Thursday, April 30, 2009

A recent trend in movie commercials

Take a look at this TV spot for the movie Obsessed.

There's something about this commercial that really bothers me, and I don't think it has anything to do with the movie itself. It's something to do with the way the ad is constructed, but I can't put my finger on it exactly. Whatever it is, it was also in the Twilight and Push TV spots from a few months earlier.

At first, I thought maybe it was the widescreen format with the prominent black bar on the top. While I would always prefer to watch movies on TV in widescreen over pan-and-scan, maybe I felt it was overly dramatic for a commercial airing during a syndicated Simpsons rerun. But then I noticed that the X-Men Origins: Wolverine TV spot was letterboxed, and I had no problem whatsoever with it. In fact, when I actually started paying attention, I realized that most movie commercials running right now were in widescreen.

Maybe it's the intense voice of the sleazy movie trailer guy, the slow build of the music, or the ordered bits of melodramatic dialogue. It tries to tell a story, as opposed to just dropping a few attention-grabbing lines or images. The density of it all makes it feel like a compressed theatrical trailer rather than a proper TV spot. They are two very distinct forms, you know.

No, I've come to the conclusion that it must be the static text at the top of the screen. The movie title and release date remain on display for the duration, almost like a watermark. It undercuts the natural dynamism of a thirty-second ad, and, moreover, it draws attention to the black bars that are normally supposed to escape the notice of the captivated viewer (hence why I hadn't even noticed them in ads for other movies). Worst of all, it forces me to pay attention to the commercial. I can tune out audio and video pretty easily, but, if there's text, I can't help reading it.

Yeah, sure, that must be the problem...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nobody Does It Better

That gem comes courtesy of Neinhalt Sieger's story in Samurai Shodown VI, released for the first time in English as part of Samurai Shodown Anthology.

At first, I took it for an unfortunate typo, but, on further inspection, it's actually pretty hard to turn "fighting" into "fisting." Alas, it seems this is another case of SNK tragically mishandling idiomatic English. I can well imagine that, to the Japanese guy who provided the translation, "fisting" sounded like an apt description of the basic action of a fighting game. And Sieger's weapon is a friggin' huge fist. Used for punching. Obviously.

SNK had a real knack for turning out mangled English translations during its Neo-Geo days, and the early Samurai Shodown games were as broken as they came in that regard ("VICTOLY!" indeed). By the late 90s, the company had seemingly cleaned up its act and settled into work that, though still clunky and unpolished, was mostly innocuous. After my initial playthrough with Haohmaru, I thought Samurai Shodown VI was in line with this reformed SNK. Digging a little deeper into the massive roster, however, has unearthed quite a wealth of eyebrow-raising SNK-grish. It makes me wish I had more time to go through all of the characters.

For now, here's one more:

Monday, April 27, 2009

Too soon?

A mere twenty-one days after announcing it, Konami has decided against releasing Six Days in Fallujah, the controversial military shooter depicting the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. From a marketing standpoint, the project sounded like a disaster from the start, but, even though I had little confidence in it turning out well, I was still intrigued by the possibilities.

Developer Atomic Games described it as a commentary-free "game-amentary," which got me imagining playing as a war photojournalist in a horrific battlefield version of Pokemon Snap, minus the rails. Maybe that wouldn't have been a good idea, but reading further revealed that the actual game was just a third-person shooter.

Despite the developer's insistence that it would honor the troops by working with actual Fallujah participants, the game's announcement was met with near-universal concern that, by the nature of the medium, it could only serve to glorify a real ongoing war. It probably didn't help that the pretentious claims were immediately undermined by Konami's marketing ("At the end of the day, it's just a game."). Subsequent previews furthermore revealed that it used a regenerating health mechanism that would have virtually destroyed any sense of realism or consequence. Reports of the developer consulting insurgents may have provided the final outrage.

Konami probably wasn't the right publisher to handle this topic, and its pulling out doesn't necessarily mean that the project is dead, but, given the overwhelming negative feedback that has dogged the game since its initial announcement, I can't think of any company that would be willing and able to take over releasing it. Personally, I'm a little disappointed at this turn of events. No, the game didn't sound too promising, but I think we should at least have gotten a chance to see and learn from what it got wrong. Right now, the only lesson seems to be that we can't handle controversy in gaming.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Resident Evil 5

I've now completed Resident Evil 5 both in single-player on the PS3 and split-screen co-op on the 360. I had a lot of worries coming into this one. Especially after the lame Degeneration movie, I was perturbed by the loss of Shinji Mikami's authorial vision and by what I perceived as a selective amnesia regarding the franchise's female leads. While I still have some qualms with the latter, the game is certainly a better product than Degeneration, and, overall, I'd say it does the series proud.

The major complaint against the game and series continues to be with the inability to move and shoot, but I maintain that RE5 doesn't need such functionality, and it has nothing to do with me being a stodgy traditionalist. I'll use it if it's there, but I've always been mildly annoyed at the absurdity of circle strafing in a lot of first-person shooters, while, in more realistically paced titles, shooting with any degree of accuracy while moving is rarely practical anyway. In Gears of War, the whole cover mechanic--now a staple of the third-person shooter genre, which does not quite include RE5--was obviously implemented specifically to direct the player away from desperate and ineffectual run-and-gun tactics.

Moreover, I'll continue to insist that dual-analog controls are not natural by any means. While single-stick movement may feel archaic to post-Halo FPS veterans, I suspect it would be much easier to grasp for everyone else. I think RE5, in its own way, as a title developed in Japan, where the FPS is still a niche genre, actually targets a broader audience, beyond just shooter fans. That said, the developers did include two dual-analog control schemes, and, while I would have liked fuller customization options, it's better than nothing. Since there's still no way to shoot while moving, the only real advantage is the ability to strafe. I imagine that would help in dodging projectiles, but I stuck with the RE4 controls I was accustomed to, and I never felt like I needed more.

Dispensing with the typewriter save system, RE5 adopts Devil May Cry 3's mission and checkpoint structure. About half the length of the overly long RE4, the full campaign is divided into several chapters, with a few checkpoints and save points per, and completed chapters can be revisited at any time to gather loot or just to improve your rank. As in DMC3, the chapter select option doesn't get enough credit as a simple yet brilliant way of encouraging replay, especially in conjunction with the extremely addictive weapon upgrade system. For better or worse, the format of linear, self-contained chapters is one of a number of changes that places the series now firmly apart from adventure and into the action genre, but it is one of the most consistently playable (and replayable) action games I've come across. Granted, I haven't yet played Gears of War 2 or Dead Space, which I hear are RE5's nearest competitors in its class, but I did very recently play through both RE4: Wii Edition and the first Gears of War, and I think RE5 definitely holds its own as a must-have addition to the library.

The biggest change, provided you have someone to play with, is, of course, the addition of two-player co-op. Multiplayer was never something I thought would fit in a main RE title, but playing through RE5 with another person is a blast. I do feel, however, that it's a sort of one-dimensional delivery of fun.

What little adventure aspects there are in RE5 don't really survive into the co-op play. One of the great benefits of any multiplayer experience is the sheer energy provided by the presence of another live human being, but it can also be awkwardly isolating if, at any time, you begin to feel like you're having more or less fun than the other person. Taking time out to forage for items or read documents can really kill that energy, so the inclination is to keep pushing forward with the action. As a consequence, you would likely miss out on many treasures and large chunks of the plot. While the documents are less numerous than in the older games, each file is far lengthier to compensate, making for some long waits whenever the other person decides to flip through twenty pages of text. It's also a shame that they do not get saved for future access, so, if you want to know the story, you have to search them out and read them as they appear. And what of the character profiles that unlock after each chapter? When in the co-op game am I supposed to read those?

