Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Transformers: The Movie

I celebrated Christmas by watching the 1986 animated Transformers movie. It was the first time I'd seen it in about twenty years, and, despite having viewed it multiple times as a kid, almost none of it seemed familiar. Without that nostalgia to guide me, I found it nigh unwatchable. It was a film with almost no redeeming qualities. The animation was crude, the hair metal soundtrack grating, there was barely any trace of a story, and the non-stop violence was simply exhausting. I could easily picture the geeky creators servicing themselves as they put together this nihilistic explosion of robotic excess.

I couldn't see how even franchise fans could have enjoyed such a film, having to watch all of the marquee characters annihilated in the opening battle, to be replaced by random new Transformers voiced by "stars" I'd never even heard of--people like Judd Nelson and Robert Stack. It was unreal. Ultra Magnus, once among the most prized of the toys, turned out to be a ridiculous fool. Some well-written dialogue and a surprisingly menacing performance by Leonard Nimoy as Galvatron may have been the only good things in the film.

Even though I recalled none of the details of the movie from my childhood, I did still remember watching with rapt attention whenever the babysitter ran the VHS tape to keep us kids occupied. Thinking back to those times, that kid feels like a stranger to me. That said, I at least enjoyed the experience of watching such an unbelievable piece of trash. But I can't possibly pretend that the movie itself was any good. I have to believe that the TV series was better, but, right now, I'm too afraid to try and find out.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


I saw this yesterday and, overall, I found it to be very well-made and thoroughly engaging, though somewhat hollow and unsatisfying. The highlight of the film was assuredly the technical wizardry that allowed Brad Pitt to reverse age from the elderly man I can't ever see him becoming to the eerie exactness of his younger self from the beginning of his fame. It could make for an interesting game, years from now, going back and trying to guess which Brad Pitt is the real one. Probably none of them. And, despite the nearly three-hour running time, Fincher paced it with enough tricks to keep it from ever feeling too long.

There is a truly amazing sequence near the beginning of the film, where a clockmaker, having constructed a clock that runs backwards, wearily expresses his wish that he might rewind time and thereby bring back the young men who died fighting in the recent war. As he speaks, the film illustrates his sentiments with images of dead soldiers on the battlefield rising up and running backwards. The combination of his words and the visuals nearly brought me to tears, but the rest of the film would not approach that level of power.

I'm comfortable admitting right now that, if there was a point to the story, then I have no idea what it was. Perhaps I was too distracted by a certain minor detail that continues to nag at me. For that, I must apologize, especially as the rest of this post will be concentrating exclusively on that quibble.

At birth, Benjamin had the body of an infant, but in the cadaverous condition of an old man at the end of his life. I immediately wondered, then, how the film would handle his demise. Would he end his life in the body of an old man, but with the smooth skin of a baby? That would have made sense to me. As the rest of us go through life as babies on one end and then broken down old folks on the other, so too would Benjamin end his life the opposite of how he began. Or would he, as in other tales of reverse aging I've come across, shrink back into the body of a baby? Disappointingly, that was indeed the path that the film chose, and it simply made no sense. How could he be a baby on both ends? It is a fantasy, of course, and the impossible case of Benjamin Button defies logic from the outset, but it should at least possess thematic logic, which I don't feel it does.

Indeed, despite how technically impressive it was, Benjamin's aging process was the most troubling aspect of the film for me, because it didn't seem consistent. Again, as a baby, Benjamin's proportions were the same as a normal baby's. It was just that his health and condition were decrepit. Yet, as he grew up, his head grew larger at a much faster pace than a normal child's. It became just creepy, seeing the child Benjamin, with his adult-sized cranium and the recognizable face of Brad Pitt, at mischief with the love of his life, Daisy, who was, at the time, just a normal ten-year-old girl. For that matter, what was the basis of Daisy's infatuation with Benjamin? Was she some kind of pervert?

The fantastical short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, from which this film adaptation took almost nothing except the title and the aging-in-reverse concept, approached things differently. In the original story, Benjamin was a full-grown septuagenarian at birth, already able to speak and with the attitude and interests (or lack thereof) of a tired old geezer. The nature of his delivery was never discussed, and if the film is far-fetched, then the short story was completely ludicrous. But it made thematic sense to me, as the character really was living life in reverse.

Taking the concept further, I picture a man who begins as worm food, which assembles itself into the body of an old man six feet under, who then arises out of the ground with all the memories of the life he will lead. The moments in his life are then forgotten as soon as they are experienced, and he ends it by crawling into the womb of the woman who will become his mother, where he shrinks even further until he vanishes from existence. No, I wouldn't want to see such a story. Even as I write this, I acknowledge that the idea is both insane and disgusting.

But the movie's premise was so fascinating that I couldn't help wondering, and I was disappointed that the film didn't care to really address my curiosity. Why, if Abraham Lincoln came back to life, I would certainly like to hear stories of his life from the man himself, or perhaps ask his take on current events, but my first question, assuming I didn't already know, would be "How did you come back?" My second would be "What was it like being dead?" Am I being ridiculous?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Essentials #9: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure

Based on Hirohiko Araki's venerated manga of the same title, Capcom's JoJo's Bizarre Adventure was a 2-D fighting game originally released on arcade in 1998. A followup, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Heritage for the Future, featuring additional moves and characters, was released a year later, and both games were compiled on a single disc and ported to the Sega Dreamcast that same year. But, while those were very fine 2-D fighters, as expected from the house of Street Fighter, I'm here to talk about the version released for Sony PlayStation.

What made the PS1 game a standout, far more so than any of the other versions, was the "Super Story Mode," which was by far the best single-player mode ever offered in a fighting game. Surprisingly lengthy and entirely linear, it was not an RPG, though it possessed a better plot than many, and better combat than just about all of them. From beginning to end, the mode closely followed the events of the third and most popular storyline of the manga, the 152-chapter Stardust Crusaders arc.

Stardust Crusaders featured the debut of the "Stand" concept, which later became a signature of the series. The heroes and villains all possessed Stands, symbiotic spirit partners with super abilities. This concept was translated to the gameplay through the implementation of a Stand button, which could be pressed to turn a character's Stand on and off. With the Stand off, the player relied on a character's basic martial arts, while the Stand would only manifest briefly as needed to block attacks or perform special moves. With the Stand on, however, it was as though the player were controlling two characters at once, since many Stands took companion forms alongside their human partners. With both human and Stand working in tandem, additional moves and techniques could be accessed, with the tradeoff being that the now more vulnerable Stand would become susceptible to a "Stand Crush," whereby enduring too many blows would cause the Stand to retreat and leave the human character momentarily stunned and defenseless. Some characters did not have companion Stands separate from themselves, however, and these consequently played more like traditional fighting game characters.

Following the format of a manga, the Super Story Mode was broken up into thirty-five chapters, plus four extra chapters once the main story was completed. Each chapter began with some narrative via a mix of classic Ninja Gaiden-style still-image cinema sequences and segments crudely acted out using the regular battle sprites. The stage would then switch to gameplay, usually in the form of a one-on-one fight, with both the player character and opponent determined by the story. Aside from just the 2-D fighting, however, the mode featured tons of mini-games, with some episodes taking the forms of rudimentary beat 'em-up stages, simplified light gun stages, one pretty inventive horizontal shooter mission, and maybe a few too many quick time event sequences. The variety of play modes allowed the narrative to develop far more organically than the nonsensical excuses for story modes in other fighting games, where characters would typically just run into each other and then suddenly engage in one-on-one bouts for no good reason before moving on to the next fight.

Each chapter also had a "Secret Factor," a hidden goal that could be earned by completing the stage in a manner consistent with the manga. For example, the very first chapter was a one-on-one fight that took place in a prison. As the story went, the protagonist and player character for the stage, Jotaro Kujo, spooked by his own recently discovered Stand powers, had forced his way into a prison cell, stating his adamant refusal to come out. Unable to reason with him, Avdol, a family friend, decided instead to attack Jotaro, but the fighting was merely a ruse to lure Jotaro outside his cell. The condition for the Secret Factor, therefore, was to finish the fight on the right edge of the stage, so that Jotaro was positioned outside the cell depicted on the 2-D background.

