Saturday, May 30, 2009

NonEssential #31: Pilotwings

Three years before Stunt Race FX, Pilotwings was the first title to really challenge my confidence in Nintendo.

Released in August 1991 alongside the launch of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Pilotwings came out in a time when I still relied on my parents' money for video games and could only expect to get a few titles per year, which made each new addition to the library all the more eventful. It was a horrible feeling, therefore, as a youngster, to rush home from the store and excitedly pop in that new cartridge, only to realize within the first few seconds of play that I hated this game. Even Super Play Action Football had me fooled through the high school mode. Not only was I disappointed in the game, but I was disappointed in myself for having wasted my parents' hard-earned dough. Clearly, I should have done some research before diving in, but, in those pre-Internet days, solid info was hard to come by, and I couldn't exactly trust Nintendo Power to be objective about a Nintendo-developed product. (For the record, NP gave it an enthusiastic 3.8 out of 5 in "theme and fun.")

It didn't feel like a game. There were no enemies to defeat, no blocks to assemble, no narrative of any sort, no real point that I could perceive. Yet somehow I was dying repeatedly and being told I was a failure. I didn't even know what genre this was. Flight simulator? Huh? It was certainly something different, and, whatever it was, I didn't like it.

Really, the whole game, even the title screen, was a glorified tech demo for the 16-bit console's revolutionary pseudo-3-D "Mode 7" graphic effects. It was all just a lot of spinning around and zooming in on backgrounds. Perhaps it was technically impressive for its time, and, as an ignorant child who expected games to be fun, maybe I just couldn't appreciate it on that level.

(I still remember, when we went to Circuit City to pick it up on sale, the manager directed us to a presumably still green clerk, whom he then encouraged to try and sell us F-Zero as well. Of course, the stellar F-Zero was, along with SimCity, one of the launch titles that my family had already picked up with the original purchase of our SNES. It was a more restrained and far superior demonstration of Nintendo's Mode 7 technology. But I digress.)

Anyways, Pilotwings was a crappy flight sim that included four equally lame events: "light plane" (a biplane), hang glider, skydiving, and "rocket belt," which was not nearly as exciting as it sounded. All of them offered pretty much the same experience. The objective was to fly through rings or tag a couple glowing spheres for points before making landing at a designated target spot. The thin concept alone probably would have given me reason enough to loathe it--I mean, I already hated Barnstorming, and this was no Barnstorming--but the developers had to make the game brutally difficult on top of that.

A true simulation despite the limited two-button controls, there was almost no give to the physics. A subtle tap on the D-pad at high altitudes would have drastic consequences on your craft's course, and not even the most extreme yawing motion would allow you to recover once you drew too close to the target. And, Mode 7 be damned, the simple graphics made it very difficult to gauge distance and direction until it was too late. In hindsight, there seemed to me a distinct lack of aids to help track targets that were so far away, leading to a lot of guesswork. I honestly couldn't comprehend what it served gaming to shoot for realism if the result was an exercise that was beyond the average player's abilities.

As I noted, however, gaming options were scarce in those days, and I needed to squeeze as much fun as I could out of every purchase. One day, faced with an empty summer like so many others, I set myself to mastering this game. By that, I mean I used a password to skip to the last, most difficult training exercise, and then dedicated the next several days to practicing until I could clear the minimum score needed to advance. Eventually, I somehow pulled it off and earned a lame congratulations screen, although I'm sure luck was as much a factor as skill. Did the experience raise my appreciation for the mechanics? Not really. I'll admit, for a moment there, as I started to grasp the controls, I found the game mildly diverting. But, once it was over and I had my pilot wings, I went right back to deriding the game with renewed vehemence. There was still no point to any of it, and beating it only made that clearer.

The only barely entertaining part of the game was the helicopter mission that followed completion of training. It may have taken the place of a boss stage, but I perceived it as a reward, as it was, not only easier than the regular training exercises, but also the only remotely exciting element of the game. Playing nothing like any of the regular events, it was a slower Tiger Heli, minus the action and auto-scrolling. The short stage was a rescue operation that had the player flying over a forest while bombing anti-aircraft guns. It was not exactly a Captain Skyhawk-caliber shoot 'em up--the miserably sluggish turning speed made it very difficult to dodge fire--but I ended up playing it a lot more than I probably should have, again because there were fewer games back then. Had the entire game been composed of stages like this, it still would have been awful, but at least I would have recognized it as an actual game. There was also a second helicopter mission that followed completion of the "expert" training, though the only difference was that this one took place at night.

It's not the absolute worst game I've ever played. At least Pilotwings grew marginally better the more I played it, whereas Stunt Race FX grows more awful with every passing second.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Flower Seller

Every day, as I drive home from work, I pass by the same roadside flower salesman.

Years ago, it was a different man, and, for a long time, the reliable sight would serve me as a comforting sign that I was nearly home. Then, one day, that guy was gone, and there was a different Mexican in his place. To another driver, that may have been a minor detail, but, for me, it was a jarring alteration to my daily routine.

I don't know why I was so perturbed to find a different man working that site. This obviously wasn't an independent operation run by one individual. No doubt, there was a bigger office behind it, with multiple locations and swappable salesmen.

I suppose it was not the familiar image of the man himself that I relied upon, but a romanticized projection of a proletarian persevering in life despite his lowly station. But, as I speculated on what had become of the bygone salesman, I thought it doubtful that the story could be a happy one. It did not strike me as the sort of gig to offer much possibility for advancement. What opportunities could the world offer a forty-year-old who had had to settle for this job in the first place?

Some soul-searching later, I had to face the likelier scenario that he had died or otherwise become unable to fulfill his duties, which were assuredly exhausting to both body and spirit. The sight of a man selling flowers by the road was no longer a comfort. Why didn't he at least have a chair to sit in?

This evening, as I approached that spot along my commute home, I noticed that the current flower seller seemed to be in unusually fine spirits. As I drew closer, I saw that there was indeed something off.

Dude was smoking. He had the lit cig in his mouth as he waved the bouquet in his hand.

Gone are home and comfort. These are the details that give life its bitter taste.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Refusing Countdown

When it comes to teasing at teasers and announcing announcements, nobody does it like Kojima Productions. Who else would be so audacious as to set up a teaser page featuring a countdown clock that counts down to another countdown, which ends in yet another countdown clock?

Let's run through the recent "developments":

  • 10/29/2008 - Hideo Kojima informs Famitsu that he is working on a title to be announced next year.
  • 3/25/2009 - During GDC 2009, Kojima announces that he will officially announce his new game at E3.
  • 3/26/2009 - Kojima gives the keynote address at GDC 2009, ending with a tease at "The Next MGS" with a tiny silhouette of ninja Raiden.
  • 5/12/2009 - Konami sends out a cryptic e-mail to the press. Bearing the subject "T-3 days," it contains only a link to an empty Kojima Productions page.
  • 5/13/2009 - Famitsu runs a two-page ad featuring a cloudy field, the date "2009.5.18" and the same url directing readers to the "KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS NEXT" teaser site. The site goes live later that day with the same picture.
  • 5/18/2009 - Teaser page updates with a countdown to May 21 and a flashing image of either a "5" or an "S."
  • 5/21/2009 - Teaser page updates with flashes of "e," "E" and "3." Countdown resets. Meanwhile, 7-Eleven leaks the news that the next Famitsu PSP+PS3 will feature an exclusive Metal Gear-related reveal.
  • 5/26/2009 - Teaser page updates with flashes of "R", "P" and a new Big Boss face render. Countdown resets yet again. Meanwhile, leaked Famitsu scans likely spoil the next site update. There are shots of another countdown clock with more letters and an image of a one-eyed(?) ninja Raiden.

