Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Essentials #5: Robot Alchemic Drive

Known in Japan as Gigantic Drive, Enix's 2002 release of Robot Alchemic Drive for the PlayStation 2 was one of the very few games that I ever picked up based purely on a playable demo. Had it not been for that fateful Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine demo disc (October 2002, Issue 61), I likely would never have discovered this gem.

Inspired by developer Sandlot's love of classic Super Robot anime like Gigantor (aka Tetsujin 28), the game put the player in control of giant robots defending the city from giant alien monsters. For Americans unfamiliar with the Super Robot genre, the campy form was much closer to Godzilla or Ultraman than to Gundam.

The game began with a mysterious and hostile alien race known as the Volgara arriving in the city and proceeding to blow stuff up. It was then up to the story's teenage protagonist, the recent head of the ailing Tsukioka Industries and interim chairman of the Civilization Preservation Foundation, now thrust into the role of humanity's last hope, to reluctantly take command of the foundation's secret weapon, the giant remote-controlled Meganite robot, whose development costs likely drove Tsukioka into ruin.

The big gameplay twist was that, rather than playing as the giant robot, the player played as the guy who controlled that robot via a remote that looked remarkably similar to the PS2 controller. Starting out in third person, the chairman would navigate freely around the city, using the equipped Gravity Booster to fly to a suitable vantage point. Then, switching to a fixed first-person angle based on the character's position, the player would operate the robot remotely. As the action moved around and out of the chairman's-eye view, or, in some cases, as the vulnerable chairman's position became too perilous, it would be necessary to shift back to third-person mode, moving nearer or farther to a better or safer angle. Those seeking danger (or motion sickness) could even place the chairman on top of the Meganite's shoulder, though it was unstable at best, vomit-inducing and completely suicidal at worst. Camera has posed problems for practically every developer that has ever tackled a 3-D game, but R.A.D.'s uniquely-inspired approach took a potential weakness and turned it into the game's greatest strength.

Once in first person, the inventive Meganite controls further distinguished the gameplay. The robot could only be made to walk one step at a time, with L1 and R1 corresponding to the robot's left foot and right foot. Likewise, the two analog sticks governed the Meganite's two arms. Pressing both L shoulders or both R shoulders caused the robot to pivot, L2+R2 was crouch, and the face buttons were used for special functions, such as firing projectiles or transforming into the secondary mode. The piece-by-piece micro-control took some getting used to, but, once grasped, it was actually one of the most tactile control schemes ever conceived. While the game included an easy mode with more traditional controls, using it robbed the experience of a large part of its enjoyment.

It all sounds convoluted, yes, but that was the beauty of it. The game so convincingly immersed the player in the madness of the Super Robot world that I fully expected the most diabolical mad scientist control mechanism imaginable, and, then, as I gradually got the hang of it, the satisfaction was immeasurable, until I started to convince myself that I had to be the only one capable of handling this sophisticated machinery, the only one capable of saving the city from these accursed space monsters.

Starting out, the player could select one of three different identities for the chairman, including two males: the wide-eyed Naoto or the aloof Ryo. For those preferring a female protagonist, there was the ditzy Yui. I chose Ryo for my playthrough, but the choice had little effect on the plot and none on the gameplay. The only notable change, I'm told, was regarding the romance subplots. The love interests did not change gender to accommodate the selection of a female protagonist, so Yui's relationships with them became merely deep friendships.

More significantly, the player had to choose from three Meganites: the Vertical Fortress Vavel, the Airborne Dominator Laguiole, and Gllang the Castlekeep. Laguiole and Gllang could transform into a jet and tank, respectively, while Vavel was the balanced, traditional mech, equipped with the high-risk Volcanic Mode, which would max out its destructive power for a short time, after which it would crash from the strain on its generators. Through the course of the campaign, the chairman would take control of all three, but the initial selection would remain the primary Meganite.

Mimicking the format of a television anime, the story was split up into about fifty short episodes. Most of them revolved around a fight against a single Volgara, and, while a lack of enemy variety made for some repetitiveness, the mission structure and objectives would occasionally change to keep things from becoming too formulaic. The Volgara might attack different parts of the city, for example, while the Meganite usually had to start from the same location. The civilian population of the city added other variables, as the player would sometimes be tasked with actually protecting the people, instead of just pounding on the enemy and invariably causing immense collateral damage. The game was alarmingly arbitrary as to when civilian lives mattered, however, as the same bus that had to be saved in one mission could be crushed ten times over in every other.

Some episodes actually contained no action and instead focused on progressing the narrative via the dialogue, which showcased the comically horrendous English voice acting. Hilarious precisely because it didn't appear to be in any way an intentional parody, it nonetheless added an ironic authenticity to the experience, as it hearkened back to a tradition of bad English dubbing in anime. The worst offender may have been the actor for my protagonist, Ryo Tsukioka, whose delivery seemed consistently and inappropriately without affect. My favorite character, however, was Dr. Herman Wiltz, the hero's primary adviser and also the developer of the Alchemic Drive, which powered the Meganites. His thick German accent was absurdly over-the-top, but the performance exhibited such enthusiasm that seemed to almost reflect genuine belief in the insane material being read. By the time the story was over, I too believed it and no longer perceived a performance, instead fully recognizing the uniquely memorable voice as that of Dr. Wiltz himself. Sadly, for those hoping for a straight take, the North American release did not include the option to use the Japanese language track.

Coming out three years before Shadow of the Colossus, R.A.D. emphasized scale as no video game ever had, with the Meganites and Volgara impressively towering over the city's buildings. Providing an appropriate sandbox for these titans was the highly destructible environment, where nearly any structure could be knocked down. Indeed, as mentioned, collateral damage was unavoidable, given how hard these things punched and how much harder they fell. I often even inadvertently destroyed the Civilization Preservation Foundation building, though it would be rebuilt after every mission at great expense to the chairman's backers. As for the citizens, instead of simply evacuating the city after the first three or so Volgara attacks, they added to the potential carnage, as geysers of blood would erupt every time some panicked crowd foolishly fled into the shadows of my Meganite's steps.

Adding to the three perspectives offered by the differing protagonists, there were also multiple endings based on how the player fared with each of the two potential love interests. The chairman's classmate, Nanao, was a hard-luck case, who struggled to make ends meet on her own, after a Volgara blew up her grandmother during the game's opening act. Winning her over involved little more than keeping her home and workplaces from being destroyed incidentally during missions. Needless to say, I failed miserably in this regard. The other romantic subplot involved Ellen Bulnose, the chairman's well-endowed former betrothed/best friend, back when Tsukioka and Bulnose planned to merge, now engaged to Masaru Misaki, who, as the heir to Japan's new leading arms manufacturer, also provided most of the protagonist's funding. In rather twisted fashion, the path to Ellen encouraged the player to continually destroy Misaki's buildings in order to terminate their engagement.

In addition to the single-player campaign, the game also included a splitscreen versus mode, where two players could battle using the Meganites or any unlocked Volgara. The obscurity of the title, however, made it hard to find suitable opponents.

