Wednesday, June 30, 2010


2007.  I've just started training at my new job.  My fellow trainees and I are chatting idly during a break.

Jewish male: Russian women are not to be messed with, huh?  Like Maria Sharapova.

Russian female (who, no offense, looks nothing like Maria Sharapova): Giggle giggle.

Jew: Do you like tennis?

Russian: Oh, yes!  You know Marat Safin?

Jew: (blank stare)

Russian: He's a Russian tennis player.  He's sooooo handsome.  Of course, I like Andy Roddick too.

Jew: (bored expression on face)

Me: What about Roger Federer?

Russian: Who?

Me: He's the number one player in the world.  He's Swiss.

Russian: Oh, he's okay.

Me: Hmm . . . Nikolay Davydenko?

Russian:  Eww, he's nasty.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Bayonetta is like "Ultraviolet: The Video Game," only not quite as cool as that sounds.  But Bayonetta's eponymous heroine does have Violet's inhuman fighting abilities that test even the camera's capacity to keep up, her proficiency with the blade, her wicked gravity powers that allow her to walk on walls and ceilings, an outfit of comparably temperamental fabric, a motorcycle, and a somewhat annoying and unwelcome child tagging along.  I'm pretty sure there's even an amateur "Gun Kata" moment in there.  And Hideki Kamiya's latest game is even more frenetic and nonsensical than Kurt Wimmer's 2006 film.

Bayonetta is, of course, the latest work by Hideki Kamiya, the creator of Capcom's Devil May Cry, which in 2001 established a new standard and mechanical vocabulary for 3-D third-person action games.  The seminal game was a critical and commercial success, but Capcom then shockingly handed development on the sequel to a different team.  Kamiya was disappointed with the decision, players were disappointed with the new team's product, but then the series rebounded as the DMC2 team found its way with DMC3, after which most of us moved past the fiasco, and so too seemingly did Kamiya, as he went on pouring his passion into Viewtiful Joe and Okami instead.  By the time DMC4 came out in 2008, this was all ancient history to most fans.  But then came the unveiling of Bayonetta, Kamiya's first project since leaving Capcom.  The similarities to Devil May Cry were impossible to ignore, and players were once more intrigued by the idea of what could have been, had Kamiya been allowed to make the sequel to his game.  Now that we may finally have the answer, was it worth the wait and the heartache?

Kamiya's spiritual successor to Devil May Cry is leagues better than DMC2.  Put it next to the original Devil May Cry, stellar in its own time, and you'll find Kamiya's new game to be a more robust, vastly more refined experience.  Indeed, had we gotten Bayonetta back in 2003 instead of DMC2, I'm sure it would have been amazing.  But that's not reality.  The reality is that this is 2010--nine years and three Devil May Cry sequels since Kamiya's PS2 hit.

The near-flawless DMC3, which I consider the peak of the genre, captured most of what made the original great, then made significant tweaks and additions--most notably, the chapter select system encouraging replay--to produce an overall more solid, more playable game.  Bayonetta is a very good action game, as was DMC4, but its only substantial evolutions upon the original Devil May Cry are features that were already implemented in DMC3.  Technological advancements allow for some flashy new set pieces, but the gameplay feels fundamentally just like DMC, now a somewhat tired, distinctly last-generation game.

Even taking these games out of their respective historical contexts, I think Bayonetta would be merely on a par with DMC3 and DMC4, but not necessarily better.  The real-time weapon switching is nowhere near as tight as in DMC3, and without DMC4's handy Devil Bringer to reel enemies in, it is again sometimes cumbersome having to chase enemies down.  Despite possessing a ton of weapons, each with accompanying massive move lists, Bayonetta also doesn't seem to have as many impressive or obviously useful special attacks as Dante or Nero.  Devil May Cry is similar to a 2-D fighting game in that respect, outfitting its characters with big utility maneuvers--the lunging Stinger, for example, or the enemy-launching High Time--whereas Bayonetta, despite feeling very similar, is more like a 3-D fighter such as Tekken, where instead of having special moves, the player is supposed to string together regular punches and kicks in different sequences to different effects.  It's not that one approach is necessarily better than the other, but just as I will always take Street Fighter over Tekken, so too do I prefer Devil May Cry to Bayonetta in this respect.

As in Devil May Cry, there are additional moves to be purchased in Bayonetta, but whereas Dante never felt "complete" until he had his full arsenal, somehow I never felt, in Bayonetta, like I needed to exert myself even so far as to utilize all of the weapons I found incidentally.  I beat Bayonetta on normal difficulty--the highest default setting--never spending a dime except on the air dodge maneuver.  I did not buy any other items or abilities, nor did I go out of my way to search for hidden items or optional challenges.  Even with my Bayonetta at less than half of her maximum potential health, I never felt greatly challenged.  I must credit this to the game's very generous checkpointing, which will sometimes even restart the player in the middle of a multi-phase boss fight.  There was only one boss--the second fight with the giant infant whip-head--that somewhat confounded me, but instead of slowing down to figure it out, I just used a single healing item--the only one I would use during my entire playthrough--and powered my way through.  I know that's not how these games are meant to be enjoyed, and I'm sure I did miss a few things by not shopping, but the game itself didn't really encourage that.

The most significant point of divergence from DMC is in how Bayonetta stresses defensive play.  The DMC sequels were all offense except in boss battles, but Bayonetta requires a more attentive, defensive mindset even against regular enemies.  It's nothing as severe as Ninja Gaiden, but the central mechanic of Bayonetta is the dodge maneuver.  Nearly all enemies have attacks that cannot be interrupted and will, in fact, deflect any attack of yours.  The goal is to sidestep these attacks, and if the dodge is performed just before an attack is supposed to hit, Bayonetta will activate "Witch Time," completely freezing all enemies for a short period, during which you can assail them without reprisal.  The timing required to activate Witch Time is much more generous than for similar mechanics in other games, such as DMC3's Royal Guard block ability, so even mediocre players should be able to pick it up within a few minutes of play.  Pay attention instead of mashing buttons, and you'll find yourself stopping time with regularity against even imposing boss enemies.  When you do manage to thus neuter a boss, it's uniquely empowering, but that feeling comes at a great cost.  In requiring that you make such specific use of the dodge against even basic enemies, the game forces you to play a certain way, meanwhile discouraging the sort of experimentation and improvisation that are so much the heart of Devil May Cry's combat.  That's probably why I didn't bother shopping for moves or exploring the combo system more deeply, instead mostly just relying on dodging and the basic punch-kick-punch combo throughout the entire game.