Many following probably find it all quite obnoxious, but, personally, I'm loving this. Metal Gear is one of those rare games that plays the player. In the case of Sons of Liberty, that game began, not with its November 13, 2001 release, but with the debut of that now infamous E3 2000 trailer. Will this current campaign end as spectacularly?

The current countdown is set to end in four days, right before E3. Whatever this new Metal Gear product ends up being, what's clear is that Kojima is still integrally involved with the series.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Far From Okay

I enter the restroom. To relieve myself. No cause for alarm. Or so I think.

I see "Sam Elliott" (as I refer to him in my mind) busy at the child's urinal, his pants down to his ankles.

What?! Why?! Is he out of his mind?! I don't know.

Maybe he's worried that he'll pee all over his pants? If so, I'm sure that dropping them to the urine-soaked floor is not the answer.

This isn't normal. Things could get ugly. They're already ugly.

Should I leave and alert security? No, he's just an old man doing the best he can, I convince myself. Just act casually and handle what you came for. Purge it from memory later.

The stall is occupied. That leaves only the adult urinal next to Sam Elliott. Be cool, I tell myself. But this is so not cool. Eyes on my own business. We'll make it through this somehow.

This is not okay.

Despite my late start, I finish first. Just as well, I figure. Now to wash my hands quickly (but thoroughly), so I can get the hell out of here.

Too slow.

I see him in the mirror. Without lifting his pants first, he turns around and away from the urinal. What the devil? Is he some kind of pervert?!

I have to go. Now!

Without even bothering to fully rinse the soap off my hands, I turn for the door, grabbing a few paper towels along the way. As I make my hasty exit, the last thing I see in the periphery is Sam Elliott swooping in to catch the flow from my faucet before it can automatically shut off.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Essentials #30: Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner

The original 2001 Zone of the Enders was one of the first truly next-gen titles on the Sony PlayStation 2. Offering intuitive controls with full movement along three axes, its revolutionary design was the perfect video game realization of many an anime fan's dream of mech combat in three-dimensional space. Or, at least, the framework was there. In practice, the disappointing final product suffered from a number of design flaws unrelated to the controls and movement. The game lasted less than five hours, yet the experience grew quickly and painfully repetitive within that meager play time. The mission and enemy variety was just too limited to keep things interesting, and the heavy-handed story and wimpy protagonist didn't help matters. Ultimately, it felt like an underdeveloped tech demo, and the retail release became notable more for its inclusion of the Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty demo.

As was clear from its ending, however, Zone of the Enders wasn't over. Konami Computer Entertainment Japan and legendary producer Hideo Kojima took the criticisms to heart, and, for the 2003 sequel, they set out to deliver the triple-A experience that the first game should have been. Writer Shuyo Murata, later of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots fame, was assigned to direct, while regular Kojima collaborator Yoji Shinkawa returned to guide the look of the game with his stunning mechanical designs.

Like its predecessor, Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, known in Japan as Anubis: Zone of the Enders, was a mech action game heavily influenced by such anime classics as Gundam and Macross. Hewing closer to the Gundam end of the spectrum in its plot, the series explored issues of colonialism and independence, "Enders" being a pejorative term used by despotic Earthlings to refer to the oppressed colonists of Mars and beyond. Most of the activity in The 2nd Runner, however, revolved around a struggle between two powerful mechs and their pilots, providing some more emotional Macross-inspired action and drama.

In a strange reverse of the unpopular player character change from MGS to MGS2, replacing the whiny and shrill-voiced protagonist of the first ZOE was the unfortunately named Dingo Egret, who took over as the more mature and masculine "Frame Runner" (pilot) of Jehuty, the mysterious "Orbital Frame" housing an advanced AI by the name of ADA. Original protagonist Leo Stenbuck returned as a supporting character, and, as they did with Raiden in MGS4, Kojima's team actually managed to make him cool by aging him up and placing him in the cockpit of nothing less than the Vic Viper from Gradius, remodeled in The 2nd Runner as a transforming mech a la the Valkyrie from Macross. Speaking of which, ZOE2 contained one of the niftier secret modes in video game history in "Zoradius," a 3-D recreation of the first stage of Gradius.

In classic Kojima fashion, about half the game consisted of lengthy cut scenes of characters spouting off about power and ideals, freedom and liberty, and the validity of artificial life. I think there may have been a love story in there as well. As a fan of both mecha anime and the Metal Gear Solid games, I couldn't get enough of this stuff, though I should say that, perhaps because the setting was more outlandish, the dialogue in ZOE2, while still verbose, felt typically more endemic and less ponderous than in Metal Gear. It was subservient, rather than intrusive, to the gripping anime movie story of intense personalities and harrowing situations.

Freed of the near-future military aesthetic of the Metal Gear series, Shinkawa's Orbital Frames in ZOE resembled more lithe and agile versions of the Metal Gear Ray, crossed with the restrained beastliness of the Evangelion units. For The 2nd Runner, Konami additionally got fan favorite artist Kazuma Kaneko, he of Atlus's Megami Tensei series fame, to guest design the game's most weirdly hideous mech.

In addition to its ambitious mechanics, the first ZOE, released so early in the PS2's life, initially drew a lot of attention for being probably the most graphically impressive console game around at the time. On reflection, it was a lot of blandly repeating stages and enemies, and the polygonal cut scene models were somewhat generically PS2. Even Shinkawa's mechs, the highlight of the game, were too sharp and overly shiny, and Jehuty specifically had a slightly gaudy metallic blue and red paint job.

By the time the sequel came out, the Xbox and GameCube, with their richer palettes and more dramatic lighting, had already made the PS2's specs appear primitive by comparison. Yet ZOE2 was even more attractive at the time of its release, thanks to some crucial artistic decisions that made the most of the technology to produce one of the more visually striking games of its generation. Like the PS2 Metal Gear titles, there was a unified theme to ZOE2's look that turned the PS2's washed-out colors to its advantage. Most closely resembling MGS2, it sported a more filtered, less plastic appearance than the first game, with a very cool, predominantly blue-green color scheme. Some subtle cel-shading on explosion effects lent it an appropriately cartoony anime feel, and the CG cut scenes were replaced with hand-drawn animated sequences, giving ZOE2 a more distinct identity among PS2 action games.

As for how it played, the superb combat mechanics were largely the same as in the first game. In Gundam-esque fashion, the Orbital Frames of ZOE were equipped for battle at any range, and, beyond auto-targeting, the game would actually adjust the player's attacks automatically according to the proximity to the target. Thus, the same button that fired beams from afar would switch to saber attacks when up close. The 2nd Runner expanded Jehuty's arsenal considerably, adding a grab maneuver to hold or throw enemies and objects, a multi-lock ability to target clusters of enemies with impressive Macross-esque volleys of homing lasers, and a slew of other sub-weapons that the player could alternate between, usually at ADA's suggestion.

In ZOE, all of this action ran at a very high speed, and the sequel ratcheted it up a notch further, making for a brilliantly fluid giant robot dance of swords and lasers, as Jehuty zipped from one target to the next, firing off a flurry of projectiles in one direction, before skewering an enemy primed to intercept from behind.

The greatest failing of the first game was that there just wasn't a lot to do once the player became acclimated to that flashy ballet. Awesome boss battles aside, most of that game consisted of wandering around open arenas, taking on waves of only three types of enemy units. This was where ZOE2 improved on its predecessor most significantly, providing new and drastically different experiences from level to level. You might have to defend a civilian colony on one mission, and then, on the next, you would be chasing down a high-speed train under pressure of time. Another memorable mission involved slowly navigating through a minefield with only voiced instructions as a guide. There was even a Dynasty Warriors-inspired massive battle stage. Of course, the entire game was set pieces, and, amid the variety, the moments of conventional combat shone more brightly than ever before.