Along with the mini-games, the Secret Factors further spiced up the gameplay, giving the player more to do than just exploit AI blind spots, as was the case typically with the single-player experiences offered by other fighting games. But, since the objectives were hidden, success depended largely on a knowledge of source material that was not readily available in North America. Also, some of the objectives required that the AI characters act in a certain manner, which the player couldn't really control. The final chapter had the player controlling Jotaro against the vampire Dio Brando. To earn the Secret Factor, the player had to first allow Dio to pull off his Level 3 Super Combo, "Stop Time", which used his Stand's ability to freeze time around him. Then, while time and Jotaro were frozen, the player would have to input the command for Jotaro's own Level 3, "Star Platinum The World," which mirrored Dio's time-stopping ability, thereby allowing Jotaro to move freely within the frozen world. Finally, since Dio would have activated his ability first, he would consequently run out of juice first, at which point he would become the frozen one for as long as Jotaro's ability remained active, and the player would have to win the match by defeating the helpless Dio during those brief seconds. In dozens of attempts, I never once even got Dio to perform Stop Time, let alone in such maddeningly specific circumstances.

Aside from the Super Story Mode, the game also included the usual arcade, versus, and training modes, which were much the same as in any other fighting game. Despite the existence of the Super Story Mode, the arcade mode still came complete with intermittent cinema scenes and endings for each character.

The arcade game ran on Capcom's CPS3 hardware, the same system that powered the silky smooth Street Fighter III. For reference, CPS2 ports to the PS1 were already pushing the console to its RAM limits, with titles like Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Darkstalkers 3 suffering from cut frames of animation, while the tag-team Marvel titles lost the tag-team element altogether. So it didn't seem feasible that a CPS3 title could be ported to the PS1. To be sure, sacrifices had to be made, with frames dropped here and there, and the Stands, in particular, saw noticeable drops in color and detail. But the gameplay arrived mostly intact, and, while the mechanics and interface were based more on the first arcade game, the PS1 release managed to include all of the characters from the second game, as well as the few additional characters exclusive to the home versions. For a more faithful translation of the arcade experience, the Dreamcast version was certainly by far the preferred choice, but it offered only straight ports, with nothing comparable to the Super Story Mode.

The Capcom game was actually the English-speaking world's first exposure to the franchise, and, more than a cultural gap, the localization process had legal hurdles to overcome. Nearly all of the character names were Western music references, and, while it was somehow okay for Araki to use them in Japan without ever getting permission, under the more scrutinizing eye of America, Capcom opted to barely obscure the original references, with such changes as "Rubber Soul" to "Robber Soul" and "Kenny G" to "Ken-E-Gee." At the other end of the spectrum, changing "Muhammad Abdul" to "Avdol" and "Mariah" to "Mahrahiah" was probably excessive. And, of course, "Vanilla Ice" was renamed to "Iced," probably more to preserve dignity, I suspect, than to avoid legal trouble. I'm not sure if Capcom came up with these changes itself, but names like "Avdol" and "Iced" have since become standard among the English releases of the manga and anime as well.

While the Super Story Mode may have been thrown in as compensation to PS1 owners to make up for the fact that their version was technically inferior to the Dreamcast's, it ended up as not only the best single-player mode in a fighting game, but also probably the best comic-to-game adaptation I've ever experienced. I've often wished that Capcom would have implemented such a mode in one of their Marvel games, or, heck, in Street Fighter even.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Games of the Year 2008

Actually, I only played a few games released this year, but here were the highlights for me:

Devil May Cry 4 (PS3/360)
Still Devil May Cry, and, for those who have been there since the beginning, or who have played any of the numerous clones, the experience may seem somewhat tired at this point. It's not as bold as the original DMC, nor as hardcore as DMC3, but it is the most balanced installment yet, combining the crazy combo potential of DMC3 with the much better enemy variety of the first game.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)
This presumed final installment in the saga of Solid Snake miraculously manages to tie together a decade's worth of loose ends (even if it has to cheat at times), while awe-inspiring production more than ever makes it truly less a game than an experience. That said, the gameplay is more versatile than ever before, albeit most of the new mechanics are confined to just the first two acts. The love-it-or-hate-it storytelling can still get bogged down in Kojima-isms, but series devotees wouldn't have it any other way. But let's hope that whoever helms the next Metal Gear takes advantage of the clean slate to give the series a new direction.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii)
The series could (and likely does) sell just based on its fanservice premise, but there is some genuinely deep gameplay on offer as well. As a Kirby fan, I love the additions of both Dedede and Meta Knight. I'm less crazy about the Subspace Emissary mode, which just feels like a bloated version of the already awful Adventure mode from Melee, but the story makes it worth the hassle for any Nintendo fan. The Event and Target Smash modes are also disappointingly watered-down compared to Melee, but I suppose these have always been bonuses anyway. The core game is still one of the best local multiplayer experiences on any platform.

The World Ends With You (DS)
Disappointment with the long-awaited The Last Remnant has left many questioning Square-Enix's ability to come up with worthwhile new IPs, but The World Ends With You shows why the company is still the leader when it comes to JRPGs. Developer Jupiter took the multitasking-under-pressure combat of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and carried it to new extremes to create a title that pushes both gaming and gamer to their limits. With fresh aesthetics and a gripping story full of twists, this will go down as one of Square-Enix's all-time greats.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

You know, for kids!

Wii Fit was being raffled off at the Christmas party at work, and I overheard some of the single mothers joking that they might have to come to blows over the coveted prize. I'm always somewhat curious about the place of video games in the lives of normals, but, as the conversation developed, it became clear that they were interested in it only insofar as they thought their kids would want it. The discussion gradually drifted over to include my neighbor, who then erroneously pointed out that I used to "do that stuff," at which point one of the single mothers asked me if I knew of any good games for kids, specifically for boys under ten. Dumbstruck as always when put on the spot, I couldn't think of anything, so I simply answered that I hadn't been in the industry in years. They moved on then, disappointed, as were we all.

As the day wore on, however, the question continued to nag at me. Even given time to think, I could not come up with anything better than "the latest Sonic game, whatever that may be," because, I was pretty sure, Sonic was eternally hip with the kids.

Going through my personal library, it occurs to me that my collection trends toward titles full of graphic violence. To be sure, gaming has almost always been driven by conflict and violence, and recent generations have merely offered greater graphical fidelity to make us better aware of what horrible pleasures we indulge in. But a part of me feels sorry that games like Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden, which I see as the modern equivalents of the games that my generation grew up playing--heck, Ninja Gaiden even was one of those games back then--are far too grotesque for me, as a responsible adult, to comfortably recommend to parents. What would I share with today's kids in place of these experiences?

Looking up the E-rated titles on PS3 and 360, I find that the overwhelming majority are sports and racing titles, along with the occasional license-based game. Titles like LittleBigPlanet and Viva Piñata are the rare exceptions. Including the E10+ range opens things up a bit, adding to the mix mascot-based action-platformers like Banjo and Ratchet, the Traveller's Tales LEGO titles, and the slightly more violent license-based games like Kung Fu Panda. Still, all told, these are pretty horrible lineups.

It has come as rather a shock to me that the PS3 and 360, the "core" gaming machines of today, have very little to offer what was once the most core audience. There is, among game enthusiasts, a half-joking notion that the Wii owes its success to a previously untapped casual market of senior citizens, but the reality is that it succeeds mainly because it caters to that audience that originally drove gaming, but which the other platforms have lost. Or, rather, those consoles have tried to grow up alongside the fans who were kids ten or twenty years ago and are still gaming as adults. I myself fall into that category, and, so far, it's been nice not having to outgrow my favorite pastime. But, while others may question how long the Wii can keep the casual audience interested, I have to wonder how long Sony and Microsoft can expect to keep relying on the hardcore players of my generation. Like it or not, gaming needs the Wii if for no other reason than to replenish the meat.

