, including last decade. 
Killing and skinning cats is such a cathartic experience. In the game, I mean.
But that's off-topic, because Red Dead Redemption doesn't quite hit their standard for terribility. When anything at all actually happens, it can be kinda fun. The shooting is competent, if primitive - and unbearably easy - in comparison to more advanced third-person shooters like Red Faction: Armageddon and Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. The world itself is gorgeous, one of the prettiest realistic-graphic worlds I've ever seen, if not the prettiest. That is complimented by some neat RPG elements at play that I'll talk about at a later date.

The game's downfall is that it really is Grand Theft Equestrian, as Andrew joked in his review. The entire game is fucking riding horses to places. Even most of the missions are bookended by 5-10 minute horse-riding segments - that's after you've ridden that long just to get to the start point! This would be annoying but perhaps forgivable if not for the horrendously botched horse controls. I'm sorry, but I'm not okay with speed-tapping a button for minutes on end just to get a horse to run (unlike a gas pedal, you can't just hold the button). Beyond the fact that it's a physically annoying task, it's immensely distracting - the game's strongest strength is the beauty of its setting, but I can't relax to take it in because it takes my full attention just to drive the horse. And that's not even the worst part! See, the button you have to tap (or hold, if you're okay with moving at 50% velocity), is "A" on the Xbox controller. Yes, that's a face button. Which means yes, your right thumb will be on a face button at all times. Which means you have zero camera control during any of the riding segments. This is unforgivable in a game dominated by travel segments in which all I want to (or can) do is pan the camera, both to take in the world and to get a sense of position. It leaves me staring straight forward and at the radar (fucking Wild West Radar) for the entire game - the worst pitfall for any open-world game.
And good fucking luck trying to ride and aim at the same time without coming to a complete halt.
The voice-acting and VO-quality ranges so far that I was almost a bit confused - characters like Nigel West-East-Dickens (the seedy snake-oil peddler) and Marshal Marshall (the apathetic but honorable sheriff) are perfectly matched to their actors and immediately bring the world to life, while our protagonist Red Dead Ryan sounds like he's trying to yell into his mic from halfway across the room while choking through a bag of croutons.

And that's not a compliment!

Let me also complain for a second about the save system. The game lets you guess when it auto-saved if that's your kind of thing, but if you want to actually be sure that your progress is maintained, it requires a manual save. Which can only be pulled off if you spend hard-earned in-game cash on a house, which serves no other purpose but to let you save. Except that you can also setup a campsite for free to accomplish the same thing, except that you can't do so in town. So you'll frequently find yourself running a beeline into the desert where you're allowed to camp so that you can save. That's terrible design. It hardly affects the gameplay experience, but it does make you wonder how millions of dollars were spent on a game's development without anyone suggesting this was a terrible idea.

Is Red Dead Redepmtion the Wild West journey we've all been waiting for? What does it sound like to you? It has a stupid main character and a lot of awkward design decisions that actively make it more difficult to enjoy the game's greatest strength, its stunning natural world. It's also one of those games that really nails you to the cross of unrewarding linear progression with boxed in missions. Too many of the main story missions left me wondering what I was doing. Is helping this woman herd cattle really necessary to track down an outlaw? And someday, someone will learn that the difference between a sidequest and a mission is that in the former, you're free to jump in and out of progression at will, while missions must be started and finished in one straight run without interruption. Ah well. Maybe next time. Not with Rockstar at the wheel, though.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Innkeepers of Forbidden Worlds

at 3:19 PM
See? I watched two horror movies over the weekend, then I conglomerated their titles for this post. It is in this way that I have saved you the trouble of having to parse two separate ideas. Where once there were two, now is one. I've melded them into a singular entity, from which you can then extract the two again. It's like a zip file or brain transplant.

Forbidden World

Aw yeah. There's something comforting about a movie that knows how stupid it is. It doesn't need plot twists and macguffins and silly characterization. Forbidden World plays it safe enough to be an episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who, with guts and tits turned up to 11. This is Roger Corman, after all.

The basic premise of the movie is Alien minus the restraint. Some little alien thing hatches and is running around and growing into who knows what. Except that we get to see it a whole lot, and everyone does know what it is and that it's a murder-machine. And now instead of little ol' unassuming Ripley, we have the 'troubleshooter', space-fake-Bill-Murray, complete with space-fake-Ghostbusters attire. SFBM is beefed up by an introductory sequence where he has an extremely confusing space battle with one model spaceship attempting to play six. I say "attempting", because at no point was I deceived into thinking there were numerous ships. Great direction. During this battle - which is COMPLETELY unrelated to anything else in the movie - SFBM plays with a switch panel that reminds me of my grandparents' electric organ. This is how we know he's a tough guy.

We could also infer his masculinity from the fact that he's banging all the local space-babes within a day of arriving. This guy is so magnetic that these women want to get with him despite the dangerous alien on the loose and the fact that one of their friends just got brutally murdered. Someone was not trying very hard to fit the sex scene into this script. Kudos to the hilarious ~5 minute music video / porn shoot that goes down. They tried to keep it artsy by cutting to and from the debauchery (presumably to keep the R rating), but I love that they insisted on dragging it out for so long. Pure class.