Actually, R.A.D. was neither the first nor the last remote-controlled giant robot game developed by Sandlot, whose catalog is mostly comprised of games in this genre they created. It is, unfortunately, the only one to have ever been released outside Japan. That truly is a shame, as R.A.D. stands as evidence to the developer's brilliance. The unique perspective and controls made for the most immersive video game experience I ever had. It easily ranks within my top five games of all time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe

I played Mortal Kombat II quite a bit back in the day, but did not keep up with the series after that. It was not until Mortal Kombat: Armageddon promised to be the be-all, end-all of MK, what with its inclusion of every fighter in series history, that I even played another installment. After twenty minutes with that game, I wondered what the hell I was thinking buying that trash. Now, they've somehow hooked me again with this latest offering. I must partly blame it on the inclusion of the DC characters, but, even without them, the idea of a pared-down return to MK's roots appealed to a part of me that I simply couldn't deny.

This may well be the purest MK game in years. As stated by the developers, the intent of Armageddon had been to provide a final climax to a series that had become bloated and insular. The game after that would then be a reset of sorts for the franchise, a mainstream attempt to win back the immense audience that the franchise enjoyed during its prime of the first two installments. Of course, I'm not sure, when they decided that, that even they expected it would take this current form.

As part of the strategy to attract former fans, who, like me, lost interest after MKII, the entire MK half of the roster is taken from the first two installments. The select list of all-stars is, however, controversially missing Johnny Cage, the iconic ball-breaker's spot given instead to Baraka. The DC side is somewhat shakier. The Joker is not exactly the first name I think of when it comes to characters I'd like to play as in a fighting game. Batman may have the best rogues gallery in comics, but they're mostly just crazy gangsters who couldn't actually fight one-on-one against Batman, let alone characters with superpowers. Yet this game includes Joker AND Catwoman. The latter was presumably added to give the DC side a second female, and Catwoman is certainly DC's second most recognizable, though I would've preferred Black Canary or Zatanna, or even Hawkgirl. The list is fairly solid otherwise, though when working with only half the allotted slots in a fighting game roster, it's inevitable that many worthy characters will be left out. Where is Aquaman, for example?

As far as gameplay is concerned, gone are the style-switching and weapons. The 3-D aspects have also been toned down considerably. This is the sort of fighting game that regular people could enjoy, though I don't know for how long. Certainly, the game is fun while you're trading blows with a friend, and there's even a mildly-exhilirating mechanic, where the fighters sometimes go flying off the stage and are able to battle in mid-air during their free fall to a lower platform.

The game's weakest aspect has to be its graphics, which just don't strike me as current-gen. The characters look almost like hi-res PS2 models, and the stiff, awkward animation is even worse. During my play, there was one Wonder Woman move, in particular, I remember, where she would do the splits, then grab and flip her opponent over to the other side. It's difficult to convey in mere words, but it was one of the ugliest things I'd ever seen. After witnessing it multiple times, I still didn't understand the physics of it.

Overall, the game is fun. It's especially cool to pit Superman against Captain Marvel, something I don't think any other game has offered. But, in classic MK fashion, it's also plagued by technical shortcomings, and its gameplay basically caters to the lowest common denominator. Even though I've already contributed my dollars, I don't really feel that it deserves the attention that the MK name is still guaranteed to attract, especially with so many other noteworthy fighters on the horizon (Street Fighter IV, Tekken 6, BlazBlue, The King of Fighters XII) or already released (Soulcalibur IV).

Of course, I've only dipped briefly into the story mode, which may well be the highlight of the game.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Grievous Affair

I had a dream that I was playing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the recent Star Wars video game set between the two trilogies. And, by "playing," I mean I was living it, except it was probably nothing like the actual game, which I haven't played.

In the dream, General Grievous, thought to have died in Episode III, appeared alive and well. He introduced himself by explaining the unlikely circumstances of his survival.

Apparently, after blasting a path through the hull of his exploding ship, he had snagged a ride off the back of an escape pod, barely clearing the explosion behind him. Since that narrow escape, he had devoted himself to becoming a master of the cyborg sciences.

After explaining, he then kindly offered to install a heart in my dog.

My dog was a robot, you see.

Monday, November 24, 2008

So long, Dragon Quest VIII

Well, Dragon Quest VIII is over and done with. The last twenty hours were actually pretty easy once I synthesized the right items, and the final boss, while a tedious affair, never really threatened me (well, except when I accidentally selected "Flee," and, instead of simply telling me that it wasn't an option, the game forced me to watch as my party absorbed a round of unanswered attacks). The ending was satisfying enough, though it suffered the usual problems of having a mute protagonist in a genre that leans heavily on plot and character.

Quite a relief, I must say, to get that off my back after two years and over seventy grueling hours. In the past, it has often been bittersweet having to part with a game after such a long attachment. Charming as it was, however, I'll happily say that I'm never going to play this game again, bonus dungeons be damned. I don't feel my time was wasted, but I still can't really recommend it to anyone without a lot of time and patience.

So long, indeed.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Essentials #4: Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles

A GameCube exclusive, Square-Enix's 2003/2004 release of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles marked the return of the Final Fantasy brand to Nintendo consoles. Equally significant, it was also the first of only three titles to be designed specifically around the GameCube-Game Boy Advance Cable, allowing use of the Game Boy Advance handheld as a controller with built-in sub-screen.

Produced by JRPG maverick Akitoshi Kawazu, the uncompromising creator of the SaGa series and one of Square's longest-serving employees, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, despite its title, was a dramatic departure from anything previously released under the Final Fantasy brand. At the heart of the distinction was the decision to design Crystal Chronicles as a local cooperative multiplayer game. While some of the flagship installments, most recently Final Fantasy IX, had included limited co-op functionality, the feature was clearly an afterthought with little practical value. The turn-based, menu-based combat of the series was not conducive to a multiplayer experience. Furthermore, the multiplayer was only in effect during battles, which were just one small part of Final Fantasy. Once on the field or in towns, only one player would actively control, while additional players would be reduced to observers, usually for long stretches. For Crystal Chronicles, the designers needed to go in a more action-oriented direction, focusing less on narrative and exploration, while employing a real-time combat engine with simultaneous play for up to four players. The resulting gameplay owed more to dungeon crawls like Diablo than to Final Fantasy.

Players would begin by selecting their character's race. In place of classes or jobs, four races offered slight variation in strengths and skills. The well-rounded Clavats were natural leaders, with high defense and average attack and magic. The quick-footed Selkies could attack more rapidly and had ranged weapons. The dwarfish, warlike Lilties had the highest attack power but the weakest magic. My character was one of the mysteriously faceless Yukes, a scholarly race specializing in magical ability. Truthfully, the statistical differences between the races were slight, with all of them feeling about equally limited within the confines of the simplistic battle engine.

The plot of the game saw the world covered in a poisonous miasma, with towns able to survive only within the protective fields of magical crystals powered by Myrrh. The crystals had to be refueled each year by journeying to distant locations to defeat the monsters that guarded the trees of Myrrh. In order to accomplish this, each town sent out a caravan equipped with a crystal chalice.

In a case of plot informing gameplay, or vice versa, while traveling through the miasma-filled dungeons, one player would have to carry the chalice, and any party members who wandered outside its field of protection would rapidly lose health. When engaging the enemy, the chalice would usually have to be set down, so that the team could fight at full strength. In the frenzy of battle, it was common to lose sight of the chalice, especially since it could be shifted around by stray attacks. Fleeing in panic as we often did from overwhelming enemy forces, my party would sometimes realize too late that nobody had bothered to pick up the chalice. We would then have to rush back into the fray to retrieve it. Then, having been severely depleted, first by the monsters that had sent us running, and then by the miasma that we had carelessly run into, we would face the choice between two equally impossible options. Either we could dig in for one last stand within the field, or one player would lead the escape at half-speed under the burden of the chalice's weight, while the other players tried to fend off the pursuing horde.