Of course, I may be entirely off on my assessment of the PS360's suitability for kids. Children, being less knowledgeable about games would, therefore, be less discriminating. And a single Kung Fu Panda might also entertain a child for far longer than it would an adult. Keep in mind, I'm not even talking teenagers here. In the mother's own words, this is "the sort of kid who watches Horton Hears a Who! all the way to the end, then presses 'play' and starts over."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Essentials #8: Pokémon Stadium

I've played and enjoyed my share of Pokémon, but my first experience with the series was not very pleasant at all. Out of curiosity, I had decided to sample one of the early titles, probably Red or Blue, maybe Yellow. About an hour into the game, I was thoroughly unimpressed, even a little disgusted. The extremely basic Dragon Quest-level menu-driven combat was archaic even for the time. The single-minded storyline was complete rubbish, and there was something innately unsavory about the whole concept, which struck me as far too close to cockfighting. And the very first boss had completely annihilated me because it turned out that I had picked the worst possible Pokémon to take him on. Since the pathetic bug Pokémon I had caught randomly were no better, my only real option would have been to level-grind until I was sufficiently strong enough to brute force my way through. Well, I had zero interest in doing that, so I put it away, feeling thoroughly disappointed in Nintendo.

It wasn't until a few years later, when I tried Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, that I warmed up to the series and started to appreciate the depth and appeal of its gameplay.

The 1999/2000 release, developed by HAL Laboratory, rather than series creator Game Freak, was the first title to make use of the N64 Transfer Pak, which came included in the game's oversized box. The clear antecedent of the connectivity experiments of the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, the Transfer Pak allowed players to plug in select Game Boy cartridges to access special features on certain N64 games. In the case of Pokémon Stadium, the attraction of the device lay in the ability to import a player's exact team from Pokémon Red, Blue, or Yellow. The team could then be used in any of the main battle modes.

For multiplayer matches, Stadium was a great option, as the 3-D graphics on the larger space afforded by a TV screen offered a far more exciting venue, also allowing spectators to view the action. There was even an announcer shouting overenthusiastic phrases. On the downside, the game never actually showed the contact as Pokémon attacked one another. It would just show the one Pokémon performing the attack animation, then cut to a shot of the target reeling from the blow. The overlong animations also grew tiresome over time, and abundant transitions made for a much slower-paced experience than the Game Boy titles.

The single-player modes, meanwhile, offered plenty of challenges to test players who had already mastered the Game Boy titles. The game featured several "Cup" modes of multiple levels each, where players could compete in tournaments against AI trainers. More compelling was the Gym Leader Castle, where players could take on the boss trainers from Red and Blue. While veteran players would have already beaten them in the original games, these trainers now came with new tricks and Pokémon teams that provided fiercer challenges than anything experienced in the Game Boy titles.

For those unfamiliar, Pokémon utilizes traditional turn-based, menu-based combat. Parties are composed of up to six Pokémon, which fight one at a time but can tag in and out at the cost of a turn. The main twist is that every Pokémon has an assigned type (Fire, Water, Grass, etc.), which is strong, weak, or neutral against other types. A Pokémon's type can be as important, if not more so, than its level, as a savvy player can and often must abuse type advantage to overcome a higher-level foe.

In the main handheld titles, most opposing trainers, including bosses, employed themed teams consisting of Pokémon all of a certain type. This gave the characters themselves gimmicks, in lieu of actual personalities, but the one-dimensional teams were often too easily swept by a single Pokémon with a type advantage. Furthermore, most bosses didn't even have full teams of six. As a sort of "pro" circuit for players who had already made it through the Game Boy adventures and wanted more, Stadium offered tougher battles against trainers with more sensible and balanced teams, requiring that players employ deeper strategy in constructing their own teams. Winning all of the Cups and the Gym Leader Castle then opened up the opportunity to take on Mewtwo, essentially the final boss of the game.

In many ways, Pokémon Stadium was a glorified expansion pack that relied heavily on the Game Boy titles. In my case, however, I didn't have any Game Boy team to import, so I didn't quite view it that way. For those who either, like me, had no Pokémon of their own, or simply wanted to play with Pokémon they hadn't yet caught in the Game Boy titles, the game allowed players to "rent" any of the then 151 Pokémon, minus Mewtwo, for use in any of the modes. The rental Pokémon came with pretty much the bare minimum stats for their levels, and their movesets could not be altered in any way. This left them at a clear disadvantage against legitimately-caught Pokémon of comparable levels, or against the slightly juiced teams of the AI trainers. Clearly, the game meant to encourage players to use their own Pokémon, and perhaps it wasn't thought very likely that a player could make it up to and past Mewtwo using rental teams. It was a credit to just how engaging the combat was that I ended up doing just that.

It was actually my younger sister, then an avid Pokémon fan, who had been playing the game until she got stuck on a frustrating match against Sabrina, the psychic gym leader, at which point I offered to help. Despite my limited experience with the series, I had played enough other turn-based role-playing games that I felt confident enough to at least give it a try. Freed of the burden of having to collect and train my own monsters, I began to see the depth of the combat itself. Unlike other RPGs I had played, the computer couldn't really cheat, as it was bound by the same limitations as the player. With levels being roughly equal, it really came down to who played the better match. In that sense, it more closely resembled the fighting games that I loved than the RPGs I had played, which typically required only that the player be at a high enough level for any given fight.

I didn't end up winning that first match, but I was intrigued and determined to try again. After my sister quickly led me through the basics of the Pokémon types, I came back with a different team of rental Pokémon and handily outmaneuvered Sabrina. From that point on, I was hooked. I found it both rewarding and liberating having to defeat my opponents through strategy and foresight, knowing that I couldn't rely on level-grinding to get me through. As I faced increasingly superior teams, my plan typically involved using status-afflicting moves to paralyze the enemy or put them to sleep, or lowering their accuracy or speed, then whittling them down with the most effective attack I had available. And, on defense, there were times when I'd have to sacrifice one Pokémon in order to save a more immediately valuable one. The Mewtwo battle was a particular highlight, as, at one point, I even had my Ditto use Mimic to morph into a mirror of the almighty Mewtwo, albeit one with inferior stats. Of course, I would still lose occasionally and each time come back with a better set of Pokémon, a tactic which would not have been feasible had I been required to catch and train all of my own Pokémon.

In addition to providing a new 3-D platform for battling, Pokémon Stadium also allowed players, via the Transfer Pak, to play the Game Boy Pokémon titles on the N64, in much the same manner as the Super Game Boy or Game Boy Player. Curiously, this was not a standard feature of the Transfer Pak, and the Pokémon titles were the only Game Boy games that could be played on the N64.

As a final bonus, the game included nine Pokémon-themed mini-games for up to four players. These were simplistic Mario Party-style affairs, but they provided an amusing enough diversion for younger players.

Pokémon Stadium was the Pokémon title that got me into the series, and, now, after having played so many others, I find myself really just wishing for another version of Stadium. It removed all the chaff of the monster catching and training, allowing players to enjoy the pure battling experience at their leisure.

Additional Information

This was actually the second Pokémon Stadium title. The original Pokémon Stadium was a Japan-only release that contained only forty-two Pokémon. Really, it was more of a prototype or demo for this game.

A third N64 installment, released in 2001 as Pokémon Stadium 2 in North America, offered more of the same but added compatibility with the second-generation Pokémon titles (Gold, Silver, Crystal). Regrettably, I never picked it up, as I was ready to move on to the GameCube by that time.