The monster is a lazyman's xenomorph, there's no arguing that. If you look at it for too long, you'll start to think it could fit in on Sesame Street. Once we find out it understands English and can use a keyboard, I was half expecting it to break into a duet with Rick Moranis.

[drops by Wikipedia]

Are you fucking kidding me? The original Little Shop of Horrors is a Roger Corman production?

The Innkeepers

Maybe a half-year ago I enjoyed director Ti West's 2010 House of the Devil, inspiring me to pop his 2011 The Innkeepers onto my Netflix Instant Queue as well. Then I started reading about how much people hated West, and how his methodical pace was a gimmick, and I eventually started to doubt whether I truly had liked House. So I put The Innkeepers on indefinite hold, until I found a time when I couldn't find anything better to do.

Fuck the West-naysayers, this movie was excellent. It had an actual character-driven story to tell, much better than a bunch of goofy mythology and jumpin' jehoshaphats. The movie draws us into a young girl's fanatical ghost hunt. It isn't about demons and murders; it's about an unstable individual coming to terms with the futility of her own presence, on a quest to inject some purpose into her continuing existence. The depressing ending only lends more credence to this existential read.

West or whoever the motherfuck shot The Innkeeps also came up with some great camera angles. It has such an idiosyncratic look. The long shots, repeated angles, and static positioning lend a simultaneous rigidity and naturalism to the film, conveying the feel of "found footage" while still using formal framing techniques. Between this and the real (and really 'haunted') filming location, we're pulled straight into the film world, making the tension all the more immediate.

I look forward to watching this one again.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Congratulations to Josh!

at 4:23 PM
No post today, as I was busy attending my brother's dental school graduation and eating expensive food. I don't know of any games based on dentistry, but maybe it would make a good 3D rail shmup in the vein of Panorama Cotton. Gingivitis airplanes and stuff. You know.

Instead of video game insight, spend an hour today enjoying these famous videos.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poker minigames are fun, m'kay?

at 3:51 PM
Poker (or any variety of gamblin' card game) is pretty much a love-it or hate-it affair. It's unique in its blend of number-crunching, risk-management, and social manipulation, but it can be a little too tense (or expensive) for some. I'm not pretending for even half a second that I'm a serious poker player - I've never been to a casino, rarely played a game with real money, and would certainly never delve into the online competitive scene. I'm just too paranoid about money to go playing with strangers, too carefree and lazy to do mental probability calculations, and don't have any interest in playing a ruthless bluffing game to take money away from my friends. It seems like a recipe for disaster. And playing without real money (or anything of value) on the line deprives the game of its fun and tension.

Dedicated poker video games (like Telltale's Poker Night 2) address these concerns somewhat, establishing a virtual currency that can be won/lost without hurting players' ability to pay rent, and removing human, vulnerable emotions from the field. But it's still kinda pointless, because who cares about some in-game bank tally? If you have money that can only be used to play more poker, and the only way to win or lose it is to play poker, it just seems really pointless.

So why not set this virtual poker in a world where the currency does hold some weight, where there is something totally non-poker-related, yet also not-life-endangering on the line? "Yes" is the answer to that question, and video games the worldround are happy to answer the clarion call. Game-currency in an RPG, adventure, or any economically-driven virtual world makes for a great betting chip. It has a purpose outside poker (buying guns/gear/stuff), can be earned outside poker (grinding/questing/gobbles), and has non-trivial but non-life-ruining value: the time it takes to earn. You still need to be wise with your money, and you can still get worthwhile rewards. This makes poker minigames in Red Dead Redemption, Gun, The Witcher 2, and dozens of other games a great pastime for casual players like myself. Sometimes I find myself wasting more time on these games than on the real thing (Red Dead, I'm looking at you).

Just a thought.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Let's Listen: A Day at the Carnival

at 2:35 PM
Who doesn't enjoy the carnival? No one, that's who. That's why video game musicians have striven for years to distill the essence of carnival music. Instruments take on a silly quality as they bounce up and down both in pitch and rhythm. Carnival music commonly follows marching tropes at a high tempo, but don't expect me to get around to that part of it.

Assault Suit Leynos - Main Theme

The main theme of Assault Suit Leynos is certainly bouncy enough for a carnival; skip to 0:07 to hear a high-pitched glittering instrument that leaps up and down for the next 13 seconds. It may not seem like a long time when you read it, but that's 13 seconds where the music is muffled under some kind of futuristic siren.
I always have a little trouble naming instruments in FM tunes, and I'm not sure I can conclusively put a label on the lead instrument here. By my reckoning, its timbre sounds closest to an accordion, but it's way too fast for that.
In conclusion, between the bouncing siren and the speedy accordion, this tune takes on the appearance of the insane kind of performance you might see at a carnival gone wrong.

Blue's Journey - Starge Space

What's a starge? That is my question to you.
The cowbells here (introduced immediately) serve the same role as the siren in the previous song, but they're mixed in at a natural volume. In fact, the entire thing is soothing to hear after Leynos. Starting at 0:28, warm, fading tones take the limelight with slower, more restful passages.
But that's dashed at 1:00, where horns come in to introduce a series of musical exclamation marks for 24 seconds. While hardly abrasive, it's a surprise after the first bit, and luckily, it's befitting of a carnival's brand of showmanship. I also enjoy the laser shots that come in at 1:32.