Easily the best level, however, had Jehuty staring down an armada of what were essentially Star Destroyers. As the player swerved around and between them, meanwhile shooting down small fry while dodging heavy fire, the game felt like a stage in Rogue Leader, only with a more versatile and maneuverable craft. It was at this point that the brilliant three-dimensional controls really brought the mecha fantasy to life as something beyond more linear jets or starfighters, as Jehuty swooped around and set down at the rear of each battleship, where the player would charge up and unleash its most devastating energy cannon. All this was set to a stirring instrumental version of the game's main J-pop theme, calling to mind those inspirational anime moments where the hero, having resolved to finish things, would just be in the zone and undaunted.

ZOE2 was an exciting example of what Hideo Kojima's team could do apart from Metal Gear, and without Kojima himself in the director's chair. While the result still felt, for better or worse, very Kojima, it was also an incomparably exhilarating experience that operated on a whole dimension beyond almost anything else on the market. Kojima-isms aside, the main complaint remained that, like the first game, it was just too short at about five hours, including cut scenes. And, with gameplay so exciting and a narrative so gripping, it was hard not to play it straight through in one sitting. But I'll be damned if that wasn't an amazing few hours. Recall the jeep chase at the end of Metal Gear Solid, and imagine a game that was a series of such thrilling moments. That's what Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner was.

Revisiting the Original
(or "You Cannot Defeat Anubis")

The first Zone of the Enders introduced some intriguing concepts, but it was ultimately a shallow experience that fell short of greatness. For newcomers to the series, I'd generally recommend skipping straight to the sequel. Given just how superb (and short) The 2nd Runner is, however, it's inevitable that a player, having completed it, will crave more of the same and, consequently, grow curious about the original. As I said, it was sadly a somewhat empty product, but there were nevertheless good things to recommend it, such as the boss battles.

I remember reading an interview with Hideo Kojima, where he insisted that games were not art, and, pressed further, he elaborated with a concept for a bad game that might be deemed art:
Maybe let's say there's a game out there where there's a boss that you cannot defeat. It's made that way. Normally, when you beat the boss in a game, there's a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, but if you can't beat the boss at all, if what you're left with is a sense of loss, then maybe that could be defined as art.
Space Invaders! you might snort, but I also smiled as I read that, because he had already kind of made that game. The first ZOE was infamous for, among other things, its inclusion of an unwinnable "final boss" fight.

At the end of the game, Jehuty would encounter its evil twin, Anubis, for the first time. Although the two frames were supposed to be evenly matched, Anubis had tapped into some sort of hyper mode that Jehuty was still lacking. As a result, the player would be utterly outmatched and forced to just play defensively until an escape route opened up, at which point Leo and Jehuty would have to flee while being taunted by Anubis's pilot. Roll credits.

This unprecedented anti-climax must have left a lot of players dumbstruck and in disbelief. Indeed, instead of a more basic "frequently asked questions" page, Konami's English-language Zone of the Enders website had a representative by the user name of "KCEJ HOMEPAGE" actually responding to fan questions on the official bulletin board, and one of the most recurring questions asked whether it was possible to actually win against Anubis. Again and again, KCEJ HOMEPAGE would respond to the broken English questions with simply "You cannot defeat Anubis." Eventually, after about the fortieth time, the response read, "This has been answered so many times. You cannot defeat Anubis." No, it still wouldn't be the last time he'd answer the question.

Ironically, when Jehuty finally did face off against Anubis in The 2nd Runner, the result was probably the most disappointing sequence in the game, as the player was denied access to any of the more exciting elements of combat, and instead forced to use the same move over and over again on cue. By contrast, ZOE's real final battle, a one-on-one shootout and slugfest against a different mech with most of Jehuty's abilities, was, in my opinion, the best fight in either game.

Friday, May 22, 2009

What I've been watching

Let's start with Lost, which had another stellar season. With five years of plot and character development now behind us, it's difficult to recommend it to newcomers, but the summer may be as good a time as any to get caught up and ready for the final season. I would say it's worth the effort, because this is the only show of the last five years that I would expect to still persist in my memory long after it finishes. The sci-fi and mystical elements grow ever more fantastic, the twists and turns keep me constantly engaged, and composer Michael Giacchino's still underrated work is in a class of its own among television scores. But Lost is and always has been a character-driven show, with some of the most rewarding character arcs in television history.

Going into the sixth and final season, my only fear is that it's going to tighten up and focus back in on the main love triangle plot, which long ago lost my interest, especially as the girl and one of the guys are now among the least likable characters on the show. It's a conventional (and, in my opinion, lousy) formula, whereby the story forces these two characters together, and it takes all series to resolve their feelings for one another. It marks any character that gets between them (including the other main guy) as an intruder that consequently becomes hard to consider seriously. With so many more interesting personalities and subplots to work with, I'll be severely disappointed to have the story regress to the old Jack and Kate foolery. But, hey, Lindelof and crew have earned some degree of faith on my part, and maybe they can make even that angle work out.

Supernatural, my other current favorite show, enjoyed a strong recovery from last year's strike-shortened season. The fall premiere included possibly the most soberly captivating thirty minutes since Buffy season five's "The Body" episode. In many ways, the show is a better version of X-Files, striking a near-perfect balance between the typically grim larger story arcs and the consistently amusing monster-of-the-week episodes, which still manage to resonate in the big picture. The core of the show, however, has always been the relationship between the brothers Winchester, and it may be the strongest bond between any two characters on TV. These are guys who have literally died for one another, and the lengths they continue to go to for each other's sake, no matter the obstacle, is simply inspiring.

Its fellow CW genre show, Smallville, had another miserable season. This show should not have an hour time slot. The writers clearly don't know how to fill forty minutes per week. Not that there isn't enough material to work with. The best episode in years was this season's Zatanna episode, but that really isn't saying much.

At the midpoint, the episode seemed to call back to the classic "Superman Takes a Wife" issue of the comics, with Zatanna filling the role of The Wizard, erasing "Superman" from existence by suppressing Clark's own knowledge of his powers and Kryptonian heritage. The original comic was a twenty-two-page epic that set out to show that, ultimately, it was the man in him that made him super, and, even without the role of Superman, Clark Kent would emerge as an enemy of injustice to win Lois Lane's heart. The TV episode showed promise with an amusing scene of Clark, busy concentrating on his actual job at the Daily Planet, reluctant to indulge the theories of the one friend who still knew the secrets he had forgotten. But then, instead of further exploring the idea, the episode just pissed away its minutes building tension for the season arc that would go nowhere. By the way, this show's idea of tension is to have everybody keeping secrets and lying poorly to one another. Why can't they just tell a single good story? The only thing Smallville had going for it was the anticipation built over seven improbable seasons, but even that has gone out the window with the recent cast overhauls.

For me, The Simpsons notwithstanding, Fox's night was actually Friday, when the network would roll out its sci-fi programming with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse. The former was an unnecessary addition to the Terminator mythos, which, as far as I'm concerned, was resolved with T2. But it was also a pretty gripping action series that took a lot of risks and was continually getting better. It's a shame that Fox has decided to cancel it mid-story without even waiting to see what boost it might have gotten from the new movie.

Dollhouse, meanwhile, had a severely flawed first season. It took six episodes to really get going, and, after twelve episodes, it still has yet to answer basic questions that constantly threaten to collapse the whole show. Why does the dollhouse exist? What, besides sex fantasies, do its expensive and illegal services offer that can't be gotten through more legitimate channels? Who are these clients who are hiring Eliza Dushku to do child services work? Speaking of which, I know the show was more or less made for Dushku, but the harsh reality is that she just doesn't have the range demanded of her role. Watching the season finale, it seemed so obvious to me that Amy Acker, who has a recurring role as Dr. Saunders, should have been the one to play the lead. As both Fred and Illyria on Angel, Acker had already proven her ability to seamlessly transition between extremes of character, and, on the latest episode of Dollhouse, she again managed to completely transform from one character into another in the blink of an eye. She was better than Dushku even at the blank doll non-acting stuff.

