Friday, June 28, 2013

How to Prove that Games "Matter": A Short Ramble

at 2:26 PM
Hey bloggeroos, been a while. I have been asked to write a post for today, because we do not want to have too many days lacking content. Unfortunately, I have six hours of a grad class today and then a rehearsal dinner later on, so I have to write this post while I am supposed to be learning about how to teach women's history. Today, your filler post will consist of me talking about the value of video games.

Although this story will be featured on a forthcoming Terranigma Let's Play, it is somewhat important to set the stage. A few months ago, I went down to visit my friend's small, Catholic college in Dallas. My friend proceeded to introduce me to every girl he knew as, “My single friend, Paul” (Sadly, Ezio is not my real name). I laughed it off every time he did it, but one girl took it very seriously. After being introduced to the girl, she asked me how I knew my friend and then asked me if I, “Would permit video games in my child's household.” Being more than a little dumbfounded, I simply said yes, to which she replied, “Oh, then, you won't do.” She tried, poorly, to play it off as a joke, and after we parted ways I tried to figure out how she both considered me for a husband and then dismissed me within the span of thirty seconds.

This story kind of has a point. Maybe. How do you communicate to people that video games are not evil to people who are unfamiliar with playing games? Discussing this with some friends we came up with three different attacks on video game ignorance: its ability to act as a challenge that can “better” us, its merit as “art”, and its “value”. Each of the three of us came up with representative games to prove our arguments.

G-Dubs talked about how arcade games were testaments of skill, with their recording of your scores, and what have you. You can clearly show improvement through increasing the number of levels you can complete and through reaching the leaderboards. Video games, therefore, are worthwhile, because you are spending time making yourself better at a craft.

"And while the law of competition may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department." - Andrew Carnegie 
Because I have been brainwashed by the humanities, I obviously took the “art” angle. I suggested games like Bioshock and Limbo which are narratives that are good, but would not really work in another medium. They are impressive enough of games that people cannot dismiss them as childish, off-hand, and let you form your argument that the stories they are telling are just as important as novels, paintings, etc.

SJ attempted to demonstrate their value by showing cultural importance and ubiquity through a game like Starcraft. Everybody knows about the televised games in South Korea and how it created a celebrity culture there. It is impossible to dismiss games as being worthless when you can empirically show its impact on society.

Which argument do you think is the most convincing? Can you think of better games to use as examples? Should I care that my professor is noticing that I am typing a lot even when it does not seem like I should be? Will I ever get back to my whole archetypes in roleplaying classes mini-series? Find out next time on Dragon Blog Z. (Or leave a comment)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Let's Listen: Sega Racers

at 12:00 PM
Sega racing games are a time-honored tradition dating all the way back to 1985's Hang-On. Luckily, they've always had great tunes.

Outrun - Magical Sound Shower - Hiroshi Kawaguchi


Outrun goes for a chill feel. You might have a hard time hitting those turns and evading those cars, but the music doesn't care; instead, it captures the wind blowing through your hair. Much like the original Hang-On cabinet was innovative for giving you a bike to ride, rumor has it that Yu Suzuki wanted to install fans in Outrun cabinets to blow players' hair back. Anyway, despite its laid back, casual melody, the percussion will keep you from falling asleep with hard-hitting snares and a cowbell (I think that's a cowbell?) that adds a samba flare (based on casual YouTubings of what exactly samba is).

Virtua Racing - Time Extend 1-5 - Takenobu Mitsuyoshi

Virtua Racing loves its jingles. While it is a shame that most of your time racing is spent with nothing but engine noises, the flourishes in the above video are still well-written. It's a great feeling when one of them plays after you pass a checkpoint. I'm not sure how appropriate that sluggish first one is for a racing game, but by the third time extend jingle, things have gotten poppy and peppy. While Outrun knows it's cool and doesn't care what anyone else (or anycar else) thinks, Virtua Racing tries to fit the mold of coolness--granted, it's successful. If you want a substantial tune, try the Replay theme. It's awfully long and repeats quite a few times, but at least stick around for that killer bridge at 1:25.

Daytona USA - Let's Go Away - Takenobu Mitsuyoshi

Daytona USA's super power is that it has vocals. The songs here are full-on pop in an energetic sense typical of J-pop. Much like J-pop, the goofy, over-the-top offerings here will be an acquired taste. But who can resist a good rolling start?

Sega Rally Championship 2 - Muddy Slippin' - Hideki Naganuma, Tomonori Sawada

Sega Rally Championship 2 still has that poppy edge, but it's not afraid to get distinctive; there's lots of stops and starts courtesy of a rambunctious lead instrument. Between the lead trumpet and backing organ, the instrument choice isn't too typical, either. This one's funky in the same sense that you might say Sonic Adventure music is.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Agh! Xenoblade Chronicles has a platforming segment?!

at 4:08 PM

You thought Monolith was just fucking with you by throwing in that jump button. Nope. 30 hours into the game, bam! Platforming. J-j-j-j-j-jump tyyyyyyyme. It's kinda like this wall/cliff face thing that you have to work your way up, complete with branching paths and collectibles. The jumping works well enough, even if the camera is clearly out of its league. If I had to compare it to something- and it's so sudden, bland, and short that I see no point in doing so - but if I had to compare it to something, I'd say it's kinda like Castlevania (64) or a watered-down vertical Super Mario 64 stage like Whomp's Fortress. See for yourself (the first three minutes here):

Check out that view at 2:35! Breathtaking - what a payoff!

I was infinitely amused that they decided to put this in. Not that the game couldn't handle it, just that it didn't need it, nor did it gain anything from it. Unless it's about to become a RPlatformingG, this segment basically classifies as a minigame. But hey, if this is what they're offering in place of the "Shinra We Love You" song-and-dance routine from Final Fantasy VII, I'll take it.

And a-1, and a-2, and-a... Ohhhhhhh Shinra Shinra we love you, Shinra Shinra we love you too! If you don't sing along out loud, the president might mail you a grenade!

Friday, June 21, 2013

It's Friday. Somethin' bout remastering Duck Tales.

at 4:39 PM
coding- coding- coding-four hours to go-uh-oh / i wanna be sedated

with a mere single only one line of dialogue, i have conveyed my entire mindset of this right now. i am coding. i want to go to bed (in whatever medicated manner available), i am listening to the Ramones and i don't wanna write a blog post. but I already skipped a day this week and I can't get into the bad habit of doing that. My brain will fall off and go live in a cave.

Did anyone ever do a Phantom Menace-themed parody called "I Wanna Be Sebulba"? Seems like it'd be a struggle to come up with rhymes. That never stopped Ramones lead singer Raymond Jenkins, so why should it stop us. Hrm, the first one my brain came up with is "vulva". I'm moving on before this gets any uglier.

In all the Mott the Hoopla about a bunch of games that aren't going to come out for like a million years, let us not forget that there are still dreams to be had in this generation, games that don't require you to throw $400 into the propeller of an approaching helicopter. Although right now the only ones I can think of are Deadpool and DuckTales. The double Ds, as they say. They're from decent developers (High Moon Studios and WayForward, respectively), though I don't know that either is going to be particularly great. Luckily, DuckTales gives me a chance to reiterate a point I've already made on this blog and would be remiss not repeat. Since the main thing to do around here is just restate the same couple ideas in different ways, this is an opportunity I'm not excited to have missed. Doesn't matter, I'll prob'ly get hit by a car anyway.