Sonic 3D Blast (Genesis) - Spring Stadium

Well, I guess it's only responsible to include a song that's genuinely from a carnival level. When you think about it, Sonic's image is all about being a carnival ride, complete with loop-de-loops and such. I guess it's pretty convenient that Robotnik is all about building theme parks, then, and Sonic Colors is solely about trashing theme parks in progress. Eggman is really the one that maintains Sonic's image; it's just that Sonic gets to be the car that rides the roller coaster.
While I don't think I need to go over the carnival image of this tune, I do want to mention that Sonic 3D Blast remains one of my favorite Genesis soundtracks. Its production quality is a serious downgrade from Sonic 3 & Knuckles; technically speaking, it sounds like it could've been put out in 1989. However, Jun Senoue's melodies are always great here, and each theme gets plenty of variations. Careful attention is paid to each layer of the song, too, with backing melodies, basslines, and percussion that each remain interesting in their own right but work fantastic together. And be sure to throw in an act 2 variation on each tune with more thoughts on the same thematic ideas.

Honorable mention goes to Sonic 3D Blast's unused boss theme, which has the bouncy showmanny spirit present in all beloved carnival tunes. There's also the carnival theme from Bubsy, which handled the concept with too little imagination to warrant a writeup.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Jacob's Ladder is the worst movie of the year, ever

at 12:18 PM
For a movie billed as psychological horror and the inspiration for Silent Hill, Jesus Christ would Jacob's Ladder play well on the Hallmark channel. Less than five minutes of editing would plummet this flick from a R rating to a PG, and that's holistically, not just in terms of "mature" content. The movie screams PG TV movie through and through; the embarrassingly sappy, melodramatic tone, paper-thin symbolism, and overflowing self-explanation are perfectly suited to viewers under 12 or over 70. In fact, it was basically an episode of 7th Heaven - and I can say that without ever having seen 7th Heaven.
Ah, the special effects budget of an X-Files episode. What a delight.
Here's a recap, and yeah, "spoilers" abound, but since I figured out the entire plot in the first five minutes, I don't feel that bad about it. Especially because I'm telling you not to watch this movie. PLEASE don't watch this movie. So the film opens in what appears to be Vietnam, and oh shit, just as helicopters pass overhead, Tim Robbins' squad is gettin' tore up by some invisible foe. It's Predator all over again! Then Tim Robbins gets bayonetta'd by the camera man! Holy shit - the camera man carries a bayonet?! Cut to normal life, implicitly post-war. Tim Robbins is now going by the name "Jacob", and he has a girlfriend and an ex-wife and some kids, but one of his kids is Macaulay Culkin. No way! Turns out the kid got dead after a farcical mistake left him home unsupervised at Christmas. Some burglars broke in, and though he showed great ingenuity in death-trapping his house, he was tragically caught by one of his own traps and impaled by a life-sized Michael Jordan cutout. Jacob blames himself for his son's death (rightfully so - he was the one who purchased the Michael Jordan cutout) and is broken to pieces by guilt every time he sees his family or Christmas. To cope, he starts dating a demon who takes off her shirt with improbable frequency, then hires famous child-murder lawyer Jason Alexander to prosecute himself for the child-murder. Someone's car blows up, crosses keep showing up where they're least expected (on a rosary, for instance), and Jacob gets demonic brain surgery. An angel is his chiropractor, but the movie says that angels and demons are the same thing, so ??? on that. Some commentary on the medical field, I presume. Then Jake and Macaulay ride a bicycle-made-for-two up the stairs to Heaven, just in time for a Vietnam surgeon to proclaim them both dead.

What makes me sad is that Ebert ate this shit up. He writes of a conversation he had with fellow critics shortly after the movie's close: "Was it all a flashback - or a flashforward? What was real, and what was only in the hero's mind? Are even the apparently "real" sequences the product of his imagination?" I dunno Ebert, did you listen to the fucking dialogue? They spend the last half hour of the film explicitly answering every single one of your questions in exposition - not to mention any other philosophical query the early scenes may have posed. Jacob's Ladder tells us: yes there is a Heaven. Yes we are reunited with our dead family. Angels and demons are only a product of our own inner conflict. It doesn't matter if it's all madeupsville, because in context it answers every question it poses. It's such a fucking ridiculous fantasy that I found myself wondering when the tie-in self-help book was coming out.
Perhaps Silent Hill took some very slight cues from this visual design of the hospital scene, which comprises the only  ~3 minutes of the movie that even attempt to effect a creepy tone
Ladder has no clue what kind of movie it wants to be, like the writers had eight different ideas and couldn't figure out any way to stretch one to feature length, so instead strung them together sequentially. Combining a war movie with a post-war psychological tragedy is a classic technique (The Deer Hunter), but throwing in a marital drama, legal thriller, and conspiracy mystery is way over the top. The contradiction of all of these styles particularly surfaces in that Jacob's conflict completely transforms on a scene-to-scene basis. The resolution leads us to believe the movie was about his son's death, which leaves Vietnam as nothing more than a plot device to kill Jacob. Except that he spends a good half hour trying to sue the government about what happened in the war. Except that Jason Alexander says fuck off and the lawsuit goes nowhere. Except that a scientist shows up to tell Jacob what happened anyway. Except that a chiropractor tells him it's all the afterlife and this is all made up. Except WHY IS THERE A FUCKING MYSTERY ABOUT HOW HE GOT KILLED IF IT'S ALL MADE UP??? HOW IS HE GOING TO SOLVE IT IN HIS DREAM/AFTERLIFE-WORLD? The filmmakers had no answer to that question, but they didn't feel like rewriting their ending.