I did mess briefly with the one-handed Easy Automatic mode.  It's pretty cool and does genuinely allow even the feeblest of players to make it through the game, so that they can, ahem, just enjoy the story.  DMC3 and 4 may not have been sophisticated literature, but they were pure narratives that presented their themes cleanly and effectively.  Bayonetta's story is complete bunk.  Neither is the plot ever even vaguely comprehensible, nor the cinematics sufficiently impressive, outside of maybe two or three noteworthy action cut scenes.  Most annoyingly, for a story so devoid of sense, there are some surprisingly lengthy and dialogue-heavy scenes to be had.

Another area in which Bayonetta differs from DMC is the camera.  Kamiya has traded the fixed camera locations of the DMC games for a user-controlled, character-centric camera.  This has a subtle effect, more so on level design than on gameplay.  With the fixed cameras, DMC was often constricted to filling its maps with lots of corridors.  Many of the more open environments, meanwhile, were just three-layer constructs, with a clear background and foreground, while the audience formed the fourth layer viewing from beyond the performance area.  Bayonetta doesn't have to thus take the audience's limited viewing angle into consideration, so its stages can be more fully three-dimensional.  So that fountain, for example, can form a more organic piece of an interactive environment, rather than being strategically placed for best eye-catching effect.  What this camera really exists for, however, is the "Witch Walk," Bayonetta's single coolest mechanic, which allows you, at specific points in the game, to defy gravity and walk on walls and ceilings.  As you transition from one surface to a perpendicular surface, it is the world itself that appears to rotate around your character.  The game's highlights are the battles with Bayonetta's rival Jeanne, during which both characters Witch Walk from surface to surface as they trade blows.

The anti-gravity business contributes to a perhaps deliberate softness in Bayonetta that, along with its vivacious new heroine, gives the game a personality subtly distinct from the harder-edged Devil May Cry.  This can be felt in the jumping, which is floatier, ironically closer to DMC2.  In the rest of the DMC titles, Dante could buy a second jump, but with or without it, he still had to rely heavily on his handguns to give him some extra hang time against ground threats.  It made for one of the coolest effects in DMC, the idea being that it was only the recoil from his pistol fire that kept him afloat against ever-present gravity.  DMC2 Dante's double-jump, on the other hand, involved some kind of magical float ability, as though he were conjuring wind beneath him, and Bayonetta similarly is able to sprout wings to gently glide short distances.  As for Bayonetta's handguns--functionally closer to machine guns--they deal more damage than Dante's, but they don't integrate very naturally into melee combos and are hardly necessary for combat, which makes them hardly necessary at all, since they aren't needed to augment Bayonetta's jumping.  Witch Time, meanwhile, is functionally similar to Viewtiful Joe's VFX Slow ability, though also somewhat the opposite.  Joe used his ability to slow down time in order so that he could dodge bullets and other fast attacks.  For Bayonetta, time slows as a result of dodging.  In the former case, Joe is having to make the most of his powers in order just to survive.  Bayonetta, meanwhile, is practically baiting attacks so that she can dodge them and activate Witch Time as a reward.  Whereas Dante and Joe seemed to always be walking a razor's edge, Bayonetta seems more out on a casual stroll.  (It also feels counterintuitive, to me, for time to slow after you've already dodged that (figurative) bullet, although I'm obviously nitpicking to call the game out on that.)

Finally, if you're one of those Devil May Cry fans who loved the first game but wondered where all the really zany stuff went in the sequels, then Bayonetta may be the game you've been waiting for.  What Kamiya offers that the DMC sequels have not is the completely random gameplay non sequiturs--points where the game will suddenly depart from the regular action gameplay and instead switch to some extended mini-game.  There's a motorcycle stage, a rail shooter stage, and other wackier sequences.  When Devil May Cry pulled this in critical, even climactic, moments, it was shocking, but a part of me had to smile and tip my hat at the sheer nerve of Kamiya to simply discard all the deep combat mechanics that the rest of the game had spent hours drilling into the player.  The rail shooter stage in Bayonetta is unfortunately much longer and more full of distracting special effects than Devil May Cry's, however, and whatever novelty there is to it wears off well before it's over, leaving the player just a pretty shallow and annoying shoot 'em up segment to endure.

If all you've been waiting for is an action game as good as the original Devil May Cry, then you've been waiting needlessly, because Devil May Cry 3 already was that game.  Bayonetta, like DMC4, is just more of the same, and the amount of enjoyment you derive from the experience will depend on your appetite for that kind of comfort food.  But if you are a hardcore fan of this hardcore genre, then the emergence of a worthy new contender in Bayonetta--much more a direct Devil May Cry competitor than Ninja Gaiden or God of War--is surely welcome, even if it doesn't revolutionize the formula.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Distance

59-59.  That's where the score presently stands in the fifth set of the first-round Wimbledon match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut.

For reference, the previous longest tennis match, by number of games played, lasted a mere 112 games.  That was Pancho Gonzales's first-round Wimbledon victory over Charlie Pasarell in 1969, in an era before tiebreaks were introduced to limit the first four sets of a five-set match.  In fact, that match played a large part in the adoption of the tiebreak into Wimbledon.  But that longstanding rule is of no benefit to Isner and Mahut now.  This being a decisive fifth set at Wimbledon, there is no tiebreak, no clock, no mercy rule to determine the winner.  It goes on either until one man pulls ahead by two games, or until someone opts to retire.

After two days of play, neither player has backed down yet, and today they played more games, in the fifth set alone, than Gonzales and Pasarell did in their entire legendary match.  The length of this match has already so far eclipsed the previous mark that those stats need not ever again be brought into the same conversation.  This record shall hereafter reside in its own category.  To provide another perspective, these men have been playing for ten hours.  After over seven hours today--longer than the entirety of the next longest match--play had to be suspended due to darkness, to be picked up again tomorrow.

