Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death of the Cool

Gameplay should be what counts in a fighting game, yes, but one of the reasons I have not been able to deem Street Fighter IV the definitive Street Fighter actually has nothing to do with how it plays.  It's the art.  More specifically, it's the character design, which is and always has been the other crucial component of a fighting game--that element that can earn a title tons of devoted fans who will never compete at a tournament level, but who will cosplay as their favorites and build shrines to them.

Obviously, SFIV contains mostly characters that were designed more than a decade ago, but these are still new takes, some of which I find to be quite disappointing.  Ryu is a bit thick, Sagat looks like a dummy, and none of the females are attractive.  To be fair, many of the other characters are spot-on, but the goofy Chun-Li and haggard Rose are probably the worst they've ever looked.

None of that really compares, however, with SFIV's wholly original additions to the franchise.  Hakan would be the most acceptable if he weren't inexplicably orange, but Abel, El Fuerte, Rufus, and Seth are all hopelessly lame.  That leaves the girls, Crimson Viper and Juri.  These are two characters who could look good someday, but my initial impressions of both were that they were uninspiring attempts by Capcom to create King of Fighters-style "cool" characters, and they simply lacked that SNK magic--that certain je ne sais quoi--that identified a true original.

But, y'know, since thinking that, I've gone back and replayed a lot of SNK games, and I've come to the conclusion that those originals were not that cool either.  Or, at least, if they were cool once upon a time, then that time is long past.

Sure, King of Fighters has always had its dud characters, but I seriously used to think that its better characters were the coolest in any video game.  The unyieldingly derisive Iori Yagami was a particular favorite of mine.

Looking at him now, I have no idea what I ever liked about him, and I just feel embarrassed.  Even among the official art, there is almost no piece that manages to make his hair work.  And why are his knees tied together?  How is anyone supposed to run like that, let alone jump and kick?  He doesn't seem built for street fighting, though he's hardly alone in that.

What is wrong with Iori is pretty much what is wrong with all of the characters in King of Fighters; these designs were made for the runway, not the ring, and their obsolescence was built-in.  Unfortunately, SNK Playmore hasn't really kept ahead of changing fashions, and the latest designs are among the series's worst.  Or maybe I'm the one that has no fashion sense.  Actually, there's no "maybe" about it.  But I think I'm just tired of the whole blasted fashion model street fighter aesthetic.  Now I just want fighters to look like fighters, as they did back in Street Fighter II.

To be fair, it's not just SNK that has failed to age with grace.  As another example, take Dante from Devil May Cry.  Here's another guy I used to think was badass.  But lately I've been playing a lot more Western-developed shooters, and when I put him next to a guy like Marcus Fenix, I realize that Dante is truly not that far removed from the typical effeminate JRPG hero.  He's stupidly good-looking, wears flashy clothes, and spouts some embarrassing dialogue.  I wouldn't call Marcus Fenix "cool," but in the context of a gaming landscape filled with space marine-type characters, Dante seems less than manly, and surely that isn't cool.

So what is cool now?  I have no freaking clue, and I'm not sure I care anymore.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Top 5 Video Game FMVs

Yes, we've arrived at that point in this blog's life.  No more joking, I now make "Top 5" lists in earnest.  It's either that or I start playing weekly games of Madden 11 . . . demo (Colts vs. Jets all day!) and posting the play-by-play box scores.

Anyway, I was inspired after recently viewing the cinematic trailer for DC Universe OnlineDC Universe Online, being an MMORPG, held no interest for me as a player, but I am now glad that it exists, if only because it has resulted in the commissioning of Blur for this amazing mini-movie that will surely be the best thing about the entire game.

Blur may not be a household name, but it is one of the hottest computer animation and design studios around, its skills allegedly commanding per-minute charges in the $1 million range.  Blur does a lot more than just video game work, but its CG talent is undeniably a perfect fit for gaming, and it has done much to class up a number of otherwise mediocre products.  Before DC Universe Online, the studio caught my attention with a pair of similarly awesome cinematic trailers for the similarly yawn-inducing Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Well, Blur may be the king now--frankly, it doesn't have a lot of competition, as many developers have opted this generation to rely less on pre-rendered assets--but I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the past and pick out five of my favorite pre-rendered video game cinematics.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis - Opening

The Resident Evil 2 opening movies were, in their own time, the most technically impressive CG FMVs on console, and Code: Veronica's roller-coaster intro is always a crowd-pleaser, but my personal favorite Resident Evil cinematic is the opening for Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.