Since then, the series has been effectively replaced by Genius Sonority's console Pokémon titles: Pokémon Colosseum, Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, and Pokémon Battle Revolution. These titles carried on the ability to transfer teams from the portable games for battle on the TV screen, but the two GameCube titles were otherwise quite the opposite of Stadium, focusing on lengthy quests that played out like mediocre versions of the handheld titles. I haven't played Battle Revolution for the Wii, but, from what I've heard, it's much more of an expansion pack than Stadium ever was, as the rental options are far more limited, making Diamond/Pearl connectivity a practical necessity.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A New Record

Today was the slowest day I've experienced in my fifteen months at my current job.

The day began with the usual forty-minute commute to work. Once there, as has been the case for the last couple of months, there was no product available for me to work on, so I sat at my desk listening to podcasts, while waiting for them to IM me with news. It's a now standard procedure, with work arriving typically in batches with about an hour or two between each batch. I had already spent the last hour of yesterday waiting, so I didn't anticipate too much downtime for this morning.

Four hours into today's shift, still nothing, so I went ahead and took lunch. Another three hours passed after coming back from lunch. With only one hour left to go on my shift, I fully expected to go the entire day without having done any work. That's when I received the IM notifying me that they had five stones for me.

In summary, one hour in an eight-hour shift was spent working, while seven were spent listening to podcasts, while sipping tea to stay awake.

Now I know that there are some things worse than death. And one of them is sitting here waiting to die.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Time Enough for Love


(from the back cover)


The capstone and crowning achievement of Heinlein's famous Future History, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE follows Lazarus Long through a vast and magnificent timescape of centuries and worlds. Heinlein's longest and most ambitious work, it is the story of a man so in love with Life that he refused to stop living it; and so in love with Time that he became his own ancestor.

I just finished this today after reading during lunch breaks over the course of, I would guess, about three months, though it felt like much longer. It was the first Heinlein novel I'd ever read, and I've consequently lost all interest in reading anything else by him. Yes, the back copy makes it sound quite enticing, and the cover art is outstanding. But, alas, this is an example of why books must not be judged by their covers. That I made it to the end owes to a mix of perseverance, boredom, and maybe a slight masochistic streak.

It starts out as a mock biography of Lazarus Long, aka "the Senior," a man who has lived for so long that, by the time of the book's present, practically all humans living throughout the galaxy can trace their lineage to him. Rather unusual as biographies go, it is presented in the form of compiled accounts both by Lazarus himself and by his acquaintances, switching between his own first-person narration, the first-person perspectives of other characters, and some omniscient third-person sections, inexplicably including some episodes that do not include nor involve him in any way.

Early on, as if to establish a structure, Lazarus proposes a "Scheherazade deal," whereby he commits his descendants to listening to his nightly tales, simultaneously satisfying their curiosity about his life and his longing for their companionship. The first story is about a man so brilliant and capable that he devises all manner of convoluted schemes, always in the interest of engineering the laziest lifestyle possible. It lasts about twenty pages. The second story is about incest, and it's on that subject that Heinlein focuses all of the remaining tales spanning over 400 pages.

Heinlein, through Lazarus and other characters, repeatedly asserts that incest is a social taboo and legal term, not a biological one. The practical problem in mating with a family member is that doing so carries a high risk of passing on any defective genes that relatives might have in common. As long as there is no risk of producing bad babies, however, then there is apparently nothing wrong with it. In fact, Lazarus himself was the product of selective inbreeding to reinforce good genes. And, by the year 4272, there are no women left who aren't descended from him, so it's all incest to a degree for the still virile and libidinous Senior. Fair enough, I suppose, but Heinlein isn't content to just make his point and move on. At the first occurrence of incest in the narrative, Lazarus pauses to mull over the relevant genetic data, exhaustively breaking down every possible result to ensure that there is no possibility of producing defective offspring, which is the one and only sin he acknowledges.

That first lengthy and highly technical explanation already grows quickly tiresome, but the book is extremely repetitive regarding the matter, not only obsessively taking the plot back to incest over and over again, but also each time going on at length about why and how, philosophically and scientifically, it's perfectly fine and good. By the end of the book, Lazarus has shagged his adopted daughter, his nurse descended from him, a computer AI given female flesh using his DNA, the mother of the aforementioned nurse, his own mother, and twin female clones of himself, whom he has raised as both daughters and sisters. The book is more ambiguous as to whether he also shags the male relatives that he lives with, though it is early on established that homosexuality is commonly accepted and practiced in the future setting. Some might say that the book is about love, not sex, let alone incest, but then why must it be that every single relationship in the book is in some way incestuous?

Aside from this uncomfortable topic, which some readers may better appreciate, I had other issues with the book.

Now, I don't claim to know what goes through women's minds, but none of the females in this book struck me as remotely authentic. Every single female Lazarus encounters inevitably--usually very shortly after meeting him--ends up begging him to let her bear his child. Why? Because he's the Senior, possessing the finest set of genes in the universe! Obviously! What better incentive need there be for these women to throw themselves at him?

Yes, I despise Lazarus Long. That's really the heart of my problem with the book and perhaps that has left me closed-minded regarding everything else. The sort of invincible superman that makes readers feel inadequate, he is a master of all forms of combat, though he is far too wise to engage in needless conflict. He is a man of strong opinions, which are invariably proven correct. During intermissions between tales, the reader is treated to excerpts from his notebooks, listing off various nuggets of wisdom collected by a man who has lived the equivalent of 300 lifetimes, with no end in sight. For example: "There is only one way to console a widow. But remember the risk." Another: "Darling, a true lady takes off her dignity with her clothes and does her whorish best. At other times you can be as modest and dignified as your persona requires." These self-indulgent segments in particular lead me to suspect that Lazarus Long is a thinly-veiled cover for Heinlein himself. So, yeah, I think I'm going to pass on reading any more of his works.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Spike 2008 Video Game Awards

This was on TV last night. Still pretty terrible, it did nothing to improve mainstream perception of the industry and its fans, unless, of course, those perceptions were based on previous years' shows, in which case this one was actually less abrasive and a hair classier than the last time I saw it, back when Samuel L. Jackson accepted the "Game of the Year" award for "Grand Theft Auto 2.". Highlights included a sober Kiefer Sutherland in attendance to graciously accept some nonsense award, living legend Will Wright making the most of his TV time to give a genuinely thoughtful and heartfelt speech, and all the winning developers receiving their wacky trophies with sincere gratitude.

What really caught my eye was the model in the short intros that front-ended all of the game clips. She couldn't have been anyone famous, but there was something very familiar about her. I later identified her as Canadian model/actress Julia Voth, who, years ago, while working in Japan at the age of sixteen, provided her likeness and the motion capture for Jill Valentine in Capcom's GameCube remake of Resident Evil. While those graphics are no longer cutting-edge, the resemblance is definitely there:

I used to marvel at how accurately Capcom managed to capture the likenesses of Takeshi Kaneshiro and Jean Reno in the Onimusha games, but this one really caught me by surprise. I wasn't even aware that Jill Valentine had a flesh-and-blood model, but those eyes, usually the hardest feature to get right, were simply unmistakable.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Essentials #7: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Based on the hugely successful but now largely forgotten Kevin Costner film of the same name, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for the Nintendo Entertainment System was the rare sort of movie-to-game adaptation that was not only decent in its own right, but probably provided an even better experience than its source material. Quite a cut above the typical Acclaim or LJN license-based garbage of the time, it was developed by Sculptured Software and published late in 1991 by Virgin Games, several months after the film's debut.

The game featured most of the events of the movie, from Robin's initial escape from prison alongside Azeem, to the climactic crashing of the wedding between the Sheriff of Nottingham and Maid Marian. To flesh out the quest, numerous subplots were added in the form of various missions, wherein the player might be tasked with taking down Nottingham's subordinates, or gathering resources to strengthen Robin's forces.