I didn't get to watch any of today's action, but I will be taking tomorrow off to witness day three, even if it should last only two more games.  When I received my brother's text message at work, informing me that the score was tied at 59 all, I thought for sure he was either joking or had mistyped.  I've watched some sports, seen some records broken, but never have I heard of anything so improbable in my lifetime.  Whatever the outcome, this match will obviously be the highlight of the tournament, definitely the greatest moment in both players' careers, if not their lives.  But even more than that, I say, all sincerity, that this is bigger than the sum of all the other tennis matches recorded since I've been alive, bigger than 10 Olympics, plus as many World Cups, 40 Super Bowls, and 3 Gulf Wars.  This is tennis's own equivalent to Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.  Like the moonwalk even, this is an event for which time stands still, and it feels wrong that anyone in the world should be otherwise occupied.  In the face of such a singular feat, I realize what hyperbole it has been to toss around words like "marathon" and "immortality" when covering other matches.  Isner and Mahut are not even contenders, and their play is probably not the most scintillating tennis, but this is something that has never happened before, will probably never happen again in your lifetime, your children's lifetimes, or their children's lifetimes.  Truly, it is for moments like this that sport exists.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

Since completing Pokemon, I've mostly been playing Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days for the DS.  I actually started playing it back when it came out last year, but it fell by the wayside because, frankly, the game is a chore.

I had a lot of fun with the major console Kingdom Hearts titles.  The original was a very refreshing new spin on the JRPG, crossing over Final Fantasy's menu commands with a 3-D action game.  Mixing Disney with Square may have been unexpected, but it was much more a Disney experience, with the world-hopping Sora character more a story contrivance to guide the player along a tour of all the classic movies.  Kingdom Hearts II then streamlined the gameplay experience, cutting out a lot of the horrendous platforming, while amping up the action with greater combat speed and the sort of gravity-defying battle cinematics that would henceforth become a signature of Tetsuya Nomura's works.  The Square-Disney crossover stuff really started to get weird at this point, however, as Nomura's team started to go nuts developing their original storyline into something incredibly convoluted that had practically nothing to do anymore with Disney.

Between those two major releases, I also played through the original GBA version of Chain of Memories.  Its card-based take on the part-menu, part-real-time combat made random battling more methodical in the most aggravating way, but the boss battles actually got pretty intense.  Honestly, I don't know if my fingers ever moved faster than during those deck shuffles against the final bosses of that game, and developer Jupiter would later experiment further with that idea of multitasking gameplay, doing great things with The World Ends With You.  But Chain of Memories had major story problems, and worse than being an odd fit, the Disney stuff had already grown stale.

The whole "tour of Disney" idea sounded like a great idea for a one-off, but a series is going to very quickly run out of Disney movies in which to viably set an action-oriented video game.  Even Kingdom Hearts II, although it managed to dig up a few random new and interesting worlds to explore, had to rehash a lot from the first game.  The staleness has been considerably worse, however, in the outsourced portable projects, which have thus far apparently not merited Square Enix's effort in producing new assets.  Birth by Sleep for the PSP looks like it will be a legitimate new experience, but Chain of Memories was rehashed art design, reused music, and tired story retreads.  358/2 Days spares us having to experience the plot of Aladdin for a fifth time, but it still forces players to return to Agrabah, which is otherwise the same as ever and overly familiar.  Because 358/2 Days is set before Kingdom Hearts II, players don't even get to visit any of the newer additions from that game.  Instead, it's nearly all stuff that was already in both the original game and Chain of Memories.

Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts problem is actually comparable to the Parasite Eve situation that I discussed in my last post.  The scope of Square Enix's game has clearly exceeded the original concept founded on its licensing agreement with Disney, to the extent that, by Kingdom Hearts II, not only did the Disney elements feel out-of-place within the original story that Nomura and company were going with, but the mad juxtapositions of Mickey Mouse with Nomura's menacing robed figures even began to detract from the experience.  Kingdom Hearts and Sora belong as much to Disney as to Square Enix, however, so there really is no divorcing the series from the Disney elements.  Perhaps Final Fantasy Versus XIII is to be the Kingdom Hearts team's own The 3rd Birthday, allowing deeper exploration of the action gameplay, intense cinematics, and dark story, away from the obligations to Disney.

So, besides the fact that I'm sick of revisiting these Disney worlds, what else is wrong with Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days?  Well, personally, I don't enjoy exploring 3-D space on handhelds.  On consoles, 3-D (polygons, not glasses) is supposed to draw the player into the TV screen, providing an extra dimension of immersion over old 2-D side-scrollers.  For me, that doesn't work with portable systems because the screen is too small, so I cannot help but notice the real world beyond and around it.  That has always been my biggest issue with the PSP.  But the DS is even worse for 3-D because it additionally suffers from a lack of an analog stick.  Playing Kingdom Hearts with the DS Lite's squishy D-pad is a thumb-blistering nightmare.  That said, I'm still excited for the Nintendo 3DS.  The analog slide pad looks promising, the specs seem powerful enough to make polygons look good on a handheld, and maybe the stereoscopic effect will provide a new level of immersion.  (As an aside, I also find it interesting to see that, with Kirby's Epic Yarn, yet another venerable Nintendo franchise is going 2-D for a major console release.  And with sales of New Super Mario Bros. Wii having shown that consumers don't so much care about 2-D vs. 3-D, maybe there no longer needs to be this generational divide between the two, and developers will just go with what is right on a case-by-case basis, without having to use either polygons or "old-school" as selling points.)

Moving on, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days simply isn't a fun game.  The mission-based structure is just poorly designed.  Like the PSP entries in the Metal Gear Solid series, this handheld take on a traditionally triple-A console game breaks up the story into "bite-sized" episodes for easier consumption on, I suppose, the short breaks or bus rides for which portable gaming is ideal.  You choose missions usually from a short list, then get a bit of story upon successful completion, before returning to the hub world to receive your next assignment.  The problem is that these missions, in my opinion, are not short.  For me, 5-10 minutes is short, but some missions in this game have taken me 30 minutes or more.  Maybe I'm slow, but it doesn't help that the vague mission objectives often leave me wandering and wasting a lot of time.

