Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Road So Far

My other favorite show of recent years, Supernatural, will be back at least for a sixth season, but the conclusion of this past season marked the end supposedly of creator Eric Kripke's original planned five-season arc and, along with it, his tenure as showrunner.  Kripke will still be around in a part-time capacity next season as the show moves to Fridays, where it will continue under the able guidance of writer and producer Sera Gamble.  So the series is not done yet, and next season may even provide a fresh start.  In the meantime, we can look back and reflect on what made Kripke's Supernatural so great.

To start with, I think Supernatural must take the award for greatest "Previously..." segment with its "The Road So Far" montages that kick off every season finale.  Yes, I'm being serious.  For years, the gold standard had been the recap preceding Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 100th episode, "The Gift," also the finale to the show's fifth season (which, coincidentally enough, was Buffy's last with Joss Whedon as its showrunner).  Opening in typical fashion with the "Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer" voice-over by Anthony Stewart Head, that 38-second refresher then unexpectedly took things all the way back to the first episode and proceeded to accelerate through clips from all five seasons, effectively flashing through the show's entire life up to that point, before cutting seamlessly into the "proper" beginning of the episode.  Perfectly matched to the weighty events that followed, the exhaustive montage left no doubt that a good "Previously" is an inseparable part of the episode, and it's a crime that it was cut from the Region-1 DVD release.

Erm, back to Supernatural, every season finale has begun with a montage, not just of the usual immediately pertinent dialogue, but of clips from the entire season leading up to that finale--clips mostly of the Winchester brothers taking care of business--set to the sounds of "Carry On Wayward Son" by Kansas.  As with "The Gift," these segments are not merely informative but are meant to set the tone for the rest of the episode.  They are even more important to Supernatural, however, because the situation heading into those finales always seems so bleak, the fight so increasingly unwinnable, yet hearing "Carry On Wayward Son" always rouses us to the truth that, whatever enemies and obstacles stand in their path, this is Sam and Dean Winchester's story and no one else's.  So energizing are these "The Road So Far" recaps that, to be honest, the past two seasons, I've found myself looking forward to just these segments almost more so than anything else on television.

And this season especially needed that moment of clarity instilling confidence, not only because the fight was looking more hopeless than ever before, but because the show itself early on seemed to be stumbling, with the characters starting to repeat themselves without progressing at all through their issues.  At the midpoint, the season then hit a series low point, in my opinion, when an episode brought back a recurring female character (and love interest for Dean) and made her turn evil all of a sudden for no good reason, just so they could kill her off in brutal fashion without viewers having to feel sad about it.

Remember when the Chuck "shippers" went absolutely ballistic and threatened to boycott the show because this season placed two temporary competing romantic interests between the hero and heroine, as if no other story had ever made its destined lovers wander before coming to the realization that they were meant for each other?  And these were the same diehard fans who had fought so hard to prevent the show's cancellation a year ago?  Well, what's sick is that Supernatural, a show with two brothers as its only main characters, goes through the same thing, with "Wincest" shippers responding with venom to every single female love interest ever featured on the show.  And while Kripke has playfully used the show itself to mock such fans, he has also yielded to them by consistently bailing mid-arc on recurring female characters.  In fact, history now suggests that any female character who appears on more than three episodes is probably headed toward a bad end.  Of course, it's a little amazing that Supernatural has lasted this long, considering that its ratings have never been stellar, so maybe the CW and Kripke just happen to see the value in this deviant demographic that no other show seems to hit so well.

But I think the "Wincest" loonies actually have it right to an extent, although they are also wrong to a much greater extent.  Sam and Dean don't need any women getting in their way, because romance of any sort is the last thing this show needs.  Always the core of the show, the bond between Sam and Dean Winchester is possibly the strongest I've ever witnessed in a television series (bearing in mind I haven't seen every episode of Xena: Warrior Princess), and any attempts to get other people between them have only ever diluted that core to the show's detriment.  These were characters who had already literally died for one another in past seasons, but when this season rebounded in its second half, it really showed, more importantly, that it is for each other that they live.

Thinking back again to Buffy, it always seemed to me that Buffy would have left behind her friends and family in order to be with Angel, but at the same time, she would also have given up Angel for her friends.  Somehow, even though she was being pulled by these equally strong yet seemingly mutually exclusive attachments, the choice between them never seemed as difficult as one might have imagined, and ultimately she would operate, like a soldier, according to sense rather than her feelings, which she would never fully sort out.  Or maybe, whatever she seemed to be giving up, she would always be able to go on and find something else, because although the other characters gave her support, her life was still her own.

For Dean Winchester, there is nothing else besides his brother, except in some fantastic dream that he has never allowed himself to believe in.  Contributing to the bleakness this season was his assertion that, win or lose the current fight, there was no happy ending waiting for him.  There would just be another fight, and another, and another after that, until he either got himself killed or went crazy.  But as long as he had Sam with him, it never seemed like a bad life.  Then, at the end of the road, his heaven would be reliving those most cherished memories of the times he spent with his brother.

As for Sam, the hopeful brother who did imagine their mission someday ending in victory, I think we saw this season that, for all his talk of wanting to live a normal life apart from his family's business, for all his supernatural power and self-sacrificing bravado, it was ultimately and always his love for his brother that gave him strength and the will to overcome anything, including the despair that had come to consume the show.  Against all odds, he then used that strength to earn the story as happy and perfect an ending as it could ever have hoped for.

Yet Supernatural, likewise against all odds and Eric Kripke's own expectations, will be back for a sixth season.  I don't know where else the story can possibly go to raise the stakes further.  Things may be different, and that's a little scary, but maybe we can once again compare it to Buffy and consider the UPN years of that show.  Those later Marti Noxon-helmed seasons perhaps never quite returned to the heights of season five, but they still included some great episodes and were better at least than having no Buffy at all.  At least Sam and Dean will be back, and they are all the show really needs.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Journey

It was Wednesday, September 21, 2005.  Having completed my first game test assignment on The Con for PSP the previous Saturday, I had just been reassigned to help out on NBA 06 for the PS2, which was in the midst of its final development push.  Thus, with nary a break between gigs, I was back on crunch time.  My shift began at 9 AM, and although I was technically free to leave at 5:30 PM, it was highly encouraged for a temp like me, hoping to get called back for future jobs, to work until 10 PM.   I was dog-tired, however, and did not feel quite like going the distance that day.  I decided on my own to strike a compromise by quietly stepping out at the 8:30 PM break, and then not heading back in.  Since my responsibilities were minuscule at this stage, it was unlikely that anybody would notice my departure.

I made it home before 9 PM, in time for a late dinner.  Since I was eating alone, I turned to the TV for company.  Prime time programming is something that you largely give up when you work twelve-hour (minimum) days for weeks on end, so I didn't really know what was on.  I rolled the dice and turned to ABC.  During my final summer of unemployment, Wednesday nights on ABC had been home to Dancing with the Stars, which had captured my attention for a good few weeks.  On that night, however, what I got was a scripted scene of a lone unidentified man waking to his alarm clock, to meet the day by working out and preparing a liquid breakfast to the diegetic sound of Mama Cass Elliot's vinyl recording of "Make Your Own Kind of Music."

