Friday, August 30, 2013

Phantom sexism and the would-you-play-it-with-a-girl fallacy

at 6:38 PM
Sexism in games is a perpetually hot topic, not just because it starts with the word "sexi", but thanks to games like August's Killer Is Dead, Grasshopper Manufacture's typically sexually charged new release. While the reviews are all over the place, a common thread has been that Dead's Gigolo minigame is unnecessary and sexist, but doubly sexist because of its unnecessity. I don't want to have to try to decide what sexism is, nor (unfortunately) do I get to decide what offends people, so I'm not going to bother to positively or negatively categorize Gigolo missions as sexist. I honestly believe that many of the reviewers decrying the game are genuinely upset by its content. Maybe some are putting on a show to get site traffic, win friends and influence his uncle, but there is definitely underlying honesty to the overflowing conservative sentiment. What this says about our American culture, our gaming culture, and our perspective on gender relations, I'm not going to try to field. To that end I can only say "it doesn't offend me. You may disagree!". But when it comes to allegations, criticisms, and intelligent debate, jesus fucking christ the gaming community needs to grow the fuck up. [the gaming community has a lot of growing up to do.]

See, as a journalist, it's not your job to tell the world you think a game is sexist. That's your opinion and it's totally sw33t and can make a great thesis - if you're willing to treat it like one. But no one gives a shit what you think. [But no reader loses a minute of sleep over] They give a shit about your constructive reasoning and supporting evidence. [What they're looking for is]You can't just tell me that a game is sexist and expect me to take your word for it. This is quite literally what we all learn in high school English. Likewise, we learn not to invert other people's claims, but to counter their arguments. So I'm going to pick on one particular argument I've seen come up multiple times re: Killer Is Dead, as it's extremely common in the video game realm and - perhaps fittingly - extremely fallacious.

This particular sexism-win-button goes something like this - and this is a direct quote from an unspecified mainstream review of Killer Is Dead: "I would feel ashamed if my parents (or anybody who’s relatively unfamiliar with games) saw me playing Killer is Dead" - the idea being that you would be mortified at being 'caught' with this material, and that therefore the content must be sexist, because sexism is offensive and the only thing that causes interpersonal distress. And this hypothetical scenario (often with "girl" or "girlfriend" instead of "parents") is supposed to make you feel ashamed to be playing this game, ashamed that this game exists, ashamed that you are a gamer, and ashamed of video games. Sigh. The sad thing is that it's so easy to go along with. That's why it's such a go-to argument - we can all picture our embarrassment at our mom walking in on... just about anything. That thought brings forth a surge of negativity which we grab like a Sonic & Knuckles cartridge and immediately lock onto the targeted game, which becomes a scapegoat for our sexual awkwardness.

The problem is that whether you would play a game in front of someone isn't particularly indicative of the work's handling of the content, but of the content's appropriateness to your relationship. Creating a fantasy scene of playing the game in your parents' basement or on a first date immediately adds dozens of other variables to the situation, calling to mind classic circumstances of sexual tension, restraint, and repression. Of course these will be situations in which sexuality is unsettling - regardless of its presentation. The hypothetical has nothing to do with the unsuspecting observer's reaction to the specific content; instead it questions how comfortable the player is with communicating (through shared perception) in a certain (here sexual) capacity. In fact, invoking would-you-play-it-with-a-girl is really just a bland observation that "this content is complex in nature", with a corollary of "I bet you aren't too comfortable expressing yourself sexually. You're an American heterosexual male, and a gamer to boot". 

The school of thought that brings this argument against Killer Is Dead would also assure us masturbation is sexist, as is porn, underwear, anatomy textbooks, and nudity. 

So really - and let me just give an aside here that I don't think a hypothetical thought-exercise is ever the basis for a valid argument - but really, were we to go down this road, the only type of opposite-gendered person I would expect anyone to feel comfortable with sharing sexually explicit content with is someone with whom they were sexually intimate, or at least open. Probably someone they've, y'know, leered at once or twice themselves, and from whom they've received a few lustful gazes. 

Here's a different hypothetical situation that I pose for comparison. Pick in your head a romantic, but definitely erotic, love scene from a film. Something you consider completely egalitarian. I'm not trying to get into anyone's personal definition of romance, so I'll leave the scene choice to you. Maybe you chose [I literally can't think of anything. ...I'll say] the um disembodied mutant-head-on-mutant-head-banging at the end of Basketcase 2. So now, let me ask: would you want your mom to walk in while you were watching that? Would you throw it on for neighborhood movie night? Whatever your answer here, I'm sure it's the exact same as your answer to the same question about Killer Is Dead's Gigolo mode. Does that mean that everything to do with sex is sexist? By our subject contention, yes. Which is why this contention blows. Which is why writers that use it blow. Which is why the current English-speaking gaming discourse blows.

While discounting this tricky setup certainly can't serve as a disproof of sexism, it at least disengages the accusation from interpersonal sexual communication. We can come to a deeper understanding of a piece of art by examining our own relationship with it - no information about the work is contained within outsiders' perception of our consumption. There are far more revealing questions we can ask, among them, "how does the work represent women as a whole?" and, "in what ways do I identify with the protagonist in this scene?" Being offended or ashamed isn't the grounds for productive intellectual analysis - it's a superficial reaction, rooted in a personal worldview, that succeeds from our subconscious identification with a stimulus. To have a worthwhile conversation, we need to move beyond these emotions and look at the formation of our perceptions - put simply, we need to ask, "why?"

Bearing that in mind, I'll leave you with a short video of a Killer Is Dead Gigolo mission. Through the filter of another player and without the context of the game, this will be somewhat robbed of purpose - unless you've played Dead, you don't know Mondo, you don't know the girl, and you don't know what it feels like to be in control of the situation. Nonetheless, I think it'll spawn some kind of reaction in the viewer - enough of a launching point to start questioning perception.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sonic Generations - Sonic Team Hates Classic Sonic

at 6:28 PM
Having jumped straight from Sonic 3 & Knuckles to Sonic Adventure to Sonic Generations, some might say I have an idealized impression of the Sonic franchise. That I didn't wade through the mires of ShadowSonic '06, and Unleashed, so my positive reaction to Generations is ill-informed at best, baseless at worst. I say: A.) fuck that attitude and B.) I tried and opted not to play many of those games. And for some reason I played two of Dimps' spinoffs, Sonic Colors (DS) and Sonic 4: Episode I, neither of which was particularly great. That said, Generations is a terrific place for anyone to return to the series, or to start with the series, or to continue the series. It's an exceptionally fun game. I'm leery of evaluating its longevity just a few days after purchasing, but the main gameplay is reliably lightning-fast racing fun, and there are a wide variety of technical challenges on offer. It's just... when it comes to the modern/classic dichotomy, it seems to convey the opposite message about the series history than the one you'd expect.

Just to give you an idea of the game's content: there are nine main stages. They've been designated into three generational chapters and are based on what I guess are considered the nine primary series entries: Sonics 1, 2, and 3 & Knuckles, then Adventure, Adventure 2, and Heroes, then Sonic ('06), Unleashed, and Colors. This provides a pretty wide variety of mostly recognizable settings, the joke of course being that the remade stages are almost all the first or second of their respective games. Surprisingly, that's not detrimental aesthetically - the lush Green Hill Zone couldn't look any Foreigner from the ethereal and alien Planet Wisp, nor could the frantic suburban City Escape from the European carnivalesque Rooftop Run.
The difficulty curve is a bit of a letdown - it's there, but late. Crisis City (stage 7) was the first stage where I felt at all challenged, then Rooftop Run held that note and Planet Wisp was actually a touch hard. These final levels took a lot longer to complete (>10 minutes) and contained genuine deaths from under-performance rather than randomness. Still, I woulda preferred those three levels as the middle set with three harder to follow. Also, even with an extended final boss sequence, ending on the Colors stage is weird. I realize there's not much they could do about that - that's just the order of the games - but the hardest stage is also the one with a big gimmick? That's just doubly frustrating.

