Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I picked up LittleBigPlanet shortly after its release, and, prior to that, I had been highly anticipating it, despite the fact that I hadn't really bothered with a platformer since the 16-bit days. But platformers with simultaneous play for even two players are exceedingly rare, and the idea of a four-player 2-D platformer was irresistible. The user-generated content aspect also appealed to me, although I probably already knew that I wouldn't be motivated enough to build levels of my own, unless the system was extremely easy to use. Unfortunately, playing the game, I've found that it has some serious intrinsic flaws that have made it a real slog to get through, and now, months later, I still have yet to finish the story mode, let alone find time to explore the level creation process.

To start with, as a platformer, it's honestly not that great. It has great moments, such as an early puzzle where my fellow Sackboys and I had to load up a box with weights in order to tip it over to operate a pulley, or a sequence where we had to frantically run Indiana Jones-style from a rolling object demolishing everything in its path, but those moments have become increasingly few and far between as I've progressed. The game also becomes surprisingly difficult in its later stages, usually due to an overabundance of high-speed kill mechanisms. Even when they work, the many "snake wheels" randomly strewn about everywhere are merely mildly thrilling, rather than legitimately inspired. The sheer maddening nature of some of the level design can produce occasional unintended laughs when playing with other people, after everybody has been utterly shattered to the point that the frustration simply exhausts itself and it all becomes just a joke, but I'd frankly rather have a game that is fun to play.

Much of the difficulty arises from the game just not feeling as a good platformer should. Despite surface appearances, it's not a 2-D game. Nor is it 3-D. It's an extremely janky 2.5-D, using a Fatal Fury-style multi-plane system, but without any dedicated button to transition between the three planes. Instead, shifting is handled manually by pressing up and down on the analog stick, or, more often, occurs when an obstacle or just the stage structure automatically pushes the player character into a different plane. The system is unintuitive, with characters often shifting unintentionally and even unnoticed, and, more importantly, it does nothing to enhance the platforming experience, rather making basic movement awkward and clumsy when you find yourself unexpectedly on the wrong plane. It's just a needless complication that seems implemented to distinguish the game from Super Mario Bros., to its own detriment. The physics and collision are also touchy and overdone, introducing too many minute holes in the environment. I constantly find myself getting stuck inside walls and objects, where, after minutes of struggling to no avail, the only solution seems to be to resort to the suicide function, allowing my stuck Sackboy to reset to the last checkpoint, assuming my team hasn't already spent all my limited respawns. Such a lazily implemented "fix" might be acceptable in the untameably massive 3-D environment of a fast-moving downhill snowboarding game like SSX, but, in LittleBigPlanet, it's far too often a cheap way for the developers to turn the other way from what would otherwise be obvious progression-halting bugs.

As for the user-generated content, the level editor quickly overwhelmed me, but the stages uploaded by others provided some amusement early on. Unfortunately, it doesn't take all that long to check out all the worthwhile creations, and the influx of new good material has slowed considerably since the early days. I recently checked out the "LittleBigContra" project that is currently getting so much buzz around the community. The obvious effort and ingenuity merits the acclaim, and I was immediately astonished by the incomprehensibly faithful reproduction of even the title screen of Contra. But I ended up admiring the work far more than I enjoyed playing the stages, which felt like playing the actual Contra, already a very difficult game, but without any of the sharp controls of that game. A common theme, in fact, among the user-created levels seems to be a determination to punish players with the most sadistic setups possible, as if the ability to play or design a ruthlessly difficult stage were some proof of one's manhood. I wouldn't classify LittleBigContra in that category, as it's merely bound by its commitment to faithfulness, but, all the same, the user-generated levels are not a good place to turn for an escape from the already frustrating story mode.

On the bright side, I may not be a fan of the game's British charm, but Sackboy himself is exactly the cute mascot character to give the Sony PlayStation brand a face. And while multiple players can sometimes make the platforming more complicated and deadly, it's still great to be able to play a platformer with other people. Despite my complaints, I like the idea of LittleBigPlanet. I just wish it were paired with a better platforming engine.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Mobile Suit Gundam 00 (and more!)

The second season of Mobile Suit Gundam 00 just wrapped up yesterday, and, I must say, the last few episodes made for a spectacular finish to a show that I really hadn't expected to enjoy based on how the first season started.

As the story of Gundam 00 begins, in a post-fossil fuels future, the world is divided into three superpowers--basically the United States, Asia, and the European Union--each controlling one of three solar power collectors orbiting the earth. While wealthy nations live in relative peace and luxury, smaller countries, struggling on without the benefits of the solar energy, descend into poverty and incessant warfare over resources. Emerging out of nowhere to break up the three-way zero-sum game that the major powers have set up, a mysterious independent organization called "Celestial Being" declares its intent to end all war through armed interventions into the military activities and developments of others, backing its outrageous convictions with the overwhelming technological superiority of its unique and near-invincible "Gundam" mobile suits.

As expected of a Gundam show, it's an often paradoxical blend of semi-realistic giant robot warfare, antiwar themes, and exhilarating mecha carnage. And as with all of the later shows, dating back at least to Gundam Wing, without the ego of a Yoshiyuki Tomino at the helm to balance the vision of a sober war story against the more mercenary interests of Bandai to peddle licensed merchandise, the political and philosophical messages are hopelessly at odds with and undercut by an overenthusiasm for the giant robots as the true stars. As happened with Gundam Wing and Gundam Seed, Gundam 00's insistence on making the Gundams as badass as possible even robs the action of much tension, since the fights are so regularly one-sided as a result. It's never satisfactorily explained how Celestial Being was able to develop the incomparably advanced Gundams without anybody else noticing. Not only do the Gundams start out dominating the enemy's best, but every time their foes make breakthroughs to try and bridge the gulf, the Gundams too miraculously unlock some hidden special ability that again renders them untouchable. Also, for all the emphasis on the mecha component, the Gundam designs, still clinging very much to the familiar forms of the original series, are bulky and garishly colored compared to the sleeker suits of Eureka Seven and Code Geass.

Past series had inured me to those complaints, but what really turned me off about Gundam 00 at first was its cast of the most simultaneously unbelievable and unlikable characters in any Gundam series I'd seen. The main protagonist is the taciturn teenage Gundam pilot, Setsuna F. Seiei, a less psychotic version of Heero Yuy from Gundam Wing. As some wish-fulfillment fantasy embodiment of "cool," he's not heroic nor at all believable as a soldier, but he's still one of the less irritating of the main characters. More annoying is fellow Gundam pilot Tieria Erde, an arrogant and androgynous machine man, who is constantly criticizing everyone else's actions. But there's one guy that tops them all, and that's mild-mannered wuss Allelujah Haptism, who happens to also have a sadistic alter ego called Hallelujah (yes, Gundam is still the master of ridiculous names) that typically takes over, against Allelujah's objections, once the fighting gets too intense for the weaker half to handle. The freakish interplay between these two that follows usually consists of Hallelujah jeering his other self's softness before brutally skewering some enemy soldier, while, inside, Allelujah screams in impotent protest and then afterward weeps to himself. Setsuna is already a stretch, but how in the world does a headcase like this get selected as one of Celestial Being's agents of antiwar? I suppose the obvious answer is that you would have to be at least a little insane to be out there riding a giant robot onto a space battlefield. Or if you weren't to start with, the fighting would make you so. But there are degrees of madness. There's Batman insane and Joker insane, and then there's Maxie Zeus crazy. Maybe Allelujah/Hallelujah isn't quite that bad, but the dude is crazy. I mean, he just is. Does nobody else see that?

More interesting are the soldiers fighting against Celestial Being. Graham Aker fills the Char Aznable (or Zechs Marquise) role as the rival ace pilot whose skill and experience allow him to fight on a level with the Gundams despite an enormous gap in mobile suit technology. But whereas Char was nearly a co-protagonist in the original Gundam, Gundam 00 never seems terribly concerned with Graham's backstory and motivations. He pretty clearly exists just to be a rival, and it quickly grows tiresome how the show constantly hypes up his abilities and teases confrontations with the Gundams, only to end up utilizing him every time as a jobber to enhance the cred of the Gundam pilots. The one character I truly like, Patrick Colasour, the European ace, is even more ineffectual, though I'll admit that his unflagging overconfidence despite being hopelessly outclassed is probably the very reason I like him.