The series's traditionally strong sense of immersion is never complete when you have another live human grounding you in the real world. The story, for example, is not any smarter in single-player, but it's far easier to become absorbed in it, since the impulse toward snarky commentary tends to just fizzle out when you don't have an audience. Also, through my single-player playthrough, I gradually came to regard Sheva's AI routines as aspects of the character ("She's got some skills, but she lacks experience. She needs to learn to calm down and ease up on that machine gun trigger."), adding another dimension to her personality, whereas, in co-op, the characters don't have personalities outside of cut scenes because, during gameplay, my partner is just the person I'm playing with. My point is that, while co-op is a fantastic experience, it does necessarily come at the expense of many of the qualities--ambiance, immersion, narrative--that had previously made for strong single-player adventures.

Opinions vary wildly as to whether the AI Sheva is smart or stupid, but I found that, provided you understand how she operates, she is much more a help than a hindrance. Most of the time, the AI is simple yet effective. When set to "Attack" mode, Sheva mercilessly hunts down enemies with no regard for the ammo reserves. I found it more prudent most of the time to leave her in "Cover" mode, keeping her close so that I could more easily heal her if needed or, as was more often the case, so that she could provide quick aid when I got into trouble. Even in "Cover" mode, she tends to burn through the ammo, but, otherwise, she requires very little babysitting, and my personal assessment is that things go more smoothly the less you worry about her and the better you handle your own end. On Normal difficulty, I took care of most of the fighting and let her handle all of the healing, but certain enemies--even some bosses--are actually easier if you drop back to the supporting role and allow Sheva to take point. In some ways better than a human player, she rarely misses and has no blind spots. She can also see in the dark and instantly pinpoint weak spots through the sometimes overly intense graphical effects.

Problems only really arise when specific gameplay sequences trigger contextual AI programs that override her basic behavior. I recall one hairy situation after Sheva operated an elevator that carried me to a higher platform. While up there, I ran into a pack of tough enemies, and I decided that it would be wiser to jump back down to ground level so that Sheva and I could fight them together. As the enemies followed me down and I stood my ground, I quickly found myself overwhelmed and alone. Where was my support? As it turned out, the moment I jumped down, Sheva had decided to run off to recall the elevator, and she was still at the controls waiting for me to get on again. Helping me to survive against the immediate threat was apparently not a priority. That scenario paled, however, in comparison to the boss fight immediately after.

In a two-on-two fight, one tank-like enemy continuously stalks you about the stage, while a second shoots at you with automatic weapons. It's almost like taking on an RE4 berserker that's being backed up by a Gatling gun guy. Oh yeah, did I mention this tank enemy has complete frontal invincibility? And it shoots at you too. It's a tricky fight in any event, but, in single-player, it becomes an absolute nightmare, and the greatest enemy is Sheva's busted AI. She automatically goes after the gunner and routinely gets shredded by bullets. The problem is that, for no logical reason, this event-specific AI program overrides even her impulse to heal herself. But you can't just stick close to her with herbs at the ready, because, all the while, the tank is pursuing you, and the only way to stop it is to lure it into a maze where you can wrap around and get behind it. The sadistic setup forces you to separate from Sheva, but she can't survive for very long on her own. Madness, I say! These moments are the exception rather than the rule, but they do stick in the mind.

My bigger issue with the game had to do with the real-time inventory system. While it makes sense in co-op as another mechanism to keep players from interrupting one another, it prevents you from enjoying the full variety of weapons. In single-player, it's imperative that you equip the pistol, shotgun and rifle. I usually assigned my last shortcut to either the handy stun rod or the boss-slaying magnum. With this setup, it's the grenades that fall by the wayside. Against large packs of enemies, when grenades would be most useful, the cumbersome inventory system rules out manually equipping them under such pressure. Basically, I never equipped grenades mid-fight, instead only chucking them at the beginnings of engagements, regardless of their strategic appropriateness, because I found my inventory overflowing with them. In cases where, in RE4, I would have used grenades, I just had to rely on the shotgun, and, quite often, I would end up discarding grenades to free up space for more ammo and herbs. Oh yeah, the AI Sheva is not programmed to use grenades, so it's pointless to give any to her.

Some occasionally obscure boss battles and lethal cut scene QTEs notwithstanding, RE5 is primarily a series of great set pieces. I'm not sure if there are any as dynamic as the barricade cabin from RE4, but there are a few that definitely come close, and the power of current-gen technology introduces some new possibilities. Some may lament that the switch to bright outdoor environments ruins the horror atmosphere, but the reality is that darkness has always been easier, whereas RE5 handles light as no game I've seen before. While the cut scenes--generated in real-time but looking about ten times better than the gameplay graphics (or Degeneration, for that matter)--are naturally stunning, for me, the most striking moment in the game came when we charged up a mountainside with the midday sun shining fiercely in our faces, practically blinding. Even though it made aiming harder, it was a gorgeous effect unlike anything else I've come across.

Removed from the horror elements, RE5 is definitely a departure from the classic narratives of survival. Even RE4 began as a rescue mission that ran into numerous complications along the way to extend the length of the adventure. RE5, on the other hand, is a proactive extermination mission. While I miss those old feelings of despair eventually giving way to hope and escape, since it is now an action game, it's better that the plot should be on the same page. Besides, I don't think horror could ever work in a co-op game.

Would RE5 have been a better game under Mikami's direction? I now realize that's not a fair question. Perhaps RE5 is not the visionary masterpiece today that RE4 was in its time, but it is nonetheless superb. Co-op play provides an amazing experience that is almost another game apart from the single-player, and, even though RE5 is far shorter than RE4, I can see myself spending more time with it thanks to the replay-friendly design.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Essentials #26: Hello Kitty's Cube Frenzy

Yeah, that's right. It's a Hello Kitty game. It's also pretty freaking great.

Players could be forgiven for missing this gem of a puzzle game, given that it was a license-based title, that it was this specific license, that it wasn't even licensed to a "legit" publisher. No, it was developed by Culture Publishers and published by NewKidCo. Sweet Jesus! you might be thinking, but I picked up the unassuming game because I thought my younger sister might enjoy it. It served that purpose well, but, when all was said and done, I think I ended up enjoying it more than she did.

Released in 1999 for the Sony PlayStation (there was also a version for the Game Boy Color), Hello Kitty's Cube Frenzy (or Hello Kitty's Cube de Cute, as it was known in Japan) tasked the player with guiding the popular Sanrio mascot to a number of items placed about the stage. Hello Kitty would continuously travel left and right automatically, and the player aided her by positioning falling blocks to create stairs and platforms as needed to reach the items. The design was vaguely similar to the Puzzle mode of Tetris Plus, where the player had to clear lines as quickly as possible to open up a path to the bottom of the stage for the professor character before the spiked ceiling crushed him. But Hello Kitty's Cube Frenzy was a more sophisticated title that, far from feeling like a hack of Tetris or Columns, provided an utterly original puzzle experience.

One of the keys was the Lemmings-like one-track stupidity of Hello Kitty. Moving left and right by herself, she would surmount single blocks along the way and change direction if she hit a wall. If a ledge or fatal pit lay in her path, she would blindly march toward it unless the player either built a bridge across it or manually turned her around using the shoulder buttons. While all this went on, the player also had to attend to puzzle pieces that continuously dropped from the top of the screen. Some finesse was required to lock the variously shaped blocks together, and they could be cleared out Columns-style when grouped with the same color. The point, of course, was to use them to construct pathways for Hello Kitty to reach her treasures, but, if the game dealt you the wrong shape or color, you would likely have to dump it off to the side until the right piece came along. Finally, complicating matters, the fiendish Badtz-Maru and his pals provided opposition, getting in Hello Kitty's way and rearranging blocks set down by the player. With everything happening at once, the game felt very much alive, since you had to manage the blocks while also keeping an eye on Hello Kitty, and victory only came when you managed to put it all together within the set time limit.