How could I not be intrigued?  This was obviously a very sick man--like, Silence of the Lambs crazy.  The unnerving combination of upbeat oldies music with the mundane routine of a man whose face was strategically obscured in every shot told me as much, even before he started shooting up chemicals in what appeared increasingly like a 1960s fallout shelter.  Things quickly got even crazier once an outside explosion set him scurrying to the gun rack.  As he then peered through a telescope in anticipation of intruders, the camera traced the bounding path of his sight along a system of mirrors winding down an underground tunnel to arrive finally face-to-face with two recognizable men staring curiously down a hatch.  The two men were the stars of Lost, and I was watching the second season opener, "Man of Science, Man of Faith."  It would be the first full episode of Lost I ever saw.

Having heard a lot of hype already during the first season, I had once randomly tuned into the middle of an episode, and after about two minutes of some bald man trying to convince me that the island was destiny, I walked away without regret.  Okay, so maybe I had made up my mind not to like it, having missed the phenomenon's emergence and consequently having felt some resentment at being left out.

It was some remarkably chance encounter that saw me caught by this season two premiere, however, and I could not avert my gaze--not for the duration of the episode, nor for the rest of the series.  I thought this show was supposed to be a TV version of Cast Away.  What then was the story behind this man in the hatch?  It was a mind-bender all right, and the crazy man in the hatch was just the beginning.  As it turned out, the bald guy was not being creepy just for the sake of it; he alone knew firsthand that the island was a place of miracles. Season two also included a hostile band of ninja-like "others," a terrifying smoke monster, and a button that had to be pushed every 108 minutes in order to "save the world."  And it was a nail-biter--a tightly scripted thriller where the action had consequences.  Ironically, the one thing I thought the show lacked at the time was appealing characters.  I say it was ironic because, for a show with such a high body count, it was all along, at its perhaps surprisingly sappy core, the story of its characters.

Every week was about flashing backwards, forwards, or even sideways in a character's journey to the defining moments that made them who they were, ultimately presenting a life story in 121 episodes.  At its very best, the show could even, within just a single episode, leave you feeling like you had spent years with a character.  Indeed, it took one very specific such episode to convince me that the show was something special.  For me, the pivotal episode was the season two finale, "Live Together, Die Alone."  The two-hour event, instead of presenting the usual flashbacks to a main character's past, focused primarily on a theretofore undeveloped recurring guest star of seemingly minimal importance.  For a serialized show so notoriously inaccessible to newbies, its greatest feat was probably how, with a single two-hour episode, it managed to convey the entire essence of this character, about whom I had known practically nothing going into the episode, but who, by the end of it, would become my favorite character, not just on Lost, but on any of the shows I was following at the time.

And the show would do it over and over again.  Four seasons in, they had the gall to introduce an entire team of new characters into the established family, and these newcomers quickly became among my favorites.  In season five, they managed, with just three scenes, to fully develop a romance that could not have felt any more natural and believable.  The final season's best episodes were "Dr. Linus" and "Ab Aeterno."  The former more than redeemed a character I never expected I could like.  The latter finally gave fans the story of the island's most mysterious character, after most viewers had already guessed he was a red herring.  By the episode's end, the character's insignificance in the grand scheme was only affirmed, and yet it was a success because it got me to care about the character's life and not his role.

Lord knows things didn't always go down this well.  The writers themselves acknowledged that third season additions Nikki and Paulo were "universally despised."  The aforementioned season four romance was all the more remarkable because the first three seasons had wasted so much time going nowhere with a love triangle that felt forced.  The poorly-timed Jacob origin episode this season was one of the series's least effective.  Bringing back some long-forgotten cast members for, essentially, fanservice moments at the end only reminded me how little I missed them and their lousy subplots that never rang true.  And the show's professed center, Jack Shephard, was never an easy guy to like, and it took nearly all of six seasons of them forcing him on viewers before I finally warmed to him.

Yes, this was a show that had a master plan, yet things did not always go according to that plan.  They cast a child actor without considering that he would grow up faster than time was supposed to be passing on the show.  They cast a fat actor who never got thinner, even though his character should have been barely subsisting on an island diet.  They had to deal with actors walking out on the show, leaving them high and dry on unresolved subplots.  Sometimes they had actors exceed their expectations and earn larger roles than anticipated.  They admirably committed themselves in advance to a strict end date, only to end up constricted by a final season that left no breathing room, resulting in a finale that needed to be a double-and-a-half length, and at least half of that had to be spent just on cleanup.  And quite often the writers clearly could not keep track of the messes they made.  Yet it is in fitting with the show's theme of destiny versus free will that even its own creators could not entirely dictate where the story would go, en route to an ending that gave the hardcore fanboys almost none of the meaningless answers they had been demanding for years (It was all midi-chlorians! Satisfied?), but was nevertheless a love letter to the viewers who had followed these characters over six years.  It's a credit to the show that, at the end, that emptiness that I felt was not from any questions that I felt needed answering, but because I simply wanted more time with these characters to see how they lived.

What can I say?  It's hard to let go.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Penny Wisdom

I had it in my head that I was going to write up this post all about how the Scary Movie series is better than the Shrek series, how Anna Faris is to Mike Myers as Michael Jordan is to Penny Hardaway.  Then I realized that that would be unfair.  To Penny Hardaway.  I did the responsible thing, you see, and did some research.  No, I still haven't seen any of the Shrek movies.  Instead, I looked up Penny Hardaway on Wikipedia.

Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, former NBA All-Star, is best remembered for his early seasons with the Orlando Magic.  Together with a young Shaquille O'Neal, Penny turned the budding franchise into a contender, leading the team to the 1995 NBA Finals.  Although the Magic were swept by a Houston Rockets team led by veteran superstars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, the young Orlando team with young stars was the hottest thing going in the NBA in a mostly Jordan-less season.  It was during this period that Nike launched the "Air Penny" shoe line, which it successfully marketed with the memorably obnoxious "Li'l Penny" series of commercials featuring Chris Rock as the voice of a puppet version of Penny, which Penny himself would bizarrely interact with as though it were a real and separate person.

Jordan would be back to dominating the league the next season, however, and before the start of the 1996-1997 season, Shaq would part ways with the Magic.  While Shaq would go on to win four NBA championships, Penny would mostly be forgotten after that.  He had a few more seasons of competence, but he never again played for a contender.  The Nike commercials and celebrity endorsements also went away entirely, and as someone who only tuned in to watch games of consequence, I never heard any talk of Penny Hardaway, except when he was sometimes tangentially brought up in conversation as one of a number of overrated young guards who rose to fame and fortune on the Diesel's coattails.

Looking back now at those first four seasons, however, I can say that Penny was a true star.  An anomalous player, he played point guard and had the speed and ball-handling to excel as his team's floor general, but, with the size and athleticism of a shooting guard or even small forward, he could also just as easily take it to the hoop himself.  His unorthodox construction made him difficult to guard and allowed him to maintain more-than-solid points and assists-per-game averages while keeping a high field goal percentage.  You could say that he had Shaq during those early seasons, but when Shaq was injured at the start of the 1995-1996 season, Penny rose to the occasion and picked up the slack to carry the team to a 17-5 record.  During that Shaq-less period, he even dropped 36 points on Jordan, beating the Bulls and briefly taking the league scoring lead from Jordan.