DuckTales 2013 is one of these games I don't even know how to label. It has the exact same stages and gameplay as the original NES game, with new graphics and music. The assets are new, but it's not really conceptually different from all the HD collections and ports we got this gen (NiGHTS, Wind Waker HD, Prince of Persia HD). Is it a remake? reboot? remix? re-release? sequel? sidequel? froopquel? We get into this weird grey area with games where it's hard exactly to re-purpose labels. The knowledge that this DuckTales will be built entirely from the ground up suggests remake, in a completely literal sense. It's a remake in the same sense a cover song is a remake of the original, but not in the same sense a film or comic remake takes the same basic elements (character/story/tone, depending on which is most key to the original) and puts them into an entirely new presentation. Since the meat of a game is usually the interactivity, we'd want to see that element presented differently. And since presentation in a game goes beyond audio and visual to design, architecture, and mechanics, we'd expect those things to be fresh. To super dumb down the discussion so I can just get this over with, DmC is a remake. Yes, yes, I know it's been firmly classified as a "reboot", but the only different between 'boots and 'makes is that the implication of a 'boot is the impending relaunch of a franchise and sequels of its own. DmC is a remake because it attempts to take the defining elements of Devil May Cry, namely snarky tongue-and-cheek swordsgunman-on-demon action revolving around stylized combos, and put them into new levels, with new enemies, a new visual style, and some dumbass new story.

I think Capcom is calling DuckTales a woo woo "remaster", which actually might be my favorite term so far. And that's not sarcastic. If we're looking to other media for the closest cousin of this approach, I think an album remaster is the closest comparison. For anyone who doesn't know, a "remaster" is when an engineer takes the original mix of a song and re-compresses and equalizes it again to try to make everything sound better. So Steve Albini might turn down the lazer sound-effect on the guitar or make the drums sound less like they're falling down a staircase, but nothing is re-recorded. The basic content stays the same - there's no new writing or recording. That to me exactly describes DuckTales. I can't say I've ever cared about remasters. I certainly get the point, and when presented with the choice will usually opt for the remaster, but it's not very exciting. And since it'd take more torture than a grape-machine to get me to declare current graphics better than 8-bit art, neither is DuckTales.

Man, that 3D looks genuinely bad. I hope the sprites don't clash so hard in the finished product.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Frighteners: Coming soon to a theater near you. In 1996.

at 5:58 PM
[ed. note: this intro made a LOT more sense when I wrote this post on Wednesday]

After Monday was all depressing songs and then I failed to post yesterday, I bet you thought I killed myself. Guess what? I did. I'm now posting from bEyOnD tHe GrAvE. Actually I'm posting from wItHiN the grave, because my laptop killed itself too, so that I could keep blogging.

Am I allowed to be disappointed that Peter Jackson did Lord of the Rings? I admit that I was the exact perfect age to experience those movies - I got to have my every-middle-schooler-since-the-'70s LOTR phase before the movies came out, experiencing the books as just books, then I also got the full excitement of seeing them come to life at age 13. Future generations probably won't even be able to mention the books without appending "Viggo Mortleson, TM". Or, you know, contextualizing them among the sure-to-happen film and television "expansions" of the universe. You think Hollywood is going to let the most profitable intellectual property since Star Wars die just because J.R.R. Tolkien did? Good one. If you thought all the tabletop and video game gaidens were embarrassing, you haven't even seen my notes from the pitch meeting for The Lord of the Rings: Beyond the Ocean that They Sailed Away on at the End of the Last One.

That ain't sound right. Where's my sheet?

Right, The Fright. This was Jackson after hitting it big in Hollywood, but before hitting it the-biggest-thing-ever. A Robert Zemeckis Executive Producer credit brings with it a decided panache along with a degree of restraint. Meaning it's not as putridly uninviting, unmarketable, and deviously brilliant as Dead Alive, but still has some of Jackson's devilish old touch. That is to say, it may star Michael J. Fox, but it also features Jeffrey Combs. In their respective finest roles. The film is frantic and at times bizarre, but it's held together so seamlessly and so well-executed in every regard, from sets to score to acting and special effects, that it's hard not to note the budget. I guess what I'm trying to convey is that it is a very movie-like movie. Danny Elfman composed the music, for chrissakes. I can't imagine anyone more suited to immediately communicating a surreal and heightened reality.
The special effects are mostly good (and the visual design is great), even if occasionally they go pure Looney Tunes
It's a severe disservice that Frighteners gets cast off into genre-land, because a simple horror comedy it is not. And I think that's one of the reasons that it's - and I'm about to use a term I don't particularly like - misunderstood. Examining the movie solely as a horror comedy, it's not all that successful. It's not scary, it's not even attempting to effect a scary tone, and it's comic in the same sense that any well written adventure or fantasy is - not going for punchlines, but developing ridiculous scenarios and personality traits and letting those play out naturally. Moreover, the film moves from slapstick to murder mystery to psycho slasher so successfully and without ever undermining or altering the plot that it's impossible to boil it down past "epic", as far as I'm concerned. I recently complained that Jacob's Ladder wanted to be a thousand different kinds of movie and ended up being one retarded one. The problem there was that every time it made a genre shift, it uprooted all of reality; we got new characters, a new conflict, new themes. That's why it was moronic. The Frighteners is awfully ambitious, but keeps it all together by tying everything back to Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox) and his relation to these mysterious murders. First he's sleazily conning the bereaved (comedy), then he feels bad about it (romance), then he witnesses a murder and, along with his new sorta-girlfriend and an off-the-rails FBI agent, starts putting pieces together (mystery), then he has to figure out how to defeat the not-so-human culprit (I dunno fantasy or something), then the psychos on opposing sides of the law race to kill him in a spooky mental hospital (action shoot-em-up/thriller). The critical response was that it was too much, but if anything I was left dying for more. 

As for the "comedy" label - it's about as appropriate for The Frighteners as it is for Raiders of the Lost Ark or Batman Returns... that is, with one caveat. The first third of the film, particularly a certain trio of ghosts, play as straight-up Three Stooges wackiness. That's not a bad thing - as a matter of fact, it's quite impressive that Jackson sets up this sardonic slapstick tone and is able to completely abandon it without slowing the film's pace at all. This front-loading of easy jokes actually carries us along until we've got some decent characters built up and can run more naturally. While I do wish we could've gotten at least one more scene with a particular Elvis-themed blockhead, I was totally happy to watch the real-world lunacy of Jeffrey Combs and Jake Busey instead.
I just want to post every screen-cap of Combs I can find. It's so hard to choose.
The movie establishes the kind of cool world with just enough mythology and explanation that I want to see more, but don't feel like I need to. It all makes enough sense, even if I don't know why Jake Busey was able to turn into the Grim Reaper or how ghosts age. I didn't necessarily have all the information, but this was a case where it felt like the filmmakers (or to remove them from the equation, the filmic world itself) did. No one kissed Lois Lane to erase her memory. And come on, that final scene where Lucy is revealed to have psychic powers and Dammers to have become a ghost is cute perfection. It wraps everything up in a way that says "and they all lived happily ever after... having dozens more crazy psychic ghost adventures!" It's that kinda hook that makes you feel like you just got a glimpse of all the shit that goes on in this world. Same with the R. Lee Ermey character and his cemetery patrol - you could have cut that scene out of the film with zero sum effect on the plot, but it gives you a moment to ponder all the weird shit Frank Bannister must see every day - and his reaction to it.

This is hardly a big deal, but a moment when I wanted to give the screen a high five: the film addresses ghosts ability to move through some things while being able to interact with others (like how they can walk on floors but through walls) without making the fatal mistake of openly addressing it. They learn how! We see novice ghosts like Frank and Ray struggling with this process, but eventually they just get the hang of it. A clumsier film would've had a ghost character nonsensically saying to himself "it sure is hard to remember how to walk on floors!" The Frighteners just gives us Michael J. Fox stumbling through floors for a few seconds as if he's learning to ice skate. It's so natural and subtle that you barely even notice, but a great touch. That's how you communicate using film! 

Puhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhlease do yourself a favor and go watch The Frighteners. It's on Netflix Instant Queue, and it is an instant classic. Why it doesn't have the same following as Army of Darkness or Big Trouble in Little China is a mystery to mankind.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Saints Row 3 is about the War on Terror... and you play as the terrorists

at 2:30 PM
It's not that strange a premise for a game, I suppose. Then again, it is a strange premise for a comedy sex game. Saints Row: The Third is an unabashedly stupid game, there's no doubt about that. It just doesn't realize quite how stupid it is. And it would be kinda funny to see, for instance, a U.S. Iraq War veteran play the latter half of the game. It wouldn't actually be funny, because the game is so busy making stupid unfunny yolks about how WEIRD sex is and how CRAZY it is to be gay and how COOL it is to shoot someone in the dick that you don't really notice what's going on unless you're the kind of person who stops for a second to say "hey. what's going on?"

It's actually just now that I'm remembering, and this really lends a massive heaping of credence to my theory, that the Red Faction games are overtly about joining a terrorist cell and taking down the military.
I thought it was ill-justified and kind of politically despicable in those games, but hey, that's most video game stories for you. Didn't really bat an eyelash. Sad to see it peddled to teenagers, but smart teenagers will figure out what's going on anyway, and dumb teenagers will be impressioned by something else dumb sooner or later. Why accuse some idiot game devs of being idiots? They made a fun game, they get a pass.


The premise of Row 3 is that the Saints are an Ivy League crew club that go a little overboard after winning the World Crew Cup, deciding it's time for them to take over Fake City. I wish that was the premise. It's actually that you're a member of a purple-themed gang, and despite the fact that literally thousands of people are dying left and right in this lightly futuristic open gang war, you get pissed off that your friend dies. It's not clear why. Presumably he was in Saints Row 1 or 2, and your character was a fan of those. So it's time to take it to the Red Gang, who has managed to unite the Blue and Green gangs against you. I'm not making up this color shit. It is pretty literally Power Rangers. Anyway, you have to build up the reputation of Purple Gang from scratch (dunno why, they appear to be some kind of Disney-level mega-corporation with their own department stores and television channels and record labels), such that you can be strong enough to kill Red Gang (sigh, whatever), then you move on to Blue and eventually Green. That's all so preposterous that I kinda liked it. The gangs have goofy themes like cyber-ninjas and luchadore-commandos and it's got an, I dunno, Running Man kinda feel?

At some point Sarah Palin shows up and says "wow, this gang shit is getting out of hand. We need a military crackdown here". I don't know why this had to happen, or why it had to be played as a mockery of right-wing politics, because if gangs were literally patrolling the streets in tanks, the military would be exactly the most sensible and desirable solution. People would be demanding it! It's not like "everything was going just fine until these jarhead assholes showed up!" It was anarchy approaching apocalypse. And that was fine! I was enjoying that! Taking a ridiculously fantastical situation (color-gang wars) and introducing what would be the level-headed and logical result (martial law) ruins the fun - especially if you're going to sit there and act like martial law wasn't the natural resolution. So now we're left with an anarchic organization trying to establish street-level power through violence (player-side Purple Gang) and an invading military force attempting to reimpose order with the declared purpose of reestablishing peace. So the player is Al Qaeda in Baghdad fighting against the US military? That's a little awkward, especially considering the game's hesitance to acknowledge it.

It's funny that now I know I can go to Volition games if I want to play out juvenile terrorist fantasies about wanton murder and oppressing a populace through random acts of destruction and violence. There's apparently a market for that! What disappoints me is that they don't embrace the evil spirit of it all. It would be genuinely harmless fun, completely removed from reality if they just let the fantasy run wild, let it be destruction for destruction's sake. Make the protagonist someone like M. Bison or Carnage. Instead, Volition thinks the player will better be able to connect to nuking an entire city of innocent people if their character seems 'honorable' and the villains seem 'mean'. It's okay to drive a tank over a baby, as long as you're using that tank to shoot at someone who betrayed your best friend (who was also a psychopathic murdering asshole but honor, dude)!
I'm arbitrarily peppering in screenshots here. I have no images to help illustrate my point.
It's certainly a case of show-me-don't-tell-me, where what the characters seem to think is happening is not what is actually happening, and we're apparently supposed to be as ignorant as they are. This creates an irksome disconnect, making it more difficult to enjoy the rampant destruction. If the game is going to ask me to murder hundreds of soldiers whose only sin is trying to stymie the highest domestic death toll since the Civil War, could it at least not patronize me along the way? The "saintly" portrayal of our protagonists as a bunch of comic goofballs "just tryin' to have a good time" undermines my own good-time-rampage, not to mention it gives the game a weird pro-capitalism cultist propaganda vibe (that Red Faction: Guerrilla bore as well). I'm all for, you know, fightin' the man. I don't need society. But I feel like if the DKs had done a video game in 1981 instead of Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, it would have been a bit smarter than this.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Depressing ways to close an album

at 5:52 PM
This started as an idea for a Top Ten, but I realized it's kinda stupid to try to list the "top ten" "most depressing" closing tracks. Would that mean the best ten closers that happen to be depressing, or the ten depressingest? The depressinger, the better? I'm not sure I need to be a trailblazer into quantifying emotion. Positive or negative, it is what it is - as would say the famous Joe Baker, pre-calc teacher at large. Instead, let it suffice for me to mention some particularly effective works which have left an impression on my own personal emotions brain, which will forever characterize not only their album and artist, but the very state of mind that drove their creation.

These songs are particularly haunting as they're the last sound the respective albums offer before the air goes dead. The lyrics linger in our brains, the notes continue to loop, and the mood hangs with us.

"Sara" - Bob Dylan on Desire (sorry I couldn't find the studio version on YT, Bob Dylan is a sellout/etc.)
This is one of those songs that simply can't be separated from the songwriter's biography. I mean it's titled for his ex-wife, for chrissakes. "Sara" is something of Dylan's final elegy to his first marriage, an empty-handed lament of their highs, lows, and the little moments in between. The line "staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / writin' 'Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands' for you" is utterly heartbreaking - Dylan is reminding us of a love song he wrote a decade ago, telling us it was based on his life, and telling us it ended in unhappiness and despair. Jesus Christ, that's awful! That's like the writer of Toy Story writing an autobiography in a few years about how Toy Story was based on his real childhood experiences and how he grew to hate the toys and destroyed them, and then killed himself.

"Here Comes a Regular" - The Replacements on Tim
A lot of what we find emotionally effective derives from shared experiences. A song about substance abuse is certainly more likely to hit home with someone who has struggled down the path of substance abuse. I'm not sure this would be the time or place to talk about whether I've had such experiences, but "Here Comes a Regular" works equally effectively at a broader level - it's a song about falling into a rhythm and becoming estranged from that rhythm, completely losing sight of why we wake up and do the same thing everyday and who the hell the people surrounding us are. "Am I the only one that feels ashamed?"

"Stones from the Sky" - Neurosis on A Sun That Never Sets
I can't honestly say I've ever paid much attention to the lyrics of this song - I know he says "walking amongst the stones from the sky", which conjures an image of a lonely wanderer amidst either a field of meteorites or the Moai statues. But isn't the most successful song one that resonates aurally, not by conjuring visuals or poetry? "Stones from the Sky" presents a series of unforgettable sounds - first the soft, summoning peals of bells, shredded apart by a buzz-saw guitar tone, as if we've arrived to something hideous and destructive. Then the song seems to literally destroy it's own reality - we start hearing static, tracks warble and drop in and out, and soon we abruptly cut to silence.