For a single player, the inventive mechanics and lengthy story mode made for a moderately diverting title, but the game really shone when played in two-player co-op. The multitasking gameplay took on another level when two Kitties and two sets of falling blocks had to share the same stage. It made things more complicated and perhaps more difficult, but it also opened up new strategies. For me, the defining moment of the entire game came when my sister and I, with almost no time left, had to fit our floating pieces together in midair to construct a temporary bridge at just the right moment for an oncoming Hello Kitty, closing in on the ledge, to cross and reach the final treasure needed to clear the stage. So tight was the timing, as we stood on that razor's edge, that we couldn't even communicate intelligibly with words. We both just had to know what to do in that tense moment, and that feeling of almost psychic synchronicity was co-op gaming perfection.

There was also a versus mode, but to call it broken would be generous. Because the two players' pieces could not travel through one another even during the placing phase, players would constantly block each other's way, whether deliberately or not, and neither one would ever achieve anything.

For Sanrio fans, some decent production values provided good fan service. The story mode included several cute pre-rendered movie sequences. Hello Kitty gained additional outfits with each new environment, and, after completing the story mode, you could even play with other Sanrio characters, including Pochacco, Pom Pom Purin, and the Little Twin Stars. Sadly, My Melody was relegated to a loading screen, and this was a few years before Cinnamoroll's time.

It would have been easy to write off Hello Kitty's Cube Frenzy without ever trying it, but it ended up as one of the most unusual yet rewarding cooperative gaming experiences I've ever had.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus

The march of new editions of old 2-D fighting games for the PS2 (and Wii) continues. Providing a reprieve from SNK Playmore releases, this time it's Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus from Arc System Works and publisher Aksys Games.

Adding only a few extraneous single-player modes and two returning bonus characters, the core game is identical to 2007's North American release of Guilty Gear XX Accent Core, which was itself the fourth iteration of 2002's Guilty Gear XX, the third in the U.S., and the second of those on the PS2. Guilty Gear XX was in turn the upgrade/sequel to Guilty Gear X, which garnered critical acclaim in 2000 as a methodically built fighter designed by people who clearly played and loved 2-D fighting games. The series was the first to take a discerning look at the glut of unbalanced systems in other games (e.g. dodge/roll/parry, combo breakers, Alpha counters) and reform them into an unparalleled combination of depth and technical refinement. It was also notable for sporting sprite-based graphics that were double the resolution of Street Fighter and its contemporaries.

I picked up Guilty Gear X2 (the North American version of the first XX) for the PS2 six years ago, after hearing that it was the most popular 2-D fighter in Japanese arcades. At the time, the hi-res graphics were very exciting, and I loved the rocking soundtrack, but, while I admired its thoughtfulness, the fighting engine was way beyond my comprehension. I pretty quickly gave up trying to learn it, and I paid little attention to the subsequent revisions until now. After passing on #Reload, Slash, and the original Accent Core, I figured that the accumulated tweaks and additions of three revisions constituted a substantial enough upgrade (comparable to going from 2nd Impact to 3rd Strike, but maybe less than the jump from Alpha 2 to Alpha 3) to justify giving it another go. I was also mindful of the possibility that this may be the final and definitive edition, since the rights to the series are split between Arc System Works and original publisher Sammy.

After a few rounds, I can comfortably say that none of the changes make the game any easier. It still rests at the extreme hardcore end of the 2-D fighting game spectrum, and only a hardcore player would even appreciate the differences from previous installments. Although the menu graphics, artwork, and voices are brand new since my time with X2, the character sprites and music are essentially unchanged from the nine-year-old Guilty Gear X. While the soundtrack is still great, it's amazing how quickly the once revolutionary "hi-res" graphics have aged. The new story mode, the big selling point for owners of the original Accent Core, finally picks up the Guilty Gear saga from where XX left off, but it's very typical of fighting game stories. Characters just randomly run into each other and then decide to fight for no good reason.

Still, the single-player provides a diverting enough addition to my rotation of 2-D fighting games. For a collector, it's also good to have the current and possibly last edition of one of the genre's big titles.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dragonball Evolution

Yeah, I went to see this in theaters.

Very disappointing overall, and not because I expected it to be good. I expected it to be embarrassingly awful, but what I got was merely average. Still not good, but not bad enough to laugh at.

The nearest comparison I can draw is to the 1990 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. I enjoyed that film as a kid, and I could see my younger self liking Dragonball Evolution just as well, but, for an adult whose patience has been worn thin by years of similarly simple-minded stories of cartoon heroics, this movie is just too slow and uninteresting to justify its inherent preposterousness.

On the bright side, Dragonball Evolution is surprisingly not a cheap cash-in on the popularity of the Dragon Ball Z anime. Missing that mania by a few years, it draws upon the earlier Dragon Ball series for a story that can stand on its own as effectively as almost any kids' action movie, so I'll try to judge it on those terms, rather than against its source material. With regard to production, this is no Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. It's a legitimate theatrical release, with real special effects and some nice sets and locations. The effort is admirable, and, honestly, this is probably as good a live-action Dragon Ball movie as we could ever expect to get, though, really, that's just evidence that the project was and always will be a bad idea.

The best parts of the film are all at the beginning, where the story departs most dramatically from the source material, casting a not-even-remotely-Asian Goku as a normal high school student who, for some reason, must keep his immense power a secret from his classmates. Of course, he often can't help himself, and, in its irreverant juxtaposition of ordinary-looking people with farcical cartoon physics, the movie's beginning is even a little evocative of Kung Fu Hustle.

During the early high school segments, Justin Chatwin as Goku kind of channels Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, but with more confidence. The character is the exact opposite of the real Goku, but, taken on its own, the performance makes for a still fairly likable young guy that you can root for against the mean bullies that try to keep him down. Once the story moves into the globe-trotting quest for the Dragon Balls, however, Chatwin seems completely lost, struggling through the heroic dialogue as if he himself is hearing it for the first time. But Chatwin's performance is about the only thing worth a laugh.

The rest of the movie is just harmlessly generic PG action material that drags on in its juvenile construction. It's not slow in the way the Dragon Ball Z anime is with its interminable fight sequences. There is very little actual fighting in the movie, and that's the problem. Despite its modest running time, not a lot happens. The film charts a very predictable course to an anti-climactic outcome. The characters spend most of it lethargically voicing their worries about things that then come about on cue without much proper buildup.

The search for the Dragon Balls barely registers as a subplot. In the original series, the quest had the main characters journeying across the world, stopping at obscure towns and meeting eccentric characters along the way. Getting the Dragon Balls then usually required overcoming trials, such as winning the favor of an old hermit, or ridding a village of a local menace. The episodic structure and potential for hijinks were what made the early Dragon Ball adventures constantly entertaining, and why it originally sounded sensible for the filmmakers to go that route instead of adapting any of the more popular Dragon Ball Z arcs. But in the movie, the characters only find one Dragon Ball that doesn't already belong to one of them, and it's just randomly in the desert. The only challenge in taking it comes from the enemy forces who are also trying to retrieve it. Then some phantom time limit expires and the movie decides to bring an abrupt end to their wanderings. At least, unlike most action movies these days, it resists the urge to set up a sequel.

Dragonball Evolution is by no means a terrible movie, but it's not a very good one either, and, with Dragon Ball fans already having so many excuses to hate this film without even seeing it, being blandly mediocre may be a worse offense than being laughably bad. While I think Dragonball Evolution is the higher-quality product, I honestly enjoyed Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li more, precisely because it was at least bad in a fun way.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Street Fighter IV National Tournament

The biggest fighting game competition in history recently concluded last weekend in San Francisco. The sixteen-man tournament was the culmination of weeks of qualifying rounds sponsored by Capcom at GameStops around the country. In the end, Justin Wong, long recognized as America's top Capcom fighting game player, prevailed, earning the right to compete in the international exhibition against Poongko (Korean National Champion), Iyo (Japanese National Champion), and Daigo (ranked No. 1 on Street Fighter IV's arcade points tracker). In the round-robin, Wong lost only to Daigo, who managed a perfect record to come away with the title of "Street Fighter IV World Champion."

