Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Essentials #14: Suikoden


Released in 1996 (1995 in Japan), Konami's Suikoden was one of the few early pre-Final Fantasy VII role-playing games released on the PlayStation. Seeing it on a GameStop shelf a few years later for $14.99 new, I decided to pick it up on a whim, having little idea what to expect. It was one of the first RPGs I ever played, and, more so than any other game, this was my gateway into the world of Japanese RPGs. Little did I suspect, back then, that the further I delved into the genre, the more this title would stand out as one of its finest examples.

Very loosely based on the classical Chinese novel, Water Margin, Suikoden was the tale of the 108 Stars of Destiny, a diverse group of warriors gathered together to revolt against a corrupt empire. This premise translated, in gameplay terms, to the player's construction of the liberation army through the recruitment of no fewer than 108 unique characters.

The key players would join up automatically through normal game progression, but the majority of the 108 Stars of Destiny were misfits and vagabonds that had to be actively recruited via side quests of varying design. Some just had to be asked, others needed to be persuaded with proof of your strength or righteousness, and still others could only be won over through more esoteric means. Most infamously, the gunslinger Clive could only be recruited by entering a specific inn over and over again, for as many times as it took until he randomly appeared standing in the corner. Since collecting every character was necessary in order to earn the game's true ending, these events, no matter how obscure or inane, could not rightly be considered optional, and completion of them was non-negotiable for any serious playthrough. Besides, even including all character recruitments, Suikoden clocked in at well under twenty hours, making it an exceptionally short game by JRPG standards.

Much of the game's enjoyment came in watching the development of your army's headquarters. Initially a dusty and oversized castle, it would gradually fill up as you recruited more and more characters to your cause. As the population grew, the palette would become more colorful, the theme music more energetic, and the building would even receive multiple expansions in order to house everybody. It became the player's own personal town, complete with shops and blacksmiths, and where the townspeople were your people, who recognized you as their leader, even leaving notes for you in the suggestion box outside your room. Since most characters had neither much to contribute to the story nor any useful skills to justify taking them into battle, the opportunity to interact with them in the castle was typically the most gratifying part of the recruitment process.

Complementing the signature recruitment and development aspects, Suikoden's combat was basic, utilizing a turn-based battle engine comparable to any number of 16-bit JRPGs. It did feature a uniquely large six-man party formation, a practical necessity due to the staggering number of playable characters. Despite the size of the cast, however, most characters did not have any distinguishing special abilities. Some possessed or could be equipped with runes that allowed the use of magic or skills, and a select few could team up with other characters to perform powerful "Unite" maneuvers. An auto-battle option did nothing more than save the player the trouble of selecting "Attack" over and over again, but it was a surprisingly viable option for most of the game's frequent random encounters.

In addition to the normal battles, Suikoden featured two additional combat modes: large-scale war battles and one-on-one duels. Both of these were fairly shallow affairs derived from rock-paper-scissors, but they nicely depicted key encounters in ways often better than the rather arbitrary party-versus-party combat of virtually every JRPG. The war battles, dividing all of the player's characters into three-man units to take on opposing armies, were practically the only times when even the lesser characters could contribute to the fight. The fast pace and stimulating music kept things exciting as the unit commanders shouted inspiring battle cries. The duels were compelling in their own right, since, rather than guessing, the player was encouraged to read the opponents, who would telegraph their attacks through dialogue. The more enraged a character's speech, the more aggressive his next action would be.

But the true beauty of the game was its story. Straightforward and simply told, it never resorted to narrative tricks, but managed to transcend the medium to deliver an affecting tale by any standard. While I found it plainly enjoyable when I first played it, I did not fully appreciate the drama's rare quality until years later, after it had encouraged me to seek out and play dozens of other JRPGs. It was not a pretentious self-described epic full of world-destroying supervillains and angsty teenage heroes. While it did contain monsters, magic, and elves, it was, at its core, a war story, driven by fundamentally human characters and finely told with a harsh yet genuine sobriety perhaps equaled in the genre only by some of the earlier Yasumi Matsuno works.

Suikoden's silent protagonist was the sixteen-year-old son of Teo McDohl, one of the Six Great Generals of the Scarlet Moon Empire. Young McDohl's best friend, a boy named Ted was, in actuality, the 300-year-old bearer of the Soul Eater, one of the twenty-seven True Runes that governed different aspects of the world. The power of the Soul Eater was the power of death itself, and, when circumstances forced Ted to reveal that power in order to save his friends, they became targets of the power-hungry court magician, Windy. Ted would then transfer the Soul Eater to McDohl before offering himself as bait to their pursuers, giving the others a chance to escape.

The party would find unlikely refuge with a small band of rebels led by Odessa Silverberg, an aristocrat thrust into a position of leadership when she found herself unable to continue living comfortably while the common people suffered under a broken system. A surprise attack would leave Odessa mortally wounded while protecting a single child, and McDohl would be selected to succeed her as the leader of a team still too small to justify being called an army. And thus, with destiny set into motion by a fateful collision of circumstances that would forever change his life and his world, the boy would bear the twin responsibilities of pursuing Odessa's dream of a free world while also guarding the Soul Eater from the sinister Windy.

While, with such a large cast, the game possessed its share of eccentrics, the strength of the story really lay in the humanity of its characters, most of whom had clearly definable concerns and motivations. McDohl's servants, Gremio and Cleo, followed him down his treasonous path, not for the sake of abstract beliefs, nor to settle personal scores, nor even out of loyalty to their master, but because, as his friends, they shared in his life and would go wherever he went. Odessa, the rebel leader, neither sought her position nor wished for violence, but recognized that what was clean and convenient was less important than what was right and necessary, and so she suppressed her fears and doubts before her followers in need of hope. Even Emperor Barbarosa, the focus of the rebels' enmity, did not begin his reign as a tyrant. He went along with Windy's plans, not, as she believed, because of her magical influence, but because he had fallen in love with her, and, ultimately, his human error cost him his empire.

One of the most poignant scenes near the end of the game involved a minor enemy character who could not have had more than ten lines in the entire game. But that brief, simple scene conveyed a pathos that few video games have ever even approached.

After vanquishing the imperial army, the liberation forces prepared to march on the capital, the golden city of Gregminster, also young McDohl's hometown which he had been forced to flee at the beginning of the game. A somber, muted version of the originally festive theme played in the background, barely audible beneath the sound of wind blowing through the now emptied city streets, as a single man stood between the liberation army and the gate to the emperor's castle. That man was none other than Ain Gide, the last imperial general and also the same man who, at the start of the party's fateful journey, recognizing McDohl as the son of a friend, had deliberately looked the other way and allowed the tiny band of fugitives to escape on his watch, never expecting the boy to come back leading an army into his home. With the empire clearly already lost, the weary Ain Gide could only stand in vain defiance, too late performing his duty, but nonetheless determined to die for his country and his emperor.

After the party defeated him, McDohl's lieutenants, troubled by the senselessness of this death, wondered about the rightness of their actions:
Flik: No, this is wrong.
Viktor: Yes, he was wrong. But just as some things can be right and useless at the same time, can't something be wrong. . . and priceless?
There was nothing more that could be said on the matter, and so McDohl and his fellow rebels could only carry on fighting for their own values.

One final item of note was the cover art to the North American release of the game. It was a relic, one of the last holdovers in fact, from a time when, instead of simply retaining the Japanese covers, American branches of Japanese game companies would commission original, presumably more "mainstream" art done by people who knew virtually nothing about the titles they were working on. The competently painted but awfully generic fantasy artwork depicted a random group of unidentifiable characters, drawn in a style that in no way resembled the art within the game itself. Curiously, once the CD case was opened up, the Japanese cover was right there on the front of the instruction manual. (Yes, even though Suikoden was a one-disc game, it, for some reason, used a double-sized jewel case, so the manual was hidden inside.)

It's little wonder that, for the "cover" image for the PlayStation Network downloadable release, Konami opted to use the artwork from the original manual instead.

