Tuesday, June 30, 2009

One more Metal Gear anecdote

Along with my purchase of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, I also picked up the collector's edition of Prima's official guide. The book was actually put together by Piggyback, a UK publisher of video game strategy guides that certain nuts have, for years, held as far superior to any of the domestic BradyGames and Prima stuff. I can't personally attest to its quality because, for fear of spoilers, I didn't consult it on my playthrough. It was a very sleekly built hardcover, however, and I bought it primarily as a collector's item.

Besides being hardcover, the "limited edition" bonuses were a few pages of artwork and the inclusion of a numbered lithograph illustrated by Yoji Shinkawa. Still nothing too exciting, until I took a closer look and immediately recognized the five-digit number on my lithograph. It was the first five digits of my bank account number. A meaningless coincidence, but an eerie one, given that this was the series that had brought us Psycho Mantis and "Fission Mailed." Almost as bad as that Silent Hill 4 demo...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Essentials #35: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots


Arriving ten years after Konami's seminal Metal Gear Solid, 2008's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for the Sony PlayStation 3 was to be Solid Snake's final mission, as well as (once again) the last Metal Gear helmed by Hideo Kojima. Kojima, having expressed his desire to step back after Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, had already assigned Shuyo Murata, writer and director of Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, to succeed him as director of MGS4, but, supposedly acceding to demands of both fans and crew, Kojima decided to return after all to direct alongside Murata, and the end result was a work permeated with the sense and soul of the series's original creator.

Picking up several years after Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Guns of the Patriots finally put players back in the role of Solid Snake for the entire game. But it would not be the Solid Snake that players had been anticipating. An early piece of promotional artwork depicting a slew of returning characters, including Raiden with sword in one hand and his other arm cradling a baby, had given fans some idea of what to look forward to in the all-encompassing magnum opus. Solid Snake, front and center, resembled his gruff and bearded MGS2 self. By the time the first trailer debuted, however, Kojima Productions had evidently gone in a different direction. Snake was now an old man sporting a questionable mustache. He was not too worn to kick ass, but his deteriorating condition added a sad angle to his return.

If Snake looked a little worse for wear, at least players could still be excited by the transition to a new generation of console hardware. After two installments on the PS2, Metal Gear was ready to take advantage of the power of the PS3 by delivering a gorgeous game that also broke significantly from the past in its mechanics.

Like Snake Eater before it, Guns of the Patriots introduced a number of annoying and largely extraneous new systems, although they were integrated more organically this time around. Though heavily promoted during pre-release, the new camouflage system again saw little practical use for most of the game. Removing the need to go into a menu and continually select different camo patterns, Snake's "OctoCamo" suit, like an octopus, could take on the color and texture of the surfaces that it touched. Again, I found little use for it and mostly ignored it, but at least, when Snake did adopt new camo, it happened dynamically with little thought on my part. The new "Psyche" gauge was similar to but a little more obtrusive than the MGS3 stamina system, since you could not as easily hunt and hoard supplies to keep it steady. Its hindering effects manifested with greater frequency than in MGS3, but it was still just an occasional irritation that would be dealt with as needed with items. The "Threat Ring," functionally comparable to the radar from Portable Ops, surrounded Snake only when he was crouching or prone and warned players when enemies were close.

The truly drastic changes came at the more basic level. The controls were completely overhauled. Although I had found the old Metal Gear Solid controls to be highly functional once picked up, they had, even by the time of Snake Eater, begun to feel outdated and clunky, with key functions spread across too many buttons. For Guns of the Patriots, Kojima Productions took some inspiration from Western-developed shooters, placing the fire button on the shoulder for a more natural pistol grip feel. Combined with a camera that built upon Subsistence's third-person view, adding an over-the-shoulder angle and the ability to move in first-person, the new controls allowed players to approach parts of the game almost like a third-person shooter.

These more action-oriented controls were important too, because the stealth elements were now far removed from the action puzzle feel of Metal Gear Solid. As advertised, the game largely dispensed with the old process of hiding in one place and slipping through observed holes in patrol routes. Security was tighter and Snake was slower, so it was now very difficult to progress without some proactive approach toward enemies. Moreover, in a world run on the "war economy," Snake would find himself walking into battlefields where mercenaries engaged rebels. Kojima Productions played up this element as one of MGS4's revolutionary bullet points, as Snake would have to progress through dynamic situations between hostiles and neutrals, and it was up to the player to what extent to involve Snake. In the finished product, however, this element turned out to be a minor feature during the first two missions, after which the rebels never reappeared. The hostile mercenaries would always hunt Snake, so the player's only choice was whether to aid, ignore, or antagonize the rebels. The latter option was idiotic (though easy to do accidentally), so, in practice, the decision was between moving along using the rebels as a diversion, or stopping to help the cause and earn some items as rewards.