This seems like a nitpick, but is emblematic of the meaninglessness of the entire film: I was completely baffled by the late scene in which a scientist appears in Jacob's dream-world to explain what happened on that fateful day in Viet Cong. The enemy was invisible because there was no enemy! Jacob's squad was killing themselves after being drugged with an experimental chemical called "the Ladder". Forget the explanation for a second - what the fuck is the appearance of this scientist implying? We know Jacob's entire post-war reality is a figment of his imagination. This is painstaking explained in at least six different locations. So the movie logic clearly dictates that this scientist's exposition is a fabrication - or that Jacob somehow subconsciously knew what had happened, which is just stupid. So Jacob has made up this scientist figure and thus also made up the story about the "Ladder" drug which resulted in his death. At this point in his hallucination, he's also already aware that he's in some kind of afterlife, so even he should immediately know this isn't real. So how is this a point of closure for him? As a matter of fact, why does it matter at all? Jake's conflict was about the meaninglessness of death, so swooping in at the ending to make up a meaning for his death completely defeats his entire quest. This scientist guy isn't real, he doesn't have a motivation - he's Jacob's own creation. So why does he wait til a dramatic moment to jump in with this made up story? Just - this is so fucking frustrating to me. That is absolutely atrocious script-writing. And these aren't the metaphysical geospatial inquiries that left Ebert musing - this is just a case of a movie contradicting itself in an insoluble fashion.

Greg can attest that I spent the entire movie complaining about how sitcom-y the dialogue is. It's brutally unbearable - pair a laugh-track with the tepid sarcasm and textbook character relationships, and this would be an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Example: Jacob and his wife lie in bed with the window open. Jacobs says "will you close the window", his wife responds "the cold air is healthy", and Jacob rolls over, frowns, and says to the camera in his Woody Allen-est voice: "Getting pneumonia is healthy? I'm gonna die tomorrow and this is healthy!" That's not characterization, it's a punchline. Fucking Christ.

Tim Robbins' performance doesn't do us any favors either. The rest of the characters are passable (Jason Alexander is a decent actor - he pulls off a believably frustrated lawyer), but Robbins doesn't seem to know how to look troubled or distraught. Maybe he just makes weird faces IRL, but that doesn't help that he looks like he's suppressing a smile/laughter when he's supposed to be freaking out. THIS is his fucking "scared" face:
He totally sucks at going insane. Nicolas Cage knows how to lose his mind. Tim Robbins' take on it is way too grounded and knowing - it seems like he's pleasantly surprised by everything. And when he tries to get mad, it's just embarrassing. He's not someone whose anger you could ever take seriously, at least judging by the scene where he lets loose on Jason Alexander. I don't know if this is totally Robbins' fault, as he should never have been cast in this role.

So if you like shallow feel-good melodramas with zero intellectual depth starring Tim Robbins, watch Shawshank Redemption. But if you've already worn out your Shawshank VHS, I'm sure Jacob's Ladder will go over just fine at your nursing home's next movie night.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What I'm Playing, Mid-May '13

at 5:29 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

I intended to do this in the last week of April as a month-summary, but I'm now half a month behind, have finished some of the games I started then, and don't exactly remember the difference between April 31st and May 1st. So, as ever, this is really just "what I've started/finished since the last time I did this feature". Oh shit! It's Monday the 13th! What is this, bizarro world?

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Retro Game Challenge (DS)

I've already talked quite a bit about this one, so there shouldn't be much need for introductions. As per usual, this wasn't a 100% completion - I made it through the challenges, but that didn't entail visiting every last nook and cranny of Challenge. This is a fantastic game, especially considering how completely off-guard I was caught. Challenge set out to make games that feel classic, not old, like homages, not knock-offs. This is a path laden with pitfalls, as many wannabe-retro games overstep their bounds in trying to "upgrade" classics, in the process destroying what originally made the games worthwhile. RGC doesn't do anything that would feel out of place in the '80s, and while that leaves its games vulnerable to the same flaws that ran rampant back in the day, it allows us to evaluate them from that baseline. They don't demand comparison to every other game in 2013.

