Monday, February 20, 2012

What I've Been Playing #1: Radiant Silvergun

Radiant Silvergun for Xbox Live Arcade

It's good, but it's not the Holy Grail of vertical shmups by any means.

The hook here is that, instead of having to collect weapon upgrades and power-ups, you're equipped with seven different guns--standard, homing, wide-angle bombs, rear spread, lock-on missiles, remote electric charge, and close-range sword--at all times, which you level up simply by using them. A veritable Swiss Army knife, your ship theoretically has a tool for every situation, although it will take a while to figure out the right weapon for each job, and some guns are definitely more useful than others. Eventually, along with memorizing the stage layouts, you'll learn when to use which gun, and you should become quite automatic switching between them. When I recently went back to play Ikaruga, I actually felt really weak, limited as I was to only a standard forward cannon, after having grown accustomed to the more versatile load-out in Radiant Silvergun.

Otherwise, the game is a shmup--better than most, but nothing revolutionary. The stages are never random but very meticulously constructed, and they demand that you be likewise meticulous and precise as you shoot and dodge your way through. It's difficult, but never overwhelming, except perhaps in its length, approaching an hour. The game progresses at a somewhat slow pace, and boss encounters are frequent. Unfortunately, many of the earlier bosses are not so inspired; some are little more than stationary bullet sponges. It gets better as you get further in, but the front-loading of tedious battles hurts replayability. It is kind of exhausting, especially compared to the incredibly brisk twenty-minute experience of Ikaruga.

The game is also kind of ugly. It's a few years older (1998) than Ikaruga (2001) or Gradius V (2004), so it understandably doesn't look as sharp as those later Treasure-developed shooters. But, more than anything else, it's the art direction, the game's marked lack of any visual personality, that really lets it down, especially compared to those other classics. The game is just really drab throughout, with undistinguished space backgrounds. Regular enemies are red, blue, or yellow shapes--mostly unassuming circular or rectangular sprites. It's nowhere near as striking as the black-and-white look of Ikaruga. Ugliest of all are the generically cartoony hand-drawn characters in the story mode, though thankfully you don't have to deal with them in arcade mode.

The music, composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto at his Final Fantasy Tactics-era best, holds up better. It's nothing like his really surprising electronica stuff from Gradius V, but rather sounds almost like leftover material from Final Fantasy Tactics. In fact, although it's good, the fact that it sounds so much like Final Fantasy Tactics yet again reinforces the feeling that the game has no artistic identity of its own, much in contrast to the thematically unified Ikaruga, where the music was handled by Hiroshi Iuchi, who also did the backgrounds and served as director. Also, the Radiant Silvergun soundtrack, being in that trademark martial style of Sakimoto, can become somewhat repetitive and, within an already exhausting gameplay experience, witheringly relentless in its own right, especially as the game has almost no hard breaks between levels, and so the score just keeps pounding away without ever letting up.

At this point, you might be wondering what makes the game good, as I claimed at the beginning of this post. Well, it's a shmup, one of the simplest forms in gaming, and I think what's fun about a good shmup is properly basic, thus hard to explain or break down any further in words. But I will say that I've been playing Radiant Silvergun every day for the last two weeks, and, through a bleak and senseless season, it has been a daily comfort that I keep coming back to.

Part of this may be on account of the story mode. Although the story itself is stupid, and the subtitles (no English voice track, alas) impossible to read while taking enemy fire, the story mode is unusual for a shmup in that it keeps a cumulative score for every time you play. As mentioned before, your weapons in Radiant Silvergun grow more powerful as you level them up through usage (basically, through scoring with them), and this is also cumulative, so, although you technically still have to beat story mode in a single session, you can save your weapon level progression, so that you'll start every session more powerful than your last. So, even for a player of my meager shmup skills, there's a real tangible sense that, with each attempt at this once seemingly unwinnable game, I'm getting stronger and ever closer to reaching the end. Even more important than the weapon levels, the game also rewards you for each hour of play by starting you with an extra life on your next attempt, and this too is cumulative, apparently up to a total of 99 lives, which should be far more than even a terrible player would need.

As I said, the game can be kind of exhausting, so I can only play it about once a day, and I still haven't beaten it. And yet, in a weird way, there's a hopefulness when playing Radiant Silvergun, and, despite all the hundreds of deaths I've already died in this game, it never seems mean or unfair in the way that, well, real life can be. It isn't random, it doesn't cheat, it always gives you a chance, even if you can't always see it, and, even at its most cluttered, it's still more manageable and makes a heck of a lot more sense than real life. And, no matter how many times I fail, I can keep coming back, and there is always that promise that, if I stick with it, eventually I will succeed. But, in the meantime, even dying in the game is a kind of catharsis. Life and death in the fake world of a video game has no real meaning or consequence, so they say, but sometimes reality doesn't seem to have any meaning. At least with a game, since it's all pretend anyway, I can pretend that there's something at stake, that I'm actually living and dying for something.

In fact, a part of me is terrified at what will happen when I finally do beat the game. I can't imagine I will continue to play once having achieved that objective. Then will hollow reality kick back in? I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Finely Aged

About a week before my last day at work, I was in the break room chatting with a coworker--one of the good ones. She asked me where I was headed. I answered that I didn't really know yet.

"I just know I've been here long enough," I continued. "I gave the better part of my twenties to this place. I'd rather not spend the remainder here."

She didn't respond immediately, but I saw on her face that forced smile I recognized, as though she were straining to hold back words of disapproval. I was prepared for that reaction. I knew my decisions would strike most people as irresponsible in this economy.

