Monday, August 31, 2009

Iron Man and the X-Men

Did anybody else know that there was a new X-Men cartoon AND a new Iron Man cartoon, both airing in the US on the Nicktoons Network? That's right, you won't find these shows on Saturday mornings on Fox or WB, nor on the basic cable Cartoon Network, nor even the regular Nickelodeon, but only on the Nicktoons Network, which I had never heard of until just recently. Times have changed if first-run episodes of new Marvel cartoons are airing only on a triple-digit digital cable channel. On the other hand, it may not be accurate to call these "first-run," since these shows actually started airing in Canada months before debuting on Nicktoons.

After learning of the existence of these shows, I started watching some episodes via online streaming. Unfortunately, the Nicktoons website is slow-loading and difficult to navigate, and it is also missing more recent episodes of Wolverine and the X-Men, as well as the opening two-parter for Iron Man: Armored Adventures.

I do remember hearing some early buzz about Wolverine and the X-Men some months ago. What I'd heard was that it was geared toward younger kids, and I pictured something along the lines of other recent superhero cartoons like Teen Titans or The Batman. To my surprise, the art is nowhere near so stylized as The Batman, or, yet more extreme, the current Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Those shows seemed to try too hard to differentiate themselves from Batman: The Animated Series and the other Bruce Timm programs, and, while the newer projects were not devoid of merit, I personally found the increasingly juvenile stylings to be less and less appropriate for me as an adult viewer. Wolverine and the X-Men favors more realistic proportions and character designs that stick closely to the most iconic ones from the comics. While it never gets too intense, and the pacing is a tad slow from my adult perspective, it also doesn't settle into a cozy formula of condescending lessons, as was the case with the last kid-oriented X-Men toon, X-Men: Evolution. These X-Men are all about action and adventure, including many multi-episode arcs. And the show does not limit itself to concentrating just on a small set cast of heroes and villains, instead utilizing tons of characters from the comics.

The only real trickiness is that it starts in the middle of a story and assumes a lot of familiarity on the part of the viewer. Batman and Superman, in addition to being far more firmly established in American culture, are rather static characters that are easy to grasp even apart from any context. In contrast, much of what makes the X-Men is the classic stories themselves. I suppose the live-action movies boosted the franchise's mainstream visibility, but many of the greatest comic episodes--Sentinels, Dark Phoenix, "Days of Future Past"--were only winkingly alluded to. I doubt many viewers of the new cartoon will know the original issues or even the 90s TV series that provided many straight adaptations of them. Because the show writers know them too well, they may be trying hard to provide fresh spins on old stories, but I don't think most kids will appreciate that. They won't feel any sort of resonance when the new show plays with the old themes, and they may even feel like they're missing something, though they won't know what. Take the case of Magneto, for example, who should forever be known as the foremost antagonist to the X-Men. Wolverine and the X-Men seems to rule out any major battle between them, however, because, by the time of the show's present, Magneto has already taken a less violent line. Seeing this soft Magneto is only interesting after you've already known him as the team's most dangerous enemy, but you won't find that in this show. Seems like a waste to me.

Equally surprising for different reasons, Iron Man: Armored Adventures is a fresher take on a traditionally less popular but perhaps presently hotter hero. The twist is that Tony Stark and his friends, Jim Rhodes and Pepper Potts, are all teenagers. Far from being an ordinary high schooler, however, Tony is already personally responsible for many of the technologies developed within his father's company. Only after his father is killed and the company usurped is he forced to live a more modest life. He attends school, even though there's nothing there for him to learn, and he mostly amuses himself by intimidating his teacher and annoying his classmates with his genius and self-confidence. When not in class, he fights supervillains using the Iron Man armor that he built in his basement. He also already has a bum ticker. Basically, instead of giving us the young Tony Stark before he became Iron Man, they just took Iron Man and placed him in a teenager's body.

What really makes the teen angle weird, however, is that Obadiah Stane is a major villain on the show. Is he perhaps Tony's classroom rival, the school bully, or maybe a dastardly upperclassmen? Actually, no, he's a conscienceless industrialist who murders his way to power over Stark Industries. So he's still the evil counterpart to Tony Stark, but Tony himself is here too young to be the virtuous side of that coin. Their feud loses a little something, since teen Tony cannot face Stane as an equal outside of his Iron Man identity. Once in the suit, he mostly just makes warnings and blows things up. Their relationship is more comparable to the Spider-Man-Kingpin dynamic from the 90s Spider-Man cartoon, but I'm not sure it works quite as well here. Young though he may be, Tony is such an eccentric that it's hard to perceive him as the little guy. Fortunately, the role of Iron Man's nemesis is more fittingly filled by the Mandarin, who is also a teenager in this incarnation.

What I appreciate about both of these shows is that they don't try too hard to be cute. Iron Man: Armored Adventures especially is a fun yet layered series that respects its viewers and concentrates just on providing good and entertaining stories, rather than worrying about appealing to a specific audience or age. In fact, I wish Smallville could be written with such grace and conviction.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


I don't think I liked it. It is surely my least favorite of all the films Hayao Miyazaki has directed, and I've seen all of them, including the pre-Ghibli The Castle of Cagliostro. I've yet to see Isao Takahata's My Neighbors the Yamadas or Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea, but Ponyo is also so far the only Studio Ghibli film that I haven't really liked.

There is still much to admire in Miyazaki's craft; the film is visually arresting, with resplendent images of the sea and crazily imaginative designs (maybe excessively so for my tastes). But I was incredibly bored throughout my viewing. Not a whole lot seemed to happen in the movie, and there was no sense to anything that did. Whether it was mundane life moments or fantastic spectacles, it all seemed to me just self-indulgent on the part of the animators. Despite an English-language cast that included Liam Neeson and Tina Fey, the characters all came across as really flat to me. I can't believe I'm saying this, but at times I found myself wishing for some sort of wisecracking comic relief animal character to show up and start annoying the hell out of everybody. At least it would have provided a big and consistent personality to grasp onto.

I had been warned that this would be more of a children's movie, compared to the more epic feel of Miyazaki's other films that have made it to US theaters (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle), but I expected something closer to My Neighbor Totoro, which used fantasy to cope with some sad and scary themes. When I watched that for the first time as an adult, I liked it a lot, and I even felt sorry that I had not been able to view it earlier, because I was certain that my kid self would have loved it. I can still kind of channel that kid in me to enjoy many children's entertainments, but I don't think I would have found Ponyo very diverting even had I seen it as a child. I was surely more patient (with movies), but I still hated Fantasia as a six-year-old. I think I would have found Ponyo similarly too slow, too weird, and devoid of any kind of tension. I would not have cared that it was a technical masterpiece, nor would I have found it any less impossible to root for a love between a five-year-old boy and a five-year-old magical fish thing. Most likely I would have walked out and watched The Little Mermaid again instead.

Actually, come to think of it, I didn't love Nausicaä either, so maybe my opinion means nothing.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Essentials #44: Resident Evil

Capcom's Resident Evil (AKA Biohazard in Japan) was not the first "survival horror" game, but it was undoubtedly the most influential in this very particular sub-genre of the adventure game. Creator Shinji Mikami's seminal title was originally released in 1996 for the Sony PlayStation, then completely remade in 2002 for the Nintendo GameCube. The latter was my late introduction to the series.

In the "video games as art" debate, it is oft argued that what invalidates games as art is the element of interactivity. While games may certainly contain art in the visual and audio components, the core experience is one that differs crucially from novels or films in that the audience is allowed and encouraged to affect the outcome, thereby potentially undermining and devaluing any authorial direction. The point is usually followed with further unending discussion on what exactly constitutes art, but Shinji Mikami, in creating Resident Evil, may have arrived at a design that broke down that perceived barrier between interactive media and artistic intent.

Whereas many other game designers would endeavor to push the medium forward by pursuing boundless freedoms for the player to do unimaginable things, Mikami perhaps realized that authorial intent could only be achieved by imposing limitations on the game experience. Only in that way could the artist retain control in the dynamic with the audience. With Resident Evil, he attempted to control, not only exactly how the player played and progressed through his game, but even how they felt at any given moment. He imposed his vision by encumbering players with highly restrictive controls, fixed cinematic camera angles, and exploration-based gameplay that was actually very forcefully directed.

Resident Evil's tank-like character-relative controls have remained a consistent hallmark of the series, and they have also been criticized since the very first game. Although the zombies that made up the bulk of the game's threats were themselves slow-moving, in tight quarters they became tricky to dodge, largely on account of the awkward and sluggish controls. The unintuitive movement was meant partially to induce the panic that one would actually feel when confronted by a zombie in a narrow corridor. But it also led to a lot of running into walls even when no enemies were present. I can't imagine that that sort of slapstick display was part of the artistic vision behind the design. Five installments later, it was second nature to me, but even I couldn't argue that it was perfect.

There was actually a more practical defense for the character-relative controls, however, as they allowed the player to preserve proper character orientation, even as the camera constantly and instantaneously cut to different angles. The other consistently controversial aspect of the original Resident Evil design, the fixed cameras were often positioned at the least helpful angles, leaving the player to fire at or flee enemies that would not even be visible in the frame. On a technical level, fixed angles were unavoidable due to the game's reliance on pre-rendered backgrounds. But it was also an artistic design choice to maintain control over the player's experience by forcing them to see exactly what the artists wanted them to see at any given spot. Since this was a horror game, the objective was to induce fear. One way to achieve this was via blind angles that left players dreading whatever lay beyond their vision. In a broader way, as with the unintuitive controls, it was meant to take the player out of their comfort zone, which would certainly have been the point. And because enemy placements were also fixed and finite, the designers could ensure that it was never more than the player could handle.