Crimson Shroud (3DS eShop)

Shroud is an awesome little mini-RPG from Yasumi Matsuno that throws back to pen-and-paper, dice-and-figurine tabletop role-playing. This nostalgia angle was meaningless to me, but I got a lot of mileage out of the superbly balanced turn-based combat. As a matter of fact, this is one of very few turn-based game of which I could say that I would return for the combat alone. Every character has a huge variety of abilities, every ability has a unique function, there's a combo mechanic to reward macro-strategy, and battles are lengthy standalone affairs. The entire seven-hour game probably only had about 20 enemy encounters. Maybe less. And there's no stupid experience points, thank god!
The rigid character-figurines have a certain charm in the way they hop, spin, and topple, providing a coherence to the art-style similar to Paper Mario. In a lesser game, I'd be perfectly content with this faithfully executed vision, but Shroud sits so close to greatness that this presentation comes across more like a lack of ambition and (obviously) budget-cutting strategy. With character concepts this solid (pardon me for loving the look of Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII) and battles so expertly crafted, a few flashy attack and spell animations to keep my eyes dazzled would threaten to elevate Crimson Shroud to the sublime. In some sense it's neat to see what my brain comes up with in the absence of visual stimuli, but more often than not I simply zone out and the game becomes nothing but number-crunching. It'd be a neat experiment elsewhere, but come on - we only get a Yasumi Matsuno game every seven years, and the least they could do is take it to the maxxx.

Games Started:

Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360)

This is a Rockstar Game through and through, chocked full of pointless subplots, cynical worldviews, tedious gameplays, nonexistent difficulty, garbage interfaces, and terrible never-played-a-game-before controls. It's also drop-[red]-dead gorgeous, perhaps the most stunning realistic-graphics game I've ever seen. It's sad to see such a crappy game overlaid on what had the potential to be the best realization of the Wild West this side of ever, but I've yet to count it out completely. The gunplay is fun and there are some promising hints of adventure elements - hunting wildlife to collect pelts, side quests (versus typical open-world side missions, which lock you into an objective and don't let you don anything else til it's been completed), an economy - so I can't discard it out of hand. Let's remember that I somehow made it through Max Payne 3, and this is the same third-person-shooting in a far superior architecture. And heck, I'm a sucker for poker minigames.

Mark of the Ninja (XBLA)

This is the last one I'm writing and boy are my arms tired. Mark is off to a good start by emphasizing platforming over stealth - realizing that stealth is a modifier to existing gameplay, not an interesting driving challenge in and of itself. Mark is all about navigation, requiring ninja-like dexterity to pull off stealth tactics.

Just Cause 2 (Xbox 360)

I dunno I bought this because it was on sale for $10 and I've only heard good things and it's supposed to be about open world exploding and so were Red Faction: Guerilla and Prototype, which I really liked, but so far it blows. Why are the controls so bad. Why is the jump so sluggish and awkward. I dunno. It could turn around. My hopes have at this point jumped off a cliff.

Games Finished:

Zeno Clash (XBLA)

I started Zeno Clash what seems like an age ago, back when I was writing about FPBs (first-person brawlers) on my personal website. The brawling is mechanically solid and diverse, offering fair competition to top FPBs like Red Steel 2, but it's the art and story that stick around in your head once the credits roll. The setting is bizarrely gorgeous, conjuring a sort of prehistory-gone-wrong: what if mammals weren't the only ones to evolve into humanoids? The atmosphere is overwhelming, supported by freaky instrumental music and grotesque visual details like a beached whale with teeth on the outside of its mouth. The only gripe I have about the audio-visual presentation is that it could use a few more musical tracks. While the main 'creepy' background piano piece is beautifully unsettling, repeating it for 2/3 of the game detracts from its effect.

Something that should be a complaint but somehow isn't is the HORRENDOUS voice acting. It's so weird and bad, like none of the readers can speak English or understand their lines (this is possible - the game was developed by a Chilean indie team). A great deal of the voices are also supplemented by a handful of electronic effects. My sole complaint here is the same as for the music - for such a short game with only a dozen or so characters, should I really be hearing the same voice actor playing so many parts (in the same voice, no less)?

More on Zeno Clash later though. Very clever game. Grab it now if you haven't already - it's on Steam too.

Friday, May 10, 2013

LPGA & More: Skyblazer part 2

at 12:58 PM
I was gonna try to write something about Skyblazer, then realized I don't have much to say about the game - certainly not more than two hours of video can say. Although I guess I should probably try to take away SOME kind of lesson, since I spent the entire video laughing at the ineptitude of Nintendo's 2013 marketing strategy. 

You see, what I was getting at is: to resurrect the Wii U and their future in the console business, what Nintendo needs is a 3D Skyblazer reboot loosely based on the gameplay of Mega Man Legends, with music by Steve Conte
I will never cease to be amazed that this man exists
Skyblazer is a pretty unnecessary game - the platforming is by-the-books '90s, the combat makes Super Castlevania IV look like ActRaiser 2, and the story is less of a story and more of a sentence. The setting is some really loose interpretation of Hinduism, which is CLASSIC Sony, but not particularly unique considering it mostly consists of the same stone walls and ice castles as every other post-Pitfall platformer. None of this is bad, it just leaves Skyblazer as kind of a "why?" 

I think the coolest thing the game has to offer is its structure, which at first appears to be yet another Super Mario Bros. 3 ripoff. In a world where over-worlds had become world-renowned as a given for a platforming world, a simple map screen with fixed levels doesn't generate much excitement. I like that there's a flexible order that allows you to explore a little bit, but that's not rare either. The design decision that particularly catches my fancy is the division between transitional and dungeon stages. Most of the paths on the world map contain a handful of short, linear travel levels which are mostly a formality to complete. Then at a dead end you'll find a lengthy, substantial dungeon with puzzles, mazes, a boss, and a new magic power. This structure may sound familiar to veterans of Getsu Fuuma Den (though there the stages had to be replayed and dungeons were played in first person), and gives the game a much stronger adventure feel than other world-mapformers like Dongey Konk Country. There's a sense of progression and reward to keeping on the same path, whereas SMB3 basically just has a stage select. The design has more in common with Zelda II or Castlevania II, where the over-world requires some strategy. It's not rocket surgery, but it at least engages your brain.