The cumbersome chalice mechanic frustrated many players, but the point of it was to reinforce the team coordination aspects that the game stressed, requiring that players keep a tight formation and move as a unit rather than wander off on their own. The necessity to stay within the field also made for some of the most intense moments in any RPG I've played, such as in the "last stand" scenario I described, since the inability to flee swiftly made it feel as if we were always up against it. Truly, it was an experience-defining mechanic that kept the game from being just another straightforward dungeon hack.

The basic format of the game involved the caravan heading into a dungeon, where the players would fight their way through monsters, collecting items and solving simple key and button puzzles along the way. At the end of each dungeon, the party would have to take down a large boss creature. Most of the monsters, including bosses, were taken from Final Fantasy lore (e.g. Flan, Malboro, Behemoth, etc.), with even a few obscure ones, such as Armstrong, the living house from Final Fantasy VII. This was about the extent of the game's connection to the Final Fantasy series, but these bits of fanservice were welcome nonetheless. After three dungeons, the caravan would have enough Myrrh for the year, and the process would repeat for as many game years as it took for the party to reach and complete the final dungeon.

The game did not offer much in the way of loot. Instead, players would find Magicite and stat-boosting artifacts, none of which could be retained past the immediate dungeon. For most of the game, Magicite was the only source of magic, so, even though my Yuke character was supposed to be a powerful spell-caster, he would be unable to use any magic until he located and equipped that dungeon's Magicite. Sometimes my party's search was not quite thorough enough, and so we would have to make do without a Life spell. The fickle nature of the magic system made for one of the game's more frustrating elements, especially for Yuke players. Further compounding feelings of magical inadequacy, offensive spells were largely useless even once located.

Characters did not have MP, so spells could be used as often as desired by charging up with the attack button and maneuvering the targeting display onto an enemy. Even though I focused primarily on developing my magic stat, my attack spells were never strong enough to justify their casting times, compared to the free damage from other races' physical attacks. Higher-level "-ara" and "-aga" spells could only be used by combining spells of the same type, which required that multiple players coordinate by casting on the same target within a few frames of one another. During battle, this was tricky with two people and impossible with more. Worse yet, even the combined spells did very little damage. The only real bonus was the possibility that a spell might freeze or stun the enemy.

While the game was light on narrative, cut scenes would occur semi-randomly while journeying on the road between dungeons. Most of these scenes were encounters with caravans from other towns, where fellow travelers would impart news or advice, share amusing stories, or ask to trade items. The caravan would also periodically hear tales of a warrior known as the Black Knight, who had apparently lost his memory and his mind. Then there were the occasional encounters with the knavish Gurdy, a swindler and poet, who bummed rides with other caravans until they invariably lost patience with him. These recurring subplots were as close as the game had to a main story, though their significance would not become evident until the end. Occurring seemingly at random, just as with all the other cut scenes, it was never even clear what triggered them. This gave the caravan's journey an organic feeling that effectively conveyed the sense of being on the road, as events would just happen while traveling, instead of being sought out.

The GameCube-Game Boy Advance connectivity experiment came to be regarded as a failure before either system was done, though the two screen setup may have been the basis for the dual screen design of the Nintendo DS. With Crystal Chronicles, it's hard to make the case that the game was truly better for its required use of the GBA.

In dungeons, each player would be assigned one of four guides on the GBA screen: a map of the dungeon, a monster radar, a treasure locator, and an enemy scouting report. To get the full picture required that players communicate and share information. Like the chalice, this forced teamwork may have been manufactured, but it was no less fulfilling for it, as players would truly play their roles, leading the way around the map, directing the party toward chests, or warning of nearby enemy swarms. Of course, an FAQ or strategy guide would render all of that unnecessary, as would attempting a dungeon more than once, which happened from time to time.

Changing equipment also took place on the GBA, a logical application of the handheld screen, allowing each player to go into the menu without interrupting play for others. Because going into the menu did not pause the action, however, doing so during combat was out of the question due to how aggressive monsters were. Since you could only use the specific items you had equipped in one of your character's handful of action slots, and, since there was no auto-reload for consumable items of the same type, this meant that those bannock loaves went mostly unused. Even the critical Phoenix Down could not be taken advantage of most of the time, meaning that, if a party member went down mid-fight and nobody had the Life spell handy, that character was out for the remainder of the battle. Honestly, this was one aspect of the game that I could have done without. Even though it was meant to take advantage of the connectivity function, the manner of its implementation made its use impractical. They might as well have deactivated the menu altogether during combat.

The game's greatest shortcoming was how difficult and expensive it was to set up. It required a GBA and GC-GBA Cable for each player. For one person, all this equipment represented a huge cost to absorb for just one game (two, when The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures came out a few months later). On the other hand, it was extremely unlikely that one could find three friends who owned GBAs and were willing to get together and commit to the game. And, hard as it was to set up in its own time, it's effectively impossible to bring together all that dead equipment today.

Crystal Chronicles was by far the most challenging Final Fantasy game I had ever played, and that included the notoriously severe Famicom version of Kawazu's Final Fantasy II. Exacerbating the triple frustrations of the chalice, the uselessness of magic, and the inability to pause, monsters were consistently vicious, while the player characters developed at a slow pace. Instead of gaining experience, players could select from an arbitrary list of stat gains or items upon the completion of each dungeon. The inconsistent nature of these offerings made even level-grinding impractical. It wasn't very far into the game before my fellow party members and I found ourselves inflicting damage in the low single digits against bosses with hundreds of HP. The hard-earned victory is always most gratifying, however, and I would say that is even more so the case when earned through teamwork with other players. Indeed, beating Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles may have been the most rewarding video game experience I had ever had.

With the final dungeon, the game saw a sharp difficulty spike. The first several times we attempted it, we persevered up to and through the first two forms of the boss, only to have his third form decimate us within seconds. When we finally prevailed against that third form, we were shocked to learn that there were another two boss fights left to go. It was only during that final set of fights that I discovered the usefulness of my Yuke's unique defensive ability, which allowed him to become intangible for as long as the button was held down. While I could not move or act in this form, I was completely invincible. Our eventual winning strategy had me remaining intangible for nearly the entirety of the fights, acting as a lifeline, only coming out of it to heal or revive other party members. Meanwhile, my partners would whittle down the bosses, one damage point at a time. In the end, we managed to overcome a massive power gulf to achieve victory through cunning and guile.

While Crystal Chronicles was clearly designed for multiplayer, it did contain a single-player mode, which was actually much easier. Use of the GBA was not required. The sub-screen could be brought up on the TV screen, pausing the action while the player sorted through items, allowing the player to equip the auto-reviving Phoenix Downs at leisure. Also, the chalice would be handled by an AI-controlled moogle. These differences removed most of the stressful elements of the game, but, without other players to party up with, the simple mechanics didn't make for an engaging experience. Sadly, with the multiplayer game being so hard to set up, this is the only practical way to play it now.