A largely unassuming yet magnificent title, Suikoden remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time. The unique character recruitment system essentially made for the most compelling and rewarding side quest of any RPG, while its stark tale, far ahead of its time, of a land brought to ruin by human folly but then saved by human will, has stayed with me ever since. It was the sort of experience that I now hope to find every time I take on a fantasy-themed RPG.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Top 5 Greatest Male Video Game Characters

During one of my writing workshops from my college days, I was asked to watch an out-of-context scene from an unidentified film and then compose an impromptu narrative of the clip from the perspective of one of the characters. The clip, as I learned later, was from the film Lenny, and it featured Dustin Hoffman, as comedian Lenny Bruce, looking on admiringly as a female stripper performed in a club. The stripper was by far the most prominent character in the scene, so I chose to write from her perspective.

After being given a few minutes to write, my fellow students and I were asked to read our narratives aloud. By the luck of the draw, I was to go last. Before my turn came up, I listened as the first of six female classmates read from the stripper's perspective as a woman reluctantly performing in order to make ends meet and thoroughly disgusted by the creepy guys that comprised her audience. Two more girls then followed with like-minded accounts from the stripper's perspective.

There was a short reprieve as the one other male student, besides myself, read his tale of the horn player who provided the club's soundtrack. The three remaining girls then resumed the parade of hard-luck stories of strippers who hated their jobs. The consistency of these narratives was evidently noticed not just by me--their readers began to chuckle as each encouraged the next to try and outdo the previous in conveying their shared sense of revulsion, and the other guy made some lame joke that I instantly forgot. And then it was my turn.

I depicted the woman as a confident veteran performer, who gloried in the power she exerted on that stage over every male in the club. It had seemed a sensible angle, based on what little I knew about strippers, which was absolutely nothing. The actress's sultry performance also seemed to be leading me in that direction, but perhaps I was merely projecting my own thoughts onto the scene.

My reading was met with complete silence, which I was prepared for. I might have salvaged things with a joke or ironic remark before or after--something to indicate at least that I knew where I was and had been through the last seven readings. No judgments were uttered, but I had managed to kill the jovial atmosphere, and, after an uncomfortable pause, the instructor redirected the session toward other topics.

I was not a woman. Still am not. Obviously. Moreover, I apparently had no grasp whatsoever of the female perspective. To that, I might have countered that none of my female classmates were strippers, so their stories were barely better-informed than mine. But, then again, I couldn't be certain. Besides, they were perfectly right with their accounts, which were spun out of honest impulses. As for me, no matter how hard I tried to imagine myself in the position of that female stripper, the truth was that I just couldn't do it.

What does any of that have to do with the title of this post? Maybe nothing. Maybe, all these years later, I just felt a need to tell that story. So, without further ado, here is my list of the "Top 5 Greatest Male Video Game Characters Who Could Not Have Been Swapped Out For Female Versions":


Leon S. Kennedy (Resident Evil 2)
Leon's first day on the job as a member of the Raccoon Police Department happens to coincide with the T-virus outbreak of Raccoon City, which leaves him trapped and fighting for his life in the zombie-infested police station. That doesn't keep the rookie cop from falling instantly in love with fellow survivor Ada Wong, a mysterious woman who introduces herself by shooting at him.

Before the game is over, he'll go out of his own way to assist this uncooperative woman he knows nothing about, who is clearly hiding things from him, who shows no signs of returning his affections, and who is supposedly searching for her boyfriend anyway. Young Leon even ends up taking a bullet for her. Foolishness, perhaps, but also understandable in a crazy and pathetic sort of way.

Seifer Almasy (Final Fantasy VIII)
An orphan whose only home is the academy, Seifer has the skills to be one of SeeD's strongest agents, but he lacks discipline and the proper attitude to perform effectively as a soldier. Recklessly independent, his "romantic dream" is to become a heroic knight, the likes of which simply does not exist in the rather sterile world of FFVIII. When the militaristic path of SeeD can't get him to his dream, he succumbs to the lure of the wicked Sorceress, who grants his wish by appointing him as her knight.

In a simpler story, Seifer, with his strength and spirit, maybe could have been the hero. But FFVIII is just practical enough to be inhospitable to his delusions of gallantry. He ends up coming off as simply some overzealous guy who's read one too many fantasy novels, or perhaps played too many JRPGs. His childish obsession ultimately provides an unflattering reflection of the male adolescent player.

Snowe Vingerhut (Suikoden IV)
The son of a lord, Snowe believes himself to be the best friend of the protagonist (unnamed, so let's just call him Lazlo), but theirs is really more of a master-servant relationship. Nepotism sees him rising to captain ahead of the far more qualified Lazlo, but his incompetence in his first battle forces our hero to take command after Snowe flees like a coward. Feeling upstaged and emasculated, he uses his status to have his former friend banished.

But getting rid of Lazlo doesn't solve Snowe's problems. When the two next meet on opposite sides of a battle, Snowe has already lost his position through his own bungling. His noble status follows shortly after, and, as Lazlo wages a war against the Kooluk Empire, Snowe becomes a minor distraction of seemingly no consequence to the main plot.

Not only is Snowe not the hero of this story, but he's not even fit to be the hero's rival. Yet Snowe is not actually weak; his frustrations stem from his inability to live up to his own unrealistic expectations of himself. A spoiled upbringing convinced him that he was supposed to be a great man, when he's really just a pretty good one, and it's not until he's lost everything that he can finally pursue life with the clean slate that everyone ought to start with.

Steve Burnside (Resident Evil Code: Veronica)
Also gaming's greatest sad sack, Steve is not yet an adult, but his pitiful story is already an agonizing mass of misfortunes brought on him by his irresponsible father, whom he ends up having to slay (but it's okay, because, as a zombie, his father is technically already dead).

In a reprise of the Leon-Ada scenario, this time with the player character on the other side of the equation, Steve encounters a cute girl two years his senior, and, seeing her as the one bright light in a miserable situation, he strives to fulfill his self-imposed role as the "man" in their partnership. But Claire Redfield is no damsel-in-distress, and Steve wouldn't have a chance with her even if she weren't preoccupied with looking for her brother. Oh, and there's also the fact that they're trapped on an island full of zombies.

Steve actually does manage to save Claire on more than one occasion, but, somehow, unlike the macho movie action heroes who make it a point to look cool while doing good, nearly all of his big moments end with him embarrassing himself. The victim of a tragedy that he was too small and powerless to affect, for all his determination, he cannot hide the truth that he is still just a boy desperately seeking approval.

So, yeah, I only came up with four. Suggestions, anyone? A list constructed by just an individual can hardly be considered definitive. But, please, no Volgin and Raidenovich.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Resident Evil 5 Demo

Well, after rigging together a janky wi-fi setup using my laptop, I was able to download and try out the Resident Evil 5 demo for Xbox 360. I've played it now in both single-player and splitscreen co-op, and, for the most part, I'm pretty pleased.

The first demo stage is basically an encore of the village from the beginning of RE4, while the second is a slightly more structured affair showcasing some of the teamwork elements. I'd forgotten just how intense the action could be in RE4, and, playing this after becoming accustomed to the much slower pace of Gears of War, I initially felt overwhelmed. Even though the enemies are not fast and do not use many ranged attacks, their sheer numbers make every encounter seem desperate.

Both stages are fairly short set pieces, and I don't know if the full game will possess any of the minor adventure elements of RE4. I'm inclined to think that a faster pace would be appropriate for a multiplayer game; it's not always easy for adults to sync up their schedules to set up a gaming session, so, when it does happen, you don't really want to spend time scavenging for items. Even so, the survival elements of the series are still in effect, and it's imperative that both characters pick up all the ammo they come across. Thankfully, for some strange reason, many of the enemies drop ammo even though they don't carry guns.

In RE0, the partner character had barely any AI, but the simple presence of another person fighting at your side was still a tremendous comfort. In RE5, while the AI is good and a human partner is theoretically even better, things are actually far more stressful than ever before, especially in single-player, because, in more frantic moments, it becomes hard to keep your eyes on your partner, leading to much worrying over how they're faring on their own. This adds a new element of danger, and I personally consider it a good thing.