Enough talk, more ralk! Our VO quality actually starts off half-decent, if you can believe that. Except that at some point it does get pretty fucking awful. If you can beleaf that.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Let's Listen: Sega Tunes

at 12:00 PM
You may be thinking to yourself, "Yeah son, I love Sega Tunes." I'm here to tell you that what you are thinking now may in fact not be what you will be thinking. That's because Sega Tunes isn't typically what you or I envision when we think of Sega tunes. See, during the 90s, Sega put together covers of game music and (supposedly) sold them on compact discs. Let's Listen to some samples.

X-Men 2: Clone Wars

This here's the original version of the Brood Queen track. Immediately, the hard-hitting (almost resounding) percussion introduces itself. You've also got a gritty background track which is kind of your bassline. It serves pretty much the same purpose as a bassline, anyway, giving a simple melody to lend the song character without stealing the show from the lead. Anyway, around 0:27, your siren-like lead instrument blairs in long, rarely broken phrases to juxtapose against that gritty background thing.
At this point, you know all you need to about the Brood Queen. Don't pay too close attention to any individual phrase; it's more about the instrumentation than anything, contrasting elements on basic levels. Any time I genuinely listen to the lead melody, I find myself a little frustrated--it's just messing around. You'll run across a breakdown here and there, but nothing comes together beyond the notion that these sounds are pretty cool when they're next to each other.
That's not to say X-Men 2 is without interesting bits. Avalon 3 takes on a lurching flavor that I don't think any other Genesis track manages to hit with as much quality.
Sega Tunes pretty effectively makes itself irrelevant here
by softening up on the percussion and providing a bassline with a quarter of the grit (I measured it in a vial and everything). I'm tempted to say the background melody is less scratchy, but I think there's something more to it, as well.
It's not all bad; the higher production quality brings out key instruments above others, while the Genesis original can be a heap of sounds at times. In all, though, Sega Tunes softens the blow and misses the point.

Comix Zone

The entire Comix Zone soundtrack takes on a 90s grunge feel. It makes a lot of sense, but I wouldn't have guessed that the Genesis sound chip could produce such a loyal grunge guitar synths; certainly not ones you'd honestly confuse for real instruments, but synths that capture that spirit all the same. A modest square synth takes over vocals, but--well, similar to the Brood Queen--a simplistic lead instrument succeeds in tying together more elaborate backing elements.
And beyond that, the structure and melody are convincingly grungy. The melancholy yet poppy melodies strike a tone too subtle for most games of the time. As for structure, the instruments have a strong interplay; there's no such thing as "the interesting track" and "the mood-setting track." This results in a soundtrack that rewards relistens more than most of its era. While only one or two tracks will take the limelight at a time, each one (percussion aside) is always busy doing something worthwhile.
Here's the Sega Tunes version of that same song. All of your wildest grunge fantasies are brought to life as Sega forms a band with real instruments and a vocalist to transmogrify your 16 bit nonsense into real music.
Take the passage at 0:40 in the Sega Tunes version and 0:22 in the original. In the Sega Tunes take, everything gets lost in the mire of a heavy guitar, with the vocalist reaching out. (For a quieter bit with more contrast, look to 1:21.) On the other hand, the original Genesis version still provides a satisfying heavy metal guitar, but it also keeps every other sound discrete and audible.
This is where your taste comes to bear. On one hand, dense heavy guitars are half the point of grunge; it's a mire for a reason. On the other hand, I can't deny the appeal of something more listenable, especially if it's going to highlight a series of instruments working together.

There are plenty of other Sega Tunes albums, too. Some (Virtual Sonic) are more interesting than others (Toejam & Earl), but they're all worth checking out, if only to see how Sega reinterpreted its game soundtracks.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Everyone's Mansion: Home is where the horror is

at 4:30 PM
What is a mansion? A house. Nailed it. Mansions are a place where horror movies and games and Scooby Doo are set. They have ghosts for doors and vampires for windows, and there's always a skeleton in every closet! Did you ever notice that "mansion" and "dimension" are really similar words? Coincidence? Or something much more sinister?

What is it that makes mansions so appropriate for games, particularly those of the horror and mystery variety? They're a trope so old that we don't blink an eye to see one, but mansions have a few aces of spades up their respective sleeves. I don't give a shit about being a good writer today so here's a list. That's what paragraphs are anyway.

Rooms are a pretty convenient thing for video games. Beyond the obvious conveniences they grant to processors and loaders and whatever is going on in those computer boxes, rooms allow gameplay to be parsed in a logical fashion. A room provides a self-contained experience, be it a puzzle, a showdown, or even SHODAN. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Mansion-rooms are particularly handy because they're so clearly defined, each characterized and remembered by its purpose. "Kitchen" is not the same as "Study" is not the same as "Underground Research Lab". It's basically Clue, with less Tim Curry.

