Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Avoiding the Issue

I generally don't like to complain about my job, for although it may not be the most fulfilling, I can think of plenty worse, as well as plenty that may be better but also far more demanding. Really, the only thing my work requires is a high tolerance for tedium--I basically repeat the same five-minute process for eight hours per day, day after day. So maybe I could do with a little more excitement in my life. Unfortunately, recent "developments" at the office have introduced entirely the wrong kind of excitement, bordering more on terror.

For over a month now, contractors have been working to renovate the roof. Management warned us that we might have to bear with some loud banging and perhaps the smell of chemicals throughout the duration of this process. They did not mention anything about the peculiar leaks from holes in the ceiling all along the outside perimeter of the building.

These holes are not cracks or any other kind of damage; they look like open pipes, and they have always been there, though I never really noticed them until they started leaking. I don't know whence they originate, nor am I adequately educated in plumbing as to guess the reason for them to be protruding out of the ceiling and facing down where people would be walking, but most of them are easy to steer clear of and therefore harmless enough. The one dastardly exception happens to be positioned right above the entrance to the building.

Dripping directly in my path, there is only a very narrow gap around the leak itself, while the puddle below extends across the length of the doorway and must practically be hopped over. That's disturbing enough, but after it had been brewing for two days, by the third I could not help but notice the foul yet familiar stench that had developed around the area. I really didn't want to believe the worst, especially as I still didn't understand why these pipes were in the ceiling instead of harmlessly underground. After about the first week, however, someone set down a bucket to catch that liquid, and sure enough, it's a sickening brown-yellow color.

Yes, for over a month now, every day as I arrive at work, I have had to dodge urine dripping from the ceiling. Leaning as far as I can toward the wall, even while pushing the heavy door open, I then have to make a big sideways step over the overflowing bucket and across the puddle of urine below.

I suppose I must look like a fool to anyone watching, but these are the desperate measures the situation has driven me to. I cringe when occasionally I see co-workers indifferently stepping into the puddle, or even allowing a drop to splash upon a shoulder. Do these people not have noses and/or eyes?! Can they not tell that it is pee?! Just as management has failed to address it at all beyond laying down that insufficient bucket, I suppose these civilians would rather not face reality. But in that case, tell me, which of us is truly the fool?

It's all just too much. I need a vacation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bloodline Rebellion

Speaking of Tekken and Wikipedia, the Tekken story makes for some surprisingly awesome Wikipedia reading. It's just a shame that, from my experience, even playing the games doesn't reveal much about the story. Tekken 6's story mode includes stylized summaries of the first five titles, but although it is pretty slick, it's basically incomprehensible to anyone who isn't already intimately familiar with the characters. No, I didn't get it until I started researching that Leo gender nonsense. I don't know that any of my readers actually care about Tekken, but I feel like people should know this stuff, because it really is quite amazing. For that reason, I'm going to try to summarize it here as best as I can.


In the prologue to the first chapter of the Tekken saga, Heihachi Mishima, head of the Mishima Zaibatsu multi-national corporation, tosses his five-year-old son, Kazuya, off a cliff, because Heihachi could never acknowledge a son too weak to survive and make the climb back up. Kazuya barely survives, but, his body broken, he is met by "Devil," who offers him the power to avenge himself against Heihachi. The five-year-old Kazuya accepts, at the cost of his soul.

Twenty-one years later, Heihachi decides to host the first "King of the Iron Fist Tournament" to attract the world's greatest martial artists, his grown-up son among them. Entering the tournament, Kazuya fights his way through to earn a final round match against Heihachi himself.

Father and son battle for hours atop the very cliff from which Heihachi once hurled Kazuya. Finally, Kazuya, juiced with the Devil power, emerges victorious, whereupon he evens the score by flinging Heihachi off the cliff.

So things are pretty simple so far. All this tossing of live bodies off cliffs is a bit extreme, but this is not too different from, say, the story of Fatal Fury, which ended with Terry Bogard jump-kicking his father's killer, crime boss Geese Howard, through the window of the top floor of the Geese Tower high-rise. It may even be considered comparable to Chun-Li and Guile's stories in Street Fighter II, albeit those ended in slightly less dramatic fashion.

Tekken 2

Here's where things get interesting.

In a stunning twist, Kazuya Mishima, formerly the P1 default character and story protagonist, becomes the villain of the sequel!

Two years after Kazuya took control of the Mishima Zaibatsu by defeating his father at the King of the Iron Fist Tournament, the corporation has actually grown more corrupt than it ever had been under Heihachi.

Upon learning that Heihachi is still alive and seeking revenge, Kazuya, in order to lure out his father, announces the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 2, with a cash prize of a trillion dollars.

At some point during the tournament, Kazuya manages to impregnate Jun Kazama--an important development for later on.

As far as the tournament itself, it is this time Heihachi the challenger who confronts Kazuya in the final match. In the rematch, Heihachi proves the stronger Mishima, prompting Devil to take control of Kazuya's body. But even the full power of Devil's true form is no match for Heihachi. Devil flees Kazuya's unconscious body, which the triumphant Heihachi then dumps into an erupting volcano.