Reinforcing the interpretation of Guns of the Patriot as more of an action game was the alarming abundance of firearms. Snake's MGS4 arsenal was several times greater than in all of the previous games put together. All of those guns could furthermore be tuned and modified by paying the arms dealer Drebin.

Crammed full of set piece battles, some memorable sneaking sections, and multiple vehicular segments, it was the most varied Metal Gear yet, delivered in the most linear fashion. As far back as the original 8-bit Metal Gear, the series had employed Zelda-style "overworld" maps paired with an overhead camera. Even Snake Eater, although relatively free of backtracking, contained many large open environments to provide the illusion of a world to explore. Guns of the Patriots proceeded practically on rails. In fact, as noted, there were multiple on-rails sequences throughout the game, which was broken up into five acts set in self-contained locales. For a final installment, I thought the mission structure was a great idea that allowed MGS4, now a globe-trotting adventure spanning multiple diverse and exquisitely detailed environments, to be greater in scope yet tighter in presentation. And each successive act brought new highlights, including the spectacular return of Raiden in the epic Act 2, the confrontation with the ghosts of Snake Eater in the revelatory Act 3, and the haunting return to Shadow Moses in Act 4.

The downside was that you had to install each act separately. During my initial playthrough, I actually kind of appreciated the breaks that the installation periods represented, but the process made it beyond inconvenient to return to earlier segments, since you could not have more than one act installed at a time. MGS4 needed these installs supposedly because of how hard it was pushing the still young system. It was already the largest PS3 game yet, allegedly taking up the whole of a dual-layer Blu-ray disc only after cuts allowed it to fit. The only possible evidence of cuts was in the Codec conversations, which were scaled back considerably from previous games. The Codec screen presented a wide frequency band, but, across that entire span, there would remain for the entire game only two numbers, one at each end, that Snake could dial out to. It stuck me as odd visually to have all that empty space, but if cuts were made in that area, the decision must have been made early on. Snake had enough allies who would contact him from frequencies in that blank middle range, but it would not have made sense for him to call characters like Raiden and Meryl, who would not always be around or cooperative.

One guy you probably should have been able to call was Drebin. He certainly had a lot of nonsense to spew, as he would call Snake after every battle against the "Beauty and the Beast Corps" to tell you the tear-jerking life story of the poor girl you just obliterated. Somewhere between the sentimental personal narratives of Metal Gear Solid and the voiceless villains of Snake Eater, this was probably the worst approach yet, but the Beauty and the Beast Corps members themselves may have been the most awesome boss designs. No more giant shamans, bisexual vampires, or bee men. Yoji Shinkawa's designs blended, yes, beauty with beastliness, but also endowed them with the cool mechanical intricacy of his Zone of the Enders mechs.

Intended to tie up every series loose end and conclude the story of Solid Snake, the plot would be incomprehensible to anyone who had not played through the previous MGS titles. But that baggage that was its greatest barrier to mainstream acceptance would also be MGS4's greatest asset to those legions of loyal fans who had been following the series for years. At times billed as the true sequel to MGS2, Guns of the Patriots managed almost miraculously to address all of the unbelievable questions raised in Sons of Liberty, albeit it had to cheat for some of its answers. Even more surprisingly, it added a whole new dimension to MGS3, tying it into the "La-li-lu-le-lo" convolutions in unexpected ways that gave the third installment brand new relevance, while completely altering how I perceived the story and characters of Snake Eater.

Few works of any medium have ever earned the emotional investment that this series had over its seven installments across more than two decades. Its fans had shared in the life of Solid Snake and the story of Hideo Kojima for maybe ten or even twenty of their own years. The finale to that arc delivered one of gaming's truly cathartic moments, as Snake walked, then crawled his way down that microwave corridor. Helping him along, the player needed only to press forward while tapping one button repeatedly to keep his health from depleting too rapidly due to the radiation. Mechanically, it was the simplest sort of gameplay the medium could offer, yet it was also one of the most awe-inspiring and emotionally rewarding moments in video game history. I've traditionally regarded rapid-button-press sequences as degenerate game design, the Metal Gear Solid torture sequence included, but, given all the buildup to that moment, I simply could not have lived with myself had I let Snake down. Pushing myself to my limit tapping that stupid button as fast as I could, I felt connected to Snake's drama in a way that just doesn't happen in non-interactive media.