"The Mosquito Song" - Queens of the Stone Age on Songs for the Deaf
Hey, it's a song that in five minutes conveys the same metaphor that vampire culture has been working on for the past six or seven years! "All of us food / that hasn't died". There's really not much point in writing these songs up except that I write this site and feel some obligation to put some words on the page. Wait, the depression is getting to me! Listen to that negative attitude!

"Desperados Under the Eaves" - Warren Zevon on Warren Zevon
This echoes some of the same themes as "Here Comes a Regular" - the narrator is trapped in the Hollywood Hawaiian Hotel - not a permanent residence or a particularly desirable destination, just a kind of lie. The great moment that sells the tragedy of this song is one of levity - the classic "I was listening to the air conditioner hum / and it went hmmmm hmmmmmmmm hmmm hm HMM HMM HMM". What a genius way to cut the tension of what otherwise threatens to be an overly serious violin assault.

"Living in Darkness" - Agent Orange on Living in Darkness
The early '80s post-Germs American punk scene was bursting with raw youthful emotion, teenagers screeching out as honestly as any musician ever did. While Minor Threat was all pent-up aggression and Descendents were pure virginal lust, no one quite embodied desperate melancholy like Agent Orange. Not melancholy of the mopey, romantic British variety, nor to the nihilistic degree of Philosophy Majors - just a sort of day-to-day existence at a distance from what we're told is "reality". The song (and album) is called "Living in Darkness" - not "Killing Myself in Darkness". It's an active acceptance of this distance from the world, almost a kind of affirmative depression. I love this lyric, which fantastically shrugs at the notion: "Everybody's askin' me, 'what's it like down there?' / The concrete floor is cold, the walls are bare".

"One by One" - Flipper on Gone Fishin'
Some have said Flipper is the most soul-crushingly depressing band of all time. Probably not true, but a song like "One by One" will certainly take your day down a few pegs. One of the particularly effective aspects of Flipper showcased in this song that really puts their industrial peers to shame is the sheer chaos of it all. A lot of proclaimed nihilistic bands like Throbbing Gristle like to show off how meaningless the world is by putting a lot of effort into playing really mechanical rhythms in extremely precise time signatures. Flipper is so done with it all that they're just kind of playing whatever, however, happy just to get out of the studio and back home to their loving syringes. The mess, the incoherence... it's like the world really is crumbling, starting with this song.

I didn't do a great job of expressing this, but these songs are particularly effective at the close of their respective albums. Don't just click on the youtube links I provided here. Or, do, but just as an introduction. These are fan-fucking-tastic albums - some of my favorites of all time - and the idea is that these songs elevate them to the next level in the way that they send them off. Great albums take us through a variety of mindsets and moods, and these particular albums are united in that they end with this particular feeling. As different as the rest of the tracks are, they're brought together by the atmosphere they leave behind.

edit 2:
okay A Sun That Never Sets isn't exactly "fan-fucking-tastic", it's more like "good". Still worth listening to, particularly thanks to the aforementioned closer, and a few other standouts. But the others. Whew. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

What I'm Playing, Majune '13 (Pt.2)

at 4:39 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Let's finish this, you [expletive deleted] fuckheads. Here lies the rest of what I played in the second half of May and first half of June.

But first, a little investigative journalism. Which song is better: "L Dopa" or "Precious Thing"? Ooh, that's a tough one. No right answer there.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Wario Land II (Game Boy / 3DS VC)

Basically, this is the twist - you don't see this until the end
Wario has never reached quite the Nintendo stardom he deserves, first and foremost because his main series lived mostly on handhelds. But the same can be said for Pokemon, and Pikachu was famous enough to earn a crossover with Nobunaga's Ambition. Perhaps Wario sequels would be demanded with the same fervor as Star Fox and F-Zero if he hadn't peripherally been kept alive through the virtually unrelated WarioWare micro-game slop. Then again, I'm not sure Nintendo could sustain yet another line of 2D platformers - they're still juggling Mario, Kirby, DKC, Mega Man, Yoshi, Pokemon Snap, Gran Turismo, and Gran Turismo 2.

Wario Land II is where the fat man really hits his wobble, the previous game being more of a Mario Jr. (as suggested by its prefix, Super Mario Land 3). It's not until II that the visuals take on their trademark cartoonery (this unassuming Game Boy title has far more personality than many 16-, 32-, and cu-bit counterparts) and the design starts to rely heavily on puzzles and weird abilities. There are a lot of lessons to be learned just from the use of enemies here.

The game has a Super Mario World-esque wealth of hidden content - I imagine most players, like myself, will first reach the credits and scratch their head to find their completion rate was only 50%. At this point the game pulls back the curtain and reveals its secret stage-map, providing a much needed clue to uncovering all its content. I'll admit I have not yet delved into what is essentially a Second Quest's worth of new material, so it's a bit of a stretch to claim I'm "finished" with the game. However, I was also driven to kick someone's brain off when I witnessed (after wasting 20 minutes and a youtube search) how deviously hidden are the secret stages.

Games Started:

Ys: Oath in Felghana (PC)

This is a remake of Ys III in the style of modern PSP/Steam Yss like VI and Origins. That means it's a top-down isometric hack-and-slash with minimal RPG elements, orchestral musical arrangements, and fleshed-out story. It reminds me of the non-farming portions of the Rune Factory series. I'm working on a Let's Play of this one, so you'll have to tune into the videos for further commentary.
Prepare to be seeing a whole lot more of this.

Saints Row: The Third (Xbox 360)

I've been seeking an open-world destroy-everything game and last month made the mistake of wasting money on the stultifying Just Cause 2. Instead I should've been looking to the further works of former Red Faction developers, Volition - in particular, Saints Row: The Third. I had brushed off Row 3 when I first read about it, understanding it as yet another Grand Theft Auto 3 redux with a comedy gimmick. While Sleeping Dogs has tired me of city driving, Row 3 at least sports a world-class engine that permits and encourages the insane and reckless stunts which would have been out of place in Dogs' gritty cop-story. That's to be expected, as the Red Faction games excelled at physics. Plus it offers tanks, helicopters, jets, and VTOLs if you don't feel like driving. Row 3's shooting has the visceral, impactful, and decidedly violent feel that Volition seems to do well. I can't exactly put my finger on why, but tearing through a mob with a submachine gun is simply far more fun here than it is in Max Payne 3. Maybe it's that it's not really cover shooting, but more a firepower cock-fight.

God forbid I mention it, but the game also wields a decided sex appeal. The female character models in Row 3 look... uh... really nice. And playing dress up (or dress down, as it were) leads to some satisfying results. It's equal opportunity, too. Meaning that if you prefer to play as a shirtless, chiseled dude, there's a meter that lets you crank up the size of his junk.

Games Finished:

DmC: Devil May Cry (Xbox 360)

Hey, Dante gets white hair at the end! Why do I care about this? Spoiler warning I guess? It signifies the transformation of his character from aimless rebel protecting the human race to white-haired aimless rebel protecting the human race.
Let's talk collectibles for a second, since I've already dedicated a post to story and future-dedicated a post to combat. Wait I changed my mind, let's talk platforming. Tangentially related to collectibles, since collectibles don't work in a game without some kind of interesting navigatory mechanic. One of the sleeper hits of DmC - and I think it was a sleeper even to the devs - is the grappling hook(s)-driven platforming. Like the combat, Dante's traversal techniques are so complex and overwrought that they actually wrap back around to be interesting. He's got a double jump, three kinds of air dash, a blue grappling hook that works like the Hookshot, and a red grappling hook that works like "Get over here!". The fun of the platforming is being caught midair saying "shit shit shit which do I use?!". Failure triggers something more like familiarization that memorization - you've got enough time for each input that you just need to be vaguely aware of what is coming to be able to pull it off. The floaty leeway between each move also means there's a difference between just making it and a badass perfect run. Frankly I'd play a game that was made up solely of this stuff, as I found the late-game climactic platforming gauntlet to be more exciting than the succeeding final boss battle.