When Shaq left the Magic for good and Penny seemingly disappeared, I was quick to draw what I thought were obvious conclusions concerning the legitimacy of Orlando's own equivalent to Scottie Pippen.  Now I can see that I was being unfair and plain wrong.  Actually, Penny had one of his most impressive seasons as the Magic's lone star, again leading his team to the playoffs, where his scoring average was second only to Jordan.  It was only a major knee injury that caused him to miss most of the next season, and even though Penny eventually returned, he was never the same.

The last time Penny Hardaway made any kind of news was in 2008, when he donated one million dollars to the University of Memphis toward the construction of a sports hall of fame for the athletic department.  Given how most NBA players live, I'm amazed that Penny still had a million left to give after seasons of shrinking salaries in a career that finally ended unceremoniously with the Miami Heat waiving him just a year prior.  I can only hope that he's still getting checks from Nike for those Air Pennies they're still selling.

To summarize, whatever his career totals might suggest, this guy was not a mediocre talent.  His skills were real and he could have been great.  He just ran into some bad luck.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Team "Man in Black" (Or "What if everything were stupid?")

Remember around the time the last Twilight movie came out, when everybody was all "Team Jacob or Team Edward?"

I wanted to get a T-shirt that said "Team Jacob" on it.  I'm not a fan of Twilight.  In fact, I have never read any of the books nor seen any of the movies, so it would be irresponsible of me to say anything for or against it.  My idea was that I would wait ten years and, once nobody cared about Twilight, I would only then start wearing the shirt ironically.

I have had to discard that plan, however, in light of developments in this season of Lost.  You see, there is a character on Lost named Jacob, who embodies one of two sides on that show.  I don't follow the Lost fandom enough to know if anyone else has made this connection, but I fear that, even ten years from now, someone might see me wearing the shirt and correctly guess that I was a fan of Lost (and obviously not Twilight), but then incorrectly surmise that I was making some cute joke.  The over-imagined future scenario continues with me slapping this person for getting the non-joke, then slapping myself for inadvertently making it.

I'm not ashamed to call myself a fan of Lost.  Rather, I regularly feel shame for being enthusiastic about anything.  That's what society has done to me, though perhaps not directly.  When I hear people obsess over Twilight, I cannot help but cringe at the pathetic display of fanaticism over something fictional that I do not understand.  I think, almost as bad as making the cute jokes is being "that guy," and so I promise myself that I'll never care that much about anything.  The rational part of me bestowed with perspective, however, reaches for a mirror.  What if I already am that guy?

One of the greatest dangers of being a fan of anything is that you risk exposure to fellow fans.  Even if you are not fans of the same thing, the more another person cares, the less you want to recognize of yourself in their useless passion.

You might look over this blog and wonder, "But Henry, you readily admit to liking all manner of shameful stuff, so how can you be suffering from these feelings?"

Well, it takes a strong sense of self, a confidence in one's own ego, to overcome what is an unavoidable stage--but merely a stage--in becoming invested in any fiction.  Some who can't make it to that peace might instead respond to these feelings by lashing out at the property and mocking its fans (especially if you yourself liked that thing prior to meeting other fans).  Others might try to passive-aggressively ignore it, maybe by whistling loudly to themselves--a "two birds with one stone" approach that protects you from having to acknowledge it, while annoying the people who do care, so that they too are unable to enjoy it.  Me, I still come up against these feelings every time I start talking about what I like, but I guess eventually I just like what I like.

Anyway, the Lost finale is tonight, and that is how I intend to spend my evening.  You don't have to like it, but as Liz Lemon says, know to just shut your mouth when I'm watching.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The 5 Cutest Pokemon

(Yep, I'm still playing Pokemon more than anything else.)

5. Jirachi

4. Plusle

3. Mudkip

2. Marill

1. Azumarill

There you have it--my official, definitive list of the top five cutest Pokemon.  Accept no imitations.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Iron Man 2

It kind of reminded me of Batman Forever.

Give me a chance to explain myself.

Although I enjoyed Batman Forever as a kid, Iron Man 2 is a much better work and actually a good movie.  Technically, this sequel is mostly a match for the original Iron Man, which I thought was a very good film, not an outstanding one.  Iron Man 2's problem is not that it fails to equal the first film, but that it lacks the ambition to surpass it.  It provides merely a fun and fluffy two hours that, like Batman Forever, takes us nowhere new and adds nothing to enhance our appreciation of the material.

Having gotten the expository origin story out of the way with the first film, Favreau and Marvel had a real chance to do as Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight did, putting an already mature hero through his greatest trial.  Instead, this is a story devoid of tension.  In the first film, at least there was danger in that cave and a minor crisis of conscience once out of it.  Here, I never felt like Tony Stark was truly tested by the villains, his critics, or his own incurable heart condition, all of which he overcame with ridiculous ease seemingly through sheer ego.  In fact, the climactic events, which should logically have had catastrophic results, are instead wrapped up with such preposterous neatness that you wonder why Nick Fury even sees a need to put together a team.

On the bright side, Robert Downey, Jr. still portrays Tony Stark, playfully narcissistic, as a superhero refreshingly unlike any other.  He is matched this time by the equally inspired performance of Sam Rockwell as a vigorously clueless rival weapons manufacturer.  He shares few scenes with Downey, but Rockwell nevertheless provides all of the movie's best moments.  Years from now, memories of his antics will probably survive anything else from the movie.

But perhaps the biggest letdown, as it was in the first film, is the mediocre action.  Downey's Tony Stark is a great character, but Favreau and crew seem less confident in handling the Iron Man side of the coin.  The suitcase armor is cool, but it's all downhill from there.  The climax is mostly shots of shadows zipping by in the dark, intercut with close-ups of Downey and Don Cheadle's faces with holographic screens suspended in front of them, all leading up to a final showdown that is just pathetic.  Frankly, it's getting to be insulting how lazy even the best superhero movies are when it comes to constructing fight sequences.  Critics and directors alike too often seem to think that action is necessarily mindless, and this is one area where Hollywood oddly seems to lag behind comic books, cartoons, and video games.  I may be going out on a limb here, but it might help, for starters, if Iron Man had a worthy adversary.

If I sound disappointed, the reality is that I got pretty much what I needed out of Iron Man 2.  I was honestly interested in it primarily as a warm-up for the pending Avengers movie.  As a preview of that, perhaps Iron Man 2 most importantly shows how Downey's Iron Man might operate alongside a peer.  Don Cheadle is probably twice the man that Chris Evans has thus far shown himself to be, but the important takeaway here may be that, rather than the other actors having to hold their own next to Robert Downey, Jr., having other heroes for Downey to interact with actually allows more opportunities for Iron Man to show off his personality while in the suit.

We already got close to a definitive Iron Man movie with the first one.  This sequel is not as fresh or surprising, but it is fun throughout, well-made and well-acted.  Iron Man is capable of greater pathos than was exhibited here, but that's not the tone these movies are aiming for, and perhaps we get enough of that with Batman and Spider-Man.  I'm not anticipating a better summer movie this year.  Take that as you will.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Super Street Fighter IV

What should be the definitive version of Street Fighter IV is surprisingly lacking a lot of the polish and production that went into the original release.  This is apparent right from the box art.