RE2 allowed us to play in the aftermath of Raccoon City's fall to the zombie apocalypse, describing in journals how it all went down, but here we finally got to see the citizens making their hopeless last stand.  No longer contained within some mansion in the woods, the zombies were taking over the city streets, and the nightmarish spectacle was consequently more real than ever before.

Kingdom Hearts Final Mix - "Deep Dive"

The famous "Deep Dive" video was a secret movie contained in the Japan-only "director's cut" of Kingdom Hearts.  As a teaser for Kingdom Hearts II, it was as oblique and enigmatic as you would have expected from a Tetsuya Nomura production--even four games later, fanboys are still trying to decipher all its hidden messages.  But it also established another Nomura signature.

Considerably darker and more violent than anything else in the game, it was also plain cool.  Its significance to the story would remain unclear even hours into Kingdom Hearts II, but this non-interactive movie surprisingly provided more meaningful clues as to how future games would look and play, with its near-weightless style and balletic combat.  Here also were planted the seeds of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and you can even follow the lineage onward to the upcoming Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

Kingdom Hearts II - Opening

Many Kingdom Hearts fans, drawn to the series for its high production values and exciting combat, understandably skipped Chain of Memories for the GBA.  That posed a bit of a problem for players hoping to jump directly to Kingdom Hearts II, however, because although not a lot happened in Chain of Memories, the story definitely did not end in the same place it began.  To get these players up to speed, the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II recapped the story thus far in virtuosic music video form.

Actually, as a recap, it was almost useless to anybody who hadn't played the previous games.  But it was gorgeous, full of inventive imagery and editing (especially in the Chain of Memories section), and it rewarded players of Chain of Memories, bringing their imaginations to life by highlighting resonant moments that the GBA simply could never do justice.  My favorite part has got to be the shot of Sora and company racing up a staircase while Riku progresses upside down along the underside--a sublimely literal representation of their parallel journeys through the castle.

Onimusha 3: Demon Siege - Opening

This one requires little introduction, as it is regularly at or near the top of almost everybody's list.  The Onimusha series was originally conceived of as a cinematic game, and all of the core Onimusha titles have had ambitious opening movies, but Onimusha 3's by Robot remains the best.

I think all of the videos on this list are ones that I come back to because they are so replayable and stand well even out of context. Onimusha 3's intro, better than everything else in all of the Onimusha games combined, is the epitome of that--essentially a CG short film with its own complete and perfectly self-contained narrative arc.  Indeed, you would be best off just watching this and then skipping the rest of the game.  Not only is it all downhill from here, but nothing that follows even has anything at all to do with what is seen in this video.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon - Opening

Bringing together almost every fighter ever to have appeared in MK up to that point, it was the slugfest to end all slugfests.  In my opinion, this is even better than the DC Universe Online video, for the sheer number of distinct characters that it is able to juggle.  If you were ever into the series, this was a glorious celebration and culmination of its entire history.  Even if you couldn't name even half the characters, it was just an awesome battle royal, rendered in astonishingly accomplished CG that was probably more than MK and Midway deserved.  Also, as will likely be the case with DC Universe Online, watching the opening movie is vastly more exciting than actually playing the game.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I don't know why, but there was a stack of pizza boxes, presumably empty, in the corner of the restroom at work.  It made the restroom smell like pizza . . . topped with the usual urine and feces. I don't think I liked it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game

I don't know the comics or movie, but I did download the Scott Pilgrim video game on PSN.  I had heard it described as being heavily inspired by River City Ransom, and a modernized RCR was something I'd long wanted.