Finally, she said, "Well, I understand. I'm a lot older than you." Then she walked past me back to work, and I was left feeling rather like a child.

A few days later, I found out that her birthday had just passed. Oh crap, I thought to myself, as I reflected on what an ass I had made of myself.

After work that day, I headed out to pick up a birthday card for her. The first one to catch my eye made mention of fine wine, cheddar, leather, and friendship as things that got better with age. Open it up, and on the inside it read, "And so do you." Yes, that will do, I thought. Let her know that I appreciate how she improves with age in the manner of a good cheddar.

And so I grabbed the card and was about to check out, when, at the last minute, sense gripped me, and I realized what a terrible idea that would have been. It occurred to me that, if she were really self-conscious about her age, it would probably be best to say nothing about getting older at all, especially as I was younger than her and had no idea what she was going through.

So I grabbed a different, more innocuous card, wrote a few words, and left it on her desk the next morning. She seemed to genuinely appreciate it.

Another few days, and it was time for me to go. As I got up to make my final exit, she came up and handed me a card from her. It was signed by several coworkers, but it had been her idea.

She was one of the good ones.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Final Impressions

As I headed into the office one final time, the older security guard greeted me as on any other morning. I didn't love that job, or that company, but the people . . . I knew I would miss them, this security guard included.

"My last day," I informed him.

He uttered an expletive, then asked, "Wait, you mean 'last day,' like you're going overseas on assignment? Or you mean 'last day'?"

I clarified that it was the latter. He swore again, before asking, "So what are you gonna do?"

I had anticipated the question. It's the first thing everybody wonders. On the other hand, nobody asks why you're leaving, probably because everybody understands wanting to get away. They just can't see a way out for themselves, so, when you get out, what they want to know is how you did it.

And so I had given great consideration to all my options . . . for how to respond to that question, I mean. People are always stressing the importance of first impressions. Now, here at the other end, far too late to worry about that, I at least wanted people's final impressions of me to be good ones.

Wanting to sound cool, I ran through assorted cliches in my mind:

"My best."
"What I always do--my best."
"What I always do--survive."
"My best to survive."

Eventually, I just kept things simple with the truth: "I'm not sure yet."

"Well, you're single, right?"

I nodded.

"You should get out there, see the world, try everything. Hell, I wish I were young and single like you."

I felt as though we'd had this conversation many times over the last five years . . . because indeed we had.

"So, you're married?" I asked him.

"Thirty years," he said.


He reflected, apparently wanting to send me off with a thoughtful and honest response this time.

"Well, I got married because I needed to change my lifestyle," he began. "When I was young, I used to go to those orgy houses and all that. Those were the herpe-free days. Then, when stuff started going down, I knew I needed to change my lifestyle. So I needed to find myself a woman who liked to get busy, only not with everyone, like how I was doing. Right after that is when the whole AIDS thing happened, so I really got married just in time."

As he spoke, I could not help focusing in on his teeth. He was missing his first premolar on the left side. I had never noticed that, and yet I got the feeling it had been missing for as long as I'd known him. He didn't look any different to me on account of that new observation, but rather it was simply as though I were seeing a fuller image of him than I had before. Quite frankly, it was more than I wanted to see.

"And I have a son," he added finally. "That's really the best part about getting married."

Monday, February 13, 2012

This is the brown M&M character you're looking for

When I learned that my "Why isn't the brown M&M represented?" post was consistently one of the most viewed pages on my blog, I honestly felt kind of bad, as though I were letting readers down, because I suspected people were arriving there looking for answers, only to instead end up at an insubstantial post by a guy wondering the same thing as them.

But, in case you haven't heard the big news, M&M's recently unveiled its latest character, Ms. Brown, here voiced by Vanessa Williams in a Super Bowl ad:

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What I've Been Watching #1

Previously on The Vampire Diaries . . . .

Season 3, Episode 13: "Bringing Out the Dead"

Stefan looked to be in trouble, at the mercy of an angry Klaus, who has no mercy.  But Klaus's brother Elijah, already once betrayed by Klaus, decided he would be the one doing the fooling this time.  After Klaus sent him to retrieve the mystery casket, Elijah instead returned with . . .  two daggers!  Then, from behind him, out stepped an undaggered Kol, one of the remaining two original vampires and brothers of Klaus who had yet to be revealed on the show.

Even Klaus, despite being the unkillable original/hybrid, could not remain calm at the prospect of answering to two pissed off original vampires with scores to settle against the brother who had betrayed them.  Forgetting about Stefan, he makes a vampire-speed dash for the exit but is vampire-speed cut off by Finn, the last remaining brother, also undaggered!  So cool!

But it's not over yet!  Klaus starts to flee in the other direction but is cut off this time by . . . Rebekah!  And she's also undaggered!  The original sister, last seen daggered and stashed away by Klaus a few weeks ago, stabs Klaus with her own dagger, at which he staggers back into the restraining arms of his brothers.  Klaus may be unkillable, but he's never seemed otherwise significantly stronger than any other original, so I'm thinking, if he's outnumbered like this, they could just stick him in a vault somewhere and he'd be done.

Elijah then tells our heroes, Damon and Stefan, that they're free to go, informing them that "This is family business."

My first impression: Damn, that was awesome.

My second take: Damn, this stupid vampire show is the only thing I have that I still look forward to in my life.

. . . .

Can't wait for tonight's new episode!