Seriously, does it get any more freaking hardcore than that? By the end of the first game, each Mishima had already tossed the other off a cliff once, so I guess Heihachi needed a volcano to top that. Also, considering that Heihachi originally threw his son off a cliff supposedly as a test, how many times is Kazuya supposed to survive the impossible before his father can just be proud of him?

And in the coolest part of the Tekken 6 prologue, the Tekken 2 overview is nearly identical to the first segment, only with the roles reversed.

Tekken 3

Fifteen years since the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 2, the Mishima Zaibatsu, with Heihachi Mishima back in control, has ushered in a new era of world peace.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Mexico emerges a supernatural "fighting god" entity dubbed "Ogre," which begins targeting the world's top fighters. Among them is Jun Kazama, who, before falling to Ogre, instructs her fifteen-year-old son, Jin, to seek refuge from his grandfather Heihachi.

Heihachi takes in his grandson, training him in Mishima Style Karate over the course of four years, at the end of which Heihachi announces the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 3 as the venue for Jin Kazama to avenge his mother against Ogre. Unbeknownst to Jin and the other competitors, Heihachi actually wants to capture Ogre's power for himself.

At the end of the tournament, Jin faces and defeats Ogre but is immediately betrayed by Heihachi, who shoots his grandson in the head. Jin survives, however, thanks to the suddenly awakening "Devil Gene" inherited from Kazuya. Jin sprouts wings, becoming "Devil Jin," and defeats Heihachi before flying off.

So now this generational storyline has granted us a third Mishima, when already two seemed like too many. It will certainly not be long before there is enough fictional history involved in this series to rival all the Metal Gears and Resident Evils of the world.

Tekken 4

Two years later, Heihachi, seeking to harness the Devil power exhibited by Jin, learns that Kazuya, who also possessed the Devil Gene, has been revived by the Mishima Zaibatsu's chief rival, G Corporation.

Planning to lure out and capture both Jin and Kazuya, Heihachi announces the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 4. (Sheesh, is this the only reason ever for holding the King of the Iron Fist Tournament? What happened to the days when the fight was everything? And is there really no better way to capture these Mishimas than by beating them down in single combat in a tournament?)

As Jin prepares to face Kazuya for a place in the final match against Heihachi, the Mishima Zaibatsu's "Tekken Force" soldiers ambush and incapacitate Jin. Heihachi, apparently still quite vital more than two decades since the first game, then defeats Kazuya and takes both him and the unconscious Jin to the Hon-Maru dojo in the woods.

At this point, the Devil power emerges in Kazuya once again and he defeats Heihachi. Kazuya then intends to take Jin's Devil power for himself, but Jin awakens and manages to defeat Kazuya. Before flying off again, Jin also gives Heihachi another ass-kicking for good measure, but, in order not to shame the memory of the pure-hearted Jun, he fights back the Devil Gene's urge to kill the old man.

Tekken 5

In the immediate aftermath of Devil Jin's last rampage, the defeated Kazuya and Heihachi are ambushed by robots sent by G Corporation. Kazuya escapes, but the robots blow up Hon-Maru with Heihachi still in it.

The world believing Heihachi dead, the Mishima Zaibatsu nevertheless carries on with an unknown figure at the helm. The King of the Iron Fist Tournament 5 is announced, again attracting Kazuya and Jin, to no one's surprise.

Ultimately, Jin makes it to the final against the secret new head of the Mishima Zaibatsu, who turns out to be none other than Jinpachi Mishima, Heihachi's father. The founder of the Mishima Zaibatsu, Jinpachi had been imprisoned under Hon-Maru by his son, who stole the company from him. (Perhaps fear of the same fate is the real reason Heihachi threw Kazuya off that cliff. Makes me wonder, though, why these guys even keep extending the line, as it seems quite antithetical to the Highlander-esque game that drives these Mishimas.) As Jinpachi starved to death, Devil came to him, granting him the Devil Gene and keeping him alive (but driving him crazy) until the destruction of Hon-Maru freed him.

Tekken 5 was the one Tekken that I kind of played, but, although there were actually some dense character backstories narrated by Alucard from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the endings seemed mostly gag-oriented in nature.

Tekken 6

Fast-forward to the present, and we now know that Jin defeated Jinpachi Mishima to close the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 5. In the most shocking, almost Whedon-esque twist, however, Jin Kazama, the one remaining "hero" character, who never craved power as his father and grandfather had, has assumed control of the Mishima Zaibatsu. And he's the worst one yet!

Raising the stakes higher than ever, Jin openly declares war against all nations while firmly establishing the Mishima Zaibatsu as the dominant superpower. Mind you, this is not even Devil Jin, which historically has only emerged against Jin's will in desperate situations and these days exists in the games more as a dream character a la Evil Ryu. No, this is the real Jin, and that's a hell of a lot scarier than Devil Jin ever was.

With the entire world engulfed in war, only G Corporation, now led by Kazuya, can oppose Jin. Kazuya places a bounty on his son's head, to which Jin responds predictably by announcing the King of the Iron Fist Tournament 6.