Considering that the entire concept of the game is that Sonic has been divided between his Classic and Modren self, I couldn't help my dismay that Classic Sonic was sidelined as the story drew to a close. While the meat of the game is divided precisely 50/50 between the Sonics (each main stage and challenge has an Act 1 (Classic) and Act 2 (Modern)), the decisive events (read: boss battles) are dedicated to one Sonic or the other... but mostly to Modern. The first two boss fights are Classic; the subsequent four are Modern. The final battle is neither, but one could say it technically falls into Modern (if it's not old, then it must be new...). Like 'em or not, the boss fights are the game's Really Big moments, providing most of the challenge, plot progression, and catharsis of the campaign. And the latter two-thirds of these moments are given to Modern Sonic.
Beyond that, both Classic and Modern stages reflect traditional and latter-day design ideals, but with a distinct preference for recent trappings. The debate of whether Classic Sonic is genuinely in tune with Genesis Sonic is a separate one*, but it can be agreed that Generations establishes Classic as a gameplay paradigm distinct at least from its own Modern Sonic. Except that as the game progresses, the Acts 1 (Classic) begin to adopt the definitive elements of Modern Sonic: the crazy dynamism, floating platforms, powerful enemies, goofy power-ups, and so forth. This would make sense in a game dedicated solely to Classic Sonic: as he visits the worlds of '06 and Colors, we'd want to see those trademark concepts appear and be incorporated into the Classic formula. But that's not what Sonic Generations is - Sonic Generations is a game that theoretically runs the current Sonic play-style in parallel with that of years past. Because of this progression in Classic Sonic's stages, the two styles kinda converge at the end - the modern feel is obviously there all along in Modern Sonic, and growingly present in Classic. It's redundant - we already get to experience the stages in their new-fangled glory when playing Act 2 - isn't Act 1 supposed to be showing us the traditional underpinning? Why is it also showcasing the modern features? Makes Classic Sonic feel pointless, like they don't know what to do with him.

Though the slanted representation is quantitatively accurate according to the series' history (like it or not, 3D has been Sonic's modus operandi for almost two-thirds of his life), it's not aligned to popular perception, or, moreover, the promise of this game. I can't help but feel like it serves the agenda that Classic Sonic Is Gone For Good. Generations' endgame can be taken as a declaration of the ideal state of the Sonic character: first, as the culmination of his latest appearance, it should demonstrate the pinnacle of the principles guiding up to and through this game. Second, Generations story is quite literally the story of the series, so its climax should translate to Sonic's climax. That these key moments star Modern Sonic and his according style of gameplay seems to suggest that Classic Sonic has no place in the conclusive, evolved state of the series. Sonic Team kinda seems to be saying "our vision of the optimal Sonic experience does not involve the original Genesis foundation". Which is a really weird thing to say with the game that you dedicated to bringing back Classic Sonic! It's wildly cynical (and hardly something I actually buy), but you can almost imagine the pitch as, "let's do a bait-and-switch where we lure 'em in with the assurance of the good ol' days, then prove that the Colors gameplay is better!" Still, that's my takeaway from Generations. Not "both Sonics have a place in the world". Instead, "we've weighed both Sonics. We prefer the Modern one."


Sonic I said hang on.
Thank you. I realize it's pretty unfair to make you read that much and make me write that much to at this point say "eh I've been withholding a secret theory". But I'm not going to invalidate anything I've claimed so far. The endgame definitely puts the focus on Modern Sonic, and as established, Generations doesn't break from our narrative tradition of rising tension and climax, so there's no questioning that Modern Sonic makes the strongest impression after a first play-through. But this does suggest a second reading of the game, one I haven't yet pursued. In particular, it raises the question: do Modern Sonic's early stages present an abundance of classic design? That is to say, is the inverse of my heretofore observation also true? It's not something I picked up the first time through (I think Modern Sonic's Green Hill Zone just felt like Sonic Adventure's Emerald Coast), but without a read in mind, the initial stages of a game often whiz by. So that's a little homework for the next time you play Generations. Write down the ways in which the first few Modern Sonic stages are inspired by the Genesis games. Maybe the whole game is a see-saw. At the moment, that remains pure speculation.

*as the resident expert, hopefully Greg L. will cover this in a companion piece - suffice to say that Classic Sonic is at least inspired by Genesis Sonic and does try to emulate elements of its design, like stop-start pacing and pathfinding.

Monday, August 26, 2013

LPGA Terranigma: Star Power

at 8:58 PM
Yes it's finally that final episode where Paul (aka Ezio) guest stars. This is, for all in tents and porpoises, "the good video". We each had our own mic, we added game audio in post, and we had a nice balance of game commentary and chatter. Plus you can actually tell what our voices sound like! We also summarize a lot of the earlier aspects of the LP, so this is a great jumping on point.


Friday, August 23, 2013

Let's Listen: Theme and Variation

at 4:30 PM
When one song repurposes the melody from another, it can bring new meaning to familiar content. In Super Mario RPG, it extends the range of a character's influence; in Ninja Warriors, it relieves tension; and in Blaster Master, it sheds new light on your surroundings.

Super Mario RPG

Fight Against an Armed Boss

Dangerous Town

I tend to label video game synths as bassoons when it's not appropriate, but I think the first lead instrument here truly is supposed to be a bassoon. Its lower pitch fits the gravity of a boss fight, while its pompous, uh, character (???) strikes an absurd contrast to the slaptastic bass on show here. Super Mario RPG is an absurd game, and its boss fights are no exception. Bosses are constructed of weaponry; menacing in theory, but these guys take on super sentai personas, wear googly eyes, or something along those lines. In both music and character, boss battles are a mix of the serious and the silly.

In Super Mario RPG, when a boss holds an entire town in his grasp, the Dangerous Town theme plays. Between the woodblock and the twangy plucked thing, it's almost got the feeling of a lawless town in the old west. Best of all, though, an accordion and wind section join forces to play the Armed Boss theme with slower, more deliberate notes. The boss' essence can be felt throughout the town not just by the grim state of affairs--whether the townsfolk are harassed by Shysters or paralyzed by arrows--but also by the very melody in the air.

Ninja Warriors

Final Stage

Final Boss

I have a hunch that every pair of stage and boss songs in Ninja Warriors shares themes, but I've never been able to put my finger on it definitively. I can hear it most of all in the game's final stage and boss tunes.

In part, that's because the final stage theme revolves around a string synth that goes slower than most of the game's music. Ninja Warriors music is fast, hard and obnoxious in a fun way, making this final stage song notably serious (fitting for a final stage, I guess).

It opens with a foreboding sequence of strings and breaks into its real theme around 0:28. The bassline hits the same note over and over, occasionally building upward, but it's always cut before it can release its tension naturally; it snaps back to its starting pitch. This makes for tension, since the bassline never gets a chance to finish. That is, until the chorus comes in at 1:14.

The bassline's relief is accompanied by higher pitched, less depressing strings. The strings in particular approach a sappy, poppy cheerfulness a little after 1:37. It's a simple rising sequence that goes something like "da da da da"--a stark contrast to the anxiously long strings from the rest of the song.

As for the final boss tune, it spends the first 25 seconds getting the player ready for a fight. After that, you still have the stage theme's pensive strings with halted basslines, but the tempo is raised to fit a higher pace of combat. Couple that with quick, darting whistles where the stage tune had a fading guitar.

And don't forget Ninja Warriors' beloved orchestra hit--it's all over nearly every song from the game, but it's absent from the final stage tune. For the final boss theme, it's back at 0:47 and ready to rumble. However, proper relief doesn't come until 1:12, when the boss tune's version of the chorus enters. The stage's chorus politely concludes its melody soon after 1:50, but in the boss version, the chorus launches upward around 1:35, leaving orchestra hits to recover.

