Monday, September 30, 2013

Godzilla meets Ghidorah: San Daikaijū: Chikyū Saidai no Kessen

at 5:04 PM
That's Three Giant Monsters: Earth's Greatest Battle, or, as it was released in the West, Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster, the 1965 direct sequel to Mothra vs. Godzilla and the fifth movie in the Godzilla franchise. I use the Japanese title this time 'round because I watched the Japanese version. But I'm going to call it Ghidorah from here, because typing. It was okay (not as good as Mothra vs.), but oddly, what was good in this one was basically the inverse of the last. 

Reminiscent of the original GojiraGhidorah sports a lot of build-up to the arrival of the kaiju, playing the classic horror card that what the audience doesn't see is scarier than what they do. The high points of the movie are the tense and creepy scenes dealing with the investigation of sites of suspicious activity like Ghidorah's meteorite "egg" and Rodan's volcanic resting place. A brainwashed foreign princess thinking she's from Venus serves as a prophetic doomsayer, heralding a coming apocalypse at the hands of the evil alien Ghidorah. She proclaims that Ghidorah is far more devastating than any threat Earth has ever faced - that even Godzilla pales in comparison to his might. This is a great and atypical setup - Mothra vs. Godzilla played its hand early and recycled (half) the mystery of the first movie: "what can stop Godzilla?" (the first movie also had another component - "what is Godzilla?" - but we've stopped caring about that by now). That's getting old at this point - we know what Godzilla can do, and plenty of stuff can stop him. So it's a lot scarier to keep the new monster off-screen and let our imaginations envision, "what could be even more powerful than Godzilla?" Especially when the movie tells us that not only has Ghidorah rampaged before, annihilating the entire planet-wide civilization of Venus, but he is intelligent and evil - he chooses to destroy. Godzilla is an animal - he's deadly by accident, and mankind are the evil ones for awakening him. Ghidorah is malevolent. 


Unfortunately, the third act fails to deliver on this cataclysmic promise. No intelligent malevolence shows through in Ghidorah's behavior once he hits the screen - he stomps and shrieks just as mindlessly as Godzilla. His arrival-rampage through a small mining town is completely unimpressive, taking place on a much smaller scale than we're used to. What's made Godzilla seem so invincible in the past isn't so much that he smashes buildings, but that he shrugs off the full military might of humanity. We've directly witnessed that Godzilla is more powerful than any weapon ever created. Mankind puts up little resistance to Ghidorah, so we don't get long montages of tanks firing on him or planes dropping bombs. This was where we really did need a "what can stop this monster?" phase - the premature resolution of that question significantly undercuts the threat of the antagonist. Instead, by that point in the movie it's already been decided that the only way to stop Ghidorah is an alliance of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. 

This weak introduction of Ghidorah ripples into our perception of the other kaiju. Since we're never shown how much stronger Ghidorah is than Godzilla, the kaiju triumvirate feels like overkill. Worse yet, it pussifies the "good" kaiju, suggesting that it takes three of them to combat this decidedly mundane (by Godzilla standards) threat. We do get a hilarious whipping-the-shit-out-of-Mothra fight that spurs Godzilla and Rodan to join forces, but it never actually feels like the heroic kaiju are outmatched - it just feels like Mothra sucks. And Mothra does suck! It's entirely worm-Mothra this time around, since I guess the surviving larva born at the end of the last movie hasn't grown up into an imago yet, and you know what that means. Yup, String Shot again! (This is painfully obvious, but it didn't strike me until actually watching these movies that they're the direct inspiration for Pokemon.) And once again, it's the reams and reams of silk that are the villain's downfall. Sorry, that was funny before, but at this point it's unbelievably lame. God-Z, Rodan, and Ghidorah just push each other around for a while until Mothra gets a clear shot, and the great Ghidorah, destroyer of worlds, supposedly far more than a match for mankind or even Godzilla, is conquered - and, frankly, humiliated - by silly string. Great teamwork gang.

Ghidorah's puppet heads make for a particularly disappointing prop - the monster ends up looking stout and stubby.
In terms of the battle itself: taking the kaiju away from civilization is rarely a good idea. The farther isolated these creatures become, the less foreign and menacing they seem. And the less giant. Miniature cities give the kaiju scale because, whether we're taken into the illusion or not, we still see a direct communication of size. We see that Godzilla is literally twice as tall as a skyscraper, and we know from reality how big skyscrapers are. Set entirely against "mountains" that look like mounds of dirt, there's no visual reference to gauge the kaijus' size. In fact, the only thing making us believe the mounds of dirt are mountains is the preconception that Godzilla is tall. But that's cyclical logic: we're supposed to believe the dirt heaps are mountains because we've been told Godzilla is tall, and we're supposed to believe Godzilla is tall because we've been told the dirt heaps are mountains. It doesn't work. Movies are a visual medium - you have to show me, not tell me. It's always going to be a bit of a challenge to get us over the hump of seeing the kaiju as men in suits, but it's worked before (and will work again). Ghidorah, however, does a pretty poor job, and the action falls flat for it. It's difficult to see anything but a battle of Halloween costumes.

This movie made two major contributions to the series: its most prolific antagonist, Ghidorah, and Godzilla as a hero. I've talked about how much I like Ghidorah in concept but was let down by his execution, but now let's talk Godzilla as defender of humanity, undoubtedly the biggest turning point in the franchise. As handled in Ghidorah, I fucking hate it. For Godzilla to be reasoned with is utterly antithetical to everything that makes him Godzilla. Maybe I'm in the minority here, as the rest of the original run (til 1975) stuck with this heroic Godzilla-Man angle, but the way the change is facilitated in Ghidorah is awful. I realize at this point we're pretty far removed from Godzilla as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, but he's still always been a mindless, primal force of destruction. He is innocent in that he has no conscience. When Mothra convinces him to fight against Ghidorah, we are introduced to the notion that he has thoughts and feelings. Which makes big ol' Godzilla seem like, well, a retard. And a jerk too. This movie tells us there has been a mind behind the menace all along, meaning that he's been totally cool with murdering thousands of people - and even must've had a reason for it. It eradicates the concept of the primal force unleashed by mankind's hubris. And if he has been self-aware all this time, why the fuck would he change his mind now - and why would humans go along with it? Ghidorah's "plan" (destroy all humans) is exactly the same thing that Godzilla's been working on for five movies now. There's no way to reconcile this change of heart with the character's history, because, until now, the character has had no heart to change.

Godzilla and Rodan being good listeners. Yeah, this doesn't clash with my understanding of giant monsters.
This anthropomorphism of consciousness also shows itself in Godzilla's physical conduct. He now does ridiculous stuff like pick up and throw rocks, headbutt other kaiju, sit down, and worst of all, laugh. Yes, Godzilla laughs in this movie. It is the epitome of Godzilla as a kids' movie (a paradigm shift that was underway at the time) and cringe-worthy to watch after a serious and well-developed first two acts. 
Watch the exact moment where the average age of Godzilla's audience drops to single digits.
I chose to watch this one in Japanese after seeing the English dub of Mothra vs. Godzilla to see how different the acting is in tone. I barely noticed a difference - the Japanese acting is still laughable and over-the-top. In the future I'll probably stick with the English versions for ease of watching, though I can see bouncing back and forth.