No bizarre post-credits questions this time, Guns of the Patriots was as ever a story about existence and life, but it was this time less about seeking answers, more about living. Transcending the anguished explorations of gene, meme, and scene, it arrived finally at a simple peace for a simple man who, ever the dupe in a struggle between forces beyond his comprehension, had been stuck repeatedly undertaking the same bloody task he never enjoyed in the first place. It gave fans a conclusive and poignant ending to a saga that had allowed us for a short while to live beyond ourselves. Mechanically and narratively, the game's flaws were not hard to point out--the gameplay systems were bloated and its cut scenes, the longest ever, were even more so--but its grandness outshone any defects. Even as it catered to its hardcore fans, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots remained utterly true to its creators. As long as that was the case, it could never be a disappointment to me.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Perhaps the signs were there, but the facts do not lessen the shock. It is not my intention to understate the sadness of the other all too abundant celebrity passings of late, but this breaks my heart. The enormity of this loss owes to the stature of the man. I understand there are now generations of kids who do not know Michael Jackson, do not know why they should care. They probably won't believe me when I say to them that he was the biggest, he was the best. So vast was the shadow he cast that I cannot pinpoint how he affected the world and my own life. But I know that he did. He was a peculiar genius who could not live by society's conventions, and the same uniqueness that made him great was surely the source of his later difficulties. I grew up loving his music, and I wanted to remain his fan and defend him, but the more he spoke, the less I knew him, the harder it became to like him. We'll never know if he was just too weird or if the media was making a point that it could build up and tear down anybody. I think a part of me always believed that he would come back, that there was another act, one more period of greatness in his life. A part of me wanted Michael Jackson to one day puzzle out his own story and then triumphantly deliver the answers to all the cosmic mysteries of life. That part of me has died along with him, in its place the profound sense of so many doors closing. I feel the transience of life in the near certainty that no star his equal will emerge in my lifetime. For the first time, I fear and anticipate the approach of that pivotal moment I've heard older folks speak of, when you stop following new things and only hold on in vain to what you have and know. Things will be different now that he's gone.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Back Where I Belong

I had a dream that I had a dream that I was extraordinary. In the dream's dream, I had composed a song of such power that anyone who attempted to sing it would die in the process, yet its beauty would bring both singer and listener to complete life fulfillment. Waking within the dream, I knew that I could improve my life and the world if only I could recall the song, but I could remember only the effect of the song and nothing of the song itself. So, having had that glimpse of an unattainable better world, I faded bitterly back into the false reality, my life a misery ever after. Thank goodness it was all just a nightmare.

Unexpectedly Awesome Wii Box Design

To be honest, I've never made it more than ten minutes into any single Metroid game. I tell myself I'll marathon them all when I have time one day (followed by all the Zelda titles). I really want this collector's edition, however, just on account of how cool the packaging looks. For a compilation of three old games, I had been expecting a quick and dirty treatment a la Resident Evil Archives, but this is instead the coolest Wii package by far.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ouran High School Host Club

It's been a dry season for anime, so I've been checking out some older shows that I missed the first time around. One such program has been Ouran High School Host Club, based on Bisco Hatori's comedic shoujo manga.

The show was a minor sensation when it first aired in 2006, the same year that brought us such phenomenal series as Death Note, Code Geass, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Although it was just a notch below those shows in popularity, I passed on watching it because, from the description, it did not sound like something I would be interested in.

Ouran is the story of Haruhi Fujioka, a scholarship student at the elite Ouran Academy. As the story begins, Haruhi wanders into the room of the "Host Club," a group of bishounen students who gather to cater to the frivolities of their dedicated female clientele. After Haruhi accidentally breaks an expensive vase, she must repay the club by posing as a male and serving as a host until her debt is cleared.

On the surface, the arrangement of one female protagonist surrounded by six handsome males sounded like typical reverse harem, which was not my favorite genre. In hindsight, I can only say that the show was badly served by the plot descriptions I read. I'm glad I came back to give it a chance, because it's turned out to be, not only one of the best shows of the last ten years, but also one of the first truly post-Utena anime.

Loading up the first episode, I was still apprehensive, but the show had me within the opening scene of Haruhi stumbling upon the Host Club. As the characters converse, an arrow flashes distractingly, accompanied by an annoying beeping sound to direct the viewer's attention to a vase that would otherwise be just a meaningless background object. None of the characters are aware of it, but it cannot escape the audience that the show is deliberately telegraphing the fateful incident that will see Haruhi joining the Host Club. The flashing, beeping arrow device reminded me strongly of the ironic pointing fingers used throughout episode 22 of my favorite series, Revolutionary Girl Utena.

After watching the first episode of Ouran, I looked up the credits and found that there was indeed an Utena connection. The head screenwriter for Ouran was Yoji Enokido, who had served the same role on Utena, while the director, Takuya Igarashi, had worked with Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara on assorted Sailor Moon projects. According to some sources, Igarashi also worked on Utena under the alias "Jugo Kazayama." My initial pointing arrow connection may have been tenuous, but the further I got into Ouran, the more it reminded me of Utena.

Stylistically and aesthetically, Ouran evokes Utena in its floral motifs, picture frame borders and captions, rapid-fire cuts to obscure images, classical soundtrack, and surreal storybook shots that literally interpret the teenage characters' thoughts and emotions. Ouran Academy itself might as well be Utena's Ohtori Academy, another baroque K-12 private school where students were hardly ever seen actually attending class.