Blaster Master

Stage 1

Stage 2

The first stage in Blaster Master evokes a sense of wonder. You follow your frog into a deep, dark hole, only to find a jumping car and a huge underground world brimming with life, both plant and animal. The stage's theme fits that context well; it extends notes to match the awe and scope of an undiscovered underground ecosystem, while a sense of glee and excitement comes through the main melody with moderately high pitches. Meanwhile, a simple, quick beat keeps things peppy. I always imagine the rhythm section here times itself to Blaster Master's car bobbing up and down as it cruises along the ground.

The second stage takes a serious tone. You've just come off of your first boss fight and discovered your first hidden passage, and it's clear that you've fallen into a world constructed of mystery and danger. Stage 2's take on stage 1's theme comes at a lower, more sober pitch.

The bass spends most of the song hitting one note at a time, setting an appropriate mood by keeping things low. When the bridge kicks in with its long notes (starting at 0:19), though, the bassline rises a little to create tension. It also weaves up and down, bringing more tension when heard alongside the bridge melody's lengthy notes. The parallel moment in stage 1's theme comes at 0:40, where a higher bassline comes off as joyful rather than tense.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

This Knuckles characta'... he ain't so bad afta all

at 6:51 PM
Yes, Sonic Adventure. A lifetime to journey, a nighttime to master. We've never covered this one before, so I thought it was time to broach the subject. Actually, my frustration with the game finally abated enough that I could play it again, so that's it was time to broach the subject. Most of what I had left to complete was the 'other' characters' campaigns, so I've been rotating through them. Quick update:

E-102 is like a thrill-a-minute roller-coaster of twists and turns - and that's just the story! You won't know what hit him when the shooting starts!

Big I gave up after like

Amy gives the best feel for the geometry of the levels since she's so landlocked, though the sorry excuses for puzzles make her levels feel pretty fluffy. The Nemesis-character is comically un-threatening - I kinda like that. Hammer-jump is fun, but I never feel like I get a chance to use it.

Tails feels like a cheap half-excuse for an expansion - his shortcuts are used once or twice to provide a decent idea of challenge (I like them in High Speed Highway), but mostly just skip chunks of levels (Flying Sky Deck). He's also the second (and lesser) flying character. 

Hey check out this secret message hidden in the names of all of the characters in Sonic Adventure:
Big E-102 Amy Sonic Tails (...and fuckin' Knuckles)

Knuckles though - that's a controversial subject. My original exposure to the 3D Sonic series (and in fact the first Sonic game I ever knowned) was Sonic Adventure 2: Battle (how'd they come up with that amazing subtitle?), in which Knuckles/Rouge comprise a full third of the game, and also, Knuckles raps. 
Like I was gonna do a post about Knuckles without including "Pumpkin Hill", Roger Ebert's song of the year 2013*

So these let's-call-them-epic scavenger hunts pretty severely turned me off to Knuckles forever. I'll admit that I haven't played Adventure 2 for almost a decade, so my objectivity is likely out of tune, but these "adventure" stages were flagrantly unwelcome - especially because I really liked the Sonic/Shadow levels and just wanted to get back to them. Knuckles' portions of the game dragged on interminably, featuring way too many giant pits, endless cliff-climbs, and collectibles obnoxiously hidden in nooks specifically chosen to confuse your radar. Plus Knuckles (and the camera) was a chore to control, never clinging to the right places, never seeming to want to climb around corners or straight up walls, and just overall weirdly calibrated to the environments. There was some horrifyingly ill-conceived drill mechanic too, wasn't there?

As such, I swore off Knuckles forever as "stupid. just stupid.", and never really intended to play his stages again. While I've yet to return to 2, here I am with Sonic Adventure on XBLA, and, having completed most of the other content, I finally decided to give him another shot. I'm wielding a positive attitude (as I have to, to be playing a Sonic game) - I want to at least enjoy, even if I don't immensely appreciate, these levels. And I have to say - so far, so good. Well, so far, mostly so good.

I like that the (ca)Knuck' actually has some sense of speed - it keeps him from feeling like a total stranger in environments designed for Sonic and, on a simpler level, is satisfyingly in keeping with his Genesis presentation. He has to make the most of gliding and that sadly still-godawful climbing, but the broader stage traversal can have nearly the same pace as the rest of the game. Knuckles seems to serve as an example that it can be fun just to wander around in this particular world with this particular engine, that there is some actual architecture going on in the stages. By comparison he makes the other characters (well, and his own) Adventure Fields look pretty pointless and terrible.

Though largely illogical, the shard-hunting has been easy thus far, which is at odds with my worst memories of SA2 - I wonder if it's truly much different, or if I just know how to play video games now. On one hand, I want to complain that the shards are scattered pretty randomly, leaving little choice but to comb the level and wait for the radar to ding. Conversely, I can theoretically appreciate this design decision - Knuckles is, in fact, methodically combing the surface world for arbitrarily dispersed shards of the Master Emerald. Clues and clever puzzles might make for better fun, but they would disengage us from the reality of that setup. On the third or fourth hand, I find that to be an extremely optimistic point of view, because there is plenty else at hand to diminish the story context of the missions, even if the game was attempting verisimilitude (which I must declare I haven't felt - but Sonic Adventure is one of those games where you kinda have to go looking for intention - it rarely comes out and grabs you). Like, how did the shards get inside a casino? Why are they in groups of three?

But as far as echidnas go, something something fine by me!

*according to his final words before passing

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Jedi

at 8:49 PM
This is a pretty timely observation for anyone who's just watched the second Pirates of the Caribbean film, Dead Man's Chest. Maybe your new girlfriend is trying to get you into the series, maybe you've just time-traveled here from 2006, or maybe, like me, you've been reading co-scribe Terry Rossio's fascinating column on Hollywood screenwriting, Wordplayer, and were interested to see one of his most successful films. I've never been a Pirates fan (if you couldn't tell from the fact that I didn't watch the second movie until ten years after the first), nor do I particularly understand its place in pop culture history, but it was at least sort of a big deal. See, I was discussing this with Greg L. the other day, and we agreed that the franchise doesn't seem to have had much longevity - if you liked it then, you probably really liked it, but no one [I've ever met] goes back and learns about it now, makes jokes and references, or demands spinoffs. I mentioned to my brothers that I was considering watching the second movie (we had seen the first together way back in ~03) and they were truly perplexed why I'd even consider it. Then again, the series gross box office is calculated in the billions of dollars, it transformed Johnny Depp's critical/indie appeal into an all-ages mainstream cast-him-in-anything-and-it'll-sell IP, and it got a line of Legos and according (Lego) video game. Yes, somehow, consciously or subconsciously, I judge a property's cultural penetration by whether or not it got a Lego video game. Think about it - you've got Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Batman, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Except for those last two, those franchises are all 30+ y.o. Nerd Holy Grails, and Harry Potter is easily the most famous piece of English literature composed in the past two decades (sorry book-heads, it's true).

Regardless of why, what, and how I watched it, my main takeaway from Dead Man's Chest is that Good Lord is it exactly Star Wars. This is the second time in two weeks I've done a list of comparisons, and again I'll point out that this isn't intended as a criticism, nor am I insinuating that Rossio, Elliot, Verbinski, and co. pirated from the classic franchise. I had plenty of problems with DMC (Devil May Cry?), but the Star Wars parallel wasn't one of them. Let's start with the cast of characters - without them, this is little more than storytelling tropes 101.

William Turner - Luke Skywalker
The dinky "true" hero that is too plain and do-gooder-y to truly empathize with. Not only do these characters function identically in the movies, they get the same fan reaction as well - tepid disregard in favor of the more obviously conflicted and, well, badass 'other' lead. I've never truly understood the Luke hate (he's not nearly as whiny as people make him out to be), but I suppose seeing the same role in a shallower movie made me sympathize a bit.