With Heihachi, Kazuya, and now even Jin turning heel, it falls to another new Mishima to perhaps play the good guy. This time it is one Lars Alexandersson, an illegitimate son of Heihachi. Added as part of the Bloodline Rebellion upgrade of Tekken 6, he is the protagonist of the home version's story mode, which this time seems pretty dense. These modes have a lousy track record in Tekken--nay, in fighting games as a whole--but right now I'm genuinely interested to see if Namco has finally pulled it off (and if Lars can possibly break the curse of the Mishima bloodline).

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's a trap! Or is it . . . IS IT?!

So I was flipping through the Tekken 6 art book when I came upon this chap by the name of Leo. Although I dabbled in Tekken 5, I don't actively follow the series, so I was not previously aware of this new character.

Seeing his design for the first time, I could only roll my eyes at Namco. While some have joked that, between Tekken 6's Bob and Street Fighter IV's Rufus, grotesquely obese Americans must be the new fashion in fighting games, it looked to me like Namco and Capcom had both also gone about refreshing their rosters by ripping off old designs from their perennially less prosperous arcade neighbor, SNK. But this was a considerably more blatant and direct theft, whereas Capcom had more just vaguely mimicked the King of Fighters aesthetic in cobbling together C. Viper.

Why, this Leo dude is just an even more effeminate version of Rock Howard! Could Namco be any more shameless?

Yet I found myself inexplicably and uncontrollably drawn to linger toward a closer examination.

And then a pause.

Wait, is this even a dude?

Frantically skipping to the concept sketches in the back, I found Leo listed within the "Male Characters" sub-section. Well, that answered that, right?

But then I read the accompanying comments:
Leo is the first character from Germany. From the start, the development team wanted to create a character that would be loved by fans regardless of gender so they made the gender of Leo ambiguous on purpose. Of course, Leo is just a nickname based on the character's name.
Um . . .

What exactly does Namco mean by this? Is Leo's gender a secret to be revealed in a twist ending a la King from Art of Fighting? Is Namco deliberately keeping it a mystery, maybe until the next installment demands it be addressed? Or is s/he seriously just one of "those". . . ?

This would not do. For some reason, I needed a straight answer badly.

I turned first to the official North American Tekken 6 site. On Leo's character profile, I found multiple uses of masculine pronouns in reference to the character. So that settled it, right? We had a definitive answer from an official source.

Not so fast!

My mind still not entirely at ease, I did a little more research. Sure enough, the forums were telling me that these pronouns were a corruption of the original Japanese text. Japanese sentences do not grammatically require explicit subjects, so they are very often omitted, as happened to be the case in the Japanese version of Leo's profile. This poses a not uncommon translation conundrum with Japanese video games and anime, where there is perhaps a disproportionately high incidence of ambiguously gendered characters.

As if to confirm that the North American website editor had just chosen a gender for Leo at random without consulting a higher authority, the profile has actually since been updated to remove all gendered pronouns, referring instead to Leo now always by name.

That was only a minor victory for the it's-a-girl camp, however, and the extremely passionate debate, apparently raging across the Internet from the moment Namco unveiled this character almost two years ago, continues even to this day, the recent console release of the game only adding fuel to the fire.

Apparently in the Tekken 6 story mode Kazuya calls Leo a girl, but then Heihachi calls it a boy. Team Leopold notes that s/he is able to equip the males-only sledgehammer accessory, but Leona-ites counter that Leo's hair can also be customized with pigtails, which is otherwise only available to female characters. One side will point out that Leo is voiced by a female, but then the other will fire back that that female is none other than Veronica Taylor, using the same boyish voice that made her famous as the original English Ash Ketchum, the male protagonist of the Pokemon animated series. Mostly it's just people on both sides arguing that it should be totally obvious to anyone with eyes that Leo is a girl or guy.

Perhaps nothing better captures the bitter perversity than this, in which the self-appointed custodians of the Tekken 6 Wikipedia page debate Leo's gender--whether s/he is male or female, or whether there is even sufficient evidence to support the page's taking either side.

So there you have it--like Capcom before it, Namco has just made fools of us all. Personally, I'm just going to try to ignore it as best I can.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Miss Bingley's attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr. Darcy's progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, "How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!"

"Spoken like one who has never known the ecstasy of holding a still-beating heart in her hand," said Darcy.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is Jane Austen's literary classic, now infused with elements of zombie fiction courtesy of Seth Grahame-Smith. I would estimate that about 90 percent of the text is Austen's work exactly. But in Grahame-Smith's alternate England, the land has become beset by "unmentionables" produced by a strange plague. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are now master zombie slayers, though combating the menace seems more a hobby than an active occupation.