Because the missions do not proceed in a strictly linear sequence, they cannot involve a lot of plot, the story sequences instead taking place between missions.  Furthermore, instead of making progress through a world as in a more linear game, each world is actually fairly small, and the player is required to explore each fully multiple times, each time completing missions with very slightly different objectives.  Usually, you just have to kill everything until you find and kill the right thing, which is always just a thing, never a named villain with any kind of personality.  So the game offers slow combat with poor controls to fight repetitive waves of monsters in a limited number of environments, most of which were already old two games ago, and in which you must effectively replay the same mission over and over again.  And, boy, did they pad the length of this game with a ton of repetitive missions, some optional, most not.

Finally, there is the multiplayer, which could have saved this game, had it only been integrated better.  It's cooperative play for up to four players, and you actually get to play as characters other than Roxas.  Unfortunately, you cannot progress through the story in multiplayer, even though the multiplayer missions are just stripped-down versions of story mode missions.  Also, a player cannot join in on a multiplayer session unless they have already unlocked that mission through the story mode, so you can't realistically play this mode except with other hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans who would independently make steady progress through the story.

If you are one of those hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans, then 358/2 Days, like Chain of Memories, at least does fill in a few holes in a story that is full of them.  In fact, the story chronology actually overlaps slightly with Chain of Memories, and the two games can occasionally fit together in clever ways a la Resident Evil 2 and 3. But I'm about ten hours in, and there hasn't been a lot of story, or at least not much of interest.  And considering that I'm on Day 99 and the game is titled 358/2 Days, I'm guessing I've got a long way to go.  I don't know that I'll have the dedication to see it through this time, and the game so far hasn't made a very convincing argument that I should.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Return of Aya Brea

I wouldn't say it was the most exciting or most surprising thing at E3, but I was personally interested in seeing anything new on Square Enix's The 3rd Birthday.

It's a PSP game, hence the trailer is not very exciting, but in case it's not clear, The 3rd Birthday is the third game starring Aya Brea, the third game, more or less, in the Parasite Eve series.  Originally announced three years ago (via some pretty wicked poster art) for Japanese mobile phones, it was bittersweet news for fans who were sure the series had been laid to rest after 2000's forgettable Parasite Eve II.  Like many players, I had enjoyed the first game but knew very little about the second, yet I still wanted to see more done with the Aya Brea character.  The announcement of a third entry after a seven-year hiatus at least proved that Square Enix still remembered, but being consigned to cellphones was almost a fate worse than death.  The outlook brightened somewhat when, a year later, The 3rd Birthday was, along with Final Fantasy Agito XIII, moved to the semi-legit PSP.  All Square Enix showed was a short and cryptic pre-rendered movie trailer (and more nifty promotional artwork), but the news of composer Yoko Shimomura's return to the series made it instantly more promising than Parasite Eve II.  Then two years went by with nothing else shown.

According to one interview, development is now in full gear, with many key staff from the Final Fantasy XIII team having joined up since completing that game.  I suppose one could alternatively take that as meaning that production on The 3rd Birthday had been placed on the back burner while its key staff worked on FFXIII.  Given how unexpectedly long that game took to finally make it out, that would explain the two years of no news on The 3rd Birthday.  Of course, the long-in-development Final Fantasy Versus XIII had been similarly put on hold so that its team could help out on the increasingly elephantine nightmare project that was FFXIII.  Now a new console Kingdom Hearts is being held back because Tetsuya Nomura's team is back to working on Versus XIII, which apparently still wasn't ready to be shown at this year's E3.  And Agito XIII, headed up by Hajime Tabata, also in charge of The 3rd Birthday, has been in limbo for even longer.  Given all that, I can actually take Square Enix's word for it that an HD console remake of Final Fantasy VII, of the quality that fans would want, would not be feasible at this time.  I'm probably repeating myself and stating the obvious, but Square Enix ain't what Square used to be, and the days of getting two Parasite Eve games in one console generation are over.  In fact, did you know that, besides FFXIII, Square Enix has to date released only one other title that it itself developed for HD consoles, that being the underperforming The Last Remnant for Xbox 360?

Back on the topic of Parasite Eve, it is significant that, despite it being the third Aya Brea game and having a very prominent "3" in the title, The 3rd Birthday is not being called "Parasite Eve 3."  Tabata insists that it is not a Parasite Eve sequel.  Perhaps he means that it is more of a spin-off, and maybe fans can yet hope for a "Parasite Eve 3" for consoles somewhere down the line.  But I suspect maybe this is just Square Enix's way to get around licensing issues.  You may recall that Parasite Eve was actually based on a Japanese novel, and in Japan, the game was just one part of a multimedia J-horror sensation.  There were no book or movie sequels, but novelist Hideaki Sena still received a "based on a novel by" credit for the Parasite Eve II game.  Maybe it's taken this long to bring back the game series because Square Enix didn't want to pay licensing fees to the book people.  This would also explain why Square Enix has yet to offer either of the PS1 Parasite Eve games for download on PSN.

I actually read Sena's Parasite Eve novel, because I was curious, as a fan of the game.  It's not very good.  It also has very little in common with the game.  The concept of the Eve character is much the same--she is a mitochondrial life form, silently evolving in humans until the day she might take over, using a female host who had received Eve via an organ transplant, to give birth to the ultimate being.  Also as in the game, her main power is the ability to ignite human beings, giving the appearance that they are spontaneously combusting.  But Aya Brea, the mitochondria-powered heroine of the games, is entirely a Square creation, and the first game's plot, handled by Takashi Tokita of Final Fantasy IV, also traces a very different arc.

In the game, Eve possesses an opera singer and, in the opening minutes, sets the entire audience on fire.  From there, she infects and mutates animals that lay siege to the city, and it is up to Aya and her fellow NYPD cops to wage a six-day war against the mitochondrial menace.  The novel proceeds at a much more languid pace and is devoid of cops or much action.  The central characters are the civilians who are in various ways connected to the Eve hosts, the organ donor and recipient.  Eve herself doesn't really emerge until the final third of the book.  Before that, nobody even suspects her existence, and most of the book is passages describing biological research procedures, including going into detail on the work that goes into putting together and presenting a graduate thesis.  Sena's characters even dialogue about which scientific journals, in order, are the most prestigious and hardest to get published in.  At these points, I suspect that Sena is not really writing horror, or even fiction, anymore.  Periodically, he attempts to build suspense by having characters remark on how suddenly hot it is or how unnatural some research samples seem.  Then Eve appears, rapes a man and a little girl, and melts maybe a half-dozen people, before dissolving that same night due to her own deficient grasp of the science.