When Capcom first unveiled the North American Street Fighter IV cover, that crappy, pasted-together clip art looked like it would be the one disappointing piece of a monumental game launch.  It was typical of Capcom USA, which had given us, among other things, the Okami box art sporting an IGN watermark.  I just thought that maybe an event as big as Street Fighter's long-awaited return warranted something better.  Miraculously, reason prevailed when the fan community actually managed to change Capcom's mind and convince it to simply stick with the Japanese artwork for all regions.  Alas, there was no eleventh-hour rescue this time, and although the North American Super Street Fighter IV cover is decent, for being a lazy Photoshop assemblage of clip art, it is markedly inferior to the original piece used for the Japanese box art.

While the quality of the North American box art may seem an insignificant element, which is counterbalanced by the thick full-color manual, the laziness unfortunately creeps into the in-game presentation.  On boot, a brand new opening cinematic follows the usual legal screens, and it is excellent, if not as comprehensive as SFIV's.  But what's missing is Exile's awesome "Indestructible" theme song, which is gone without a trace, and I can only guess that it was cut to save on licensing fees.  In its place is an instrumental medley that, while good, doesn't get me nearly as pumped as "Indestructible."  Again, small stuff in the grand scheme, but that's not the end of it.  Remember those slick in-game move lists that were modeled after the panel art on the old coin-op machines?  Well, they've been replaced with boring traditional scrolling screens of just move names and button inputs.  Is it a big deal? No, but it all factors into the presentation score, and it begins to remind me of the lack of effort or pride that, before Street Fighter's glorious relaunch, produced things like Capcom Fighting Evolution.

Capcom has inexplicably cut out even some gameplay modes and options.  I won't miss the Survival and Time Attack challenges, but where is the Gallery for viewing unlocked art and videos?  Perhaps Capcom realized that nobody would ever want to relive the game's wretched endings, especially considering that SSFIV's brand new anime cut scenes are just as awful and poorly animated as before, if not worse.  In fact, the opening cut scenes for individual characters are now nothing more than still figures on barely animated backgrounds set to voice-over narration.  On the bright side, Capcom did implement my most wanted feature, the option to set the music to character themes during versus play.

In the long run, of course none of this stuff matters one bit.  This is a fighting game, after all.  More specifically, this is Street Fighter IV, and if you've played it before, there is nothing that is going to surprise you in this new edition.  It is still the best fighting game on the market, and if SSFIV doesn't fundamentally alter the core game, it at least adds a lot more of what was already there.

A fighting game is its characters, and SSFIV adds ten, which is frankly a massive leap.  That brings the total number of characters to thirty-five, making for the largest cast of Street Fighters ever assembled (unless you count Street Fighter Alpha 3 MAX for the PSP).  It's also the most comprehensive roster ever, bringing together the best from Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III, on top of the complete Super Street Fighter II cast.  I would have liked to have seen Alex from SFIII, but I don't know that I would have traded any of the three SFIII representatives in this game for him.  Maybe I would have traded jailbird Cody, but I suppose, considering the guy's place in the Street Fighter/Final Fight canon, he deserved a second chance.  As for the brand new characters, Juri and Hakan are definitely a step up from the initial set of SFIV originals.  Juri represents a fighting style and nationality that many players have been asking for in SF.  I just wish she weren't so overtly evil and perverse, which seems more out of SNK's bag (e.g. Vice and Mature); Capcom has traditionally been all about the fight, with minimal or no focus on characters' alignments.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hakan feels more like a vintage design, albeit a freakish one in the vein of Blanka or Dhalsim.  Like all of the SFII classics, his character rests in his visual design and fighting style, instead of a tiresome personality.  Although I originally thought Abel and El Fuerte were the more normal SFIV characters, I ended up hating them both because of their obnoxious voices and dialogue.

So, yeah, in one respect, probably the most important one, SSFIV is a pretty huge update.  Personally, the only new character that I'll probably be using with any regularity is Dee Jay.  And although I am obviously no expert, the only other new character that I can see shaking things up at the competitive level is Dudley.  Meanwhile, there are no meaningful system-wide changes instituted in SSFIV, and it overall feels like an engine-refining middle installment, a la Street Fighter II' - Hyper Fighting or Street Fighter III: 2nd Impact, as opposed to Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Street Fighter Alpha 3, or even Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, each of which was the last in its sequence and also the most experimental iteration.

A year later, my problems with SFIV's systems remain.  Giving players now a choice between two Ultra Combos for each character makes little difference, since it is pretty clear in most cases that one option is simply better.  Powering those Ultras, the Revenge meter, which seemed questionable to me a year ago, has since become my greatest frustration in the game.  It makes no sense to reward a player just for taking damage.  Capcom should have learned its lesson with Capcom vs. SNK 2's similarly criticized K-Groove (AKA the "Scrub Groove").  At least in CvS2, players didn't have to use K-Groove, and the other Grooves had advantages of their own that made them at least as effective.

The Focus Attack meanwhile remains mostly an expert's maneuver that is unlike anything else in Street Fighter.  I don't actually have much time to practice the game, so I still often forget that the Focus Attack exists, and I end up just playing as though this is SFII.  That leads to a lot of beatings because this is definitely not SFII, and the Focus Attack makes a huge difference.  If you don't know your character's specific Armor-Breaking attack, you'll end up taking a lot of Focus Attacks to the face.  On the offensive end, Focus Attack-canceling and Dash-canceling introduce crazy possibilities that experts can use to run rings around casual players who won't even comprehend why they are losing.

If these terms mean nothing to you, that's okay, because they don't mean much to me either.  These elements foreign to my SFII-informed experience are not necessarily worse than Parrying or Custom Combos, but SFII had none of those things and endures to this day as the cleanest, most fundamentally sound 2-D fighting game.  Frankly, things like Focus Attacks, Parrying, Custom Combos, etc. are gimmicks, albeit game-altering ones, which is precisely the problem.  A good game shouldn't be distinguished from its peers and predecessors by its unique gimmicks.  They don't evolve the game in any way, they just make it different and harder to understand.

You might wonder, if I had it my way, wouldn't we just be playing Street Fighter II over and over again for eternity?  Well, people do still play SFII for a reason, and it's the same reason that people still play chess, or tennis, or any competitive game that has been around for generations.  If the rules of the competition are sound, the fun comes in what an endless supply of competitors can bring to it.  That said, there are improvements that can and have been made to SFII, mostly in the areas of control and game speed.  And games have been able to add interesting things without taking away from the core of SFII.  Dashing and EX Specials, for example, do not alter the basic dynamic of a match, but they create a few extra possibilities here and there to make newer games fresher without breaking them.

Even with all its flaws, however, Super Street Fighter IV is the biggest Street Fighter ever and, I say again, the best.  Even with its Focus Attacks, it is less complicated than Alpha 3.  Even with its Ultra Combos, it is less backward than 3rd Strike.  And even with all that crap, it simply feels better than Super Street Fighter II Turbo, which I now find way too fast and jerky.  The online options are also vastly improved, although I still don't find much satisfaction in playing against passing strangers.

Oh, the bonus stages?  Totally lame.  They are something that you miss after they are taken away, but then, once you have them, you never want to play them, because they are and have always been stupid and pointless.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka

Pluto is the greatest robot story in history.