The demo offers four different control schemes, including two new dual-analog configurations that allow for strafing and swifter turning, but, no matter which controls the player chooses, running can only be performed in the classic fashion, by holding down the Green button while moving with just the left analog. For consistency's sake, I ended up sticking to the classic controls, which left me longing for the GameCube controller. While it was not the most versatile, its button layout was incredibly intuitive for games like RE4, which basically used only two face buttons during active play.

While I regard the 360 controller as the overall best gamepad out there right now, I really wish Microsoft hadn't used letters to name their face buttons. At the very least, if they were determined to use the exact same letters (A, B, X, Y) and diamond formation as on the SNES controller, they should also have retained the same letter layout. But, no, not one of the buttons on the 360 controller is located on the same spot as the button of the same name on the SNES pad.

As in RE4, the demo would frequently suggest context-sensitive actions by bringing up button prompts. The problem was that, whenever the large X button icon appeared, prompting me to punch a staggered enemy, I would instinctively press the topmost button, which is actually Y on the 360. This instead brought up the new inventory menu, which no longer pauses play. The result was that, not only would I miss my chance to clobber the enemy, but I would be completely immobile and open to attack until I figured out how to close this strange menu that I had never had to deal with before.

Gears of War also featured frequent onscreen button prompts, but the actual letters were hard to read, which ironically made things less confusing, since I would end up just going by the button's color. Really, the buttons are much more easily identified by their different colors, so the use of letters is redundant and only leads to unnecessary confusion for those of us that play on multiple platforms.

Eventually, I did get used to it, and, all things considered, I'm very much looking forward to the full game. I'll certainly give the PS3 demo a try, whenever it becomes available, to see if the controls are any more intuitive. That may very well determine which version I end up buying. With a little over a month before RE5's release, I'm seriously considering playing through the Wii edition of RE4 to hype myself up.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Novak Djokovic, Pretender in Every Sense of the Word

I watched Roger Federer annihilate young up-and-comer Juan Martin del Potro, who must have felt hustled after a year of speculations that Federer's days of dominance were over. The straight-sets victory included two bagels, but the best part of the match was when the telecast turned to commentator Mary Joe Fernandez, who was merely spectating at the time.

Asked about Novak Djokovic's shameful retirement against Andy Roddick earlier that night, Fernandez, whose husband is Roger Federer's agent, claimed that Federer kind of expected it. Djokovic had last year retired against Federer at Monte Carlo, and then tried to explain to Federer that he had a sore throat. According to Fernandez, Federer, who has never retired mid-match in a professional tournament, thought that excuse was "a bit soft." It was not the sort of thing Roger would do. Nor Rafa.

In a post-match interview, Federer, speaking for himself, tried to be diplomatic, at first claiming he was surprised to see Djokovic retire. One question later, however, he seemed to change his mind. "It's happened before," he noted, pointing out the Monte Carlo match. "He's not the guy who's never given up before."

Despite Djokovic's bitter dismissal of Roddick's like accusations last year, this latest tapout, his fourth in a Grand Slam tournament, is his most suspect yet. While Djokovic, whose championship run last year included a breakthrough victory against a mononucleosis-ridden Federer, was determined to blame the oppressive heat and poor scheduling that left him inadequate time to recover from his last match, I can't help suspecting, considering his recent history with Roddick, that he was just determined not to be on the losing end of what would have been Roddick's biggest victory in years. But, no matter whether Djokovic's weakness is one of body or of character, retiring against the very guy who called him a faker last year is not the most dignified way to go out.

How quickly "the big four" is right back down to just Federer and Nadal.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Essentials #13: Perfect Dark

When GoldenEye 007 came out on the Nintendo 64 in 1997, it was a revolution, introducing a generation of console gamers to the first-person shooter genre that had previously been reserved for PC players. It paved the way for such titles as Halo and Resistance, and in this age where console has effectively become the go-to platform for even the FPS genre, its legacy is undeniable. While I arrived to the N64 a little too late to get caught up in that frenzy, I did spend a lot of time with its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark.

Released in 2000 for the N64, Perfect Dark improved on virtually every aspect of developer and publisher Rare's earlier GoldenEye 007. While many key staff members from the old team left Rare in the middle of Perfect Dark's long development cycle, the final game still clearly retained GoldenEye 007's basic design and interface. The single-player mode was broken up into seventeen distinct stages of varying objectives, with many missions requiring a stealthy approach. To compensate for the less precise controls of a gamepad compared to a mouse-and-keyboard setup, limited auto-aim guided the player's gun toward targets, while the R shoulder button activated a manual aim system that allowed for precision shots. Anybody who'd played GoldenEye 007 would have found the feel and structure of the game to be instantly familiar.

Released at the end of the console's life, the title pushed the N64 to its limits, requiring use of the RAM-doubling Expansion Pak to access most of the content. One of the most graphically impressive games of its generation, it was only hampered somewhat by framerate issues, as things could become very choppy as the system sometimes struggled to keep up with the action. But most noteworthy were probably the fully-voiced cut scenes. While the audio may have been somewhat muffled, the amount of dialogue the game included was still remarkable, considering the cartridge format's ROM size limitations.

Dispensing with the Bond license in favor of an original IP that might let the game better stand on its own, Perfect Dark starred Joanna Dark as an agent of the Carrington Institute, an espionage organization defending the earth in a secret struggle with the sinister dataDyne corporation. For the first half at least, the game provided a thrilling story akin to a Hollywood action film, featuring a cinematic, adult-oriented narrative unlike anything else on the N64. Unfortunately, the plot would take several silly turns en route to its laughably stupid ending. The story was sufficient to support the gameplay, but, ultimately, it was still just as fluffy as most on the N64.

As a video game heroine, Joanna Dark failed to achieve the status of a Samus Aran or Lara Croft, and Rare, eager to amend that, decided to give her a brand new look--an uglier one, in my opinion--for its next installment. Some players accused her of being a Lara Croft clone, but aside from her English accent, which was easily explained by the fact that Rare was a UK company, she bore little resemblance. The real problem with Joanna Dark, I'm convinced, had to do with the first-person perspective.

Joanna Dark was an attempt to craft a charismatic character in a genre that, by its nature, couldn't support it. Unusual for an FPS player character, she actually had a clearly-defined identity and many lines of dialogue. However, these elements disappeared during gameplay, as the perspective meant you couldn't even see the main character you were playing as. Nor, looking at most of the promotional screenshots and footage of just a hand holding a gun, would you have gotten much sense of an actual character. It's an issue inherent to the genre, which is why, I feel, it has produced few legitimately compelling player characters. Of course, the whole idea behind the earliest FPS titles was that you were playing as yourself. I'm not sure how much of the genre's predominantly male audience would have identified with Joanna.

One notable feature of the title was the Carrington Institute itself, which served as the main hub for all activity within the game. The solo missions and multiplayer modes were all initiated from a computer within the institute, but the player could also walk away from the computer and freely roam the building. One could go to the training room and run a few simulations or, alternatively, head to the firing range and test out one of the many guns in Joanna's arsenal. Hinting at the wealth of content in the game, these diversions constituted modes unto themselves, providing plenty of challenges to test the player. But the best thing about the Carrington Institute would not become evident until late in the story mode, when one stage had the enemy attacking the base. By that point, it had become like a home, not only to Joanna, but to the player as well. Instead of stumbling down one unfamiliar corridor after another, you were actually able to fight the enemy on your own turf.

Perfect Dark's biggest improvement over GoldenEye 007 may have been its addition of a cooperative mode, which allowed two players to play the story mode via splitscreen. The second player would control Velvet Dark, Joanna's sister who had no lines, never appeared in cut scenes, and was never mentioned by anybody as even existing, which she most likely didn't, as far as the canon was concerned. Nor did the game really bother to give her a distinct role in any missions. For the most part, she was just a second gun who followed right behind or alongside Joanna at all times. This lack of acknowledgment of an entire second agent certainly furthered the disconnect between story and gameplay, but the fun of playing with a buddy made it worth it. Whatever the inadequacies of the co-op play, Perfect Dark was a better game with it than it would have been without it, and it's nice to see that the feature has since become more common among today's shooters.