Sprinkling in the zombie elements throughout, Grahame-Smith does not alter any of the crucial details or events of the story. He doesn't really even add any subplots--fans specifically of zombie fiction may be disappointed to find that the zombie story goes nowhere and has almost no impact on the main plot. Mostly, Grahame-Smith takes the bits of trivialities and small talk throughout and expands or replaces them with the here similarly mundane matters of zombies and ninjas. Where, for example, Darcy previously asked Elizabeth's opinion of books, he now asks what she thinks of "Orientals," with only minor changes to the details of the dialogue. The regularity of these references adds a new ambiance to the story, although they are never exactly subtle or organic. You would think the zombie menace would override all other concerns, but the passing references to the damned invariably give way to much fuller passages about marriage proposals and incomes. Considering all the awful things they witness, it is alarming how readily the characters' thoughts turn to dances and handsome soldiers. Speaking of which, the zombie angle does surprisingly add a bit of context that a modern reading of Austen's original work lacks--namely, it provides a prominent and reasonable explanation (well, reasonable assuming you've already accepted the presence of the undead) for why there are so many soldiers stationed in town.

Considerably rougher are the brand new action scenes that interrupt virtually every carriage ride with short sequences of zombie violence.
Suddenly engulfed, the zombies staggered about, flailing wildly and screaming as they cooked. Jane raised her Brown Bess, but Elizabeth pushed the barrel aside.

"Let them burn," she said. "Let them have a taste of eternity."

Turning to her cousin, who had averted his eyes, she added, "You see, Mr. Collins . . . God has no mercy. And neither must we."

Though angered by her blasphemy, he thought better of saying anything on the matter, for he saw in Elizabeth's eyes a kind of darkness; a kind of absence--as if her soul had taken leave, so that compassion and warmth could not interfere.

The gritty speech befits a well-traveled warrior who has witnessed too many atrocities, but it sounds nothing like the self-assured, witty young woman depicted elsewhere throughout the book.

As much as I adore Jane Austen, the details of the characters' lives can seem remote to me now, such that, especially in today's economy, it can almost feel like wish fulfillment escapism to read of characters who, seemingly with no professions or duties whatsoever, somehow end up with "incomes" that leave them at such leisure to think only of seeking wives or husbands. A story such as Pride and Prejudice could simply not exist today. Yet the details do not matter any great deal; the work endures because of Austen's penetrating realism in her depictions of characters and social interactions. When the zombies arrive, however, Grahame-Smith's concern is something altogether different, and none of that keen insight of Austen's is left evident. What we're left with instead is a schizophrenic narrative exhibiting an erratic grasp of its own characters.

But is that not the idea? Frankly, I'm not sure how even to assess such a project. I have read all of Austen's novels, but I know nothing of Seth Grahame-Smith. Without any greater context to consider, it is hard to judge how well his effort matches his intent, whatever that may be. Am I to applaud him when occasionally he is able to blend his material into the original to produce an almost convincing Austenian zombie novel? Or does the humor increase, the more conspicuous the non-native segments are, the more deadpan the original Austen material consequently becomes? Indeed, expectation of the latter was what drew me to the book in the first place, albeit I clearly did not think it through that this gag might be hard-pressed to endure for 300+ pages. Perhaps that the effect is inconsistent, with the best parts being the easiest, can leave me only unimpressed with his writing overall, which may again have been the point.

Most likely there isn't so much a point to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as just a directive to have some fun, which I did. But, then again, why wouldn't I have? It is, after all, mostly just Pride and Prejudice, one of the greatest and most enjoyable novels of all time, and a personal favorite of mine, which I was happy to have an excuse to read again.

In all fairness, the joke, thin as it may seem, does yield consistent humor for the duration of the book, and Grahame-Smith's contributions actually do get better as it goes on and he weaves in more dramatic additions. When one of Elizabeth's friends falls victim to the plague, that naturally reshapes all subsequent scenes involving the character. Yet somehow the words remain 90 percent Austen's, and the general obliviousness of the other characters to her nine-tenths dead condition is the funniest running gag in the book. I also admittedly found myself newly looking forward to the final "confrontation," which this time promised to be more than just an exchange of warnings and wit.

I do have to question the real merit of such an endeavor. It is a funny joke, yes, but is the gag made truly any funnier by the production than it already had been in the suggestion? Or, rather, the joke is that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies exists at all, that Seth Grahame-Smith and his publisher saw this absurd whim through. But is it necessary to read the result in order to get the punch line? I honestly don't think so, but neither was the humor ruined for me in doing so. No, leave it to the sequels and followups to turn the guffaws to groans.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Too Many Yahoos

For a long time, my homepage when loading up my web browser had been Yahoo! Well, okay, that's not actually true--my real homepage is and has for the last three years been a Google page that says "Firefox Start," and that's a non-story for never--but I did usually visit Yahoo! about once a day.

The page loaded quickly and cleanly on every computer I tried. It was a convenient catchall highlighting the news of the moment, sports results, and celebrity gossip all in a small box labeled "Today" that took up only about one-sixth of my browser space. I didn't even have to scroll down. TV listings and movie showtimes were each just a click away. If I spotted any interesting headlines, I could click on a link for the full story, but I usually did not hang around long. I generally wasn't looking for comprehensive coverage, but just the Yahoo! front page was a handy way to get the top stories of the moment at a glance.

About a year or so ago, the Yahooligans running the place unveiled a new look for the site. I tried it briefly, found it not to my taste, and promptly set it back to classic mode on my account. I could not resist change forever, however, and last week I was finally forced to migrate along with all other visitors to a brand new Yahoo!