Wrapping back to collectibles - they're handled quite nicely through the use of an ambient audio cue. "Hidden" items in 3D games are a can of worms because of camera abstraction - what's hidden to the camera may not necessarily be hidden in the environment. This isn't a problem in 2D, because there's no distinction between environment and perspective (or at least it's minimal). I'm not going to get into which games do it right (Super Mario 64) and which do it wrong (ugh) right here and now, but DmC comes up with an elegant little solution to circumvent the problem entirely - overtly tell the player when a collectible is nearby. Now before we dish out too much undue credit, let's note that 3D Marios do the exact same thing (stars make a telltale tinkling sound) and at least Skies of Arcadia did too, but that doesn't make it any less welcome. These cues mean that the player can naturally explore environments without worrying that the camera is missing anything, and it means that the developers can't get away with hiding an item in plain sight - at the very least they have to use alternate paths, and in the best cases they use platforming puzzles.

As if the uniquely pleasant platforming and camera-stress-free collection weren't enough, DmC throws one more bone onto the bonus content fire: challenge rooms. As did Donkey Kong Country before it, DmC  packs each stage with one to three hidden bonus rooms, rewarding diligent exploration with a spot of fresh gameplay.  All of this bonus content is thankfully tracked by a menu screen that lets you know how much you've done and how much is left to be done in each stage. Perhaps it's all in my head, but the whole experience has a really nice, delightfully old-school feel to it. The only downside - and sadly there is a downside - is that these stages are far too long to casually jump into for completionist runs. DKC and SM64 stages took five minutes from beginning to end, so it wasn't much to ask you to play them over and over looking for that one last macguffin. While the saving grace of DmC is that levels are usually free-roam (and enemies don't respawn), said levels can take anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes to complete. If you find yourself at the end of a half-hour-long stage, still missing one of fifteen collectibles, you're likely to give up for the night - and possibly forever. So take it with a grain of salt - the collectibles are there and well-designed for the 100%-seeking player, but you'll need to be committed to catch-'em-all.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Let's Listen: How I Learned to Love the SID

at 3:41 PM
Commodore 64 games ran their music on something called the SID chip. I don't know much about it, but it emits delightful sounds. This time, I've picked three great tunes from three great SID composers worth researching.

Flimbo's Quest - Reyn Ouwehand

The melody and instrumentation may be saccharine, but Flimbo's Quest also shows off just how well the SID could thump its bass. The structure isn't amazing or anything, but there is a bit of theme variation to keep an ear out for. Most of the joy here is in how full the SID sounds compared to other competitors such as the NES' 2A03 or the Atari 800's POKEY.

Cybernoid - Jeroen Tel

This is one of the few Commodore 64 games available on Wii's Virtual Console, and it's not a bad idea for a game, but the end product is too frustrating to take seriously. Anyway, Mr. Tel here does a good job of demonstrating how well SIDs handle the crossroads of moody and dancey. The drums here will keep you going while lingering tremolo notes ponder high school-quality philosophy. Stick around until 4:51 for a melodic treat.

Monty on the Run - Rob Hubbard

At 0:33, a methodical, foreboding intro finally creeps its way over the ledge of a cliff. Its fall is broken at 0:37 by classy SID drums, and the whole song is set in motion. From here, the melody is more or less strapped to the back of frantically--though regularly--paced drums. Notes vary a little in length, but notes that stray too far from the normal length are only used to punctuate phrases. By 1:45, we've had enough, and the tune lets up with gradually longer notes and a lower pitch (compare it to 0:39). Finally, we're let off the ride at 2:06, ready for another go 'round. The tune seems to be going normally until it runs off the tracks at 2:40, resulting in a guitar solo at 2:49. Monty on the Run already has a good melody, and this solo is okay, but its placement and production put it over the top. It's hardly out of place, but it is a surprise, and it strikes a strong contrast to the tightly-structured first half of the song, which felt married to the rhythm. There's also new liveliness in its production, since it shows off long, winding pitch bends unheard elsewhere in the song. (And if that wasn't enough to top things off, try the violin solo at 4:51.) Chiptune instruments commonly take after real world instruments, but rarely are their identities conveyed as strongly as the ones here. Between that and the diverse structure, this is Rob Hubbard's most impressive SID; it may not be his best, but it scratches the most itches.

I regret not knowing enough about these guys to comment on their general style, but this should at least give you an idea regarding whether or not you're interested in SID.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What I'm Playing, Majune '13 (Pt.1)

at 5:09 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Man this one has clearly been sitting for too long - I hardly remember starting PSIV. Months are long, as Chow Tzu once famously claimed (only to land himself in jail - forever). Gonna split it in half (yay even numbers) for ease of reading, and to buy myself an extra day's post.

Oh. I guess I should add that "Majune" is just my little way of saying "the second half of May and the first half of June". Send me an email at if you would like to purchase the rights to this exciting new neologism.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Anarchy Reigns (Xbox 360)

Yeah, like I was gonna miss this one. A Platinum game and the spiritual successor to MadWorld, one of the three best action games of this generation? So what if the concept is dumb? Vanquish seemed lame too, and that turned out to be Vanquish. Anarchy Reigns is more a fighting game than a brawler (though as we know, those are near-identical genres). Since the online is dead at this point (and I'm not an online gamer anyway), it's nice to see that there's a full Vs. CPU mode that will populate a match with fifteen sim players. The campaign offers up a few time-wasting challenges and large, non-linear Super Mario 64-style levels, providing a gradual introduction to the cast of characters with a few souped-up one-on-ones. The payoff is the expansive roster - 16 characters may not seem like anything incredible for a fighting game, but in a Bayonetta-styled 3D rampage, it's cool to get some variety. It's incredibly out of the ordinary for games like Lords of Shadow or God of War to offer even two playable characters, so Reigns is a bit of an indulgence. How much actual variety is there between characters? I won't tell if you don't. Because not much can undermine the joy of choosing between a double chainsaw and electric hands and gun leg and robo-jet.

Games Started:

Phantasy Star IV (Genesis / Wii VC)

I already pretty much made a first impressions post of Phantasy Star IV. I'm still at it, even if my pace has slowed down as the repeated turn-based battles take their toll. Why can't all RPGs end after 15 hours? I guess it's nice to have more to play later. One comment I didn't make in my prior post is the quality of the dialogue. It's surprisingly great, with a funny, down-to-earth tone. I cannot say I ever expected a 90s JRPG to land this many jokes, and one particular plot twist was that much more effective for it.

SoulCalibur V (Xbox 360)

Can you say "buyer's remorse"? Why on earth would I spend money on this game? "Because I'm a compulsive idiot" is the only answer. I already have SoulCalibur II and IV, and only play them for the single-player modes. So why get V, universally acclaimed as the most pointless and redundant entry in the series? Because I had a craving for SoulCalibur, and something new and shiny is unnecessarily hard for me to resist when I have $20 burning a hole in my pocket. So, yeah, SCV is exactly the same as IV, with all the single-player features and character-building elements excised. I'm only still playing it out of a sense of obligation to punish myself for wasting money. Really it just makes me want to go back to IV and finish the challenge modes I left undone.