The title was most notable for its multiple modes of play, with the primary mode being a top-down adventure that was vaguely derivative of The Legend of Zelda. Compared to Zelda, the level designs were spare, enemy variety was lacking, and there were no puzzles of any sort. It was more focused and linear, however, with clear and immediate objectives in a mission-based structure. Stages would begin in the Sherwood Forest camp, where Will Scarlet would provide instructions. Instead of a consistent overworld, each mission had a specific map that would begin as soon as the player left camp. Robin Hood would then wander through the forest or castle environment, collecting items along the way and running into enemy officers as well as wild animals, before eventually stumbling upon the destination. Control was tight and Robin could move freely in eight directions, but could attack in only four. Since enemies would often approach at an angle or even fire arrows diagonally, some finesse was required to outflank them before delivering the killing blow. The most annoying aspect of the adventuring was the overly-sensitive collision detection on the environment, causing Robin to often bump into and get snagged on random protruding pixels.

While it was more of an action game than a true adventure, it also featured some basic RPG elements, such as stats and equipment. While the sword would be the main weapon throughout the game, there were a few other options that helped to give combat some variety. In keeping with the legend, the bow and arrow was probably Robin Hood's deadliest weapon, but also very useful was Little John's quarterstaff, which could be spun continuously around the body, rendering the player invincible against any enemy that lacked projectiles. Robin could only carry a limited number of items, and each one lowered his agility rating. This was where his merry band came into play. The player would only ever control Robin Hood, but the implication was that he was actually accompanied by his allies on every mission, and, in fact, each of these characters had a full set of stats and equipment slots accessible in the menu. In practice, they served no purpose except to carry the party's loads, so that Robin himself could be kept at peak agility.

Punctuating the adventuring were the duels and melee battles. Most boss fights occurred as one-on-one duels between Robin Hood and the story's key villains, who were all trained swordsmen. These were rather shallow affairs, using a side view to show the characters jumping, ducking, and rolling clumsily around the stage. Because none of the characters were capable of striking at anything below shoulder level, nearly all fights, including the final sword fight against the Sheriff of Nottingham, could be won by luring the opponent to higher ground, then slashing their legs from below without fear of reprisal.

More notable were my favorite segments in the game, the melee battles, where the game shifted to a bird's-eye view, while Robin and his band took on waves of enemy forces coming from all directions. These brief affairs were no more sophisticated than the duels, with simple controls and enemies that died in a single hit. The satisfaction derived from the godlike ease with which the player could mow down dozens of foes at a time, while accompanied by some intense music. It prefigured the one-against-hundreds action of Dynasty Warriors and its ilk. These battles were also the only times where Robin's AI-controlled allies would take an active part in the gameplay.

Finally, there were a few horseback stages, where the player had to ride toward the right at high speed, jumping over obstacles to avoid instant death. The player character would be positioned uncomfortably close to the right edge of the screen, leaving little time to spot the hazards before jumping, but they always arrived in a repeating pattern. While these were some of the title's more thrilling moments, the game offered no instructions for this mode, and it was not immediately obvious that the player had to manually press right on the directional pad. The first riding stage didn't offer much time to grasp these mechanics before Robin's pursuers caught up with him and dumped him to the ground dead.

Speaking of instructions, I remember the game's manual listing peculiar items such as the "Claymore" and "Locksley Shield," which I had never come across in multiple playthroughs. In fact, the game contained no shields whatsoever. As a child, however, I was naively inclined to believe that a game's included instructions contained accurate information, so, for years, I wondered where these items could possibly be hidden, to the point where I even had a dream that I found the Claymore. At the time, however, I didn't know what a claymore actually was, so, in my dream, it took the form of a hardened turd that could be frisbeed at enemies. Lest you think me completely insane, I should point out that the dream was probably partly inspired by a classroom conversation, where one girl claimed to have used cowpies as discuses back on her farm. In any case, this game may have been one reason why I no longer bother to read instructions.

One other thing that always bothered me was that the graphics for the Sheriff of Nottingham had seemingly been mixed up with those of his cousin, Guy of Gisborne. In the film, the Sheriff of Nottingham was played by a bearded Alan Rickman, and, in the game, both the character portrait and dueling sprite for Guy of Gisborne bore a strong resemblance to Rickman's Nottingham. The long-haired Nottingham of the game, meanwhile, was probably closer to the film's Guy, played by Michael Wincott. I speculated that the developers may have confused themselves after having adjusted the characters' respective roles in the plot. Guy of Gisborne's role in the game was much more prominent than it had been in the movie, where he was a minor subordinate killed for his ineptitude by Nottingham. In the game, he was the villain who personally took credit for the murder of Robin Hood's father, and the player had to defeat him in a duel to win the powerful Locksley Sword. In the film, the sword of Robin's father was wielded by the Sheriff of Nottingham in the climactic duel. Looking at the graphics now, it's apparent that none of the characters particularly resembled their film counterparts, so it may all have been a strange coincidence. Even so, it still strikes me as odd that Guy of Gisborne should have had a completely unique character sprite, while the more integral Sheriff of Nottingham was a mere palette variation of the generic enemy swordsman graphic.

Clocking in at about four hours of game time, it was not a short playthrough by the day's standards, yet there was no way to record progress, meaning that it had to beaten in one sitting. There was a hidden password menu, where key phrases could be entered to jump to any chapter, but the characters would have only the bare minimum stats and equipment for that section of the game.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves held a place of honor in my NES collection, thanks to its addictive action, incomparable variety of play, and balanced difficulty level. That it was based on one of my favorite movies as a kid was a mere bonus, and, looking back, I have much stronger memories of the video game than of the film. The stigma of licensing has probably unfairly kept it from achieving a greater legacy, but it is a classic worthy of recognition.

Additional Information

The game was later ported to the Game Boy by B.I.T.S. I haven't played this version extensively, but it seems to be a straight and, all things considered, a pretty solid conversion. The melee battles suffer the most, as the system's screen size is not large enough to fit the entire battlefield on one screen, requiring some scrolling about to get at offscreen attackers. Using the old password code to jump to the end, I was initially quite delighted upon seeing that the Sheriff of Nottingham's sprite had been replaced in this version with the one formerly used for Guy of Gisborne, but, after checking the other duels in the game to make sure, I found that actually all of the swordsmen now used that same sprite. Oh, well.

More than a decade after the game's official release, a prototype NES ROM titled "The Legend of Robin Hood" showed up on the Internet. The rough code is not really playable, but this is definitely the game that eventually became Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The final game's quality was probably helped by the fact that Sculptured Software was already working on it before the film license was attached.

I got the box...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Not funny, just the way things are...

I came into work today at eight o'clock in the morning. The first shift actually begins at seven, and, typically by the time I arrive, the lab is already fully active--well, as active as it can be with business so slow of late. This morning, however, I came in surprised to find everyone just standing around looking nervous, instead of staring down their scopes as usual. As it turned out, nobody was working because management had put a freeze on business since the day began. I checked my interoffice e-mail and was greeted with a cryptic message instructing all staff to attend a mandatory meeting scheduled an hour from my arrival.

People all around me were tossing around theories as to what the meeting concerned, but, whatever the news was, it had to be bad for them to stop us working for a full two hours. As the moment arrived, the entire lab filled into one wing, while the president and CEO herself, whom I had never seen before in my nearly two years working there, took center stage to deliver the somber news.

The economic downturn had hit us hard and hit us fast. Just two months ago, we had been so swamped that management was considering instituting mandatory overtime. Now, there was so little work to go around that the company could no longer justify the expense of paying us all. Therefore, we would be seeing a 10 percent reduction in the workforce across all departments. Those being cut would be informed via e-mail, and work would not begin until the matter had been completely taken care of.

Half an hour passed while we all stared anxiously at our inboxes. I still had yet to receive any message, when one man stood up, put his jacket on, and headed out the door. A few others then rose and were met with hugs and tears. I clicked the "Send/Receive" button on my Outlook to make sure I wasn't missing something. Evidently, only those being laid off had been sent e-mails, and I was not among that 10 percent. This was maybe the worst possible outcome.