Ghidorah is impressive in that it takes concepts just as bonkers as those in Mothra vs. Godzilla (a possessed Venusian prophet, a magnetic meteorite) and weaves them into a compelling and atmospheric build-up. In terms of running time, there is more good than bad. Sadly, the concentrated bad of the last half hour cleanly wipes away any chance of walking away satisfied. Somehow, I think this actually would've been a better movie had it been a worse movie. If the early scenes had been as terribly wacky as those in Mothra vs., the third-act goofiness of Godzilla-Man probably would've played. As is, we get a tease of good kaiju horror with a slap in the face for a finish. It's hard to conjure a recommendation without experience with more of the series, but Ghidorah is definitely not one for newcomers and is probably a skip for casual fans.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

When reviews are objectively wrong, or Just try the demo

at 8:43 PM
It's kind of a mystery to me that people take reviewers' word for anything when demos these days are so widespread that half the time you can try-before-you-buy - in the case of download-only titles, particularly on XBLA, you ALWAYS get a trial.  I personally only read reviews before buying if I'm extremely suspect of a game (and I take them with a grain of salt bigger than Carl Weathers' biceps) - otherwise I usually wait til after playing to see what the community reaction has been. Even when there's no demo, many simple questions can be answered by YouTubing a walkthough or (god forbid) Let's Play of the game.

Take, for instance, this month's release of Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse. I grabbed the demo, liked it, and put it on my to-buy shelf behind a few other games. After voicing my positive opinion to Greg L., he was taken aback, having heard about the game's "terrible" and "laggy" controls. Not having read the reviews myself, this puzzled me - the game doesn't have laggy controls. They're as immediately responsive as DuckTales: Remastered or Super Meat Boy. Say what you will about the game's physics, any insinuation that the controls are unresponsive is flat out incorrect. We could get out a lazer-stopwatch and measure the scant microseconds that elapse between depressing the A button and seeing Mickey jump onscreen.
Investigating the complaints more, it appears that the purported control delay is an actual bug in the PC version of the game, which was released before the PS3 and 360 versions. Bizarrely (or predictably), review outlets apparently either disingenuously cross-posted their PC reviews, or were influenced by the early feedback on the game and cognitive dissonanced themselves into believing there was lag. Or the bug was specific to review copies, and I don't even think review "copies" of downloadable games exist, so that seems farfetch'd. Or the bug was patched out day one, which I also find difficult to accept, as the 360 always notifies the user when a patch is downloaded, and I saw no such notice.

What it comes down to is simple: if there's a demo, play it. See for yourself. There are certain objective qualities to games that are often inaccurately reported because of weird review circumstances or the influence of a reviewer's predisposition - that is to say, a reviewer who hated a game overall is more likely to accuse it of having an intolerable framerate or unbearable loading times. There's no reason to take anyone's word for these things.

It's truly disappointing that such a small non-issue has tainted the debut of Castle of Illusion, as I fear the tepid critical response (a 69 Metacritic average verges on outright condemnation in the 70-90 world) may dull the enthusiasm for a sequel to this lovingly crafted and beautifully executed game. There's no question that we've given the critical community too much power in deciding games' fate. I scoff at the notion that the press is in the pocket of publishers, as the correspondence between glowing reviews and high sales has a much simpler explanation - gamers are scared to make decisions for themselves.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The two (and a half?) sides of 2.5D - how to capitalize on depth

at 6:23 PM
2.5D is one heck of a silly-ass term introduced in the PlayStation era to describe the 2D gameplay set in a 3D environment featured in games like Klonoa, NiGHTS into Dreams, and Kirby 64. More recently the term has been applied to Trine, New Super Mario Bros., 'Splosion Man, and dozens of others. It's a bit ironic - in the fifth generation, the 2D gameplay was conservative and the 3D graphics cutting edge, while in the seventh generation, it's the 3D visuals that are the norm and the 2D playing field that subverts expectations. Anyway, I mostly just said that to prove that I know what irony is, cuz no one does anymore. Even complaining about people not understanding irony has become cliche. How ironic.

See that time I used it wrong.

2.5D did exist in some sense before polygonal graphics - I'd say it's not too much of a stretch to say that parallax scrolling (Moon Patrol, Sonic the Hedgehog) is its predecessor. Parallax similarly strives to 

Man I just had to go bitch out Wikipedia for the terrible article it has on 2.5D. Don't go there, it's ugly. The page looks like a Frankenstein's Monster of unrelated articles on isometric graphics and pseudo-3D with a teeny tiny paragraph acknowledging actual 2.5D games as we know them today. If you do go, make sure to check out my bitchin' takedown on the Talk page. See, I'm an armchair armchair Wikipedian. That is to say, one can edit Wikipedia without getting out of their seat. But I don't even do that much. I just yell on the Talk pages at the actual productive editors that they're doing it wrong. But seriously, who has time to do all that research? Let a monkey do it. Did you know that infinite monkeys given infinite cheeseburgers will inevitably produce the entire content and discussion pages of Wikipedia? This is a known scientific fact. The real question is: who's cooking the cheeseburgers? Or wait, by the infinite monkey clause, are the infinite monkeys also guaranteed to produce infinite cheeseburgers the same way they wrote Hamlet? In that case maybe it'd be easier just to do hamburgers.

Where was I? Goddamnit why did I stop mid-sentence for that? Okay. Parallax. Parallax scrolling is the adjustment of the scroll-rate of distant objects to create a 3D perspective using only 2D objects. You knew that though. When 3D models turned real, they became the preferred method for displaying 3D environments (shocking!), though 2.5D didn't really take off because 2D gameplay was simultaneously going out of vogue. With 2D's recent resurgence in popularity, 2.5D games are probably even more common than strict 2D, as these days 3D visuals are actually easier to make decent-looking on TVs than are 2D sprites.
2.5D is very popular with modern fighters
I've gotten into the bad habit of spending a few paragraphs just defining my terms and thus wasting a lot of time before getting to my actual point. It's because I don't know who the audience of this blog is. I want it to be accessible, but it's almost a prerequisite for interest in this discussion that you've played 2.5D games... in which case you likely already know what 2.5D is, so you don't need me to explain it. Hey looks like this is one of those articles with running commentary - sweet!

Even the most primitive 2D games use some approximation of 3D - any game with a backdrop has extended its world beyond a strict 2D plane. Super Mario Bros. shows us hills, clouds, and castles beyond our reach. The limitation of 2D is not a graphical one, but the very distinction between the field of play and the field of observation - traditionally, the foreground and the background. Tantalizing players with beautiful vistas and distant ruins can enhance their engagement with the world, so one of the great appeals of 3D gameplay is the ability to reach those places - the unification of the entire game world into a continuous, playable space. A player who is free in all [three] dimensions can strive toward that distant castle and everything else they see, limited only by real environmental boundaries like walls and cliffs. 2.5D offers a chance to bridge the gap between these modes - to use a two-dimensional field of play to span a three-dimensional space. While this keeps movement comfortably in the 2D realm, the plane of movement itself can wind through the third dimension.

Surprisingly, most 2.5D games do not capitalize on this opportunity. Games like Little Big Planet, New Super Mario Bros., and Donkey Kong Country Returns retain the traditional 2D distinction between background and foreground. 3D visuals endow the backgrounds with more depth than is achievable strictly in 2D, but the field of play remains as limited as ever. Check out an example from DuckTales: Remastered
Gameplay starts at 1:45. Observe all the background objects that Scrooge can never reach. The game takes place entirely on a flat plane parallel to the screen.