I'm sure this is all very boring to anybody who thinks competitive gaming is a joke, but, as one who has long admired the depth of Street Fighter, I think it's at least as legitimate a sport as competitive eating. The skill of these players is no joke, and the consistency of their results is the proof. Daigo "The Beast" Umehara in particular has reigned atop Japan's scene for over ten years now. He first acquired renown within the international community when he defeated U.S. champion Alex Valle for the world title in Capcom's official Street Fighter Alpha 3 tournament in 1998 (also the last time Capcom held an official tournament).

To give some perspective, in the time since Daigo won the Alpha 3 world title, twelve different men have held the World No. 1 ranking in professional tennis. Even excluding the short-lived reigns of minor champions such as Carlos Moya and Patrick Rafter, that leaves six men (Sampras, Agassi, Kuerten, Hewitt, Federer, Nadal) who managed to hold it for at least thirty weeks straight during that period (actually, Sampras's longest streak during those years was twenty-nine weeks, but let's not be petty). Keep in mind, that's just the men, not the number of times that the ranking switched back and forth between them.

Daigo, meanwhile, maybe hasn't been the absolute best at every Capcom fighting game, but he's won major tournaments in most of them, and no other player has been as good at all of them (besides the Marvel games, which never caught on in Japan), let alone for so long. That level of consistency is remarkable, and it should silence any accusations of the game being random. But perhaps match footage can tell the story better than result reports.

First up is the video of Justin Wong in the U.S. finals against Mike Ross. The two Americans so respect/fear one another that, on multiple occasions, both men simultaneously retreat to opposite corners. Granted, that's kind of the nature of a Honda match, but it's also very characteristic of top U.S. play. Neither player wants to put himself at risk by attacking first, so they hang back and allow one another to build up meter while waiting. It's not exactly exciting, but these players are used to playing for money, which has encouraged smart rather than sensational play. It's the cautious approach, equivalent to two tennis players duking it out from the baseline.

But now let's take a look at the match between Daigo and Iyo. In this battle between two of Japan's best, there are no breaks for meter-building. The attacks are close to ceaseless on both sides, and the two regularly find themselves face-to-face, despite the fact that they both play long-range characters.

Finally, it's time for the international finals. With there being so little money in competitive Street Fighter, international meets are still not exactly common, but Justin and Daigo are no strangers--their classic 3rd Strike match in the Evo 2004 tournament provided one of the most widely seen video game-related clips on YouTube. So Daigo has played Justin enough times in previous games to grasp the American style, and he knows all too well that its strength can also be its biggest weakness. As the very first round begins, he's determined to put Justin's defense to the test. Largely dispensing with projectiles, he repeatedly rushes in, boldly challenging Justin to out-execute him at close range. There aren't many players outside Japan who have the technical skill to make this a viable tactic at the competitive level, which is surely why Justin has such difficulty trying to adapt.

More videos can be seen at Kineda. Hopefully, this has been at least somewhat informative or interesting.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Essentials #25: Ikaruga

"Our frothing demand for this game increases." Stretching prominently across the front cover of Atari's North American release of Ikaruga, thus read the legendarily awful quote from David F. Smith's IGN preview. But if ever there was a game that merited a "frothing demand," Treasure's 2001 arcade shoot 'em up was it.

Treasure, a small studio founded by former Konami employees who had worked on the Contra series, made a name for itself as a master developer of fast-paced 2-D action games in that same vein, such as Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier. Their first attempt at the arcade vertical shooter, Radiant Silvergun, quickly came to be regarded among hardcore shoot 'em up fans as the pinnacle of the genre, but the game never saw release outside Japan. With the shift to polygons, traditional 2-D action games were becoming an increasingly hard sell, so it was a delightful surprise when Atari decided to pick up Ikaruga, the spiritual successor to Radiant Silvergun, for release in North America and Europe in 2003, giving Nintendo GameCube owners the chance to experience, not only the best game Atari ever published, but possibly the greatest work of interactive art ever produced.

Borrowing from another previous Treasure title, the side-scrolling platform shooter Silhouette Mirage, Ikaruga's gameplay centered around the polarity mechanic. The player's ship could switch between black and white modes. While the two offered no unique abilities, the color system added a new dimension to traditional bullet-dodging gameplay, because all enemy crafts and their bullets also came in only black and white. The player was impervious to bullets of the same color and, in fact, could even absorb them to power up a homing laser--the player's only other weapon besides regular bullets--that functioned vitally like the screen-clearing bombs found in most shoot 'em ups. The player's own attacks, meanwhile, were twice as effective against enemies of the opposite color. Players were consequently encouraged to balance the cautious approach of invulnerability against an enemy of the same color, versus the greater risk/reward of increased attack power when fighting with the opposite color. If you had the nerve, the most dangerous approach was actually the "Bullet Eater" strategy, a pacifistic option that involved going through the game without shooting at all, but rather scrolling passively through stages and waiting for bosses to automatically depart after set time limits.

Regardless of your initial strategy, matters rapidly became more complicated as black and white enemies attacked together, and bosses could fire both colors alternately or at the same time. Finally, on higher difficulty levels, defeated enemies would explode into bullets of their color as a last gasp attack, making for some hairy situations, especially in two-player co-op, when enemies of both colors would be attacking and dying all over the screen at a brisk pace. As an arcade shooter, Ikaruga was necessarily difficult, with screen-flooding waves of tiny bullets quite the norm, but it was actually less overwhelming than many other twitch shooters, since players at least had the chance to absorb half of the shots fired at them.

The game was additionally made approachable by the inclusion of a fair continue system that encouraged repeated play almost like level-grinding. Although the game started the player with limited continues, every hour of play unlocked an extra credit for all future playthroughs, until, eventually, "free play" went into effect. It was a simple yet clever way of tempering the token-thirsty coin-op experience for the home market without entirely sacrificing the hardcore appeal. Starting the player with unlimited continues, as in SNK's Metal Slug home ports, would have reduced the game to a half hour experience, during which the player would have spent a thousand lives while skipping past exploration of any of the deep, skillful mechanics. But a game that repeatedly ended with the Game Over screen during stage two would only have frustrated normal players into giving up, rather than inspiring them to improve. The guarantee of progress over time encouraged sticking with it to earn more credits, while the acquisitions of skill and experience became almost tangential outcomes for less serious players. The system was not new in Ikaruga, but it's still not common enough for my tastes (I really wish Contra would go this route).

I was no expert, so I died hundreds of times before I finally beat it for the first time using seven credits. The ending that followed shook me to the very core of my being. Highlight below for spoilers:

Chasing the enemy's crystal core through a skyward tunnel, the player's craft, piloted by a young man named Shinra, unleashed all it had in relentless volleys of lasers before crumpling in a limp explosion dwarfed by the final vision of the enemy blowing up with a brilliant discharge of energies. As the credits rolled, the camera then cut to a view of the planet below the steel firmament that been the stage for the entire game. Unblemished by the war of men and machine gods up above, the forests were still green and beautiful.

It hit me hard--to find out that, no matter how good I got at the game, no matter how hard I worked to minimize my deaths, ultimately, Shinra was going to die willingly in order to win that serene image that I would then have to treasure without him, without my virtual other self. With every previous death, Shinra and I had been in it together and then come back together, but, this time, this essentially nameless, faceless video game character had taken control out of my hands and into his own. I couldn't comprehend it at first, and I was bitterly disappointed that I could not find anybody else who was so struck by it as I was. The ending has stayed with me ever since, and it remains the first image that comes to my mind when considering the emotional potential of video games. Years later, while discussing the topic of "the greatest video game endings" with some pretty hardcore gamers at work, I brought up
Ikaruga, and I found that, even among the few who had completed it, none could remember the ending. By that time, it didn't bother me anymore that nobody else cared. But I do.