Roomification is one of the strengths of the Legend of Zelda series, games which teach us life lessons like to ALWAYS shoot eyeballs and run from statues. Pretty much the hors d'oeuvres of the Legend of Zelda is its penchant for desolate halls and cavernous chambers. So it should come as no surprise that mansions were a natural fit for Twilight Princess's Snowpeak Manor. Eh. Snowpeak is one of my favorite Zelda dungeons of all time, as the mansion theme synergizes so beautifully with Zelda mechanics, yet manages to provide an experience unlike anything Link has ever experienced. Two bad sentences in a row. Great. The Forest Temple is kind of a mansion too, isn't it? Golem will have to edit in whether that's true. I don't have a great picture of it in my head, but holy shit he never shuts up about it.

This is kind of a spinoff of #1, but I separate it out because. Mostly what I'm referring to here is a lack of transparency - you never know what the next room is going to hold. For a game like Super Mario 64 that spends most of its time showing off broomy vistas, the player is liable to get downright claustrophobic trapped inside the halls of Boo House. Your situational awareness has shrunken to a screen's width and is doled out in discrete chunks - each room is a sudden revelation. Mario putzes through each door, leaving you to cautiously scan your OHGODTHEPIANOISALIVE
Ha! No one's ever done a "surprised at the piano in Super Mario 64 Boo House being alive" joke before!
Walls don't just control visibility, but access as well. There are fixed point of entry and exit to each room, so if some scary ass shit is going down (teeth-piano again), you better hope you have a clear path to the door - and especially hope that the door is unlocked. It's much harder to scare the player in open areas where they are free to run in circles (RE5). This can also be used to give the player a much needed sense of sanctuary when things get too tense to handle. And better yet, doors can trick the player into assuming a safe haven, only to unexpectedly give way for an especially terrifying scare.

So we've established that the very layout of mansions is conducive to tension, but why are they chosen in the first place? What differentiates them from sunken ships or, hey, I just realized that the space derelicts in Alien or Dead Space are the futuristic version of sunken ships. Crazy.

I don't know the reality of it, but as far as fiction is concerned, every mansion is situated on a gloomy hill in a gloomy glade amidst a gloomy forest with a raven eerily saying "ca-caw". Hey is there like a crescendo (or decrescendo) version of alliteration where you use words starting with subsequent letters of the alphabet? Because I think I just invented it: "hill [...] glade [...] forest [...] eerily". Nice. The player knows that if they're getting themselves into a mansion, they're far away from any sign of civilization, and thus help.

But why not use some old ruins or a carefully placed moat to accomplish the same feeling? The beauty of the mansion is that it is the epitome of high society, yet not a part of society. It is so civilized that it's become a civilization unto itself. It has its own class struggles (servants and masters), its own history, its own body of knowledge. This is fantastic for a mystery: there are rules to this microcosm, but the player doesn't know them. They're adrift in a world that is ostensibly familiar, but contains a heart of darkens.

Resident Evil is one of the most captivating executions of this dynamic, leaving the player in what at first appears to be a desolate manor to find all kinds of life that they really don't want to find. This spooky spire exists in a reality of its own, where the dead inhabit the home of the living, sharks are in the basement, and something else. The player is only informed by their short experience with the game - they have no way to guess what this terrible world contains. And, dare you think of escaping... oh god.

Eternal Darkness' Roivas mansion is the prototypical old-world New England dwelling. The story tells us it's been around for like a million years, and then some. As the game progresses, we see the mansion in different eras, see it take on a life and growth of its own as it and its inhabitants are increasingly pulled into the epic struggle against the Ancients. All that appears normal in the mansion hides a sinister underbelly - the servants turn out to be monsters, the phone lines fake calls, and the library stores books (and more) not of the human world. This chasm between real reality and the mansion reality is further deepened by the perceivable deterioration of the protagonists' sanity. The house is weird enough already, and as things get weirder, the player has no means of determining whether what they're seeing is actually there or a figment of the characters' imaginations.

It's not a home, it's a house
The contents of the mansion are so carefully wrought and extravagant that they create a sense of the foreign, even in the presence of familiar objects like "sink" and "chair". What makes us uncomfortable is that we can still recognize and identify with the homey function of the setting. The mansion starts to make us feel at home, as ostentatious as it may be. Which makes it all the weirder if there aren't any residents. An empty hamburger factory or missile factory doesn't feel unusual to explore, as we don't really relate to those settings. An abandoned house just feels wrong.

Of course, I'm assuming you didn't grow up in a mansion. Anyone who did isn't really a part of society. Fuck those assholes.

I hate to use the same example twice, but Eternal Darkness is again the ultimate execution of this discomfort. As the story repeatedly returns to its overarching frame in the present-day Roivas mansion, we begin to feel at home - compared to Egyptian catacombs and Cambodian jungles, it certainly feels relaxing. When the game jumps from the frightening climax of one of these embedded tales back to the mansion's bedroom or study, we feel a sense of relief. Which makes it all the more disturbing as Alex (our protagonist) begins to experience violent visions and uncovers the history of what we thought was sanctuary. The chapter which shows one of Alex's ancestors being driven off the cliff of sanity sheds a completely new light (or darkness) on our supposed home base.