So, yeah, with all these complaints, I was pretty down on Gundam 00 early on, but the first season surprisingly gets a lot better in the second half, as real bad guys show up, the action scenes become more frequent and elaborate, and people start dying left and right, albeit the series has as many fake deaths as real ones, and that does tend to diminish one's alarm each time somebody's mobile suit explodes with them still in it. The raised level of quality continues through the entirety of the second season, which is neither a needless sequel nor merely "the rest of the story" held back to build anticipation. It takes things to the logical next level, acknowledging that the events of the first season would have had to have changed the world, while bravely recognizing that, beyond simply enacting that change, the characters must also continue to live through the fallout.

Some problems, including the preoccupation with invincible Gundams and the lack of truly worthy adversaries, never go away, but the second season moves much faster, motivated more by events than messages. That shift allows it to focus on its true strength, which are the astounding action sequences composed with speed and complexity that exceed anything else ever seen in television animation, such that it doesn't even matter that the results are rarely ever in doubt. The second season plot also introduces some cosmic elements that move the show away from the pretentious Gundam Wing peace-through-terrorism angle and bring things back to the sci-fi grandeur of the original series. The characters even become less obnoxious during the second season. Setsuna turns from a cold preacher to a tranquil philosopher, Tieria mellows out, and Allelujah/Hallelujah is less prominent. And the new villains, while one-note in personality, bring with them the coolest mobile suit designs in the series.

Among recent mecha series, it's not as grand as Gurren Lagann, as fresh as Eureka Seven, or as gripping as Code Geass. But it is still Gundam, backed by the production values afforded by anime's most celebrated franchise, and featuring action sequences that easily outclass anything else out there.

* * * * *

The Tower of Druaga: The Sword of Uruk

Also ending recently was the second season of The Tower of Druaga, Gonzo's anime sequel to the classic Namco video game series. The game has little presence outside of Japan, but it's apparently significant enough to Namco that it regularly sneaks in references to it in big games like the Tales of and Soulcalibur series. I tried the original arcade game once as part of the Namco Museum DS collection, and while I can still appreciate a round of classic Pac-Man, I really don't understand the appeal of Druaga at all. In other words, I came into the anime with basically no prior attachment to the franchise.

I initially checked it out mainly due to its significance as one of the first shows officially distributed via streaming on Crunchyroll.com. In the very short time since, Crunchyroll has entirely transitioned from haven for copyright-infringing material to the future of anime distribution in America. It's still premature to say whether Crunchyroll itself is now the dominant North American provider for anime, as I'm still skeptical as to how truly profitable the model can be, but what is clear is that home video is dying and cable TV has all but had its fill of anime.

As for the show itself, it's a pretty decent swords-and-sorcery fantasy with heavy comedic elements, somewhat in the vein of Slayers, but much shorter. It switches back and forth between parodying its source material and telling an actually fairly serious story of surprisingly uncompromising characters in pursuit of competing dreams. Neither the comedy nor the more serious fantasy elements are exceptional, but that's not because they work against one another, but rather because the show isn't that ambitious to begin with. Still, there are laughs to be had as well as some engaging action and melodrama backed by good production values. The highlight of the series is a first season episode that sees the main character trapped essentially in the actual original arcade game, while his allies outside have to get him out by playing and winning the game. The players perform much as I did during my brief attempt at it, failing repeatedly at the ruthlessly difficult game before growing bored and giving up, to the panic and dismay of their imprisoned friend. Sadly, the second season is comparatively lacking in gags, but by then the viewer might, as I was, be sufficiently invested in the characters to see it through beyond just the jokes.

I was also a little intrigued by the involvement of Hitoshi Sakimoto, one of the most prolific Japanese game music composers, having made a name for himself with Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics, and having since worked on projects ranging from Gradius V to Final Fantasy XII. His first anime work of note was Romeo x Juliet, which I personally found to be, not only his best work since Final Fantasy Tactics, but also one of the best television anime scores I'd heard since Escaflowne. It alone elevated a mediocre show to time well spent. Sadly, his Druaga stuff is not quite at that level, sounding more like leftover material from his FFXII score, but it has its moments and is at least appropriately strong in dramatic moments.

Michiko and Hatchin

Finally, the last recently-concluded show I want to mention is Michiko and Hatchin. With Shinichiro Watanabe attached as music producer, even if he wasn't directing this time, this was still definitely the next show that fans of his Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo had been waiting for. Clearly following in the tradition of his works in its sharp storytelling, its fresh fusion of Eastern and Western pop culture, and its heavy emphasis on music, Michiko and Hatchin is the story of Michiko Malandro, an escaped convict, who seeks out and picks up the miserable orphan, Hana "Hatchin" Morenos, supposedly her daughter, although they bare no resemblance. While the authorities pursue Michiko, she herself drags Hatchin along on a search for Hiroshi, Michiko's former lover and Hatchin's supposed father, a man who has long been presumed dead and subsequently attained near-mythic status through the stories of all who knew him. Their quest may be pointless, and Hatchin, having never met the man, doesn't really care whether he's dead or a deadbeat, which seems the only other possibility. But the chase itself may be the point as it takes them across South America, giving the two loners ample time to slowly develop their relationship through largely episodic stories.

By its nature, favoring style above all else, it shares the same weaknesses as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, namely a lack of fleshed-out characters to identify with. Nevertheless, when it finally arrived at its last beautiful shot, I found myself caring a lot more than I expected. It just has that certain je ne sais quoi that I expect will make it one of the rare anime series that will still be remembered years down the line.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Essentials #22: Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening

The first Devil May Cry was a genre-redefining title credited with bringing the intuitive and addictive gameplay of classic 2-D action games at last into the realm of 3-D. Weirdly, in the vein of such 8-bit franchises as The Legend of Zelda and Castlevania, the series saw a sophomore effort that deliberately deviated from many of the aspects that made the original great, producing, in the case of Devil May Cry 2, a sequel that was vastly inferior. Just as quickly as the first game had some reviewers prematurely calling for an end to clunky Resident Evil-style survival horror titles in favor of Capcom's new strain of character action, the lackluster sequel left players coldly declaring the final failure of the experiment that had been DMC. Luckily, as it would turn out, DMC2 sold well enough despite poor critical reception to save the franchise from going the way of Dino Crisis. For the third outing in a row on the venerable Sony PlayStation 2, original creator Hideki Kamiya would not be returning, but the DMC2 team would be given a second chance to make the game theirs, and, this time around, their commendable sensitivity to player feedback would guide them in turning out a sequel that would take the series back strong to its roots while making many improvements to nearly perfect the formula.

Like the original, 2005's Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening was a character action game set in a Gothic castle. Within the 3-D environment, progression often relied on lock-and-key objectives as routing mechanisms, though the game was neatly broken up into missions of varying lengths, and although they were mostly set within the castle, many stages were also self-contained, while the remainder at least featured clear directions, so that wandering off course was less of an issue than in the first game.

The return to smaller, more enclosed spaces shifted the combat focus back to close-range melee attack combinations, and Dante's arsenal grew substantially by the inclusion of five distinct melee weapons, compared to the original's two and DMC2's one. While none of them were as extreme as the Inferno gauntlets of the first game, each by itself still offered just as many techniques as Dante's traditional sword, including branching alternate combos that were performed by carefully spacing out button presses, as opposed to just tapping repeatedly as quickly as possible. The major new breakthrough, however, was the advent of on-the-fly weapon switching. Players were allowed to equip Dante with their choice of two melee weapons and two firearms at the beginning of every mission. Then, during combat, it was possible to instantaneously switch between the equipped weapons with a simple click of a shoulder button. The possibilities increased exponentially as a result, as the classic sword-to-gun combos grew to include multiple melee weapons and firearms within the same string of attacks. Dante could, for example, initiate with a long series of blows from the speedy nunchuks, then, without any break, transition into the slow and heavy attacks of the gauntlets and greaves, leading into an uppercut to launch the enemy into the air, where its helplessly floating body would make for a ripe target for a penetrating rifle round.