I must confess, I haven't read a lot of pop horror, so I don't know what is standard in the genre, but I don't understand how this became a sensation in Japan.  Maybe if I understood the science better, I would find the characters' research more unsettling.  From my perspective, however, Square shed a lot of the source material to the game's advantage and constructed many more spectacular sequences, all framed within a narrative more thoroughly laced with dread.  At most, the game could be taken as a semi-sequel to the book, rather than any kind of adaptation.  But Parasite Eve was so much better as a game than as a book, and even the first game already expanded so far beyond the scope of the novel, that it would have been a real shame to have Aya forced into early retirement due to licensing hassles.  So if Square Enix's compromise is to forget about "Parasite Eve," forget about Eve altogether, and move forward with just Aya, then I'm perfectly fine with that.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Me: I'm sorry I'm not Superman.

Old Man: So then you're not working Saturday?

Me: No.  I am not.  Also, I'm taking tomorrow off.

Old Man: *sigh* Kids these days.  What ever happened to taking pride in your work?

Me: Well, there is that.  On the other hand . . . "Don't hurt yourself."

Saturday, June 12, 2010

How It All Went Down

If the roughly 30-level difference seems quite high, it is because, as you might have gathered from previous posts, I do not like to level-grind.  I believe that it is a symptom of bad game design, and thankfully I have found that the Pokemon games are better than that, placing greater, or at least equal, emphasis on strategy and tactics as on the grind.  I have long been of the belief that these games can be won without engaging in any random battles at all, and I have put my belief to the test through my own playthroughs, where I level up Pokemon only through experience gained from battles with NPC trainers at fixed locations.  The only time I engage a random encounter is when I want to capture the wild Pokemon, in which case my Pokemon does not gain experience from the battle anyway.  All of my Pokemon above are the result of me picking out my teams early, then spreading out experience evenly so that no one falls behind.

That said, I obviously didn't train all of these Pokemon in my copy of HeartGold.  These were my six best Pokemon hand-picked from across four different Pokemon cartridges.  Swampert migrated over from Emerald, Venusaur and Jolteon from FireRed, and Lucario was traded over from my Platinum team.  My Skarmory was bred from one that I had had to trade for with a SoulSilver player.  Only Typhlosion was part of my original HeartGold team, which I took to the Johto championship and through most of Kanto.  I normally only use six Pokemon per game (because it's hard to raise more than six), which I assemble early on and then stick with, but because this was supposed to be "the final match," I thought it only fitting to look back at my previous campaigns and bring in representatives from each of my past lineups, in order to construct my own comprehensive all-star team to pit against Red's.

As for the move setups, the only TMs used were to teach Jolteon Thunderbolt and Flash, the latter for its field effect allowing me to navigate the pitch-black Cerulean Cave.  Typhlosion and Venusaur learned Blast Burn and Frenzy Plant via move tutors, and a Heart Scale was used to make Skarmory "remember" Night Slash.  Everything else was learned either through leveling up or via HMs acquired as part of the story.  I also didn't use any stat-enhancing vitamins.

Now, on with the play-by-play:

Red would of course start with his signature Pokemon and the franchise mascot, Pikachu.  Pikachu is not even a fully-evolved Pokemon, and although it is very quick, its attack and defense ratings are poor.  Red's is equipped with a rare Light Ball, doubling its Attack and Special Attack stats, making it a legitimate offensive threat.  It's not a big deal, however, because Pikachu's best attacks, Volt Tackle and Thunderbolt, are Electric-type moves, which are completely ineffective against my lead Pokemon, the part-Ground-type Swampert.  That leaves Pikachu only Quick Attack and Iron Tail.  Quick Attack is a weak Normal-type physical attack, only mildly useful because it is guaranteed to strike first even against an opponent with a higher Speed stat.  The AI would normally only use it to finish off an already nearly dead Pokemon, thereby robbing it of a potential last gasp maneuver.  I wasn't worried about that.  The only move left for me to watch out for was Iron Tail, a very strong physical attack.  It's a Steel-type attack, however, meaning its effectiveness is reduced by 50% against Water-type Pokemon such as my Swampert.  More importantly, its accuracy is only 75%, so if it didn't kill me outright, a protracted battle would probably see it missing a few times, allowing me a few turns of unanswered attacks.

I started off the fight by using Mud-Slap, a weak Ground-type attack.  Earthquake was the much more powerful option, but I'm not a hardcore numbers guy, so I wasn't sure if I could take Pikachu out in just one turn.  If Earthquake only brought it to the brink, Red would just use a Full Restore to fully heal Pikachu and completely undo my work before I could finish the job.  Having faced that exact frustration against previous trainers, I had learned that, against opponents that I could only almost KO in one turn, the more effective strategy was to lead with a weaker attack, then finish with the stronger move in the second turn.  Mud-Slap is particularly useful for leading because it also has the added effect of lowering the target's accuracy, so Pikachu's already risky Iron Tail would become even less accurate.

The round began and, as anticipated, Pikachu attacked first with Iron Tail.  It was a hit, nearly halving my Swampert's health.  My Mud-Slap did what I needed it to, lowering Pikachu's accuracy and even doing decent damage, thanks to Ground's supereffectiveness against Electric.  Confident that my Swampert would survive another hit, I queued up Earthquake for the next round, while Pikachu again went for Iron Tail.  I smiled with satisfaction as Iron Tail missed this time and Earthquake sent Pikachu packing.

Red summoned Venusaur next, probably hoping to capitalize on its 4x Grass-type advantage against my Water/Ground Swampert.  As is customary in single-player story battles, however, I am permitted to change my own Pokemon in response to his selection before the round begins.  Typhlosion, my Fire specialist, is the obvious choice, but I decide to go with Skarmory instead.  Skarmory was my weakest Pokemon, the only one that I had brought without any specific purpose in mind.  I had it in my party because it is a practical necessity to have a Pokemon with Fly at all times in case I need to retreat quickly back to town, and Skarmory, the physical tank among Pokemon, is also the best Flying Pokemon with whom I would actually be okay wasting a move slot on Fly.  Being a Steel/Flying-type, it did have the advantage, both offensively and defensively, against Venusaur.  With its poor attack stats and options, I didn't expect the type advantage to overcome the level difference in this case, but I wanted to give Skarmory at least a chance to contribute in some way beyond just being a shield for my other Pokemon (although it was technically serving that role as well here).