I vividly recall one particular mission that began with Joanna having to acquire a stewardess disguise in order to infiltrate a base housing Air Force One. In the single-player game, you would have to knock out the real stewardess on her way to the base, then take her uniform and wear it into the building, where the receptionist would acknowledge you and release the electronic lock on the door to the base interior. As it turned out, even in co-op, there was only one disguise available. This presented a major issue, as it left no way for the second player to fool their way into the base. If the receptionist or any of the guards saw Joanna or Velvet approaching without a disguise, they would immediately sound the alert and bring an abrupt end to the mission. Since that was where the entire rest of the stage took place, this seemingly meant that the second player would have to be left behind to do nothing.

Eventually, I came up with a plan that, though it sounded ridiculous, seemed to me to be the only solution. The first player, as Joanna, would enter wearing the disguise and get them to unlock the door. Then, rather than continuing through, she would turn around and knock out the receptionist. At that point, Velvet would rush in and incapacitate all of the guards in the room, while Joanna stood between them and the alarm. Because the guards were actually good Americans that were just not privy to the truth of your clandestine operation, you weren't allowed to kill them. As a result, my strategy required a lot of punching of guards who would themselves not hesitate to shoot. Even after we pulled it off, the plan seemed so impractical that I doubted whether Rare itself had even played the mission in co-op and noticed the problem.

More peculiar was the "Counter-Operative" mode, placing the second player in control of the enemy forces, while the first player, as Joanna, proceeded as normal through the single-player missions. As with the single-player game, a stage would end either with Joanna's completion of all mission objectives or with her death at the hands of the enemy, the latter becoming the second player's objective. If the second player's character died, which was likely, given the meager health and weaponry of the enemy characters, the game would automatically reassign the player to a different body a la the agents from The Matrix. If necessary, one could also take a suicide pill, included in every enemy character's inventory, to force immediate reassignment. The unique mode bravely sought to give context to a versus mode, but, while the idea was good, the execution could have been a lot better. For the first player, the presence of a human opponent undermined the stealth elements. The second player, meanwhile, often faced long stretches of inaction, because many stages started Joanna far away from any enemies. And since there was no incentive of narrative progression, playing it simply wasn't very rewarding for either player. As a result, the mode was nothing more than a novelty.

GoldenEye 007's most popular feature was its four-player versus mode, and Perfect Dark brought it back with many improvements. In addition to supporting four players via splitscreen, the game allowed the inclusion of up to eight bots, whose abilities could be fully tuned to the player's specifications. The six modes of play also allowed extensive customization of winning conditions and weapon selections. For me, the multiplayer provided a good opportunity to use the seldom-seen yet awesome Farsight sniper rifle, which allowed its wielder to zoom and fire through walls. It reminded me of the teleporting bullet trick from the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, "Field of Fire." Aside from that, I honestly found the choppy versus play to be fairly intolerable in both GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark, so I won't speak at length about it. I did nevertheless appreciate just how feature-filled it was, as was the game as a whole. While no one aspect of the game was perfect, the sheer quantity of modes and options really made it feel complete.

So it is with some irony that I must confess that I never completed Perfect Dark. I made it to the last stage, lost a few times, and then gave up. While far from being the most difficult video game I've ever played, it was distinctly old-school in some of its design choices. Although each mission's objectives were spread out fairly evenly throughout the levels, these goals did not correspond to checkpoints. If Joanna died at any point in the mission, it was game over, and the player would have to restart from the beginning of the stage. In co-op, a player got a limited number of respawns so long as the other player was still alive. But the punitive design really never frustrated until the final stage.

The missions saw a drop in quality that corresponded exactly to the decline of the story. The more realistic human foes of the earlier spy-themed stages gave way to the reptilian Skedar aliens, who were just cheap and annoying. The last stage specifically was guilty of two sins that I consider to be the absolute worst in FPS level design: (1) enemies that lie in wait, presumably indefinitely at improbable spots, to ambush you when you arrive, and (2) enemies that spawn mid-stage, sometimes right behind you, to ambush you. Did I mention that most of the Skedar were invisible, requiring use of the infrared goggles that reduced the game's visuals to just two miserable colors? Maybe I could have given the stage another go and succeeded. But I had frankly become so disenchanted with the story that I no longer cared enough.

Like many of Rare's works, Perfect Dark has not aged gracefully. Both its look and design are dated compared to modern shooters. The single-stick control would be particularly hard to go back to, though I would argue that the deep center prong of the N64 controller, simulating a pistol grip, provided the most satisfying trigger of any gamepad ever, even if it had to be held lefty. Still, it's definitely my favorite Rare title. It was the best console FPS of its time, a title full of great ideas, even if they all showed blemishes on close inspection. Up until that final stage, the single-player action was a great ride. Even if the story faltered at the end, it was one of the first titles to show me the cinematic potential of video games. The co-op was great fun, albeit it could have been more thoughtfully implemented. The Counter-Operative mode didn't really work, but perhaps it will inspire a future game to do it right. As the first FPS I really enjoyed, it remains, to this day, the game that I measure all other FPS titles against.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Novak Djokovic, No. 1 Douche Bag

Novak Djokovic, defending Australian Open champion and current No. 3 in the world, became a fan-favorite during his breakthrough 2007 season, when, after a match victory at the U.S. Open, he obliged the crowd by performing his impressions of Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He made it as far as the final of that tournament, and, though he lost in straight sets to a then still-dominant Roger Federer, he managed to win the enthusiastic approval of the crowd and even Maria Sharapova herself, who cheered the Serbian on from his box. Riding that high into 2008, Djokovic proceeded to take the Australian Open, ousting Federer along the way. For a time, it looked like his would be the story of the year, and his star continued to rise with an impressive run culminating in a pivotal match against Rafael Nadal, with Nadal's long-held No. 2 ranking on the line. Nadal won that match, of course, and we all know what followed for the Spaniard.

As for Djokovic, the rest of 2008 was pretty rough as he fell well out of the spotlight, but he had no one to blame but himself. Probably wanting to be viewed as a serious contender rather than a comedian, he quit performing his impressions despite fans' requests. After demolishing Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open, he decided to add insult to injury during the on-court interview by taking verbal stabs at his defeated opponent, responding to some playful teasing by Roddick from an earlier press conference. Djokovic's bitter and ill-timed remarks elicited boos from the same New York crowd that had cheered him a year earlier, and, when interviewer Michael Barkann offered him extra chances to redeem himself, he instead made things worse by declaring his resentment toward the fans for their favoritism of his American opponent. After Federer again eliminated him from the tournament, much to the delight of the crowd, Djokovic later expressed regret at his handling of the Roddick incident.

Coming into the 2009 Australian Open as the reigning champion and with the momentum of victory from 2008's year-ending Masters Cup, it looks like Djokovic is back to playing the villain, scoffing at the suggestion that Andy Murray, world No. 4, may be one of the favorites to win. While Murray has not quite equaled Djokovic's accomplishments, he is right now in a position very similar to Djokovic's a year ago, coming in following a spectacular couple of months that included his first major final at the U.S. Open. With several tournament victories and key wins over both Nadal and Federer, there is little question that Murray is right now the hottest player on tour. Amid the frightening violence between Serbian and Bosnian fans at the Australian Open, Djokovic's comments seem not just silly, but also incredibly crass.

But, remembering back to the days of his self-promotion through viral videos of his Sharapova impressions, one gets a better understanding of Djokovic's nature as a performer craving the spotlight. With everyone focused on Nadal, Federer, and now Murray, perhaps Djokovic is simply saying whatever he needs to to draw attention back to himself. I must admit, a Djokovic-Murray match suddenly sounds more exciting than a Nadal-Federer final.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Celebrity Twitters

As always, I'm a bit late to the Internet phenomenon of the moment. I've already been informed that Tumblr is now the hot new thing. As for Twitter, I'd heard the word spoken many times over the past several months, but hadn't really bothered to look it up. When I finally found out what it was, I frankly had trouble understanding why exactly such a thing existed. The power of the machine at work became recently apparent, when the report of mass layoffs at had the site's followers turning to terminated employees' Twitter accounts for details, which gave form and faces to the story in the hours immediately following the news.