This type of game remains strictly left-to-right and is really just a visual upgrade (or downgrade, if you're of that opinion) to 2D. The player's involvement in the world isn't enhanced because the dissonance between playable and observable space is retained. Prepare for a mind-blowing MS Paint graphic I made to illustrate this type of world-thickening:
The distinguishing factor of this kind of 2.5D is the continuous depth of the background.
You can see that the only difference between 2D and this approach to 2.5D is a parallax-plus-one filling-in of empty space between layers - these are very much 2D games with 3D graphics. The camera still shows only one side of the action and the environment.

More ambitious 2.5D games take advantage of their 3D worlds to eliminate this wasted space. The 2D plane of play loops and twists through a logical 3D environment, allowing the player to fully explore (in a guided fashion) everything that they see. Check out the recent Castle of Illusion remake:
Gameplay starts at 0:20. Watch how Mickey's paths curve around to span the entire room.

This type of intertwining movement can also be seen in games like NiGHTS, Goemon's Great Adventure, and my personal favorite 2.5D game: Klonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil. Note how these - like full 3D games - only bound the player's exploration with physical barriers. There is an invisible dimensional limit on movement that forces a fixed left-right path through the world, but the end result looks like a trace of any given run of Super Mario 64 or Bubsy 3D. The camera moves along with these curved paths, keeping the player parallel to the screen - in doing so it swoops and rotates to show us many different sides of the game space. Back to MS Paint:
Convoluted image, but hopefully you can see I'm trying to represent that the plane of player movement bends within a fixed area. The camera angle at any given point can be represented by the normal vector of the plane.
The drawing in this post gives a different view of the same situation. We can see that, removing the presence of time, a 2.5D game like Klonoa is actually identical to a 3D game. Of course, we can't remove the presence of time (or at least, I can't - I don't know if I have any Tralfamadorians among my readership), so the experience is distinct. But it's also distinct from classic 2D, in that, although the gameplay could be spread out over a flat plane, the game world could not be flattened with it. 

The term 2.5D seems often to be considered a superficial distinction, as evidenced by its application to these two very different styles of presentation. While there is certainly no right/wrong, good/bad here, it seems clear to me that the latter Klonoa-derived category are indeed games attempting to bridge the gap between 2D and 3D, while the former are just glorified 2D. Don't get me wrong, I love 2D. But 2.5D has the potential to portray a space of greater depth and complexity, which expands the applicability of 2D gameplay to more realistic world models.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Stomaching Super Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back

at 6:59 PM

A LTA in a GFFA, I loved nothing more than Legos, Star Wars, and Super Nintendo. So whenever those things came together, I was in heaven. Sadly, this won't be a post about my Episode I Lego collection. Sadder still, I came of age before the debut of the Lego Star Wars video games, so they've been pretty lost on me. Saddest yet, I spent a lot of time playing Super Star Wars and Super Return of the Jedi instead. I don't remember if I ever legitimately completed the games, but thanks to a cheat code featured in Nintendo Power, I was able to unlock debug mode to warp around levels and live like a king in his castle. I never played much Super Empire Strikes Back, having access to it only through friends. When the opportunity came to pick it up on Virtual Console, I had no choice but to give it a shot to see how it stacked up.

The Super Star Wars trilogy is the work of obscure developer Sculptured Studios toiling under the oversight of LucasArts. Wikipedia tells me that Sculptured was a prolific developer of licensed games and ports (aka shlock), though I'm not seeing a lot of games I recognize in their library. The Atari XEGS port of Mario Bros.SeaQuest DSV for the Game Boy? The NES classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves starring Kevin Cosner as Robin "Friar Tuck" Hood, the Prince of Thieves? Among the few original titles Sculptured developed is the notoriously terrible Day Dreamin' Davey, often mistakenly attributed to publisher Hal Labs (it amazes me to this day that people don't know the difference between a developer and a publisher). Suffice to say that their only lasting work has been Super Star Wars. 
Chewbacca's famous spin-move, from the part of the movie where he fights robot bounty hunters
Since the first and third games play largely the same, it's no surprise that Empire fits comfortably in between. It's a brutally difficult Contra-influenced run-and-gun featuring Turrican-style open levels, melee combat, and occasional vehicular variety segments. The shooting spans tediously slow and punishingly frantic (a long life bar ensures that the game is never nearly as precise as Japanese one-hit-death shooters like Metal Slug), while the platforming tends to be obnoxiously demanding thanks to a love of asynchronously moving platforms and (literal) slippery slopes. The vehicle segments... I can't even formulate a summary, so we'll come back to those later. They're um, ahead of their time? At heart at least. Empire introduces a password feature which, along with a difficulty select and a large supply of lives/continues, keeps the game relatively finishable for most players. The original Super Star Wars lacks any type of progress tracking and thus must be beaten in one grueling sitting, ensuring that only one human being has ever reached the end unassisted - he died of mental trauma shortly thereafter. 

Remember this guy from the movies?
The two biggest gameplay changes made in part two are run-gunning and lightsaber combat. Han Solo and Chewbacca can't wield the lightsaber, so the shooting still takes center stage (you think it's unnecessary to say that, but the Super Star Wars series takes some pretty sweeping liberties with the film canon... like having Luke duel and kill the Sarlacc monster on his way to buy the droids at the beginning of Episode IV). The original SSW required the player to stand still to shoot (Bass rules), creating somewhat slow-moving and methodical screen-clearing. The introduction of simultaneous walk-shoot-aiming speeds up the gameplay a ton. It also gives the player the inclination to say "fuck this game" and bolt for the exit, though that usually backfires. Empire's mobile shooting allows it to move away from the Mega Man-style one-screen-at-a-time feel, letting swarms of infinitely spawning enemies flood in from off-screen and chase the player for minutes at a time. That is to say, the characters' offensive prowess has been cranked up a notch, but the opposition has gone up two. If you don't constantly run with the attack button held, you'll be locked into standing aim mode and quickly overwhelmed. If this sounds dynamic and cool, that's just a testament to poor writing. What it is is boring. The game often degrades into a one-note randomized arcade shooter, quickly pushing from sensory overload into brain-fried apathy. There is so much going on beyond the player's capability to manage that success and failure feel extremely random.

What comes to the rescue of the manic mess that is Super Empire Strikes Back is Luke's lightsaber. The lightsaber was a pretty useless joke in Super Star Wars, but here it's been completely redesigned. Few 20th century games attempted anything resembling melee combat outside of the brawler framework, but Empire/Jedi's Luke belongs with Castlevania IV's Simon Belmont and ActRaiser 2's Master as a remarkably capable action protagonist gone medieval. He can swing the lightsaber in a fast horizontal arc or slowly over his head to clear out flying enemies, he can use it to reflect projectiles back to their source and block melee attacks, and best of all, he spins it around his somersaulting body for the best jump attack ever; a giant, deadly ball of destruction. 
The greatest jump attack of all time?
And you know what? It complements the absurd cavalcade of enemies and touchy platforming. It gives the action a sort of Dynasty Warriors feel - what I would call lawnmower combat. A super-powered player character mowing down seas of impotent foes like blades of grass. That's not to say it makes the game easy - the stalwart, position-dominant enemies can withstand enough blows to put a careless rampage to a plummet of an end. Think of it as mowing a lawn strewn with logs. Still, the lightsaber provides the player some much-needed control of the game's stampeding flow. It stands out and makes things work - at least for a little while.