I select Fly, which, in battle, is a modestly powerful two-turn attack that may be compared to the Dragoon's Jump in Final Fantasy--the user takes flight in the first turn, then strikes on the second.  Venusaur attacks with Frenzy Plant, the ultimate Grass-type move, with a Special Attack power of 150.  Venusaur is faster than Skarmory, so I have to take the hit before taking off, but Skarmory endures it surprisingly well--it would take another two Frenzy Plants to KO Skarmory, and since Frenzy Plant is also a two-turn maneuver that leaves its user having to recharge on the second turn, the battle could go on for some time.  The persistent Hail effect of the snowy battlefield meanwhile would whittle away at the health of both Pokemon, which was what I wanted, because I never intended for Skarmory to win the battle, only for it to weaken Venusaur enough to guarantee that I could finish it with a single attack from Typhlosion.

Fly does decent damage, and Venusaur switches from Frenzy Plant to Giga Drain in an attempt to recoup some lost health.  Skarmory gets off one more Fly before expiring to a second Giga Drain, after which Typhlosion comes in to finish the job.  Typhlosion is also slower than Venusaur, so it still has to put up with losing some health to a third Giga Drain, but I won't need Typhlosion either after this round.  Flamethrower puts Red's Grass Pokemon away at last.

Red's third Pokemon is Blastoise, and I am again prompted to switch my own Pokemon.  Both Jolteon (Electric) and my own Venusaur have type advantage against the Water-type Blastoise.  Jolteon is the much safer choice, however, because I am almost certain that Blastoise will be packing an Ice-type attack, which would be supereffective against Venusaur.  Even so, poetry takes precedence over strategy in this case, and I am determined to take out each of Red's elemental starters with my own starter Pokemon.  Venusaur was my starter from back in Pokemon FireRed, where I actually technically played as Red.  But here I was ready to show him which of us was the true Venusaur master.  Besides, I had only bothered to scout Pikachu's moves, so I wasn't entirely certain that Blastoise would have any Ice attacks.

Blastoise leads with Blizzard, which one-hit-KOs my Venusaur before it can even act.  I'm feeling rather silly at this point, because I have wasted at least three turns with my foolishness.  First, I must now switch in Jolteon after all.  I have it use Thunder Wave to paralyze Blastoise.  Paralysis reduces a Pokemon's speed by 25% and also leaves it with a 25% chance of missing its turn due to inability to move.  I had relied heavily on Paralyze moves to get me through almost every major battle in every Pokemon game leading up to this.  Whereas the level and type mismatches I so often faced had regularly robbed even my best direct attacks of their punch, status afflictions did not discriminate, and a paralyzed Lv.75 Dragonite was just as likely to miss its turn as a much lower-level Pokemon.  I hadn't needed Thunder Wave against Red's first two Pokemon, but I expected it to again make the difference against Blastoise.

Blastoise uses Blizzard again, and it not only reduces Jolteon to near-death, but also induces the Freeze status, which is much rarer but even more debilitating than Paralyze.  I could use a Full Restore to get Jolteon back in condition to fight and maybe even win, but I still want to take out Blastoise with Venusaur.  The second turn I must waste is on reviving Venusaur.  I do so with the understanding that I will be sacrificing Jolteon on the front lines to another Blastoise attack.  The third turn I waste will be on reviving Jolteon.  To pull that off, I switch my weakened Typhlosion in for the unconscious Jolteon.  Typhlosion already did its job against Red's Venusaur, so I'm okay with sacrificing it to revive Jolteon.

When Typhlosion falls, it's finally time to bring in my Venusaur again.  With Blastoise paralyzed, Venusaur will be able to attack first this time.  I intend to finish it in one move with Frenzy Plant.  I'm gambling here, because I'm not certain that Frenzy Plant actually will finish it in one shot.  As I said, I haven't studied the math that deeply.  I know that Frenzy Plant has 150 Special Attack power and is supereffective against Water, but I don't know how exactly that translates into damage against whatever Blastoise's HP and Special Defense ratings are.  I only know that it will do a lot of damage.  With Blastoise having taken four rounds of Hail already, I take the risk that Frenzy Plant will be enough.  It is.

Red sends in Charizard next.  Again, I have a chance to swap out my Pokemon.  Typhlosion and Skarmory are dead, Jolteon and Swampert are at about 50%, and the Fighting/Steel Lucario would be at a severe disadvantage against the Fire/Flying Charizard.  I decide to leave Venusaur in, knowing that it will die immediately but intending to use that one turn to heal Swampert.  This proves to be an almost crucial error.

Remember that Frenzy Plant leaves its user unable to act in the next turn.  During the recharge period, you cannot attack, use items, or change Pokemon.  The one exception is that, in single-player battles, you can still shift your Pokemon out when prompted after defeating an opposing Pokemon.  Knowing this, I normally only use Frenzy Plant with the expectation that it will KO my opponent, so that I can then bypass the recharge period by switching out my Pokemon.  Somehow, I forgot to do so this time, and I was left to watch as Charizard toasted my Venusaur with a supereffective Flare Blitz, my turn completely wasted since I was not even able to heal Swampert.

I'm in a bad situation at this point.  I only have three Pokemon left, two of them in bad shape, the third out of the question for this match-up.  Even with the type advantage, I know Swampert will not be able to kill Charizard with just a single Waterfall.  Moreover, Charizard would be faster, and I don't know if my weakened Swampert would even be able to survive its first attack to get off a Waterfall.  I decide to send in Jolteon instead.  Jolteon is faster than any of Red's Pokemon, and it also has a type advantage against the part-Flying Charizard, but I go with Thunder Wave again instead of trying for damage with a supereffective Thunderbolt.  Thunderbolt would probably not one-hit-KO Charizard, whereas Thunder Wave's debilitating effects would give Swampert a chance in the event that Jolteon fell.