I've since read some of Bisco Hatori's still ongoing manga, which, while lampooning nearly all else shoujo, has made no allusions to Utena that I've seen. The fast pace, daydream sequences, and roses are all present in the source material, but, where the anime diverges, it leaves me even more convinced that the Utena-isms must be Enokido's work. This may be most apparent in the adaptation's handling of the character Renge, a dating sim enthusiast who constantly attempts to steer her fellow students' lives and business to be more in accordance with the melodramatic plot lines of her favorite games. In the manga, she just randomly butts in, but in the anime, her appearances are announced by her ritualistic emergence from the ground via a fantastic motorized platform.

Where Ouran differs from Utena is in the substance of its content. Like Ikuhara's inverted fairytale, Ouran is a self-aware work that aims to subvert shoujo conventions. But Bisco Hatori's story is, first and foremost, a satirical comedy. By the story's own admission, the Host Club members can be defined by such cliches as "stoic type," "boy Lolita," "twincest," and "glasses character." The material then pokes fun at these types by exaggerating them, by having the characters play against type, or by having others upset their routines by exposing their silliness. Rather than sweeping Haruhi off her feet and carrying her away to a grand lifestyle, the filthy rich Host Club males are the ones intrigued and confounded by her "commoner" ways. The level-headed Haruhi meanwhile becomes the voice of the author and audience, her unmoved expression deflating most of their lunatic egos. My favorite host was Tamaki, the flamboyant "prince" character. Utena's Akio Ohtori was a perversion of the fairytale prince, a manipulative bastard who seduced without discrimination to serve his own ends. With Tamaki, Ouran runs in the opposite direction to present a charmer who, while narcissistic, is also often buffoonish, always sincere. As the leader of the group, he is the heart of both the club and the series, his persistent delusions and rapid swings of confidence providing much of the humor.

The show is not perfect. Despite the artistic similarities, it is not as deep a work as Utena, nor does it aim to be. In its exuberant hunt of reverse harem cliches, it at times teeters on the edge of succumbing to the melodramatic formula it seeks to parody, particularly in its overuse of the sociopathic yet emo twins. But every time it starts to look tired, it recovers with renewed vigor for another round of hilarious gags. And, for all its often biting humor, the show also has occasional genuine moments of penetrating beauty, as when it explores the backstories of the club members, who must have had good reasons for joining up to form Tamaki's surrogate family. The Utena-lite composition serves the series well in these scenes that paint the past through dreamlike images to show how these characters bloom. Ouran High School Host Club strikes the balance better than probably any other anime series of the last decade, offering plenty of laughs alongside an abundance of striking images that will stay with me far longer than anything in, say, Gundam 00.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Essentials #34: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater


"What the hell?" Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty's apt final line left many players--those who didn't abandon the series in disgust--aching for answers. Yet as development drew to a close, series creator Hideo Kojima was the one speculating that it might be the last Metal Gear he worked on in such a hands-on capacity. Ultimately, Kojima would change his mind and helm Metal Gear Solid 3 for the Sony PlayStation 2, but the result would still not address any of the baffling questions raised at the end of Sons of Liberty. 2004's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater would instead be a prequel to the entire series up to that point.

Once again, Solid Snake would not be the player character, a non-canonical mini-game appearance notwithstanding. In this story set during the 1960s, the protagonist would be none other than Big Boss, or as he was known then, "Naked Snake." The curious code name struck me as rather a tragic misfire. Japanese Kanji characters can be read a number of different ways, lending multiple meanings to a name, but Kojima has repeatedly insisted on applying the wordplay to English as well. Although the in-game explanation was that Naked Snake was "naked" in the sense that he carried almost no supplies with him into the mission, the hidden significance was that Naked Snake was the "bare" or "basic" Snake, no Solid or Liquid modifiers, since this was the original. Except that reading didn't really work, because "naked" was a modifier. (Perhaps "just Snake" was The Boss?) In any case, Naked Snake looked and sounded just like Solid Snake, which was good enough that most players could simply think of him as the same guy.

While the new player character provided a pleasingly familiar return to the form of the first Metal Gear Solid, the gameplay of Snake Eater was a significant yet incomplete departure from its predecessors. Naked Snake's mission came with a number of extraneous new systems, including camouflage, the stamina bar, injury treatment via a menu, and expanded grapple mechanics.

By far the most cumbersome of the many cumbersome systems was the camouflage mechanic. Sentries were no longer limited to tiny cone-shaped fields of vision, and, in the more organic jungle setting, there were fewer corners to hide around, so Snake would have to slip beneath his enemies' visibility by donning appropriate camo. The problem was that the best camo for the job could change rapidly as Snake walked just a few steps from the grass to the dirt. If the player was determined to keep up, it would mean going into the menu to equip different fatigues and/or face paint every few seconds. This would have been tedious at best, but Snake Eater was afflicted by some egregious load times when accessing menus.