Luke's stages are many screens tall and usually set outdoors, often offering two or more paths. The top path tends to be a strict platforming challenge and the bottom a combat free-for-all, though players will probably find themselves indiscriminately bouncing between high and low against their will thanks to the imprecision of the platforming. If you weren't sure whether platforming would combine well with infinite monster closets, Super Empire Strikes Back provides a definitive "no". It's just not rewarding to struggle through a bunch of tough jumps only to be thrown back down to the shitty path by a bird swooping in from off-screen.

Alas, Luke's levels make up less than half of the game and are still marred by weird design choices like hilariously deep spike pits and pace-destroying freeze-monsters. The remainder of the playtime is dedicated to the largely identical Han Solo and Chewbacca, who themselves are just Luke-minus-lightsaber (unlike in SSW and Jedi, Luke here can swap between blaster and lightsaber at will). Han and Chewie's levels scale back the nutty platforming a bit (actually, a lot) and present what is essentially a corridor-shooter. The landscape is flat, ceilings are low, and almost all progress is made directly left-to-right or right-to-left. In fact, most of Han's levels are just one long corridor interrupted by occasional elevator cut-scenes. It's cool that the characters get different level types and even helps to keep the lightsabering fresh, but you can't really get around the fact that the Han/Chewie levels are extremely repetitive and don't evolve much over ther course of the game.

Probably the single most annoying thing about the game is the collision behavior. The player character and any enemy entity (be it a monster, projectile, or just debris) cannot EVER co-occupy the same space. What makes that insane is that enemy position takes precedence over the player - that means an enemy that walks into a standing player character will push the player around! Even the tiniest bats can push a standing character off a ledge with just a bump. There's no post-damage invincibility (that blinking phase that Mega Man and Sonic have) to cope with this, meaning that if an enemy walks straight forward into your character, they will damage and push you until you fall off a ledge or run out of health. Sometimes it feels like the game is aware of this weird trait and uses it to create challenge, like with the turrets in Cloud City that pause for a moment after dying (giving the player a small window to rush by) before exploding into a flurry of debris. Sometimes, like in the caverns of Hoth, it's mind-fuckingly annoying that an enemy can freeze Luke and push him into an instant-death spike pit before he has a chance to thaw. This combined with an excess of undodgeables means it's literally impossible to hold your ground in this game. Like the shooting and respawning enemies, this does encourage a no-brakes play-style, but simultaneously punishes it. Didn't expect an enemy to spawn on the edge of the platform you're jumping to? Too late, your jump already got blocked and you probably died.
The bosses are probably the best part of the game, but that's mostly just because they aren't as annoying as the levels. Still, their tendency to instantaneously dole out heaps of unavoidable damage can get very frustrating.
No post on Super Empire Strikes Back could be complete without at least a shout-out to the vehicle levels. These stages are a great idea - much of Star Wars' action has always been bound to its trademark spaceships, so an adaptation would be just as incomplete without them as it would without lazerbeams. It's also really cool that all of the vehicle levels are different - there's a sorta turret-shooter set in an asteroid field, a few brief scrolling shooter levels , and even a full 3D Battle of Hoth. The Gradius-style sidescrolling shoot-em-up levels, played as a snowspeeder and some kind of speeder bike (better known from Return of the Jedi, but whatever), are so short and easy as not to register, but the Battle of Hoth is pretty cool. It's very primitive 3D (this was '93) and is set in a looping environment (like the multiplayer arenas of Star Fox 64), but provides a few different enemy types to shoot down and even - and I could barely believe this - a tow cable mechanic that needs to be used to wrap up and trip the big AT-AT walkers. Oddly enough, these variety stages are much more fair than the main gameplay, or at least the difficulty is appropriately scaled to the randomness. Even if it wouldn't sustain an entire game of its own, the snowspeeding is fun for its run-time and provides some much needed relief from the monotonous sidescrolling levels. It's also probably the most faithful-to-the-movie part of the game, if you like that kinda thing. Just don't play it back-to-back with Rogue Squadron.

There's fun to be had and a handful of good concepts at work here, but overall the game is too frustrating to ever be satisfying more than momentarily. The upside to that is... well... there are plenty of cheats and passwords out there. You can give yourself 99 lives, use debug mode's stage select to skip to the end, instantly unlock all the Force powers, or just switch on invincibility. Normally I'd say that requiring codes to be fun makes a game a definite skip, but Empire's Luke is a genuinely unique character worth experiencing for anyone interested in 2D game mechanics. How much and for how long you can enjoy that experience will probably be determined by whether you're willing to cheat - and I will add that all the enemy pushiness actually allows the game to retain much of its challenge even if the player character is invincible (in a Warioland 2 kind of way). I'm typically not one to complain about difficulty (I don't mind not finishing games, as I consider a single session to be a complete experience), but this game has no dignity about it. This is not Alien Soldier or Gradius II - it's not about learning to play right, it's about learning to abuse a system that is more than happy to abuse you. And that is the essence of Super Empire Strikes Back - a constant battle against the very mechanics of the game
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Hey I just learned that LucasArts was shut down in April. I probably already knew, but didn't care. Their good games percentage has been awfully low since the turn of the millennium (conspicuously coincident with the debut of the prequel trilogy), so it's probably better for Disney to shop around the Star Wars property to third parties. Who knows how that'll turn out, but it couldn't be much worse than the disappointing output of recent years. If Star Wars games were as multitudinous now as they were in the '90s, Force Unleashed and Star Wars Kinect could be swept under the rug along with middling and embarrassing disappointments like Yoda Stories and Masters of Teras Kasi. But with no Dark ForcesX-Wing, or Rogue Squadron to outshine them, every Star Wars flop today is enough to convince a player that the series is in the wrong hands. And let's not forget that the popular favorite Star Wars games all in fact were developed by third parties: Super Star Wars of course (Sculptured), X-Wing/Tie Fighter (Totally Games)Rogue Squadron (Factor 5), Jedi Knight II (Raven), Knights of the Old Republic (BioWare)Battlefront (Pandemic), and Lego Star Wars (Traveller's Tales). Yeah, wait a minute. That's like, all of the good Star Wars games ever. So basically, the only good Star Wars games that can be attributed to LucasArts are Dark Forces I and II. Not to mention that the diaspora of the classic adventure team (Tim Schaefer, Ron Gilbert, et al.) is well-documented and long over. So who cares again that the studio was disbanded?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Let's Meet: Super Spy Hunter

at 6:25 PM
Sunsoft put out a good deal of mediocrity, to be generous. Their early NES offerings, like Atlantis no Nazo and The Wing of Madoola, bear charming concepts tied to ornery gameplay and brutal difficulty. Later, as the 16 bit generation wore on, Sunsoft published unpleasant titles like Aero the Acrobat and Taz-Mania. Granted, at the time, Sunsoft was also developing some decent U-four-ia spinoffs.

Blaster Master is kind of THE Sunsoft game.
But there, in the late 80s and early 90s, Sunsoft had a good thing going. Blaster Master is among the best-known adventure platformers on the NES, and Batman remains an exemplary licensed game. Additionally, internet critics like the Happy Video Game Nerd have since praised lesser-known Sunsoft games from that period, such as Journey to Silius and Gimmick!. Every one of these games evidences Sunsoft's forte: hectic but (mostly) fair action, following a school of gaming not unlike Konami's Contra.