I understand that the game is one budget cut away from non-existence, but that doesn't mean it was any cheaper for the consumer. Certain seemingly-minor omissions are simply infuriating. For instance, why can't I set the number of rounds in a match? I don't want to play best-of-five. Why can't I disable time limits? Why are there only 3 difficulty settings? Normal is too easy for me, but Hard is a gigantic step up. The older games had all of these match options (and many more), along with seven or eight difficulty settings. Were they that hard to port over or re-implement? That's the kind of corner amputation that makes me feel genuinely bad to have given Namco money for this. Please, please, please do not buy SoulCalibur V, and think really hard before you buy another Namco game.

Games Finished:

Lollipop Chainsaw (Xbox 360)

Not a long game, but LolliChain is one of the many that's been sitting on my shelf at 9/10 complete for almost a year now. It's got a great score-driven combat system that makes me want to invest time shooting for S rankings in all the stages, but unfortunately undermines its greatest strength with way-too-long levels that don't facilitate this at all. I thought DmC was awfully harsh for tasking me with 100%ing 20 minute levels - Lollipop wants me to perfectly run 30-45 minutes? It has an explicit score challenge mode suggesting this is exactly what Grasshopper was expecting, but why couldn't they break up the stages further?

You might think of Lollipop as No More Heroes minus the bullshit. I guess where "bullshit" means "satire". The result is a succinct and lively romp in line with lesser Platinum games like God Hand. It doesn't have the production quality or sheer sense of scale to rival Platinum's finest work, but its idiosyncratic combat dichotomy (between dance and chainsaw moves, predictably enough) gives it a nice strategic core that will leave you itching for the next battle just to perfect your moves. The boss showdowns are probably a bit too thinly spread, leaving them feeling like an insubstantial element of the experience - they're at a complexity level comparable to No More Heroes or Treasure, but you also only get six of them. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Vitriolic E3 rant #427: Everything still sucks except Mega Man in Smash

at 3:32 PM
The only thing that confuses me is that people are like really happy with Sony and think they're doing a fantastic job. 50% of voters in GameFAQs' daily poll said Sony's conference was "amazing". I won't lie, they're certainly upstaging Microsoft, but I haven't seen a single enticing thing about the PS4 either. I can't even tell how it's different from PS3. That's basically how they're "winning". They stand there and do nothing while MS completely implodes. And they still have a shitty uncomfortable controller with analog sticks in the wrong place. There's no arguing that it's top-notch PR work, but once I get a computer box in my house and plugged into my TV, I'm no longer actively comparing it to the other options on the market - I need to know what it does. It's funny how informed gamers think they are when they can't manage to process information outside of this fallacious "us vs. them" framework. Yes Sony looks a lot better than Microsoft... but take Microsoft out of the picture, then try to tell me what Sony is selling. It's not a fucking war! You don't have to buy any of them! Or you can buy all three! Can we stop acting like "better" == "good"? It's all derived from this must-buy consumerist/addict mentality that defines the "core" (dumb) gamer.
Sony nutshelled: a bland blue background, but at least it isn't Xbox One
I guess dumb-gamers are probably excited over the likes of Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3, but I have some pretty incisive questions about those. Like, when was the last FF game anyone liked? While opinions vary on XII, X was the last classic worth mentioning outside of the "which Final Fantasy doesn't suck" framework - and that came out over a decade ago. Same question for Kingdom Hearts. Since the first one - again, over a decade ago - the series has been treading water. And then there's the exciting thing where a bunch of the indie games I had just assumed were current gen are actually being shuffled to PS4, like Transistor (successor to Bastion) and Klei's Don't Starve. There's no hardware justification driving this, it's completely a marketing ploy. Luckily, they're all coming to PC too, so there's no apparent reason to get a PS4. And don't even get me started on how much I don't care about Elder Scrolls Online. Read lore books in real-time with your friends! "Online" sounds like a good excuse to make a much smaller game than Skyrim or Oblivion and then bank on iterative content delivery. And again, it's not like there's any point crediting it to PS4 - we all know it'll be on PC too.

As for the much-lampooned Xbox One Doritos Dew promotion, free giveaways with junk food have been part of the fabric of consumerism since 1993, so it feels silly to act disgusted. For instance, a quick Google search reveals a Fast Five PlayStation 3 giveaway from 2011. On the other hand, it's weird to see Microsoft advertising this kind of schlocky promotion at the biggest gaming conference of the year (instead of with a TV commercial). Normally such contests are meant to move Gushers or Coke Soda en masse by tying a lottery factor to an expensive and popular reward... this time it seems that MS is acknowledging that cheese-flavored snack chips have a stronger market position with gamers than their hardware, and thus they need to leverage junk food addiction to drive console enthusiasm.
Microsoft nutshelled: now with chips and tiny
Looking at things from an honest, game-oriented, non-competitive perspective, I have to say that Nintendo was the only one of the three to deliver a successful presentation. Maybe they aren't turning the most heads (being that Wii U is old hat), but they're the only company that has news, and any offering of a unique experience. Wii U is the only next-gen console that used E3 to increase the odds I'll buy it. If you were already sold on PS4 or had already damned One, their respective press conferences must've seemed thrilling, adding fuel to the fire of your pre-existing bias. But to a prospective customer who hasn't committed to buying a next gen console at all, they all have ground to gain, more than "we aren't destroying video games as you know it". Nintendo is the only company directly addressing their shortcomings: they need software. And they're showing software. Software that I want to buy. A new co-op Mario that lets us play as the long-dormant SMB2 lineup. Fucking Mega Man in Smash (come on, who wasn't pumping their fist when the Wily's Castle music kicked in - that's the kind of moment that makes me love games). Not a bunch of cross-platform already-on-PC junk. I don't want to sound too optimistic here: Wii U is still a long way from closing the gap. But it's making positive progress. By the same token, PS4 went from "couldn't care less" to "yeah I should get a PS3" and Xbox One went from "laughing stock" to "laughing stock with a few new jokes". Unless you feel morally obligated to buy one of these devices, there's no way to say that Nintendo didn't "win".
Nintendo nutshelled: you can't beat a surprise appearance by one of gaming's greatest heroes
I can't think of a less exciting time to be a gamer. Maybe it's because I'm 24 and I just don't have that youthful exuberance anymore, but I'm gonna be honest with you guys: I've always been a bit of a downer. I [would like to believe I] stopped being a naive fanboy around age 17, which didn't stop me from getting a kick from many E3s following. I had optimism. 2013 does not inspire a lot of it. Except I guess that if gaming goes back to a low-budget niche thing, that'll be pretty much exactly everything I could ever dream of. So in that sense maybe I am excited.

Monday, June 10, 2013

LPGA Terranigma Strikes Back

at 4:19 PM
If anyone would care to explain why Blogger's piece of shit youtube-search function refuses to find videos made by SuperGolemio - even when I search by the exact title or URL - feel free to fill me in. It bonus pisses me off because it used to work. Google has developed an unfortunate tinker-tendency, by which they seem a little too happy to remove features on a daily basis. So, despite Google's relentless efforts to keep LPGA down, here are another 30 beautiful minutes of Terra: Nigma.

Friday, June 7, 2013

DmC had all the elements of an epic adventure, so why did it feel so... insignificant?

at 5:22 PM
Let me first remark that DmC, evaluated solely on the basis of gameplay, was terrific. It was a really fun game, the rare combat-actioner that kept me engaged in the mechanics all the way until the end and left me still wanting more. It somehow managed to grow and grow, always giving me something new to try without feeling like it was overwriting my old techniques. I can't wait to play it again, and I can't wait for the inevitable sequel. But let me save the specifics for the upcoming head-to-head with Bayonetta over the title of Action-Game-of-the-Generation.