The truth was that I had already planned to get out of there after this year. It would have been quite a bonus actually to get out early and receive two free months fully-paid, with severance pay and unemployment after that.

Putting things in perspective, 10 percent translated to a relatively small number, and, cruel though it is to say so, I don't suppose they needed too complex a formula to determine who would go. Still, a part of me is baffled that they should have cut needy single mothers and virtual fixtures of five years' service, while choosing to invest in someone who has never volunteered for overtime, has never shown any real enthusiasm for the industry, and seemingly has no attachments whatsoever to the place. Now, I suppose I'm obligated to work through February, lest I come off as a self-centered ingrate. On the other hand, this is just the first round, and, while management hopes it's the last, things could get a lot worse before they get better.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


I saw Gattaca for the first time last night via Hulu. I remember seeing the television commercials over ten years ago and having no idea then what the movie was about. All I took away from those ads was that it was a science fiction film starring Uma Thurman. I blame poor marketing for my oversight of this remarkable film up until now.

The film features some strong performances, marvelous sets, and a hauntingly beautiful score, but truly it is the rare sort of project driven by its ideas. Simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring, it's a story that rouses the soul and comes close to stirring up more.

In the world of Gattaca, nobody is happy, because genetic engineering has taken chance out of the human equation, reducing individuals to numbers, life to a scripted performance, society to a spiritless machine, where the weak face dead ends before they are even born, the strong see only their own flaws, and even the most perfect specimens struggle under the crushing weight of expectation. The protagonist, Vincent, doesn't have the genes, but he has a dream. He wishes to go into space, but his heart defect would render that impossible even in today's world, let alone Gattaca's not-too-distant future of genetic discrimination. But Vincent knows better than the system what his place is, and he'll go to almost any lengths to get there. Whether or not he ultimately triumphs, his combination of will and ambition, rarer and more potent than anything the gene doctors can cook up, is worthy of envy.

The DNA manipulation of Gattaca is still a long way off, but, in practice, our world is not so far removed. The astronauts among us are few and far between, and, for most of us, giving 100 percent doesn't get us halfway there. On the other hand, there are those who maybe ought to try a little less. It takes a certain fortitude, no doubt, to come to grips with one's own limits. Perhaps genetic engineering could relieve us of this stressful, often fruitless lifelong quest to find one's place in the world. But then what would we do with our time? Sit at our desks being productive? To hell with that, I say!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Recent PS3 demos

The terrain manipulation mechanic is actually a pretty cool gimmick. While it's mainly used for creating pathways where instructed, some more interesting applications during combat include raising terrain to create cover or, better yet, sending an unsuspecting enemy soldier flying when the ground beneath them pops up suddenly. By all accounts, however, the game's use of the mechanic doesn't get much more varied or imaginative, leaving just the generic shooting action to fill out the experience. The game would have been better off focusing entirely around the terrain guns. As it stands, this game is already mostly forgotten.

Valkyria Chronicles
The visual style is stunning, of course, and composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is in classic form with the score. As for the gameplay, despite ditching grid-based movement, combat ultimately doesn't play out too differently from previous turn-based strategy RPGs. You're still moving one unit at a time and then selecting a command from a menu. That doesn't make it any less significant as an evolution of the genre. It almost feels like the jump from 2-D to 3-D platforming.

Mirror's Edge
The idea of a first-person platformer is plain enough, but, aside from maybe Metroid Prime, no project has really had the nerve nor vision to realize it until now. The convoluted controls somewhat undermine the visceral appeal and fluidity of the experience, and I feel certain that the gameplay would work better (and probably has) in third person. But I'm equally certain that the game would not be nearly so exhilarating were that the case. EA has already planned out a series, but I can't see it becoming the basis for a new genre. While improvements could be made, it strikes me as the sort of novelty that only really needs to be experienced once. Ugly character designs notwithstanding, the game has a very cool look, somewhat like a cross between The Matrix and an Esurance commercial.

Alone in the Dark: Inferno
Some ambitious ideas are wasted on a mediocre experience. The best feature is the DVD-style chapter selection. It's basically a stage select that doesn't require unlocking, but each chapter is preceded by a "previously" segment to recap parts that the player may have missed. I can think of a couple past games, where, given the choice, I might have opted to skip a frustrating or boring section of gameplay. The game also attempts a lot with the first-person perspective to try and better immerse the player in the adventure. For example, instead of a traditional menu, the inventory is accessed by pressing a button to make the character look down at the items stored in his jacket. Combat, however, is unwieldy, albeit it's hugely satisfying to toss a Molotov cocktail at an enemy and then ignite it in slow motion by shooting it mid-arc. In the demo at least, this is the only way to kill the zombies, and it gets cumbersome having to first knock them down with a melee weapon in clunky third person, then go into the first-person menu and put together the Molotov cocktail, equip it and the pistol, and then use them in turn on the rising enemy. And the driving stage, where you must outrun the apocalypse, is trial-and-error gameplay at its worst.

Not actually a demo, I purchased this on release day, but haven't had much time to do more than sample it. So far, the multiplayer is pretty awesome, but the platforming has major issues. The physics and collision are a tad overdone, but the real problem is the Fatal Fury-style multi-plane system, which has frustrated every player I've talked to. Also, the "story" mode is badly in need of some context--not necessarily a full-blown narrative, mind you, but some sense of purpose at least to motivate progression. As for the user-generated content, I'm pleased to find that, despite Sony's best efforts, a large portion of the material is blatantly copyright-infringing. I played through a Metal Gear stage that did a great job of capturing the first Metal Gear Solid's mix of pattern observation and hiding spots. But I also played a Resident Evil-inspired stage that was so broken that I almost wanted to report it. More on this as I get further into it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Essentials #6: Stunt Race FX

Stunt Race FX is probably the worst video game I have ever played, and definitely the worst game I ever owned. And, yes, that's including the literal garbage that was E.T. for the Atari 2600.

Developed by Shigeru Miyamoto's Nintendo EAD team, with assistance from Argonaut Software, 1994's release of Stunt Race FX (aka Wild Trax in Japan) for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was the follow-up to the previous year's groundbreaking Star Fox. Powered by the Argonaut-designed Super FX chip, it was a racing game featuring the same 3-D polygon-based graphical style of Star Fox. While arcades had begun to make some progress with polygonal graphics, true 3-D was still a very new frontier, one which Nintendo was eager to pioneer on console. Naturally, not all of the early attempts met with success. Star Fox 2, for instance, never saw release, despite insistence that the game was complete. In my mind, however, the infamy of that affair paled in comparison to the crime of Stunt Race FX actually getting a release.

The game put the player in control of one of three anthropomorphic cars, with a motorcycle as an unlockable fourth vehicle/character. Also, a bonus mini-game tested the player's ability to navigate an unwieldy semi-trailer truck through gates slalom-style. The inclusion of the big rig could only be taken as a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, considering that all of the regular vehicles already maneuvered like tanks. Underwater.

The game offered four modes, each one worse than the last. "Speed Trax" was the single-player grand prix mode. In addition to having to place against three CPU opponents, the player had to race against a redundantly brutal clock that continuously counted down, eliminating the player if it reached zero. "Stunt Trax" had the player pointlessly driving around an arena collecting stars. The game included no actual stunts to perform. Instead of offering car combat, "Battle Trax" was a one-on-one splitscreen race for two players. The really lousy part was that this mode included only four short tracks, compared to the sixteen courses in single-player. Also, if, say, hypothetically, you were so desperate to manufacture some sensation of victory, so elusive in single-player, that you stooped to setting up a two-player race with just yourself, the game would actually notice when any car received no input for three seconds, after which the AI would take over and proceed to kick your ass. Oh, and the last mode was "Free Trax," a time trial mode where you could use the motorcycle. Useless.