Of greater interest to me, however, was the discovery that none other than Shaquille O'Neal himself was a prolific Twitterer. Posting as THE_REAL_SHAQ, he apparently started it up to combat a fake Shaq Twitterer. Now he regularly posts banal updates of such barely intelligible, typo-ridden shorthand that it's easy to imagine his gigantic thumbs struggling to hit the right buttons on his phone's keypad. Among other things, he dubs himself "da horse," predicts that Kobe Bryant will be MVP, questions the legality of Kenyon Martin's "big ball jesture, aftamakin a shot," and describes himself as a "now rt now kinda a guy."

The amazing find encouraged me to look for other celebrity Twitters. Fifteen minutes later, I had read enough. While a good number of minor celebrities run Twitters just as useless as Shaq's, few come close in terms of personality. Nevertheless, if anyone else is interested, here's what I found:

President Obama

Jerry Rice

Lance Armstrong

William Shatner

Brent Spiner

LeVar Burton

Wil Wheaton

MC Hammer

John Cleese

David Lynch

Felicia Day from Buffy and Dr. Horrible

Andy Murray, Scottish tennis player, #4 in the world (honestly, his is probably the most entertaining one here, what with his repeated references to something he calls "tennis footie"--quite a welcome contrast to his taciturn demeanor during interviews)

Fifty-one years ago...

Did you know that today is Lorenzo "Renegade" Lamas's birthday?

I really should have taken the day off. Damn it all.

Monday, January 19, 2009

"Do you know who's in the White House right now?"

"An asshole." (Blade: Trinity, 2004)

I was behind him through his battles with Deacon Frost, those fools from Blade II, Dracula/Drake, and especially the IRS, but it's all too apparent in this interview that Wesley "Daywalker" Snipes has completely lost his mind. "Wii Town," indeed. Looks like the bloodsuckers have finally won.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Essentials #12: Pac-Man vs.

Generally regarded as the first character in video games, Namco's Pac-Man has endured for many generations as the company's beloved mascot, but, as of 2003, Pac-Man had not managed to successfully break out beyond the original design of his first title, rendering him mostly useless and irrelevant as gaming continued to evolve. That year's release of Pac-Man vs. tried to breathe a bit of new life into the character, resurrecting classic design, while simultaneously showcasing Nintendo's experimental connectivity technology.

Pac-Man vs. was the product of Nintendo's own legendary designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, who sought to put a new spin on the classic arcade game by giving it a versus mode. The concept was simple yet inspired. One player would control Pac-Man playing the game as normal, gobbling up the Pac-dots littered about the maze, while evading the ghosts that pursued him. Consuming one of the handful of Power Pellets would let him turn the tables temporarily by granting him the ability to prey on the ghosts. The new twist, however, had up to three other players controlling those ghosts as they stalked Pac-Man.

Each ghost would have only a tiny circular field of vision, forcing them to wander about the board until they got close enough to catch a glimpse of Pac-Man, at which point they could try to use their faster linear speed to chase him down. Fruit, which originally just gave Pac-Man bonus points, could now be eaten by ghosts as well, and doing so would widen the display circle for the player that collected it. While best enjoyed with a full four players, the game would keep the sides balanced by having the AI take command of any ghosts that were not controlled by human players. Initially transparent and intangible, an AI ghost would take on the color of the first player ghost to tag it, at which point it would be able to hunt as a representative of that player.

Pac-Man vs. was the second of only three titles to be designed specifically around use of the GameCube-Game Boy Advance Cable. Utilizing a more manageable and considerably cheaper setup than Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, it required only one GBA and GC-GBA Cable for controlling Pac-Man on the handheld screen. The other three players, who would control the ghosts via the TV screen, played using GameCube controllers. Any ghost player who managed to catch Pac-Man would earn the right to play as him for the next round, and the exchange was handled simply by physically handing off the GBA from one player to the next. This would continue until a player managed to reach the score set as the goal at the beginning of the match.

Though the fast pace and simple, intuitive mechanics made for a fun party game, there were definite flaws in the design. The player controlling Pac-Man would have an overwhelming advantage thanks to his much greater field of vision. Armed with that superior knowledge of any given stage's paths, the Pac-Man player would not have much trouble eluding a mere three ghosts. If a ghost did start to threaten him, he needed only to grab the nearest Power Pellet and send them all fleeing, at which point he could either hunt them for the extra points or continue collecting Pac-dots at his leisure. By carefully pacing his consumption of the Power Pellets, Pac-Man could dominate a board and rack up a lot of points in very short order.

In theory, the ghost players were supposed to communicate, so that they might coordinate their movements and trap Pac-Man, but, in practice, this was actually fairly difficult. Due to the abstract nature of the levels, it was only possible to give vague directions, such as "bottom-right corner" or "middle of the stage," which, with the speed at which the characters moved, would not likely remain accurate long enough for any plans to be concocted, especially if Pac-Man did the logical thing and grabbed the nearest Power Pellet. More importantly, even though all the ghosts wanted Pac-Man eliminated, the fact was that they were also in competition with one another, and it was undesirable for a ghost other than yourself to catch him and earn the right to become Pac-Man for the next stage. Depending on where everybody stood on the scoreboard, a fellow ghost could actually be a bigger threat in the grand scheme than the current Pac-Man, in which case teamwork might be discouraged.

The one trick available to the ghosts was the ability to cheat Pac-Man out of a clear board by deliberately camping over the last Power Pellet or two, or, if there were none left, then the last couple Pac-dots. The game would try to prevent such a tactic by making all dots and Power Pellets disappear from the ghosts' screens once the remaining dot count was down to twenty-five, but this could not stop a player who was determined or desperate enough. It was a cheap maneuver, to be sure, but letting Pac-Man clear the board was the worst-case scenario for the ghost players, as it meant the same player would control Pac-Man for the next round, and likely be in striking distance of the match goal. Of course, between just Pac-Man and the camper, it would be a virtual stalemate. The camper could not pursue, while nothing forced Pac-Man to go for the last dot. Since there was no time limit, unless the two remaining ghosts caught him, the game could drag on indefinitely. Eventually, someone would have to break. Either the camper would realize that he needed to catch Pac-Man himself, or the Pac-Man player would give up and decide which of his opponents he felt most comfortable handing off to. All scenarios considered, Pac-Man still had the upper hand.

Despite Pac-Man's advantages, it still took a fair bit of focus for a Pac-Man player to run away with things against superior numbers. Amid the sort of party atmosphere that was likely to accompany a session of Pac-Man vs., this focus would prove far harder to maintain than in the original single-player game. While the problems would likely arise, they would not detract significantly from the sheer fun of the experience.

With just six boards to play on, the multiplayer-only title was extremely limited, which was surely why it was distributed only as a freebie with three other Namco releases of the time. My copy came as a set with the Player's Choice release of Pac-Man World 2, a reportedly mediocre platformer that I have never bothered to play.

Though not as richly involved as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventure, Pac-Man vs. made the best case for connectivity. As a game that truly utilized multiple screens alongside the social aspect of local multiplayer, it offered a familiar yet utterly unique experience deserving of a look for any GameCube and GBA owner.