Too bad, because I consider it to be the greatest cooperative multiplayer game I have ever played. In this current age of wi-fi, and with the ubiquity of the DS, the problems that prevented widespread appreciation of the original game would not be a factor this generation. Hopefully, it won't be long before we see a true successor using the Wii and DS.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Presents from the lab

So I come back to my desk after lunch and find a sealed envelope placed unexpectedly on top of it. The addressee label is a sticker with my name and a picture of a gift-wrapped present on it. There are no other clues as to its contents or purpose, so I go ahead and open it, not expecting anything good to come of it, though a part of me can't help hoping.

What I get is a flier--no, two glossy, full-color fliers, one promoting the Holiday Gift Drive, and the other promoting the Holiday Food Drive. As if one sheet of grayscale would not have been sufficient to cover both events. As if there were even an appreciable difference between the two. I should note also that these are the very same fliers that have been visible posted all over the lab, including on every bathroom and break room door, for the past three weeks.

"What the hell is this crap?!" I think to myself. "I don't care about this!"

Who the hell is paying to print and distribute these redundant fliers to each of six hundred employees in my department alone? Okay, maybe it's not a whole lot of money, but it could have been better spent all the same. This is almost as bad as that time the government sent me a letter just to remind me to expect my stimulus check in a later mailing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hori Classic Controller

I just had to post about this, because it looks completely awesome.

Best known for their arcade-style joysticks, Hori is easily the leading third-party manufacturer of gaming peripherals for consoles. I own one of their SNES-style GameCube controllers, and it's a pretty sweet way to play GBA games on the Game Boy Player. Their products are always officially-licensed, so, in addition to looking nice, their parts are just as solid as first-party goods. While most of their stuff is import-only, peripherals aren't generally region-locked.

That said, as an alternative to the Classic Controller, this doesn't really pose any practical advantages. If the D-pad is as lousy as the GameCube controller's, this would actually be a worse option for most Virtual Console titles. It's just too bad that the Classic Controller input, which I assume this utilizes, cannot be used for GameCube games on the Wii. I'd give anything for a wireless, rumbling GameCube controller for use on the Wii (or GameCube, for that matter).

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Side of the Fence

Earlier this year, one of the security guards at the grading lab made the transition from security to diamond grader. From my perspective, he and the other guards had always looked carefree and cheerful, in contrast to the misery I felt in my occupation, so I didn't understand why he made the change, nor did I feel comfortable asking. After all, this was the very guy who led my training group through the security procedures when I first started. Now, he was the fresh fish in the lab, whose work I double-checked and corrected. It's also possible that there was a part of me that felt he'd crossed some kind of line.

That line was never more clearly drawn than it was today, when my car battery died on me as I was about to head home.

I am one of the very few people in my department who works the 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. shift. Most people either work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., or they come in at 8 a.m. and sacrifice half an hour of their lunch break in order to leave at 4:30. So, at the end of the day, by the time I got back to my car, I was practically the only one left in the parking lot. With nobody else around to ask for help, I walked over to the security booth.

As I approached, the old lady guard noticed me and mumbled a message into her walkie-talkie. Despite my close proximity, I couldn't make out a word of what she said. She seemed to be speaking in some form of coded security person language. In any case, I was sure her communication was concerning me, but I couldn't see why my innocuous manner merited any special report. It was as if she was making a final transmission in case I was about to go ballistic on them.

When I explained the situation, her immediate response was "We can't help you, sir." Her equally ancient male counterpart, the same guy I waved good night to every evening as I drove out of the parking lot, who always smiled and waved back, added, "Just protocol, sir." The old crone at least conceded that it was a silly rule, but they remained determined not to offer any assistance, beyond letting me know that if I called a friend, they were allowed to let him into the parking lot.

I decided to walk back toward the lab first to see if there wasn't anyone else still around who could help. No such luck, so I made the call and then walked back to the security booth to let them know what to expect. This time, it was the old man who dialed in to HQ as I approached. Then, before I could even speak, he said to me, "Sir, back away, please, and remain on your side of the fence." I get it. We're not pals. But does that mean you have to shed all semblance of humanity the instant someone actually needs you? Protocol, I suppose, would be his practiced answer, as it likely is for everything.

In the past, I had claimed that I was "just here to do my job" as I settled into my seat and put in my eight hours in silence. But I realize now what it really means to surrender all human responsibilities in accordance with some soulless performance for a meager income. Tomorrow, when I head into work, I will not be "just here to do my job." I will be there to collect an income, yes, but it will not make me any less a human being. Should another man find himself in desperate circumstances and in need of my assistance, I will be there for him, whether I'm on the clock or not.

Monday, November 17, 2008

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure

My introduction to JoJo's Bizarre Adventure was the Capcom 2D fighting game. The story of the Joestar family's blood feud with the vampire Dio Brando, the game was actually based on the third arc of Hirohiko Araki's influential Shonen Jump manga. The manga also inspired a 1993 anime series, as well as a 2001 prequel to that series. Tragically, sales of both the manga and anime were halted upon the discovery just this year that a scene in the anime casually included a reproduction of a page from the Qur'an. For the already tiny U.S. distributor of the localized anime, the inability to continue producing their one product meant the end of the company. As soon as I heard the news, I made sure to pick up the entire series on DVD before it became impossible to find.

The 1993 direct-to-video series, or "original video animation" (OVA), is a true classic for fans of hardcore fighting anime along the lines of Fist of the North Star. While unmistakably of an older vintage in its somewhat sketchy yet highly detailed art style, it boasts high production values, with fluid animation somewhere between a film and a television series. With only six episodes to adapt a manga that originally comprised seventeen volumes, the story is heavily-abridged and even starts abruptly about halfway through the arc, with hardly any exposition to place the narrative. Its target audience must have been fans of the manga, eager to see their favorite scenes in animated form.

The main hook of the series is the concept of the "Stand," the phantom manifestation of a character's spiritual power. While the heroes' Stands are fairly straightforward fighting types with humanoid forms, the villains all have hidden Stands with horrifying abilities. Every encounter involves the heroes getting ambushed by an agent of Dio, at which point they must scramble to determine the nature and extent of their enemy's Stand power, before they can formulate a strategy to fight back. In typical shounen fashion, there is a heavy emphasis on explaining the characters' exact strategies and techniques throughout the back-and-forth progression of each battle. Luckily, JoJo's fights are among the most thrilling in manga/anime, thanks, not only to the extreme violence, but also to the consistently clever resolutions utilizing the diversity of abilities on display.

The 2001 episodes, on the other hand, are borderline unwatchable. Not quite a genuine prequel, these episodes were produced to "complete" the adaptation, making for one whole program suitable for distribution to a U.S. audience unfamiliar with the manga.

Despite some attempt to maintain the style of the older episodes, the difference is immediately obvious and rather jarring. While the newer series is cleaner-looking, benefiting as it does from modern digital techniques, it is also clearly working off a lower budget, as evidenced by its lengthy stretches of non-animation, where characters just stand around, not even talking, but just staring each other down in a weak facsimile of tension. This results in a plodding pace, as very little occurs through the seven episodes. Quite the opposite of the necessarily-packed 1993 series, the newer episodes seem to have too much time to cover too few developments, though, in fact, volumes of material remain unused.