Great though the combat was, any game that drags on for 21 hours needs to sustain that with at least some story depth. The quest spanned a number of increasingly surreal locales, but the surrealness of it all eventually became a weakness rather than a strength. When each area tears itself apart into a bunch of floating platforms floating across apocalyptic skies of swirling rubble and firestorms, it doesn't much matter whether it started as an upside-down skyscraper or a labyrinthine soda bottling plant. A bit more grounding would've served to give the environments more character and could've lent a more epic feel to the dreamlike wandering.

The scripting also let down what should have been a spectacular journey to free humanity from a sinister demon crypto-regime. Simply put, we spend far too little time in the actual human world with actual humans. DmC's high concept is that present day society is actually being run as a demonic dystopia without our knowledge - evil world-domination hooliganry is being carried out in a parallel dimension by monstrous overlords quietly enslaving our souls. The real-world components of this dastardly plot are a soda manufacturer that repackages succubus vomit (yeah) as a mind-numbing energy drink ironically titled "Virility", a news mega-corporation broadcasting propaganda and imprisoning dissenters, and the military-industrial complex strong-arming the villains' will. Rebellious but slacking demon-slayer Dante is forced to voyage through Limbo, the parallel soul-world where all of these machinations are visible as what they really are, to disable the Pepsi, Fox News, and US Army counterparts from the inside. This is actually an awesome plot! It sounds great on paper, combining elements of dimension-hopping, dystopian sci-fi, and socio-political commentary.

Unfortunately, a lot of high concepts sound good on paper - the trick is making them seem real. DmC never manages to pull it off because it spends almost 100% of the narrative in Limbo, never giving us a feel for the plight of humanity. The intermittent propaganda-news broadcasts are a nice touch, but we should be seeing how people react to them. Is it like the real world, where we shrug off Fox News or the Liberal media as being biased, or do people actually buy into it? I understand the concept of Virility, but how does it actually affect people? Does everyone drink it? Does it make them stupid, or are its effects unseen? I couldn't even figure out if this was supposed to be the real world, a near future, or an alternate dimension, because no places or names are mentioned. Limbo doesn't have anything to contrast with and thus seems to exist in a void alongside all the other fantasy worlds we experience in games. When I'm in a twisted office building or walking down a crumbling street, I don't feel like it has a real-world counterpart. I just feel like I'm in demon world. And therefore, I don't feel like there's anything to save. This just feels like the post-apocalypse, trivializing the whole story into a small battle between a handful of heroes and villains. The heroes feel less heroic and the villains less villainous - it's just a personal squabble.

Our primary protagonists, Dante and Vergil, should've been humans, and they should've had real day-to-day lives. Instead they have no contact with humanity, being characterized as loner outsiders who hate demons... but seemingly hate humans too. Or at least don't care about them. The fact that they're Nephilim (angel-demon hybrids) doesn't matter at all, it's dumb backstory only used to explain why they're so badass and able to enter Limbo. As every action movie and game ever has evidenced, audiences have zero trouble accepting that a normal human can be essentially super-powered (for Christ's sake, look at how much we love Batman), so this is just stupid. Let them find a mystical artifact or family heirloom to allow them into Limbo. As a matter of fact, it actually makes them less badass that they're born with superpowers - I'd feel more vindicated playing as an underdog human rising to take on the demon threat. But we all know why the Nephilim thing exists - because this is a Devil May Cry game, and Dante has always been an angel-demon. If this game hadn't been saddled with the series backstory, I guarantee Dante would've been human. And since this is a reboot anyway, I don't see why he wasn't.

The token human we do get, Kat, has magical superpowers-by-birth too, so that's fucking stupid. She too is an outsider who's been tormented by demons all her life. So she serves as a really shitty connection to humans, and Dante's claim in the climax that humans are "worth saving" - because of Kat - loses all its meaning.
A token character in more ways than one.
Are humans worth saving because they're all magic? I don't think that's what Dante meant. I'm awfully tempted to side with Vergil, that she was just a tool. She was magic, so she was useful. How am I supposed to sympathize with Dante? The humans couldn't save themselves. So maybe the Nephilim do deserve to rule. Wow, I just realized that this is the plot of The Protomen. Weird.

I'm glad Vergil turned on Dante, it wouldn't have been Devil May Cry without that. An equal-footing duel also made for a much better final showdown than the mundane giant-by-the-numbers Mundus. But I really wish it was better justified and had more impact. Vergil's big emotions line, "I loved you, brother", falls completely flat when we never got any social interaction between the brothers at all. The game seems to take place in like, a day, and they just met. Vergil is left mostly behind-the-scenes, with the woefully weak Kat-Dante romance taking the spotlight. We needed to see more of the brothers working together, get some banter and maybe some shared childhood memories. I wanted to care about having to fight him. The writers clearly knew they didn't have enough to build a real conflict, so they throw in the whole debate about Kat's worth at the end, which feels transparent and perfunctory. And this is where it all comes back to the lacking presence of humanity. Dante and Vergil's fight is over the fate of the entire human race. But it feels like a petty argument because we never see or care about the human race.

This may seem like a lot of analysis for what is supposed to be a dumb action game, but it was so long that it could've been an epic masterpiece. The elements were all right there, which is what makes it so disappointing that it never took off. Hopefully the next reboot will get it right.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wario Land II: New levels of interactivity

at 4:25 PM
This isn't one of those posts that has a thesis or an opinion or clever wit and finery. It's the kind where I just analyze the factors behind Wario Land II's invincibility mechanic and think to myself, in my head, if it's all really worth it.

One of the most idiosyncratic features of Wario Land II is that Wario possesses no concept of health or dying. Instead, his foes' attacks have unique results. A hammer-wielding foe may smash Wario into a bouncy spring, a flame-thrower may set him alight, or a bird-bee's sting may cause his head to balloon, carrying him off the ground. It's all rather... Looney Toons-y. In a very fun way. It gives appeal to danger: how can I hurt Wario in a useful way?

From a game design perspective, these provide a twist on a time-honored tradition: the power-up. Each of Wario's wacky new states brings a slight variation to his rules of control, opening new avenues of progress to the player. The correspondence of enemies to power-ups isn't new - Kirby uses the same dynamic. So it's the dispensary method that has to be mined for gameplay - what new interaction does it facilitate beyond what is accomplished with ?-blocks and enemy drops?

1.) It changes the way the player interacts with the power-up
Since these power-ups are enemy-triggered, it's natural that they can impede progress as easily as they can benefit it. Really power-up is a misleading label, since the changes to Wario's abilities are more a lateral move, enabling and disabling him. This encourages the player to look at why they need this new ability - what are they hoping to gain from it? In Contra, grabbing the Spread Gun is never going to hurt your progression, so it's a why not - it's not a decision at all to take the power-up, but a linear progression. The focus isn't on what you're going to do with it, rather it's on how it's different from what you already had. It's a character-centric notion of powering up. Wario Land II offers situations where a power-up may be beneficial or detrimental, so you're less concerned about nabbing the new ability, and more concerned about discerning how you might use it. If you get smashed by a hammer dude, is there somewhere you're actually going to spring up to? Or should you be moving down? This makes for a progress- or environmental-centric notion of powering up.