As Capcom's marketing term suggested, Resident Evil was as much about survival as horror, and limited resources encouraged the player to play as conservatively as possible. As series veterans would always warn, there was insufficient ammo in the game to kill every enemy. Indeed, that was why it was worth trying to dodge those zombies whenever possible, and why it became so terrifying when the controls made getting through those hallways that much more harrowing. Furthermore, the equally limited supply of healing items meant you could not afford to take hits needlessly. This was all part of the meticulous design, however, as these elements combined to force the player into these delicate close encounters with zombies that would otherwise have been nothing, had either ammo been more plentiful or character movement more effortless. Even the player's ability to save the game was restricted by a finite supply of ink ribbons that were needed to record data at the typewriter save points. Worse still, weapons, ammo, healing herbs, and ink ribbons all had to share very limited inventory space with necessary key items. You were to take only what was absolutely necessary, leaving the rest in the magically interconnected item boxes.

Since combat was clunky and best avoided if at all possible, much of the actual gameplay came down to puzzles. There were the real adventure-style logic puzzles that had to be solved by collecting and interpreting clues. Then there were the simple lock-and-key devices that were not puzzles at all, but thinly veiled routing mechanisms to impose a strict sequence to the exploration. Some critics deride these obstacles as infantile, but the point was not to test your brain in presenting you with a "shield emblem" that just so happened to seem like a perfect fit for that shield-shaped slot on the locked door that you passed by earlier. Rather like the Metroid games, in initially barring you entry there and forcing you to head elsewhere in search of the key, the game was controlling where you would be at any given point, even though the nonlinear 3-D environment presented the illusion of freedom.

Once you found the key, you were expected to know what to do with it, and that knowledge would guide you back to where you needed to be. Of course, the game knew as well where you would be heading, and it would take advantage of that to lay traps for you, occasionally even in places that you had already passed through uneventfully. Perhaps you would enter into a familiar corridor thinking it was safe, only to be surprised midway through, when zombie dogs would come crashing through the windows. Those are the moments that every Resident Evil player remembers, and just about every player remembers them the same way. Truly, that was the meticulous and manipulative Resident Evil design at its very best.

The narrative was a simple one of survival and escape, made extraordinarily effective because the experience immersed the player in the hopeless situation and left them helplessly empathizing with the characters. There was very little actual plot in the game, and what was there was on a par with a B-movie script. The real story was dispensed primarily through documents strewn all about the mansion. These provided context and explained what all went down that led to the nightmare. Included in just about every Resident Evil would be a researcher's diary, which invariably played out the same way. Some witless, conscienceless cog would start out complaining about his job or perhaps an annoying co-worker, then, as the player flipped through the entries, the text would become progressively more deranged as the infected writer descended into a state of cannibalistic undead.

As with all approaches, this sort of nontraditional storytelling had its advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps its effectiveness came through best with the Lisa Trevor subplot that was added for the GameCube remake. Even among all the other horrors that populated the mansion, Lisa was a uniquely hideous and undying monster that arrived with no exposition to suddenly stalk the player at a point midway into the game. In that instant, your only concern would be fleeing for your life. But given a moment's respite, you might have wondered what the hell that freak show's deal was. She could not tell you her story herself--that would have been truly horrible--and none of the other characters, for whom this was life-or-death and not just a game, had reason to care. But the information was there in the game, waiting as stray documents to be discovered by the player during moments of peaceful investigation, so as not to wreck the narrative sense. Learning these details would not alter the events of the story (why would it?), but they could inform and enhance the player's appreciation of the fiction. I would compare it against the various approaches tried by the Metal Gear Solid series to flesh out enemy characters. The Resident Evil way did not require characters to break out of the moment unnaturally to bug the player with sob stories that weren't truly pertinent.

No, Resident Evil was not entirely successful in all of its risky decisions. It could try to manipulate players into experiencing it a particular way, but it obviously couldn't force them to endure if they weren't having it. Although, as survival horror, it was supposed to be an uncomfortable experience, being that it was a game, which could still be won or lost, the seemingly deliberately poor gameplay could become overwhelming if the player struggled too long to adapt to the admittedly unintuitive design. It sat on the razor's edge between inducing fear and merely frustrating, and a player who too often fell on the wrong side of that might be justifiably encouraged to walk away. While I like to keep an open mind, I too have limits to what I can endure, and, believe me, I've come up against games that, though interesting, crossed that line and forced me to turn away.

But to complain about the very deliberate design choices of Resident Evil would be akin to criticizing a film over personal objections to a character's behavior, even though it may be perfectly consistent with that character's personality and history. The movie quite possibly even intended to elicit such a response, in which case it should be considered a success, insofar as it achieved what it set out to accomplish. Given how popular the series remains, the game obviously clicked with a good many players, but its detractors often miss the point in telling Mikami how his game is supposed to play, when he surely knows far better what he was going for. It comes back to the key difference with video games, in that, because of the interactivity, the player does expect to claim a creative role in the experience. In a way, it is perhaps the game fans themselves who refuse to take game creators as artists.

Additional Information

As everyone surely knows, the GameCube Resident Evil was a remake, the original having been released six years earlier for the Sony PlayStation. That release was followed a year later by Resident Evil: Director's Cut for the PS1. It added an "arranged" mode that apparently featured some different camera angles and also changed up item and enemy placements. In 1998, a yet newer edition, the DualShock Version, added support for Sony's DualShock controller, also replacing the in-game music in what was otherwise a reissue of the Director's Cut.

The Director's Cut editions also restored the auto-aiming that had always been a part of the Japanese release but had been foolishly removed from the first English edition. I couldn't imagine getting through the game without this feature. Playing the GameCube version, it had quickly become automatic for me, every time I turned a corner, to press the aim button to see if my character could lock on to something that I couldn't see.

Although I remain curious about the early editions, I haven't had the time yet to go back and try them. I did, however, play Resident Evil: Deadly Silence. The 2006 Nintendo DS title was a port of the original version of the PS1 game, although it restored the auto-aiming and also added the useful 180-degree turn. It also included a different optional arranged mode that made use of DS features like the microphone and touch controls.

Playing Deadly Silence, it struck me just how substantial the GameCube remake really had been. Far from being a side project assigned to a B-team, it was developed by Mikami and Capcom as the next major Resident Evil project. Puzzles were tinkered with, the plot was fleshed out a bit and given a more serious tone, and all the graphics were redone from the ground up to transform a very dated PS1 title into one of the best-looking games on the GameCube (or the Wii, for that matter). Truly, it set the gold standard for video game remakes.

Just as amazing, however, was the realization that the fundamental experience was already there in those primitive 32-bit graphics. The better production values made the GameCube version that much more immersive, but pretty much everything I've said applies equally to the original game.

The classic game also had unique charms, such as the laughably horrendous voice acting and dialogue, and even a no-budget live-action opening sequence to complete the B-movie feel.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I'm Not Here

Sometimes, when I dream, I dream about the future. Sometimes I dream about the past. I dream about the future, and I dream about the past.

I dreamed that I left my current job and returned to my former one. I dreamed that all my old friends and colleagues were there to welcome me back. I regaled them with tales of my misadventures from the two-year "expedition" from which I had returned. They laughed, cheered, shook their heads in amazement and disgust, and finally reassured me that I was home. It felt good to be back.

I don't read too much into any of my dreams. Reality would not go down that way. I was able to leave my last job on my own terms, but turnover was high there, and most of my contemporaries are long gone. I'd be lying if I said I never think about going back, but the practical reasons for my leaving still apply, and, whatever my present complaints, I'm thankful to be able to work a regular eight-hour shift now that leaves me free not to think about work for the other half of my day. But I suppose it's natural that a part of me also misses those days.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Elsewhere in the world of G.I. Joe

Leading up to the release of the movie, enthusiasm for the G.I. Joe franchise was the highest it had been in years. Now that the movie is out, I'm anticipating a sharp decline in public interest, at least until the sequel is officially detailed. In the meantime, I thought, while they're still relevant, I'd go over some of the other recent and ongoing G.I. Joe projects I've been following (with spoilers when discussing the topic of who Scarlett's guy is).

G.I. Joe

IDW's comic book relaunch of the franchise centers around this flagship series by Chuck Dixon. Now eight issues in, it's been pretty mediocre so far. The Joes actually spend the first five plodding issues fighting remote-controlled robots sent by Destro, who has only just become Destro. Meanwhile, Cobra is believed to be no more than a myth
. In fact, Hawk himself seems to regard speculation on its existence as near heretical. With no concrete enemy for the clueless Joes to directly confront, it's been just a lot of thus far ineffectual tension-building.

There are also way too many normal-looking male characters dressed in the same clothes. Yes, uniforms are appropriate for the military, but G.I. Joe was always the fantasy that made the military look good. If I can't immediately tell who a character is by looking at him, then that character shouldn't even have a name or dialogue.