Even without the Islam issue, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure seemed to struggle to find an audience in the U.S. Whatever the result of the current inquiries into its suitability for distribution, I expect it will be disappointing as regards its future prospects here. That's too bad, as the 1993 series truly is a classic, worthy of attention for any fan of fighting anime.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Essentials #3: Super Mario Land

Released in 1989 as a launch title for the original Game Boy, Super Mario Land might have looked like a miniaturized version of Super Mario Bros., appropriately stripped down for handheld consumption. Certainly, it must have been Nintendo's intent, in marketing the Game Boy as a portable version of its massively popular Nintendo Entertainment System, to release alongside it a version of its signature title. Thankfully, the game's designers, led by producer Gunpei Yokoi rather than Shigeru Miyamoto, had far greater ambitions. Far from being a dumbed-down port, Super Mario Land was an original title that retained the fundamental gameplay of the NES classic in brand new levels, while adding some unique features that set it apart as a classic in its own right.

The plot was basic, somewhat nonsensical, and familiar yet completely unrelated to previous Mario titles. The alien Tatanga had kidnapped Princess Daisy of Sarasaland, and it was up to Mario to rescue her. Almost none of the characters or settings would recur in any future Mario titles. It was only years later with Mario Tennis on the N64, when the necessity for more playable characters led Camelot to dig back into the archives, that Daisy finally became an established peripheral character.

While the game was black and white, its worlds remain among the most colorful Mario has ever visited. Its four kingdoms exhibited a thematic diversity beyond other Mario titles, with exotic locations based on Egypt, China, and even Easter Island. Enemy variety would change accordingly, and, rather than facing just the usual assortment of koopas, Mario would do battle with bugs, sphinxes, seahorses, robots, and Moai heads. The basic goomba and koopa did appear as the Chibibo and Nokobon respectively, and the Nokobon's shell, rather than becoming an exploitable weapon, would explode shortly after stomping on the turtle's head.

Mario would also visit an aquatic world, and it was there that the first of two vehicular shooting stages occurred. Putting Mario at the helm of a torpedo-equipped submarine, it played like a rudimentary horizontal shoot 'em up, automatically scrolling to the end of the stage, where an oversized boss waited to be shot down. The final level of the game repeated the format, with Mario piloting an airplane in pursuit of Tatanga's spacecraft, which would have to be brought down with the plane's infinite supply of missiles. A rather dramatic shift from the platforming gameplay found in the rest of the title and series, these oddities were the highlight of the game for my six-year-old self. They were breezy affairs, thanks to the crafts' high speed and mobility, which allowed Mario to easily outmaneuver his weak enemies. The greatest danger was getting careless and finding yourself stuck behind a wall as the stage scrolled you off the screen to your demise. As a kid, I think what I appreciated was the feeling of being powerful in the context of a game where I had been so limited in my abilities the rest of the time. Really, these stages felt like rewards for making it through the levels leading up to them.

Shooting stages aside, the basic gameplay was very faithful to Miyamoto's original design, though it was slower and the controls less slippery, making for an easier experience overall. One key difference was that, instead of the fireball ability, the flower would grant Mario the more versatile superball, which could rebound off surfaces for tricky sniping shots, collecting any coins it touched along the way. With only twelve levels total, it was a small game and also completely linear, which was probably appropriate, both for the short session nature of the handheld platform and for the younger audience the Game Boy was likely to attract.

Beating the game unlocked a second, more difficult course, featuring more enemies and trickier enemy placement. Completing this harder mode then unlocked a stage select feature. Unfortunately, since data could not be saved, all of this had to be accomplished in one sitting, and once the Game Boy was powered off, all progress would be lost, rendering the ultimate reward somewhat useless, as, by the time the stage select became available, the player would have just experienced everything in the game anyway. Even so, I did the consecutive playthroughs on multiple occasions, specifically to unlock the stage select, just so I could replay the shooting stages over and over again.

In addition to being one of the first games I ever played to completion, this was really the game that got me into gaming in the first place. I had played Combat on the Atari 2600, but, looking back, I think the pleasure of that experience derived from the childish conceit of assigning narrative to even the most mundane of activities, rather than from any legitimate enjoyment of the gameplay. And, while my family owned an NES, it was really more my older brother's thing--I only occasionally played Duck Hunt. It wasn't until I got some alone time with Super Mario Land on the cozy Game Boy setup that I really understood how engaging video games could be, as I found myself tuning out the world around me, while I devoted my attention entirely to this tiny adventure. For all intents and purposes, this was the genesis of my gaming history.

The debate continues to rage over which is the best of the traditional 2D Mario titles: Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World. Personally, I always favored the purer experience of the original Super Mario Bros. over either of those, but my personal favorite will always be Super Mario Land, which has always struck me as a more varied and refined version of Super Mario Bros. It's a real shame that it isn't more celebrated among fans nor seemingly by Nintendo, who has never ported, remade, or collected the game for any other platforms. With the debut of the DSi, there has been speculation that there might be plans for a portable version of the Virtual Console for classic Game Boy games. The game holds up quite well, I must say, and I would certainly welcome such an opportunity for more players to discover its charms.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Street Fighter II Turbo #1

After a hiatus of almost two years, UDON's Street Fighter comic returned in October with Street Fighter II Turbo #1.

During those dark years between the release of Capcom vs. SNK 2 and the announcement of Street Fighter IV, UDON's comic was one of the shining beacons that sustained interest in the franchise. It probably even helped to spark the current revival of the game series, when it drew the attention of Capcom itself, who commissioned UDON first to do the ending artwork for Capcom Fighting Evolution, and then assigned them the considerable task of completely updating the look of Super Street Fighter II Turbo for the upcoming HD Remix version, an all-consuming job that has likely been a major factor in the slowed pace of the comic's production.

For me, the book's greatest strength had been the artwork of Alvin Lee, who, in my eyes, provided near-definitive takes on the Street Fighter crew with his bold manga-inspired designs. I was initially disappointed, therefore, to learn that Lee would not be returning, but, thankfully, his successor, Jeffrey Cruz, is no slouch. Cruz does not attempt to imitate Lee's style, opting instead for much softer lines that give the characters a highly three-dimensional look, despite a noticeable lack of backgrounds. Lee's characters had more personality and his style was probably a better fit for a book founded on the charisma of its cast, but Cruz's art is still very clean and his characters sufficiently recognizable.

The real disappointment of the series continues to be the story, which is just a tired rehash of material that its core audience already knows by heart. It's a difficult position, I'm sure, for writer Ken Siu-Chong. In his endeavor to make this THE comic adaptation of Street Fighter, he does not wish to betray any fan expectations by mucking with the source material. As much as I adore the games, however, the story, to begin with, never had the depth to really sustain a lengthy narrative. Of course, that hasn't stood in the way of numerous video game, film, and cartoon retreads of the same simple plot, and this comic unfortunately adds nothing new or surprising.

In any case, this issue serves primarily to set up the World Warrior tournament, the legendary centerpiece of the Street Fighter mythos. If nothing else, future issues will hopefully provide the exciting bouts that most fans have probably been looking forward to all along.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gurren Lagann

The most popular anime series of 2007, Gurren Lagann was Gainax's send-up of/homage to science fiction shounen anime classics like Getter Robo and Mazinger Z. A studio founded by fans, Gainax had previously channeled its unabashed enthusiasm for anime to produce such groundbreaking works as Gunbuster and Evangelion, which exceeded their inspirations to become classics in their own right. While playfully self-conscious, Gurren Lagann is nowhere near as subversive as those titles. A more genuine celebration of old-school spirit and convention, it ironically strives to take anime back to the golden times before Evangelion changed everything.