If those last two paragraphs lost you, that's kind of the point. Super Spy Hunter was released in 1992, towards the end of Sunsoft's golden era. Being an NES game, it would've been obscure at the time, and there's already a boatload of better known Sunsoft games to unearth - some good and some bad - so it's easy to see why so relatively few have discovered it. It's not impossible to find discussions on Super Spy Hunter, but its brethren get much wider acknowledgement.

But Super Spy Hunter stands unique among its peers. With any game, the player must learn its interface. In a platformer, for instance, this means learning how high your hero jumps in response to your button presses. Usually, this is an up front cost that's soon forgotten as you settle in for the game. Super Spy Hunter, however, makes learning how to control the focus of the game.

Initially, the controls may seem like a standard vertical space shooter. Hold up, and your car moves towards the top of the screen; hold down, and the car will move towards the bottom. However, pressing up and down adjusts your car's speed first and its placement on the screen second.

At your fastest, you'll have consistent aim, making it easy to strike down enemies. More than that, it gives the gameplay a nice, exciting pace while things whiz by at high speeds. But this brings in tension, since your car will sit near the top of the screen at its fastest, giving you little time to react to oncoming traffic.
For this segment, you'll need to slow down
in order to handle a diagonal bit of road.
However, this means you'll have a hard time
pegging that neon pink helicopter.

At your slowest, you'll have more time to maneuver. Not only will your car be farther down the screen and away from the onslaught spawning at the top of the screen, but your car itself will make sharper turns. But now, your nose will stray left and right as you move in those directions, making your aim inconsistent. Plus, if a bullet approaches you, you might not have enough momentum to evade it.

The first stage looks dumb and easy, but it's aimed squarely at making you look terrible with Super Spy Hunter's controls. Turrets installed on the side of the road will follow you, but you can't outrace them; instead, dodging their fire means slamming on the brakes, potentially screwing up your gunfire's fix on an enemy vehicle. Later in the stage, enemy drillcars will accelerate to pierce your car from behind; in order to escape their attack, you'll have to decelerate in just the right way to trick them into passing you without hitting you. Simple acts of moving up and down become calculated measures. If you clear this stage, it's safe to say you know how to use Super Spy Hunter's car.

Not only will your car trudge through
this sand, but quicksand will tinker
with your steering, too.
The second stage will drag you through a desert with sluggish, shifting sands, taking your car's basic controls and rigging them against you. Enemy craft remain simple, though. They don't employ any special patterns or attacks; they just shoot directly at you or try to run you off the road. It tests how well you can handle your car in adverse conditions.

So, it's only fitting that stage three is a bore. You've proven your skill at handling, and the game doesn't have any smarter enemies to throw at you. Instead, you get a casual cruise along a highway while you face squads of fighter jets that can only aim straight ahead. This is only halfway through the game, and I found myself asking what the point was.

As if in response, stage four abandoned the acceleration mechanic altogether, letting me move anywhere on the screen I wanted without any sense of momentum. Granted, the game also saw fit to pile mobs of enemies on me; if organized packs couldn't take me, Super Spy Hunter figured, maybe organization wasn't its best bet. Overcoming that, the game sent my car on a series of jumps through flocks of hostiles, complete with floaty horizontal aerial momentum and death if I didn't catch a bit of highway on my way back down.

The game continues like that to its conclusion, constantly rewriting the rules in search of some way, any way, to frustrate the player's success. The first half proves the extent to which the game can muck up a car, so the second half goes as far as possible to change what a car can do, even going so far as to transform it into different vehicles.

And I didn't even get to talk about
how awesome the bosses are.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mommy, what's a climbformer?

at 5:15 PM
This is a nice stupid little portmanteau I came up with because of perpetual lack of a better term. Considering that dictionaries already fucking hate the word "platforming", this is double bonus. Why must we combine "climb" and "platforming"? Because the PC-police have outlawed "euro-platformer" as racist, I suppose. 

If you haven't noticed, traditional (N64-style) 3D platforming is deader than a chicken that's been stabbed with a door-nail. Aside from the occasional begrudgingly acclaimed Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Galaxy 2, no one's dared to release a 3D platformer since the heat-death of the sixth console generation. Part of that is probably that 2D is Back to the Future (the future being now), and 2D platformers were always better than 3D, which we learned from two generations of failed experimentation and Rocket: Robot on Wheels. So when it became "okay" to make 2D games again, all the platformer wannabes just reverted to that. Not a lot of interest was left in games styled after Banjo-Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, and Sonic Adventure.

Platforming itself wasn't dead though: 2003's Prince of Persia: Sands of Time was a watershed moment for 3D navigation. It taught us that it could be just as fun to climb, shimmy, scramble, wall-run, and swing as it was to jump. Is Sands of Time still a platformer? Sure. It's largely a game that challenges the player to reach point B from point A. In fact, I specifically omitted the notion of jumping from my definition of platforming because of games like Sands of Time, which evoke the same gameplay challenge with different mechanics. The progeny of the prince includes many of today's most popular American games, from Assassin's Creed to Uncharted to Lords of Shadow to Enslaved to God of War to Darksiders II to Shadow of the Colossus. But the term "platforming" isn't typically used in association with these games, and even when it is, it's usually qualified somehow as "Uncharted-style platforming" or some such. 
Climbforming.
There's no question that the p-word invokes traditional images of Mario and Sonic jumping across tree branches and floating boxes, yet there's also no question that a new platforming-rooted navigation paradigm has taken over in the realism-driven 3D world. For fun and enrichment, it helps to have a different term to classify this contemporary approach. "Climbing" doesn't quite communicate the dynamism and challenge of the gameplay, plus it makes for a confusing noun form ("[ice]climber[s]"), so I've chosen to go full obnoxious and coin "climbforming". You heard it here first.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Aw man the final boss music in KID is the New World Symphony!

at 10:37 AM
just plain cool.


for contrast, the other final (credits) music I heard last night was this :(

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Driving an open world

at 7:27 PM
Open world games are probably the most popular single-player experiences in the industry today. Many gamers, developers, and critics have begun to consider open worlds objectively superior to restricted ones. Of course, as something becomes popular, the laws of nature require a vocal minority to rise up and attempt to summarily discredit it, so we have traditionalists who lament the supposed aimlessness of these GTA clones. As usual, there's a ton of middle ground here - an open worlds isn't inherently good or bad, but a tool that must be used properly to add worth. So let's have a think about how, historically, these open world games drive players' interest. 

An obvious pitfall in creating an open world is that they have a tendency to be too open - the player may lose interest if they aren't being challenged to progress and that progression doesn't have repercussions. One solution to this is what I would call the toy (or sandbox) approach - if it's fun to do everything, the player is guaranteed to be having fun, right? And if they're having fun, they'll keep playing. This is the modus operandi of series like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. While the world architecture is mundane, lifeless, and irrelevant to gameplay, the player can still have a great sandbox experience crashing cars, flying helicopters, and firing off rocket lawn chairs. The toy approach doesn't even really benefit from an open world - in fact, I'd posit that the open worlds are often merely an excuse to generate loads of content for an otherwise flat and underdeveloped mechanical core. 

Needless to say, toys get boring, especially when one game after another is set in the same damn East-Coast-style city in the same damn contemporary timeline with the same damn cars and guns to play with. More ambitious (and traditionally rooted) games like Arkham City, Prototype, and Red Faction: Guerilla encourage the player to interact with the world, bestowing the environment with its own character. This can mean the traps and perches of Arkham, the shifting zombie/military dynamics of Prototype City, or the full-on destructibility of Guerilla's Mars. This is more than just adding an extra variable into the mix. Defining a unique and nuanced world that complements core mechanics is the very essence of open world gameplay - it's what makes freedom rewarding. 