Sneaking was further burdened by the loss of the old radar. Some weak alternatives came in the forms of the sonar, the motion detector, and MGS2's vibrating enemy sensor. Switching back and forth between these three imperfect substitutes was such a hassle that I didn't even bother. Without the added vision of the radar, the traditional overhead camera became a huge detriment, and progress became slow going, as I found myself inching along and constantly switching to first-person view to scan my surroundings. If I spotted a guard, I would, as I had in Sons of Liberty, take him down first with the silenced tranquilizer gun, then put him to sleep permanently to keep him from troubling me later. This was made somewhat more difficult by the vintage weapons, which had no laser sights, but I still made it through with minimal direct confrontation. If I did get spotted, I would just make a dash for the next area.

Slightly less annoying was the new stamina gauge. As Snake exerted himself, the meter would deplete and his performance would be negatively affected, afflicting him with shaky hands and stomach grumbles. In order to restore it, Snake would have to hunt down and devour the flora and fauna available throughout the jungle environment. The system had limited impact. I would just refill the meter every once in a while, usually with hoarded non-perishables like rations and instant noodles.

If you felt disinclined to indulge the new mechanics, you could play the "Very Easy" difficulty. This considerate mode equipped Snake with the awesome "EZ Gun," which raised his camo rating, kept his stamina full, and came equipped with an exaggerated laser pointer. The only sub-system that could not be entirely ignored was the "Cure" system. If Snake fell ill or suffered an injury, the player would have to treat him using items via the pause menu. This was a simple process, and, as long as you kept out of trouble, it happened infrequently.

The new "close-quarters combat" or "CQC" system was actually a prominent part of the plot, as it was the almighty fighting style practiced by Snake and his mentor, The Boss. In cut scenes, it took the form of vaguely defined Bourne Identity-style martial arts, but the gameplay applications were nothing like that. In practice, CQC just added a few new options to the old grapple move. With knife in hand as you held a guy, you could, for example, threaten him for info and/or slit his throat.

The load times even discouraged me from consulting my support team over the radio as frequently as I had in past games. Then again, they also had less to say compared to previous crews. Para-Medic, the save game keeper, was the chattiest, and she would provide levity with discussions of real sci-fi and horror movies of the time. The other characters mostly stuck to the mission. Snake's commanding officer, the former British SAS agent Major Zero (whom everybody would remember as "Major Tom," since that was the name he used in the trailer and demo), had particularly little to say, which was a shame, because, when he did contribute, the results were usually hilarious.

Young Major Ocelot and the mysterious double agent Eva made for a more entertaining supporting cast during cut scenes. The criminally forgotten Colonel Volgin merits special mention. The lightning-casting, bisexual sadist was the most menacing antagonist in the entire series, and his relationship with Major Ivan Raidenovitch Raikov provided some classic Kojima humor. The other villains, the Cobra unit, were, by design, devoid of personality. In response to complaints about previous series bosses, who would agonizingly recite their entire life stories as they took eternities to expire, Kojima filled Snake Eater with foes who had no stories and barely spoke. As they fell in battle, they would instead yell out their own names before literally exploding. I don't know that that approach was better, as it reduced the Cobra unit to just a set of gameplay obstacles, and I was never in it for the fighting.

Speaking of which, Snake Eater's boss battles were the most epic and open-ended the series had seen up to that point, with special recognition going to the "classic" fight with The End. I initially mistook it for a snipers' duel a la the battle against Sniper Wolf in Metal Gear Solid, and the result was one frustrating hour as I could not locate him at all with my scope in that dense jungle. In reality, the easiest and most logical way to proceed was to simply follow the tracks he left and sneak up behind him. It was a testament to the game's depth, however, that some players apparently did manage to outsnipe The End. I've also heard of players beating him by anticipating his sniping points and laying down mines for him. Additionally, Kojima's team inserted, not one, but two unthinkable options. You could actually bypass the fight altogether by blowing up the defenseless wheelchair-bound old man at an earlier point in the game. Alternatively, you could wait for him to die of old age during the fight by saving in the middle of it and waiting a week to come back. I still didn't enjoy fighting The End, but I had to admit that no other game had ever included a battle like it.

Given my disenchantment with the mechanics of Snake Eater, I was surprised to find that many fans listed it as their favorite Metal Gear, above even Metal Gear Solid. Although I had considered it an essential experience for its story and cinematics alone, playing it through a second time in anticipation of Metal Gear Solid 4, I gained a greater appreciation for it within the context of the entire series. While the hammy dialogue and excessively long-winded speeches were still there, the game definitely exhibited a growth and maturity in Kojima's direction. Although I found the playable portions to be mostly aggravating, Snake Eater did include some fantastic interactive set pieces. The infamous ladder sequence was particularly awe-inspiring for how it sneaked up on the player; I didn't realize I was experiencing a "moment" until I found myself in the middle of it, with the solo rendition of the vocal title theme kicking in as I scaled the interminable ladder one rung at a time.