I practically slept through the first half, which accomplished little as it indulged in lowbrow humor and machismo, but one of the more appealing aspects of anime is that the stories are usually finite, with series lengths typically twenty-six episodes or fewer, meaning that a) it's not too much of an investment on my part to stick with a show, and b) there is real pressure on the storytellers to progress the narrative. Sure enough, the second half won me over with its infectiously sincere exuberance and retro-cosmic grandness, culminating in a spectacular finale that was downright inspirational. While I maintain that the series could have been more evenly-paced, it nevertheless comes highly recommended as one of the greatest anime shows of recent years. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the movie versions.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Advance Wars: Days of Ruin

After sixteen days of bloody combat, Captain Brenner at last had the enemy base within his sights. It might take another thirty days of calculated attrition, but victory would be his. Alas, in the time that had already passed, public opinion back home, ever short-sighted, had turned against him. Bowing to the bleeding heart civvies' demand for immediate results or withdrawal, the weak-willed politicians, knowing nothing of war as they slept comfortably on their money, finally made the call to bring home the troops. With victory in his grasp, Brenner, the consummate soldier, obeying his orders, turned back and sent his men home with nothing to show for the losses they had already endured.

Prior to trying out the versus mode in Days of Ruin, I had never spent more than five minutes with the Advance Wars series. I had played and beaten Fire Emblem on the GBA, and, while I could respect its direction to an extent, its inflexible and unforgiving nature was really not my style. Even so, I considered myself to be pretty adept at turn-based strategy, and I was eager to see how my game might fare against another human.

Going into my match against a player of comparable skill and experience, I was looking forward to a heated contest of wits and strategy. Two hours of fruitless attrition later, it was clear that the end was still a long way off, so we decided to call it a draw and call it a day. While the experience was not without merit, a save feature was badly needed, as this is the sort of game where a single match lasts hours. Without the luxury of having such time set aside, the only realistic option would have been to have the CPU declare the victor after a certain number of turns, which I don't think would have satisfied anyone.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Essentials #2: Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader

Developed by Factor 5 exclusively for the Nintendo GameCube, Rogue Leader was the successor to their N64 hit, Rogue Squadron. Like its predecessor, it was a starfighter-based action game set during the original Star Wars trilogy.

Released alongside the North American launch of the GameCube in 2001, it immediately set the technical benchmark for the system. At the time of its debut, the most sophisticated console in my house was still the N64, so, seeing the first film's climactic attack on the Death Star stunningly realized as a video game in full laser-filled glory, I was blown away by the epic scope and volume of the action. The otherwise lackluster launch lineup of the GameCube was of no concern in the face of this killer app, which seemed a cut above anything on the PS2. Even by the time that generation came to a close, Rogue Leader remained one of the system's most visually-impressive titles, a true testament to Factor 5's mastery of the hardware.

While set during the original trilogy, placing the player in the alternating roles of Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles, there was virtually no story to be found in the campaign, which consisted of ten mostly standalone missions, not including a handful of unlockable bonus stages. Instead, the player would be thrust into each mission with some brief text and voice-over to explain the objective.

Clearly, the game was designed for players already familiar with Star Wars, but, considering the franchise, there was probably no fear of limiting the audience. The ability to experience the legendary battles of Yavin, Hoth, and Endor was a dream come true for any fan, and, for the most part, the stages representing those moments did not disappoint. Some liberties were taken with the opening mission, "Death Star Attack," as arbitrary columns and crossbars littered the trenches, forcing the player to maneuver around them in what amounted to a Paperboy-esque obstacle course. A tad ridiculous, yes, but perhaps the developers thought it would be too easy otherwise.

The Battle of Hoth was expectedly a highlight of the game, as it has been with every Star Wars game that has included it. Sadly, as exhilarating as it was to take down AT-AT walkers with the snowspeeder's tow cables, that element of gameplay, more than any other in the game, also revealed the ultimate limitations of the hardware. As soon as the tow cables were successfully cast, the game would cut to a stock sequence of the AT-AT falling weakly on its side. With multiple walkers to be taken down in that stage alone, the repetitiveness of the non-interactive sequence would quickly wear down the immersive integrity of the experience.

Fleshing out the campaign, more than half the game was original material not taken from the films, though some were set in locations from the movies. While not as memorable as the movie missions, they provided needed variety, with gameplay that included taking the Y-wing on bombing runs, escorting Rebel transports through enemy ambushes, defending tibanna gas platforms on Bespin, and even a stealth mission. One of the game's coolest features, a few of these stages actually read the GameCube clock and adjusted between day and night versions accordingly, sometimes introducing drastic changes in how they played out. The stealth mission, for example, was much more easily accomplished under cover of darkness.

My personal favorite stage was the Battle of Endor, where transpired one of the most remarkable moments in my gaming history. The most epic stage in the game, it had the player facing down a pair of Imperial Star Destroyers. The space battlefield ambiance here reached its pinnacle, with incidental explosions occurring all around, while Admiral Ackbar and Lando Calrissian yammered on meaninglessly in the background. As for that moment I alluded to, I wasn't even the one playing when it occurred.

I was watching my brother go for a high score. He had grown quite obsessed with the game and had already gone through the stage several times, but this was the first time I had seen him play it. With days of practice behind him, his run-through was as mechanically precise as I had expected. That is, until he nonchalantly crashed his own X-wing into the bridge of a Star Destroyer, taking out the enemy with him, while I stood dumbfounded. My brother then explained that doing so saved him time on his score, while the loss of his already depleted X-wing would not count against him in his quest for the highest ranking. While his explanation made logical sense, it hardly did justice to the transformational moment I had just witnessed. The game had not instructed nor even hinted at such a tactic. I wasn't sure if its inclusion was even intentional, as it was, after all, unthinkable.

I immediately began to wonder, what if there were a game that did feature such an extreme circumstance, where victory seemed so impossible that the player would be forced to turn to that unthinkable option as the only solution? What if, without being told to do it, the player could come to the realization that willing self-sacrifice was the only way to "win" the game? And what if the loss of that video game avatar carried feelings of consequence, in the context of the climax of a game that actually had a story and characters? What if, in other words, there were a video game that used conflict in a way that allowed the player to do something truly noble and heroic, instead of just murdering people and blowing things up?

Well, Rogue Leader was not the game to answer those questions, nor do I believe that its developers ever even intended to raise them. Still, I was amazed that it allowed a kamikaze run at all, let alone as a viable tactic.

The gameplay's biggest problem was the physics, or, in some cases, the lack thereof. With the space-based missions, it was very difficult to gauge depth and distance in the weightless infinity, and, with free movement in a fully three-dimensional environment, I often found myself wandering, or at least feeling like I was. Meanwhile, on stages set close to the surface, the actual speed of these vehicles became all too apparent, as the ground below would zip by at breathtaking pace--and, hopefully, so too would the walls and stray pillars, among other obstacles, as crafts would usually be instantly torn apart at the slightest brush--yet the sense of detachment did not go away.