The Scarlett Angle: The love triangle has become a real part of the fiction, as both Duke and Snake Eyes seem to have feelings for Scarlett. Her feelings remain ambiguous, but she trusts Snake Eyes enough that she secretly exchanges intel with the ninja, who is here a former Joe gone rogue. In this world, a Joe is supposed to be a Joe for life, so Snake Eyes is regarded as a traitor, and Scarlett's communications with him are grounds for a court martial. In fact, in the one development that has suddenly made this title interesting, that's exactly what happens, forcing her to weigh her loyalty to Snake Eyes against her loyalty to the team.

G.I. Joe: Origins

Far more exciting than the flagship series was the brand new origin story by Larry Hama, the same man who originally defined most of the classic characters the first time around. It's been great having Hama back on the property that he wrote continuously for over a decade. Exactly the opposite of Dixon's book, this is a tightly paced action-thriller that perfectly recaptures the spirit of G.I. Joe. So spot-on are all the characters that this new origin could just as easily have been the origin story for the Marvel era team.

It's a bit odd that this is running concurrently with the main comic, which is itself a new beginning, in which Cobra has yet to make its appearance as G.I. Joe's nemesis. It's an opportunity, however, to show how the core members came together to form G.I. Joe in the first place, and since it's ambiguous how much time passes between the two series, there could potentially be years worth of adventures here before Origins ever runs up against the dreary Dixon stuff.

Indeed, as a reboot of the comics, Origins has been so much better than the flagship series that it didn't make any sense for it to be only a five-issue series. IDW must have realized this as well, because with issue #6, Origins is now officially an ongoing title. Unfortunately, Hama will not be the regular writer, nor will it continue on as the serial that it had been for his five issues. Instead, it will shift around to focus on the backgrounds of specific members of the team. That leaves me worried and disappointed, but at least Hama will be back for another round of issues later.

The Scarlett Angle: Scarlett and Duke are introduced together as partners in the professional sense. They have an easy, joking rapport, but there's been no suggestion of anything deeper.

When the team meets Snake Eyes for the first time, Hawk is not interested in recruiting his already twice-destroyed body. Scarlett is compassionate, however, while Snake Eyes is indomitable. The two don't have a lot of interaction, but some fateful timing at the climax of the five-issue arc manages to link them in one horrific accident.

G.I. Joe: Cobra

This four-issue mini-series was the most surprising entry among the new comics. Focused on the unflappable Chuckles as he goes deep undercover to infiltrate a terrorist organization, it's an intimate and heavy story narrated by Chuckles himself.

It's unclear how it fits together with the flagship series, where Hawk won't even recognize the existence of Cobra, and, despite the title, Cobra remains very much in the shadows. But although Cobra may be the draw, it is the personal narrative within that becomes the hook.

It's very easy to sympathize with Chuckles as he endures extended periods without any communication from his G.I. Joe superiors. He gets the lonely, suicidal assignment because some already regard him as a lost cause, and his only "friends" seem to be his scumbag terrorist associates, whom he despises only slightly more than he does himself. His clearance is not high enough on either side for him to have any idea what's going on, and all he can do is maintain his cover by unflinchingly accepting all the dirty jobs that his Cobra bosses assign him. As one atrocity follows another, one wonders how he'll manage to hang on to himself, or, if he does break, when and how it will happen.

The only weakness of G.I. Joe: Cobra is the awful cover art, which has unfortunately begun to spread to the flagship series. The constipated figures on the front covers are an unflattering misrepresentation of the understated, noirish art inside.

The Scarlett Angle: Scarlett and Duke make only brief appearances, while Snake Eyes does not appear at all.

G.I. Joe: Resolute

G.I. Joe: Resolute was a new animated production that debuted as a series of eleven shorts on the Adult Swim website. Perhaps that was how it was meant to be consumed, but I saw it later as a single feature and came away less than impressed.

It was notably written by Warren Ellis, an award-winning English comics author. I'm not familiar with any of Ellis's other work, but, based on this, I can't help picturing him as one of those "mature" Alan Moore types. I've seen a lot of praise for how this is a more serious take on the franchise, but Resolute's idea of maturity resembles nothing so much as a sleazy caricature of the adult world as seen through the lens of an adolescent. So graphic yet so juvenile, this can only really appeal to teenage boys caught between childhood and adulthood.

Two name characters are already dead as the story begins, and Cobra Commander quickly shows he means business by blowing up Moscow, killing millions. Every single character is wound tight and pissed off at everybody else. There is no real depth there, no layering to the relationships. Despite how "serious business" the violence is, there's no feeling of tension, because none of these characters are convincingly human. Nor, for that matter, is there even any complexity to the predictable action sequences, which all are of the ticking clock variety and mostly get resolved by exploding things.

The Scarlett Angle: Like Chuck Dixon's comic, this is a work conscious of the Duke-Scarlett-Snake Eyes love triangle. It's suggested that Resolute Scarlett has history with both men, and now she's incredibly pissed off at both of them (and everything else). When Duke, quite the bitch himself, tells her to choose, she angrily but immediately chooses Duke.

Monday, August 24, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Quite a bit better than I expected, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was actually a pretty fun summer movie. At the very least, it was far more enjoyable than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I never saw any of director Stephen Sommers's previous films, because, to be frank, I thought those Mummy movies and Van Helsing looked really stupid, but I suppose his quaint, campy, kid-friendly style may have been a good fit for an action figure picture.

As an action movie, as opposed to a special effects flick, Rise of Cobra is more balanced and better-edited than either of the Michael Bay Transformers movies. No, there's nothing so life-changing as seeing the CG Transformers, but it's no cheapo affair either. The "accelerator" suits from the trailer may not be "G.I. Joe," but they would make a cool addition to almost any superhero movie. There are also some neat James Bond-esque submarine vehicles that are essentially underwater airplanes.

Is it the live-action G.I. Joe movie that I've always wanted? Not really. (Not that I ever really wanted a live-action G.I. Joe movie in the first place.) I've already seen about ten different incarnations of the Joe characters, but these are something else altogether. This is another case where I must ask why, if they were going to largely discard the designs, personalities, and backstories, they even bothered to use the names of beloved characters. The only fans for whom those names will mean anything are the ones who will be disappointed at how unfaithful these interpretations are. Rise of Cobra Duke is not Duke. He's not even "Ultimate" Duke. He's a completely different, completely unrelated character. That's true of everyone, except for Snake Eyes, who looks, sounds (harhar), and moves just as everybody's favorite ninja ought to. The casting is also questionable all across the board, so there's no need to single anyone out in particular.

That said, the characters didn't affect my experience as much as I would have thought. I mean, I don't think I liked the movie's take on Cobra Commander, but it didn't dwell on my mind. This was a movie driven by some exciting action delivered at a brisk pace. That the actors were fairly likable was merely a bonus.

A minor controversy revolved around Roger Ebert's review of the movie, wherein he summarized Marlon Wayans's contribution thus:
But because us fans liked the two jive-talkin' robots in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "G. I. Joe" gives us Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), who is comic relief, says black stuff, and can't control his high-tech armored suit, so he runs into things.
You can probably guess what some people took issue with. I'm not here to assess Ebert's choice of words, but, after having gone and read the whole thing for myself, it's clear from the outset that his mocking review was never meant to be taken in earnest, because he did not have the patience to write a serious review about a movie he could not take seriously. He gets story details wrong, but early on admits that he probably did get them wrong, "because that's more fun that [sic] getting it right." For what it's worth, from my perspective, Marlon Wayans as Ripcord is just Marlon Wayans doing a rather subdued version of his usual self. He's nowhere near as obnoxious as any of the human characters in Transformers. And for a comic relief role, Wayans gets probably the most heroic moments in the movie.

I'm not saying it was a great film. My fanboy complaints aside, there's also plenty of "dumb action movie" script silliness. I came away pleased largely because I entered with lowered expectations. I think it's also important to admit that I personally would not have even considered going to the theater if this movie had not had the G.I. Joe license attached. As hard a sell as it was for me, as a fan wary of having my childhood trampled upon, I think it would have been a much harder sell had I cared nothing for G.I. Joe. In that case, I might have viewed it as just another gaudy carnival show, a la The Mummy or Van Helsing. Since it turned out to be a fun enough ride that appealed to the kid in me, I'm inclined to give it even an extra star on my internal scale just because it's G.I. Joe (even if it really isn't).

* * * * *

Not really pertinent to a discussion of the movie, it's time now to focus on the always pressing matter of Scarlett's romantic relationships.

Over the many lives she's lived, the redhead has split them about evenly at the sides of two different men. In Larry Hama's Marvel comic, she was paired with Snake Eyes, probably because Snake Eyes was Hama's obvious favorite, while Scarlett was the most prominent female and consequently the love interest by default. For the same reason, in the Sunbow cartoon, where Duke was the leading male, Scarlett was romantically involved with him instead.

I grew up watching the cartoon first, but I came to prefer the more serious, more fleshed-out characters of the comics. I was always particularly intrigued by the Scarlett-Snake Eyes relationship, and I wondered why, when she could have had any guy she wanted, she would have picked the mute loner. Perhaps it didn't make the most sense, but, hell, Snake Eyes is my favorite too, so I've always preferred that pairing, and I do come away a little disappointed each time Scarlett ends up with Duke instead.