With both this and Terminator being on the bubble, there was the perception that the two struggling shows were competing for at most one slot next season. Now that it's been confirmed that Dollhouse will be the one returning, I can only hope that the second season will be way better.

Then there was Prison Break, which, after a lengthy hiatus, returned at the end of the season to relieve Terminator and limp to its finale. In its first season, this was a great character-driven show--a bit like Lost in prison, with the focus shifting week-to-week between the male inmates, exploring how each ended up in prison and why they needed to break out. With the second season, it shifted to conspiracy thriller mode, losing much of its heart, but it looked to be progressing on a logical course toward a conclusion, which seemed imminent with a majority of the principal characters getting killed off almost one a week.

The series became a victim of its own success, however, and the third season was where the plot ran off the rails. The protagonist, Michael Scofield, a true genius who had mapped out his season one prison break months in advance of his incarceration, was now having to devise on-the-fly plans for an escape from a more brutal prison, completely cheapening the meticulousness of his original feat. It was almost certainly a mirror of the show's creators, who originally plotted it for two seasons, and then, all of a sudden, found themselves under pressure to keep churning out more stories. The twists grew increasingly unbelievable, until it all became just silly. I mean, this was a show where they cut off a main character's head and delivered it in a box as a message, but then she got better and came back the next season. With a finale that dug deep for several nods to the first season, it ended as well as it could have, considering what it had become.

Moving on to NBC, the reality TV-filled lineup was certainly spotty, but, looking back, I was surprised at the amount of scripted programming that made it onto my schedule. Granted, it wasn't all good. Take Heroes, for example. I always found this show lacking in intelligence, but it has somehow rapidly declined these past two seasons, even from its dimwitted beginnings, to become possibly the dumbest scripted show on television. Not an episode goes by without some sort of glaring plot hole or inconsistency. The writing is self-indulgent, and the atrocious dialogue would cripple almost any actor. Yet, awful though it may be, the one thing I continue to appreciate about Heroes is its regular defiance of US television conventions that ought to be defied. There's a courage (stupidity?) to the pacing that is woefully lacking in shows such as Smallville and Prison Break. It does not rely on filler episodes to stretch the season, and, whereas Prison Break's constant mindfulness of its minutes grew increasingly transparent to distracting effect, Heroes doesn't tease viewers with weekly cliffhangers, instead developing in a more organic manner. Such a shame that it has no brains to go along with its balls.

The most surprising show of the season was Chuck. The first season of this series, about an unambitious computer expert who, through a fluke, became the sole vessel for all the government's spy secrets, was enjoyably tongue-in-cheek and geek-friendly. There were two major issues, however, that made me wonder how long it could last. There was, first of all, the sexual tension scenario that I already mentioned as being the most troubled aspect of Lost. Along similar lines and even more problematic was that the premise suffered from "Quantum Leap syndrome," in which the story's continuation seems to depend on the sustained misfortune of the main character. Although the show was lighthearted on the surface, I suspected this scenario would become a torment after a while, and I kind of hoped that it would wrap up sooner rather than later.

What struck me during the second season, though, was that the show was just consistently entertaining. Although essentially a monster-of-the-week program, it never felt too formulaic, and there were very few worthless episodes. And, by the season finale, it had actually made moves toward addressing both my complaints. I'm glad it will be back for another season, and I'm excited to see how things change going forward.

Truly a show with a guardian angel, Friday Night Lights is still "the best show on television," but even I'm not sure where else it can go with its fourth season. Some may argue that the story reached its logical conclusion when the Dillon Panthers won the high school championship at the end of the first season. I personally appreciated that the writers seemed to recognize that that was kind of a storybook ending that didn't show the whole picture. The second season played with the idea that winning the championship was one thing, holding onto it is another. This third season then followed with the sobering yet hopeful message that life goes on, and high school need not be the peak of it. Is there a fourth act to that story, especially now that nearly all of the original kids have graduated?

Lastly, I should mention the depressingly short-lived Kings. Why are there three freaking CSI shows, while nobody pays attention to something new and original like Kings? This contemporary alternate universe retelling of the story of King David felt like a feature film in its scope. Perhaps it was a little pretentious, but that grandiosity was essential to achieving the unparallelled mix of superb casting, artful dialogue, splendid costuming and stunning cinematography. Alas, not only will it not get a second season, but NBC won't even air the remaining episodes until maybe later in the summer. On the bright side, it didn't strike me as a story that absolutely had to last for years, and I'm hoping that, when or if the remaining episodes are broadcast, the ending might be semi-conclusive.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Getting my money's worth (or "Free PSN stuff!")

First up is Rag Doll Kung Fu: Fists of Plastic, a downloadable title normally $9.99, now free for a week courtesy of Sprint. Playing this dreck, I think I have a better idea now of the dilemma that reviewers must go through when they receive free goods from publishers. Knowing that I'm giving the developers nothing back for this free game, I feel bad now for calling it wretchedly awful, which it is. Just imagine an extremely limited Smash Bros. knockoff with none of the characters nor any of the other appealing qualities of Nintendo's game. My amusement with it didn't last even as long as the load times, let alone the seven minutes spent downloading it.

Moving on, Sony is giving away "Chamber" apartments (a $4.99 value) in the PlayStation Home beta. I had had zero interest in Home before this, but the enticement of limited-time free stuff finally encouraged me to check it out. What I found was a stripped-down and charmless version of Animal Crossing that involves spending real money. While the graphics are impressive for a project that Sony itself seemingly lost all faith in midway through development, there's nothing to do in this virtual world but dance in place, rearrange my default furniture, and admire my Chris Redfield ornament. Why can't I at least display my trophy collection? I wish it had been better integrated--more like the Nintendo Miis or Xbox 360 Avatars--as a part of the PS3 front-end. As it is, I don't see myself spending a lot of time in here.

Finally, Capcom has temporarily slashed the price of Bionic Commando Rearmed to $4.99 to coincide with the release of the new retail PS3/360 game. While the demo had seemed a little beyond my abilities, this is just the right price to finally get me on board.

All these deals are supposed to be active until tomorrow (May 21), so get them now if you're interested.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Star Trek

My biggest fear, when I heard that this new movie was to be a prequel starring the original series crew, was, of course, that it would trample all over established history and my memories. While I had been willing to accept the concept of the Enterprise prequel TV series, it was quite another matter to have new, young actors posing as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest. I mean, Shatner and company played these characters for thirty years. No actors could more accurately be said to own their roles. A part of me felt that, like a legendary athlete's jersey number, those roles should have been retired out of respect for what the original cast achieved.

I had to concede, however, that the franchise was in bad condition after Enterprise, and perhaps it needed to take things back to characters that audiences knew and cared about. I was subsequently relieved to hear that the movie was to be regarded as more of a hard reboot than a prequel within the same timeline. But then I heard that Leonard Nimoy would be appearing as old Spock in a role that would tie the movie to the original continuity, and I grew worried again.

Now that it's here and I've seen it, I'm reasonably satisfied by the direction it took. Star Trek 2009 is a reboot, a sequel and an alternate timeline, but it's less so a prequel, and, for the most part, it can be enjoyed without any fear of it impacting, let alone ruining, what came before. Although these characters retain the same names and positions, they possess distinct personalities, in some cases reflecting significant alterations to their histories. It's still hard to avoid comparing them against the original cast, but, once I started to think of new Kirk as "Ultimate Kirk," as opposed to original series Kirk's younger self, the compare/contrast game became more intriguing than distracting.