2.) It changes the way the player interacts with the enemy.
Tying an enhancement to an enemy behavior means that the player has to trigger that behavior to progress. They don't need to attack the enemy - rather they need the enemy to attack them. The enemy is not static like a ?-block, nor is it fully unpredictable. It conforms to movement rules defined by patterns and intelligence - movement rules that can be manipulated by the player. This is a form of indirect control, as the player is using their input to try to elicit a particular output. In Wario Land II, this tends to take the form of drawing enemies from their spawning area into a region where their power-up-attack is needed. This is more complex  than simply hitting a switch or pushing a block, as it engages the player in the activity of transference.

Wario Land II is a sophisticated game that succinctly presents much of what makes platforming enemies fun. In some sense, it is for enemy interactivity what Super Mario Bros. was for environmental interactivity fifteen years earlier. It stands as a clear testament that a platforming hero needs to do a whole lot more than go through a world to keep players engaged.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Who is Here?

at 2:16 PM
Who doesn't like scholarly retro reviews? Sit back and enjoy some critique on the culturally crucial classics, Karnov and Socket.

Karnov is Here

Socket is Here

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dynamite Headdy: Starting off on the wrong foot

at 4:59 PM
A game's introduction is like a poem. Short, to the point, and written with the understanding that no one is going to read it. It is one of the most troublesome challenges game designers face - nay - the troublesomest. Also I have no idea if that's true. Yet the question remains: how do you tell the player why this game is great, while simultaneously bringing them up to speed on what's going on? How do you quickly draw them into the world and its mechanics without boring or completely overwhelming them? Do you hold their hand through a series of baby steps, or do you push them into the deep end and let them sink or swim? It's a Goldilocks problem: give them too little and they won't see what's special, but give them too much and they won't absorb any of it.

A good writer would start you off with an example of a game that nails this. I'll cheat my way through this paragraph with a list; since Dynamite Headdy - a game illustrating what not to do in an introduction - inspired this piece, Dynamite Headdy is the game I'm going to write about. If you want a great opening segment, look to Super Metroid, Mega Man X, Dark Souls, or Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Actually it would be pretty interesting to read a comparison between the hilariously steep learning curve of XCOM: UFO Defense with the great tutorial level in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Until someone writes that, you get to read about Dynamite Headdy! Fuckin yeah!

If you don't know Dynamite Headdy, this'll be an absolute treat. It's a Sega Genesis cartoon mascot game! The most celebrated genre of all time! That belittling sarcasm will seem ill-cast when I mention that Headdy is the work of acclaimed studio Treasure Ltd., creators of Guardian HeroesRadiant Silvergun, and . Now I've got your attention! Treasure! These guys excel at two things: speed and boss fights. Despite their finesse when it comes to mapping out an action sequence, the Treas-boys rarely manage to pull off the whole enchilada. Their lack of polish is somewhat charming in under-cooked gems like Alien Soldier and Sin & Punishment, but it often serves as a barrier to entry. Case in point: Mischief Makers. Ah shit, I don't want to write about that garbage. Case in point: Dynamite Headdy. It's a solid shooter with tight mechanics and a bevy of rewarding boss fights. But no one could be blamed for tossing it into the trash heap after the first fifteen minutes.

"Wow, Greg. Don't you feel like an idiot for hating this game for years, ignorantly missing out on a strategic action romp set to killer rock tunes?" No, me, I don't. Know why? Because Dynamite Headdy does everything in its power to obscure its value from the player, hiding behind a misleading exterior that feels almost like a rude bait-and-switch. Remember how I once said that a platformer is something a little more complex (or a little simpler) than "a game that looks like Mario and has jumping"? Well, Dynamite Headdy is why. From afar, Headdy looks like it falls right into step with Sonic, Rayman, and all the other platformers of the mid-'90s. The engine could certainly serve well in one. It's even been erroneously categorized that way by many critics and historians. But it is not a platformer, because it does not revolve around varying and evolving platforming mechanics. The player will need to navigate here and there, and there is certainly a platforming level and even a platforming boss fight, but this is first and foremost a combat game, challenging the player to defeat a vast array of enemies in order to survive and progress. More specifically, it is a shooter, meaning that it allows the player to aim and project damage away from their vulnerable avatar (I will break this down further at a later date).

Now this is starting to make sense. Of course it's a shooter, right? That's what Treasure is known for. So, beyond its looks, how is it so easy to confuse Dynamite Headdy for a platformer? Gunstar Heroes looks ambiguous from screenshots, but as soon as we pick up the controller we know we're going to spend the next thirty minutes running and gunning. Yet Headdy pulls a fast one. Let's start from the beginning. The first level is a sort of auto-running cinematic in the vein of Sonic 2, which at first obscures that the player is even in control. Check it out (gameplay starts at 2:03):
This can be forgiven, as many games start with a kinetic blast from a cannon to get players' blood pumping. It's a trope that's only become more prevalent as time goes on. This dumps off into a short boss fight which is too quick to really register, serving more as a character introduction than a gameplay showcase.

From here we enter tutorial town. Headdy is again ahead of its time in busting out an actual in-game tutorial in an era when most games expected players to check the manual or learn on-the-job. Nonetheless, this segment is brief and misleading (though thankfully, for replayers like myself, wholly optional). It teaches the player three things: what power-ups are (which won't be news to gamers and is completely overwhelming due to the game's huge glut of varied and somewhat pointless weaponry), how to grab hooks (also not really necessary, as Ristar and Castlevania IV organically introduced the same elements), and that attacks can be aimed in eight directions (yet again pointless, as the hook-tutorial teaches the same thing). Understandably, this will probably lead the player to believe this game is going to be about grappling to hooks and using power-ups. Kinda weird, as these feel like (and do end up being) sideline elements, but okay, let's move on. We can skip this part anyway.

Stage 1 proper begins about five minutes into the game, and this is where Treasure decides to really fuck with us. The first six minutes of this video:

So it is Ristar? The environment is a few screens talls, enemies patrol and die with one hit, and platforms map out a few linear paths. There are even a few collectibles scattered about. Headdy jumps and slings his way to the right in search of an exit. Then there's a boss battle.

Then there's another boss battle. Then a flat scrolling stage with only a handful of jumps. Then three more boss battles. Then some puzzles. Then two more boss battles. Then a shmup level. Then another boss gauntlet. So why was the first level platforming? I don't mind throwing some in (later on) for variety's sake, but it's a borderline lie to open with ten minutes of it. Especially when it's the game's weakest suit.

The master of all fuck yous in an intro - and this may sound like a nitpick, but is empirically terrible design - is to start off with something the player will never see again. Even within the bad choice of starting a boss-game with a platforming stage, Headdy one-ups this with a lie about the platforming. Go back to that last video and watch the first two platforms again, the orange-and-blue ones with oranges hanging from the bottom that zip toward Headdy when he grabs them. These provide the first defining moments of real gameplay, when the player is forming his idea of how to interact with the game for the next thirty minutes. It is in these moments that we say "oh, that's how this works". So whatever we see in these moments holds a whole lot of weight. Why would you throw in some shit that is neither interesting, eye-catching, nor will ever come into a play again? The player is now constantly expecting platforms to zip around like this - but they don't! Come on Treasure, what purpose does this serve? It's not even a fun rug-pulling, it just provides an "oh. What the hell was that all about?" Fuck you.

When all is said and done, that intro level is the only real platforming Headdy contains. There's a lengthy environmental-puzzle section strung together by platforming in the middle, but it's more about flipping switches and mobile machinery. Most of the game is just boss battles. Luckily, they're good ones - I'm not sure anyone is better than Treasure when it comes to boss fights. As such, I really recommend checking out the game, but make sure to give it some time to sink in. A lot of frustration is to be blamed on the truly moronic welcoming party.