Back on the topic of Rise of Cobra, the movie wisely chooses to downplay the romantic angles, but her leanings seem to point elsewhere altogether. Of course, like I said, two of the characters in that meta "love triangle" are completely unlike previous incarnations anyway, so this settles nothing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Essentials #43: Xenogears

Given how successful Chrono Trigger was, it was a shame that the dream project's once-in-a-lifetime development circumstances seemingly barred any sequels. Of course, Hironobu Sakaguchi and Yuji Horii would go on to continue work on their own respective hit series, and guys like Yoshinori Kitase and Nobuo Uematsu were, first and foremost, members of the Final Fantasy team, so fans would be seeing much more from them. Meanwhile, many of the other core staff members would go on to work on 1998's Xenogears for the Sony PlayStation. Before anybody ever saw Chrono Cross coming, this somewhat under-the-radar release was consequently regarded among fans in the know as the first full-length followup to Chrono Trigger. A cute in-game cameo by none other than Chrono Trigger's Lucca suggested that its creators were approaching it with the same attitude.

Like Chrono Trigger, Xenogears was a traditional console JRPG from Square. With no special gameplay hooks or gimmicks (e.g. the real-time adventure of Mana, the nonlinear structure of SaGa, or the turn-based strategy of Front Mission) to distinguish itself, it tread the same territory that was practically owned already by the company's Final Fantasy series. But whereas Chrono Trigger had been promoted as a bigger deal perhaps than any single Final Fantasy, Xenogears was clearly more of a secondary project, handled, not necessarily by a B-team, but by greener staff members who would need to prove themselves this time without a Sakaguchi or Kitase to lead them. The Xenogears team included scenario writer Masato Kato and composer Yasunori Mitsuda, but it really belonged to writer and director Tetsuya Takahashi. It was Takahashi's biggest project yet, as well as his last for Square, as he would subsequently leave to help found Monolith Soft, where several other Xenogears team members would join him in developing Xenosaga. Before that, however, he lent his vision to Square with a game that, while lower-profile, was no less ambitious than a Chrono Trigger or a Final Fantasy VII. Thus, in a year without a numbered Final Fantasy release, fans could still enjoy a Square RPG that boasted comparable length and depth, while also offering an excitingly different aesthetic from some up-and-coming talent.

In terms of just story content, Xenogears remains probably the longest game I've ever played. More complex and mature than previous Square titles, it traded the charming and likable personalities of Chrono Trigger for flawed, wounded, and wayward human beings struggling to understand one another. The labyrinthine script ventured into some dark places with these characters afflicted by dissociative disorders, split personalities, and other existential dillemmas. It also featured more twisting threads than the player would ever know what to do with, yet somehow tied them all together in revelatory ways. When a mysterious villain cloaked in black showed up and teased that he knew the orphan protagonist's absent father, the story may have sounded familiar, but the truth that lay in wait some fifty hours later proved devious beyond compare. No, it was not the most profound drama mankind had ever seen. It was still a giant robot story that clearly would not have existed had not Takahashi and crew seen Neon Genesis Evangelion a few years earlier. But it did provide, like Chrono Trigger, a consistently gripping narrative that linked each event to the next with few breaks.

Compared to Chrono Trigger's orderliness, however, there was a lawlessness to Xenogears, most evident in its storytelling. The word "epic" is perhaps tossed around too liberally. Many JRPGs may be grand in scope and span, but Xenogears was a breed apart, blending science fiction, philosophy, psychoanalysis, metaphysics, and religion in a story that spanned eons of intricately crafted mythology that covered the sci-fi/mystical genesis of mankind, the double-edged emergence of individuality within the human collective, the futility of resistance against gender programming, and the personal tales of transmigratory loves and enmities that endured for ten millennia. The breadth and wholeness of the fiction made it easy for players to immerse themselves in the universe. The concepts proved unsurprisingly too massive to tackle in this one video game, and Takahashi would lament that he was unable to realize his complete vision with Xenogears, hence why he repurposed so many of the themes and assets for Xenosaga.

Alas, this would not be the last time Takahashi's reach exceeded his grasp, but there was nevertheless something to be admired in the sheer boldness--a fearsome beauty to the unfettered behemoth that was Xenogears, especially its second disc, where it became almost a different game. In perhaps the most eerily Evangelion-esque turn, due to time or budget cuts, the second half was very much a stripped-down experience. The overworld became seldom seen, dungeons were scarce, and even some major events would be described only through characters' text narration, leading to sudden boss fights with limited context, before cutting back to more lengthy story sequences. Many critics accused Xenogears, already a dialogue-heavy game, of falling apart in the largely non-interactive second disc, and the developers themselves, citing the production difficulties, confirmed that the game was basically never finished. Rather than wonder what might have been, however, I always felt that whatever constraints forced them to take this direction were really a blessing in disguise. Although I enjoyed the first disc as much as any JRPG I'd played up to that point, it was the second disc that truly made the game remarkable. It offered an intriguing and refreshing departure from the dungeon-boss-event-repeat formula that still forms the basis for virtually every other JRPG, and it also rendered the storyline even more thrillingly unpredictable by defying conventional narrative pacing and structure. Moreover, even back then, I realized that exploration and regular combat were not essential to the narrative, nor did I personally even want them.

Taking the opposite visual approach as contemporary Final Fantasy titles, Xenogears placed 2-D sprites on top of simple polygonal environments for a look that was still somewhat evocative of classic 2-D games of previous generations. To better help the player navigate these 3-D towns and dungeons, Square included a rotatable camera and a jump button. The latter added some platforming to the exploration, featured most infamously in Babel Tower, which included a room of about a half-dozen floors of tiny suspended elevators, where a single misstep could mean falling to the bottom to repeat the process. As if that weren't aggravating enough, after every successful landing would be a fixed encounter that you could not escape.

The rest of the game featured random battles, and the already high encounter rate was exacerbated by the fact that battles could trigger while jumping, or even just while rotating the camera. Combat itself was fairly generic turn-based stuff. The distinguishing feature was the "Action Points" system, which allowed characters to take as many actions per turn as their AP permitted. Each party member gained a certain number of AP per round, and you could either spend them immediately on basic attacks, or accumulate them for extended combos for later in the fight. Some of the ideas would be later refined for Chrono Cross and Xenosaga, but, in Xenogears, there was no point to stocking up AP, because all enemies could be defeated more quickly just by blitzing them.

Xenogears also included a second combat system for the giant robot "Gears" that characters could ride into battle, provided that the given arena could accomodate them. This was similar to the on-foot combat, but, instead of combos, the Gears had actual special techniques powered by "Fuel" that could only be replenished manually via the "Charge" command. Although the game would usually automatically switch the party into Gears when appropriate, the player was in some areas allowed to fight with mixed parties of humans and Gears. It was quite funny to have the tiny characters fighting alongside gigantic mechs, but Citan with his sword was actually more effective than almost any Gear, and it was pretty sweet watching him cut down enemy Gears and other giant foes.

I actually played this game at the same time that I was playing through Final Fantasy VIII. The idea of balancing two console JRPGs at the same time now seems absurd to me, but the idea then was that I would alternate between the two, playing the one as a break from the other, so that neither began to feel like a ball-and-chain commitment. I enjoyed the gameplay systems of FFVIII more, but Xenogears was far and away the more engaging story, and, although I spent roughly equal numbers of hours on each, I ended up finishing it well before I completed FFVIII.

Though coming from the house of Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger, Xenogears was not for everybody. Perhaps the most polarizing JRPG ever created, it was easy enough to play, but, for anybody who thought Final Fantasy VII was pompous, Xenogears took it to another level entirely, its heavy-handed, talky story epitomizing what the mainstream now finds tiresome about the entire JRPG genre. It was a flawed game for sure, but its flaws were the result of its creators trying for too much rather than too little. A more disciplined hand may have been called for, but it inspired awe to observe all that Takahashi and his team laid out there. Pretentious but no pretender, it went places thematically that no games had before and, I dare say, reached further than any game since.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

As made famous by...

I've never been too into the music games, but I am rather excited about the upcoming The Beatles: Rock Band. In preparation for its release, I recently picked up both Guitar Hero: World Tour and Rock Band 2, along with a full set of plastic instruments. I'm not yet sure whether I prefer one over the other, but the two combined have been keeping me pretty well-occupied while waiting for The Beatles.

Hearing that I could transfer over the song collection from the original Rock Band into Rock Band 2 for a small fee, I decided it was worth it to rent the first game for just that purpose. Due to licensing issues, three tracks from Rock Band could not be copied over, but the only one I really cared for was "Paranoid," as made famous by Black Sabbath.

Yesterday, before returning the game, I naturally had to give "Paranoid" a go. Trying first the bass track and then guitar, I felt that something was off, and I quickly decided that it was obviously because it was a cover version, with the vocalist an inadequate replacement for Ozzy Osbourne. So that was that, I thought, and all I could do was hope that the real thing might later make its way into Rock Band or Guitar Hero.

A day later, however, the tune has continued to repeat in my head, and I realize now what the problem was. What I really wanted to play was the vocal track. But instead of actually singing it, I wanted to play it on guitar. It was Rock N' Roll Racing on the SNES, you see, that introduced me to the heavy metal classic. In that instrumental version, the vocals were replaced by 16-bit guitar synth. Even all these years later, that's the version that I recognize foremost. Alas, though Rock N' Roll Racing developer Silicon & Synapse became Blizzard, which has since merged with Activision, I doubt we'll be seeing that version in any future Guitar Hero.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Preach on, sister!