Additional Information

Namco Bandai wisely chose to give the game a second chance by including a DS conversion in its release of Namco Museum DS. Clearly the compilation's main attraction, it practically justifies the collection by itself, and it kind of has to, unless you're really into classic Namco arcade games. The conversion is very faithful and clearly establishes the lineage between the GC-GBA connectivity experiment and the dual-screen design of the DS. The ghost mode graphics are certainly not as slick as the 3-D presentation on the GameCube, and it lacks the cute audio play-by-play by Mario, but the portability and ubiquity of the DS expands its reach significantly, and, with single-cart play for up to four players, it provides a convenient pick-up-and-play multiplayer experience that just about anyone should be able to enjoy.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Show Must Go On

Dreams can be devastating things. Though the events in our dreams may be mere figments, not even remotely realistic when considered with conscious reason, the emotions we feel in the dream world can be just as powerful as those we experience in the real world. I've had dreams where I've lived out what felt like lifetimes, and, much like Jean-Luc Picard at the end of "The Inner Light," I would find myself a changed man upon returning to the waking world, rudely forced to adapt to reality again. Last night's dream was not quite so profound a case, but it will likely stay with me for a few days.

In the dream, I was watching TV, when a breaking news story reported that Gwyneth Paltrow's five-year-old son was holding her at gunpoint on the thirtieth floor of a nearby skyscraper.

I immediately rushed to the scene and found it surrounded by police. I asked the officer in charge what the situation was.

The Academy Award-winning actress was tied up to a chair. Her son, armed with a shotgun, had already executed six people, including his own father. He had made no demands and seemed unresponsive to reason. Snipers had the boy in their sights, but the commander was unwilling to pull the trigger. The old soldier, looking like hell, wanted to storm the building and take the child alive, but he clearly recognized that the odds of success were slim. Whatever the plan, I knew that something had to be done soon, because Ms. Paltrow's chances of making it out alive were dropping with every passing second.

"I know her," I informed the sergeant. "You've got to let me try."

He silently agonized over the options, before suddenly exhaling and giving me the go-ahead: "Go get 'em, tiger!"

I raced up the stairs as quickly as I could. I reached the thirtieth floor, took a deep breath, and opened the door to their room.

Too late. She was gone.

The boy, cradling the still smoking gun, turned to look at me, but offered no other reaction, his face dull and expressionless as a dimwitted newborn.

"You son of a bitch!" I cursed, completely oblivious to the impropriety of my words.

I advanced on the motionless child. I kicked him hard in the chest, and he dropped instantly without any resistance. It was so easy. I lifted him off the ground and hurled him at the window, which his tiny body tore through effortlessly.

The world was unrecognizable. Incomprehensible. I was done. Melting into the nearest chair, I waited for whatever would come next.

Moments later, a dozen officers rushed into the room, armed and ready for action. Upon seeing me, it was their turn to soak in the enormity of what had transpired.

The sergeant had his men escort me into the back of one of their cars. "They're going to take good care of you," he said. I neither knew nor cared where they were taking me.

We drove for hours before stopping at the edge of a forest.

"Run," the driver told me. "Go on. There's nothing else I can do for you."

And so I ran, even though I had nothing to run for.

After an indeterminate period of wandering through the forest, the dream ended. I woke up, went through the usual morning ritual, and drove to work. But, for the entire rest of the day, I was extremely anxious for any confirmation that Gwyneth Paltrow was alive and well.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gears of War

I completed the original Gears of War last night. A bit late to the party, I suppose, but it was the first title I played on my recently purchased Xbox 360. I'd been intrigued ever since hearing it described as the first significant post-Resident Evil 4 shooter. I was skeptical, but, overall, I found it thoroughly satisfying. The game is far from perfect, but it is well-made and a lot of fun.

Fundamental to the gameplay is the Kill.switch-inspired cover system. Having both the player and enemies relying on cover makes for a welcome departure from the traditional first-person shooter mayhem of trying to tag moving targets while also running around to avoid getting shot yourself. The resulting experience provides a more methodical pace of play, which I find much more my style.

The game's major weakness is its level design. My first two hours or so were pretty amazing, but it soon became apparent that there was a real lack of variety in the action. The game's repeating formula has the player walking into a large space full of cover, whereupon gun-toting aliens emerge from a hole in the ground, and then the player and enemies exchange fire from behind cover until the area is clear. That describes about 75 percent of the gameplay. Another 20 percent is composed of sections where dog creatures charge directly at the player. Frankly, these moments occur too often. Dispensing with the cover mechanics, these segments reminded me of the bad FPS experiences I've had in the past, where I would struggle with the camera and controls while firing blindly at fast moving targets that got too close. The final 5 percent includes short diversions of varying success, including a few boss encounters and a vehicular stage.

While the basic gameplay remains sufficiently fun throughout, there's no denying the lack of imagination, as, aside from equipping enemies with bigger guns as the game progresses, all of the gunfights are exactly the same. There are no set pieces on a par with RE4's barricade cabin, and one can't help feeling that opportunities were missed. The game includes a sniper rifle, but then provides no occasions that take advantage of it. The core game is solid, but it almost feels more like a drawn out demo than a full, finished game.

I must also admit that the lack of any real plot bothered me more than I expected, with the abrupt ending being particularly unsatisfying.

The game's best feature, I'd have to say, is the cooperative play. The game was clearly designed with co-op play in mind. At a basic level, having two men helps to spread the enemy fire. Some sections require the two players to split up, while others, such as the vehicular stage, require splitting responsibilities and working together in different roles. Also, when one player goes down, it's almost always possible for the other to revive them with a simple tap on the shoulder. In fact, this happened quite a lot during my playthrough, and, rather than construing that to mean that a single-player playthrough would have been impossible for me, I should say that knowing my partner could revive me emboldened me to take greater risks.

I played the game on the "Casual" setting, which was the easier of the two default difficulty levels. Despite the excessively hard aesthetic, the actual gameplay is highly accessible, offering frequent checkpoints and a generous health regeneration system. The game itself is also not at all judgmental when it comes to a player's skills, or lack thereof, as the case may be. Sure, I enjoy a good challenge from time to time, but, as I grow older and busier, those occasions are becoming fewer and further between. After such indignities as "Baby" mode, "Ninja Dog," and so on and so forth, I really appreciate the developers' conscious effort to make the game genuinely inviting for players of all skill levels.

I haven't tried the versus multiplayer yet, nor do I expect to in the near future, due to the 360's lack of built in wi-fi, but, whatever my complaints, I enjoyed the co-op campaign a lot and fully intend to pick up the sequel, which hopefully expands on the first game's solid fundamentals with greater variety and richer design.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Mega Man's World

I read an interview a while back, where Mega Man designer Keiji Inafune claimed that Capcom did not feel that a female protagonist could sell. At the time, I didn't really give it much thought, but, watching Resident Evil: Degeneration recently, I found myself reminded of that interview.


The movie featured the long-awaited return of Resident Evil 2's heroine, Claire Redfield, last seen in Resident Evil Code: Veronica in 2000. The movie was disappointing as a whole, but perhaps what most bothered me was how it seemed to waste the event of Claire's return, giving her far less to do overall than fellow Raccoon City survivor, Leon S. Kennedy. During the film's first act, when the characters had to make their escape from a zombie-infested airport, Leon and two SWAT officers provided armed escort, while Claire followed as an unarmed civilian. It struck me as odd that they would not arm Claire, considering what a crack shot she had been in the games, but I supposed perhaps they didn't have enough guns to go around. That turned out not to be the case, as evidenced by a baffling scene, in which Leon, seeing Claire surrounded by zombies, tossed his firearm to her, then suddenly pulled out a second gun so as not to leave himself unarmed. If he had two guns, why didn't he just give his spare to her in the first place?! Then, after expertly dispatching the zombies around her, Claire inexplicably handed the gun back to Leon, even though he already had one and obviously wasn't going to use both.

As the film wore on, Claire had progressively even less to do. While Leon became the focus in the big action sequences, Claire was left pushing buttons and pulling switches in the control room. Most significantly, however, the film also seemed to rule out future action for Claire by establishing that, in contrast to her brother and Leon, she had taken a more passive role in the fight against the biohazard menaces. To be fair, despite her ridiculous moves, she always was a civilian. Since that never stood in the way of her previous adventures, then there's no reason she couldn't appear in a future game. Unless, of course, Inafune is right, and Capcom just doesn't have the confidence to feature a female protagonist.