The credits also surprised me with the revelation that the design team consisted of just four Treasure employees--Hiroshi Iuchi (director, backgrounds, music), Atsutomu Nakagawa (main programmer), Yasushi Suzuki (character/object design and illustration), Satoshi Murata (sound effects). That's how Treasure prefers to do things, apparently, and there's no arguing with the results. Outside staff was contracted for additional programming and art chores, but it remained a project of unified vision throughout.

Indeed, Ikaruga was the masterpiece that it was because all of the elements worked together in such perfect harmony. The polarity concept provided not only a novel mechanic but also a visual elegance and stark beauty, since, with only two contrasting colors to deal with, bullets and objects were easily distinguished from the awesome backgrounds and from one another. The relentlessly grandiose soundtrack told the story in lieu of the bits of narrative text that were cut out of the English releases. (The text is restored and translated in the Xbox Live Arcade edition, but I have yet to check it out, because, to be honest, I'm a little afraid it won't live up to my imagination.) Though barely glimpsed within the game itself, Suzuki's portrait of Shinra's ravaged face continues to haunt me. And the sense of authorial intent was nowhere more evident than in the controlled grip with which the self-scrolling game pulled the player through the incomparably intricate level designs and the massive boss battles--all of them unique, and each more awe-inspiring than the last.

At a very crude level, the two unrelated "shooter" genres--shoot 'em ups and first/third-person shooters--might both be categorized as "action," but the experiences could not be more different. A master-class shoot 'em up like Ikaruga takes the player to another place--somewhere beyond the mind and body. As opposed to visceral violence and panic, it provides a hypnotic calm that is not any less vital, less human than the blood and guts of a war first-person shooter. Rather, like a fine painting or poem, it can tap into that ethereal part of our selves that makes us more than animals.

For all my useless talk, the true beauty of Ikaruga defies description. They're only words, after all. Then again, they're all I've got, so here goes: Ikaruga is a perfect game. It is a work of art. It is a language unto itself. It is an absolutely essential experience.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Does Final Fantasy still matter?

It's a question I've been asking myself lately.

With the Japanese Blu-ray release of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Complete this week came the first playable demo of Final Fantasy XIII. For most of us outside Japan, that translates to the first real gameplay footage and system details on this title that has been largely shrouded in mystery since its debut at the 2006 E3. But what does that mean? With the full game's North American release still at least a year off, does the English-speaking community truly give a damn about it right now? And will the game have any real impact in the West even when it does come out?

Back in the SNES days, Final Fantasy was a big deal. Although the system saw only two releases in the core series, for a generation of gamers who grew up playing II and III (North American numbering, obviously), few titles are as fondly remembered. Mario and Zelda may have sold better and garnered wider acclaim, but Final Fantasy's plots were light-years ahead of almost anything else players had seen in the medium, and the comparatively dense dramas inspired the most passionate fan base in gaming for a reason. Then, on the PS1, the series became the big deal, with VII, VIII and IX all probably ranking among the console's ten best titles (Tactics as well, though I'm only concentrating on the mother ship series for now).

But that success was followed by the disaster of the Spirits Within movie, which eventually resulted in the departure/dismissal of shamed series originator Hironobu Sakaguchi. The second wave of FF architects--producer Yoshinori Kitase, character designer Tetsuya Nomura, and writer Kazushige Nojima--put together one more great tale in FFX for the PS2, but the real stories of that console generation were the open-world Grand Theft Auto and the console FPS Halo. Already, the franchise was beginning to fall behind as a serious contender as the loss of Sakaguchi at the helm led into a largely empty period for the main series. Sure, there were more releases with "Final Fantasy" in the title than ever before, but they were nearly all spin-offs, side stories, and remakes. XI and XII, meanwhile, were drastic departures that changed things up without making them any fresher or more accessible to a broad audience. Speaking for myself, I know my confidence in the series has been shaken, my memories dulled by this lengthy hiatus from greatness, leading to creeping doubts about whether even the classics were really that good.

More than restoring faith in the Final Fantasy name, however, there's a lot riding on this FFXIII. For Square-Enix, it's an extravagantly expensive project for which the company can likely expect to trade any possible profit for the potential for glory. The JRPG genre needs its leader back to set the pace and steer it out of its present stagnation. And Japanese game development as a whole is depending on it. With Metal Gear Solid 4 and Resident Evil 5 out of the way, it's the next big Japanese third-party title left on the horizon, and the only one remaining that might silence the parade of Japanese developers conceding defeat to the West.

Yet, as I read demo impressions and watch combat footage, I find myself with no expectations whatsoever that it can succeed on any of those counts. Right now, it doesn't look like a revolution or evolution for the series. Frankly, I feel we've just about reached the limit of menu-based combat and dungeon exploration. The best recent JRPG I played was The World Ends With You--ironically, itself a Square-Enix and Tetsuya Nomura project--precisely because it did away with those systems that were never all that enjoyable to begin with and have only grown increasingly less so with repetition. Persona 3, which I'm currently playing through, is another good example of a JRPG that tries to move the experience away from simple combat and dungeons (though, alas, it has those things as well, and I'm finding them to be quite annoying distractions). That's the direction that the genre needs to be going in. FFXIII, meanwhile, looks like a champion of tradition, full of turn-based combat against repeating groups of generic monsters. For the JRPG that supposedly reinvents itself with every installment, the specific mechanics are different, yes, but not noticeably so to the gaming public at large.

Nor can the game expect to fall back on production as the series might have on the PS1. FFXIII is attractive, certainly, but that's to be expected of an A-list title in the HD era, and not even the signature pre-rendered cut scenes offer much of an advantage anymore over the competition. It also doesn't help that the CG character art style of FFVIII has been so co-opted by nearly every other JRPG of the last decade that, for the generation of new gamers that didn't even catch FFX, XIII looks indistinguishable from such mediocre efforts as Infinite Undiscovery and The Last Remnant.

If the game is going to impress, it will have to be, as it was in the good old days, through its story and characters. Square-Enix has been tight-lipped on that front so far, and it would be difficult to convey much about a fifty-hour arc in trailers anyway, especially since it's not a sequel in the true sense of the word. But, even if FFXIII can deliver a plot on a par with the series's best, does that style of storytelling still have a place in this generation of restlessness? I don't believe that the writing in video games has grown especially more sophisticated of late--have the last eight years yielded a greater self-contained epic than FFX?--but I know that the average age of gamers has risen, and I suspect a lot of older fans have outgrown the heavily scripted narratives that the series and genre are known for. For a passive experience, books and television provide more convenient and typically more mature stories that do not require that you engage in monotonous menu-based combat to progress the plot. What's more, melodramatic tales of attractive young heroes saving the world do not appear presently in fashion among Western gamers.

Then again, taking a closer look at the series's recent history, maybe it's not gamers that have outgrown the series, but the series that had abandoned its fans by departing so significantly with XI and XII. It's worth noting that they've brought back Kitase and Nomura for this one, as well as director Motomu Toriyama, who was a key contributor to FFX (and director of X-2, which I never played). An optimist might brush aside the last two installments as aberrations and instead regard XIII as the first major new Final Fantasy in eight years from the team behind the three best-selling installments (VII, VIII and X). Could you imagine Call of Duty fans waiting eight years between CoD4 and Infinity Ward's next release, with only Treyarch's hackwork to fill the gap? Could that series even possibly survive to the end of that eight-year term? (Mind you, I've never actually played Call of Duty, so this Infinity Ward/Treyarch infighting nonsense is all hearsay.) My point is that it may not be fair to prejudge FFXIII based on the present state of the series as its immediate predecessor left it. But, again, even if FFXIII is that return to form, would that form be acceptable in this present age dominated by the Wii on one side and Western-developed console shooters on the other?