Captain Jack Sparrow - Captain Han Solo
This is where it all starts to click. They're both snarky, sarcastic, roguish, and of questionable (but in the end, decidedly good) moral character. They're in it for the material goods, until the going gets rough, in which case they stick their neck out for our hero. One's a pirate, the other a smuggler. They each own a prized ship which ferries the main characters around, and re-possession of this ship plays an important role in the story. These characters provide the cliffhanger between the second and third movie of the trilogy - they are taken away from us at the end of the second (Han is frozen in carbonite and Jack is eaten by the Kraken) and the remaining heroes set out to rescue them (with a fill-in captain, no less). 

Keira Knightley - Princess Leia
Sassy (sorry, it's true), motivated, and willing to take the reigns, these leading ladies are torn between the main heroic lead (Will/Luke) and his tough-guy counterpart (Jack/Han). They both hail from noble families and are the daughters of important political figures (one a governor, one a senator). 

Davy Jones - Darth Vader
The main baddies, both turned evil by lost love. One of the final developments of Dead Man's Chest reveals that Jonesy is gonna be working for the Empire next time around - kinda like Darth Vader, u no? On paper he's got some similarities to Darth, but on screen his presence doesn't demand comparison (especially with that ridiculous Scottish accent... god I want to shoot whoever decided that should be the villain's voice). But that's why we've got...

Boothead Bill - also Darth Vader
The fathers-who-were-never-there of the heroic leads, these characters have turned to the dark side and joined the ranks of villainy - but wait, there's still some good left in them! Will and Luke are on a quest to redeem their fathers, risking the dark side themselves to do it.

Those two guys that are exactly like R2-D2 and C-3P0 - R2-D2 and C-3P0
The two bitchy comedic relief tagalongs are a hallmark of Kurosawa-influenced film-making, first made famous in his The Hidden Fortress. Star Wars fans know that R2 and C3 are perhaps the most fundamental narrative device borrowed from that classic - they serve as skeptical, grounded intermediaries through whom the audience can approach the grand scope of the saga. The two trashy bottom-feeders that stick around through Dead Man's Chest are even more reminiscent of Kurosawa's cynical, opportunistic, and cowardly peasants than are Star Wars' droids.

Tia Dalma - Yoda
More a concurrence of plot than character, these are our wise sages that live somewhere out in the swamp. Kinda humorous to continue the parallel lines beyond sight on this one - we're told Jack Sparrow and Tia Dalma had a romantic fling once upon a time. What does that say about Han Solo and Yoda...? Also, maybe it's just me, but I can't understand a damn thing Tia Dalma says, which I guess could be considered Yoda-esque.

James Norrington - Lando Calrissian
This is the weakest of these character parallels, but considering it's basically the only remaining main character, I may as well point it out. Both Norrington and Lando are figures from the past with some long-standing grudge against our captain. Of course, while we meet Lando flying sky-high with power and money, Norrington arrives on scene just in time to hit rock bottom. The main point of comparison is that these characters betray our heroes, leading respectively to their capture. 

There's also something with that Barbarossa guy where I bet he's the real Lando, since he takes Jack's place in the third movie and was also a former owner of the Black Pearl (Millenium Falcon). But since the movie I watched didn't have him at all, I can't much say.

Now let's look at some of the films' broader plot actors and their similarities.

The British Empire/East India Company - The Empire
Well, the bad guys are a big gigantic empire that rule the entire filmic world. Their omnipresence provides more of a lurking threat - ya never know when an Imperial ship is gonna show up! There's no equivalent to the Rebellion in Pirates, cuz, you know, history, so the overall tack of the story is more about evading the Empire than overthrowing it.

Cannibals - Ewoks
Hey, it's a long sequence where a tribe of natives takes our heroes captive! Yup, both the cannibals and the Ewoks catch the hero party in a hunting trap and drag them back to the village, presumably for some kind of feast/sacrifice. They both make one of the heroes their new king (Jack in Chest, C-3P0 in Jedi), although this plays out differently in the end (turns out it's a bad thing to be King of the Cannibals, and instead of teaming up with our heroes for an epically weird battle against a comically inept battalion of Imperials, the cannibals... chase a dog over the horizon). 

The Kraken - the Death Star
Unstoppable superweapons. The Death Star destroys planets, the Kraken destroys ships. While ostensibly a living creature, the Kraken displays no will of its own - it obeys Davy Jonesy and blows up the things he tells it to blow up. The superweapon is what transforms our antagonists from a malingering threat to an aggressive force, forcing the need for direct confrontation. And the Death Star Plans macguffin is pretty similar to Davy Jones Heart, in that it's the one thing that can stop this destructive force - but that's inherent to any narrative where a hero has to destroy something.

The Black Pearl - the Millenium Falcon
This goes without saying - it's the mobile home base of the heroes, a bit of a macguffin at times, and sort of a character of its own. Well, at least I think the Pearl was supposed to take on some kind of life - in practice it never really occurred to me that it was different from any other ship.

And to top that, here are a few near-identical scenes. These are just what I remember off the top of my head - the Star Wars comparison didn't occur to me until almost a week after watching Dead Man's Chest.

Han/Jack being prepared as a meal
a.) In Return of the Jedi, when the Ewoks have captured the party, they've got them tied to logs and are parading them towards a fire pit for a celebratory feast. As Han Solo hangs from the the log and the fire is lit below him, he comically and futilely tries to blow out the spreading flames. 

b.) In Dead Man's Chest, when the islanders have captured the party, they've got them tied to logs and are parading them towards a fire pit for a celebratory feast. As Jack Sparrow hangs from the log and the fire is lit below him, he comically and futilely tries to blow out the spreading flames.
Sorry, this was the only screen-cap I could find
The last kiss before Han/Jack's capture
a.) In Empire Strikes Back, Han is captured by the Imperials and shackled in the freezing chamber. As he is being walked to the trapdoor, Princess Leia steals a long, passionate kiss and confesses her feelings for Han. She is pulled away, and this is the last any of the heroes see of Han.

b.) In Dead Man's Chest, Jack is tricked by Keira Knightley and shackled to the Black Pearl's mast. As he is being walked toward the mast, Keira steals a long, passionate kiss, subversively expressing her feelings for Jack. She pulls away and heads for the lifeboats, and this is the last any of the heroes see of Jack.

The part where they're stuck in a net
It's made of rope in Return of the Jedi and bone in Dead Man's Chest, but come on. Same trap. Again, if nothing else was the same, it'd be one thing, but....

And let me reiterate that the second movie of the trilogies have the exact same cliffhanger. Han/Jack is captured by the villain and the rest of the heroes join up to get him back. Greg L. tried to tell me "yeah but every second movie in a trilogy has that cliffhanger" and then proceeded to name exactly zero.

So it's really that these are character-driven stories, and with a very similar set of players, the rest of the events become eerily familiar. There are a lot of adventure epics, and of course all stories derive from the same basic archetypes, but these aren't basic archetypes anymore. If you think I'm reaching, come back with another movie that has the exact same tripartite lead structure (hint - it's deeper than "love triangle"), AND the same hero-villain dynamic (father-son, lightside-darkside), AND the same setting (swords, seas/space, ships, islands/planets, empires), AND the same major plot beats (captured by primitives, hero goes off by himself to find father, love triangle, the betrayal, running from a superweapon, and of course that cliffhanger). And considering that the filmmakers know a whole lot more about film than me, it's probably intentional - and if it isn't, someone at some point has to have said "hey guys - you realize we just made Star Wars, right?"

Monday, August 19, 2013

LPGA Terranigma: Pushing through Chapter 2

at 5:57 PM
This one's actually pretty good, I recommend it. Especially if you've ever been in a Tom Hanks movie.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Capcom Arcade Cabinet in brief, Pt. 2

at 3:47 PM
Some more Capcom Arcade Cabinet overviews.