Coming into work this morning, I am greeted by a fellow taxpayer arriving at the same time. Young, pretty, college-educated and always beaming, she seems out of place in the otherwise dreary establishment. Part of me thinks she can do better, but, as long as I have to be here, it's a private comfort to know that I'm not the only one living short of expectations.

"How's life?" she asks me.

"Not bad, 'cept I have to be here." Nothing witty. Just my standard response. "You?"

"Not bad, 'cept for those douchetools in the White House."

What an odd thing to say! Under different circumstances, I might nod in agreement and yell, "Right on!" But this is not the place, and I have given no indication that I am the person to whom to make such bold remarks.

Is she testing me? Trying to get my measure? No, most likely she had been waiting since waking to unleash the "douchetools in the White House" line, and I just happened to be the first person she ran into.

"What did they do this time?" I inquire.

"Nothing," she answers, smiling as she walks off.

Good one.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Take me for a ride... Again! (or "Backbone are amateurs... Again!")

After months of rumors and speculation, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 has finally arrived on the PS3. I'd really been looking forward to this, but I'm overall pretty disappointed with how it turned out.

The game is a real bore when you don't have friends to play against. The addition of online play was supposed to solve that, but the reality is that I don't actually find it fun to play with people I don't know and can't see. Fighting games are best enjoyed playing against a buddy, while other mutual friends excitedly look on and wait to play winner. With online, at worst you'll get some foul-mouthed, obnoxious idiot on the other end. It's wiser to just turn off voice chat, but what remains is a very sterile experience. But I'll admit that these are my own problems, and I'm sure there are plenty of other people who love playing online.

What disappoints me more is that Backbone Entertainment's port of MvC2 suffers from the same flaw that afflicted their Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. There are no shortcut buttons for "all punches" or "all kicks." Their absence was a minor annoyance in HD Remix, but it's a much bigger deal in MvC2, because very nearly every super in this game is performed with a quarter-circle motion and PP/KK. And super combos see greater use in MvC2 than in any other fighting game. Cable, one of the strongest and most important characters in the game, is feared only because of the threat posed by his damaging beam super. If you can't reliably fire it off, then you're better off not even using him, because an impotent Cable is only going to be a burden on his team. But that doesn't leave much game for the many players who normally base their play around Cable.

These and other similar macros have been standard in nearly every home port of a fighting game since the 32-bit era. I don't see that the argument can defensibly be made against their inclusion, and all the poorly reasoned attacks I've seen against my stance only strengthen my case.

The usual position assumed by forum-dwelling posers is that PP/KK buttons are a crutch for the weak, and if you want to get serious at the game, you should at least be able to hit two buttons at the same time.

I suspect these subnormals don't really grasp what "casuals" means when it comes to fighting games. You don't need to be competitive at a national level in order to enjoy the competitive aspect of the game. When my co-workers and I used to play during breaks, none of us were what I would consider to be good at the game, but neither did we just blindly mash buttons until somebody lost, then laugh afterward, nobody even knowing who was playing which character. When we went at it, we played to the best of our ability to see who was the better player among us. Even if they meant nothing to the rest of the world, those tight matches were still immensely rewarding for the victors. Of course even the best of us would have gotten smoked by Justin Wong, but so would almost everybody else in the world playing the game. That doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't be allowed to enjoy a game, just as surely as college basketball players can take pride in their meaningless NCAA careers. But the loss of long standard features in this version means that some players will not be able to play at their best, effectively ruining the contest at those novice-to-intermediate levels.

No, the divide on this issue is not really between tournament and casual players, but between (weak) stick users and pad players. It's not a coincidence that tournament players tend to be stick players, because, for years, arcades were the only way to expose yourself to a variety of play styles in a competitive atmosphere, and they didn't generally offer controller ports for plugging in your DualShock. But ever since Evo, the biggest fighting game tournament in the world, switched from holding matches on arcades to consoles, there have been pad players placing highly among the nation's best. So, no, playing on a stick instead of a pad is not necessarily a mark of superior skill, and the wannabe elites who would say otherwise are themselves complete scrubs at this and every game. I seriously doubt any truly top-level stick player would say that these simple shortcuts make any meaningful difference in the results.

On the contrary, I suspect a larger number of tournament players would regard playing on a pad as a handicap. It's simple enough to click two punches simultaneously on a joystick, but it's another thing entirely when you're playing with thumbs on a pad. The inclusion of shortcuts was never a lazy cheat, but a way to lessen the handicap that thumb players inherently face. It's not exactly helping a scrub to bust out link combos. Simply pulling off a super move would never be considered skillful execution in and of itself, so there's nothing to prove there. Top players expect all this and more, and no tournament player would fear being upset by a lesser opponent's use of an unforeseen PP button.

Not everybody can afford to pay the $70+ for a decent joystick. More importantly, not everybody is comfortable playing on a joystick even if one is available. The hardcore stick users represent only an extreme minority of the people playing this and every other fighting game. I'm sure Capcom must be aware of this, or else they wouldn't have included all those macros in their other games. In fact, I know the real reason why Backbone Entertainment left the shortcuts out of this port.

In the legitimate Japanese-developed games, the key config screen has the player assigning a function to each button.

It can be cumbersome to have to scroll through a long cycle of functions just to reassign basic punches and kicks to different buttons. Players who were around during the old SNES SFII days might wonder why things have seemingly regressed from the elegance of assigning a button to each function. Back then, if you wanted to set Light Punch to the A button, it was as simple as highlighting "Light Punch" and then pressing A.

I know for a fact that Backbone deliberately went back to the old method in an attempt to provide a less cluttered, more user-friendly interface, but it actually does more harm than good, because now the only functions available are the six basic ones. They still could have implemented a long vertical list of additional functions, but maybe that would have been too ugly, maybe it didn't cross their mind, or maybe they just didn't care about the many players who would have appreciated it.

The key configs in all the Backbone ports I've played, dating back to the SFII emulations in the Capcom Classics Collection releases, have been screwed up in other ways too. The default layout doesn't conform to standards established over dozens of Capcom six-button fighting games released over the years. In the Capcom-developed games, the heavy attacks are R1 and R2. Nearly every commercial joystick is laid out to work out-of-the-box with this configuration.

But in the Backbone-developed ports, the heavy attacks (or assists in the case of MvC2) are L1 and R1. In other words, it's modeled after the SNES pad layout. If you want to plug in a joystick, chances are that you'll have to reconfigure the buttons to fit the arcade 2x3 layout. It's as if the default layout is meant for pad play, yet this game doesn't provide the basic options to really help pad players compete. Really, it seems like the simplified button config interface was only necessitated because this game forces you to reconfigure your buttons.

Mind you, I used to play this game on the Dreamcast, where, even though the shortcuts were available, it would have been silly, on a controller with only six buttons, to trade any of the six normal functions for a PP/KK macro. So it's not as if I haven't dealt with this once already. Back then, I found a setup that worked for me, but even that went out the window any time I was playing in a group of more than two people. You see, it's not fun having to sit through the process of every player customizing their buttons each time their turn comes up. Because I was already indisputably the strongest player in my group, I was willing to stick with the defaults in order to save everybody time, but my thumb-based pad play definitely suffered when I had to struggle to hit two sideways adjacent buttons at the same time on the Dreamcast pad. Telling me that I can reconfigure my buttons is no better an answer now than it was then.

My play improved drastically on PS2. (And no, the PS2 port was not a bad version. There were some very minor differences, but nothing close to what mongoloids habitually parrot out of secondhand ignorance. Nor is the Dreamcast version "arcade perfect." ANY TIME you move from one platform to another, there will at the very least be minor speed differences, among other unique glitches that are known to exist in either arcade or Dreamcast, but not both.)

For the PS3, I do own a joystick, so that's an option. But for basic movement, I've always preferred a good D-pad to stick. Me playing on stick, especially in a game with such broad planes, would be me playing with a handicap.

I know these sound like such minor nitpicks, and perhaps my time would be better wasted trying to adjust than in blogging my complaints. But MvC2 was formerly my best game, and it frustrates me that, for the most ridiculous of reasons, I cannot now play it to the best of my ability.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Essentials #42: Chrono Trigger

Nearly a decade before financial difficulties led to its stunning merger with Enix, Square fulfilled many a genre enthusiast's dream by bringing together the creative minds behind Japan's two biggest role-playing game series, its own Final Fantasy and Enix's Dragon Quest, for a one-shot super game. 1995's Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was conceived and supervised jointly by Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, and Yuji Horii, creator of Dragon Quest. It featured the character designs of DQ's Akira Toriyama and the music of FF's Nobuo Uematsu. But the "dream team" did not end with those four. Kazuhiko Aoki, a battle designer for FFIII and FFIV, and later the scenario writer for FFIX, would take the producer credit. The assemblage of talent he then brought together reads like a veritable who's who of figures in JRPG development, and, for many of them, Chrono Trigger was in fact the title that truly launched their careers.