Dante's repertoire was further expanded by the addition of the "style" system, which allowed the player, at the beginning of every stage, to choose from one of four fighting styles that governed the function of the Circle button. The Trickster style equipped Dante with a few invincible dash maneuvers to better help him dodge attacks, making it the ideal style for newcomers in need of an extra edge to get around attacks that they couldn't see coming early enough to evade through basic jumping and rolling. Swordmaster turned the Circle button into a second attack button, adding an extra set of melee attacks for each weapon, while Gunslinger did the same for firearms. Royal Guard was a higher-level style that armed Dante with a block command that, with the proper timing, could parry any enemy attack, while at the same time filling up an extra meter that powered his "Release" attack, a monstrously powerful move that, at its best, could literally rip through just about any foe. The timing for a successful parry was extremely tight, however, nearly frame-sensitive even, requiring a deep knowledge of enemy behavior and attack animations. Finally, two additional styles, Quicksilver and Doppelganger, would be earned during the course of the game. Less robust than the four main styles, the former allowed the player to slow time on enemies, while the latter would back Dante up with a shadow that would mimic all of his actions. Use of either ability rapidly expended the Devil Trigger meter, which was usually better spent on transforming Dante into his returning demonic mode. A hidden feature allowed a second player to take control of the Doppelganger shadow, and if combined with an unlockable costume that granted Dante infinite Devil Trigger, the trick effectively turned nearly the entire game into a cooperative multiplayer affair. The camera still only focused on the player controlling Dante, making it often difficult for the second player to keep track of their shadow character, but while somewhat impractical, it was an extremely cool and unexpected secret nonetheless.

Overwhelmingly, the biggest criticism against DMC3 was that it was far too difficult, with reviewers almost unanimously agreeing that it was one of the toughest games released that hardware generation. Perhaps the mindlessly easy DMC2 had made them soft and forgetful of the fact that the original DMC had also been a highly challenging, hardcore-skewing title, but there was little getting around the fact that DMC3 was a hard game. 90% of the normal enemies in the game were actually little more than glorified punching bags that moved clumsily and attacked infrequently, existing mainly to encourage the player to experiment with the robust combo engine. In fact, I felt that the lack of enemy variety was the game's greatest shortcoming compared to the original. But the bosses were a different story, and the encounter with the first real boss, Cerberus, was like slamming into a brick wall after the relative stroll of the preceding stages. More merciless seemingly than any boss from the original game, with attacks too fast and varied for the player to grasp any patterns within the time afforded by Dante's extremely limited health, Cerberus was guaranteed to crush just about any player on their first attempt--maybe even their first five attempts. If one persevered to finally triumph over Cerberus, the painful process would only repeat with the equally grueling second boss, Agni & Rudra. I personally found all subsequent bosses then to be much more manageable, but the ridiculously sharp learning curve might have turned off a lot of players before they got that far. It didn't help that the so-called "Easy" mode, offered once the player inevitably died one too many times, seemed only barely easier than "Normal."

As in the first game, grinding for Red Orbs to exchange for new moves and health upgrades was still an option, and DMC3 actually facilitated such an approach with a new mission select feature that was, in my opinion, the game's single greatest addition to the series. Whereas the first game allowed players to carry over their powered-up characters into successive playthroughs, and DMC2 offered a stage select feature unlocked after beating the game, DMC3 actively encouraged replay by allowing players to go back at any time to previously completed chapters. In theory, players could simply revisit specific missions that were heavy with Red Orbs in order to develop Dante's abilities with the least amount of effort. I personally took advantage of the system by treating Easy mode as almost a trial run for the Normal difficulty. I would first play a stage in Easy mode, and upon completion, I would then take on the Normal version of the same stage. Not only did the process of playing each stage twice hasten Dante's development by effectively doubling the intake of Red Orbs, but the extra experience that I would gain as a player helped immensely, and, invariably, I would end up scoring higher on Normal than I had on Easy.

Thus far, I've only focused on the gameplay of DMC3, as that really always was the meat of the DMC experience. But for the third game, the developers also placed added emphasis on the plot to provide additional incentive for playing through to the end. In the first game, Dante took on the greatest enemy mankind had ever known, a veritable god that ruled the demon realm. How could they possibly follow up that grand scenario? Well, for sure, not with whatever crap went down in DMC2. No, in DMC3, the solution was to match Dante up against a nemesis who was his equal and opposite, for it was none other than his own twin brother.

Just as Dante's character design was a revelation in 2001, the designers of DMC3 struck gold with Vergil. A practitioner, alongside such legendary characters as Samurai Shodown's Ukyo Tachibana and Rurouni Kenshin's titular protagonist, of the Japanese battōjutsu quick-draw sword style, Vergil would prove to be Dante's equal, not only in power and fighting ability, but also in sheer coolness. Some early concept art for the original DMC included a design for a short-haired, katana-wielding Vergil, and I immediately saw his DMC3 design as a modified repurposing of the enigmatic "Legendary Dark Knight" bonus costume from the first game, what with the similar blue Victorian frock coat and the very same "Yamato" blade. My tidy conclusion was seemingly dashed, however, when it turned out that the monocled Legendary Dark Knight himself returned as an unlockable costume in DMC3, again sans any explanation or context, and his coat, more purple than blue, was easily distinguished from Vergil's. Nevertheless, Dante's brother actually did appear in the first game, and in a pretty major role at that, though, strangely, none of the promotional materials for DMC3 made any reference to that history.

As a prequel detailing Dante's early days as a demon hunter and the sibling rivalry-turned-power struggle with his brother, DMC3 told a surprisingly engaging story that required no knowledge of previous installments but did reward players of the original by ominously foreshadowing Vergil's fate in that game. Much improved over the sparse story of the original or the forgettable drivel of the second game, DMC3's tale was told primarily through cinematic cut scenes tidily placed at the beginning and end of every mission, albeit some scenes consisted of nothing more than an overly hyper Dante showing off with some newly-acquired weapon.

While the developers were content to completely ignore the events of the second game, there were a few elements carried over and fixed up, as if to redeem DMC2's existence to some extent. Dante's default sword in DMC3, and subsequently his signature weapon, was actually the Rebellion, his blade from DMC2. The Gunslinger style, meanwhile, was largely derived from the gun-focused play of DMC2 Dante, and while severely toned down, it was still an attractive option for those who really enjoyed long-range dominance in that game. And in maybe an unintentional nod to the action of the second game, the normally harrowing battle against Cerberus actually included one relatively safe spot, from which a patient and/or desperate enough player could take down the three-headed dog with just prolonged repeated fire from the handguns.

* * * * *

Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition

Less than a year after DMC3's release, a "special edition" version was announced, which, thankfully, made it to North America in 2006 as the Greatest Hits repackaging of the game. The primary enticements for double-dipping included rebalanced difficulty levels, the addition of Vergil as a playable character, and a new semi-optional boss.

The common complaint against the original release had, of course, been that the game was too punishing. The high difficulty level was perceived as a reaction by the developers to the poor reception for DMC2's severe lack of challenge. Just as DMC2's low difficulty had itself been in response to complaints about the first game's difficulty, DMC3 had gone too far the other way again, becoming possibly even more challenging than the original. Evidently, moderation was a foreign concept to the development team. Or was it?

In reality, the DMC3 that North America originally got was not quite the same game that Japan had enjoyed, and struggling players might have rightly guessed that something was terribly amiss. In the misguided tradition of titles like Contra: Hard Corps and Silhouette Mirage, the North American release was made harder by bumping the difficulty levels up one level each, so that "Easy" was actually as hard as Japan's "Normal" difficulty, and "Normal" actually became "Hard." Even more significant was the redone continue system. While the Japanese version used the same system as DMC2, offering free continues at checkpoints and Gold Orbs that served as extra lives, the North American release reverted to the more punitive system of the first game, replacing the Gold Orbs with Yellow Orbs as the only way to continue from the last checkpoint. As in my playthrough of the first game, I decided never to use the Yellow Orbs, as I didn't want to rely on a consumable resource to stumble through a game that really demanded cultivating a controlled understanding of the mechanics. Had the continues been free, however, I might have seen things differently. Certainly, it would have been easier to practice against Cerberus had I not had to replay the entire stage leading up to him upon dying to him the first time. In any case, DMC3:SE restored the original difficulty levels and allowed players to choose between the two continue systems, making for a vastly more accessible product as a result. (Note: Because of the restored difficulty levels, the box's advertisement of a new "Very Hard" mode was erroneous; it was actually the genuinely lenient Japanese "Easy" mode that was new to North America.)