Surprisingly, while none of the principals are "stars," so to speak, a good number of them are recognizable genre actors that would be familiar to a large portion of the audience. Zachary Quinto, in particular, has had a high-profile part playing probably the worst character on the dumbest show on television. Given much better material to work with here, his thoughtful young Spock ended up becoming my favorite character in the movie. For me, the other big revelation was Karl Urban as McCoy. I never saw Pathfinder, so Urban, to me, was just some random recurring intense face in such movies as The Chronicles of Riddick, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Lord of the Rings. As the wry McCoy, he leaves all that behind, and instead really channels DeForest Kelley's performance without simply mimicking it, the result being the only one of the characters that I can actually see developing into his original series counterpart.

Chris Pine has the toughest job playing Kirk, a character that was 90 percent William Shatner's performance. Shatner is a true original, and despite many attempts to parody his style, no other actor can do what he does. Pine wisely does not try, starting pretty much from scratch with his interpretation of the character. He's okay, but, whereas Shatner can dominate any room (even if he's the only one in it), Pine's more orthodox performance serves to remind us that this is an ensemble cast. He is definitely at his best when he and Quinto are playing each other's foils, and perhaps that is as it should be.

Fine performances as well from all the rest, and, overall, I have no worries about enduring this crew through several more installments. The only potential concern is that I can't see Paramount holding this young cast together for more than three pictures before some of them begin asking for too much money, or, worse yet, start wanting to move on.

Moving past my perhaps petty concerns about its relationship to the existing fiction, I enjoyed the movie very much. I wouldn't put it in the same class as The Wrath of Kahn or The Voyage Home, which I consider to be among the all-time great films, transcending franchise and genre. As the first installment in a series, it was definitely superior, however, to The Motion Picture or Generations. In fact, I think I liked it better than any of the Next Generation films.

Despite a plot involving time travel and alternate timelines, it's a fairly breezy and straightforward sci-fi action film that struck me as extremely inviting to Trek newcomers. Although it does not entirely betray fans' expectations for the characters, it also doesn't assume knowledge on the part of its audience. Every character gets a defining moment in the spotlight, and it feels appropriately like an effective introduction, rather than the eleventh film in a forty-year-old franchise. The special effects, new and spectacular, certify it as a blockbuster, and I don't anticipate there being a better movie this summer. I'm already looking forward to the sequel that I expect to be better and bolder.

Finally, while it's great to have Star Trek back in theaters, I do still feel that there needs to be a new TV show as well. TV was the original home for the franchise, after all, and much of its essence remains tied to the episodic format, which affords a broader range of stories and more time for character development. The lack of three seasons of television to reflect back on may, in fact, keep the new movies from reaching the heights of Wrath of Kahn, which, among other things, included the greatest death scene of all time. If, even three films down the line, they tried to run the new cast through the events of that movie, I don't think it would be nearly as effective, because I wouldn't feel that the characters had earned the moment the way the originals had.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Essentials #29: Syphon Filter

Syphon Filter was one of the few games I ever purchased based on having played the demo. I do believe that demo was my first exposure to non-platforming third-person action in the 3-D era, and the experience was pretty startling.

Developed by Eidetic and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America's 989 Studios division as a first-party title for the Sony PlayStation in 1999, Syphon Filter was probably the premier third-person shooter of its generation. Releasing a few months after Konami's Metal Gear Solid for the same platform, comparisons to Hideo Kojima's seminal stealth action game were unavoidable, but, in practice, the two differed significantly in design and interface. Syphon Filter, more inspired by GoldenEye 007's varied mission-based action gameplay, crossed with Tomb Raider's behind-the-back perspective, may itself have been the more direct precursor to such later titles as Hitman and Splinter Cell, albeit its emphasis was much more on the shooting.

Like GoldenEye 007 for the Nintendo 64, Syphon Filter was predominantly a shooter that also integrated secondary stealth elements within a mission-based structure. More moderately paced than older shooters, it placed players in realistic environments, also giving them mostly real-world firearms to take on such varied objectives as rescuing hostages or locating and disarming bombs. Enemies would often start out unaware of the player character's position, and weapons like the silenced handgun or the sniper rifle allowed you to proceed strategically while avoiding direct firefights. Some stages even required a more cautious approach.

One memorable mission asked the player to shadow someone without alerting him or any of his guards to your presence. While tailing him, you could not avoid having to kill every guard that would pop out suddenly on the trail between you and him, and it would have to be all headshots as well, since you couldn't allow their screams to alert those ahead of them. Looking back, that was some pretty laborious trial-and-error design with a viciously slim margin for error, but, at the time, I just figured that was what it really took to be an elite agent.

In an age before dual-analog controls, aiming in the 3-D environment relied on an auto-target button to lock onto enemy bodies. Injecting an element of realism, players could, as mentioned, take out enemies in one shot by going for the head, and, to pull off these precision shots, you needed to switch to a first-person manual aim mode that traded character movement for accurate aiming. Helpfully, the text "Head Shot" would pop up to let you know when you had the shot lined up. And you would need to learn to manually aim too, because, midway through the operation, flak jackets would become standard issue on enemies. On the bright side, unlike bosses in other games, even most "name" enemies in Syphon Filter could be taken out with a single shot to the head.

The game was overall perhaps not as accomplished or influential as Rare's game, but it may have been the closest thing on the PS1, and the third-person perspective likely gave it an advantage over GoldenEye 007 in one area, namely character.

The Hollywood-level script cast players in the role of government super-agent Gabe Logan, a veritable one-man army assigned to take down an international terrorist organization developing a deadly new biological weapon called "Syphon Filter." Not exactly high art, but it was fairly riveting action thriller material that, in all honestly, would adapt far more easily to the big screen than something like Metal Gear Solid. Gabe himself was not as vulnerably human as a Solid Snake, but he was a practical and effective agent, who was cool yet believable in an action hero kind of way.

One of the best things about Syphon Filter was Gabe's massive arsenal, which included handguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, shotgun, nightvision sniper rifle, and stealth-kill gas grenades. The most awesome weapon by far, however, was actually the ammo-conserving option. Instead of the standard knife, Gabe packed a taser. To use it, you would hold down the fire button to continuously shock the enemy. After a few jolts, they would be stunned and disabled, but if you chose to continue tasing them, they would eventually start to scream as they burst into flames, only dropping dead when you finally let up. During the early missions, enemies were such horrible shots that you could stand still while auto-targeting and igniting one foe after another. Looking back, I can't believe this was a T-rated game, but I suppose standards were different.

In many ways, it was a game ahead of its time. Although it came out after the debut of Sony's DualShock pad, it was still too early for titles to be requiring the new controller, so Syphon Filter just used the left analog as an alternative to the directional pad. The notion of controlling a shooter using just the left stick, much less the D-pad, would today sound ridiculous. It would have benefited greatly from dual-stick controls, analog walk/run, and a cover system, but what was there still made for the most realistic action game I'd yet played.

But, really, the only reason Syphon Filter makes my list now is because of one unforgettable mission midway through the game.

As the mission begins, Gabe's superior officer, Director Markinson, orders him to infiltrate an enemy stronghold where scientists are experimenting on test subjects with the Syphon Filter virus. Included among Gabe's objectives is the order to execute all of the scientists.

Now, anyone who had been paying attention to the crude pre-rendered cut scenes should have realized by now that Markinson was clearly a bad guy, his orders evil. If his clandestine conversations with mysterious shadow figures hadn't already tipped you off, this mission should have at least prompted some questions.

The player's first encounter with a scientist would make clear that they were not dangerous enemy combatants like all the other guys Gabe had no choice but to take out. A few of the scientists would actually be armed, but most would just attempt to flee, and if you chased them down, they would get on their knees, hands behind their heads, and literally beg for your mercy. This awe-inspiring sensation of godlike power over whether these miserable humans lived or died was something new. Always playing the hero, I had never perceived any sort of moral ambiguity in my slaughter of thousands of enemies across all the video games I'd played up to that point. But, whatever was supposedly at stake, I didn't feel right killing unarmed men offering no resistance, especially since Markinson had already given me reason to question his wholly unsatisfactory explanations. It didn't help that the normally sharp personality of Gabe Logan would take a holiday during these sections, offering neither justification nor objection, as he left the dirty business entirely in my hands.