Okay, that's debatable, but I would say it is up there. It is also probably the greatest comic book I have ever encountered.

Pluto is the bold reinterpretation of manga legend Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy (AKA Tetsuwan Atom) by one of today's greatest authors of graphic literature, Naoki Urasawa (Yawara!, Monster, 20th Century Boys). Pluto specifically revisits Astro Boy's most famous story arc, "The Greatest Robot on Earth," originally about a robot programmed to prove itself history's greatest by destroying Astro Boy (AKA Atom) and all of the world's other most powerful robots.

Osamu Tezuka is justifiably regarded as the godfather of both manga and anime. He shaped Japan's post-World War II comics with his 150,000+ pages of material, transitioning the industry from a juvenile pastime to a booming creative and economic golden age with his works covering every genre and demographic. His impact on Japan's animation industry was no less significant; the animated Astro Boy (1963) was one of the country's first domestic animated TV series, certainly the first popular one. Although Astro Boy was his most famous creation, he also appealed to adults with such works as Ode to Kirihito and MW, both of which explored the dark and violent depths of mankind. He wrote for girls, sowing the seeds of shojo with his Princess Knight (AKA Ribon no Kishi), which begot The Rose of Versailles, which begot Revolutionary Girl Utena. Truly, it would be hard to find any work today that cannot be traced back to Tezuka. Even over twenty years after his death, his "big eyes" aesthetic remains synonymous with the "manga style" of art. An extraordinarily prolific and visionary artist and industry pioneer, although he was himself inspired by Walt Disney and Max Fleischer, Tezuka really never had an English-language equivalent to match his thorough combination of universal appeal and philosophical profundity that allowed him to speak to children in their own terms while challenging them with questions to be returned to continually as they grew up. I would credit that for the difference today between Japan and America in the perception and appreciation of comics and animation.

Among the many children who grew up following the adventures of Astro Boy was a young Naoki Urasawa, now one of Japan's most respected manga authors. In 2003, Urasawa approached Tezuka's son with the idea of remaking "The Greatest Robot on Earth" in celebration of the fictional birth year of Astro Boy. In the English-speaking world, Urasawa is best known for Monster, his adult-oriented psychological thriller about a surgeon's pursuit of the sociopath who framed him for murder. He might not have seemed an obvious choice to take on a crazy robot story originally aimed at young boys, but that's part of what makes Pluto so fresh and exciting, even--maybe especially so--for fans of Tezuka's original work.

Scaling things back from Tezuka's typically grand narratives, Urasawa and co-plotter Takashi Nagasaki reinterpret the story as first a suspenseful murder mystery that only gradually escalates into superheroic battles. Displacing Astro Boy as the protagonist in Urasawa's version is Gesicht, the robot detective, who is put in charge of the investigation of the attacks on the world's greatest robots by a terrifyingly powerful mechanical assailant. This robot serial killer's motive and identity are as elusive as any means to stop him, and there is yet an additional chilling element to his crimes because some of his victims are human, which, in accordance with Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, should be impossible.

As readers follow the case from Gesicht's perspective, the detective exemplifies the advanced state of artificial life in the world of Pluto. We see the very human-like weariness felt by this cop who has seen too much over his many years devoted to his job, as well as the stress on both him and his robot wife, because Gesicht himself is one of the world's greatest robots and thus a target. Through Gesicht's interactions with both robots and humans, Urasawa additionally tackles Tezuka's theme of robot rights, the ever-present question of whether these artificial lifeforms should be recognized as truly "alive" in the same way that humans are. Even as robots seem to exist alongside humans in the society of Pluto, there are still many humans who cannot accept robots as equals. The soulfulness that Gesicht exhibits makes them seem like bigots, but perhaps their resentment is understandable; Pluto does not shy away from discussing the negative implications of introducing super-efficient robots into the workforce. At the same time, there are things humans can do that robots cannot, such as killing other humans. Law is supposed to prohibit humans from committing murder, but some of Pluto's most intelligent characters argue that programming these restrictions into robots stunts their development toward full humanity. Some robots even wonder whether it is advisable for them to become any more human, considering that some of these programmed limitations, such as the inability to feel hate, are ostensibly good things that make them more humane than humans. Meanwhile, with the introduction of advanced prosthetics to replace lost limbs and even vital organs, humans themselves seem to become more like robots.

Pluto is still not hard science fiction. The non-uniform powers and abilities of the world's greatest robots veer toward the fantastic, and in tackling the theoretical issue of robot rights, Urasawa seems to cheat in leapfrogging by generations the limitations that identify AI today, instead depicting robots that are already so advanced as to be indistinguishable from humans in their exhibited depth of emotion and complexity of behavior. But therein lies the fundamental question: with technology progressing at a rapid clip, when eventually there exists a robot sophisticated enough to fool you into believing it is human, should the revelation of its artificial origins alter your perception of it? Are humans themselves anything more than extremely advanced machines designed by nature? Would an equally complex robot qualify as alive and intelligent, or would its human-like behavior be merely soulless mimicry? Is Gesicht's weariness real, or is he just going through the motions? How many humans can just as easily be accused of the latter? Of course probably nobody today will live to see such advanced robots (assuming robotics even goes in that direction), rendering the argument moot, but the greater point may be to make us consider over and again what it means to be human. Tezuka certainly had some ideas, Urasawa has his own, and the characters within Pluto have varying opinions as well, both hopeful and unsettling.

Astro Boy, known even in the English edition of Pluto by his original Japanese name of Atom, still has a major role as one of those greatest robots targeted by the robot serial killer. But Urasawa matches Pluto's more serious tone with art in his own style, which is markedly different from Tezuka's. The big eyes survive, as they have in everyone's work, Urasawa's included, but gone are the plastic hairdo and metallic shorts. Urasawa's Atom is drawn as a startlingly realistic young boy, and other formerly cartoonish Tezuka characters, such as the giant-nosed Ochanomizu (AKA Elefun, AKA Dr. O'Shay), are likewise re-imagined with entirely sensible proportions. In short, this is Astro Boy as though it were real. But that assessment alone does not do justice to Urasawa's art, which is more mature and understated than a lot of what is available in manga. The cinematic paneling that Tezuka spread is here perfected by Urasawa, who, without using dialogue as a crutch, can convey a ton of emotion just through narrative framing, as when he draws a female robot receiving the news of her husband's death. An older Johnny 5-esque model, she has no facial expression, yet the gravity of the scene is communicated through angled glances and shots alternating between her unmoving face and the officer's eyes that subtly shift from pain to guilt. Considering that Pluto sells at a premium rate as part of Viz's "Signature" line, it is only a shame that some pages have clearly been grayscaled from their original color forms. But Viz preserves the absolutely essential ones, perhaps spending a little more than usual to deliver the special treatment that Pluto not only deserves but requires. There is one particularly beautiful page that feels like the payoff to all the thousands of black-and-white pages of manga I've read over the years.