The rebalanced difficulty should have bumped the game up to must-have status even for players outside the hardcore crowd, but, for veterans, the real draw of DMC3:SE was the option to play through the game as Vergil. New players would have to unlock him by first beating the game as Dante, but players who had DMC3 save data on their memory cards could jump right in as Vergil. With a more limited arsenal than Dante and no story beyond a single opening cut scene, Vergil's game was somewhat comparable to the bonus character modes from the later Castlevania titles, but the combat-focused nature of the series made it far more rewarding to experiment with this brand new character with many unique moves. While he had only one style, one projectile, and three melee weapons with none of Dante's branching combos, Vergil's abilities were still more than adequate to get him through, and while playing as him, it was very easy to imagine the entire game being built around his abilities instead of Dante's. Whereas Dante had to select two out of his five melee weapons to take into a stage, Vergil always had access to all three of his weapons, two of which were very distinct from, and generally superior to, any of Dante's. Instead of guns, Vergil fired his Phantom Swords, which behaved vaguely like Joachim's swords from Castlevania: Lament of Innocence, though series veterans hopefully would have remembered Vergil using them as far back as the first game. Their advantage over guns was that Vergil could fire them without pausing while moving or even while performing melee attacks. Basically, the only thing keeping one from firing them at all times was the potential strain on the player's hand.

The extra boss fight, on the other hand, felt lame and out-of-place. Somewhat uncharacteristic for the series, this boss was highly evasive and relied on long breaks of invincibility to turn it into essentially a turn-based battle antithetical to the free-form combat that was the essence of DMC. As a result, it was by far the weakest boss fight in the game, and what was worse was that the first of the three encounters with this boss was mandatory, despite having little place in the story. Including the same boss two more times as optional encounters later in the game did nothing to spice up the final third of the game, still comparatively the weakest leg, with fewer bosses, no new weapons to collect, and too many rehashed levels.

* * * * *

DMC3 was perhaps not a bravely designed game. Certainly, it was not as visionary as the original, which it seemed content to mostly ape. But DMC3:SE in particular was nearly the perfected form, not only of Devil May Cry, but possibly of the whole entire character action genre. I consider it one of the very best titles on the PS2, and thanks to its more accessible design, I would give it the edge over the classic original.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

He's a deadbeat, Julie

Among the tens of thousands of diamonds I've personally seen in my work, I've only ever come across maybe four or five with personalized inscriptions on them, so seeing one on a stone is one of the few "events" that can still almost excite my workday. In the beginning, I used to joke (to myself) that stones with the word "love" on them would have to be flagged with the "inscription is profane or derogatory" comment. Harhar, I would laugh to myself, only in my own head.

Today brought me such a stone, and, after getting past the obligatory silent chuckle at my inside joke with myself, I proceeded with my inspection. It was awful.

For starters, the inscription was graceless and confusingly punctuation-free. "TO (woman's name omitted) I LOVE YOU (man's name omitted)," it read. But, really, it was the stone itself that was trash. On the clarity scale, I rated it on the high end of the bottom "Included" tier, meaning that it was about as ugly as a diamond could get without being at risk of shattering from severe structural damage. It was definitely not the sort of diamond that I would offer to impress a lady. At any magnification at which the inscription would be legible, the grotesque inclusions would be far more likely to catch the eye. Nor was this a formerly good stone that maybe had been dropped a few too many times. The rock was rotten to its core, suffering from mostly internal growth features.

I could only imagine that the loser who sent this one in for grading, also having it newly inscribed just hours before it came under my scope, must have thought it quite a bargain when he decided to cheap out on this expression of his love. Why did he even bother? A diamond is a luxury item with no practical use. Its only purpose is to be expensive, with the extravagant cost reflecting in turn how deeply the buyer cherishes the intended recipient. What is the message in offering a budget diamond?

The whole affair made me a little sad, but, mostly, I felt disgusted and found myself hopefully picturing the gift being met with well-deserved heart-shattering rejection. *sigh* Looks like I let myself get too close to the assignment.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some comics I've been reading

Thor #600
I don't believe I've ever read an issue of Thor before this one. Like Captain America and Iron Man, Thor was always a character that I'd enjoyed as a member of the Avengers yet had little interest in as a solo character. I picked up #600 both because it was a milestone issue and because I'd heard a lot of good things about J. Michael Straczynski's run. I was not a fan of Babylon 5, for which he is apparently best known, nor had I read any of his comic work. I mainly knew Straczynski by reputation as that fool who decided that Gwen Stacy was actually the whore mother of Norman Osborn's superpowered twin children. Still, despite my concerns, this was #600, including an additional story by Stan Lee. Also, of all the upcoming Marvel Avenger movies, Thor is by far the one I'm most curious (and worried) about, and I figured I'd check out the current comics for any ideas as to what direction the film might take.

While I'm used to DC's comics being impenetrable, Marvel's tend to be slightly more accessible, and so I was a bit surprised at how little I knew about the current Thor. Apparently, he has taken on the Donald Blake civilian identity again, though it doesn't see much use in this issue. Also, Loki is now a woman. At least, I'm pretty sure he/she is, going by the art. In any case, while I've obviously missed a lot of backstory, the issue is still relatively self-contained, focusing on a fight that begins and ends within its pages. It's neither amazing nor offensive, but it's competent enough that I feel no further need to rag on Straczynski over Spider-Man comics I haven't read, and, with the promise of a Doctor Doom appearance in the next issue, I'm interested to see where things go.

Runaways Vol.3 #7
Runaways is already better now with Humberto Ramos off the art chores, but, on its own, it's still not that great. I'm still just waiting for Terry Moore to wrap up his run and hopefully close it cleanly enough so that I can pretend it never happened once the new team takes over.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer #22
Still trash. Getting worse, actually. And, unlike Runaways, Buffy mostly sucks even when Whedon is writing. The glacial pacing and incessant banter between characters of no name nor consequence is long past tiresome. The Jo Chen painted covers are now about the only consistently good things about this series. It could learn a lot from its sister series below.

Angel: Aftermath #18
Angel: After the Fall was a surprisingly great run of seventeen issues that, a few extraneous fanservice character inclusions notwithstanding, I really could have believed as the sixth season of the TV series. Whereas Buffy feels like it's taken twenty-two issues to tell the equivalent of about four hour-long episodes, Angel is now already into effectively a seventh season, and it begins with a game-changing twist very much reminiscent of that from the fifth season opener. Again, aside from the prominent addition of Kate, a minor character who likely never would have reappeared on the show, it's still good stuff that mostly makes sense.

G.I. Joe Origins #1
I don't have a lot of hope for the upcoming G.I. Joe movie, but it has nevertheless reignited my enthusiasm for this property which I loved as a kid. For this new look at the origins of the G.I. Joe team, publisher IDW brought back Larry Hama himself to write. Hama was the guy who wrote all the Marvel G.I. Joe comics back in the day, turning what might otherwise have been a glorified toy advertisement into a thriller of greater maturity and sobriety than most of Marvel's superhero books of the time. It truly was a book ahead of its time in its use of many strong female characters, well-represented minorities, and, most courageously of all, a mute lead character.

In the many years since Hama's original comic ended, the brand has severely declined, and even I virtually forgot that it was anything more than a kid's toy. Yet Hama has not missed a beat in his return. The action moves swiftly and suddenly, but there is also developing intrigue, and, to my surprise, this whole world of action figure soldiers is still more believable than almost any superhero comic.

For some unfathomable reason, the issue has two distinct artists alternating almost at random to distracting effect, but, otherwise, this title shows a lot of promise and is already clearly superior to the new flagship G.I. Joe comic series.

Claymore Vol.14
The first volume of this manga was one of the only books I'd ever picked up based solely on the cover art and back copy. Now, fourteen volumes in, I remain glad that I did.

Claymore is the story of Clare, an agent for a mercenary organization that hunts down demons using female warriors that have themselves been implanted with demon flesh. The early chapters had Clare working alone on small hunts, and she had a rather annoying boy tagalong, presumably to provide a character that the predominantly young male readership could more easily identify with. Around the sixth volume or so, however, the story took a turn in a different direction, focusing more on the organization and on Clare's many fellow Claymore warriors, not altogether unlike the Green Lantern Corps. It's consequently become one of the most exciting action manga currently running, full of bloody battles involving multiple Claymores, each with a unique ability, facing off against demons or even often one another.