Visually, the game was an abomination. The primitive, low-poly graphics, which constantly tore themselves apart, could not compete with sprite-based racers of the time, but still images could never come close to conveying the full, unbearable ugliness of it all. The unstable frame rate often dropped to incomprehensible levels of choppiness, rendering the game completely unplayable. Also the HUD took up an inordinately large portion of the screen area, a problem that was further exacerbated when playing in splitscreen.

I think Nintendo itself must have been dissatisfied with the game's technical aspects, as it would not release another polygonal title for the SNES. Some years later, I read in a Nintendo Power interview that Miyamoto was disappointed with the system's inability to truly realize his visions for 3-D games, and, while no titles were specifically mentioned, I had to believe he was referring to Stunt Race FX. A dream that vainly reached beyond the grasp of 16-bit technology, the resultant mess left an unflattering impression of 3-D.

So turned off was I by the polygonal future as represented by Stunt Race FX (I never played Star Fox), that I predicted my departure from gaming, upon learning that Nintendo, Sega, and Sony were all going 3-D for the next generation. Mario 64? This Lego creature was not the character I knew and loved. Virtua Fighter? A blocky atrocity. Battle Arena Toshinden? A Virtua Fighter-esque atrocity. Ironically, it was a 2-D game, Street Fighter Alpha 3, that finally convinced me to make the jump to 32-bit with the Sony PlayStation. Even more ironically, SFA3 was actually sold out the day I got my PS1, so my first game for the console ended up being Rival Schools, Capcom's polygonal fighter. But I digress...

My blind faith in Nintendo should have already been shaken by the less-than-stellar Pilotwings and Super Play Action Football, but my fondness for their previous racing titles, F-Zero and Super Mario Kart, encouraged me to add another to my collection. Some positive press, hyping up the realistic handling and physics offered by the 3-D engine, further assured me that it would be a sound purchase. And, of course, there was this:

It was probably appropriate, given how often it was seen, that the best thing in the game was the "RETIRE?" screen, featuring a cute 2-D animation.

Aside from that, I suppose it had some decent tunes going for it, and this box art, featuring the clay sculpture work of illustrator Wataru Yamaguchi, who, ten years later, also provided the clay art for Pikmin 2:

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Best Laid Plans

I had a dream that I was back in college. It was the first day of the semester, and I had just arrived in class for an early morning lecture. Including me, there were only six students attending that session. After a few minutes of mingling, the professor arrived, or so we thought. As it turned out, the elderly gentleman was not our professor, but, rather, he had come to explain that the course had been canceled, on account of the fact that the actual professor had lost his will and gone on spontaneous sabbatical, leaving no time to devise a contingency plan. The fellow then noted that he had other business to attend to. Before he left, he asked that we kindly inform the next, much larger set of students, which was scheduled to arrive in an hour in the same room.

Shocked and disheartened, we pondered what to do. Were we going to leave just a hastily-scribbled note, before moving on separately with our days, semesters, lives? Suddenly, an outrageous idea swept across the room, seemingly originating from no one individual, but taking shape rather in the manner of an insane ouija board. Together, we decided that we would not tell the next class about this disappointing turn of events. Instead, we would take the place of the missing professor and teach the class ourselves. Yes, that's right. We were going to pretend to be instructors to our fellow students. We then spent the hour studying up on our materials to prepare for the coming group.

What followed was a disorganized yet highly gratifying experience, as six phony professors, only an hour more educated than those they were teaching, stumbled through a scattered discourse, taking turns to relieve one another as needed, and regularly asking the students what they thought. At the hour's end, students walked off looking as though they had enjoyed it, while we came away convinced that the real professor could not have done any better. Our resolve strengthened by the scheme's apparent success, we were eager to keep it going. We even decided to set aside the other courses we had enrolled in, in order to direct our full attention toward teaching.

What short-sighted madness led us down this ill-conceived path? Perhaps we didn't want to disappoint the unsuspecting students, who, like us, simply wanted to learn. Perhaps we were still determined not to be disappointed ourselves, and we realized that the best way to learn was to teach. Or maybe we were intoxicated by the power and influence. Well, the real answer, obviously, is that it was a dream, and logic had gone to bed. But, even in a dream, a plot this full of pitfalls could not possibly last.

What if a student wanted to consult us at our nonexistent offices? What if some young go-getter decided to study ahead of where we ourselves had read? What would happen once they inevitably learned that they were receiving no credit for their work? For that matter, what were we going to do about our own futures?

My memory of the dream's remainder is hazy. I know that I had personal misgivings about the scheme once my co-conspirators began to discuss how to grade the students' work. Around that same time, the faculty became aware that something strange was going on. Sometime later I found myself staking out territory in some swampland. Perhaps it had become a different dream by then.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix

I believe this is the seventh edition of Street Fighter II, not including ports and minor arcade variations. I'm sure it won't be the last time I buy SFII, but, for now, it is the definitive home version. Just as a home port of Super Turbo, it's probably the closest that any attempt has ever come to the arcade. It's not as bug-ridden as the emulation included in Capcom Classics Collection Vol.2, and Vega's wall dive actually works reliably, unlike in the PS2 Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition.

The redrawn sprites are a mixed bag. They're attractive overall, as expected from Udon, and it's nice to have a 2-D fighter that actually looks good in HD, but nothing could ever replace the old sprites, which remain some of the best pixel art of all time. Thankfully, the game includes the option to play with classic graphics.

The remixed soundtrack is okay, though I don't really find that the new arrangements add anything noteworthy to Yoko Shimomura's immortal compositions. As with the sprites, HD Remix includes an option to use the classic tracks, but not the awesome 3DO remixes. This is actually somewhat disappointing compared to Anniversary Edition, which included the 3DO tracks, on top of two different sets of arcade synth.

I'm certainly not qualified to discuss the refinements in gameplay balance, but the people behind this job are well-known Street Fighter players, and I have every confidence in their ability to apply over a decade of accumulated knowledge toward perfecting this tournament staple. Fundamentally, of course, it is still Super Turbo, the last fighting game that regular people could kind of understand. Speaking objectively as one such individual, I find the game to be a rather odd case. Compared to more recent fighters, it is frustratingly archaic in the punishingly tight timing required for combos and command inputs. Yet the game speed is also tuned way too fast on account of it having been the fifth release on an engine that had begun to run out of other tricks. So, even though it's basically SFII, it's a really hardcore version intended for experts. Mind you, these are issues with Super Turbo, which HD Remix merely inherits.

My only major complaint right now is that the DualShock3's D-pad is a nightmare to perform moves on, and, strangely, this release doesn't even help the player out by including the standard option to assign buttons to combination shortcuts (PPP, etc.). Sadly, better control options probably won't arrive for the PS3 before the release of Street Fighter IV.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Castlevania Judgment

For anyone still hoping that this game might be decent, I'm afraid I must disappoint.

The gameplay is painfully shallow, with or without the mindlessly exhausting waggle controls. Four-player support usually helps to mitigate the lack of depth in Wii casual fare, but this game is limited to just two-player versus. Arenas are too large, leading to a lot of chase over confrontation, except in the clock tower stage, where everything falls to pieces and you both die immediately, having wasted your short lives flailing out attacks that whiffed badly in the absence of any sort of lock-on. Whenever blows do get exchanged, the weak sound effects rob them of all impact. In fact, impact is the key element that's lacking in all aspects of the action. There's just nothing in the combat to engage the player.

It doesn't even offer good fan service, since the characters are rendered nearly unrecognizable by the new character designs, which are not bad in and of themselves, but, if the point is to assemble a cast of old favorites, then they should look as fans remember them. After all, what is the point of digging up Eric Lecarde, if he's going to be completely redesigned as some ten-year-old child? If he's going to look, sound, and act like a completely different person, then they might as well have renamed him and made him a brand new character, because the only people who will recognize the name are going to be disappointed at what's been done with it. And, of course, where the hell is Soma Cruz? Are they saving him for the sequel?