As far as saving Japanese game development goes, my impression has always been that Final Fantasy, like Metal Gear, is a series whose popularity appears several times greater on the Internet, thanks to the sheer fervor of its fans, than it is in real life in terms of sales. The game will sell well, I'm sure, but it will never pull Call of Duty numbers in the West, and Activision will have put out four of those (on a million platforms) in less time than it's taking for Square-Enix to produce its one big title.

Whatever my realistic expectations might be, I've come to the conclusion that, yes, Final Fantasy does still matter to me. The fact that I'm taking the time to write this blog post tells me that I still want a Final Fantasy game that can defy my expectations and remind me why I do care about the series.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


I had a dream that Nintendo was showing off the next big game at the local mall. It was called "LittleDogPlanet," but, despite any similarities to the name of a major title on a competing platform, it was actually a Wii version of Nintendogs.

There was a large crowd gathered to view the demo on the big screen. A Nintendo representative singled me out to give it a spin. I happily agreed and took the Wii remote. I gathered that I could pet the dog by pointing at it. Basic stuff, but there was more to it. By holding down the trigger, I could actually grab a leg and shake its paw. Then I picked up a second remote. I was able to grab both front paws and lift him up to his hind legs. Behind me, the Nintendo rep turned on another two remotes. We grabbed two legs each, and the dog became our helpless marionette. It took a bit of coordination, but it wasn't long before we were making him perform all sorts of dances to the crowd's cheers and laughter.

Then I woke up. I had to get to work. I was sad. I don't even enjoy Nintendogs.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Not my finest moment

So I'm at my desk staring down the scope at the fortieth miserable diamond of the day. The shift has been long and my eyes feel heavy. I tell myself I'll get up and take a break as soon as I finish this stone, but I'm obviously fooling myself. The mind-numbing task stretches interminably, and, next thing I know, I'm jarred awake by the impact of my own face slamming into the ocu--

Oh, I've already told this one? My apologies.

Hopefully, this one's new:

I'm walking back to the building from my car after lunch. I reach the narrow section of the sidewalk, bushes on both sides. Suddenly a tiny lizard creeps out in front of me. I immediately jerk to a hard stop where I stand, and, instead of crossing in front of or around me like a sane creature, the dumb reptile crawls on top of my right shoe. Mind you, this whole sequence takes less than a second. Too fast for my mind to process, it's all been reflex, as is my next move. Human reflexes, however, are no match for the lizard's quickness. Even my panic is delayed, and, too late grasping the animal's course, I lift my right foot violently with the intention of pulling it safely out of the way. At the wrong place at the wrong time, the thing goes flying off my shoe and into the distant parking lot.

I check around me for any witnesses. She's standing just a few feet behind me, staring motionless, which tells me that she saw everything. No words, no laughter. She appears stunned, jaw agape, maybe a little offended, but, come to think of it, that's the look she's always giving me. Panic turns to bitter rage at this memory, but then control sets in. I smile with feigned satisfaction, as if it had all been by design, and then move along without another look back.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Essentials #24: Pokémon Puzzle League

Panel de Pon / Tetris Attack

Nintendo's Puzzle League series actually began with 1995's Panel de Pon for the Japanese Super Famicom. Developed by Intelligent Systems, Panel de Pon was a competitive puzzler in the vein of Puyo Puyo. Players had to group together panels of like color in order to clear them from the board and send them over to fill the opponent's screen. The game ended when one player's side became so vertically overcrowded that it could no longer contain any further panels that continued to appear.

The original Japanese Panel de Pon featured an original story and graphics full of cutesy fairy characters. Then, as now, the severely risk-averse Nintendo of America had concerns about the mass marketability of a new IP with such a distinctively Japanese aesthetic flavor, so when the game arrived in North America a year later, it went through extensive rebranding. The North American release not only ditched the fairies, replacing them with Yoshi's Island-themed art and characters, but also threw in the Tetris name because the always savvy marketing department concluded that, to Americans, "puzzle game" meant Tetris. The result was Tetris Attack, one of the last titles of consequence on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

I remember first encountering Tetris Attack at a demo kiosk at the local Toys "R" Us. I gave it a whirl and found it immediately intuitive, addictive, and incredibly charming, but after about ten minutes of play, I concluded that the mechanics suffered from a crucial design flaw, and so I passed on purchasing the game.

Pokémon Puzzle League

Nintendo gave Panel de Pon another chance in 2000, however, with the release of Pokémon Puzzle League for the Nintendo 64. Produced specifically for North America, the new edition again dispensed with Panel de Pon's girlish aesthetics, this time rebranding the game to tie it into the Pokémon craze of the moment. Specifically, the game was based on the popular Pokémon animated series, incorporating the anime-specific characters, featuring the authentic voices and catchy tunes of the English adaptation, and even including a fully-animated opening sequence.

While the Pokémon theme may not have been to everyone's taste, the power of the N64 afforded several technical enhancements that definitely upped the intensity of the experience. For versus, players could choose from a variety of Pokémon trainers from the anime, most of whom were also recognizable from the first Game Boy titles (although it was missing certain late-game boss characters who had presumably not yet appeared on the show at the time of the game's release). While they offered no mechanical differences, the trainers and their Pokémon possessed character-specific voice clips that, in competitive multiplayer, may have been my favorite part of Pokémon Puzzle League. In a single-player game, the incessant howling every few seconds of Ash's "I'm gonna win!" or Koga's haughty "Work harder, young one!" could become quickly obnoxious, but in versus, that was entirely the point. Any trash talking by the players would be rendered redundant, as the cheesy canned taunts of the characters, like the best fighting game victory quotes, did a better job expressing one's dominance and were also more demoralizing to the opponent when the chatter became one-sided. Even better were the Pokémon themselves. Each trainer had three Pokémon, and as established in the anime, the little monsters could only speak their own names. In Pokémon Puzzle League, this happened whenever a player pulled off a combo, using gravity to cause a chain reaction, whereby one set of cleared panels would set up those above them to fall into place for another clear. Each hit of the combo would be accompanied by your Pokémon yelling its own name, and successive hits would be matched with ever more animated cries, until "Cloister" became "Cl-l-l-l-loister!" to sound the veritable death knell for the opponent, who would know to expect a massive pile of garbage blocks to rain down on his screen.

The fabulous production values were just a part of one of the most feature-packed titles on the N64. In addition to versus play and a single-player story mode that adapted most of the boss battles of the original Game Boy game, Pokémon Puzzle League offered a bevy of alternative play modes. Most of these were single-player affairs of little interest, but the "Puzzle University" mode constituted a brilliant repurposing of the assets toward a fundamentally different puzzle experience in which the player, freed of the pressure of an opponent or time limit, had to solve static stages by completely clearing all panels within a predetermined number of moves. A comprehensive training mode, meanwhile, walked the player through the basics, as well as some of the more advanced techniques, of one of the deepest puzzle games ever designed. Most curious was "3-D" mode, which was essentially just the regular competitive game, except that, in this mode, the left and right boundaries were removed, and the playing field was reshaped into a cylindrical tube that wrapped around, with the pieces lining the surface of the tube. This significantly increased the amount of area that you had to cover, and it could become overwhelming having to keep an eye on the height of the blocks facing away from the screen. The unwieldy mode was basically a novelty that didn't even appear fully implemented into the game's design. One source of amusement, for example, involved trying to play 3-D mode against the CPU. Intelligent Systems clearly never bothered to program the AI to deal with the wraparound field of 3-D mode, and it was almost sad to watch the CPU working just the immediate side of the field, while the the back half continued to rise toward the ceiling. The CPU would often even inadvertently kill itself by manually hastening the ascent to provide more blocks to work with in the front, never realizing apparently that there was an overabundance in the back.

As for that "crucial design flaw" that ruined Tetris Attack for me? Well, it was still there in Pokémon Puzzle League, and it was actually less a flaw than a technical limitation, less a matter of design than of input.