Pluto is an accomplished work on its own that requires no previous knowledge of Osamu Tezuka or Astro Boy to enjoy. That said, my appreciation for what Urasawa accomplished was greatly enhanced after I went back and read Tezuka's original story. Before getting into Pluto, I knew Astro Boy mainly from the bowdlerized English version of the 2003 anime and from watching somebody else play through Astro Boy: Omega Factor, Sega and Treasure's 2003 Game Boy Advance video game that compiled and jumbled together Tezuka's entire canon. From these more recent adaptations, both of which include "The Greatest Robot on Earth" to varying degrees of faithfulness, I appreciated the brazenness of Tezuka's world that seemed able to venture repeatedly into the awesome fringes of the imagination without ever stuttering. Yet I was reluctant to explore Tezuka's original work without the aid of nostalgia, for fear that it had aged too badly, much as the early DC and even Marvel comics, for all the ground they broke, are now overly simplistic and largely unreadable.

Watching the Terminator mythology crumble into nonsensical convolutions as McG's Terminator Salvation played on the screen, I wondered if the James Cameron classics that I so loved as a child were equally stupid. I did not go back to verify whether they were really the prescient meditations on both time travel and killer machines that I remembered, but I did watch Cameron's Avatar, and I thought to myself, "Yeah, this is pretty good. And stupid. I guess stupid is what I liked as a kid. Right?" Although I still have not gone back to re-watch the Terminator films, I'm actually pretty confident that they do hold up. I was less certain about Astro Boy, a work I did not originally encounter as a child, and which Tezuka himself in his later years regarded with frustration as juvenilia.

But Urasawa, like many manga authors of his generation, was motivated along his career path by that very juvenilia, whose depths inspired him even as he produced work all his own. As one of the supplemental interviews in Viz's release reveals, he prepared for writing Pluto by going back and rereading "The Greatest Robot on Earth," and he was surprised to find that many of the images so clear in his memory were not even in the original material. Therein lies the genius of both Osamu Tezuka and Naoki Urasawa.

One could perhaps pitch Pluto succinctly as "Astro Boy for adults." That will do for marketing, but Pluto is not a shocking or subversive new twist on the story you know. Urasawa and Nagasaki expand and newly contextualize the original material, but the themes definitely have their roots in Tezuka's story, as do nearly all key plot points. What Pluto really does is allow adults to appreciate the story in the same way that a child might have experienced the original Astro Boy some fifty years ago, for it is nothing less than the story that Urasawa remembers reading as a child who, presented with a seemingly simple cartoon full of slapstick characters speeding through illogical episodes, dug into its carefully hidden messages and, with that wondrous imagination that Tezuka depended upon in his young readers, unfolded them into a loaded and deadly serious opus.

Reading Pluto, then Astro Boy, followed by Pluto again, I found myself stunned into the realization that true art is never passively consumed. You don't just lay eyes on a painting, record some universal truth, and walk on, having brought no interpretation to the table. There is always a dialogue between the work and its audience, and what of that experience survives into consciousness and culture is reflective of the souls of both the author and the readers.

I now wait for the day when I will be able to hand Pluto to a robot, and he will throw it back in my face, calling it ridiculous and offensive.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver

I was fifteen when Pokemon Red/Blue arrived in the States in 1998. Too old to enjoy the cute monsters and perhaps too young to look past them, I sampled Red for about an hour before giving up. I denounced the concept as too reminiscent of dog fighting, but I was really more put off by the battle system that struck me as archaic. Some years later, I gained an appreciation for the finely tuned mechanics, thanks to the pure battling experience offered in Pokemon Stadium. Thus, as a nineteen-year-old college student, I decided to give the series another try when Ruby/Sapphire came out in 2003. Well, that endeavor ended prematurely much like my first attempt; as it turned out, having beaten Stadium with a team of "rental" Pokemon, I still had no patience for the main game routine of wandering around in tall grass and tossing out dozens of Poke Balls before a rare Pokemon agreed to go inside one.

It was not until 2006, when Nintendo partnered with Toys "R" Us to give out the legendary Mew for the Game Boy Advance editions, that I finally "got it." I was mostly familiar with the original 151 Pokemon (i.e. the ones in Stadium), so I still believed Mew the rarest of them all. Even though I had never been able to get more than an hour into any of the main games, the chance to acquire this Pokemon, impossible to catch within the game itself, ignited something within me. (Maybe it helped that I was now out of school and bored at work.) I dug out my copy of Ruby and waited three hours in line at Toys "R" Us to get that Mew. With that hardest one down, "catch 'em all" actually sounded feasible for once, and so I set myself to the game once more and this time promised myself that I would stick with it. Some forty hours later, I was not close to being a master, but I discovered that I actually did enjoy Pokemon after all, and I immediately followed up my playthrough of Ruby by taking on FireRed, Emerald, Colosseum, and the just-released Pearl, beating them all in turn in about a six-month span.

By the time Platinum came out last year, I considered myself quite the Pokemon adept, despite having gotten into it late. Perhaps the only gap in my experience was my not having played the second generation of Pokemon Gold/Silver/Crystal, which many enthusiasts considered the series's high point. I was certainly not going to go back to play a Game Boy Color game that offered no cross-compatibility with my GBA and DS games, especially as I did not believe in the noteworthiness of being the best entry in a series of practically identical games. As they did with the GBA remakes of first generation, however, Nintendo and Game Freak have given late-comers like me a second chance to experience Gold/Silver. I don't know how exactly Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver for the DS compares to the vaunted GBC originals, but I will say that it is the best Pokemon game that I have played.

It's not likely to change anybody's mind about the series; it is still very much the same experience as you'll find in any of the other main installments since the original (which is why a straight-up "remake" for this series may sound like a silly idea). The pursuit of the complete Pokedex is still as sickeningly addictive as ever. Tossing Poke Balls at uncooperative wild Pokemon can be tedious and frustrating, but it can also be as habit-forming as any real-world collecting hobby. The other appeal for me remains the deceptively deep combat. I've always appreciated that the AI foes in these games all play by the same rules as the player, so that you feel like you have to tactically outmaneuver an actual person, instead of an unfairly overpowered behemoth with just a ton of HP to be whittled down by tapping A over and over again. Of course, Pokemon may be the only RPG with an active competitive scene, so the fighting engine has to be balanced for player-versus-player.

That said, after beating Pearl, I was ready for a hiatus from the formula. I thought it was burnout from having played too many games in too short a span without any break, but, playing Platinum alongside HeartGold, I now realize that Diamond/Pearl/Platinum specifically is just not that enjoyable. They tried to make that game a bigger, more expansive experience by making towns larger and dungeons much longer, to no one's benefit. With the typically repetitive mechanics and absent plot, it could become a real drag to get stuck spending too much time in any one area. HeartGold/SoulSilver is much breezier by comparison, and the journey moves along at about the perfect pace to continually introduce the player to new Pokemon and Pokemon trainers.

Even the story is vastly more interesting. In practice, the plot is not at all engaging, but, then again, neither is Beowulf anymore a stimulating read outside an academic environment, in my opinion. There is a certain poetry to HeartGold/SoulSilver's narrative construction in conjunction with FireRed/LeafGreen.

SPOILERS (Seriously?)