The new Yahoo! is frankly a mess. It still loads fast initially, but the Today box is far less informative. Whereas before it just listed the four hottest stories of the moment and then had tabs to refresh the box for sports or entertainment items, it now contains four headlines and then underneath has a horizontal reel of thirty-two specific stories, shown four at a time, which must be scrolled through manually by clicking repeatedly left or right on two arrow buttons. That's just too much clicking! What I specifically appreciated about the old Yahoo! was its minimalism.

Even worse is the sidebar of tabs--they call them "apps"--that link to other Yahoo! departments. What's annoying is that if I hover my mouse cursor over them, they will dynamically expand into page previews covering most of the main body of the page. That process already takes about a second of loading on average, but then it takes another second for the preview to close when I reposition my cursor. All this loading is particularly irritating because I expand and close these tabs only (but constantly) by accident. I didn't want this! Obviously, had I been interested, I would have just clicked on the button! Don't misinterpret my casual cursor hovering as interest on my part! And where the hell is the TV app?

So, yeah, it's all messed up now. Time to move on to MSN or some crap.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Red Star

No, not the Eisner Award-nominated comic book by Christian Gossett, designer of Darth Maul's double-bladed lightsaber. Rather, I'm here to discuss the excellent PS2 game based on that comic.

Released in 2007 after years of delays, The Red Star was to have been one of the last games by Acclaim. Acclaim went under in 2004 while the game was still in development--a shame because it would have been the company's finest title by far--but at least, three years later, players were able to enjoy the finished product courtesy of publisher XS Games. An inspired mash-up of side-scrolling beat 'em up, bullet hell shoot 'em up, and top-down multi-directional shooter, it is simply one of the best arcade-style action games I've ever played.

The bulk of the game plays out like a classical arcade brawler. One or two players proceed, mostly from left to right, through linear stages. Every screen-length or so, a pack of enemies must be eliminated before the players may progress. Combat is mostly hand-to-hand, but the game's main twist is that the player characters also come equipped with guns. This combination of melee and gun combat is reminiscent of the Alien vs. Predator arcade game, probably the best of the Capcom beat 'em ups I've played. A more current comparison might be Capcom's Devil May Cry, with its mix of swords and guns, but The Red Star actually does a better job of balancing the practical effectiveness of each, encouraging constant and seamless switching between the two for more than just showboating.

Melee attacks are still the most effective offense, but you'll regularly find yourself chipping away with the guns for free damage from a distance or offering support to your partner on the other side of the screen. There are also certain enemies that can only be disposed of with bullets, and most enemy groups contain one or two foes that are themselves long-range fighters, forcing you to be just as flexible when taking on these diverse parties. Also, just like in Alien vs. Predator, the guns overheat if you hold down the shoot button too long, at which point you must wait for them to fully cool down before firing again.

The two player characters even kind of resemble Linn Kurosawa and Dutch, the non-Predator characters from Alien vs. Predator. Makita is the fast female character with quick melee attacks that can be strung into long combos. Kyuzo is a hulking brute with slow but powerful attacks and an impressive beam cannon super move. Beating the game unlocks an entirely unique third character, Maya, who favors ranged "melee" attacks. All three characters feel very different, and each offers more depth than the average beat 'em up character of yesteryear. The most disappointing thing about the game is actually that you cannot change characters during the campaign, except by switching controllers with your partner, assuming that you are playing co-op and you actually selected different characters to begin with. Not only are some sections blatantly better suited for specific characters, but it's a real shame, given how distinct the three of them are, that you do not even get to enjoy the variety on offer without having to start a new save.

At the end of a stage, a "FEALTY IS DUE" warning message will appear and the camera will tilt to a top-down view to signal the arrival of the level boss. Most stages also include a mid-boss or two as well. These bosses are usually mechanical constructs fitted with multiple cannons. It is during these battles that the game really becomes more of a shoot 'em up. Clearly influenced by such classics as Contra, Gradius, and even Ikaruga (there is a boss named "Ikarius"), these fights rival the best in the genre for intricacy and intensity, and it is in balancing these high-level tests of concentration against the more primal joy of the beat 'em up action that The Red Star creates something new and masterful. As enemy bullets flood the screen in manic arrays, your attention must turn to dodging while firing blindly back with your own guns. Melee attacks can still inflict damage, but the head-on approach is impractical at best, suicidal at worst. Early bosses can be outlasted with just a steady hand and attentive eye, but later battles are so hairy that they can only be survived by deciphering the patterns and perceiving the safe spots ahead of time.

Thankfully, as a game designed for home consoles, The Red Star is a good deal fairer than any of its arcade inspirations, albeit still harder than any modern Devil May Cry. Instead of falling in one hit as in most shoot 'em ups, player characters have life bars as in beat 'em ups. This allows a little room for error during those boss battles. On the other hand, the game probably expects you to take a certain number of bullets as a result, and since there are never health refills until after a boss or mid-boss, it can seem impossible having to take on an end-of-level boss series after having already been worn down by a difficult stage's regular enemies. Whereas in Ikaruga your craft is as able at the final boss as it began at stage one, in The Red Star it is quite possible that you will have to face a level's toughest section while at your weakest state in it. Knowing that you'll have to save yourself for the boss does make for a more skill-intensive game than any other beat 'em up. The difficulty doesn't really ramp up until the final quarter of the game, but, yeah, it does get quite hard. Some mid-level checkpoints would have been a nice, progressive inclusion to make it more manageable for today's console players, but like the best old-school arcade games, it can still provide a great experience even if you never make it past level 15 without cheating.