1943 Kai - This is a (bizarro) arrange version of 1943 - the stages are essentially the same, but now there's weird anachronistic stuff like lazer-beams. What's strange is that Capcom felt they needed to reserve that kind of thing for a spinoff, as if the success of 1942/1943 had been based on their historical accuracy. Honestly it's not really its own game, so there's not much to recommend, but diehard fans of 1943 will certainly appreciate the new variety. 

Ghosts n' Goblins - The original Gs n' Gs, this is very familiar ground for anyone who's ever touched the series. The arcade version of Ghosts n' Goblins runs closer to its next-gen sequels (the Ghouls n' Ghostss) that it does to its own home console port for the NES, though admittedly there's little difference between any of the early entries. It has more of a shooter feel than the gimmickier, platformier Genesis and SNES games, but will certainly satiate anyone's hungry for more Arthur. Though I'd of course recommend Demon's Crest or Gargoyle's Quest first.

Gun.Smoke - I really hate this game. It's another basic variation on the vertical scrolling shooter, but by this point it feels like Capcom was really arbitrarily varying the rules to justify original releases. It's a hyper-primitized Commando, what perhaps we would get if someone forgot to have the second half of the idea for that game. And, while I may find Commando painful to play, it still gets credit for being its own thing. Gun.Smoke does not.  The player can shoot in three directions at a very limited range and the screen auto-scrolls. This is not a strong concept, but not an inherently bad one. What makes Gun.Smoke so unplayable is that A.) It doesn't realize it auto-scrolls and B.) the mechanical parameters (range and speed) are so heavily weighted against the player that it just feels quarter-feastingly unfair. B is self-explanatory; on A, the problem is that enemies crowd up near the top of the screen and just back up along with the rate of scrolling, so you get completely overwhelmed. This is just a wildly pointless and unfun affair, and I challenge anyone to stomach even the first level - especially with 16 other arcade games in the collection to tempt you away. Plus, love Wild Guns though I may, the Wild West is a really stupid setting for a shmup.

Trojan - Hey, an arcade sideways walker! Alright! Well, al-okay at least. ASWs, eh. Trojan certainly doesn't break the mold - it's gimmick to compete with Altered Beast's transformation and Astyanax's power meter is... a shield! I'd say it's almost too slow and boring to be considered an ASW, then I remember how Altered Beast plays. The particularly bothersome thing to me about Trojan is the attack range. See, it sounds like I'm complaining about really trivial things. But you play ~20 arcade games from the same company and the same four-year period back-to-back and try having deep thoughts. It's just boring. Arcade games weren't any good til at least the '90s, and even then I take them with a grain of salt. Anyway, frickin' attack range. It's one of those games where your range is so short that if you mistime a swing against an oncoming enemy, you immediately get hit, so you end up just spamming the attack button. Think Ninja Gaiden or Batman (NES). Also, what's going on with the setting in this game? It's like cyberpunk with a tiny dash of ancient Greek. Like if Spartans stalked the trashy streets of Double Dragon. Needless to say, no one needs to play this.

Avengers - This one's kinda unique in that it's so ill-conceived. All I can figure from playing Avengers is that someone at Capcom spotted Double Dragon and said "we have to one-up this concept as quickly as possible... can you guys make a street-fighting game from our Commando engine?"
I really hesitate to call it a beat-'em-up, because frankly, it's not, but that's the concept and the marketing tagline. "A top-down beat-'em-up". But there's really no fighting in the game - it's just Commando with a short-range attack. You steam-roll shmup-like swarms of dumb enemies who possess no sense of self-preservation and go down in one hit. There are separate buttons for punch and kick, but the attacks are largely identical (except that kick has longer range), so there's no incentive to alternate or create combos. It's almost worth playing just to ponder if this abject failure is what drove the company to produce the genre-defining Final Fight just two years later.


This wasn't such a great group. Lotta yikesers. Can the last batch save the oven? We'll see what Section Z, The Speed Rumbler, and SonSon have to say about it, and if they have any cooking tips either.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Terminology aside: "shmup"

at 4:35 PM
Y'know, there was a day and age when I refused to use the, ahem, word "shmup". I insisted on calling them "scrolling shooters", which I still find to be the more appropriate and descriptive term. "Shoot-'em-up" is vague, incredibly broad (it's used liberally for everything from Space Invaders to first-person shooters to Jason Statham movies), and has an almost condescending connotation. The shortened form, "shmup", has the added bonus of sounding moronic and being indecipherable to newcomers - describe a game as a shooter or an adventure and most people will be able to do the mental gymnastics to get at least a foothold on the concept (hey, that mixed metaphor kinda worked), but drop a term like "shmup" and you're talking a different language. But eventually I got tired of typing "scrolling shooter", and "shooter" alone is obviously insufficient, so I Caved and started using "shmup". 

I'm still conflicted though. I want you to know that every time I type "shmup", a little part of me cries out in anguish, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. On one hand, we could conclude that anyone unaware of or unable to decode the meaning of the term probably wouldn't get anything out of my commentary anyway. On the other hand, perpetuating stupid terms heaps even more dirt onto the perceived wall between "gamers" and "non-gamers". Our community is insular enough as it is; it certainly isn't the right attitude (or my attitude at least) to say "if outsiders don't understand, then they don't deserve to understand". It still grates on me every time I hear someone say "I don't play video games", as if the medium could be summarily assessed. How often do you hear "I don't watch movies" or "I don't listen to music". Then again, "I don't read" is pretty much the calling card of the 21st century. Still, video games don't suck like books. Don't say that.

Anyway. Capcom. Arcade games. Some good. Some bad. Most unremarkable. Tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Come on Gradius II, you KNOW I have OCD

at 5:33 PM
I know I said this wasn't going to turn into some kind of Gradius fan-blog, but apparently, it did?

I've been so fucking hung up on Gradius II in the past week, and I don't mean I've played through it like eighteen times, I mean it's taken about five days to complete just five levels.

A little background here - I love shmups. I've probably mentioned that before. They're both a guilty pleasure and a genuine intellectual interest of mine, and I will play (or at least try) just about any.

On the flipside, I suck at shmups. I've never been reflex Johnson, I have no sense of rhythm, I can't learn kinesthetically, and therefore, I'm really bad at replicating, repeating, and improving upon precise inputs. This has a lot of fun widespread implications, like that I can't play instruments or sports, but more importantly, it means I'm almost comically bad at precise action games. Fighting games are the worst (lame, as I also love fighting games), but shmups really hurt too. I'm not trying to paint this like a disability or something, I still have fun. Just suck, and always have to take it with a grain of salt when someone says "this game is hard at first, but after playing for a while it'sa no problemo!"

The complicating factor is that I'm pretty much obsessive compulsive. Maybe I never bothered to whine at a doctor, but how many people do you know who wash their feet every time they touch the floor? This mental defliction has a twofold application to shmups: first, I play every game (shmup or otherwise) on Normal difficulty the first time through, no matter what. I will never turn the difficulty down to Easy unless I have some kind of ulterior motive (like if I'm trying to get video of Easy mode... I'm not that crazy). Second is that I can't stand using continues/lives beyond the initial supply (i.e. "inserting credits"). I literally can't have fun if I'm using difficulty crutches - my brain won't allow me. But I also suck. So what you get is that I just don't finish a lot of shmups.

Man what was the point of this post. I wrote that title/opening a few weeks ago and now I honestly have no idea where I was going with it. Or if I was going anywhere. There has to have been some specific way I was going to tie it to Gradius II

I think it's that I broke my rule about no continues because Gradius II is really hard but also has well-contained levels that don't really bow down to a full set of power-ups, so you may as well play each one as an individual game. Not to mention that my degrading quality of play over the course of a session would mean that after about an hour, I would be losing on Stage 1 about 75% of the time, and therefore was spending the lion's share of my playtime on... Stage 1. Which I knew I could beat. But because I broke my rule, I had to make a trade, which was that I would beat a level every time I sit down to play. If I'm gonna continue infinitely, then I need to force progress somehow, such that I don't sit down to the exact same level every time I play (again, boring). And I really wanted to beat the game. So I've gotten into these long sessions that drag on endlessly because my best few attempts come at the beginning and then my concentration fades and I start having a lot of stupid deaths, but I insist on continuing because the idea of stopping is too frustrating to even consider. 