Writer and artist Norihiro Yagi's artwork, composed mostly of lithe bodies in stiff poses, is not typical shounen manga art, and I expect his shortcomings in rendering human musculature contributed to his preference for a cast of mostly pretty females. At first glance, it could be mistaken for shoujo, were it not for the severed limbs all over the place. While the art may not be the most dynamic, Yagi more than makes up for it with a rewarding pace and a real sense of danger, as, aside from Clare, nobody ever seems safe. It's not the deepest manga around, but it's the one I most look forward to with every new volume.

Fruits Basket Vol.22
I was first introduced to Fruits Basket during my freshman year of college almost eight years ago. Now the only title of consequence in Tokyopop's catalog, it's taken a long time getting to this penultimate volume that pretty much wraps up the main plot. With months passing between the release of every volume, it's been hard to maintain interest, but author Natsuki Takaya's deft and convincing portrayal of human emotions always shines through the fantasy and melodrama, reminding me why I've stuck with the series so long. I'll be sad to see it go, especially since there doesn't seem to be any major shoujo manga waiting to take its place.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

NonEssential #21: Devil May Cry 2

Devil May Cry was a great game. Sadly, its sequel was not.

Perhaps the success of the first game led Capcom to rush forward to capitalize with a quick follow-up; development on the sequel apparently began while the original team was still busy with the first game's localization, much to the shock and disappointment of that title's director, Hideki Kamiya. Or perhaps Capcom, sensing that the title had franchise potential, wanted to reassert that its intellectual properties could and did exist independent of any specific individuals involved in their creation. In any case, development on Devil May Cry 2 was instead handed to director Hideaki Itsuno and Capcom Production Studio 1, which had mostly fighting game credits to its name. The result, released for the Sony PlayStation 2 in 2003, was surprisingly not a gutless rehash of the sort Capcom had often historically been identified with, but, in hindsight, a rehash might have been preferable, as the numerous design changes effected by the new team were the very things that made DMC2 a massive disappointment.

The problems began with the sequel's drastic and absolutely unnecessary reinterpretation of its main character, the über-cool Dante, who had been a large part of the first game's appeal. In DMC2, in addition to giving him a different voice actor, already making it hard for fans to recognize him as the same character, Capcom stripped Dante of most of his personality. DMC2's Dante still had the extreme confidence of the original, but his cool turned to frigid cold, and the old trash-talking and swagger were nowhere to be found as, at the behest of some random supposed acquaintance of his father, he sleepily took on a city-hopping fetch-quest that he barely seemed invested in. Not only was the new Dante boring, but he himself seemed bored! And who could blame him? Even forgiving for a moment the deficiency in character, DMC2 was a complete bore of an action game due to the two major and interrelated departures from the brilliant original in the areas of difficulty and level design.

The original DMC was a very challenging game even on the default normal difficulty level. Although I was able to finish it, I'd always believed that difficulty should be a selectable option rather than a basic feature forced upon all players, and so I counted myself among those who thought the game was probably too hard for its own good. While its genre-redefining mechanics should have positioned it as the action game of its generation, its often unforgiving nature ultimately limited its appeal and confined it to the hardcore pile. The DMC2 team was obviously receptive to this criticism, and one of their declared directives was to make the sequel more accessible. Unfortunately, they overcompensated and ended up making a game that, on the default difficulty, was virtually devoid of challenge. The mostly docile enemies of DMC2 could easily be dispatched using Dante's twin handguns alone, and, in fact, the level designs practically demanded that the player approach the combat in this manner.

Aside from the difficulty, the other common complaint against the original was that the fixed cameras, while more helpful than in Resident Evil, could still become obstructed in cramped quarters. The team behind DMC2 chose to address this issue by implementing more open outdoor environments. On the surface, this was already a bad decision, as, while DMC2 was not less technically sophisticated than the original, its stages definitely looked worse and showed the graphical limitations of the PS2, whose power the original DMC had been one the first titles to really show off. The system was clearly better at rendering the polished marble and ornate shapes of the original's Gothic castle than the brick surfaces of the sequel's worn urban streets, and, thus, DMC2's humongous stages consisted of just rough, muddy textures that blandly repeated. But it was the gameplay that really suffered as a result of the change.

While it may have made the camera a non-issue, the shift to open environments gave enemies too much space to dance around in, with the result being that foes always seemed distant, encouraging the player to simply snipe them from afar with firearms rather than attempt to move into range for melee attacks. Indeed, after a few frustrating attempts early on to chase them down, only to find that my sword swings would quickly send them flying off into the distance again, I just gave up and proceeded to pummel them with the pistols. Thus, the addictive and creative combo-based engine that was the basis of DMC's combat gave way, in the sequel, to some of the most mind-numbing gameplay imaginable as the player was left with little choice but to tap the shoot button repeatedly to auto-aim at often off-screen enemies until the cessation of their yelling alone signaled that everything was dead. The worst part was that, although Dante was practically invincible while employing this "tactic," even against bosses, DMC2's guns were not actually significantly more powerful than the puny firearms of the first game, where the various ranged weapons inflicted very little damage and generally had more specialized uses (the pistols, for example, gave Dante extra hangtime when fired in the air). The guns in DMC2 had maybe a little more staggering power--enemies were effectively robbed of all action or mobility once caught in the barrage--but they still didn't do much damage, so it would take forever to dispatch a single foe. But what choice did the player have, when enemies were so insistent on keeping their distance by exploiting the open fields? Never mind that there were tons of flying enemies that, no matter how determined you were to play the game with the sword, were just an unbearable chore to get at with Dante's limited aerial melee attacks.

Thus far, I've consistently identified Dante as the player character, but DMC2 actually introduced a female co-protagonist, the mysterious Lucia. With a stony personality to match DMC2 Dante's and a ridiculous accent that may have been the precursor to Fran's in Final Fantasy XII, she was even more of a departure from the badass attitude of the original game, but I could at least appreciate the gesture in including a female character to play as, especially considering so many fans had been clamoring for a playable Trish from the first game.

Mimicking the format of the beloved Resident Evil 2, DMC2 assigned each character a separate disc and encouraged players to play through both in order to get the full story. Unlike RE2, however, it didn't matter in what order the player completed them, and, actually, the two characters' paths were largely identical, making it quite the slog to get through the second after completing one. In fact, I was not able to pull it off. I persevered through the Dante game to arrive at a brief and forgettable ending followed by no credits, and so I assumed I would have to complete both discs in order to get the full ending. After about three stages of the Lucia game, however, I just couldn't take any more of the exact same mind-numbing gameplay that I'd already experienced. Not only were the stages mostly recycled from Dante's, but all of Lucia's moves were effectively the same as Dante's. Although she wielded twin daggers instead of a sword, and throwing knives instead of guns, her basic melee combo was functionally the same (and still mostly ignored), while her infinite throwing knives operated just like Dante's pistols. Once again, I was just tapping the fire button over and over again until my enemies stopped screaming. (Or maybe that was me screaming out of the madness the game drove me to...)

The loss of multiple fighting styles was another disappointment for fans of the first game's Ifrit gauntlets. While Dante and Lucia could pick up new swords/daggers, the weapons introduced no new attacks and offered only subtly different stats and ranges. The sequel did introduce some new techniques, such as running on walls and the ability to shoot in two different directions. The latter was mostly useless, the former entirely so. On the bright side, DMC2 started the characters with all the moves they would ever have, and the character development system was only for upgrading health and weapon specs. While it made progress a little less gratifying, I never liked the idea that Dante had to slowly earn attacks and abilities that seemed so fundamental on replay. It also kind of destroys the narrative when the player has to earn back abilities that the character has already gotten in a previous game.

In terms of other things the sequel actually got right, the move away from a unified castle environment, instead favoring truly self-contained stages, more firmly established the franchise's identity as something distinct from Resident Evil. The new function of the L2 button to instantly cycle between guns did not add a lot since the handguns were almost always the answer, but the feature certainly prefigured the real-time weapon switching that became a huge part of Dante's game in later installments. While the gameplay was mostly a bore, there were occasional good moments, including one memorable section where Dante had to pull a switch and then race to the door it opened before it automatically shut itself again. He could only close the distance in time by running a perfect course while also utilizing the super speed of his Devil Trigger state, which was itself time-limited. And the final few stages actually featured some indoor environments where the close quarters allowed Dante to pull off his still-satisfying sword combos. In fact, during those sections, I thought the game became very good. It was too bad that they came only so late in the game.