A lack of traction was understandable while flying starfighters, but there was no sense of a physical environment whatsoever. As long as you weren't crashing into it, the ground might as well have not even been there. All adjustments in level and direction had to be input manually, no matter how minute, with some stages entirely based around maintaining absolute attentiveness and precise piloting to avoid fatal crashes. To be fair, I've heard real-life pilots say that this sense of detachment from the earth is inherent with flying, even without leaving orbit. It makes sense, I suppose, that your relationship with the surface is nonexistent once you're off it.

The GameCube controller was a near-perfect fit for the game, which was one of the few to fully utilize the depth of the analog shoulders. There were, however, two notable difficulties. Holding down the Y button brought up the targeting display, often a necessity for accurate aiming. With the bean-shaped Y button placed directly above the A button, however, it was extremely difficult to keep the Y button held down while tapping the A button to fire. The tiny D-pad, used to issue orders to your wingmen, was distressingly error-prone, often causing the game to misread which of the four directions was pressed. While the wingmen were actually somewhat of an afterthought anyway, in the worst-case scenario, the player might accidentally dismiss them altogether with no way to call them back.

While Rogue Leader is best remembered (or forgotten, as the case may be) for being a technical showcase for the GameCube, its license and production values were supported by solid gameplay mechanics and mission design. It remains the best interactive adaptation of the original trilogy, and I would say that we're long overdue for a new Factor 5 Star Wars title.

Additional Information

Factor 5's third Rogue Squadron title, Star Wars Rogue Squadron III: Rebel Strike for the GameCube, included, as a supplement to its single-player campaign, nearly the entirety of Rogue Leader as a splitscreen co-op mode. While the merits of Rebel Strike's single-player mode are debated, just the ability to experience Rogue Leader in co-op made it a must-play title.

For the most part, it was magnificently rebalanced for two players, with stages seeing subtle yet significant increases in the number of enemies. That either player's death meant the mission's failure also helped to keep it challenging, sometimes more so than the original single-player game.

In fact, the final mission, "Strike at the Core," already the most nightmarish obstacle course stage in the game, became twice as hard, as one player was forced to use Lando in the Millenium Falcon, the most unmanageable craft in the game. The saddest part was that, when my brother and I finally beat it after dozens of attempts, instead of a "mission clear" screen and ending credits, we were treated to an unending black screen accompanied by ambient space combat sound effects. So our hard-earned victory went unrecorded, due to a bug that, on further research, proved to be quite widespread among those who'd played the game. Perhaps the developers themselves were never able to beat the stage, so they didn't bother to include an ending.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Nintendo Seal of Quality

Official word has come out that Monolith Soft's Disaster: Day of Crisis, published by Nintendo in Japan and Europe, may not see a North American release due to NOA President Reggie Fils-Aime's dissatisfaction with the game's quality. Not having played it, I can't really dispute Reggie's assessment, but, based on the previews, it had seemed that, as a non-port, non-casual game, Disaster was very much the sort of title that the Wii needed.

Nintendo has had no problem allowing third parties to flood the library with all manner of trash, usually containing the words "Petz," "Party," or "Game" in the title. Anybody who has ever scanned the Wii aisle at the electronics store has undoubtedly been cruelly awakened to an overwhelming majority of unfamiliar titles too numerous and too generically awful to have ever merited any sort of press. Clearly, the old Nintendo Seal of Quality is a thing of the past, having been stealthily replaced with the current "Official Nintendo Seal," which instills far less confidence.

It seems highly inconsistent to me that NOA should allow its console to be overrun with third-party assembly-line dreck, while being so conservative with the Nintendo name as publisher. Hopefully, Disaster will perform well enough in Europe to convince Reggie of its potential, as I'm still very interested in playing it. Failing that, maybe Nintendo could be convinced to let a third party release it here, as was the case with Cubivore on the GameCube, released in North America by Atlus.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Christmas is canceled

After weeks of speculation, the official word came down directly from the top today that there would be no year-end "mission achievement" bonus, due to factors completely out of our control.

In unrelated news, I think I'll be taking the rest of the year off.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Novel Idea

Why don't they just make the candidate with the most votes the president, while the runner-up becomes vice president?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Fall 2008 Anime

Some early impressions of what I've been watching:

Shikabane Hime: Aka
This season's big show, it's a Gainax adaptation of a manga about Makina, the submachine gun-wielding "Corpse Princess," who works in cooperation with a group of monks waging a secret war against the undead in modern Japan. The show plays out from the perspective of some ordinary dude named Ouri, who becomes involved in the fight only through several improbable run-ins with Makina.

The characters are all genre cliches, and the current monster-of-the-week format does not make for compelling action. With the amount of hype surrounding this one, whatever cards it may be holding, I'm hoping that it shows its hand soon.

FUNimation has already licensed this show and begun streaming it on Hulu and Joost.

Sebastian is butler to Ciel, the twelve-year-old eyepatch-wearing head of the Phantomhive family. Ciel's youth makes him an attractive target for rivals after his power. Against such threats, Sebastian also serves as an invincible bodyguard, who dispatches his master's enemies as effortlessly as he keeps house.

I really don't know what to make of this one. It vaguely reminds me of Fullmetal Alchemist in that it is, on the surface, a shounen program, with a grave tone and badass protagonist, yet, after viewing the first few episodes, it's clearly designed with teen girls in mind, featuring little action and focusing more on the gothic appeal of the mysterious and absurdly handsome main character. Also like Fullmetal Alchemist, it continually shifts between serious, even morbid material and bizarre comic relief moments, where the three idiot members of the house staff bumble around in super deformed style.

A 12th century samurai on the run meets a vampire woman and they fall in love. When his pursuers inevitably catch up to him, she is forced to turn him in order to save him.

The production values seem the highest of any show this season, with detailed character designs and plenty of smoothly-animated fight sequences. I'm not a big fan of the psychedelic colors, nor do I find the main characters very appealing, but the premise has promise, as it's supposed to move away from the samurai elements of the first two episodes, instead following the immortal protagonist as he lives through the centuries.

Mouryou no Hako
I won't bother trying to explain the plot of this one, as I can't yet make any sense of it myself. The first episode begins with a laughing severed head in a box, then moves on to focus on two schoolgirls who become more than best friends, as they believe they are reincarnations of one another.

It's an unsettling yet irresistible trip into the hidden depths of one's psyche, much in the vein of Boogiepop Phantom or Paranoia Agent. It is perhaps excessively pretty with its CLAMP character designs and rose-tinted colors, but I would say that this is the definite winner out of all the shows I've seen this season.

Ga-Rei -Zero-
A Japanese special forces unit protects the public from attacks by phantom beasts.

For most of the first episode, it just seems like a generically grotesque supernatural action show, but then it ends with a twist of apocalyptic proportions that pretty much forces viewers to come back for the next episode. It's actually not until the third episode, however, that we get a better idea of where the story is going, as the plot rewinds to the characters' pasts a la Berserk or Gungrave. It's still not terribly original, and the reliance on cliffhangers may be a cheap stunt, but it's got me thoroughly hooked.

Yozakura Quartet
Set in a town where humans coexist with superpowered youkai, it follows a team of youkai youths who officially serve to keep the peace, alongside the one human who has the ability to banish their kind.