The Thunder Wave pays off immediately, as the paralyzed Charizard is unable to move for that turn.  I use the next turn to heal Swampert, and my Jolteon, not so fortunate this time, falls to a Dragon Pulse from Charizard.  I still don't think my Swampert can take out Charizard in one Waterfall, but with it now at full health against a paralyzed Charizard, I'm confident that it will win out in the end.  In fact, I'm so confident that, instead of attacking right away, I use Swampert's first turn to revive Jolteon, since I know I will need it later.  Luck is against me, as not only is Charizard able to move, but it gets a critical hit with an Air Slash, dismissing my Swampert unexpectedly in one move.  That's just rotten luck, as there's no way to really plan for these criticals, but it leaves me reeling.

I have to bring back Swampert, but a normal Revive only resurrects a Pokemon to 50% health.  That won't be enough if Charizard hits with Air Slash again, so I'll need a second turn to heal Swampert before I can send it out again.  That means I'll need two turns just to heal, and it's unlikely that Jolteon will survive longer than one.  Lucario's chances are only slightly better, but I have to go with that.  I send in Lucario and revive Swampert.  Fortunately, instead of using its Fire attacks, Charizard uses Air Slash.  Lucario survives to heal Swampert before falling in the next turn.

It's Swampert's second chance and, with the Hail having chipped away at Charizard, I'm ready to just go with the Waterfall.  To my dismay, it leaves Charizard with just a sliver of health, after which it strikes Swampert with Air Slash again to reduce its health by more than half.  I expect Red to use a Full Restore, both healing Charizard and curing its paralysis, thus leaving me in the worst possible condition, but before the round is up, the Hail, which takes effect at the end of every round, manages to finish Charizard off.  It wasn't all according to plan, but it worked out this time.

Red's signature Pokemon were all done.  Next up was Lapras.  A Water/Ice Pokemon, it was Red's only dual-type and also the one I knew least about among his team.  I left Swampert in so that I could revive Lucario.  Lapras took out Swampert with Blizzard, so I sent in Jolteon next.  Thunder Wave as usual, and then Lapras's Brine took out Jolteon.  A half-dead Lucario was my last Pokemon and I had no expectation of winning with just that, so I revived Jolteon again.  Blizzard took out Lucario, and now Jolteon was my last Pokemon.

It was not an ideal situation.  I had gathered now that Lapras could kill either Jolteon or Lucario at 50% health.  I doubted any of my other Pokemon would fare better.  Since a Revive only brought a Pokemon back at 50% health, I would again need two turns just to set up a Pokemon to take Lapras on.  With only one 50% Pokemon alive at a time, the only way I would be getting those two turns would be if Lapras missed a turn.  I would just have to keep switching between reviving Jolteon and Lucario until that opening came up.

Despite Paralyze's supposed 25% chance of stopping a Pokemon from acting, more than four turns went by without Lapras letting up one bit.  In fact, I think a full seven rounds went by, during which Jolteon and Lucario took turns dying.  At the end of that seventh round, I didn't even have any more Revives.  With a half-dead Lucario on point, I contemplated using one of my three Max Revives on Jolteon.  Max Revives are extremely rare and cannot be bought in stores, so they are only to be used in the most desperate circumstances.  Was this desperate enough?  I considered it, but then realized that, once Lucario died to resurrect Jolteon, I would just have to use another Max Revive on Lucario, because I needed Lucario to take on Red's final Pokemon.  No, I was going to have to make my final stand here, betting it all on Lucario.

I used a Hyper Potion to fully restore Lucario, then braced for the Blizzard, which I knew could do at least 50%, but which I could only hope would do less than 100%.  To my surprise, Lapras used Psychic instead.  And to my surprise, it did just less than 50%.  I wondered why it would resort to using a weaker attack, after having used Blizzard already to wipe out Lucario so many times.  The AI doesn't always make sense, but if there were an actual reason for this shift, it could be pivotal.  I tried to recall the last several rounds and count how many times Lapras had used Blizzard.  My guess was that Lapras had exhausted its uses of Blizzard, which left it with only attacks that would require three turns to take out a 100% Lucario.  If I was right, that was something I could work with.

I used another Hyper Potion and watched Lucario absorb another Psychic.  With my Lucario at just over half health again, I chose, instead of healing up or attacking, to use its Swords Dance move to sharply raise its Attack.  If Lapras used Psychic again, Lucario would survive and I would heal on the next turn.  If it used Blizzard, then Lucario might die and it would be game over.  But I was so sure I was right.

As it turned out, it didn't matter on that turn.  The Paralyze finally kicked in and stopped Lapras from attacking at all.  For the next turn, I had a few choices.  I still didn't feel a need to heal, but I could either attack with my boosted Close Combat or boost again with another Swords Dance.  Close Combat was a supereffective Fighting-type move with 120 Attack power, and the first Swords Dance would have raised its damage potential considerably.  But again, I didn't know exactly what "sharply raise" amounted to in practical terms, and I didn't know if I could KO Lapras yet.  As a part-Ice-type, Lapras was the only Pokemon on either team unaffected by Hail, so it was still at full health.

I took my chances and used Close Combat.  Lapras barely survived, and although it again could not move, I grimaced because I knew that Red would use a Full Restore on the next turn.  I used that same turn to use a second Swords Dance, guaranteeing that I would KO Lapras in the next hit.  The problem was that, if the now un-paralyzed Lapras attacked first, Lucario might die because the side effect of Close Combat is that it lowers its user's Defense and Special Defense.  So that Pyschic would hit a little harder the next time.

Ultimately, I had to bet on my Lucario being faster than Lapras.  If I healed and Lapras was faster hitting with Psychic for 50%, the fight was over anyway.  I would be forced to spend every turn healing just to survive the turn after, and a comeback would be impossible, unless I expected to outlast its uses of Psychic as well.  No, I went with Close Combat for the kill, and Lucario did not fail me.

Red's final Pokemon was Snorlax, an extremely durable Normal-type, which I had originally been saving Lucario for.  Again, I had to face the concerns of whether Lucario would be faster, whether it could one-hit-KO Snorlax, whether it could survive Snorlax's attack if either of the above was answered in the negative.  But I had come too far to have any more doubts.  Close Combat was the call, and that was it for the match.  Snorlax was out in one, and Red was done.