The distinguishing feature of Puzzle League's gameplay is that, rather than falling from the top of the screen as in Tetris or Puyo Puyo, the panels continually arise from the bottom of the screen as horizontal lines that span the entire width of the field. The player has no control over how they are arranged as they appear, so instead of manipulating the blocks, you control a cursor that can highlight two horizontally adjacent pieces and flip them around. My issue with this concept as realized in Tetris Attack and Pokémon Puzzle League was that the directional pads of the SNES and N64 could not possibly move the cursor around as quickly as the human mind could perceive potential moves in the block arrangement. If, say, you spotted an opening on the opposite corner of the screen from your current position, you would have to slowly maneuver the cursor over there through clumsy diagonals, losing much precious time in the process. And that was without even trying to flip any panels along the way. It was comparable to aiming in a first-person shooter using a control pad instead of a mouse, except that, as far as I knew, Puzzle League never had a mouse-controlled version. But to me, it was the same problem of the theoretical game being strapped down by the practical constraints of a crude manual input mechanism that simply wasn't up to task for the concept.

Later Editions

Pokémon Puzzle League received a Game Boy Color port/sequel in 2000 called Pokémon Puzzle Challenge. This followup featured characters and Pokémon from the Gold/Silver era, but, without the production values or convenient multiplayer of the console version, it was missing most of what made Puzzle League worth playing. In 2003, Panel de Pon was included, along with Dr. Mario and Yoshi's Cookie, as part of the Japan-only Nintendo Puzzle Collection for GameCube. Two years later, Nintendo released the Dr. Mario/Puzzle League double pak for the Game Boy Advance, establishing plain Puzzle League as the official international version of Panel de Pon for regions outside Japan. Just as "Pokémon" was removed from the title, the included version of Puzzle League was stripped of all characters--no fairies, Yoshi, or Pokémon.

Most recently, the Puzzle League/Panel de Pon series arrived on the Nintendo DS in the form of Planet Puzzle League, released in North America in 2007. As with the GBA version, Planet Puzzle League has no story nor characters and sports a vaguely futuristic skin reminiscent of other handheld puzzlers such as Meteos and Lumines. The new look is slick but cold, and the livelier personalities of Tetris Attack and Pokémon Puzzle League remain sorely missed.

The loss of character is easily forgiven, however, in the face of the giant leap forward in control offered by the DS. The advent of touch controls finally solves the input hurdle that hindered the earlier editions. Now instead of desperately scrolling around with the D-pad, you can instantly reach the panels you wish to flip by tapping them with the stylus. Traditional controls are still included as an option, but in my opinion, there is simply no comparison, especially when things get tight, and you need those blocks to be moving as quickly as you will them.

The other major addition in Planet Puzzle League is versus play with more than two players, although it is sadly limited to only four players, compared to the eight-player of Tetris DS. Nevertheless, support for three or four players drastically alters the dynamic of the competitive game, allowing a broader range of play styles beyond just slinging the biggest chains possible. I'll admit that Pokémon Puzzle League gradually became less fun for me as it grew ever more apparent that my younger sister was simply leagues ahead of me. I just didn't practice enough to develop the time-slowing instincts and all-at-once vision that allow experienced players to consistently pull off chains of more than four moves. Even with the aid of the game's built-in time-stopping mechanic that paused the action after each link to facilitate further chaining, I rarely ever got four-chains except by accident. That's still the case in Planet Puzzle League, and not even the new stylus controls can bridge that gulf, but the addition of two extra players can open things up a bit. Three lesser players can combine to exert actual pressure against a single powerhouse that would otherwise dominate any one-on-one match, and that can give a steady player such as myself enough room to hang in there for a while and try to outlast everyone else.

Beyond the multiplayer, Planet Puzzle League is disappointingly empty. There's no single-player story, no training mode, no 3-D mode, and no head-to-head records keeping. In many respects, it's a tremendous step down from Pokémon Puzzle League on the N64. In the areas that matter most, however, it's an improvement. The stylus controls are absolutely essential, while the expanded multiplayer support further enhances what was already one of the greatest competitive puzzlers out there.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dave Arneson, RIP

Today brings us the sad news that Dave Arneson has passed away of cancer. I had personally never heard of the man before now, but he was a co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, which of course provided the foundation for the many fine RPGs that I've enjoyed in video game form. Indeed, a terrible loss for us all. At this moment, it reminds me of another man's story about a different recently departed D&D co-creator, which, at the risk of sounding tactless, I shall now relate.

It was the tale of two men. The subject was Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, who passed away just over a year ago. But the star was a co-worker of mine at the time. For confidentiality's sake, let us refer to him simply as "Johnson," which is not his real name.

Johnson was already an entrenched vet of the industry when I arrived on the scene. In his over ten years experience, he had been on, around, and all over stones of every imaginable shape, size, and color. Although he was a field grader, same as me, the only ones in the lab who had been around longer were all supervisors. As such, he enjoyed a certain level of security and comfort with his own eccentricities that might have damned a man of lesser stature. During lunch, he could usually be found in the break room with his friends, a small clique of rotund fortysomethings who were at least ten years his junior. Together, they would play Magic: The Gathering, meet for Star Wars book club, or pass around the latest chapter of his in-progress fantasy novel.

Now, this should not be news to anyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention, but I am rather a geek myself, so I hardly have the right to judge others. Even so, Johnson and his crew took it to a level I didn't know existed. I mean, Star Wars book club?! No, I'm not kidding. I was always careful to steer clear of Johnson's pack, because, to be honest, I found their energy intimidating. During work hours, however, I had to sit practically back-to-back with this guy, and while my always-on headphones spared me any direct interaction with him, my iPod could not altogether drown him out as he cracked racy gay jokes--calculated reminders to the rest of us that he preferred the company of men. Johnson was the only person in the lab who could get away with such sexually charged jokes, but I, in turn, might have been the only one who could walk away without offering a courtesy laugh.

One day, a regular Magic: The Gathering sparring partner of his sidled up to his desk to excitedly share the tragic news that Gary Gygax had passed away. Due to my proximity and the messenger's loudness, I could not avoid listening in. (In fact, I had already overheard the guy telling a different friend several rows away.)

"I actually met him once at a convention," the fellow bragged. "He was actually a really cool, normal guy--really easy to talk to."

Johnson leaned back and heaved a heavy sigh. "Then you must have met him in his later years."

"Oh? You met him?"

Johnson nodded. "Unfortunately."

He then proceeded to describe with affected weariness his many tabletop run-ins with Dungeon Master Gygax, remembering the man, not by how he died, but as he lived--an arrogant self-deifying prick. Johnson detailed his history as a contemporary of the late Gygax--a fellow pioneer even, who had come from the same place and walked the same persecuted roads. Gygax, his ego apparently massive to begin with, ran games with an iron fist, and it was inevitable that these two role-playing giants would butt heads over polyhedral dice and illustrated rulebooks. But as Gygax rose to superstardom, his old pal/rival could no longer get in any face time even at conventions. So as far as Johnson was concerned, Gygax had been dead a long time.

By this time, I had already conceded defeat, but hearing this story was almost more than I could handle. There are men who play D&D, and to them, it's just a game. But Johnson witnessed its birth, lived the drama behind it, knew the man who made it--knew him well enough to hate his guts. Johnson, undisputed king of geeks.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Samurai Shodown VI - The Path of Haohmaru

Haohmaru is about to face off in the finals against eternal nemesis Genjuro.

Genjuro: Oh yes! Our time has come at last!
Haohmaru: Time for me to cleave you from this existence!
Genjuro: Silence, my quarry! You will be consumed by my fury!
Haohmaru: I will remember happily how I killed you.

Haohmaru emerges victorious.

Haohmaru: Your destiny is decided. Your fight is noble, but futile.
Genjuro: Your mind games are inspired, but you fool only yourself!
Haohmaru: Your history is already written. Your weakness is legendary.