A great deal of the appeal of an open world game is scope. I'm not talking about the size of the world, but the size of the action. Even in missions, the player is free to choose their own turf*. This gives them the opportunity to make use of their knowledge of the world to alter the circumstances presented them. Take an example from Assassin's Creed; a mission might task the player with escaping a cadre of guards. A novice player may choose the simplest solution, to stand and fight. A player who better knows the world could make a run for a great hideout or find allies to help with the fight. The player is rewarded for capitalizing on their freedom and knowledge of the world and is thus encouraged to continue learning about it.

So one way of looking at it is that an open world game is driven by the urge to learn the world and use that knowledge to one's advantage. How much there is to learn and how well that knowledge can be used actually provides a pretty good metric of quality for an open world. In fact, it's really what differentiates an open world from a plain old over-world. Arkham City is loaded with tricks, traps, and gadgets that provide all kinds of ways to approach each conflict, rewarding the player for recognizing their surrounding and the tools it presents. At the other end of the spectrum, Sleeping Dogs' extremely rudimentary open world is really just an over-world. The player spends most of the time driving, which isn't even the main gameplay mode, and there's no way to take advantage of freedom-of-setting to win brawls or shootouts. Even the races are extremely tightly confined. Thus there's no reward for learning about the world - there's not even really any exploration, since you have an all-inclusive map and a GPS to highlight the quickest path. That's why Sleeping Dogs plays more like a traditional brawler/shooter equipped with an over-world.

The open world itself isn't really a style of gameplay (it doesn't fit the goals and oppositions model and can be characterized by some combination of exploration + another type of gameplay (shooter, platformer, etc.)), but it's a setting that can accentuate and develop mechanics just as successfully as rigid linear campaigns. The worth of this type of setting is in creating realism - the correlation between a game's concrete presentation and abstract mechanics. An open world sets the stage for experimentation and discovery and allows for spontaneous, emergent gameplay alongside technical progression. "Emergent gameplay" is easy to mistake as a buzzword for "randomness", but if the player feels in control of all the variables, it can offer the same learning experiences as the strictly guided, artificial feeling "tutorial-plus" style structure of linear games.

*it should be noted that many open world games do include closed missions - Arkham Asylum, for instance, almost always sets missions in restricted linear environments. However, this is a union of styles - it doesn't make sense to examine these missions under the banner of "open world", as they exit the open world paradigm.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Wow, Mothra vs. Godzilla is amazing

at 7:08 PM
When a typhoon dumps a giant easter egg at Japan's doorstep, Japanese David Byrne and Hitler try to exploit it for commercial gains to the chagrin of its owners: primitive, atomically irradiated island tribesmen. Tiny singing Minimoth Girls teleport around town to plead for the egg's return, just in time for Drunk-zilla to appear at a construction site to put everyone in danger. When Godzilla withstands a giant moth and the army, the tiny girls must sing at the egg until it hatches into twin larvae who know the beast's only weakness: String Shot. Like, 30 fucking minutes worth of String Shot.

And I was worried it was gonna be boring! I've seen the original Godzilla (1954 - the Serious one), but am otherwise naive to kaiju films, so I didn't know what to expect here. The prospect of equally crappy action with even worse plot/acting/budget never enticed me. Little did I realize how gonzo shit had already become by 1964 - in this case, the "worse" story is far more entertaining than a real one. Each unexpected twist is quickly one-upped by the next: oh no, giant egg! And um, tiny one-foot-tall fairy girls naturally follow from that? Oh, and they sing? And they're actually representatives of a primitive island tribal society (whose chanting can somehow be heard from the mainland)? And the tribe worships a giant moth? It gets sillier and sillier, but the movie isn't laughing. There's some trite attempt at commentary when the Japanese go to the islanders to plea for Mothra's help, the tribal chieftain turning his back and responding "nope you ruined the earth and you ruined our land with your nuclear testing, serves you right", which becomes the silliest moment of all when our protagonist melts his icy heart with the most patronizing, two-faced speech ever. He says, "look. We screwed up with the nuclear testing. We destroyed your land, and that's totally our bad. Then when you wanted your egg back, we ignored you. Again, dick move by us. But listen, for the good of the world, we all need to work together, and that's something you guys could really stand to learn. If you learn to help us, you can finally overcome the mutual problem that we keep completely fucking you over!" And that actually works!

God and I didn't even mention that the dastardly plan of the villains is to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. With all the dubious profiteering that could be going on, these guys are playing it pretty fucking safe here. Sell tickets! O...kay, but that hardly addresses that it's the scientific discovery of a lifetime and that, you know, it's probably going to hatch into something gigantic and impossible to control. You'd think these guys had never seen a Godzilla movie.

So the great strength of the movie is that it constantly introduces weird shit. By comparison, Godzilla himself feels mundane and boring, his introduction perfunctory at best. There's a really weak attempt at build-up when a reporter discovers (what I assume is supposed to be) one of his scales (which in fact looks like an unidentifiable piece of plastic... exactly what it is) and someone says "we've gotta shut down construction, boss!" or some shit like that. Pretty much Godzilla just bursts out of the earth somewhere in the middle of the movie and no one asks why. What makes this even more hilarious is the big lizard's initial rampage, which has him literally falling over himself.

I can't even begin to fathom the thought process that went into these introductory scenes. Godzilla stumbles around like he's wasted, even tripping over his own tail! What the fuck? The series was not comedy at this point. Godzilla is supposed to be an unstoppable antagonistic force, yet he gets tangled up in an electrical tower? Why doesn't the army just dig a giant ditch and put a trip-wire in front of it? Seems a lot smarter than their convoluted (and, shockingly!, unsuccessful) plan to drop electrical nets on him from a helicopter. This comic ineptitude of course works in the movie's favor: instead of a terrifying apocalyptic beast, we get a Godzilla who's kinda just a nuisance because he doesn't know what he's doing. He's like an innocent toddler stumbling around, trying to get his bearings. 

One of the nice things about the movie is that it doesn't look as bad as you probably think it does. While the monsters themselves are utterly bogus - Godzilla walks like Big Bird and sports scales that look more like fleece, and Mothra doesn't look or move even remotely like a living thing - the rest of the special effects and compositing mostly work. Primarily with regards to the miniatures - as stupid as the monsters look, I still believed they were giant thanks to the excellent mini-sets. And, on the flipside, I never found myself distracted by the tiny size of the Minimoth Girls. It helps that there are plenty of practical explosions and tidal waves to support the shoddy creature effects. The only time the quality becomes a matter of comedy is a scene in which Godzilla melts a battalion of tanks with his atomic breath; I'm afraid I don't believe that real tanks would begin to liquidate and drip plastic. 
Those ships look real to me!
Here's a learning fact about this movie's history: the original direction of the franchise would have pit Godzilla against classic movie monsters. The preceding series entry is King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), which was to be followed by Frankenstein vs. Godzilla. When Toho didn't like the script of FvG, they opted instead to fold in one of their own existing monsters for the fourth movie: Mothra (who debuted in 1961's semi-appropriately titled Mothra). With Mothra vs. Godzilla's smashing success, the producers dropped the classic monster idea, settling on in-company crossovers with other kaiju. The Giant Frankenstein concept did eventually take shape as its own film, Frankenstein vs. Baragon (Frankenstein Conquers the World in the US). And then I think Baragon later showed up in the 'Zilla franchise.