One final thing I should mention is the unlockables. I wrote in my post about the first game that I actually played through the game a second time on hard mode just to unlock an honestly pretty lame costume that had no real effect whatsoever on gameplay. In DMC2, there were yet more lame costumes, but the big reward for beating hard mode was nothing less than the ability to play as Trish, who supposedly had most of Dante's moves from the first game, including Ifrit's hand-to-hand attacks. That sounded like a completely awesome bonus, but I never even tried to unlock it, and I think it's a testament to just how intolerable DMC2 was, that I couldn't even get myself to fully complete one playthrough for a reward that sounded so much better than the one I fought through the first game twice to earn. It makes me kind of mad, frankly, and, because of that one enticement, I still can't entirely rule out giving the game one more try in the future.

Setting aside all the irritating behind-the-scenes politics, Devil May Cry 2 was an unusually ambitious sequel by a team that, no doubt, had good intentions in trying to address the major complaints against the first game. Unfortunately, they went too far in the opposite direction, not only losing much of what made the original stellar, but also, in the process, delivering a game that, even judged on its own, didn't work at all. Considering all their sensitivity in gathering feedback about the first game, I don't understand how the sequel's far more obvious flaws could have escaped their notice. Focus groups should have been fleeing toward the exit after the first few torturous minutes of tapping the shoot button repeatedly while staring at Dante just standing in the center of the screen firing at off-camera enemies. It remains by far the most disappointing sequel I've ever had to endure.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match

This one's been a long time coming. The upgraded version of SNK's most popular installment in their flagship fighting game series was first unveiled about two years ago. It was then released in Japan to arcades and the PS2 in 2008 to celebrate the game's tenth anniversary. Like all of SNK's recent console titles, however, the localization time was ridiculously long, suffering from multiple delays and revised release dates before Ignition Entertainment, SNK Playmore's longtime European partner/publisher, finally brought it to North America two weeks ago. Even players who were once looking forward to it likely stopped caring in the wake of multiple newer and/or bigger 2-D fighter releases during that interval, including Capcom's Street Fighter IV, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and the Japanese release of KoF 2002 Unlimited Match. Heck, it was even beaten to the punch by SNK Playmore's own North American release of KoF Collection: The Orochi Saga, which included a port of the arcade version of KoF '98, rendering one of Unlimited Match's back cover bullet points--"The original KOF 98 has never been released in North America on any PlayStation system"--a complete and utter lie. (The back cover also enthusiastically lists other selling points, such as "This is the most characters ever included in a single King of Fighters game" and "Challenge mode consisting of 30 various matches.")

The original KoF '98 has long been regarded as the pinnacle of the series and the Neo-Geo hardware, but, truthfully, I always felt that SNK's fighters back then, with a few exceptions (Samurai Shodown II, Garou: Mark of the Wolves), lacked the depth and refinement of Capcom's games. The KoF series could be fun, but, too often, it seemed that moves and features were implemented because the developers thought they were cool, rather than because they made sense. The overall "cool" factor, particularly in the eccentric designs of the characters, many dressed like runway models, helped the series attain a cult audience of fans looking for an alternative to Street Fighter, but, playing Unlimited Match now, I have to say that the game has aged badly. The essentially 16-bit graphics are a good deal worse than I remember, the awkwardly choppy animation is definitely inferior to Capcom's contemporary Street Fighter Alpha games, and, worst of all, the bizarre designs, freakishly Japanese to begin with, now seem long past fashionable. The gameplay, always of chief importance in fighting games, is solid, more so than ever thanks to many subtle refinements by a reformed, more methodical SNK Playmore. Compared even to the older Street Fighter titles, however, there's a nagging feeling of softness, easily mistaken for shallowness, due to some floatier jumping and dull sound effects on impacts. I'm not a good enough player to go any more in depth than that--frankly, I don't know that there even are any legitimate KoF '98 experts out there, as the game just never had a competitive scene to really push exploration of its depths. I just know that, when I play, there isn't the feeling of consequence that I get from Street Fighter, and, as a result, it's not as fun.

Even though there are some new characters and rebalanced gameplay to make this the definitive culmination of the '94-'98 period, I can't really regard it as a classic on a par with any of the Capcom fighters from the same period or earlier. Considering that SNK was pumping out KoF installments on an annual basis back then, it's doubtful that even its creators ever intended for it to live on and still be celebrated ten years later. It's maybe a little sad, but fitting nonetheless, that, in contrast to the well-timed event that was HD Remix, this so-called Ultimate Match should see release as a delay-plagued under-the-radar budget title on a last-gen platform. Amid this apparent fighting game renaissance, there are other simply better and more current titles to enjoy and already more to look forward to, namely KoF XII and BlazBlue. Only in the area of Engrish victory quotes (including some new ones, such as Eiji's "My ninja arts is matchless") might this game still be considered a contender.

Priced at $19.99, Ultimate Match is five dollars more than SNK Playmore's own recent PS2 budget releases, but Ignition did see fit to include a nice full-color manual and poster, as well as a bonus CD-ROM with wallpapers and a trailer for the gorgeous KoF XII, which Ignition has optimistically scheduled for a summer 2009 North American release simultaneous with Japan.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Watchmen: The End is Nigh

I tried out the PS3 demo of this video game prequel to Watchmen, but, before I get into my impressions, I thought I'd post some insightful excerpts from an interview with Jerry Pritchard, associate producer for Warner Bros. Games, from the 2/17 episode of GameSpot's "The HotSpot" audio podcast:

GameSpot: So, you're dealing with a property that a whole lot of people love, and I'm sure you're keenly aware of the pressure put on you by that. But, on top of that, you're also expanding it. You're adding to the mythos of the story and expanding on these characters that people feel they know in very concrete terms. How do you even start to deal with that kind of pressure to take one step and decide, "Well, this is what we can do with it"?

Jerry Pritchard: We looked at very realistic terms. We understand the fans' concerns, and we're fans ourselves, and we really push hard to go at it with the right mindset of "We are really making this game for fans and people who are familiar with the materials," but, also, we kept in mind that there are going to be some new fans who will see the movie and go, "Wow, Watchmen is just amazing, and I want to know more about this universe and these characters." So what we did in the game was we really took what was known--known entities of the properties and the characters--and we simply just went straight to the source. We went straight to the filmmakers and to the original graphic novel guys, as well as to DC, and we said, "Hey, we want to delve deeper into the Watchmen universe and the Watchmen characters, and what can you guys do to help make that a reality?" What we ended up with was a really rich tale of the past adventures of Rorschach and Nite Owl as partners, and I believe that anyone who's a fan of the graphic novel, and soon to be of the film, will really look at what we've presented and go, "Wow, this is just great because, not only am I experiencing stuff that I already know, but there's stuff in there that I didn't know previously."

GameSpot: Now, you mention the "original graphic novel guys." I'm assuming that you're excluding Alan Moore from that?

Jerry Pritchard: Um, well, we did work with several of the original creators, but some people chose not--you know, some people weren't approached and whatnot.

GameSpot: Was Dave Gibbons involved?

Jerry Pritchard: Absolutely. Dave Gibbons assisted us on many levels, with some art direction and other services.

"Several of the original creators," eh? Perhaps colorist John Higgins was involved?

'Nuff said, you might think after reading that, but, actually, the demo is a miserable failure based just on its shallow and repetitive gameplay. It's an exceedingly simple yet clunky 3-D beat 'em up, where players fight their way through a prison cell block, then turn a corner and cross a yard to the next identical cell block, in order to fight through an identical set of prison hooligans and pull an identical set of levers. You might think that even a downloadable game should at least have enough content to fill out a demo, but literally that exact process repeats about four times before the screen suddenly explodes into a text box beckoning players to purchase the full $20 game.

Alan Moore must be rolling in his grave right about now.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

As a staunch defender of the 1994 Van Damme Street Fighter movie, I have always regretted that I never went to see it in theaters. As a child who took his fighting game characters a little too seriously, I'm sure I would have hated it back then. In fact, I did hate it the first time I saw it on television a few years after its release. But, many years and many viewings later, I've come to realize that it was actually a fairly well-scripted movie, full of humor that was, more often than not, entirely intentional. The filmmakers clearly knew what they wanted to do. The problem was that they knew little about the game or its fans, and ended up producing a campy yet entertaining G.I. Joe movie for kids, when most fans probably would have preferred something more along the lines of the Mortal Kombat movie, even if it would have meant a weaker product by more discriminating standards. Still, I consider it essential viewing for franchise fanatics, and I'll always wish I had that story and that memory of having gone and seen the live-action Street Fighter movie on the big screen.