Ultimately, faced with that sort of overwhelming power and responsibility, I chose, naturally, to tase them all to death. Moreover, I figured I might as well make the best of their lack of resistance. I would pull back just before they ignited, listen to them beg a little more, repeat the process a couple more times, and then finally grant them peace by letting their bodies combust in blood-curdling screams once and for all.

Okay, so maybe I didn't feel all that badly about it. But it was a required mission objective, and, no matter how I felt about it, it was not possible to finish the stage without eliminating every last one of them. Perhaps I could have offed them in less spectacular fashion, but, once it was established that my feelings made no difference, my gamer instincts kicked back in, and I resolved to proceed in the most entertaining way while expending the least ammo.

Looking back, a lot of critics might justifiably question the effectiveness of those moments. What was the point, after all, of making the player feel bad about actions that the game forced them to take? Without choice, one might argue, there could be neither blame nor consequence. Then again, is it so unrealistic to agonize over a decision, even knowing full well that, in the end, there is only one path that must be taken? In the case of Syphon Filter, it was not how one acted that mattered, but that the player was made to understand the gravity of those actions. In making me consider those questions for the first time in a video game, it earned its place as an important chapter in my gaming history.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

If I designed the next Pokémon game...

Although I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the series now, I actually only started playing Pokémon proper about three years ago, when, finding myself with an overabundance of time on my hands, I decided to start on Pokémon Ruby, which was then already several years old. What struck me about the game was that it really wasn't very much fun, yet there was a highly addictive quality to the monster collection concept. I then proceeded to play through FireRed, Emerald, and Pearl in rapid succession.

Burnout was inevitable, but I was also disappointed at how little the game really evolved with each installment. For the most part, each generation added just a slew of new Pokémon to catch, while implementing only subtle changes to the technically sound but incredibly old-school turn-based battle engine.

That pattern is inherently catastrophic. As of the fourth generation, we're already at close to 500 Pokémon, not even including multi-form monsters such as Deoxys. Are Nintendo and Game Freak seriously just going to keep on adding? "Gotta catch 'em all" is already an impractical goal at best. What happens when we hit four digits? Will any even among the most diehard fanatics still bother to try?

Personally, I think we've already reached the limit of this design, and it's now time for a Pokémon revolution. (No, not Battle Revolution.)

Aside from the monster collecting, Pokémon has, for me, always been about the battling, so my redesign would concentrate on overhauling the combat engine.

Perhaps the most significant change yet introduced to Pokémon battling was the introduction of two-on-two combat in Ruby/Sapphire. In practice, double battles were rare, and the core games have remained primarily one-on-one, with up to six Pokémon per side tagging in and out. I think that's a shame, because, in my opinion, two-on-two only enhanced the combat by adding new options and encouraging a deeper consideration of the team-building that is so much the essence of the game. As such, before Diamond/Pearl came out, I initially thought going three-on-three would be the logical next step. Now, on second thought, why not just take it all the way to full six-on-six, setting aside the tagging altogether, as team members fill assigned roles within a more organic, simultaneous framework?

Complementing the more crowded battlefield would be a real-time engine to largely eliminate turns. Rather than giving the player direct control of the Pokémon, however, I would prefer to keep to a more strategic approach inspired by the Gambit system from Final Fantasy XII, utilizing preset if-then AI scripts to command them indirectly.

This would mean that the fighting would be mostly automated, but, hey, take a stroll through any online Pokémon forum, and you'll run into heated "theory fighter" debates that make seem casual by comparison. Given how much of the fight is determined before it even begins by the setups, we may as well spare players the formality of tapping A to issue commands during combat. That way, instead of mashing A to get through the first several rounds of the stat-boosting "Dragon Dance" with Gyarados, it will just do it automatically according to plan. Unless, of course, it's facing an unfavorable matchup, in which case the if-then preset will have it shifting intelligently to defense. Then again, with so many allies on the field, maybe its teammates could be instructed to help stall, while it powers itself up in the back.

As for the player's role once the fighting begins, the trainer would toss out healing items, issue manual tactical adjustments (i.e. call plays) as necessary, and make substitutions. Yes, in addition to moving to six-on-six on the field, I would also propose adding a reserve of another six backup Pokémon, bringing the experience closer to an actual professional team sport. All of this would occur in real time, so a swift input mechanism (e.g. touch screen) would be needed. The substitutions, in particular, I picture operating fluidly as in a hockey game.

Finally, as a fighting game fan, I've always hated the idea of having RPG-type "levels" and semi-random stats in a competitive game, upsetting the pure contest of skill and strategy. I'll concede that having a team of Pokémon bred and built by yourself can strengthen your attachment to them, but, once in the competitive arena, I would favor the option to normalize the stats and focus more on testing the players' custom move sets and AI routines.

It's foolish of me, I know, to waste my time dreaming about a game that Nintendo will never even consider, but I do believe that something radical must be done with the series to avert a horrible crash within just one more generation. Alas, I suspect it's more likely that they will simply start removing old Pokémon while continuing to add new ones, in order to keep the "Gotta catch 'em all" experience barely manageable according to the same old formula. I suppose, within the fan community of Pokémaniacs who can name all 493 Pokémon, that would be considered "radical," but not in a positive way.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

A mere four years after the Conqueror of Shamballa movie concluded the storyline of the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime, it seems a little early for another television adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa's manga.

As is often the case with anime based on ongoing manga titles, the first Fullmetal Alchemist series caught up to its source material about halfway through. Then, instead of leaving things unresolved, or attempting to ride it out with filler arcs while waiting for Arakawa to produce more manga, the animators chose to come up with their own ending, dealing with the common dilemma as elegantly as any anime I've seen. Conqueror of Shamballa seemed to rule out any further stories along that continuity, so, when this new series was announced, the speculation was that it would be a reboot in the interest of producing a more faithful adaptation of the manga.

My problem with that approach, as someone who has read the manga, is that the original Fullmetal Alchemist anime was actually very faithful to the comic, up until it was forced to diverge about thirty episodes in. Six weeks into the new series, we do indeed have a reboot, but it will be many more overly familiar episodes before we'll know whether it's really more accurate to the manga, which is still running and again unlikely to conclude before the show runs out of episodes. In the meantime, as if in concession to the fans who may be justifiably impatient at witnessing these events for potentially the third time, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is progressing at an accelerated pace, cutting out all of the self-contained incidental stories, and barely compressing what remains. So far, they've managed to squeeze about eighteen episodes into just five, with mixed results.

Once again, it's the story of Edward and Alphonse Elric, two young brothers who used forbidden alchemy to try to resurrect their departed mother. They failed, and, in the process, Al lost his human body, while Ed gave up an arm and a leg. Now, as the brothers search for a way to restore their bodies, Ed must also loan his skills out to the military in exchange for resources to help them on their quest.

As much as I enjoyed it the first time around, it's all still a little too fresh in my memory for me to be watching essentially the exact same story again in weekly episodes. It's certainly not better the second time around. In fact, where it differs, I'm inclined to say that it's worse. The production values are no improvement. The melodramatic music is largely forgettable, in contrast to the fairly stirring score of the first series. While the animation, again handled by Bones, is mostly the same, there's a pasty softness to the characters that makes it feel just slightly cruder. And, so far, in excising many of the minor episodes and subplots from the manga, it's actually a less complete adaptation that feels more like a complement to what came before, rather than an effectively self-contained work like the first series.