There are other ways too that The Red Star could have been improved. I wish there were a way to attack floored foes, because it has never made sense to wait for an enemy to get back to his feet before resuming the attack. Even more annoying, of course, is having to wait for an enemy knocked off the edge of the screen to shamble back into view.

Visually, the game's grayish look adequately captures the bleak, perpetual winter of Russia, but the polygonal models do not pop as well as the colorful sprites of, say, Warriors of Fate, and I consequently had trouble at times distinguishing my partner from the enemy (not that there is any friendly fire, thankfully). There is also a lot of foreground clutter that can obstruct the player's view without improving the look of the game.

The game is overall unpolished, which is most evident in the bare-bones menus and transition screens. The throwaway story distills the acclaimed source material into just a series of senseless text briefings between missions. Makita and Kyuzo don't even have any lines. All dialogue is between Maya and another commander, Urik, who doesn't even appear outside of those briefings.

While there is no doubting the development team's love of classic arcade games, there is, as well as the lack of budget, probably a lack of practical experience behind some of the design elements. The targeting system is the game's most problematic mechanic. Although you can fire in any direction, this is not a twin-stick shooter, and the only way to move while firing in another direction--a necessity in all boss fights--is to utilize the auto-aim feature. In order to lock on to a target, you must roughly face in its direction and then hold down the auto-aim button. If there is no target recognized, your character will simply fix his aim in that direction. Unfortunately you cannot target an enemy that is downed or in an otherwise invincible state, and it isn't always clear that you've "missed" the lock-on until your target moves laterally and you find your character failing to track them.

I would also question some of those boss bullet patterns. The level 15 boss--the first major stopping point that I faced--was especially difficult because its various guns fired bullets of different colors. Having to evade hundreds of densely packed, fast-moving projectiles of just one color is already a tough prospect that forms the basis for many a bullet hell shooter. Having to simultaneously track bullets of three or more colors and trajectories--that becomes a whole-brain activity that, in my opinion, demands a little too much of the player.

Like a cooperative Mario game, the idea of a brawler-shooter hybrid seems so obvious, yet it took generations for any developer to really attempt it. Sadly, with the closure of the studio behind The Red Star, we are left with a fun but flawed game with no followup on the horizon. But just as The Red Star took inspiration from the classics before it to deliver an experience simultaneously old-school yet far fresher than any other beat 'em up of the last decade, I would direct any developer to look to The Red Star for where to start with the next great arcade game. This game already came so close to getting it all right that I would think it would be a simple process for any developer to just take the work begun here and tweak it a bit--add support for two more players, tighten up the shooting, clean up the presentation--to create the greatest arcade action game of all time, if only somebody had the guts.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Left 4 Dead

When I first heard the concept for Left 4 Dead, I was intrigued. A four-player cooperative Dawn of the Dead-inspired zombie apocalypse game, it sounded close to being the game I'd always wanted.

Alas, playing the demo left me pretty disappointed. The first-person shooting was overly simplistic, yet the experience offered little else. While the short, self-contained episodes seemed like the right approach, the lack of any real plot or objectives made it hard to engage with the thin, one-note narrative. Maybe it was because I was playing just a demo, but while the game's concept was clearly inspired by zombie films like Dawn of the Dead, the experience felt far more concerned with combat than escape. What was crucially missing was some sort of mission briefing to outline the survivors' plan, which, in better stories, can take weeks to precisely formulate. Not so in Left 4 Dead, starring the worst survivors ever, who decide to just brute force their way through open streets against mobs of mercifully weak zombies. As I stumbled around searching for the path to the next area, not only did I not know where I was supposed to be going, but I didn't even have any kind of map to tell me where I was. Because the zombie spawns were basically random, there wasn't even any sense of progress in the level to tell me whether I was getting deeper in or nearer to freedom, or anywhere at all.

Generous soul that I am, I was ready to attribute my poor experience to my having played it alone, which was clearly the wrong way to enjoy the game. Since I had no gaming PC and no Xbox Live Gold account, however, I shrugged and figured that was that--I still liked the idea, but the game wasn't really for me.

Just under a year later, the demo for Left 4 Dead 2 arrived on Xbox Live, so I thought I'd give the game another try. I had a chance to play it in local split-screen with one other player, which was still only half the full experience, but I figured it would give me at least a taste of the co-op. As it turned out, my original assessment was fairly on the mark.