Fun fact 2: Almost all (if not all) Godzilla movies were released under different titles in the US. The American title of this one is Godzilla vs. The Thing. While that'd certainly be an interesting prospect post-1982, it's an asinine title. The title change is carried into the dub, where characters frequently call Mothra "the Thing", an element not present in the Japanese script. So... why? "Mothra" is a silly name, but "the Thing" is much worse, and in particular makes no sense in the dialogue - everyone knows the creature's name as soon as it's introduced AND they call Godzilla by name, so why would they make up a nickname for Mothra? Well, I've got the answer right here in this envelope: the American production company decided on an advertising tactic before titling or dubbing the film. The idea was to withhold images of Mothra and play up the mystery of "the Thing", this new match for Godzilla, forcing audiences to buy tickets if they wanted a look at the monster. I don't know how well this worked as advertising (seems retarded, but I know nothing about popular film-going culture in 1964), but it left a lot of really weird dialogue for posterity. There is no mystery in the movie over Mothra's identity. It shows up like twenty minutes in, completely out of nowhere, and the audience and characters all get a clear look and are told its name, origins, and motives! So the entire "the Thing" idea is just an advertising lie - it has no connection to the actual film.

So if you're ever curious about the God-Z franchise, don't be overwhelmed by the selection of 20+ movies - Mothra vs. Godzilla is a great place to start, enjoyable for fans and newcomers alike. Also, don't mistake it for 1992's Godzilla vs. Mothra. Totally different movie. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Story where it's least expected, or not: Sonic 2

at 7:06 PM
Continuing my recent blue streak, I completed Sonic the Hedgehog 2 for Genesis for the first time this past weekend. It's an excellent platformer with memorable stages and deep mechanics, the kind - and sorry, I hate this phrase, but it's really applicable here - the kind they just don't make anymore. Each of Sonic 2's stages is its very own game worth mastering, employing unique interaction, structure, and pacing. As much as I believed the opposite five years ago, Sonic 2 is a classic for a reason. Yet the game's greatest shortcoming parallels this strength: narratively, it is irreconcilably fragmented. 

I realize the first reaction to this is: "you're gonna complain about Sonic 2's story? While you're at it, why not ask for the back-story to Beethoven's Fifth?" We'll get to the latter point in a moment, but first I should clarify that I am not complaining about the actual substance of the plot. I don't care if Sonic is a space alien sent to destroy the Badniks as a way of harvesting Flickies that he can feed to his starving home planet. What I'm discussing is the necessity for story itself in order to fulfill the potential of a narrative medium. Sonic 2 has great platforming, great music, and great visuals, but - for me - where it falls short of being a great game is in connecting these elements with a story. 

What the game does provide for story - if you've somehow managed to get to this video game blog without ever having played Sonic 2, or perhaps don't remember - is a collection of untethered elements. We have Sonic, we have random robots, we have all kinds of colorful locales, but there is zero dialogue, zero exposition, and zero cut-scenes (unless you're counting the miniscule Tails-flying-a-plane moments in Sky Chase and Winged Fortress Zones). When Sonic completes a zone, the screen fades to black and immediately fades back in at the next zone. There is no communication of where he is, how he got there, or why he is there. We could assume each stage is next to the surrounding ones, but this creates some implicitly humorous notions of Sonic's world - like that there's a giant casino in the middle of an aquatic ruin. Worse yet, we don't know who Sonic is, we certainly don't know anything about this Tails asshole, and Robotnik is an enigma as well - though clearly he has it in for our hero. The one clue we do get is the animals - whenever Sonic destroys a Badnik or unlocks an end-of-zone capsule, tiny animals are set free. So apparently Sonic is a tiny animal rescuer?

By comparison, Super Mario Bros. has an equally primitive but more effectively woven story. We may not get that Mario is a plumber (not like that matters), but the "Your princess is in another castle" scenes are just enough to tell us what Mario's quest is and where it will take him. We learn he's rescuing a princess who has been imprisoned in a castle, and we know that he doesn't know where this princess is. So Mario is methodically combing through hostile castles. Fine. It gives him a reason to be where he is. We can also garner some understanding of who he's fighting just through visual design - the Koopas are obviously related to King Koopa, while the Toads are clearly the good guys / victims, so Mario must be up against some kind of occupying army. It's tiny stuff, but enough to bring together the game as a story.

But Sonic doesn't need a story just cuz Mario had one, or cuz I said so. Every work of art sets its own terms for success - there are no universal objective end criteria that always hold true. Yet a single criterion can act sufficiently as a point of evaluation: the work should live up to its own standards to accomplish what it set out to accomplish. Sonic 2 creates the expectation of narrative - it presents the player with a sequence of concrete scenes, a protagonist and antagonist, and consistent forces of conflict. It has story elements. For it to lack connective tissue is a failure to live up to its own promise, a setup without a payoff, and is in that sense a shortcoming. 
Miles "Tails" Per Hour: a setup without a payoff
Let's return to the music analogy. Greg L. brought this up, arguing that cut-scenes for Sonic would be as extraneous as a written program for a symphony - that they could add clarification, but wouldn't inherently alter or improve the audience experience of the composition. I contend that cut-scenes in a game are not the equivalent of verbal back-story to a symphony. A game is a multimedia presentation. Any presentation of story - from stage titles to cinematics to atmosphere and audio/visuals - is as much a part of the game as are the interactive mechanics. You can't play the game without experiencing it. That is to say, it is as much a part of the game as a composer's overture and interludes are a part of his symphony. A written program for a symphony would be the equivalent of a manual, which I am obviously excluding from the text of the game.

In truth, symphonies almost never have these "verbal back-stories", despite the fact that they usually do contain some kind of plot. They are either abstract or representative through musical terms alone - the story is meant to be received through impression, not dictation. Games can accomplish this level of storytelling through mechanics, in that gameplay functions identically removed from context. Nonetheless, they (or at least the Sonic games) pair concrete presentation with this abstract interaction. Were we to consider mechanics the abstract element of Sonic 2's delivery, even acknowledging that they tell a story of their own, there is still an excess of concrete data presented to the player. To experience the mechanics, the player has to look at Emerald Hill Zone, has to control Sonic, and has to fight robots and Robotniks - all concrete experiences. A symphony does not present this pairing of abstract and concrete. There's no need for verbal explanation because there's no verbal data to link. Thus, for Sonic to successfully emulate a symphony still leaves it an incomplete experience on its own terms. 

Interestingly, Richard Wagner maintained that symphonies were a limited format, unable to match the expressive capacity of a multimedia work (Gesamtkunstwerk).
Wagner's favorite game was, of course, Odin Sphere
Oddly enough, Sonic 2 stands alone among the Genesis trilogy in failing to tell a story. Sonic 3 & Knuckles introduces interstitial cut-scenes to fill the player in on character motives and scene sequencing. The levels and enemies themselves are still a bit of an arbitrary batch, but we have the general sense that time is progressing and a plot is taking place. Just check out the cut-scene where Sonic/Knuckles is thrown from the Flying Battery (Zone) into the desert of Sandopolis Zone. That's connectivity - it doesn't leave it to my imagination to figure out if there's an oilfield at the bottom of a crystal cave. Btw, to whomever named Sandopolis Zone: bravo. I admire your work.