Now, in the year 2009, how fares the new live-action adaptation of my favorite video game? Well, no surprise, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is terrible and definitely far worse a film than the Van Damme Street Fighter, yet, being as big a fan of the franchise as I am, I am happy that it exists and that I saw it.

In contrast to the colorful and comic 1994 film, this new script channels older American martial arts flicks in its urban aesthetic and surprising violence (Chun-Li flat out executes more than one bad guy). There is still no tournament, and, on the whole, it features few of the characters and almost no plot taken directly from the game. And no crazy costumes this time, as it attempts to adapt the material to an ostensibly more realistic setting, featuring crime syndicates, cops, and a secret order of vigilante heroes to the slums. Ironically, this time around, when his skills might actually have been put to good use, there is no Van Damme nor any star of equal caliber.

Kristin Kreuk is cute, yes, and it's probably good for her that she finally escaped that coffin of a role that was Smallville's Lana Lang, but the simple truth is that she's not a very good actress. She has neither the personality nor the physicality to carry an action flick. In the iconic role of Chun-Li specifically, she just doesn't have the right look. She is half-Chinese, I know, but I wonder how many full-Chinese actresses the producers even considered before they decided to go this misguided route. Perhaps she's not the very worst thing in it, but, as the headliner charged with carrying the movie, it is her weak presence that dooms the film right from the first shot. And her "sexy dance" scene in a club with another female must be seen to be believed.

As for the supporting cast, Taboo as Vega probably is the worst thing in the movie. It is completely beyond me why on earth they decided to cast the third most famous member of The Black Eyed Peas, a guy who is neither an actor nor a martial artist, nor any physical resemblance to the character, in a minor role where he has maybe three lines and his ugly face is almost never seen anyway. To be fair, considering how little he's given to do, it's hardly his fault that this particularly grotesque interpretation of Vega sucks so bad. Chris Klein, as Interpol's "Charlie Nash," meanwhile, gives a performance that feels like one of those caricatures of bad acting that you see in other movies when actors play actors and want to make sure the audience can spot the performance within the performance. But Klein's effusive face-acting and constant posturing toward the camera may just be the real thing. Again, I don't know how much he could have been expected to do with dialogue that consists entirely of snide streetwise cop clichés, but he seems to give it his all and maybe more, and his nostril-flaring, squint-eyed intensity gradually becomes one of the movie's endearing aspects. Michael Clarke Duncan seems a little more self-aware as a gun-toting Balrog, and one of the film's most memorable images is his guffawing as he makes his early entrance by punching out the glass door of Chun-Li's mansion. Robin Shou, much older now than when he was Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat, has now achieved the trifecta of performances in movie adaptations of arcade fighting games, having apparently also had a small part in DOA: Dead or Alive. As Gen, he's the only one out of the main performers with any martial arts ability, but the film instead decides to have him casting fireballs, which Gen shouldn't even be capable of.

As in the 1994 film, the best thing in this new movie is its M.Bison, this time played with an Irish accent by Neal McDonough. No Bison will ever equal Raul Julia's performance as one of film's all-time great megalomaniacs, but McDonough's take works well with the way this incarnation of the character is written. Whereas Raul seemed to relish every line, McDonough favors a "less is more" approach (or maybe just "less is less"). As a deadpan psychotic, his delivery consistently transforms rubbish dialogue into the hilarious yet chilling speech of a convincingly deluded lunatic. The best scene in the entire movie involves Bison working out with the help of a "tough lady" subordinate, and McDonough's dry reading of the scene is classic.

Finally, for those that question whether the writers knew anything about Street Fighter going into production, I would direct them to a key subplot in the film surrounding a mysterious "package" called the "White Rose." In the games, "White" is Cammy's last name, while "Rose" is, well, Rose. The wacky genealogy that links these two characters to M. Bison is not commonly known nor understood even among fans of the games, and, while I at first considered that "White Rose" might have been a coincidence, by the end, the film not only proves its familiarity with obscure Street Fighter lore, but actually offers a more elegant explanation than the games ever provided, even kind of clarifying (by slightly rewriting) at last a relationship that has long baffled and disgusted me. (Well, okay, the "White" part may just be a coincidence.)

I can't call it a good film by any stretch of the imagination. Whereas the Van Damme Street Fighter was a mix of good and bad elements, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is more a combination of plain bad and so-bad-it's-good. Even so, I was able to have fun with it, and I find myself hoping that it will perform well enough on video to justify a "Legend of Ryu" followup.

For now, however, at least there's still Dragonball: Evolution and G.I. Joe to look forward to later this stellar year.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Essentials #20: Devil May Cry

I've been playing video games for almost as long as I've been alive, having amused myself with the Atari 2600 before my family upgraded to the Nintendo Entertainment System. My obsession with Street Fighter II notwithstanding, however, I was more of a casual player through the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. It wasn't until the time of the Sony PlayStation, which I only picked up three years after its release for, naturally, a Street Fighter game, that I started to get really heavy into gaming, and my passion took a step further with the PlayStation 2. The first PS2 game I played was Capcom's Devil May Cry, and, in many respects, I still consider it to have been the console's defining title.

Released in October 2001, a year after the PS2's North American launch and during the same golden period as ICO, Grand Theft Auto 3, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Final Fantasy X, Devil May Cry was one of the key titles that helped to establish the platform's position as, not only the market leader, but also the lead console for enthusiast gaming. Often classified as a "stylish" action game, it was praised at the time for having been the first title to take the fast pace and intuitive controls of classic 2-D action games and successfully bring them into 3-D, but it actually began life in the planning stages as a new installment in the comparatively slow-paced Resident Evil series of "survival horror" adventure games, before its creators, recognizing that it had gone off in a drastically different direction, decided to make it its own game and eventual franchise.

Shinji Mikami's Resident Evil series was--arguably still is--Capcom's ace franchise and had already inspired two sister series in Dino Crisis and Onimusha, so it was not surprising to see another game built off essentially that same foundation, and, even in the final product, it was not hard to spot Devil May Cry's survival horror origins. Directed by Hideki Kamiya of Resident Evil 2 fame, and produced by Mikami himself, Devil May Cry took place mostly within a castle that bore more than a few similarities to Resident Evil's mansion, although progress was now divided up into a series of finite missions. Basic Resident Evil-style l0ck-and-key devices in each mission guided the player's exploration of the structure, and, as always, the objective was less the point than was the experience of the directed journey to get there. In Devil May Cry, that experience was combat, and it was in that department that the game truly set itself apart as something distinct from survival horror.

Eschewing the digital character-relative tank controls common among its Capcom siblings, Devil May Cry utilized the analog stick exclusively and featured a player character that moved swiftly and intuitively. Controlling more like a beat 'em up character, he could jump and roll and perform a simple yet effective combo by pressing the attack button repeatedly. Holding R1 allowed the player to lock on to targets, or, against groups, one could rely on the auto-targeting to intelligently track nearby enemies. But equipping the player with just melee attacks would not nearly have been awesome enough, so the designers provided a selection of guns with infinite ammo to supplement the sword-swinging. The possibilities unlocked by the badass combination became immediately obvious the first time a player launched an enemy into the air and realized that it could be suspended there by juggling it with rapid-fire blasts from the dual pistols. Players would then be encouraged to explore and experiment with the extraordinarily deep combo system, which opened up even further once the player gained access to the "Devil Trigger," a meter which could be consumed to temporarily transform the main character into a faster and stronger demonic version of himself. The fixed cameras, meanwhile, would swivel about automatically to try and give the player the best possible view of the action within the real-time environments.