Capcom has provided Chris Redfield with a female partner in Resident Evil 5, but it has already been stated that, in the single-player game, the player will control only Chris, making Sheva more of a sidekick than a co-protagonist. Meanwhile, recent trailers have suggested that, unless Capcom is holding back some major cards, Jill Valentine will have a supporting role at best. It just strikes me as wrong that one of the franchise's lead characters should be relegated to a peripheral role. To be honest, I would be more comfortable were she not in the game at all, rather saved for some future installment where she would once again be the playable lead.

Back during the PS1 and PS2 eras, Capcom actually had a ton of female leads, including Claire (Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil Code: Veronica), Jill (Resident Evil, Resident Evil 3), Regina (Dino Crisis, Dino Crisis 2), Rebecca Chambers (Resident Evil Zero), and Vanessa Z. Schneider (P.N.03). Not only that, but, as I remember the pre-Resident Evil 4 days, Claire and Jill were actually more popular and more prominent than their male counterparts, with Jill in particular becoming a sort of mascot for the series, even making an appearance in Marvel vs. Capcom 2.

One possibility is that, in the case of the horror-themed Resident Evil series, as well as the RE-derived Dino Crisis games, Capcom's use of female protagonists was inspired by the "final girl" trope from slasher films, and, as the series has moved away from horror and become more action-focused, more traditional male action heroes have become favored.

It may also be worth noting that all of the characters I named were from games developed by Shinji Mikami or Hideki Kamiya, who both left Capcom following the dissolution of Clover Studio. Kamiya's first title since leaving Capcom will be Bayonetta, which basically looks like Devil May Cry with a female lead. Meanwhile, Keiji Inafune has had famously harsh remarks attributing Clover's demise to its consistent failure to deliver on the bottom line. In the post-Clover world, where Inafune may be the top dog at Capcom, perhaps the sudden abandonment of female leads simply reflects his conservative yet reliable personality at the helm.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Essentials? #11: The 7th Saga

I'd estimate that I've played over fifty role-playing video games over the years, and this was where it all began. The 7th Saga, published by Enix in 1993 for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, was the first RPG I ever played and also one of the worst. Known in Japan as Elnard, the Produce-developed title was a fairly traditional RPG that adhered very closely to the Dragon Quest formula.

The story of The 7th Saga took place on the world of Ticondera, where the beloved King Lemele, a son of the legendary Saro, had recruited and trained seven apprentices. As the game began, Lemele announced that their five years of training had come to an end. He instructed them to set out in search of the Seven Runes hidden throughout the world. Whoever found the Runes would gain "tremendous power" and "become the leader of this world!" Presumably, Lemele meant to have that apprentice succeed him as king.

To start out, the player would select one of the seven apprentices to be the player character. Kamil Dowanna, a human knight with a strong sense of justice, was the most-balanced character, combining strong attack and good equipment options with mediocre magic. Olvan Jaess, an aged dwarf hoping to use the Runes to restore his youth, was similar to Kamil, but stronger and slower. Valsu Saizer, the righteous human priest, could learn every healing spell in the game, but his offense was limited to the basic Ice spell. Lejes Rimul, an evil demon and dark wizard, who thirsted for the power of the Runes, could use nearly every offensive spell. Esuna Busy, an elf and the lone female apprentice, possessed probably the best mix of spells, as well as the highest magical potency. Wilme Pelin, a useless alien with a bad attitude, could not equip any weapons or armor, had almost no MP, and basically relied on his high speed and HP to get him through. Lux Tizer, a member of the machine race of Tetujin's, whose origins had been lost to time, wanted the Runes to unlock the secrets of his own history. Possessing the greatest defense, his only weaknesses were a lack of speed and MP.

After making your choice, you would then set out immediately on your quest for the Seven Runes. In contrast to something like Final Fantasy IV, the game featured a very sparse narrative, inviting players to just wander according to the geography of the world, moving from town to town and dungeon to dungeon, picking up clues on the Runes' locations. Along the way, you would run into the other apprentices, and some might offer to join you, but it was not possible to have more than one partner. Also, since the player character would claim any Runes found, it wasn't clear what they hoped to get out of joining you. Unfortunately, the player's choice of character had almost no impact on the story. The player character would never speak, nor would your choice affect how others acted toward you.

The game's best feature was probably the Crystal Ball, which served as a radar on the field. The Crystal Ball marked all enemies and towns, as well as the locations of nearby Runes. Instead of being entirely random, monsters would appear as moving dots on the radar. All these years and games later, I still consider it to be the best encounter system in any RPG I've played. Less annoying than random encounters, it also avoided the sense of dread that could come in games like Chrono Trigger, where you could see the enemy in your way and know that you could not avoid them. While the enemy dots moved quickly and unpredictably, there would still be occasions when I would simply find myself "in the zone" and be able to snake my way through a floor of a dungeon without running into any encounters. On the other hand, if you wanted to level-grind, you could simply stand in one place, while the monsters came to you.

The game's other interesting feature was that it used only two buttons, A and B, along with the directional pad, but it was possible to play the game one-handed, substituting L and SELECT for A and B. I found myself doing so more often that I would have expected, and it's a shame that the option is not more common.

Like I said, The 7th Saga was the first RPG that I ever played. My older brother had picked it up hoping probably to get in some quality questing in between releases of Final Fantasy games. He picked Kamil as his character and made it maybe halfway through the game before realizing that it required far more level-grinding than he was prepared to put in. After one too many deaths at the hands of the overpowering Flame enemies, he gave up and replaced it on the shelf, where it would remain for years until I decided, on a whim, to pick it up. I was not that heavy into gaming at the time, but it was summer break, and I had nothing to do. It also seemed a shame to me to have this expensive game just lying around with no one playing it.

I chose Lux for my character, as I had seen my brother's Kamil repeatedly torn apart by enemy attacks, and Lux's high defense stat seemed like the best way to avoid running into that problem. I was somewhat taken aback, however, to find that the bird enemies outside the first town could tear apart even Lux in very short order.

It didn't take me long to realize that this was the sort of game where you would have to commit yourself to going out into the middle of the field with the sole intention of grinding until your character dropped dead, at which point you would find yourself waking up at the nearest inn with half your money gone, essentially payment for the experience you earned before dying. That was how the game was played, and it was unapologetic about it, even encouraging the player to exchange money for gems to prepare for such scenarios. Gems could not be spent, but they could be resold at full value, and enemies would never take them, so it was prudent to convert all your money to gems while traveling, swapping them for gold only when you needed to make a purchase. I spent three summer days out in those fields, just fighting and dying, but, at the end of it, my Lux was prepared for anything. It's not the sort of thing I would or could do now, but, at the time, I didn't really have anything else to compare it to, and, besides, as a kid during the summer, I had the free time available.

The best and worst parts of the game were perhaps the battles against the other apprentices. As mentioned, the player would periodically run into the other characters in towns, and, while some would happily join the player, and others would politely decline, there were also those who would attack the player outright to eliminate the competition. These one-on-one duels were the toughest fights in the game. These rivals would gain levels at the same pace as the player character, so it would not be possible to level-grind against them. Most of the characters could dish out damage close to their own HP, so, win or lose, in theory, these should have been short affairs. In practice, that was only the case if you died immediately. Attacks missed frequently, so you always had to prioritize healing, rather than counting on your next attack to finish them off. It then become a marathon, as you waited patiently until your own health stabilized enough for you to risk an attack. The cleric, Valsu, was by far the most dangerous. Though he wielded only an Ice spell, it was enough to take out Kamil in a single casting, as I saw happen to my brother multiple times. He also possessed the Elixir spell, which fully restored his HP and MP. Even with Lux, I don't think I could have beaten Valsu without the stat-boosting powers of at least five Runes.

If you were defeated, not only would you lose half your gold, but the enemy apprentice would relieve you of any Runes you had obtained. Thankfully, in only one case was it absolutely necessary to take on a fellow apprentice. Midway through the game, you would come across a town which had been taken over by an apprentice using the power of one of the Runes. While it might have made for a great twist, sadly, the identity of this villain was randomized for each playthrough, and his dialogue and motivations would never vary to match the personality of the specific character. It hardly made sense for the virtuous knight, Kamil, to become a tyrant, but that was what happened in my game.