My other favorite moment was the walk down the river of ghosts, although, the second time around, I recognized that it was a flawed scene. In this "boss fight" against The Sorrow, Snake had to slowly tread past the ghosts of all the soldiers the player had killed up to that point during the game. If you had, as I had during my first playthrough, eliminated hundreds of enemies, the walk would take a very long time, and the morbid sequence would perhaps leave you feeling some remorse over your actions. On my second playthrough, I avoided killing anybody, so the only ghosts were those of the bosses that Snake could not avoid fighting. The walk became very short and uneventful as a result. The sequence was stripped of all power when the player performed "correctly" by avoiding lethal violence, and, in my opinion, there was a better way to convey a message.

As was the case with its predecessors, the best reason to play Snake Eater remained the story. In developing MGS3 as a prequel, Kojima sought to reshape players' understanding of series antagonist Big Boss, who, in the time of Snake Eater, had been an American hero. Had the man himself changed and become corrupt, or was it the world and the times? The message may have been complicated by the reality that most players would only have known Big Boss through secondhand accounts in the last two games, and Sons of Liberty had imbued us with a distrust of hearsay. Accordingly, his arc from Naked Snake to Big Boss would be conveyed indirectly through the like story of The Boss, who, once America's proudest warrior, had somehow become its most bitter enemy. On the surface, Snake Eater was more straightforward than Sons of Liberty, but it was still full of innumerable twists, and the storytelling--so forceful yet so ambiguous--continually challenged players' perceptions of The Boss.

Even after the credits had rolled, I couldn't figure out what The Boss had been trying to communicate to Snake. Some players believed what Eva reported--that The Boss was loyal to the end and playing the villain under secret orders from her country. But Eva was unreliable at best, and that explanation didn't seem to build toward Naked Snake's transformation into Big Boss, which I thought had to be the point of the prequel. I considered that, in forcing him to kill her, The Boss was giving the disillusioned Snake his mission to carry on the fight that she no longer had the will to undertake against those who had taken more from her than should be asked of even the most loyal patriot. Given how things turned out, that seemed at least to be how Snake took it. But I still couldn't be sure if it was the truth. It only seemed appropriate when, in Metal Gear Solid 4, it was revealed that the characters themselves could not agree on what she stood for.

I did not enjoy Snake Eater as much as the first two Metal Gear Solid titles, but there was no denying the power of the story. Although I found it a chore to play, it was a rich game full of beautiful and inventive moments. If it was not quite so fresh as its predecessors, it nevertheless included amazing bits like the ladder, which immersed the player in the narrative in an unexpectedly more artful and organic manner than the previous games.


In 2006, Konami released Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, an enhanced version of Snake Eater for the Sony PlayStation 2. While it did not boast as much additional playable content as Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, Subsistence was overall a more meaningful upgrade that sought to repair some of the issues with the original Snake Eater release.

The major addition was the new user-controlled camera. Finally replacing the limiting overhead view, the new camera mitigated many of the frustrations in sneaking without a radar, as you could now see ahead to spot guards without having to switch to first-person. Since maps and enemy routes were left unchanged from Snake Eater, the new mode perhaps made the game easier than originally intended, though I find it hard to believe that Konami could have intended for the original release to be as awkward as it was due to the camera.

Further upping the playability, Subsistence managed to eliminate all the old load times into menus. This was perhaps an even more welcome improvement than the camera, and the result was a better game all around.

Bonuses included an entire second disc, titled "Persistence," that contained the first iteration of "Metal Gear Online" (which I never played, so I can't comment), an expanded set of missions for the "Snake vs. Monkey" mini-game, ports of the two 8-bit MSX Metal Gear games, and a library of gag cinematics that had previously been posted on the official website.

A limited edition release added a third disc, "Existence," which presented the story of Snake Eater as a linear movie. The first disc already added a handy cut scene viewer allowing the player to watch any of the Snake Eater cinematics, but "Existence" was more than just all the scenes in order. Clearly, a lot of time had been spent in the editing room. The movie actually began with the final confrontation between Naked Snake and The Boss, before rewinding to the events that led up to it. Bridging the scripted sequences were clips of the interactive portions, presented as dramatically as possible, though they still stuck out badly due to the canned gameplay animations. I haven't actually watched the whole thing, but, at the very least, it's an interesting novelty.

Portable Ops

After having answered a bunch of questions that nobody asked while raising several more, Snake Eater received a followup in 2006 in the form of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for the PlayStation Portable. Kojima would not direct the non-numbered installment, but he would continue to write for this canonical entry.