In many ways, Technos's River City Ransom for the NES remains the most evolved beat 'em up to this day.  The game basically played like Double Dragon (also developed by Technos), but it also included many RPG elements.  You could earn money by defeating foes, then go to shops to spend that coin on new moves, items, and stat boosts.  The hip city setting was also slightly more realistic than in the average brawler, populated as it was by occasional friendly NPCs, who would offer hints to get you through the story.  Instead of the typical series of straight-line stages, River City Ransom had a unified world that players could travel backwards and forwards through as needed.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is more linear than River City Ransom, but it has most of the rest of that stuff covered.  Its debt to RCR is most immediately evident in the ability to pick up downed enemies or allies and use them as melee weapons.  The controls are at least more sensible than Technos's two-button classic, but the feel is frustratingly nowhere near as sharp as the best Capcom arcade brawlers of the 90s, and the hit detection is punishingly specific.  The game is also extremely buggy, and the very real glitches kind of take the humor out of the "Subspace" zones filled with flying piggy banks and fake graphical corruptions.  A word of advice: if the music drops out suddenly, that's probably a sign that everything is about to go to hell, so you might want to just quit while you're ahead.  Also, try very hard not to fall in any pits or throw enemies into them.

Like all beat 'em ups, the game is ideally played with friends, and Scott Pilgrim even allows for two players more than River City Ransom.  Not only does it help to have other guys fighting on your side, but the game allows players a chance to revive downed comrades, thus saving them from having to lose precious lives.  Even with two other players, however, I find that the aggressive enemies make it pretty hard to successfully resuscitate an ally before their countdown to death expires.  In fact, the game probably throws larger groups of enemies at you than any actual vintage beat 'em up.  Sometimes they'll even pile on top of you, and bursting them off you is one of the game's more memorable gags.

Even on the easiest difficulty, the game can be quite challenging.  It does save your progress between stages, and you can revisit past levels to grind for money and experience, although it is annoying that the shops won't tell you what items do until after you've bought them.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World's actual fighting is merely passable, but the music and art are impressive, and it is a new 2-D beat 'em up in 2010, which is nice to see.  With more players, more characters, and a real save system, it may indeed be a better version of River City Ransom.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Expendables

I was watching Commando again on TV a few years ago with my parents.  The final act of that movie has Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly taking down a private army in South/Central America, the death toll surely well into triple digits.  The carnage wrought by this one-man army led my father to joke that, if we just dispatched a team of Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, the Middle East problem would be wrapped up in a day.  My mother then added, "And Demi Moore's ex-husband!"  My parents' views on the Middle East aside, it at least had the makings of a good movie.

The Expendables is not quite that movie, but its dream team assemblage of Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren is the closest we've ever come.  Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis sadly appear only briefly and do not get in on the action, but hopefully we'll see more of them in a sequel.  For now, The Expendables may not be the greatest action movie of all time, but it has some damn amazing action moments rekindling that childish glee I used to feel when watching the more mindless Stallone and Schwarzenegger flicks of the 80s and 90s.  If you don't have a soft spot for that generation of film violence, however, then be warned that The Expendables is not slick, not topical, not a satire or a deconstruction.  Although it knowingly recycles the plot, structure, and every cliche of action movies past, it does so in earnest, delivering a decidedly pre-Bourne Identity experience that feels like it could have come ten or even twenty years ago. 

The opening scenes develop at a glacial pace while setting up the characters' motivations and mission.  The movie is less than thrilling when the characters aren't killing, and during the stretches between, Stallone's brand of macho humor rarely works.  The movie is only 103 minutes, but it felt to me like 20 of those were Mickey Rourke describing some tattoo he wanted to ink on Jason Statham's dome.  There are also some attempts at sentimentalism, but Stallone never finds the heart that he got in Rocky Balboa and Rambo, perhaps because the Expendables do not have that sort of history with the audience, even if the actors portraying them do.  In fact, the characters at times refer to previous missions, and I wished they would have simply described their old movies as a sort of in-joke, but that probably would have been too cute.

Stallone does do an admirable job of managing the unprecedented roster of action stars, although again, to be fair, he didn't have to direct any egos equal to his own.  Dolph Lundgren, Stallone's Rocky IV co-star and only real contemporary among the cast, features prominently and seems perfectly cast as an unhinged veteran merc.  Supposedly, Lundgren only made it in after Jean-Claude Van Damme passed on the role, although, the way Van Damme tells it, the part hadn't even been developed into a character yet at the time it was offered to him.  Van Damme, whose recent characters have all been defined by regret that has seemed more than a performance, would probably have taken this movie truly into Unforgiven territory.  Lundgren seems a better fit for this old, cracked soldier--haunted yet amused by his own joke of an existence.