The extreme action offered by the game engine was matched with some superb art design highly evocative of the 1998 Wesley Snipes Blade film in the game's mix of the urban and the mystical and its supercool swords-and-guns aesthetic. The half-demon protagonist, Dante, a virtual rock star and maverick, charismatic and unflappable, was the very definition of cool and perhaps the best original character introduced during the PS2 generation. Devil May Cry was possibly the most gorgeous console game out at the time of its release, and, while people go on and on about the "uncanny valley" these days, Dante and his sexy female companion, Trish, exuded visual personality in the in-engine cut scenes through their striking character designs. And things only got better with the addition of some exquisitely cheesy dialogue. The over-the-top nature of the game was nowhere better exemplified than in the instantly classic opening sequence:

Being such a new and groundbreaking game, Devil May Cry had its share of flaws and rough edges. It sometimes experienced an identity crisis due to its Resident Evil origins, as wandering around the castle looking for obscure emblems could hinder the action and muddle the focus of the gameplay. The castle setting itself seemed at odds with the mission-based structure, as any sections that had been opened up in a previous mission would usually remain accessible during the immediate mission, and, even if the mission parameters did not require returning to those areas, it could be easy to veer accidentally off course and become lost. The AI-controlled camera wasn't always helpful, particularly during the occasional misguided platforming segments that put Dante's limited jumping abilities to the test. And, to remind players that the game designers were experimenting with this new property, there were some truly bizarre moments of gameplay that departed, not only from survival horror, but from the stylish action of the rest of the game. Some awful first-person underwater stages were just the tip of the iceberg. The climactic boss fight inexplicably dispensed with the combo-based engine in favor of a Space Harrier-style rail shooter stage unlike anything else in the game. That fight was followed up by a second phase that played somewhat like the G.I. Joe arcade game or maybe those behind-the-back stages in Contra. When all that was finally over with, Dante still had to make his escape by piloting a biplane off the island while avoiding or shooting down falling debris from the crumbling castle. For God's sake, these were the moments that the entire game had been building up to?!

Perhaps in a nod to classic 2-D action games, Devil May Cry also boasted a high level of difficulty, unusually so, in fact, for such a high-profile title of that era. While Dante's slick moves would be sufficient to make sport of the early packs of marionette monsters, the difficulty ramped up considerably with the first real boss, a giant talking spider named Phantom. Phantom could take a beating and dish it right back, decimating Dante in just a few hits. Simply charging in head-on was a sure way to die, and I imagine more than a few players were surprised and frustrated after having been led by the marketing to expect a dressed-up hack-and-slash with a cool and powerful hero to control. Yet Devil May Cry was peculiar in that it was an action game that actually let the player grind their way to victory, thanks to the development system which allowed the player to buy new abilities and health upgrades using red orbs dropped by enemies. The system could be exploited by simply saving the game via the pause menu any time death seemed imminent. Then, while loading that save would start the player back at the beginning of the stage, all of the orbs collected would be preserved, and, eventually, the player would have enough stored up to purchase the skills and power-ups that would hopefully get them through to the next stage. If that still wasn't enough, the game also offered an easier difficulty level if it detected that the player was struggling early on. Taking that option barred the player from unlocking any of the post-game rewards, so I stuck with the normal mode, but I've heard quite a few players say that they went the easy route and ended up thoroughly enjoying the game, so it must have worked pretty well.

As for those rewards I spoke of, actually the only thing beating the normal difficulty unlocked was an option to carry over your powered-up Dante into a second playthrough. Like the successive playthroughs in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, this second round was actually a much harder mode featuring new enemy placements, often populating once straightforward areas with far deadlier foes, and more aggressive bosses that had about three times their old stamina. Dante himself, meanwhile, was much frailer despite starting out with a life bar that was hopefully enhanced during the first playthrough. In fact, one of my biggest complaints about the game was that, rather than having the upgrades feel like enhancements, Dante actually only ever seemed complete while he had his full abilities, especially since, even fully-powered up for the second round, the game was still not easy. Looking back at the early stages the first time around, the gameplay was so much more limited without all the extra moves and options, and it would have been a shame if a player had come away with impressions based on just the neutered Dante. In any case, beating this harder mode then unlocked a difficulty select option for future playthroughs and, more attractive to me, a brand new outfit for Dante.

Unlockable alternate costumes were not exactly a new concept, but, for some reason, I just had to have this one. I couldn't find any pictures or video of it on the pre-YouTube Internet, but I'd heard it described as a purple "Victorian" coat and monocle, and the costume apparently came with its own exclusive battle theme music as well. This all sounded cool to me, so I dedicated myself to completing the hard mode, even though, at the time, I hardly ever played through single-player games multiple times and basically never ventured beyond the normal difficulty level of a game. In this case, I was glad I did, because it was only in playing that harder mode that I realized the true genius of Devil May Cry.

Taking things back for a moment to Street Fighter, as I am often wont to do, skill in fighting games is sometimes broken down into "technique" and "strategy." "Technique" describes a player's manual ability to perform tricky combos when it counts, as well as one's timing and intuitive sense to beat an opponent on the draw, for example, when an exchange appears imminent. "Strategy," on the other hand, describes a player's informed grasp of a game's flow and ability to exploit the game-specific mechanics. It can involve something simple like picking the right character to counter an opponent's choice, or, in Street Fighter II, the classic example would be throwing a fireball, not expecting the slow-moving projectile to hit the opponent, but hoping that its presence will pressure them into jumping over it and setting themselves up as planned for your next move.

I bring all this up because Devil May Cry, although a single-player action game, understood these two sides to skill and invited both approaches and all the mixes in between. For the technical players, the rich combo system challenged them, not only to construct techniques that would decimate enemies, but also to push for the highest grade on the game's dynamic scoring system. That's not the sort of player I am. No, I'm more the kind of guy that prefers to win as cheaply as possible. Fortunately, Devil May Cry had my back as well, and, quite unlike most 2-D action games, its incredibly versatile engine allowed almost all fights to be handled in a variety of ways. Overcoming tougher enemies required pattern recognition, but, once on offense, which Devil May Cry did revel in and reward, the game did not lock the player into one "correct" strategy that had to be perceived and executed to perfection. In that moment of opportunity after reading and evading an enemy's move, it would be up to the player how best to respond both according to Dante's vast arsenal and the individual player's ability. As the game progressed into ever more complicated boss battles, inventiveness and improvisation could serve a player just as well as technical virtuosity. For the Phantom fight, for example, I discovered on the normal difficulty that I could simply activate my Devil Trigger while equipped with the lightning blade Alastor, and that would allow me to fly into the air and spam the projectile lightning attack to zap the spider with impunity until he died, actually bypassing the pattern recognition phase altogether. On hard mode, that strategy went out the window, as Phantom's greatly increased health turned the fight into a marathon, and the Devil Trigger simply didn't last long enough for the lightning to put a dent into him. Faced with this sudden conundrum, I was eventually driven to experiment with Dante's alternative melee weapon, the fiery Ifrit gauntlets, which I had rudely dismissed during my first playthrough, despite their high attack power, on account of their slowness and Dante's reduced mobility while equipped with them.

I discovered that, while the hard mode bosses' tripled life bars rendered most attacks puny, Ifrit still packed some punch. More specifically, I discovered Ifrit's Devil Trigger mode "Inferno" move, Dante's strongest attack, a do-or-die maneuver that activated mid-jump and involved nothing more than crash-landing onto an enemy, searing it in an explosion of flames in the process. The sheer suicidal mechanics of the maneuver made it the most thrilling move I'd ever come across in any action game, but it was also perhaps the only thing that got me through hard mode. With a maxed-out Devil Trigger, the move could be performed three times before Dante reverted to his mostly defenseless human form, at which point I would basically just have to dodge attacks and taunt at every opportunity to restore my Devil Trigger meter so that I could perform it again. Of course, a better player might not have had to resort to those measures, but, hey, it worked for me and the game made me feel proud of myself for figuring out that strategy.

As for that costume, was it worth it? Probably not. The anachronistic getup, monocle and all, was just bizarre and nowhere near as cool as Dante's regular outfit. Some uncovered early concept art of the spiky-haired "Tony Redgrave" from the game's days as Resident Evil 4 suggested that it may have been a prototype design for Dante, since repurposed perhaps as the human form of Dante's father, the "legendary dark knight" Sparda, but the game itself made little suggestion as to its significance, if any. But, then again, as I discovered, the journey was worth more than the objective.

Although it was itself spawned from Resident Evil, Devil May Cry became more influential than the original Resident Evil. It doesn't quite get due credit these days for having practically founded the "character action game" genre that became the platformer of the PS2, inspiring hordes of disciples, imitators, and casual borrowers, but, to this day, it remains the title that all other like action games must be measured against, be they Bujingai or God of War.