/LeafGreen (or Red/Blue) begins with just a boy setting out from home to explore the land of Kanto. Journeying from town to town with the Pokemon he catches along the way as his only companions, he makes friends and rivals and challenges himself by taking on gym leaders. He tangles with Team Rocket, ultimately defeating its leader and saving Kanto from the criminal organization's nefarious schemes. The boy and his Pokemon gain experience from these battles, eventually earning their way into the Pokemon League to challenge the champion. The silent protagonist proves himself the strongest trainer in Kanto, but, instead of taking on the mantle of champion, he continues on his journey. With his Pokemon ever at his side, he rides off on his bicycle and into legend.

/SoulSilver (or Gold/Silver) picks up the story three years later in another land, where another young boy (or girl) sets out on a similar journey. He collects Pokemon, earns badges by defeating gym leaders, and contends with a bitter rival that may have some connection to Team Rocket, whose remnants have now relocated to the Johto region in a desperate bid to reach out to their missing leader. After this new protagonist becomes the strongest trainer in Johto, the story comes full circle as he makes his way to Kanto. There, the player gets to walk familiar routes and reunite with the Kanto gym leaders, who have grown stronger and more mature. You get to revisit all the old towns and see how they have developed free of Team Rocket's corrupting influences. Finally, you find the legendary Red himself standing at the summit, still very much the same boy that the player set out with on that first journey. In a silent duel of wandering champions, Red finally meets his match, only proving that the quest is truly never-ending. And thus the two boys part to continue along on their journeys.

Tsunekazu Ishiharu, producer of Pokemon Red/Blue and currently president of The Pokemon Company, recently revealed that Pokemon Gold and Silver were originally intended to be the "finish line" for the series (keep in mind that, while Gold/Silver was only the second generation, there had already been four first generation games released over the course of three years in Japan). Indeed, not only were they probably the best games in the series (maybe until their own remakes), but they were also the only legitimate sequels. Later games essentially retold the original's story, only changing the names and outfits, but Gold/Silver actually completed what Red/Blue began.

As in every subsequent release, the original game's world consisted of eight gyms, each championing one of the fifteen different Pokemon types. Gold/Silver then added two types and gave players another eight gyms to conquer, with no repeats from the first game, so that, between the two, every one of the seventeen Pokemon types was represented by a gym, with the exception of Dark, which happened to be the type favored by Team Rocket's interim leader in Gold/Silver, as well as the last and strongest member of the Johto League's Elite Four. Later games did not add any more Pokemon types and had to cut off access to the old regions and gyms, so that they could instead recycle old types in new gyms without it seeming redundant. That's a shame, because getting that ticket to ride to the original game world is the most exciting and rewarding moment in HeartGold/SoulSilver.

For players of Red/Blue (or FireRed/LeafGreen), returning to Kanto and battling the original gym leaders again can be a haunting experience in much the same way as revisiting Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, or exploring the mansion in Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition's "Lost in Nightmares" scenario. I imagine there would be yet another nostalgic dimension for players who actually traveled through Johto the first time around. Even if you've never played any version of Red/Blue or Gold/Silver before, the inclusion of almost the entire Kanto region makes for one of the best post-endgame "second quests" in gaming. It nearly doubles the length of the game, which effectively offers players twice as many meaningful battles as even the games that came after Gold/Silver. The remakes even go a little further toward making HeartGold/SoulSilver the definitive Pokemon experience by tossing in many rare Pokemon not originally found in Johto (some not even native to Kanto) and including cameos by some Ruby/Sapphire and Diamond/Pearl characters. And of course that battle with Red still makes for the perfect ending, such that I'm doubly disappointed that Black/White looks like it will be more of the same, because HeartGold/SoulSilver would have been the perfect sendoff to the classic formula.

As for the few brand new features in Pokemon HeartGold/SoulSilver, the Pokeathlon is a cool concept--who wouldn't love to see their little Pokemon sprites racing around a track?--but, even with multiplayer, the touchscreen-based mini-games are too clumsily executed to be anything but frustrating. The Pokewalker, on the other hand, I see as a fairly significant and positive advancement for the series. It is, in essence, just a more primitive version of a Tamagotchi crossed with a pedometer. In conjunction with the main game, however, it is much more attractive than that idea should be. It's embarrassing to say so, but being able to take your Pokemon around with you outside of the game makes your bond with them seem so much more real, while sending them into battle back on the DS is a lot more gratifying than raising a Tamagotchi ever could be. And the ability to level up a Pokemon just by taking it out for a walk has even encouraged me to get back on the treadmill, so I have to thank it for that.

If you have any interest in getting into (or back into) Pokemon, this is the game to play. It is the biggest, best, and most complete Pokemon experience yet. Even without trading, there are only about sixty Pokemon out of the current 493 that cannot be gotten through playing just either HeartGold or SoulSilver (I played HeartGold but recommend SoulSilver for Skarmory). I even kind of consider the lack of a compelling story as a point in the game's favor; since it doesn't require much attention, I can play the game while watching TV, and I have consequently sunk more hours into this than any other game (or other diversion, period) in the last two months. And I'm not even done yet.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Clash of the Titans

A few years ago, while we were idling away the second shift, a co-worker asked the room for ideas of "the perfect day." The question was not asked in earnest and neither were the answers to be taken seriously. One person imagined, for example, having three meals of bacon, then bacon for dessert. Another drew from his memories of going to Round Table Pizza after school and playing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game with his best friend. Er, come to think of it, maybe that one was not a joke. As for me, I had plenty of time to think while listening to others answer before me. Even so, this was what I came up with:

"I wake up early, but it's not a workday. I don't even have a job. Birds are chirping outside. I walk to the kitchen, pour out a glass of orange juice, sit down and take in the acres of meadow outside my glass house. THEN THE DAY GOES ON FOREVER AND SO DO I."

The response was tepid, maybe because they weren't taking that last bit literally, or maybe because they were but thought I was serious. Maybe it was my delivery. Or maybe it just wasn't very funny.

I didn't think much further about the question after that, until recently, when the release of the Liam Neeson Clash of the Titans called to mind a day that, in retrospect, may have been my perfect day.

I was in elementary school in the fourth grade. It was a Tuesday, meaning it was a minimum day, meaning school let out before lunch. The day began with some fun math activities, followed by social studies and spelling. During the short recess in between, I took a lap around the grass field, afterward feeling quite satisfied with myself. To end the school day, our teacher turned the lights down and read to us from Roald Dahl's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Then my mother drove me home and prepared my lunch, a bowl of rice porridge and some canned dace. While I ate, she worked outside on the yard. My older brother was still in his junior high class and my father was at work. For all intents and purposes, I had the next two hours all to myself.

I turned on the TV. TBS was playing the Harryhausen Clash of the Titans. It was not my first time seeing it; the battle with the stop-motion Medusa had shaped my childhood understanding of Greek mythology.

As it so happened, the TBS airing was about at that scene as I tuned in. It wasn't the most exciting development in the world, but I was content to let myself become absorbed in it once more. Finishing my meal quickly, I made my way to the couch to continue watching it through to the end with rapt attention. Following the movie, TBS ran an episode of The Flintstones. It was the one where Gazoo created mindless doubles of Fred and Barney, so that the boys could go bowling while their doubles took the unsuspecting wives out. Naturally I stayed tuned to the channel.

And that was my perfect day.

Kind of.