Employing the same camera as Subsistence, Portable Ops featured familiar Metal Gear gameplay broken down now into short missions for easy digestion on a handheld. The camo system of Snake Eater was done away with, and a new radar told the player vaguely how close and in what direction hostiles were. The major new addition was the "Comrade System," which allowed the player to take a squad of up to four troops into a mission. For the most part, Big Boss would have to acquire allies by turning enemies over to his side. It was amusing, if a little annoying, to knock guys out and drag their bodies to the back of your truck, whereupon they would undergo days of reprogramming to bring them over to your team. In practice, you didn't actually need that many allies, so it was unnecessary to spend too much time recruiting. Once you brought them on board, you could play as them instead of Big Boss. Although they were invariably weaker, they sometimes possessed unique abilities, and, if you brought the right type of soldier into a specific area, you could even infiltrate incognito. "Hidden" characters included almost the entire supporting cast of Snake Eater, and, while they sadly did not impact the plot, being able to assemble a team of Zero, Para-Medic, and Sigint provided one of the highlights of Portable Ops.

Big Boss's team would also include a young Campbell, marking the beginnings of FOXHOUND. But the assembling of a mercenary army of no nation was even more clearly laying the foundation for Outer Heaven. The story would not quite arrive there as Portable Ops ended, but these suggestions were about the extent of the entry's meaningful contributions to the overall Metal Gear story.

In place of the customary real-time cinematics, Portable Ops expanded upon 2006's Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel for PSP by delivering its story via animated comic panels drawn by Ashley Wood, who had become attached to the series through his work on the 2004 comic book adaptation of the first Metal Gear Solid. Wood's explosive illustrations could be jarring for fans accustomed to Yoji Shinkawa's art, but it was good stuff, and, accompanied by voice acting of the same high caliber as the console titles, the animated drawings could be stunning.

Perhaps because of the new cut scene format, perhaps because it was a handheld game built for short play sessions, or perhaps because Kojima himself was less involved, the dialogue of Portable Ops was appreciably sharper than in the console installments. Mind you, there were still some long speeches and the plot was still convoluted, but it was less pretentious overall. The soldier characters were existentially distressed as ever, but most of them were warriors rather than schemers, and instead of dwelling on philosophical debates, they contented themselves by fighting. If this is how future Metal Gear titles could be without Kojima at the helm, that future wouldn't be bad at all.

Portable Ops also featured the best set of villains in the entire series, including a demented former friend/rival, good and evil psychic sisters, and the blade-swinging perfect soldier. Their leader, Gene, possessed charisma and persuasiveness for superpowers, but he was also programmed to succeed The Boss as commander of America's military. Voiced by prolific anime and video game voice actor Steve Blum (Spike in Cowboy Bebop, Roger Smith in The Big O, Vincent in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII), he was definitely a worthy foe for David Hayter's Big Boss.

I bought my PSP primarily to play Portable Ops. For more casual fans of the series, I don't think its meager contributions to the saga justify the cost of the system. The gameplay, with its aging stealth mechanics and dodgy controls, is no great selling point. But the characters are cool, the story is solid if not transformational, and there is enough there to excite hardcore fans. If nothing else, it's worth watching the cut scenes on YouTube.

Friday, June 19, 2009

An idea whose time has come?

The Power Glove:

No, I wasn't fool enough to own one of these things. From what I've heard, it did not allow you to punch out Bald Bull with your own fist as advertised. But I read about Microsoft's Project Natal, and I'm inclined to agree with Sony and Nintendo that there needs to be some sort of controller to formalize the state of game. I don't believe wands are the answer, so perhaps it's time instead to revisit the motion control glove.

True, the Power Glove was ugly and terrible, but people keep comparing Natal to the post-keyboard computer from Steven Spielberg's Minority Report. Everybody seems to forget that Tom Cruise wore high-tech gloves to interface with the floating screens. In tandem with something like Natal, a glove controller could be the perfect compromise. You could still have the versatility of hands-free input, while also providing the satisfying feedback of something tangible, and, better than a wand or remote, it would even allow you to hold another object while using the glove.

In fact, I bet somebody's already working on this. And when it arrives, there will be lawsuits, yes, but we can probably expect those to occur no matter what forms the new technologies take.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Own It

I heard an interesting theory about why California's budget is in such dire condition:

"It's the Mexicans. They cross over illegally, have a bunch of kids, and then milk the state for welfare. They insist they're entitled to it because, according to them, California was originally theirs. I heard this straight from my Mexican co-worker. He's a young guy with a college degree from SDSU, yet even he believes that America owes him. He says that's what his grandfather thinks, it's what his parents think, and so it's what he thinks. If you don't believe that this is how they think, just drive up to LA. They're on the streets holding up signs that say, 'We built your house.' But where are the signs that say, 'We got paid'?"