As for the other stars, if you're a Jet Li fan, then this is certainly not the best display of his abilities, but it is cool to see him in a supporting role where, no longer having to carry the dramatic burden with his limited acting range, he is in his most no-nonsense, surgically lethal form.  Jason Statham, the young buck of the crew, as the only Expendable under 40, is meanwhile as abrasive as ever while speaking, but Stallone has a good handle on the Englishman's performance style, building the character around that in-your-face attitude.  As the team's knife fighter, Statham is the most spectacular killer of them all.  And while I'm sure nobody is going to the theater for role-players Terry Crews and Randy Couture, they too get their action moments.

But the whole point of this movie is to show these guys operating together, not separately, and the final act is where The Expendables really lives up to its promise, piling on more action and action stars than the screen seems able to contain.  There is an instantly classic shot of these icons all charging out together, guns blazing, but my favorite scene had to be Jet Li and Jason Statham double-teaming an enemy lieutenant.  In the past, pitting a foe against a single John Rambo or John Matrix was already a bloodbath, but here the guy doesn't even have time to feel the first fist against his face before he's spun into a kick from the other side.

In one key departure from the 80s and 90s, Stallone, now mindful of his age, or at least his mortality, tries to get across that the Expendables are human, that the odds are against them, that they only succeed because they work together.  Schwarzenegger's character in The Expendables turns down the mission because he says only an idiot would take it on, even though it is basically identical to the scenario that he yawned his way through in Commando.  There's no yawning from the Expendables, who would all clearly rather be enjoying their money.  These guys are ruthlessly efficient once the fighting begins, but they do not revel in their own destructiveness with gratuitous one-liners, and in the hairier moments, there is actually a tension that was never present in the likes of Commando or Rambo III.

The most disappointing thing about The Expendables is, of course, that we still don't get to see Schwarzenegger in action alongside Stallone.  That remains the dream.  Lately, Stallone has been waffling over whether The Expendables will be his last acting role, but hopefully he can make this happen in a sequel.  For that, I'll also want Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Wesley Snipes, maybe even Hulk Hogan in there, and then we'll really have the ultimate action movie.  In the meantime, I'll next be looking forward to Seagal's return in Machete.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Darjeeling Limited

Somebody told me this was a good movie.  Now that I've seen it for myself, I say that these are the things that make you feel like the loneliest person in the world.

It makes me wonder if this somebody really watched the same self-indulgent malarkey that I did.  I mean, I want to know if they really watched it.  I would ask them to imagine themselves as someone with no friends whatsoever, who comes home, after another unfulfilled workday, to an empty home, to spend the evening watching The Darjeeling Limited alone, for pleasure, not as some academic exercise with notebook and pen in hand for jotting down all the observations to be discussed later with hipster pals that don't exist.  Does the movie have even a shred of charm or humor in that hypothetical scenario?  Should it not?  I think, if you didn't already know that your life was a misery, you would realize it during the course of the viewing.

That's not the way it is, but it's the way this movie made me feel while watching it.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Universal Soldier: Regeneration

Action movie fans were crushed to hear that Jean-Claude Van Damme would not be among the cast of dream project The Expendables, which will feature appearances by nearly every other action star of the last three decades.  Before the limited theatrical release of 2008's JCVD, Van Damme had not appeared in theaters since 1999's universally panned Universal Soldier: The Return.  Following up on the positive press he won for JCVD, even a supporting role in such a sure blockbuster as The Expendables would have been the perfect way for him to get his career back on track.  But "The Muscles from Brussels" seemingly thought the project was beneath him, which, given the direct-to-video trash he's been putting out for over a decade, struck most fans as ridiculous--all the more so when it was confirmed that he would be appearing instead in another Universal Soldier sequel.  According to some reports, he was doing "Universal Soldier 3" only under legal duress, but if that was minor consolation as regards his character, it also seemed to dash any chances of the film, or Van Damme's comeback, turning out well.