Admirably, Sonic 1 accomplishes a similar effect passively without any explicit narration. Its progression of zones (story-wise) makes far more sense than Sonic 2's, to the point where it eludes any sensation of arbitrariness. Marble Zone looks kinda like what lies beneath Green Hill, then the forest remains in view (in the background) from Spring Yard, like Sonic is at the very foot of industrialization. Labyrinth admittedly I don't get, but Star Light works as a continuation of Spring Yard, like Sonic is crossing from the edge of the urban region to the center, where he discovers the polluted techno-futuristic metropolis of Scrap Brain. There's a steady progression from nature to civilization, delineating a clear journey for Sonic. He has left his forest home to seek out and destroy Robotnik's industrial haven. The story also appears to take place over the course of one day, the sky getting darker as the game progresses. The player can feel Sonic getting closer to Robotnik's lair, the [reverse] heart of darkness, clarifying that this is indeed a story of nature vs. artifice. 

That is to say, over time, the original series essentially inverts its story presentation. In Sonic 1, the plot is told passively with environmental progression and no explicit narration. Sonic 2 drops the logical progression and adds nothing, essentially making it The Game Without a Story. Sonic 3&K gets us back on track, but instead of returning to Sonic 1's sensibilities, it goes for active narration to link otherwise unrelated sequences. Without making a comment on overall quality, this makes 1 and 3 more complete, fulfilling experiences that live up to their own aspirations. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

What I'm Playing, August '13

at 7:57 PM
In this feature, we commemorate games I have for the first time started and finished in the last few highly variable time units.

August what the doctor ordered. This. K these need to be shorter. The last one was like a full-fledged review of every game I've ever played in my entire life. Considering I generally already write about the stuff I'm playing, this feature feels redundant. But I do it for posterity.

Special Recognition for Starting and Finishing:

Sonic Generations (Xbox 360)

Everybody Segasonic Racing, try to keep your feet right on the ground! Yay! This game has that song! Sonic Generations really makes an excellent tribute game. I was a bit concerned (due to the character and Sega's shaky history) that Generations' self-referentiality would be yet another gimmick, this time used as an excuse to recycle old content. A lot of anthologies get slapped together with sadly little effort to get new players excited about the classics. That's not at all the case here. Generations is every bit the celebration of Sonic that Smash Bros. is of Nintendo (scaled appropriately of course - Sonic is just one series) - the game is littered with references (the whole gang gets back together), in-jokes (Tails apparently shares our childhood unease with Chemical Plant Zone's purple water), all-inclusive callback mechanics (everything down to the Thunder Shield from 3 shows up!) and gives every fan what they most want: the ability to set every stage's music to [this immaculately gay version of] "Escape from the City"!

Games Started:

Beyond Oasis (Sega Genesis / Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection)

This game caught me a bit off guard in how modern it is. Typically it gets swept into that category of "games that wish they were Link to the Past", and while in truth it doesn't fully escape that stigma, it's almost too perfect how Beyond Oasis predicts the future trajectory of the action-adventure genre. It is all action. For anything but a brawler to have this much combat in 1994 is odd enough in and of itself (combat didn't become mainstream games' bready butter til maybe 2002) - to maintain and evolve fisticuffs as a primary mechanic alongside a largely linear quest of dungeons, minor puzzles, and boss fights is almost clairvoyant. That's what sixth/seventh-gen 3D action adventures like God of War and Devil May Cry do! But that type of game didn't exist in the '90s! Apparently Beyond Oasis disagrees. 

I've speculated on the possibility of a "missing link" of action-adventure that fills the gap in the '90s when arcade sideways walkers presumably would've been absorbed into Zelda-style adventures; Beyond Oasis certainly demands examination under that light. Even if it wasn't particularly influential (who knows, but I doubt it was widely played), it at least shows that Devil May Cry didn't simply appear out of the void with a new gameplay paradigm in tow. 


Mario Golf (Game Boy Color)

Yeah, this old boy. Okay, I have played Mario Golf before, but never stuck with it. It was a reward last month for Club Nintendo members (join up! you pretty much get a free Virtual Console or eShop game for every three Nintendo games you buy) so I snapped it up in lieu of any good golf games at all ever happening since. Why aren't there more sports RPGs? If anyone knows of a good baseball RPG, please let me know. I would like to play it. It's such a perfect union of genres - each round of golf is that much more exciting as it helps you build toward a better player and conquering the world. 


Killer Is Dead (Xbox 360)

This feels like the final step in Grasshopper's recent journey from experimental art-games to full-blown immersive narrative experiences. Dead is, in a word, slick. Unlike earlier Suda-directed games like No More Heroes, it's not looking to knock you out of your seat and bewilder (or overtly mock). Dead wants you to sit down and enjoy a story, even if it is a little cryptic at times. Shadows of the Damned started to move things in this direction a few years ago, although that (along with Black Knight Sword) was locked to a succinct cinematic through-line that kept it from feeling like a full-fledged game. The player was along for the ride. Which is certainly one type of video game narrative, but a primitive one. One which shies away from control. Dead is like the Super Mario World to Damned's Sonic the Hedgehog. It's a fully realized concept for a virtual world without any obviously cut corners (which even Lollipop Chainsaw didn't manage) - the player is stepping into the life of Mondo Zappa. 

None of that really matters. Grasshopper has proven time and again that rough experiments can be terrifically successful, far better than the polished turds being fawned over today. What does matter is that Dead's writing is excellent. The protagonist's name alone is rife with subtext: "Mondo" is a pun on Bond, a type of philosophical Zen question, the German word for moon (the moon plays a major role in the story), a genre of hyper-realistic gore-driven Italian films, and slang for extreme; "Zappa" reiterates the Italian connection and obviously calls to mind Frank, known as an artist, virtuoso, freak, and outsider. This is the kind of thing you have to look for if you want to get anything out of Killer Is Dead. Writing. Ideas. Thought. If you can't appreciate a five-minute dream-sequence in which you are left nothing to do but literally run around Mondo's subconscious reflecting on the game's events (the time to reflect is fittingly set at the edge of a reflecting pool showcasing the moon), you won't like this game. It's far too easy to write it off as "bizarre" and "impenetrable". Yet it is by no means arbitrary, random, or purposefully obscure. If you aren't creative enough to put together the pieces... well I'm sure in five years when it's widely accepted as an underrated gem, you'll sycophantically insist that you liked it all along, the same as you do with Killer 7 today.

You know, I wonder if there's something to be said about the fact that the video game critical community is made up mostly of journalists, while the critical film and literature communities are made up of, well, usually film studiesers and literary theorists. Games aren't generally reviewed by people who study games. They're reviewed by people who report industry news. Yeah. There's something really obvious to be said. I don't remember what though.

Games Finished:

Sonic Adventure (Dreamcast / XBLA)

Finished this up before moving on to Generations. This holds up much better than most would have you believe - it's glitchier than a fake top hat and the camera isn't particularly friendly, but the platforming really stands out from other turn-of-the-millenium efforts (or really anything else that followed). Namely in that it doesn't suck. Unlike many Crash Bandicoots, Spyros, and Banjo Kazooies of the 3D revolution, Adventure doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, it's a game full of babies and solid '90s fundamentals to boot.

It goes without saying though that the Adventure Fields are an atrocity and go to great lengths to mar what otherwise would be an undisputed classic. It's not so much that they're brutally unfun and occasionally broken - the problem is that they destroy the cohesion and pace of the "main" gameplay ("main" in quotes because in reality, the Adventure Fields take longer to play than the Action Things).