Having another human being to play with naturally made for a more fun experience, but the game was fundamentally the same and still quite flawed. Moreover, playing it in co-op made me realize that the multiplayer had less in common with the single-player campaigns of other action games than with competitive shooters like Counter-Strike, which shouldn't have been surprising considering the pedigree of original developer Turtle Rock Studios. Whereas the co-op-focused Resident Evil 5 began with the strong single-player design of RE4 and then modified it substantially to suit two players, the Left 4 Dead formula feels more like a competitive death match mode that just placed all the humans on one team to fight against AI.

Characters ice skate around the map, stumbling into the enemy at irregular intervals in sudden and frenzied encounters. Confrontations are always direct and one-dimensional because the simple-minded zombie drones come straight at you, while all you can do is shoot or slap them down while maybe strafing frantically to avoid getting caught standing. The simplistic combat mechanics and randomness of enemy spawns preclude any more thoughtful approaches. There really is nothing more to the game besides gunning down zombies, and unfortunately the extremely dated shooting isn't even very good.

And it's not just the gunplay that feels archaic. The limited animations lack the variety and situational dynamism needed for a convincingly visceral experience, and there is a lack of polish that continually breaks the immersion. At one point my guy was pinned to the ground, his guts being torn out by an especially fierce variety of mini-boss zombie. According to the onscreen message, I was helpless in that situation and could only depend on my partners to save me by subduing my attacker. Thus, as I lay dying, I could only watch as this zombie queen ripped me to shreds while my buddy stood right next to us unloading clip after clip at point blank range into the undead bitch. She would not be distracted, she would not relent, she would not even react until, all of a sudden, she just dropped dead from having taken too much damage. Viewing the ludicrous "interaction" between these three stationary characters, I could not help feeling that there was some feedback missing there.

Of course, most (competitive) multiplayer shooters do not depend on immersive aesthetics. Ultimately it's about playing with other living people, and, however simple or complex the mechanics may be, the experience is only as good as what the players bring to it. I've no doubt that Left 4 Dead can be a lot of fun with three friends. But it isn't the zombocalypse game that I'm looking for.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow

I always thought that the "Metroidvania" term referred specifically to the Metroid-like Castlevania titles. I thought it was supposed to be a clever and convenient way to distinguish the post-Symphony of the Night releases from the classical, more linear style of Castlevania. Now I'm hearing that any game of that Metroid-style action-adventure formula may be defined as a Metroidvania. Thus has the press dubbed Shadow Complex a Metroidvania. Moreover, apparently the Metroid games themselves are Metroidvanias. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but so be it.

In any case, the one "Castleroid" that I might consider superior to Symphony of the Night is Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for the Game Boy Advance.

The third GBA Castlevania, Aria of Sorrow reunited the Symphony of the Night team of series producer Koji Igarashi, artist Ayami Kojima, and composer Michiru Yamane. In other respects as well, this was the true successor to Symphony of the Night.

The protagonist, Soma Cruz, was not a whip-wielding Belmont but, rather more like Alucard, an adaptable character capable of wielding whatever manner of weapon he encountered at random in Dracula's castle. In fact, Soma's arsenal offered even greater variety than Alucard's.

Excepting novelties and special weapons such as the Crissaegrim and Estoc, Alucard swung basically all of his swords with a quick horizontal slash. He would not alter his one-handed swing even for swords explicitly defined by the game as two-handed, such as katana or the massive Zweihander. Other weapon classes, including knuckles and flails, offered only slight practical variety while seeing less use overall.

Soma, on the other hand, favored vertically swinging broadswords, but he could also wield shortswords, spears, axes, hammers, unique weapons like the whip sword, and even firearms. And the type of weapon equipped had a real effect on how Soma played; although he swung the axes in a similar overhead manner as with swords, a heavy axe was much slower than a sword and had a more particular attack range, as only the blade was actually capable of hitting.

Some of the cooler weapons could only be won through the unlocked "Boss Rush" mode, but the main adventure still treated the player to a steady mix and flow of items to toy around with. For comparison, I spent about three-quarters of the sequel, Dawn of Sorrow, wielding just the Claymore while feeling frustrated and impotent.

Perhaps Aria of Sorrow featured fewer obscure items to hunt down than Symphony of the Night, but it instead offered you the souls of your defeated enemies as dropped loot. Consolidating Alucard's messy mix of heart-powered traditional sub-weapons and MP-powered spells and abilities into a single unified system, soul-absorbing allowed Soma to equip the powers of his foes, including such classics as the standard skeleton's bone toss. Because almost every enemy had a soul to collect, Soma's list of abilities could grow quite massive, and in Pokemon-like fashion, the drive to catch them all could keep players going long after the final boss was beaten.

Even Aria of Sorrow's story was the most ambitious since Symphony of the Night, though perhaps not ambitious enough. Set in the near future, Aria of Sorrow took place after Dracula had supposedly finally been slain once and for all--a moment not yet depicted in any game--though trouble was clearly afoot as Dracula's castle rose without its master.

Getting rid of Dracula as a character was a gutsy move, but some Castlevania traditionalists were less than enamored of his successor. At the same time, the game completely squandered the future setting, as Dracula's castle and everything in it remained distinctly medieval. Nevertheless, the twist-filled story was once again a compelling part of the adventure.