So then there was a pure memorization level, and my patience was really put to the test. And in the end, I gave up. And guess what? I haven't played Gradius II since. That's what happens when you break your promises. That's why you never get out of the tree.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Weird Google searches that lead here, answered

at 5:30 PM
A pretty reliable source for a quick laugh is Blogger's list of top Search Keywords that have led to this blog. We aren't exactly highly indexed by Google, so some really weird stuff gets through, along with a few very specific keyword combinations. Some persistent hits over the ages have come from:

"is lawrence of arabia on netflix"
Nope, but I have it on DVD if you want to drop by for a watch.

"la-mulana original"

"video game movies on netflix"
I can see why that leads here, though I have no thoughts on the subject.

"best trpg" or "best srpg"
That makes sense, I did a classic little top ten.

And, naturally:
"brother sister sex incest"
I assume this came up because of the Sister Sonic post, but who, in their search for incest porn, is clicking on that link? It's not like Google doesn't give the page title and an excerpt.

Last week we had some real winners among the regulars:
"mario's ugly"
What kind of asshole searches for that? Give the poor guy a break. Of course, the ugliest Mario is Baby.

"blob fish"
Sigh, I just can't even begin to guess how that led here. The post about Space Manbow?

And, drum-roll please, perhaps the best anonymous Google search I've ever seen:
"what does jumped the sharpedo mean"
I guess it just means this:

So I just beat Sonic Adventure and, um...

at 1:55 AM

Monday, August 12, 2013

LPGA Terranigma: If you like kitties, you'll love these videos!

at 11:39 AM
Alright we got two crazy videos for you crazy guys and gallons out there. Time to get wild and crazy in here. Oh and these ones aren't so good is why there are two. But don't worry - it'll get better next time! And Terranigma's still good, so keep on keepin' on!

Sorry about the stupid Mexican Yelping Cat in the background who ruins all the comedic timing and good jokes. I can't even imagine the masterpiece this video would be without it. My girlfriend at the time lived with me at the time and had a cat at the time who had a broken leg at the time. As you know, cats are the worst animal on the planet, so it felt the need to yell and scream whenever anyone tried to have a conversation in the same room as it. And don't you dare feel pity, the damn thing lived like a king and was rolling on painkillers 24/7. It was just whining for the attention that it constantly got. So I apologize that even our patented hellishly bad Let's Play sound quality couldn't drown it out. It's another Christmas miracle that the thing made it out of my house alive.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Injustice is relatively broken

at 3:13 PM
This seems like a lame thing to say, but Injustice: Gods Among Us has some really fucking terrible bugs. Every time I think I've seen the game crash for the last time, something else goes wrong. For a game with otherwise such high production quality, in three weeks it has crashed more times than any other 360 game I have ever owned.

Here's the thing. Random crashes, freezes, framerate drops, and glitches are pretty annoying. Some games have more than others (Western RPGs, PC games, and ports, I'm staring +5 ice daggers at you), but they happen, then they go away. For instance, I don't hold it particularly against XCOM: Enemy Unknown that at least a half dozen times over the course of the game, enemies spawned on top of one of my units, or something randomly exploded on the battlefield. I quickly learned to save often - when I reloaded, the glitchy behavior wouldn't repeat. It was an annoyance, and maybe it took me out of the game a tiny bit, but whatever. Injustice has this kind of bug - sometimes it takes for-fucking-ever to load the character select screen, or a special effect won't show up. Oh well. That's not what makes me call it broken.

It's that Injustice has widely reported errors that 100% prevent the game from running. From loading beyond even the title screen. It sat on my shelf untouched for three days; each day, I would get home from work, boot it up, wait until it froze at some point before the title screen, restart the Xbox, give it like three more tries, then give up. This is a brand new disc (though I keep all of my discs in sparkling condition, and how dare you insinuate otherwise), so there's no questioning that it's a software issue. Eventually some research online revealed that clearing the game's local cache could fix this problem, and so far it has. Still, it really burns me that I spent $60 on something that completely ceased all functionality after just a few days. No other game I have ever bought, used or new, 1986 or 2013, has done that.

And that was just the FIRST problem. The game has crashed three other times, not reproduceably, but simply while trying to start an offline story, arcade, or versus match. What the hell is this? How often am I to expect these crashes, if I've experienced so many (and a repeating problem) in three weeks? What happened here? Netherrealm or Warner Bros. really dropped the ball on testing. And this is without even mentioning that the game slows to a crawl (essentially hangs) every time the Xbox OS tries to pop up a message during a fight (e.g. for an Achievement or a Notification). I hardly even want to know what it must be to play like online, or if you're one of those people that have friend notifications popping up all the time.

This isn't exactly a "spreading the word" post or even a caution against Injustice. More just bitching. But seriously, what the fuck?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Hey Lunar Knights, have you played Beyond Oasis? I think you have.

at 7:36 PM
Western or Japanese, it's hard to draw a straight line connecting today's big-budget action-RPGs to the middle-aged '90s classics of yesteryear. Western games like SkyrimDragon Age, and The Witcher 2 reach wayyyyy back to the well of DnD role-playing, really just speeding and spicing up the combat to excuse its presence in the modern era. Simultaneously, the Japanese industry has shown preference for bringing RPG mechanics to other genres like combat-action and survival horror, creating a paradigm "lite" on the RPG, exemplified by games like Monster Hunter, Dragon's Dogma, and Dark Souls. Wherever you is, the genre has become a Frankenstein's monster, drawn from a heterogeneous mix of popular trends and ancient techniques rather than evolved naturally from a common ancestor.

So whatever happened to the '90s-style action-adventure-RPG - what many would call the most beloved genre of the 16-bit era? Where are the successors to treasures like Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Crystalis, and Ys Book I & II? Well, the most immediate answer is that 3D happened. And with 3D came a re-evaluation of the entire medium, a new stepping stone so significant that it essentially classifies as reincarnation. The later, more sophisticated 2D games were put aside, because it was no longer important to try to achieve lofty goals in 2D - we had 3D for that. It was back to the drawing board, time to reconceptualize. Kinda like putting aside the crayons and moving on to acrylic. And that's why gaming's evolution as an artistic medium looks something like this:
This is one of the very few times I've made something so pointless and stupid that even I hesitate to put it here
So the straight line from 1985 to 2013 is dotted even in the best of cases, because there's a huge disconnect around 1995 when everything was just rethought altogether.

But I am WAY off topic here. The point is that once in a while, there is a pretty comprehensible direct lineage. One particular example is what are sometimes referred to today as hack-'n-slash RPGs (though that's a somewhat broad term). Specifically games like Shining Soul, Ys: Oath in Felghana, Contact, and Bastion. They're very closely related to 3D combat action-adventures (particularly the adventurier ones like Darksiders), but, while those games have developed from the influence of actioners like Devil May Cry, adventures like Twilight Princess, and roguelikelikes like Diablo 2, these are simply descended directly from '90s action RPGs like Seiken Densetsu 3 and Soul Blazer. Case in point: Konami's 2007 DS hack-'n-slash Lunar Knights is a carbon copy of Ancient's 1994 Genesis adventure Beyond Oasis.