With its young cast of misfits, it's certainly lighter fare than Ga-Rei -Zero- or Kurozuka, or even Shikabane Hime, but, as yet, there's not a whole lot of substance or skill on display here. Really, the only notable thing about this show is the character designs, specifically how sharply-dressed the girls are.

Also, to my surprise, this show is apparently not composed in widescreen, which is quite unusual these days, though that's not in itself an inherent negative.

Michiko to Hatchin
A female inmate busts out of prison, while, at the same time, a young girl dreams of her own escape from her miserable foster home.

As the would-be successor to Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, this show possesses incomparable style and an addictive soundtrack. After just one episode, it's already a no-brainer for U.S. broadcast, and, while no company has announced the license yet, it's already been pulled from AnimeSuki, meaning that someone has their eye on it.

Ultraviolet: Code 044
This one's not actually new, but it got somewhat lost in the shuffle during the summer season.

Based on the allegedly awful 2006 Kurt Wimmer film, it's about 044, a female agent who received superhuman abilities from a virus that also shortens her life span to only about five more years.

This wasn't at all what I expected. It actually reminded me of Astro Boy and other products of the 1960s, both in its storytelling and its visual composition. To my surprise, upon further research, I found that it was actually directed by Osamu Dezaki, who worked on the original Astro Boy anime.

It relies less on fluid animation and dynamic action and more on inventive editing. It's very ponderous overall, with plenty of dramatic monologues and a pervasive sense of spiritual desolation, since 044 is always mindful of how limited her time is.

With a plot this preposterous, I think this classic all-in approach may have been the only way to go. That said, this doesn't have quite the heart of Astro Boy, which itself was never what I was looking for.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Essentials #1: Rock 'N Roll Racing

Released in 1993 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Interplay's Rock 'N Roll Racing was a jazzed up R.C. Pro-Am clone, something I would only learn years later. Developed by Silicon & Synapse (lately Blizzard of World of Warcraft fame), it was an isometric combat racing game with a sci-fi theme and rock soundtrack.

The game featured six selectable racers (plus one secret character), each hailing from a different planet. They hit most of the usual sci-fi cliches: reanimated cyborg, mohawked wasteland punk, Ewok-esque mutt-man, feline femalien (named Katarina Lyons, no less!), etc. My character of choice was the Vulcan-like Tarquinn. There was no story whatsoever in the game, nor were any of the characters visible during races, so the only differences were their stats.

Each character came with a +1 bonus to two out of the game's four graded categories: top speed, acceleration, cornering, and jumping. Between the six characters, every combination was covered, but anyone who relied on jumping was at a stiff disadvantage, as only the weakest cars in the game came with jumping maneuvers. Later cars ditched this useless ability for the more effective Lightning Nitro boost. Even cornering became a negligible stat once the last car, the Havac, became available and made perfect turns a breeze for everyone.

Instead of a simple Grand Prix, the regular campaign had the player earn his way to each new planet by winning cash through race victories. Money earned would also be spent buying parts and ammo or brand new cars as better ones became available. There was no battery-based saving, so players had to rely on a cumbersome password system to record progress. When the player finally won his way off the sixth and final planet, a highlight reel of the racer's victories set to "The Peter Gunn Theme" would be shown. Sadly, these highlights were the same for every character and did not actually reflect the player's performance. Curiously, even with that being the case, every time I used Nintendo Power's password to cheat my way straight to the last planet, the game would end with "The Peter Gunn Theme" accompanying a black screen, as if the game was drawing a blank because I didn't have any recorded data to draw from, even though the highlights never drew from saved data anyway.

A somewhat unusual inclusion was the option to play through the campaign with two players. While a nice idea, it came with a number of problems. Neither player could progress to the next planet until both earned enough money. Because there were only a limited number of races to achieve this before the scheduled flight to the next planet, precise divvying up of the spoils was required. Even though, officially, there was no "team" racing, both players would be forced to work together to ensure that each got the sufficient number of first place finishes.

Interestingly, each player received a separate password, and the system could be abused for some strange results. Both players could, for example, enter the same password, leading to clone racers. Alternatively, a player with a password for the last planet could play with a player still on the first planet, with the result being that both players would end up on the earlier planet, but the further advanced player would retain his undoubtedly superior vehicle and consequently dominate the competition.

While the campaign was a meaty and challenging experience, the real attraction was the versus mode, where two players could race freely on any planet and with all cars fully upgraded. Nearly every race against my brother began with both of us boosting off the starting line while unleashing the entire payload of forward and rear weapons. More often than not, we would both be wiped out, taking the CPU racers with us, so there was no real advantage to be gained. Rather, it was necessary because failure to go all-out would mean conceding an early lead, as neither of us could ever trust the other to hold to any friendly ceasefire agreements made prior to the race.

I recall one time when I deliberately waited a half-second before accelerating at the start, allowing me to avoid the blitz and snipe the other cars safely from behind, much to my brother's shock and fury. That strategy went out the window, however, any time the Havac's homing Sundog Beams and Scatterpack mines came into play. And, in versus mode, there was little reason to use anything but the Havac.

Rock 'N Roll Racing boasted the rockingest pre-Guitar Hero soundtrack in video games, consisting of just five instrumental versions of licensed rock and metal classics, which always played in the same order:
  • "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath
  • "Highway Star" by Deep Purple
  • "The Peter Gunn Theme" by Henry Mancini
  • "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf
  • "Bad to the Bone" by George Thorogood

Nearly as impressive was "Loudmouth Larry" Huffman's active commentary, consisting of colorful remarks (e.g. "Tarquinn unleashes hot fury!") delivered continuously throughout the race. This was about as sophisticated as commentary got in the 16-bit generation, and it was actually a good deal ahead of any contemporary sports games.

When I was a kid, Rock 'N Roll Racing was my favorite video game, but, as I grew older, I found myself somewhat frustrated with it. My biggest problem was that, in a fair race between players of comparably high skill levels, there was no way to mount a mid-race comeback. As soon as one player made a mistake or got a bad break, the other player could pretty much coast to the finish line. All of the pressure would be on the pursuing racer to try to catch up, which was theoretically impossible, since, with weapons having such limited range, the only way to really close the gap was to make better time, which could only occur if your opponent was worse than you. If the deciding mistake occurred early in a race, this meant you'd be racing several laps of anticlimax. This realization would end up souring me somewhat on racing games as a genre.

That said, if you take it less seriously as a competitive platform and more so as a party game, it's still a lot of fun, and I can only imagine the mayhem that would ensue if there were ever a four-player racer in this style.

Additional Information

Blizzard developed a Genesis version, again published by Interplay, about a year after the SNES one. In addition to being uglier and not having enough buttons--boosting was performed by double-tapping accelerate--this version sounded awful due to the hardware's inferior synth quality. Not only were the songs massacred, but, every time Larry spoke, the music would abruptly fade out until he finished. The inclusion of a weak rendition of Golden Earring's "Radar Love" was scarce compensation.

In 2003, Blizzard released a straight port of the game for the Game Boy Advance. Multiplayer was no longer splitscreen, but that wasn't much of an improvement considering how unwieldy the wired multiplayer setup for the GBA was.

A 1997 sequel called Red Asphalt was released on the PS1, but I know nothing about it besides the name.