Where Aria of Sorrow most improved upon Symphony of the Night was in the level of difficulty. Neither as pitifully submissive as Symphony of the Night or Harmony of Dissonance, nor as cruelly punishing as Circle of the Moon or Order of Ecclesia, Aria of Sorrow achieved nearly the perfect balance. Soma was not nearly as godlike as Alucard, so bosses could pose real threats. It was quite possible that you would encounter the Game Over screen a few times, but then you could usually come back and persevere with a better strategy or just by being more careful.

There were still stats and level-ups, but progress felt more subtle. Unless you were going out of your way to hunt for souls, you would usually feel at just the right level for where you were in the game, so that victory was more often a matter of player skill than character stats.

Dawn of Sorrow included the best "bonus character" mode by far, while Portrait of Ruin featured a cool two-character system and a hero who could wield whips as well as swords. Both are fine representatives of the Symphony of the Night platform-adventure-RPG paradigm, and even Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance were excellent games in their own right, but in my opinion Aria of Sorrow remains, from a gameplay perspective, the definitive Metroidvania Castlevania experience. Even so, I can't say it was as significant as Symphony of the Night, either historically or personally. Three iterations after Symphony of the Night, the formula was still addictive, but it was no longer groundbreaking.

Perhaps equally important, even disregarding historical context, Aria of Sorrow, due to reduced budget and/or ambition, just does not achieve the same impact as Symphony of the Night, which features fully voice-acted dialogue, pre-rendered cinematics, and one of the most gripping beginnings ever to make it feel like a major affair. Aria of Sorrow boasts excellent production for a GBA game, and it still has Kojima and Yamane, but the handheld experience is just not the same. The gameplay is more refined and as fun as ever, but it does not carry the same weight, and thus it feels more like a diversion to pass the time than an event to set aside time for. Nevertheless, if you have room for only two Castlevania titles, Aria of Sorrow should be one of them.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Co-op Gaming Moment #47

Army of Two is a game that tests teamwork more than any other cooperative shooter I've played.

Despite first impressions that it might be a deliberately paced cover-based third-person shooter a la Gears of War, it is not at all the same sort of arcade-style shooting gallery where you wait patiently for an enemy to pop his head out, whereupon you pop it off with your rifle. If any part of you is exposed at all, you will be shot. The only real cover is the cover fire that your partner can provide.

I fancy myself a maverick of many games conquered, and even in our Gears of War sessions, my co-op partner and I had operated mostly independently. We perhaps did not come into Army of Two with the right mindset. Too often we would both pay the price when one of us charged ahead too far. We would fail to alternate roles in drawing fire and then wonder why we were both constantly getting shredded. Really, there were no roles and no strategy. The most embarrassing screwup would come when the game called for the usually formidable back-to-back formation. As we spun around in slow-motion in this turret-like stance to combat surrounding rings of enemies, invariably we would end up unknowingly both facing the same direction as enemies pelted us from the other side.

You could say simply that it was a breakdown in communication, but, believe me, when you've got suicide bombers charging from all directions accompanied by the harrowing clamor of machine gun fire and crazed foreign tongues, speech is just not fast enough. You really just have to know each what the other is thinking.

Surrounded by Al-Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan, I think we finally found ourselves on the same page.

They were all over us. Well, in fact I could only see one guy, but I was taking hits from every direction. I tried to take cover, but the enemies in this game are not afraid to rush you. The one dude was extremely agile, more resilient than any Majini, and showed no fear of death as he got right in my face to shoot me. Meanwhile I had no idea where my partner was, but I could tell from the sound of buttons clicking furiously that he was also in trouble. The camera shaking wildly from my panic, I was still trying to dodge the creep on me while struggling to no avail to find a "melee" button to back him off. With no better options and no help coming my way, all I could do was unload my entire clip in his direction, but alas he was just better than me.

As I watched my guy falling dead on my top half of the split-screen, I also glanced at the bottom screen and saw myself dropping from my partner's perspective. Or so I thought. Then the image turned gray and we were greeted with the Game Over message. I didn't understand at first what had happened. I had run out of health, yes, but that isn't usually supposed to be an instant fail. Why couldn't my partner just revive me?

Then I took another look and noticed that there were two bodies lying on the ground of that failed mission. As it turned out, what I had seen on the bottom screen was my partner collapsing at nearly the same instant as I myself had fallen. We had somehow both died simultaneously, and our bodies were now lying right next to one another.

Sometimes, when a mission ends in failure, team game or no, it's easy to place the blame on whoever died first and left the other player too much to take on alone. Here there was no way to even tell who had died first, but the times of death had been so close that in any case it didn't matter.

And it wasn't as if we had both died from a single attack, as sometimes happens when grenades or rocket launchers are involved. There had been no explosion, and though the one guy I was fighting was tough, I don't think even he could have gotten us both that quickly with just a rifle. These had been separate kills, and the timing involved spoke to a perfect synchronicity that Olympic-class diving pairs must spend their entire youths together working toward.

So there it was. Perhaps Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios, Army of Two, had not the fortune to be born as brothers. But, there in that hell that was Afghanistan, they made sure to die together on the battlefield as brothers in arms.