Ironically, I played Lunar Knights four years before I touched Beyond Oasis, the latter sending chills down my spine. Before I get into a list of the two games' similarities, permit me a disclaimer. This isn't an attack on Lunar Knights. First of all, the two games are over a decade removed and radically different aesthetically. Moreover, Beyond Oasis is a commendable design to copy. It's a long defunct property, a fun game, and a style we don't see enough; I'd be a total hypocrite to complain. Some of the items on this list are going to seem comically insignificant - for instance, tons of games use food for healing items. But when all the minor elements are the same, the coincidence becomes a bit, eh, noticeable. I also realize that Knights is the fourth game in the Boktai series, but since the original Boktai came out many years after Oasis, that's really a moose's point. 

The biggest parallel between the games is the simplest to express - they're both very similarly structured hack-'n-slash action-RPGs that have very few puzzles, very little character building, a combination of swords and ranged weaponry, huge bosses, and focus almost entirely on combat. They're by design very similar games, the same way that Phantasy Star IV is similar to Final Fantasy V or Neutopia is similar to The Legend of Zelda. But, by this same token, we could throw into the pot a lot of those other hack-'n-slashes I mentioned, like Bastion or Shining Soul. Lunar Knights goes a step further, and it's really the little things that sets it apart, or should I say... sets it together?!

In both Lunar Knights and Beyond Oasis:
1.) At the end of each (primary) dungeon, you collect an elemental sprite/djinn. The magic system is composed of summoning one of these lil' dudes to float over your shoulder and fire off elemental attacks.
- The one-elemental-per-dungeon thing isn't so crazy, it's done everywhere from Secret of Mana to Tales of Symphonia. It's just that they function identically in these games, as over-the-shoulder options.

2.) Magical energy is recharged any time you're outside and not using magic.
-Really, two games that take into account when you're in- or outdoors? That's pretty rare. The whole premise of Boktai was that the sun recharges your magic (as it does in Lunar Knights... and apparently, Beyond Oasis).

3.) Enemies erupt from the ground
-This is really just an aesthetic thing, but outside of the Ghouls and Ghosts series, how common is this?

4.) Palette swaps of enemies (particularly slimes) represent different elemental affinities
Palette-swapping isn't all that rare, nor is correlating color with elemental attributes like fire and ice, but the elemental-themed similarities are starting to add up.

5.) A pretty random assortment of food is used for healing/magic restoration.
-Both games use apples, oranges, cheese, fish, and roasts for healing, which when combined with...

6.) The inventory is a a 4x4 grid of thumbnails
-...makes for very similar looking menus. Displaying tiny thumbnail images instead of item names isn't that uncommon (Secret of Mana does it too), but it's hardly the standard. And since the items are so similar, every time you go into your inventory you feel like you're looking at the same game.

7.) There are (almost) always three meters displayed on screen: health, magic, and enemy health. They're even in the same spots (though horizontal in Knights and vertical in Oasis check out the screen below).
-Probably the most minor of the commonalities, it still caught my eye when looking at screenshots.

8.) The protagonist grabs his wrist to summon magical powers
-This one is definitely a stretch, but whatever, we've got seven already. The "Golden Armlet" features heavily into the plot of Beyond Oasis and is used to shoot a ball of light which summons magic spirits. Though Lunar Knights doesn't have any magical wristbands, the characters still grab their wrist to summon light into their hands. But the wrist-grabbing gesture has been a part of Japanese culture since basically forever (maybe Ultraman does it or something? I highly doubt it comes from Mega Man or Power Rangers, but is in both), so this really doesn't count.

Whether any of these details were actually copied from Beyond Oasis, whether the designers were unconsciously inspired, or whether it is really pure coincidence, the fact is that the games play extremely similarly anyway. If Beyond Oasis wasn't the first full-blown hack-'n-slash, it was at least one of the first. So it's all just kinda... humorously eyebrow-raising. The takeaway should be that anyone who likes one of these two games and hasn't played the other owes it to themselves to remedy that. Lunar Knights is probably like $5 on Amazon and Beyond Oasis is on Wii Virtual Console, or, better yet, that fantastic bargain of an anthology: Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.

As for traditional 2D action-RPGs, looks like they're still alive in some form. Of course, Oasis was the most straight-forward, combat-oriented '90s ARPG I've ever played, so the fact that it's left some legacy isn't exactly evidence that we're swimming amid new Terras Nigma.

As for Beyond Oasis being the missing link (to the past) of combat action between Legendary Axe and Devil May Cry, well... that's a different talk for another day.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Let's Listen: Unreleased Games

at 2:05 PM
A game might go unreleased, but with the power of the internet and dealings of dubious moral standing, we have the power to hear what it would be like to play many unreleased games from yesteryear. Here's three of them.
Sonic Crackers

We start today with a chill track. Sonic Crackers is the beta form of Knuckles Chaotix, or at least, it's an unreleased game strongly resembling Knuckles Chaotix. If this song sounds familiar, it's because Knuckles Chaotix spiffed it up to get Evening Star.

None of the tracks from Sonic Crackers are long--most loop before 30 seconds are up--but they all feature the same main theme. Maybe it's because I've heard it repeated so much, but I find it a particularly memorable one. Not to say that Sonic isn't chock full of memorable melodies, but this one is terse and distinct like few in the series are.

The melody follows a funk-ish beat that's aided by a wistful, echoy high-pitched synth and a simplistic bassline that's there for no reason other than to hear the Genesis slap bass one more time. For the number of things going on at any given time, Evening Star keeps a relaxing tone.

With Sunman, Sunsoft had another superhero game featuring Batman-esque combat. Originally planned for the Superman license, Sunsoft lost the license, turned "per" into "n," and eventually buried the game never to sell it. Sunsoft also lost the Terminator license, but at least that game came out as Journey to Silius. Plus, they got Gremlins 2 and Fester's Quest.

Anyway, most of the Sunman soundtrack keeps an uneasy beat, as you'll notice right away here. While the tune is catchy, it's also not as well produced as most later Sunsoft NES tunes. Bits like the twinkling at 0:17 evidence that someone who knew some NES music tricks was at work here, but that person was unable to finish up the track. As it is, we've got a nice basis for a song. To be fair, this is one of the least released Sunsoft games of all, having never been released.

There's also the Superman version of the soundtrack, which sounds much more complete and ready to go to stores.
Time Trax

Time Trax was an early 90s science fiction TV show. It received a game on Super Nintendo and Genesis, each version with its own soundtrack. The Genesis one never surfaced, however, only showing up last month and bringing with it a Tim Follin soundtrack. Tim Follin, along with his brother Geoff, are known for fantastic OSTs such as Solstice and Plok.

Tim has a track here chock full of swagger. In the opening, two FM guitars shred it out, taking their time to explore the theme at hand. I'm not entirely sure why when it comes to the details of this track in particular, but I find myself focusing on the time spent varying each theme. Tim Follin has a way of going crazy with his songs, and you'll see what I mean here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What I'm Playing, July's end '13

at 5:38 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

Thank god July is finally over. Ever notice what a bizarre, unpredictable month it is? Every year it's like, "nothing in July is gonna surprise me this year", and every year it gets weird. Sometimes it's good stuff and sometimes it's bad. Sometimes you discover Devo, sometimes a city blows up. Sometimes you lose your virginity, sometimes you lose your best friend. Sometimes you have a fun barbecue and sometimes you get addicted to drugs. It's July. Heightened reality. Frankly I say it's the heat what makes everyone act so crazy.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Super Mario Land (Game Boy / 3DS VC)

Well yeah, this game is short as shit and easy too. People always point to New Super Mario Bros. for starting that trend where lives are pointless because you finish the game with like 50, but I found that to be the case with Super Mario Land as well. I had twenty-some lives upon first completion. It just really loads you up with the coins.

That said, once you die, the dyin' don't stop. Because the game has such wonky physics (Mario goes from zero to sixty in less than a millisecond, gravity seems to be a constant instead of acceleration, and your sprite has a tiny hit box (which means a tiny landing area)), it's all about getting into the flow of things. As soon as you lose your grip, it's easy to die 5-10 times in just a few seconds. That was my experience, at least. The game only offers one continue, but since it's only about ten minutes long, even that seems unnecessary.