Well, I'm still looking forward to The Expendables, but in the meantime, I have seen Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which was not able to carry Van Damme back into theaters.  I can tell you it was not what I expected, and I am probably one of the very few people who has seen every other Universal Soldier movie--both Van Damme theatrical releases and the two direct-to-video non-canon productions (not to mention Soldier, starring Kurt Russell).

The original 1992 Universal Soldier was Van Damme's Vietnam picture--his First Blood, or even his Platoon--maybe crossed in earnest with RoboCop.  Coming after Lionheart and Double Impact, it was a surprisingly bleak story, featuring a Van Damme without his usual virile charm, as confused lost soul Luc Deveraux, brought back from the dead to serve as a perfect killing machine.  Ultimately still pretty schlocky and generic, it was no masterpiece, yet somehow it spawned two non-theatrical 1998 sequels that continued the story directly but with none of the original cast.  Not only that, but Van Damme himself returned in 1999 for the sequel that nobody asked for.  Universal Soldier: The Return, altogether one of the most gratuitous (but enjoyably so) movies I've ever seen, wisely ignored the direct-to-video sequels, but it also mostly ignored the original film, abandoning both continuity and sense in the process.

After an even longer hiatus, this year's Universal Soldier: Regeneration brings Van Damme back for a third go as Luc Deveraux and, better still, reunites him with original film nemesis Dolph Lundgren, who was able to make time for both Regeneration and The Expendables.  Given what I'd heard about how this third movie came to be, I expected some cheap and exploitative production desperate to cash in on the diminishing stock of the title and stars.  That was exactly what The Return was, so I could only hope that Regeneration would be as much fun.

"Fun" is not a word I would use to describe Universal Soldier: Regeneration, but neither is it depressing in the manner of In Hell (2003) or Until Death (2007)--sad swipes at action movie tropes, with sub-theatrical production values and budgets sopped up by an unmotivated lead actor.  Regeneration is a real movie, deliberately cold, and the most legitimately quality production Van Damme has ever starred in.  Not at all what I expected.

Seriously, after watching Regeneration, I can believe that Van Damme passed on The Expendables for artistic reasons.  Whereas The Expendables looks to be a throwback--a last hurrah for Stallone the action hero, who wants to go out with the same sort of ultraviolent live-action cartoon that made his legend--Universal Soldier: Regeneration, despite being a sequel to one such film, is not content to evoke the experiences of two decades ago.  This is a startlingly competent, sometimes even avant-garde work that fuses some bloody-good action with a less drunken tone and more modern cinematic technique.  The desaturated palette and impressively long takes paint an unnervingly vital picture, and the sound is even more minimalist, with a musical score often absent, making for some starkly sober action sequences that are light on pyrotechnics and high on brutality, as when an expressionless Van Damme goes to work with just a knife against an army of terrorists.  Set in the abandoned Chernobyl plant and opening with a gut-wrenching kidnapping and chase sequence, the storyline is heavier in tone and less campy sci-fi, but the movie remains fast-paced and consistently exciting.

Van Damme and Lundgren are the only "stars" in the film, and neither receives as much screen time as one might expect, but they appear when needed, and the sparing use of their skills makes them seem that much more special when they are unleashed.  1999's The Return having been removed from continuity, Van Damme's Deveraux is right back to his 1992 self--stranded and cold on the surface, but with simmering yearnings beneath.  The older Van Damme furthermore sells the character's weariness and resists any temptation to overact beyond that.  Lundgren is surprisingly less intelligible than Van Damme, yet his performance seems appropriate, as a man who has perhaps seen the other side and come back not quite whole.  Their characters' anticipated rematch lives up to any fan fiction fantasies, and it also exceeds most any slugfest you'll find in theaters.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration is not a great movie, but it is unlike any action flick I've seen.  Although it was shocking at first, I can now say that it's refreshing.  It's something new and different, not generic, and leaves a stronger impression as a result.  I don't know if it takes the genre forward, but it at least makes it feel alive again, where other films are so content to leave it stagnant with formulaic rehashes and unimaginative direction.  Suddenly an affirmation, rather than a contradiction, of JCVD's newfound artistic integrity, it makes me just a little ashamed that all I wanted was another Timecop.  I'm not sure if The Expendables is going to do it for me after this.