Director credits were shared among Takashi Tokita (lead designer and scenario writer for FFIV), Yoshinori Kitase (director, writer, and producer who would essentially take the reins of the Final Fantasy series with FFVII), and Akihiko Matsui (a battle designer for FFIV). Tokita and Kitase also contributed to the script, which was outlined initially by Yuji Horii. The bulk of the writing was handled by scenario writer Masato Kato, who would later contribute scenes to FFVII (he takes credit for the "Cloud in a wheelchair" episode) and Xenogears, among other Square titles. More significantly, Kato would go on to become the main man behind the Chrono series, writing and directing semi-sequels Radical Dreamers and Chrono Cross, before leaving Square to become a freelance scenario writer. His friend and frequent collaborator, Yasunori Mitsuda, subsequently the second most recognized Japanese game music composer after Nobuo Uematsu, actually provided most of the music. Uematsu only came on board later in development to relieve Mitsuda's overwhelming workload by adding a few tracks. Even Noriko Matsueda (FFX-2) helped out with one jazzy piece. Also on the sound team, working on sound effects, was Yoshitaka Hirota, later the main composer for the Shadow Hearts series. Behind Akira Toriyama on the art team were graphic director Tetsuya Takahashi (creator of Xenogears and Xenosaga) and field graphic artists Tetsuya Nomura (Square's top character designer since FFVII, as well as the creator of the Kingdom Hearts series), Yusuke Naora (art director for FFVII, FFVIII, and FFX), and Yasuyuki Honne (director and art director on the Baten Kaitos games).

Deep list of Japanese names aside, the dream project delivered the perfect marriage of the artful narrative and aesthetic of Dragon Quest with the high concept appeal and playability of Final Fantasy. Dragon Quest (AKA Dragon Warrior) was never actually very popular in the West, and I personally only recently got into the series with DQVIII, so I missed out on the shifting perspective of DQIV and the multi-generational narrative of DQV. But playing through DQVIII did leave me with a finer appreciation for what Yuji Horii must have contributed to Chrono Trigger. More lighthearted and composed compared to the raw melodrama of the sprawling Final Fantasy epics, and considerably more coherent than subsequent Masato Kato scripts, everything in Chrono Trigger seemed so perfectly ordered and controlled. The tightly woven adventure experienced few lulls or lapses. Never would the player be left wondering why the characters were fighting some random monster in some random dungeon. With the exception of one glaring loose end that was almost assuredly deliberately left hanging by Kato, every twist seemed to fit sensibly in a plan that made for one of the most cleverly constructed time travel narratives of any medium, full of delightful paradoxes and closed circles.

Yet what made the story of Chrono Trigger so magical for me was not even the main plot of the heroes traveling across time on a selfless mission to unravel a chain of events that would result in the destruction of a far-off future. It was the stirring subplots, like Lucca traveling back in time to set right a tragedy in her own life. Or the robotic Robo taking on a mission that would last hundreds of years in solitary diligence for him, but mere seconds for his time-hopping human friends to bear the fruits of his labor. Yes, Robo and Lucca are probably my favorite video game characters of all time, but the game balanced a cast full of charming personalities, and the best part of the experience was getting to know them all.

One Dragon Quest tradition that I did not so much enjoy seeing carried over was the mute protagonist. Venturing far from proper "role-playing games," JRPGs are so heavily scripted and linear that I've never understood the argument in utilizing silent protagonists as a way to immerse the player. There is never anywhere near enough choice in these games to really allow players to identify themselves as the main character, so I would almost always say that a story would be better served to paint a protagonist that is independently interesting. The only semi-convincing point I've heard in defense of the device is that, while we may not insert ourselves as the protagonist, every player is free to project a personality of their pleasing on the mute character, rather than having to accept a hero only by the artist's strictly defined image. That's worked for me on occasion, though I think I may not be doing it right, because the personality that I seem to always project is that of a really quiet guy with no will of his own. Chrono Trigger certainly did not change my mind on the matter, and one of the things that most annoyed me was the perceived passivity of the unfortunately named Crono, in the face of other characters so bursting with charisma. But it did provide me one very special moment:


About halfway through the adventure, something amazing happens. With the party facing imminent annihilation at the hands of a world-destroying monster, Crono alone is able to stand and continue fighting. The player approaches the enemy, and Crono automatically assumes his battle stance. Then the unthinkable happens. Crono dies! Yet the player is somehow still in it, and the game goes on, driven by the other party members. Reflecting in the aftermath of that shock, I realized that, in that transformative moment severing the link between player and player character, the silent avatar had become his own person. For as he stood resolute against oblivion and died for his friends, it was not my doing, but his choice. And the only things more inspiring than his sacrifice would be the devotion of his friends and the lengths they would go to to bring him back.

It's also worth noting that, even after it became possible to swap characters freely in and out of the party, each party member still had something to say about every event. These were always simple observations--the characters could never have direct dialogue with one another--but they were actually distinct and context-sensitive lines, reflecting, not just their idiosyncratic speech patterns, but their different personalities.

While Horii may very well be one of the industry's superior storytellers, I've found that he makes some of the most stupidly unplayable JRPGs in the business. Whatever his stamp on the finished product, Chrono Trigger was undeniably and thankfully a Square game and not one of his sadistic Enix joints. One of the most accessible JRPGs released up to that point, it enjoyed a much more lenient difficulty curve than the grind-heavy Dragon Quest, or even Final Fantasy games of the time.

In a departure from the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest norm, Chrono Trigger did away with random encounters. I'm rather of two minds on this issue, but if I had to pick a side, I'd say that I favor random encounters in moderation over the common alternatives. Chrono Trigger was less needlessly stressful than, say, Persona 3 or certain recent Tales games, where enemies actually chase you and can initiate surprise attacks, but there was still a degree of anxiety in dungeon exploration. Although you could often see enemies on the field, rarely was it possible for the party to avoid the obvious ambushes. Worse yet, these foes would respawn every time you left and returned to a room, which happened frequently in this back-and-forth time traveling adventure. The actual fighting was never very difficult, but it became dreadful nonetheless, knowing every time when you were about to be attacked. I imagine it would be like knowing the exact date of your death in advance; you might be better able to plan out your life, but the living would be made less enjoyable, because the knowledge would cast a pall over every pleasure.

Once initiated, combat was handled with a barely modified revision of Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle system, originally designed by Hiroyuki Ito, who worked on Chrono Trigger as an event planner. One difference was that battles occurred directly on the field with no cut to a separate battle screen, and characters and enemies took positions roughly where they stood, introducing minor spacial considerations in the areas of effect of certain techniques. Party members' individual action menus were also now laid out separately, so that the player was not forced to assign commands exactly in order according to the characters' speed ratings. This was significant mainly in that the player could wait for multiple characters to ready up for orders at the same time, at which point the option for cooperative maneuvers would become available, allowing two or three party members to synchronize their signature moves. While cool to look at, I did not find them particularly useful, aside from a handful of early combos imbuing physical attacks with elemental attributes. Most were no more than the sums of the individual techniques that comprised them, with the additional downside being that, if one participating party member became incapacitated before a selected combo could be performed, all characters involved would end up missing that turn. It was usually wiser just to rely on characters' personal abilities.

Chrono Trigger's greatest innovation may have been the "New Game+" feature, allowing players to carry their endgame experience and equipment over into a breezy second playthrough. It was consequently one of the very few JRPGs that I played through more than once. Part of the incentive for replaying was that, in successive playthroughs, it was possible to warp directly to the final boss fight at any time during the adventure, and defeating it at different points would yield different endings. These were mostly short gag endings that saw the timeline becoming a comic mess because, in beating the game prematurely, the characters would fail to thoroughly cover the changes they wrought. They should not be mistaken for what comes to mind when game makers these days boast of offering multiple paths and endings. There was still only the one real ending with a few variations, but if the multiple endings were not a particularly meaningful innovation, they nevertheless provided some good fun.

Square Enix's shameless whoring out of the Final Fantasy name has turned segments of the gaming community against the company and franchise, to the extent that even the classics have lost a lot of their luster in the eyes of cynics. Chrono Trigger, however, despite a disappointing sequel and no shortage of ports, remains beloved by all. It still regularly contends for the titles of "greatest Square game," "greatest JRPG," "greatest SNES game," and even just "greatest video game of all time." I don't personally love it quite as much as the best Final Fantasy titles, mainly on account of its shallow combat and mute protagonist, but it is without a doubt one of the finest games ever made.

Additional Information

To coincide with the release of the long-awaited Chrono Cross, Square put out a 1999 port of Chrono Trigger for the Sony PlayStation. Released in North America in 2001 as one half of Final Fantasy Chronicles, it was the same game, only with lengthy load times and some brand new hand-drawn animated cut scenes, including one to set up the story of Chrono Cross.

Much as some of George Lucas's additions to the special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy may have done more harm than good, I am of the camp that firmly believes that these scenes ruin the game. Ironically, my personal complaint is that the animation injects Crono with a smirking personality that he never showed before as a voiceless 16-bit sprite, and it's one that conflicts with the image that I had formerly projected upon him. It basically upends my interpretations of his actions, and it makes all the more evident the trouble with the silent protagonist device.

With the Square Enix merger having brought Yuji Horii back to the house of Chrono, and with Masato Kato having returned to working regularly on Square Enix projects, there has been speculation that we might finally see some new movement in the series. So far, all we've gotten is another port of Chrono Trigger, this time for the Nintendo DS. The 2008 release includes the additions to the PS1 version, with none of that version's performance issues. There are also some new optional dungeons and modes that can easily be ignored. Of greatest interest to followers of the Chrono story are a new optional boss and an attached ending that inelegantly ties into the plot of Radical Dreamers, which itself was supposed to have been overwritten by Chrono Cross.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Road to Ruin

My eccentric neighbor had created a time machine. Unfortunately for him, he was a very old man, and he died before he could use it or share knowledge of it with anyone but me. Thus, the greatest power in the universe was left in my care. And I had every intention of abusing this power by traveling to the past, taking advantage of my knowledge of the future to get ahead of the game, with no regard for how many lives I would unmake in the process. After all, was it murder if the person never even made it to conception? (Probably it's something even worse...)