The first episode, an anime-only filler story, has been the only new stuff. Pitting the Elric brothers and their friends in the military against a rogue alchemist of no importance, it's basically a hyperactive gag reel and a really lousy way to show off the entire cast of characters without actually telling the viewer anything about them. It almost seems to assume that viewers will be already familiar with the characters, yet it then proceeds to waste our time anyway with the next five episodes of practical reruns.

Hopefully, when the show finally gets to the old branch point, the new manga-based material will be worth it, but, personally, I wish they had just gone ahead and started in the middle of story, picking up from the point where the first series originally deviated. I realize that would have made for an awkward beginning, especially for new viewers unfamiliar with the first series or manga. Maybe they could have done a clip show of footage from the first series, ending with an explanation that the new stuff overwrites the second half. Really, I guess I wish they had waited a few more years before selling us the same story again. Still, there's not much else of interest on right now, so I'll stick with it for now and report back when or if it gets better.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


As a longtime fan of the "Muscles from Brussels," I've been wanting to see him back in a legit production. The last action movie of his I saw was Until Death (2007), a direct-to-video feature in which he plays a down-and-out dirty cop, who falls into a coma after getting shot in the face, to wake up, months later, a changed man.

The movie was awful, of course, but, during the first half, when Van Damme was playing surly and self-destructive, it struck me that it was actually a remarkably believable performance against type. It was almost a "Denzel in Training Day" revelation, and I wondered if perhaps the reason it felt so genuine was because he wasn't acting. Regardless, I came away convinced that, given the right role, Van Damme could command the screen even without his kicks. If only someone would offer him that role in a real movie.

With its inspired pitch, I was hoping that JCVD would be the project to get his career back on the right track.

The film begins well with a spectacular single-shot sequence satirizing the over-the-top action that made Van Damme a star. With no context nor any semblance of a script, it reminded me of those Universal Studios live-action stunt shows. At the end of the scene, it's revealed that they are filming a movie within the movie, and it's not going so well for the washed-up, aging Van Damme.

We quickly learn that his problems extend beyond his declining career. His marriage has fallen apart, and he is left fighting a losing battle for custody of his child. Retreating to his hometown in Brussels, he heads to the post office to receive a wire transfer, and it is there that the script settles into its true form as a fairly average hostage thriller.

Director Mabrouk El Mechri fills it with black comedy and experiments with nonlinear narrative, but I was honestly expecting even more of a multi-layered meta-movie, constantly challenging and reorienting our perceptions of the action star with a greater mix of content in the vein of the opening sequence or the hilarious "casting" teaser that got me initially intrigued.

Perhaps I lost control of my expectations. I am glad that it exists, and I encourage everyone to see it. If I'm being honest, however, Van Damme himself is the only remarkable thing in the movie. But surely that's the point, right? Indeed, yet somehow the end product doesn't seem as much about Van Damme as it ought to be.

In the end, the aggressively avant-garde elements come across as less a reflection of Van Damme's soul than of El Mechri's ego. Even knowing nothing about this director, I can feel his manipulative hand, like a mini Godard, deliberately provoking the viewer throughout the implausibly scripted film, and I find his presence just a tad unwelcome, considering that everybody is here for Van Damme.

The centerpiece of the movie is an impassioned six-minute, supposedly ad-lib monologue by the man himself. Barely coherent, a tearful Van Damme reflects on his unfulfilling journey to a movie star life full of drugs and broken dreams, and where nothing was ever as good as it should have been. The real story is not the content of his speech, and I would advise against trying to draw too much from his words. What makes the moment powerful is the raw emotion that reveals Jean-Claude in a new light, as a vulnerable human being, weak as the rest of us.

Riveting though the scene may be, I think it would be a mistake to come away thinking that this is the real Jean-Claude. Truth is not what the often sensational and thoroughly entertaining film delivers, but I fear that many viewers will interpret it as so, and consequently overlook a noteworthy performance. The point should have been to inspire questions about who Van Damme really is, but the overly tidy result may mislead some into thinking they have the answer. Instead of reigniting his career and marking the potential beginnings of a fine actor, it's likely to become just a water-cooler item, brought up by wannabe critics, feeling justified by the film's own self-mocking, to glibly define a mediocrity.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Essentials #28: Parasite Eve

It often feels as if, ever since Square and Enix merged in 2003, the company has been less productive than Square had been by itself. Or perhaps it's just that Square Enix is producing fewer titles of consequence, since everything these days is Final Fantasy remakes and spin-offs, low-profile portable games, or hardcore Tri-Ace stuff.

During its 32-bit prime, Square released three numbered Final Fantasy titles in four years, and still had time to develop other big games--sequels and original titles--alongside. One of the best of these was Parasite Eve, released for the Sony PlayStation in 1998.

Before it was a video game, Parasite Eve was one of the more prominent J-Horror novels that followed Koji Suzuki's Ring. First published in 1995, Hideaki Sena's story of intelligent mitochondria attempting to replace humanity became quite a sensation in Japan, and it quickly spawned a successful film adaptation that actually released before the original 1998 Japanese Ring movie. Neither the book nor the movie had much of a presence in the United States--they didn't even see release in North America until years later--but Square had different plans when it bought the rights to make the game version(s).

Despite the fact that most of the English-speaking world would have been unfamiliar with the source material, Parasite Eve seemed specifically designed to ease Westerners into the genre of Japanese role-playing games. A year prior to its release, Final Fantasy VII had already done the job of hooking Americans, and, while Final Fantasy VIII was not due for another year, Square was not going to let 1998 pass without another blockbuster to follow FFVII.

Powered by the same high production values as its predecessor, Parasite Eve was another showcase for Square's CG supremacy, relying on the pre-rendered backgrounds and cut scenes that the company was becoming known for, and both the pre-rendered and the real-time stuff exhibited improved technology and a more mature direction, with higher detail and more realistically proportioned characters. Still no voice acting sadly, but complementing the cinematic presentation was a tightly focused script that seemed about movie-length.

A sort of semi-sequel to the novel, the game featured a new plot focused around original characters designed by Tetsuya Nomura. Unlike most J-Horror--but very much like a video game--Square's Parasite Eve starred a super-powered heroine named Aya Brea, who would tap into her mitochondrial potential to supplement her skills as an NYPD cop. The game was written and directed by Takashi Tokita, who also wrote and designed Final Fantasy IV, and now heads Square Enix's Production Team 7, still supervising the various recent and ongoing FFIV-related projects.

A departure from Final Fantasy and practically everything else in the Squaresoft catalog, Parasite Eve featured modern-day urban environments, and it even shifted from the Japanese setting of the novel to the streets of New York. In more typical Square fashion, the game was still an RPG, but it introduced a number of refinements for a more streamlined experience than the average Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. Instead of an overworld, for example, the player transported from one location to another by selecting destinations from a map. There were no towns full of random NPCs dispensing useless pleasantries. "Dungeons" were short and straightforward, requiring minimal exploration. New weapons and ammo could be found simply strewn all about the pre-rendered New York environments. Rather than providing players yet another forty-hour globe-trotting JRPG epic, the story transpired over the course of six in-game days, and the whole thing could be completed in about ten hours.

Parasite Eve was most identifiably an RPG in its combat and character growth systems, but those too were integrated more subtly than in most JRPGs. Battles initiated randomly, but the encounter rate was fairly low, and, unlike Final Fantasy, the game did not load into a separate battle screen. Rather, enemies just materialized along with invisible walls, and the player could either fight or flee via the menu.