For one thing, while all of those memories are real and taken from the same period of my life, I highly doubt they could have all landed on the same day. Surely this perfect day is actually a composite of perfect moments from different days. Nevertheless, these memories are generally characteristic of my daily life then.

Second, those paying close attention probably noticed that my perfect day seemingly ends at about 2:30 PM. Honestly, I haven't a clue how I spent the rest of that day (any of them). Of course, not one of my co-workers actually detailed the whole of their perfect day. I think this just goes to show that the 24-hour day is somewhat an arbitrary unit for this discussion. A lifetime made up of such perfect days as mine would be pretty empty. But if I could have only one day, that is how I would spend it.

Finally, and most importantly, what's weird is that rice porridge and canned dace are not at all my favorite foods. I haven't seen Clash of the Titans again since then, and I'm not sure I could make it through a full viewing today. I haven't even seen any episodes of The Flintstones in over a decade, and I have no great desire to watch any now. And while I suppose I did enjoy school back then, I might have hoped that my ultimate day would have consisted of something more exciting and adventurous.

Looking back at the workplace discussion, I think the key is that everyone, even the guy who joked about eating bacon, described wholly stress-free episodes isolated from any context. In the same vein, my own case takes me back to my childhood free of distractions or complications, to a time when I could spend my day accomplishing nothing yet feeling at liberty to do anything. The attraction is obvious once I consider how, in my present life, I am routinely wondering where my day went for entirely different reasons. Whatever I am doing at any given time, I cannot help thinking about the things I am not doing with that time ticking by. When I watch TV, I think I should be playing video games. When I play video games, I think I should be exercising. When I exercise, I think I should be writing. I wish the day could be longer for me to do more stuff, but maybe I just need to have less stuff to do.

No, I haven't seen the new Clash of the Titans with Liam Neeson. It does look like the sort of fare that would be at home at a daytime TBS slot, if such things still exist.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition

I played through Resident Evil 5 four times, which is the most time I've spent on any single Resident Evil. This surprises even me, because I very rarely play through games more than once. I don't think I've ever encountered a game that is so deliberately user-unfriendly in its controls and basic mechanics while also being so addictive and replayable by its mission design. I know it's not to everyone's taste, but I do love that game. And yes, I did play through it in both co-op and single-player (the latter on Veteran difficulty, in fact). That was all months ago, of course, but I was able to enjoy one last hurrah with the game recently in the form of the new Gold Edition content.

The first piece of new content, "Lost in Nightmares," is a prequel scenario starring Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine. Set in a mansion environment that is completely new to and unlike anything else in RE5, it is a lovingly packaged homage to the classic pre-RE4 survival horror games. You spend most of it reading documents, solving simple puzzles, collecting limited supplies, and fetching keys and turning cranks, before confronting a boss enemy that cannot be defeated through direct means. "Lost in Nightmares" also included the one moment in all of RE5 that genuinely scared me (although I wonder how scary it would have been if I had remembered to turn on the RE5 mini-map). There is even a nifty trick to switch the perspective to the classic fixed camera mode, so you can remind yourself where the series came from and see just how far it has come. Alas, it does not restore auto-aiming, rendering the perspective highly impractical (well, more so than usual) once the shooting starts.

With tons more nods and references, "Lost in Nightmares" is wonderful fanservice for veterans, but its brevity makes it more of a nostalgia-driven novelty than an independently rewarding experience. Lasting one short sitting (you cannot save your game in the extra missions), as opposed to several nightly sessions scheduled before bedtime, it's missing the rewarding narrative arc, from hopeless nightmare gradually to hopeful dawn, that was so essential to old-school Resident Evil. It also makes apparent just how poorly suited cooperative multiplayer is to the old survival horror design. I've discussed this before, but the more intimate adventure style of Resident Evil is not something that gets better with more players. When it is just you and your player character journeying through that mansion, it is easy to become immersed in the exploration and bond with the game itself. When you add another live human being to the mix, you become anchored in the real world, unable to drift into the fiction. Without that immersion, all this scanning of objects and flipping through pages in lengthy files becomes just a tiresome exercise.

On the other hand, when I collected a key item that I had no idea how to utilize, it occurred to me that maybe I was never very good at these games. As I read aloud the clue, however, my partner was able to recall an important detail that led us in the right direction. Had I been on my own, I'm sure I would have just wasted several minutes rechecking every object in the environment. Unfortunately, the presence of another player could not help me to make sense of the cryptic documents, some of which seem barely relevant to either RE5 or past games. Perhaps they are the first clues to the story of the next game.

The other new chapter is "Desperate Escape," which is set during the events of RE5. The name evokes "Last Escape," the Japanese subtitle for Biohazard 3, which was the last game chronologically to feature Jill Valentine as the main player character. Jill is back as the player one character here, but "Desperate Escape" is more of a distillation of the action elements of RE4 and 5. It is probably the most intense chapter in all of RE5, constantly tossing overwhelming numbers at you and forcing you to keep on the move. Of course, you still can't move while shooting, so the resulting action is maybe the finest example in RE5 of the series's trademark engineered panic. For reference, the hairiest chapters in the main game require taking out as many as 60 enemies to earn an S rank for the stage. At the end of "Desperate Escape," my partner and I finished with over 150 enemies routed. Each.

The highlight for me was a sequence that, more than anything else in the game, truly reminded me of Black Hawk Down. Armed with a sniper rifle, I was forced to take shelter in a crumbling shed. With three walls and only one window, it was the most fortified position available. I quickly found myself against the back wall and essentially prone as I covered the two entry points. As packs of enemies stormed both sides, I was pretty much locked in scope mode any time I wasn't frantically reloading. Occasionally my partner, packing a puny automatic, would charge out to collect ammo. Certain that I would not survive long out in the open with a sniper rifle, I had to remain behind and watch him shrink in the distance and wander off screen, perhaps never to return.

Both chapters are well worth experiencing if you are a fan of the game or series. "Lost in Nightmares" is a very novel experience that shows how the old survival horror formula could still work with the newer camera. "Desperate Escape" is an action-packed scenario that serves as a short encore for the experience of RE5 as a whole. They are not entirely satisfying, but I don't see how post-game downloadable content of this sort can be. Although both chapters are comparable in length to those found in RE5's campaign, as standalone chapters they don't carry the feelings of consequence that come with progressing through a full game. "Lost in Nightmares" feels especially insubstantial and "Desperate Escape," even as hectic as it is, feels a tad anticlimactic. Like the Wizards Jordan, it lasts just long enough to remind you of the great times you had before, but it's over all too soon and the payoff isn't quite there this time. Even so, I'm glad to have had this one last dance.

The final piece of Gold Edition is Mercenaries Reunion, which is a huge disappointment. It is just the regular Mercenaries mode with barely reworked stages and eight new characters to play as. Unfortunately, instead of simply plugging the new characters into the existing mode, Capcom decided to include Mercenaries Reunion as a completely separate mode, despite the fact that it is obviously 99% the same code. Thus, none of the original Mercenaries characters are playable in Mercenaries Reunion, nor are any of the new characters playable in plain Mercenaries. This only really matters when playing co-op, but it means that you cannot, for example, team up Wesker with Barry Burton. Less significant but still annoying, your old scores and progress also do not carry over to the "new" mode. I can speculate as to the reasons, but there really can be no good excuse for this.