* * * * *

Was it the hardest Pokemon match of my life?  No, not by a long shot.  In fact, it was somewhat anticlimactic how easy it was.  I beat him on my first try.  I wasn't even forced to use any of my rare items.  Although I had used about 15 revives, most of that had been during the period when Jolteon and Lucario were taking turns dying against Lapras, which, in hindsight, may have been unnecessary.  Honestly, I had a much harder time against Lance at the end of the Johto campaign.  Now that was a truly hard-earned victory, one where I had had to rely heavily upon Paralyze, Leech Seed, Confuse, and accuracy-reducing moves and items, just to buy my Azumarill chances to take out Lance's overpowering dragons with Rollout, a normally weak Rock-type move that just happens to double in power over each of five consecutive hits, assuming its user can survive that long without missing, which was extremely unlikely against such opponents that could KO my best in one hit.  Up against that, I had had to perfectly plan every move in advance just to open up room enough for luck to enter in and win the day.

Although Red is supposed to be the ultimate trainer, in practice his team is highly flawed.  In terms of typing, it is more balanced than the typical Gym Leader's team, but most of his Pokemon are still only single-types with very common and exploitable weaknesses (i.e. no Dragons or Psychics to counter).  My team, on the other hand, although much lower in level than his, was by far the strongest team I had ever used.  It almost felt like cheating, even though my Pokemon were all legit and all my own, which I had raised from base forms and low levels over dozens of hours.  But the team I had used against Lance, consisting only of Pokemon I had caught in HeartGold, had included such Pokemon as Furret and Noctowl, both evolved from incredibly common Pokemon found within the first hour of play.  I would give them names and call them my own too, but any experienced player knows that these are garbage Pokemon.  It only made it that much more gratifying, however, when I managed to take them to the championship, winning it through a combination of effort and cunning.  A few key Thunder Waves notwithstanding, there was less of that cunning required in this fight against Red.

I suppose also, in general, the rules of the single-player game always favor the player.  Not only can you revive your Pokemon, unlike the AI, but that prompt to shift Pokemon after informing you of your opponent's next Pokemon is clearly unfair to the AI.  For obvious reasons, it's not a part of player-vs-player battles, and there's even an option to turn it off in single-player.  Were I to do so, I seriously doubt I would stand a chance against Red.  But that's not the default setting, not "regulation," as it were.  Leave it to masochistic players to challenge themselves with that.

As much as I wish Nintendo would take Pokemon somewhere new, I can't pretend that I won't be there when Pokemon Black/White comes out and is more of the same.  But for now, I'm satisfied knowing that, after training for six games in four regions over two generations, I finally beat Red and "won" Pokemon.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Major League Baseball, 1869 - 2010*

Did you hear?  Baseball is over.  Ken Griffey, Jr., maybe the last honest man in the big leagues, finally called it quits yesterday.  With Frank Thomas having retired earlier in the year, this more or less marks the end of what was once America's finest sport.  Or maybe Major League Baseball died years ago when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa juiced their way to shattering Roger Maris's single-season home run record, as Bud Selig cheered them on.  The uncertainty is the worst part.

A proud second-generation professional, Griffey was, once upon a time, the best player in baseball, excelling both at the plate and in the outfield.  Chronic injuries shortened his prime, but he still finished his career fifth on the all-time home run list.  Impressively, he got there as one of the only hitters of the power era never to have been linked to performance enhancers, allegations of brain tonic abuse notwithstanding.  Or maybe he just covered his tracks better.  Who knows?  As an American, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt until someone can produce evidence suggesting otherwise.

I suppose I can now officially stop caring.  No, actually, baseball has been dead to me for some time now, and I really don't see how anyone can still support this poison that is MLB.  It doesn't deserve its fans.  The human element that mattered, erased along with Maris's record, is gone for good.  As long as we remain unable to sort out what is human and what is enhanced, there will be no moving on.  At the very least, I want to see someone hang, and I'm looking for bigger fish than thugs like Bonds and Clemens.  How is it that Bud Selig is still in office, having robbed a nation of its pastime, just as surely as the worst blown call in history robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game?  If we cannot prove Selig corrupt, he has certainly proven himself pointlessly dilatory, as his organization grows ever more tainted under his watch.  Having entirely lost control of what sport should actually be about, he should be falling on his sword, but instead only stubbornly clings to some absurd and outdated stance to protect human error in place of compromised human skill.

I say we've seen what humans can do.  Maybe it's time to make a clean break and try something else.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Hole in the World

Had to sit through a lengthy PowerPoint presentation about our 401(k)s.  Nothing actually new to report.  Wished I could have brought my laptop, spun it around to interrupt, and shown them a few slides of my own.

As some crazy veteran once told me, "Better just buy all that stuff you want right now, while your lives and money are still worth a damn."  Maybe he wasn't so crazy after all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

House of Five Leaves

The only spring anime premiere that I'm still kind of following is Manglobe's House of Five Leaves, based on a manga by Natsume Ono, who also provided the source material for last year's Ristorante Paradiso.

Airing as part of Fuji TV's late-night noitaminA block, House of Five Leaves, like Ristorante Paradiso, is an anime geared toward young adults who might not normally watch cartoons.  It's a slice-of-life period piece about a skilled but cripplingly timid ronin who, after losing his bodyguard gig, is inexplicably recruited by the charismatic leader of the "Five Leaves,"  a shady yet nobly intentioned gang specializing in kidnap and ransom.  It is devoid of graphic violence or pseudo-intellectual babble, but is "mature" in a truer sense.  There is no melodrama to be had, no sickeningly cute prepubescent girls, and very little in the way of action or adventure.  Frankly, I don't even know what that leaves, but the lightness of it all makes for one of the most pleasantly relaxing viewings I can recall having had.  It is breezy, almost ethereal, with a subtle sense of humor--a perfect match for its delicate visual style unlike anything else out there.

I suspect House of Five Leaves is also very boring.  I say this because, every time I tune into a new episode, the first five minutes have me feeling like I missed the previous episode.  As the dialogue begins, I have no idea what the characters are talking about, and it is not because they are being cryptic.  They discuss events in clear terms but which ring no bells for me.  At first I thought maybe the story was just jumping around, but I now believe it to be the case that I have been falling asleep during the episodes without my realizing it.  Perhaps I blink, but then my eyes only open five minutes later, and because I am so groggy and the show's plot so secondary to its mood, I don't even notice that I missed anything until I start up the next episode more alert.  Sure enough, even now I cannot recollect what happened on the most recent episode.

So, yeah, House of Five Leaves puts me to sleep, and oddly I think that's almost a compliment in this case.