I had nothing so prosaic in mind as cheating the stock market. It was not money I was interested in. I had far greater ambitions. I was going to be a star, and I had the perfect plan. Traveling to many years before The Ramones were supposed to have formed, I would channel the revolutionary sound of their music to blow audiences away. By "channel," I mean steal, and by "sound," I mean their exact songs.

I started naturally with "I Wanna Be Sedated." Praised as beyond cutting-edge, it was an instant number one. I followed it up by putting together an album of all the other great Ramones hits. In less than a month, it went quadruple-platinum, and I had become the biggest celebrity in the world.

Then my scheme ran into a minor hurdle. My fans and backers still wanted more, but I had run out of Ramones songs that I knew. (In real life, "I Wanna Be Sedated" is the only Ramones song I know, and I don't even know more than its titular lyric.) What was I to do? Start composing my own songs? Never! I would have to dig deep to think of what else I could preemptively plagiarize. What other songs did I know that sounded similar to The Ramones?





Nothing came to mind, so I went with Brandi Carlile's "The Story." Another hit, and the magazines applauded my ability to reinvent myself. Although I knew no more Brandi Carlile songs either, I now felt confident that I could keep my career going for several more albums. If these people seriously believed that the same man could write both "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "The Story," then they would accept anything I gave them, so long as it was good.

My next single was KT Tunstall's "Other Side of the World." Shockingly, I received my first bad reviews. I was outraged. These people were idiots. Not only were they wrongly criticizing me, but they were disrespecting KT Tunstall, whose work I evidently admired enough to unscrupulously steal. Perhaps I had finally gotten too far ahead of the time.

In an attempt to rebound from the negative reception to my latest track, my agent booked me for a fan Q&A event. A few questions in, a teenager stepped up to the mic and asked me how I was able to exactly duplicate his songs that he had not yet shared with anyone. The dream had become a nightmare. How had I never considered this scenario that now threatened to unravel all my plans?

The young Ramone sounded more genuinely curious than suspicious, and, seeing as how he had never shared his work with anyone, I doubted he had any evidence that would hold up in court. No, I alone knew and understood the truth. Everyone else would think he was just some crazed fan. But I couldn't take any risks.

With the press in attendance, I kindly suggested to the boy that he blow his own brains out. To my horror, he actually had snuck a gun in, which he then proceeded to use to shoot me in the chest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Here's to twenty more!

It's apparently twenty years this month since Nintendo's original Game Boy debuted in North America. I am unable to find a more exact date for this anniversary, but just the year is enough to shock me. I would not have been six years old at the time. I was really too young to be playing video games anyway, but the trickle of industry news was also much slower, so it was entirely possible that a major hardware launch of a completely new gaming platform could escape my notice. The unveiling of Gunpei Yokoi's handheld did not register as a watershed moment in my life, but, in hindsight, my subsequent acquisition of it was a game-changer.

I believe I got mine for Christmas '89, or it may have been my birthday the year after. I do remember that I was all set to get a Mario plush as my present from my parents. Mario was perhaps an even bigger deal then than he is now; although I didn't play the games, I loved the character just the same as I loved Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. So when my mother asked me what I wanted, that was my answer, and it was all but decided weeks in advance.

Then, just days before we were to go shopping, my brother suggested that I get the Game Boy instead, pointing to an ad and describing it as a handheld junior version of the Nintendo. I pictured something like the Game & Watch (we had Balloon Fight and Bombsweeper, as well as an excellent VTech clone called Diamond Hunt) or those Tiger Electronics LCD handhelds. I didn't really understand, but I caved easily to my older sibling's influence. My mother was happy to get me whichever present I chose, even though, unbeknownst to me, the Game Boy cost several times what the plush went for.

When we did go shopping at Toys "R" Us, there were rows upon rows of the popular Mario plush. I was able to get a hands-on, and, as it turned out, it was not very soft or much fun to play with. This was also well before the character had a fully realized and consistent three-dimensional form, so, while I don't remember anything seeming amiss back then, I doubt my warmth for it would have lasted as long as it has for the Game Boy. On the other hand, if I had gotten it instead of the Game Boy, I might never have played a Mario game, and I might consequently have fallen out of love with the character anyway. Suffice it to say, as much as I thought I wanted the Mario, I have never regretted having gone with the Game Boy.

For the longest time, the only Game Boy games we had, besides the pack-in Tetris, were Super Mario Land, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, and Paperboy. Through most of the system's life cycle, I operated with the misguided belief that Game Boy developers only made unambitious child games not worthy of my enthusiasm. I don't know how I reconciled that attitude with the reality that I played each of the games in my Game Boy collection more than all my family's NES games combined.

Originally, my favorite by far was TMNT. I was a huge fan of the cartoon, and, back then, the turtles were truly multimedia heroes. With Konami handling the license, the video games were consistently excellent. I particularly appreciated that Fall of the Foot Clan was a very easy game. For a kid whose previous gaming experience consisted only of Combat for the Atari 2600, Super Mario Land required too much manual dexterity, and I didn't understand the narrative-free Tetris. I would come around to those games later, but TMNT included stage select as a default option, allowing me to skip to the last level without having to survive the buildup. Somehow the idea would still be considered innovative when Alone in the Dark did it in 2008.

I don't know why, but one of my most vivid memories of my childhood is from the day I got my Sega Game Gear. What I remember is that, the moment I got home, I sat down and started playing Super Mario Land on my Game Boy. I wasn't making a statement, but my brother cracked some joke about how I was still playing yesterday's machine. Actually, I was waiting for him to unpack and set up the Game Gear. I would be enjoying Columns and Sonic the Hedgehog shortly thereafter. But I would still end up going back to Super Mario Land far more often.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

NonEssential #41: Skies of Arcadia Legends

It was the year 2006, when a co-worker of mine, having just purchased a Nintendo GameCube, began asking around the office for software recommendations.

"So what about role-playing games?" he asked. "Are there any good ones on the GameCube?" More specifically, he was looking for Japanese RPGs in the vein of Final Fantasy.

To that, one man answered with Namco's Tales of Symphonia. The suggestion met with my wholehearted approval, and sadly I could think of no other options for players looking for a good traditional JRPG on the GameCube. Baten Kaitos slipped my mind, but, not having played it, I could not have recommended it anyway. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door was probably the only other game that came close to what Man #1 wanted, but again I was not sufficiently familiar with it. Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was brought up as one to avoid, and, while I noted my fondness for it, I agreed that he was likely to be disappointed, especially since he would have no access to the multiplayer.

Man #1 may have been better-informed about the GameCube library than he'd originally let on, as he then led with "I heard there's a Skies of Arcadia for GameCube?"

He was referring to Sega's Skies of Arcadia Legends, a very slightly enhanced 2003 port of developer Overworks's critically lauded 2000 RPG, Skies of Arcadia (AKA Eternal Arcadia in Japan). It was my most hated RPG of all time.

"Oh, yeah!" Man #2 confirmed. "That's a good one."

A third man chimed in with his agreement: "Yeah, that one's really good."

I had listened as these people spoke affectionately of mediocre 3-D Sonic titles, or recommended the lame Sonic Team-developed Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, but--and I swear it's nothing personal against Sega--Skies of Arcadia was where I drew the line. We were spread out about a room of only five people, one of whom spoke only limited English and would not contribute to nor even acknowledge the conversation. Outnumbered three-to-one though I was, I could not stand by quietly and suffer praise of Skies of Arcadia.

"You liked Skies of Arcadia?" I asked Man #3.

It was a struggle to contain my bitterness, but I tried to speak in a calm and controlled voice. Ironically, although I meant not to discredit myself by betraying too much emotion, the incongruous seriousness and labored slowness of my speech managed to chill the atmosphere. However hard I tried to mute it, there was a confrontational inflection to my delivery that was not lost on the addressee.

"Oh, uh, I never played it. I don't have a GameCube or Dreamcast," Man #3 sheepishly confessed, after having already recommended several titles for Man #1 to purchase. "But everybody who plays that game loves it."

A short pause ensued. The other two guys were fresh fish at the workplace, but Man #2, a veteran peer, perhaps intrigued by this rare glimmer of intensity from me, decided to pursue the topic further.

"You didn't like it, Henry?"

"No," I responded without hesitation. I suppose I did want this after all. "I thought the battle system was tedious, characters were shallow, the story was weak."

Another pause.

"Did you like it?" I asked Man #2 in return.

"Actually I never played it," he admitted. Nor, as it turned out, had any of these people played Tales of Symphonia, Crystal Chronicles, or indeed even half the titles they'd handed out as suggestions.

Another silence.

"I liked it on the Dreamcast," Man #1 finally declared. And this time I could hear him seething beneath his words.

"What did you like about it?" I demanded to know.

"I liked the story. And I liked the gameplay."

Fair enough, and perhaps that should have been the end of it. But no, for some reason, I could not let it lie.