Games Started:

Capsized (XBLA)

Here we've got a nice little indie-that-made-it-to-the-big-times-after-many-years-and-then-didn't-really-get-the-attention-they-deserved type story. Capsized isn't all the way there, but it's at least the genesis of a great game. It's basically a linear weapons-heavy Super Metroid, not too different from the recent Bad Bots or Shadow Complex, though far heavier on the atmosphere. Capsized starts off on a real lazer-foot - for one thing, the foreign jungle planet teeming with life is a really nice, not particularly common setting. Okay, Avatar and that, but I can't really think of another game short of Turok that reminds me of this environment.

The problem is that Capsized feels more like a playground than a finished product. The physics are great and the shooting is a blast (a blast!), but the levels don't hold together well. There are occasional half-baked puzzles and some decent structurally challenging fights, but too often things completely fall apart and you feel like you have to cheese or glitch your way through to the end - like no one actually bothered to take the time to make sure that the solutions worked. There were times I was kinda surprised I was playing a game on XBLA proper (a game for which I had spent money) and not the Indie Marketplace, because Bleed feels far better put together. The game looks and controls professionally, but the level design just isn't there. It's not even that it's bad or ill-conceived - it's just so raw and messy that it feels like a first draft - something unfinished or put together with a different game's level editor. I think it's extremely telling that the game has four different ways of high-jumping - a jetpack, a grapple beam, wall-jumps, and a force-push that can be aimed at the ground. Surely a bit more time spent in the levels would have demonstrated how redundant these are and led the developers to either prune a few or design specifically around them.

This is more of a nitpick, but the atmosphere is also undercut by the lack of progression in the narrative. The protagonist has crash-landed on this planet and is now on a rescue mission, recovering his crewmates. I'm now 3/4 through the game and that's literally all I know of the plot. There's been no detail of the original space mission, no history or investigation of the nameless planet I've crash-landed on, no scope or context whatsoever. I don't even know if I'm waiting for a rescue ship to pick us up or hoping to rebuild my escape pod. I think the developers/writers had all of this information in their heads, but didn't realize how tight-lipped they were being. It's just frustrating to watch a neat idea spoiled by the weak aping of age-old silent narratives.

Dragon Quest IX (DS)

Time for a little Dragon Quest, Nein? That was German for "Time for a little Dragon Quest, No?" In conclusion, I guess so. The DS of course had a million Dairy Queens to choose from and everyone's got their own little opinion on which is best, so I decided to go with Famitsu's 40/40 Game of the Year 4040, Dragon Quest IX. I like a little battle animation to go with my RPG, and besides, it got me into a conversation with a cute girl at Gamestop about JRPGs, and she actually wasn't a retard. Like, she knew who Yoko Shimomura was and Vanillaware. I know, that's some compelling story. Save it for the autobiography and all that.

Dragon's Quest IX both does the JRPG thing better than most JRPGs and does the WRPG thing worse than most WRPGs. By that I mean to say, you know how there are three basic levels on which town-crawling RPGs set up plots? You know them, so I'm not going to say. Okay, I'll say. At the highest level there is some kind of main story that usually heavily involves the main character, main villain, main maguffin, and dictates the main path through towns/dungeons/a forest. This exists in all RPGs and um, pretty much all games and stories for that matter. In Dragon Quest IX, this plot can be summarized as "God decides he doesn't like Earth and decides to blow it up, and one angel has to collect seven figs to stop him". Sound familiar? They usually do. DQIX pays very little attention to this overarching narrative and leaves it alone for hours at a time.

The second level of narrative is the town-level ("the JRPG thing"). It's composed of the individual stories that surround each place you visit on your journey, or each maguffin you collect. While these function structurally as acts, with their own setup, rising tension, and climax, I hesitate to universally assign that term, as the stories often find complete resolution and don't contribute to the overall rising tension, which would be unusual for a traditional act. An instance of a DQIX town-act is a story set in a port where the villagers have come to worship a sea-god summoned by an orphan girl. The god provides them fish, so they have stopped working and become lazy. The mayor of the town becomes even greedier and demands that the girl summon the god to bring him treasure from the ocean depths, then the true nature of the beast is revealed, the mayor repents, and the town lives happily ever after. These self-contained component tales of DQIX offer surprising emotional and symbolic depth and turn the game into what is essentially a very strong anthology of mini-RPGs.

The even more granular level is non-player-character (NPC) stories ("the WRPG thing"). These typically take the form of side-quests assigned by various scattered NPCs and are almost always entirely self-contained. DQIX has a fair share of these too (more than your average JRPG), but they're barely worth describing - a pretty representative example of what I've seen so far was an old man who told me "my grandson said I look like a slug. Go kill ten slugs for me!"

Injustice: God's Among Us (Xbox 360)

Ahh, Mortal Kombat. I mean Injust: Ice Gods Among Us. Netherrealm is definitely continuing their streak of extremely well-rounded high-production easily-accessibly fighting games. We'll talk about the propensity of the fighting genre for single-play later this week; otherwise my strongest initial impression of Ija-Gu-Gu is that it doesn't feel all that much like Mortal Kombat. It's at least as different from its Cuz as, say, Tekken is from SoulCalibur. You can tell they're running on the same engine and a lot of familiar building blocks are in place (sweeps, uppercuts, and bounces feel exactly the same), but there's way more flying around, laser-beamy flare, and time-bending speed to take the place of Mortal Kombat's delightful gore.
"A great superhero can be summed up in a single sentence" (I said that) - in the case of Injustice, that becomes "a single button". The "Character Power" button is a great way to quickly translate each of these superhumans' key advantages into battle instead of leaving players to fumble with special inputs. When I play as Green Arrow, what do I want to do? Shoot fancy arrows. The Character Power button instantly lets me shoot fire, ice, and electric arrows without needing to explore or memorize input combos. As Superman it grants super-strength, as the Flash it slows down time; Doomsday it makes invulnerable, and Deathstroke it allows perfect sniping accuracy. The button is only held back from its potential by the limited creativity in implementing certain characters' superpowers, or lack thereof. While it's fitting of the trickster king Joker to have a slippery dodge/counter, Batman's technological superiority is represented as... a couple of bat missiles. There are also too many characters who get boring super strength (Supes, Cyborg, Shazam...) or invulnerability (Doomsday, Luthor (sigh), Grundy...) and a few who pretty clearly have an arbitrarily assigned ability due to the lack of their real powers' fighting-game-practicality (Aquaman, for instance, has his famous... Water Shirk?). Still, it's a great idea that's mostly well done, and unless you're a fan of some really specific character that got the short shrift (there aren't many, and they're mostly lesser characters like Harley Quinn), I imagine you'll be pleased.

Gain Ground (Genesis / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection)

I'd goofed off a bit with Gain Ground before, just to see what it was all about, but this is my first actual go at beating it. As an arcade port to the Sega Genesis, it's hardly friendly - the Collection's save states alleviate the otherwise quite damning save/password-free play length (at least 2 hours). Still, for the degree of punishment the game serves for using a continue (lose all of your characters), it's hard not to save scum. Anyway, I don't have a lot of steam left to write about Gain Ground right now, so check out this discussion of the game's dubious straddling of the line between shooting and strategy.

It's a great combination and certainly starts off as good fun, but from what I can tell, Ground struggles to keep the strategy elements going strong on the back nine. By that point the player is at or near maximum offensive capability and thirty screens deep, so there's not a ton to do to make things harder other than pile on the enemy waves. Which makes things play more like a generic arena shooter.

Capcom Arcade Cabinet (XBLA)

Not really an individual game, but I've been working through my impressions here already.  


Wow this was a long post. Those were almost reviews. Could've at least split this up over two days - but you know me! I'm always contenting my fans! Plus I didn't post yesterday, so that.