The battle system was a modification upon Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle engine, still using a time gauge to determine when the player character's turn came up. When Hiroyuki Ito designed the ATB system for FFIV, it introduced a sense of urgency to turn-based combat. Parasite Eve took things further by allowing the player to manually move Aya around the battle stage between turns. Time would stop when it was the player's turn to input actions via the menu, and a polyhedral dome would radiate from the player character to represent the effective range of the equipped weapon. But the same did not apply to the enemies, which consisted almost entirely of barely mutated animals. While waiting for the time bar to fill up, the player could actually attempt to outrun or sidestep enemy attacks in real time. Movement was slow, rendering some damage unavoidable, but many of the boss fights felt closer to traditional action games, with victory depending on pattern recognition and projectile dodging. Although the game's difficulty level was very forgiving, the quasi-real-time battle engine was still more exciting and involved than any traditional turn-based system, while also feeling more relaxed and methodical than a button-masher like Tales or Star Ocean. The inspired balance made for a more substantial evolution of the ATB system than in any of the post-FFIV Final Fantasy installments.

Aya gained experience and levels through battling. Instead of money for shops, she could pick up tools to tune up her guns for greater attack power, or to bestow upon them special effects, such as fire or ice. Again, the game was short and easy, so it wasn't necessary to worry too much about the numbers. In addition to dealing damage with firearms, Aya would also learn to tap into her "Parasite Energy," which was basically magic, though the majority of spells provided only healing or status effects.

Despite having a popular book and movie for its source material, Parasite Eve's plot and characters were undoubtedly its weakest aspects. The novel and all its adaptations posited that mitochondria were actually an intelligent existence named "Eve" that lay dormant in humans, quietly evolving until the time was right to unseat mankind with the ultimate life form. I don't know how the other versions of the story fared, but the pseudo-science plot of the video game was a little too babble-intensive for such a far-fetched premise.

The characters were all fairly one-dimensional, and the short length of the story didn't really give them enough time to become more than clichés. Aya was the independent woman trying unsuccessfully to live a normal life, after having survived a traumatic event from her childhood. Her partner, Detective Dollis, was the fatherly older cop, whose marriage fell apart because it got too hard for his wife to share him with the badge. Naturally, he also had an emotional young son, who, rather than obey reason, would run away from his father and toward danger in a desperate plea for attention.

Where the story worked was in its narrative composition. The six-day progression infused it with a sense of impending dread. This was not a survival horror game; the characters were not trapped in a nightmare looking to get out. The horror was encroaching on their world and their lives, taking over every aspect one day at a time, and the only way out was to unravel the mystery of the mitochondrial menace, so that they could devise measures to fight it. But time was limited, and the situation grew ever more hopeless with each fruitless day. Some grotesque imagery in the cut scenes--animals exploding into monsters, people melting into goo--could be frightening, and the game earned Square its first M rating, but the game was less scary than suspenseful, since you always expected what lay ahead to be worse rather than better, and the tension kept building all the way up to the finale.

As Square's "cinematic" game, Parasite Eve was "big" without being large. It showed that not every RPG needed to be a fantasy-themed timesink. In its own era, it was criticized precisely because it felt so lightweight. Although it seemed built as a mainstream JRPG, I suspect the legions of fans that had just gotten into the genre with FFVII were probably hungry for another sweeping epic. Now the genre is on the verge of collapsing under its own bombast, and Parasite Eve might better be described, not as "lightweight," but "agile." It boggles my mind that no game since has picked up on any of the evolutionary aspects of its design. Even its own sequel did not retain its mechanics, opting instead for more traditional survival horror gameplay. Yet so many of the problems with the JRPG genre today--greuling grind-heavy pace, mind-numbing menu battling, life-wasting world "exploration"--were already fixed over a decade ago in Parasite Eve. I think it's time fans and developers took another look at this game.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Get your ass to Mars

Within the dream, I woke up in the morning to the sounds of chattering coming from the living room. Seemingly the entire neighborhood was gathered around the television. My father saw me and said, "America is over."

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was on TV addressing all Californians. The news was grave. Our state was officially broke. The governor felt that we deserved to know the real reason why, and he warned us that the truth would be shocking.

According to the governor, all of the present problems in America and the world were orchestrated by Martians running things behind the scenes. The White House knew all about it, and had been letting it happen for years now. Our leaders had sold us out because they were cowards kowtowing to Mars. Gov. Schwarzenegger had been grappling with a crisis of conscience ever since he learned the truth when he took office. He had finally had enough. The Governator would be beholden to no one, and California was now the resistance.

Everybody gasped in stunned disbelief, but Gov. Schwarzenegger insisted he had proof, and he warned us that it would be shocking. He signaled to cut to the alien footage.

But what played was just a bunch of clips from his old movies. It wasn't even Total Recall. It might have been Predator. Or maybe it was Commando. There were mesmerizing shots of him in the jungle firing some heavy-duty guns, but they didn't even show what he was shooting at. There were no Martians.

I was perplexed, but the crowd voiced no objection. On the contrary, I heard shouts of "I knew it!" and "It's about damn time!" Reacting to the cheers on TV of his newly energized audience, Arnold nodded and then raised his hand to call for a hold of applause. The next steps would be difficult, he informed us, but ours was a righteous fight. With that, the address was over, as the governor had a lot of working out to do.

The broadcast cut to the usual talking heads discussion. Except that it wasn't Fox News or CNN. It was Maria Shriver and Danny DeVito. Mostly, they just repeated the governor's own assertion that we would overcome this adversity through unity. Somebody tried to change the channel, but every station was either the same thing or dead air.

Our governor had decided while we slept that we were no longer Americans. Now he was asking for our support and solidarity as Californians.

I pulled my brother aside and asked him what he thought. He wasn't sure whether to believe in the Martian story, but he didn't think it mattered. He pointed to the television. On the screen was a map of the United States. California was blue. Everything else was red. Our sides had already been determined for us by our borders. Our beliefs were moot.

Before matters could develop much further, I woke for real, glad to still be an American.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Land of the Mini Carta"

British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced yesterday that Michael Savage (born Michael Alan Weiner), one of our nation's most popular conservative talk radio commentators, was named on a list of hate-mongers banned from entering the UK. The list also included neo-Nazi leader Erich Gliebe, former KKK Grand Wizard Stephen Donald Black, and Hamas member Yunis Al Astal, among other extremists who likely had no immediate plans to visit the UK.

For many years, I had to endure The Savage Nation radio show broadcasting in the car while my father drove me home from school. It didn't take many listens for me to realize that I hated few things more than Michael Savage and his trademark brand of angry nationalism. As for my father, he usually drove in silence, only rarely responding to the broadcast by accusing Savage of being hateful and racist. Given that neither of us seemed to like Savage, why did the radio remain tuned to his voice?

I suppose, bigoted though he was, there were some laughs to be had from his diatribes against Islamofascism, or his deliberate screening for liberal fool callers to annihilate on air. Yet, even though he was humorous and entertaining, he also seemed absolutely genuine in his views and above partisan politics, unlike Rush and the rest. I guess, even as I despised the man, a part of me admired his fierceness and consistency.

In any case, I now happily keep my own car free of his Savagery.

So imagine my surprise when, while listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR, I heard a familiar cantankerous voice. Savage had been invited on to respond to the day's news of the UK banning him. The segment was as farcical as everybody probably anticipated. Savage mostly just recited his opening remarks from the day's broadcast of his own show. When host Neal Conan tried to steer the conversation, Savage responded to questions with loaded questions of his own, quickly overpowering the surface objectivity of the flustered Conan. The interview came to an abrupt end when Conan took a listener call that Savage probably rightly perceived as an ambush.

Honestly, I'll be glad if that's the last time I ever have to hear his voice. Even so, while I found his show offensive, I never perceived his speech as threatening. Savage may indulge discontent, but, while it's been some years since I last tuned in, I don't recall ever hearing him advocating violence. I normally like to keep politics at a rifle's length, and so it remains as I say now that Jacqui Smith has earned his outrage this time with this rather absurd and arbitrary measure.