Another silent interlude, and then I said, "It was the worst role-playing game I ever played."

At this, Man #1 was clearly offended. I had already guessed that Skies of Arcadia must have been his favorite video game of all time or something.

"Well, have you played a lot of role-playing games?" he asked skeptically.

This was the crucial juncture that I had perhaps been building to. The guy clearly had no idea to whom he was speaking. I had played and completed over fifty JRPGs in approximately a six-year span. Among those who knew me well, the number was almost an inside joke. Perhaps it was not the most absolutely monstrous list that the truly exhaustively hardcore importers might put up, but I had gathered enough from previous conversations to surmise that it was several times the number that this guy, who had naturally started with Legend of Dragoon, had even heard of.

In my imagined scenario, in which I proceeded to tear this guy apart for his impudence, I would have begun with "I dunno. What would you consider a lot?"

Then this novice, having no clue the hand I held, would have confidently answered with a terse "Ten." Because, of course, to him that would have been a large number. Right.

Then I would have shot back with "Try fifty, jackass!" At which point the room would have erupted in hooting and hollering. The fifth man would have sprung to life with an "Oh, snap!" Other teams within the building would have come flooding down the hall to contribute their ruckus. And even the boss man would have exploded out of his office door to high-five me.

But no, I didn't need any of that. In my heart, I knew that this guy did not have the tools to stand up to me on this point, and, as long as I knew, for me that was enough. I didn't need to embarrass him.

What I actually said was "I've played my share."

So I let this guy live, and nobody took it any further, until, still feeling bad about having ended the discussion on a bitter note, I conceded, "It had some good boss battles." And that was the last time anybody brought up Skies of Arcadia at work.

* * * * *

It's been three years since that incident. I've been able to play only a few more JRPGs since, so Skies of Arcadia Legends remains securely at the bottom of my list. Above, I already briefly described what I disliked about the game, but now that we're here, I'll go a little more in depth.

The gameplay was horrendous. The random encounter rate, already reduced from the Dreamcast original, was still outrageously high. Not only that, but these were undoubtedly the least exciting battles in any JRPG I'd come across.

The turn-based battle system, very similar to Xenogears or Chrono Cross, operated with a special meter shared among all four party members. Characters were defined by their repertoires of attacks and abilities that consumed varying amounts of points from this meter. The party started each battle with a few points, and players could either spend them immediately, or bide their time, filling the meter gradually over the course of the fight to open up stronger abilities.

The problem was that, after maybe the first two dungeons, nearly every random encounter could be won just by starting off fast with the strongest target-all-enemies attack ability available at the time. If one attack wasn't powerful enough to wipe them out, I still began every battle with enough points to pull off a second before they could respond. The frequency of the battling, combined with the mindlessness of the combat, made for one miserable experience. Like I said, as with most turn-based JRPGs, whether good or bad, the combat only became more than a grind in boss battles, where meter management actually mattered and Skies of Arcadia became halfway decent.

The same could never be said of the ship battles, which were strictly terrible. These were less frequent, but they took forever and were full of endless nothing. Battles consisted of long, repeating animations of two airships just circling one another, presumably jockeying for position, although they would never appear in the same frame together. After about a dozen interminable passes, vessels would finally act out the commands given them. The ensuing action possessed a Pokémon Stadium-level cohesion; first would be the shot of one ship firing its cannons, then the camera would cut to an opposing shot of the target taking damage. Then it would be back to the "epic" shots of these ships trying to outmaneuver one another. This was some sub-Advance Wars editing. I never played a turn-based game that so badly needed an option to turn off battle animations.

As for the crap story, I didn't hate it all the way through. I never go into a JRPG expecting it to be lame, or else I wouldn't even bother with the massive investment. Even if a story starts out slow or generic, I remain hopeful that it can turn things around before its 40-50 hours are up. So it was with Skies of Arcadia, and I remember being still fairly interested when an early twist left my protagonist stranded on a deserted island to fend for himself, evoking memories of Celes gathering fish in Final Fantasy VI.

I can't remember exactly at what point after that my optimism faded, but somewhere along the way, with about thirty hours still to go, it dawned on me that these characters were never going to grow or develop. Having already started as clichés, they had not changed at all after close to ten hours, and it had become evident that, just by their natures, they lacked the capacity for growth. Vyse was the free-living, eternal optimist who NEVER gave up. His best friend, Aika, was the warm yet comically abusive treasure hound. Fina, the shy but sweet maiden from another world, did go through a little more than the others, but she also started with less. These three were actually not without charm, and obviously a good story doesn't need to be full of angst and trauma, but, over the course of a JRPG-length journey, I would like to believe that the characters will have actually gone somewhere as individuals. 40-50 hours is too much to reasonably expect players to spend with static characters in a cliché-ridden story of noble pirate youths fighting for free skies against a power-hungry empire.

The only two subplots that I kind of enjoyed were both inexplicably intertwined with the most heinous side quest I'd ever experienced in a JRPG. Every dungeon included some hidden creature called a "Moonfish." They were out of the way and invisible, but if one was nearby, a beeping noise would let you know to begin scanning in first person, using special goggles to locate and capture them. As far as I knew initially, the only point to the Moonfish was that I could trade them to a particular NPC for rare items, but I wasn't overly concerned with that.

As for things I enjoyed, the first was the GameCube-exclusive series of tricky battles against the "Angel of Death," a mysterious female bounty hunter holding a grudge that would be slightly elaborated upon with each encounter. The other mildly interesting subplot was a doctor NPC's periodic tales clearing up the backstory of a major antagonist, whose motives and fall from grace would never elsewhere be addressed. These were about the only things I had to look forward to when I turned on Skies of Arcadia, so it worried me when I noticed that it had been a long time since either story had received a new episode. I had originally assumed that advancement in these subplots was tied to my progression in the main plot, and, in an indirect way, that was true. Looking up an online FAQ, I found that they were actually tied to how many Moonfish I'd collected, and based on where I was with these stories, relative to how many dungeons I had completed, it became apparent that I must have missed a few. But there was no way of knowing which Moonfish I had failed to catch, except to go back through EVERY abominable dungeon, and there was absolutely no way I was doing that! So that was that. Those accursed Moonfish had completely screwed me out of the only things I had been enjoying in Skies of Arcadia.

Better arguments in favor of Skies of Arcadia tend to concentrate on its sense of wonder and exploration. Eager players could sail the unmapped skies searching for "discoveries," which were sights and landmarks that the crew would document, afterward selling the information for cash rewards. I suppose I can respect liking Skies of Arcadia for that reason. That sort of gameplay is certainly not my cup of tea, especially since the ship steered like a tank, ramming into discoveries was made extra bothersome by the dodgy hit detection, and the high encounter rate dampened any drive to stray from the main plot. What I liked better was filling my home base with NPCs, as I recruited obnoxious idiots to fill positions on my crew. Yes, at its very best, the game was like a bad version of Suikoden.

Looking back, I would say Skies of Arcadia is notable only because it was one of the first JRPGs of its hardware generation, and far more technically ambitious than Grandia II. Many of the PS1's best titles had cheated by using pre-rendered backgrounds and cut scenes to provide graphics that exceeded what the hardware was actually capable of generating in real time. Skies of Arcadia took advantage of the next-gen power of the Sega Dreamcast to finally deliver a JRPG-sized world that could be explored as true 3-D space. Based on the finished product, however, I would say it was still too early to be going there. When I came to the Legends edition on GameCube, I thought the character models were okay, but the environments, not only looked crude next to those of Final Fantasy X, but had already aged very poorly even compared to those of the 32-bit Final Fantasy games. The jagged lines and muddy textures hardly seemed to justify my having to grapple with the camera. Maybe one could have appreciated it on a strictly technical level, but I didn't understand how anybody could honestly believe the game looked anywhere close to beautiful.

The limitations of the graphical engine became very apparent during a cut scene in which the protagonists had to escape the enemy by navigating their airship through a slowly closing fortress gate. Watching it, I was instantly reminded of the classic "breaking through South Gate" scene from Final Fantasy IX. Except that this was crudely modeled and not very exciting. Worst of all, the bulk of the sequence was actually one of those slow and boring as hell ship battles. (Courtesy of YouTube user "goodcowgames," here's the Skies of Arcadia version: before and after the awful fight.)

I may have, in the past, been critical of such games as Robotrek, SaGa Frontier 2, or Fire Emblem, and those negative remarks have tended to overshadow my actual assessments of those games as decent-to-good. But Skies of Arcadia was one game that I truly did despise. Goddamned Dreamcast fanboys. As far as I'm concerned, this was merely another case of owners of a failed platform trying to makes themselves feel special by boosting the status of a truly unremarkable game, whose quality they expected most people would be unable to verify for themselves. Even among Dreamcast RPGs, I felt Grandia II was a better game.

Given how much I loathed the experience, and how early on I recognized that I did, you may be puzzled at why I still spent about fifty hours seeing it through. I suppose it was my compulsive need to finish what I'd started. Or perhaps I felt I needed to complete it in order to credibly deride it. Or maybe, just maybe, my enmity toward the game had itself become the story, I the joke, and my rage the punchline. For that very reason, I am filled with dread every time I hear rumors that Sega might be planning a sequel. I know that a part of me might be tempted to play that sequel, just to recapture that intensity of feeling that is so rare in gaming, even if, in this case, the feeling would be running in the wrong direction.