Decadence gone wrong
Ah shit, that's a redundant header. "Decadence" already implies extremity to the degree of corruption. One final point that strikes me about mansions is something that simultaneously delights and dismays us: the notion that all the success, riches, and status in the world are so easily twisted into something evil. On one hand, we plebeians like to imagine that you can't buy happiness. So we take a sociopathic pleasure in watching the downfall of those more well-off than ourselves.
Even brownies can be decadent to the point of terror. I think.
Third-world slums make a weak horror setting (RE5) because they're sad enough to start with - they don't need to be haunted by a spirit to unsettle us. We go in expecting to be horrified. A mansion should be AWESOME. It's the ultimate symbol of modern opulence - basically a castle. Seeing one transformed into a House of the Dead subverts our expectations that what looks good will be good. Think about it. When you see Batman hanging around Wayne Manor, you're like, "that place is fucking sw33t. I wish I lived there!". Then it's like under the house is a supercomputer and Batcars and Oracle (is she trapped there? I never saw a wheelchair ramp in the Batcave) and like all kind of lazers and shit and you're like "it's even cooler than I thought!". Then you see the house in Alone in the Dark, and you're like "that place is fucking sw33t. I wish I lived there!". And you look underneath and it's like literally Hell on earth. And you say "whoops!".

I actually was going to tie this discussion together with Luingi's Mansion, but I'm honestly not sure it has anything original to offer. It's not all that mansiony. Frankly, it's just too happy. Which is a weird thing to say about a game that tasks you with sucking dead babies out of drapes. And don't say "duh of course it's happy, it's a fucking Nintendo game you fucking stupid-ass dickbrain". Well fuck you too, buddy. Boo House and plenty of Zelda locales capture that nice family-friendly terror familiar from movies like Gremlin and Ploteregeists, which resonate both with humans and children without going over the line to offend. Except actually Gremlins never did seem super child-friendly to me. It's kind of mean-spirited. Parents dying on Christmas is just :/ . Great, now I'm all :/

Monday, May 6, 2013

Phantasy Star IV: It's happening

at 7:22 PM
Remember when I recently said I was going to give classic JRPGs another shot? I chose Phantasy Star IV, and fuck if I'm not enthralled after a weekend together. Why though? This is so weird. You don't even understand what this is like for me. You can't understand. You wouldn't. This is like suddenly discovering that you're gay. Good analogy, not uncomfortable at all. But this is just one game, and only the first seven hours. There's still the novelty factor (I've played half-dozens of this type of game before, but this time I really want to like it), or maybe I just have nothing better to play, or it could all be attributed to a passing case of the Weekend Brain Cancer. Dunno. I've been duped before (though never on record).

I was hesitant to approach Phantasy Star IV, as it lives on that '93-'95 threshold of games between what I consider "classic" and "modern" JRPGs. Chrono Trigger was the turning point mechanically (overworlds were dropped/downplayed, dungeons became heavily scripted, parties became gigantic and fluid, and the genre got fucking EASY), and Final Fantasy VI narratively (everything is boring, way too much exposition, chronological discontinuities) but the trends were already happening. Games like Final Fantasy V and PSIV were at the ready with linearization of navigation and quests, alongside simplified dungeon layouts. Still, PSIV keeps enough old-school difficulty both in exploration and survival, while introducing some typically Western features like formalized side-jobs and variable equipment. My first impression is that it's the perfect game to act as a gateway into the old while capturing enough of the new to highlight the differences.

The Phantasy Star games, for those not in the know, were Sega's answer to the SNES glut of Squaresoft and Enix RPGs. The series isn't far removed from Final Fantasy, Lufia, or Breath of Fire. It didn't gain nearly the same popularity over here as Square's triumphs, starting on the Master System and seeing only three Genesis entries before going into a seven-year hiatus, to be later resurrected and rebooted as the popular Dreamcast MMORPG, Phantasy Star Online. Of greater note is the development studio itself, Sega AM1 (later AM7 later Overworks later Sega Wow Overworks), who created just about every Sega game you've ever known, excepting those abominations from Sonic Team. They did Golden Axe, Shinobi, Streets of RageAltered Beast, House of the Dead, Alex Kidd, Valkyria Chronicles, and most importantly, Skies of Fucking Arcadia. They're essentially Sega's EAD... and appropriately far crappier than Nintendo's. But that's not to say they didn't make some great games, and at the very least, lots of popular ones. Anyway, we're getting sidetracked. I chose the Phantasy Star series because I was a long-time Phantasy Star Online player and wanted to go for something a little out of the mainstream, plus I like scifi better than fantasy, if only marginally. Or not at all. There was a point in my life when I did.

I know I claimed I was gonna go with the earlier Phantasy Star III, but then Greg reminded me about its RIDICULOUSLY unreadable interface (pictured below), so I returned to PSIV instead. I have no clue what is the deal there, because Phantasy Star II uses (Microsoft-Windows-inspired) menus almost identical to IV. It makes Crimson Shroud (which I was just moaning about last week) look like a godsend. The original Phantasy Star is a first-person dungeon crawler, and I struggle most with those. Lord knows I only made it through four floors of Etrian Odyssey II. So PSIV it was.
How did this [Phantasy Star II]...
...transform into this nonsense [Phantasy Star III]...
... and then back into this? [Phantasy Star IV]