The heinous difficulty is what The 7th Saga is now best remembered for, but those who made it far enough might also remember the surprisingly convoluted ending. Here's how it went down (SPOILERS, highlight to read):

King Lemele, despite being only 100 years old, was somehow a son of the legendary hero Saro, who, 5000 years ago, battled the evil Gorsia. In the more recent past, Lemele had become a hero in his own right by defeating the demon Gariso, who despite his curiously similar name, was apparently completely unrelated to Gorsia. But Gariso was not dead and actually possessed the last of the Seven Runes. Once the player defeated Gariso for the last Rune, thereby completing the quest, Lemele would appear and surprise you by revealing that he was actually Gorsia. He had killed Lemele years ago and taken his place, then used you in order to help him gain the power of the Seven Runes. Gorsia would then zap the player character, sending them back in time 5000 years to when Saro and Gorsia originally fought. As it turned out, the legends were wrong, and Saro was the one defeated in his battle with Gorsia. It would then fall upon the player to defeat Gorsia in the past. The player's duel with Gorsia, though victorious, would end with the player character suffering a mortal wound. Saro, though himself dead, would then use his own flesh to resurrect the player, who would be reborn as Lemele, son of Saro.

Across some fifty RPGs, I've seen some wild stuff, and this was certainly up there. It had been hard enough trying to keep track of the various Gorsias and Garisos, but, then the game decided to throw in some headache-inducing time travel paradoxes during the final hours. So Lemele was actually the reincarnated player character? And also the reincarnated Saro? And Gorsia was Lemele? Did defeating Gorsia in the past have any effect on the present? After all, didn't that stuff already happen 5000 years ago? Would Gorsia/Lemele continue his reign of terror in the present, where the player character is no longer around to stop him? And Gariso really had nothing to do with Gorsia? Whatever.

For many years, The 7th Saga was a running joke in my household, the oft-referenced model of bad RPG design. But, looking back at it now, I realize it wasn't such a bad game. I even have a lot of affection for it. It probably wouldn't make my top twenty-five, no, but it did have a few good ideas, memorable tunes, and some nicely animated battle sprites. The story was not the best, but it was a mostly clutter-free adventure that gave players enough purpose while also allowing a measure of freedom. Really, the only barrier to enjoying the game was its ridiculously grind-heavy difficulty, which remains the highest of any RPG I've ever played.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Resident Evil: Degeneration

For a Resident Evil fan such as myself, the scariest thing these past few years has been knowing that the series would have to go on without creator Shinji Mikami. The first major post-Shinji project, Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, was an enjoyable but unambitious product, neither reassuring nor alarming. How fares the second? All things considered, only hardcore fans would be able to really enjoy Resident Evil: Degeneration.

Taking place between Resident Evil 4 and the upcoming Resident Evil 5, the story is a sequel of sorts to Resident Evil 2, reuniting protagonists Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield to once again take on their old enemy, the T-virus. The details are stupid, but no more so than the plots found in any of the games. In fact, it possesses all the ingredients of the classic-style Resident Evil video games, minus the actual game part. But that's a pretty crucial omission, as the games specifically worked off the interactivity of the medium, devising situations that were compelling to play, rather than entertaining to watch. I'm not saying that the movie features square crank puzzles, but the first half nevertheless gets bogged down with lots of needless conspiracy chatter and inane side characters. Things do pick up considerably, however, with the third act, which is essentially just one long action sequence.

The CG is not terrible, and it looks plenty good enough when it needs to, but, in an industry where technology advances so quickly, it's nowhere near cutting-edge. Capcom was obviously working with a fraction of the budget of a Pixar film, but the characters don't look or move even as well as those in Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, probably the nearest comparison. On the other hand, the environments may be nicer than Advent Children's, with the highlight being a futuristic pharmaceutical research facility that would have been a great setting for a Resident Evil video game. The character designs are probably the biggest disappointment, especially after how consistently stellar Capcom's work was during the GameCube era. Claire actually looks fine, but Leon's face is oddly jacked-up. He seems to be caught in a perpetually menacing slant-brow stare. Without the hair, he'd be close to unrecognizable. As for the new characters? Uniformly terrible.

If you're planning to watch this in order to fill in the gap between RE4 and RE5, then I'll save you the trouble and tell you that nothing happens of any consequence whatsoever. If you only got into the series with RE4, then, again, you probably need not bother with this, as it's basically just RE2 fanservice. And, even if you're an RE2 fan, I must warn you that the fanservice is mostly just characters reminding one another that, yeah, RE2 happened. Really, this movie is only for those near-unconditional fans who have played all the games and spent years obsessively trying to sort out their stories. I'll admit to classifying myself in that category, and so I managed to enjoy it on that level, but, honestly, even I had more fun with the first Milla Jovovich movie. So, yeah, it's pretty awful.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Departed

So the day arrives for the big shuffle at work, when everybody in the lab gets assigned a new desk, along with new neighbors. The process should, in theory, go very smoothly and quickly for me, since, unlike others, I keep no clutter at my desk--nothing but the tools themselves with which I work. The move is also not very far this time, so no need to wait in line for the elevator.

Feeling no urgency to pack things and clean up in advance, I decide to simply work as normal until the scheduled time of the move, at which point I steer my chair and file cabinet over to my new area. What do I find there? A dusty mess littered with personal items. Clearly, whoever has been sitting here has not prepared at all for the move. Are they absent today? That's no excuse; the move was scheduled days ago. They could have at least stuffed some of the nonessentials into their cabinet.

Still hoping that I won't now have to move this person's things in addition to my own, I ask around to make sure that they really aren't in today. I ask their neighbor across from them, currently busy collecting his own things. Not only does the neighbor not know whether this person is here, he doesn't even know who the person is. How could this be? Haven't they been sitting across from one another these last six months? Because that's how long I was sitting at my desk.

I ask the other people who have been sitting in the same area with this individual. Nobody knows anything. A nametag is still on the desk. It's an androgynous name. It doesn't ring a bell with anyone. I ask the supervisor in charge of the seating area, whose job it should be to know where her people are. "Oh yeah, I think maybe he quit or got laid off." That's all she knows.

Checking under the desk, I notice that the computer is actually on. Only the monitor is off, so I switch it on. The first thing I see is an open IM window with a message dated 12/11/2008. That was the date of the layoffs. Things are starting to make a little sense. The invisible man, having just been laid off, with no one to say goodbye to, must have walked directly out without bothering to pack his things or shut down the computer, which has been on ever since.

I close the window and find another. Just an impersonal message from inventory control. Then another. And another. That's not all. I notice a small stack of unopened interoffice letters piled on the desk. Useless memos I'm sure, same as the IMs. But why was he still on the mailing list? And why were they bothering to leave letters on the desk of a man who no longer existed--never existed, if his former neighbors are to be believed? At least whoever left the letters believed he existed. And they too were mistaken.

On closer inspection, he didn't leave behind anything of value. Just a mess of variously colored sticky notes, some pens and pencils, and a miniature trashcan with a bird-shaped stitch cover. But one note catches my eye. "Happy Birthday!" it says, followed by a smiley face and with a heart dotting the letter "i." A strange note for a man to leave himself. But don't we all like to pretend, now and again? Or maybe I was wrong about him.

If I compare the personality of his desk to that of mine, then really the story of the invisible man would more appropriately be my own. Like I said, I keep nothing at my desk but the tools the company gave me to work with. Zero personal items with which to identify me. But I'm the one that exists.

Who knows? At this point, I'm done looking for answers I don't really care about. I hastily stuff all his junk into his cabinet or on top of his chair, then wheel both off to the side, so I can slide my own chair and cabinet into what is now my desk. I neither know nor care what will happen to his things. Perhaps someone will notice them sitting against the wall, then try to find their owner to see why he left them there.