Even the music, the one area I expected to be awesome, utterly fails to impress. The Castlevania series features some of the best soundtracks in video games. All this game needed to do was take a bunch of classic tracks and maybe remix them, louder and harder to better set the mood for a fighting game. While the tracks are indeed classics, the renditions are incredibly muted, with a mildly sterile pop flavor that feels more like lounge music than something suited for battle.

Now, excuse me, while I play a few rounds of MK vs. DC to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Essentials #5: Robot Alchemic Drive

Known in Japan as Gigantic Drive, Enix's 2002 release of Robot Alchemic Drive for the PlayStation 2 was one of the very few games that I ever picked up based purely on a playable demo. Had it not been for that fateful Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine demo disc (October 2002, Issue 61), I likely would never have discovered this gem.

Inspired by developer Sandlot's love of classic Super Robot anime like Gigantor (aka Tetsujin 28), the game put the player in control of giant robots defending the city from giant alien monsters. For Americans unfamiliar with the Super Robot genre, the campy form was much closer to Godzilla or Ultraman than to Gundam.

The game began with a mysterious and hostile alien race known as the Volgara arriving in the city and proceeding to blow stuff up. It was then up to the story's teenage protagonist, the recent head of the ailing Tsukioka Industries and interim chairman of the Civilization Preservation Foundation, now thrust into the role of humanity's last hope, to reluctantly take command of the foundation's secret weapon, the giant remote-controlled Meganite robot, whose development costs likely drove Tsukioka into ruin.

The big gameplay twist was that, rather than playing as the giant robot, the player played as the guy who controlled that robot via a remote that looked remarkably similar to the PS2 controller. Starting out in third person, the chairman would navigate freely around the city, using the equipped Gravity Booster to fly to a suitable vantage point. Then, switching to a fixed first-person angle based on the character's position, the player would operate the robot remotely. As the action moved around and out of the chairman's-eye view, or, in some cases, as the vulnerable chairman's position became too perilous, it would be necessary to shift back to third-person mode, moving nearer or farther to a better or safer angle. Those seeking danger (or motion sickness) could even place the chairman on top of the Meganite's shoulder, though it was unstable at best, vomit-inducing and completely suicidal at worst. Camera has posed problems for practically every developer that has ever tackled a 3-D game, but R.A.D.'s uniquely-inspired approach took a potential weakness and turned it into the game's greatest strength.

Once in first person, the inventive Meganite controls further distinguished the gameplay. The robot could only be made to walk one step at a time, with L1 and R1 corresponding to the robot's left foot and right foot. Likewise, the two analog sticks governed the Meganite's two arms. Pressing both L shoulders or both R shoulders caused the robot to pivot, L2+R2 was crouch, and the face buttons were used for special functions, such as firing projectiles or transforming into the secondary mode. The piece-by-piece micro-control took some getting used to, but, once grasped, it was actually one of the most tactile control schemes ever conceived. While the game included an easy mode with more traditional controls, using it robbed the experience of a large part of its enjoyment.

It all sounds convoluted, yes, but that was the beauty of it. The game so convincingly immersed the player in the madness of the Super Robot world that I fully expected the most diabolical mad scientist control mechanism imaginable, and, then, as I gradually got the hang of it, the satisfaction was immeasurable, until I started to convince myself that I had to be the only one capable of handling this sophisticated machinery, the only one capable of saving the city from these accursed space monsters.

Starting out, the player could select one of three different identities for the chairman, including two males: the wide-eyed Naoto or the aloof Ryo. For those preferring a female protagonist, there was the ditzy Yui. I chose Ryo for my playthrough, but the choice had little effect on the plot and none on the gameplay. The only notable change, I'm told, was regarding the romance subplots. The love interests did not change gender to accommodate the selection of a female protagonist, so Yui's relationships with them became merely deep friendships.

More significantly, the player had to choose from three Meganites: the Vertical Fortress Vavel, the Airborne Dominator Laguiole, and Gllang the Castlekeep. Laguiole and Gllang could transform into a jet and tank, respectively, while Vavel was the balanced, traditional mech, equipped with the high-risk Volcanic Mode, which would max out its destructive power for a short time, after which it would crash from the strain on its generators. Through the course of the campaign, the chairman would take control of all three, but the initial selection would remain the primary Meganite.

Mimicking the format of a television anime, the story was split up into about fifty short episodes. Most of them revolved around a fight against a single Volgara, and, while a lack of enemy variety made for some repetitiveness, the mission structure and objectives would occasionally change to keep things from becoming too formulaic. The Volgara might attack different parts of the city, for example, while the Meganite usually had to start from the same location. The civilian population of the city added other variables, as the player would sometimes be tasked with actually protecting the people, instead of just pounding on the enemy and invariably causing immense collateral damage. The game was alarmingly arbitrary as to when civilian lives mattered, however, as the same bus that had to be saved in one mission could be crushed ten times over in every other.

Some episodes actually contained no action and instead focused on progressing the narrative via the dialogue, which showcased the comically horrendous English voice acting. Hilarious precisely because it didn't appear to be in any way an intentional parody, it nonetheless added an ironic authenticity to the experience, as it hearkened back to a tradition of bad English dubbing in anime. The worst offender may have been the actor for my protagonist, Ryo Tsukioka, whose delivery seemed consistently and inappropriately without affect. My favorite character, however, was Dr. Herman Wiltz, the hero's primary adviser and also the developer of the Alchemic Drive, which powered the Meganites. His thick German accent was absurdly over-the-top, but the performance exhibited such enthusiasm that seemed to almost reflect genuine belief in the insane material being read. By the time the story was over, I too believed it and no longer perceived a performance, instead fully recognizing the uniquely memorable voice as that of Dr. Wiltz himself. Sadly, for those hoping for a straight take, the North American release did not include the option to use the Japanese language track.

Coming out three years before Shadow of the Colossus, R.A.D. emphasized scale as no video game ever had, with the Meganites and Volgara impressively towering over the city's buildings. Providing an appropriate sandbox for these titans was the highly destructible environment, where nearly any structure could be knocked down. Indeed, as mentioned, collateral damage was unavoidable, given how hard these things punched and how much harder they fell. I often even inadvertently destroyed the Civilization Preservation Foundation building, though it would be rebuilt after every mission at great expense to the chairman's backers. As for the citizens, instead of simply evacuating the city after the first three or so Volgara attacks, they added to the potential carnage, as geysers of blood would erupt every time some panicked crowd foolishly fled into the shadows of my Meganite's steps.

Adding to the three perspectives offered by the differing protagonists, there were also multiple endings based on how the player fared with each of the two potential love interests. The chairman's classmate, Nanao, was a hard-luck case, who struggled to make ends meet on her own, after a Volgara blew up her grandmother during the game's opening act. Winning her over involved little more than keeping her home and workplaces from being destroyed incidentally during missions. Needless to say, I failed miserably in this regard. The other romantic subplot involved Ellen Bulnose, the chairman's well-endowed former betrothed/best friend, back when Tsukioka and Bulnose planned to merge, now engaged to Masaru Misaki, who, as the heir to Japan's new leading arms manufacturer, also provided most of the protagonist's funding. In rather twisted fashion, the path to Ellen encouraged the player to continually destroy Misaki's buildings in order to terminate their engagement.

In addition to the single-player campaign, the game also included a splitscreen versus mode, where two players could battle using the Meganites or any unlocked Volgara. The obscurity of the title, however, made it hard to find suitable opponents.

Actually, R.A.D. was neither the first nor the last remote-controlled giant robot game developed by Sandlot, whose catalog is mostly comprised of games in this genre they created. It is, unfortunately, the only one to have ever been released outside Japan. That truly is a shame, as R.A.D. stands as evidence to the developer's brilliance. The unique perspective and controls made for the most immersive video game experience I ever had. It easily ranks within my top five games of all time.