A new enemy appears out of nowhere.

Haohmaru: I do not comprehend what I am seeing!

The uninvited foe, randomly selected out of the four bosses from previous installments, arrives to pick a fight with the legendary warrior.

Haohmaru: This fight annoys me!! But if I must, I will dispatch you.

Haohmaru makes short work of the boss.

Haohmaru: You cannot avoid me. I will be everywhere. Attack me now!!

The real final boss, Demon Gaoh, takes over.

Demon Gaoh: I am the lord of all demons, and I only fight the strongest.
My sword will rule both the mortal world and the demon world!!!
Reveal to me your SAMURAI SPIRIT!

Haohmaru and Demon Gaoh battle in Hell. The fighting ends in one more victory for Haohmaru.

Haohmaru: History will remember me as the greatest warrior.
Power is a strange feeling. I must meditate upon it.
This land is broad and the world is vast!
My destiny lies beyond this place.
Perhaps I will find a battle worth fighting.

Haohmaru meets with his master, Caffeine Nicotine.

Nicotine: Haohmaru, you've met your destiny. The rest is up to you.
Haohmaru: Master My future is the fruit of your teachings.
Kyoshiro (who is there for no apparent reason): Hey, dude, it's been great, you know?
Haohmaru: Whatever my future will be, remember me sometimes.
I will fight the devils in hell in the hereafter.
So long. My samurai spirit is eternal.

Haohmaru runs into his longtime lover, Oshizu.

Oshizu: My master, my love Haohmaru.
Haohmaru: Oshizu.
Oshizu: Without you, I am nothing.
Haohmaru: You are not strong enough for the journey. I must go alone.
Oshizu: Please, don't leave me, Haohmaru, please.
Haohmaru: A warrior can't be encumbered with love. It'll dull my blade.

Haohmaru runs off.

Recorded history leaves us nothing more than legends concerning the path Haohmaru took. there are unconfirmed stories of a great warrior who traveled the lands fighting for justice.
there are some who say he fathered many children, and his blood runs in the veins of kings.

* * * * *

In other business, I should retract my previous criticism of the game's audio. As it turns out, the muffled quality is only present with certain characters, such as Haohmaru. What's more, on further inspection, the game actually offers a choice between two sets of voices. I had been playing with the new arranged voice clips recorded specially for the console versions. Setting it to the original arcade voices, Haohmaru's speech is much clearer. It's all rather counterintuitive, and I obviously don't have time to check every character, but so far, the arcade audio sounds like the way to go.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Samurai Shodown Anthology

Through the first two installments, SNK's Samurai Shodown series was the only Street Fighter II clone to seriously challenge the king of 2-D fighting. The same year that it released Samurai Shodown II, however, SNK debuted their King of Fighters series, and thereafter the developer went on to focus more on KoF as its would-be rival to Capcom's Street Fighter, with Samurai Shodown relegated, a few 3-D experiments notwithstanding, to B-series status, becoming more SNK's version of Darkstalkers. The series enjoyed an unexpected revival late in the Neo-Geo's life, however, when SNK Playmore contracted Yuki Enterprise to develop Samurai Shodown V. (Yuki later went on to become Examu, the developer of Arcana Heart and now, alongside Arc System Works, one of the super-hardcore 2-D fighter developers still keeping the genre alive in Japanese arcades.)

Announced over a year ago, but released only two weeks ago, Samurai Shodown Anthology for the PS2 now collects almost the complete series of mostly 16-bit oldies on one disc. Despite initial promises that the compilation would contain seven titles, including the rarely seen Samurai Shodown V Special, the final retail package, merely a straight localization of Japan's Samurai Spirits Rokuban Shoubu released last July, features only six games and no V Special, begging the question, "What the hell took so long?" Perhaps it's for the best that they didn't try to add anything to the Japanese version, considering that, when SNK Playmore hired Terminal Reality to add buggy emulations of KoF '94 and '98 to the North American release of The King of Fighters: Orochi Saga, the additions came at the expense of the option to turn on the arranged soundtracks for any of the included games. Still, it's disappointing that, yet again, SNK Playmore just can't get it quite right.

Setting aside what's missing, what's there is still easily worth the budget price. Most of these games have never been available in the U.S. on any platforms of consequence. It's fun to relive the glories of the first two classic installments, to sample the experimental oddities of the middle two entries, and to try out the critically acclaimed but underdistributed SSV. But the real draw is the first North American console release of Samurai Spirits Tenkaichi Kenkakuden, included in the anthology as Samurai Shodown VI.

Again designed by Yuki, SSVI was one of the first post-Neo-Geo SNK titles, developed on Sammy's Atomiswave hardware and originally released to Japanese arcades in 2005, which is maybe why the wait for Samurai Shodown Anthology has felt so much longer for me than it actually has been. Clearly designed to be the definitive 2-D installment, it includes every character from the previous five titles. That's right, all your favorites are there: Haohmaru, Nakoruru, Rimururu, Tam Tam, Cham Cham, Nicotine, Genan, etc. Yes, even Neinhalt Sieger! When I first heard about this game back in 2005, it went straight to the top of my most-wanted list. Keep in mind, this was at a time when Capcom had all but given up on fighting games, with their lone new release of the craptacular Capcom Fighting Evolution only worsening the starvation for a new title to relieve 2001's exhausted Capcom vs. SNK 2. With its strong heritage, comprehensive forty-character roster, and six-style system clearly modeled after CvS2, SSVI could have been that game, and I would have happily forked over fifty dollars for a domestic release. Unfortunately, this was also at a time when SCEA was refusing to approve releases of full-price 2-D fighting games with 16-bit graphics, and after SNK Playmore had given up trying to sell their games to Xbox owners (not that I would have bought an Xbox just for this game). Thus, the original PS2 release never made its way to North America, and the years ticked by as the 2-D fighter drought continued with only intermittent KoF releases to occasionally ameliorate the cravings.

Now that it's finally here, I wish I could say that it was worth the wait. But the reality is that, in the four years since when the game should have come out, the situation has changed. As with KoF '98: Ultimate Match, it just feels far too late for this game to matter. Capcom already announced and released the big one, Street Fighter IV, and I have it and play it regularly. As much as I may like Samurai Shodown, no other fighting game would have stood a chance against a new Street Fighter.

It's additionally unfortunate that the look of SSVI has aged rapidly as a direct result of SFIV (and the upcoming KoF XII) finally giving the genre the considerable visual update that it has long needed. In fact, it's actually harder on the eyes than any of the earlier installments in the collection, due to an uncomfortable mix of 16-bit characters against hi-res backgrounds. Separately, the sprites and stages would make for admirable works of pop art, full of fine details that go unnoticed while playing. Put it all together, however, and it's simply a mess. The boldly colored sprites, lacking distinct outlines, get lost in the overly busy backgrounds. The sound is even worse, with the voices sounding muffled and unintelligible, robbing the characters and their moves of much personality.

At least the actual fighting is solid, and the argument could even be made that this is the best and deepest SNK fighter yet. It's absolutely massive, on a par with CvS2 in terms of quantity, which was originally one of the selling points for SSVI, though frankly, now next to the more streamlined SFIV, it feels overwhelming. Down the line, of course, that will definitely lend the game legs and provide good reasons to come back to it after flashier but less substantial titles fall by the wayside. One point definitely in the game's favor over SFIV: literally everything is unlocked right off the bat--bonus characters, styles, even the complete endings gallery (and there are some crazy endings for sure!).

It didn't bring back the 2-D fighting game genre. It didn't fill the void for starving enthusiasts like me. It couldn't even help me pass the time while waiting for SFIV. But eventually I will need a break from SFIV, and while I've mentioned looking forward to BlazBlue and KoF XII, I don't realistically expect either of those to steal my attention for very long. It will be at that point that SSVI may have its time.