I suspect the reality is rather more complicated than that, but I don't doubt that such a person as this college-educated Mexican co-worker does exist. It reminds me of a different story of my own.

Once upon a time, I placed a video game reservation at my local GameStop. Yes, GameStop is one of the worst places in the world, and I would normally never have bought anything from them, but I really wanted the pre-order bonus for this game. I placed my order more than a month in advance. At the time, the bonuses had not yet arrived, so I called back once a week for status updates. Each time, I was simply told that I would get it when I picked up my order.

When the release day arrived, I got my game, but there was no bonus. I asked the clerk, and he told me that they were given out at time of pre-order, and there were so few that they had probably run out before I ever placed my reservation. I knew for a fact that he was lying, but his manager was standing right next to him and supporting this deception. Furious, I went above the manager's head and sent a complaint to the regional manager. She called me back directly to inform me that she had tracked down one of the bonus items for me.

So we should have been square, and the story should have ended there, right?

Yes, it should have, but somehow I was still angry at the lying employees. I decided that, as I had been screwed, so too would I screw them. That GameStop would get no more of my money, yet I would take all the pre-order junk I could get from them. I would place a pre-order, collect the bonus, then return just the game for a full refund. That was the plot I conceived and carried out, and I now have boxes filled with, among other things, the Suikoden V audio CD, Dawn of Mana CD, Pokémon Diamond/Pearl stylus, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword stylus, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia CD, Street Fighter IV headband, Resident Evil 5 laser cel, and Bionic Commando patch set. You may have gathered from the titles I named that this has been going on for years now. I don't think the employees even work there anymore. So is it really still about getting even?

It finally struck me as I walked into GameCrazy to return one of my copies of Bionic Commando. What had GameCrazy ever done to earn my ire, if indeed it was still ire driving me? I could pretend that I'm fighting back against the system itself, but that would be a lie. No, the truth is that I wanted the Bionic Commando lunchbox, but I didn't want to pay full price for the game.

I'm not saying that I'm going to stop. But I won't try to excuse my actions either.

Monday, June 15, 2009

If he has fear, he has weakness

Earlier this year, tennis great Roger Federer married his longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec shortly after it had been announced that she was pregnant with his child. I called it a scandal, and my unsolicited opinion was misconstrued as a moral objection. Okay, so maybe my use of the word "scandal" left little room for interpretation. It's true that I don't always acquit myself well verbally in real-time, so I'll take a moment to clear the air here via this blog.

You see, long before her pregnancy, I had already begun to wonder why they weren't married. Mirka had been in Federer's box at every tournament for the past six years at least--as long as I'd been following his career. Their relationship seemed as solid as it got in that world. (Once upon a time, there was a woman named Kim Clijsters, a man named Lleyton Hewitt. They were young. They were in love. They were fools.) Mind you, I was merely curious, and I considered that maybe, as a couple, they just didn't place a lot of importance on the institution of marriage. That would have been fine with me, but I couldn't help suspecting that there may have been a flimsier reason for why Federer was unable to take the next step.

I of course thought of Pete Sampras, whose play declined after he married Sonya Blade, and, at the time, many blamed his slipping performance on the distraction of a love life, even though the reality of his age should have told where he was in his career. Was Federer wary of the same fate and unwilling to place his relationship with Mirka before his professional legacy in the making? I obviously can't know for certain, and his private life shouldn't be any of my business, but I think it's questionable that, after such an extended courtship, their union should be formalized only after he's knocked her up. If my suspicions are correct, then it strikes me as flaky behavior, and I suppose I'm disappointed because, although he may well be the greatest ever, if there is any doubt about his pysche outside the game, it's hard not to point to that whenever he struggles on the court.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Essentials #33: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Arriving late to the original Metal Gear Solid, I didn't have to wait as long as some for Konami's followup, but my anticipation was enormous nonetheless. As soon as I completed the first game, I went online and loaded up the trailer for the sequel. It was the E3 2000 debut trailer, so this must have been late 2000. Based on the amazing video, Metal Gear Solid 2 looked to be everything I could have hoped for. Solid Snake, more badass than ever, was back for a direct sequel. The stunning graphics showed off the next-gen power of Sony's PlayStation 2, and I foolishly remarked that we had arrived at the point where real-time models could look as good as pre-rendered stuff. Little did I suspect that what I had actually seen was a trailer for a demo, and the real Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, arriving in 2001, would not at all be the game I'd expected or hoped for.

Booting up that tanker stage that had been the demo, the game appeared superficially to be just a sharper-looking version of its predecessor. The overhead camera was the same, the radar was exactly the same, and Snake himself had more or less the same moves and animations. The trailer showed off several new features, however, including the abilities to fire from the first-person perspective and to shoot from behind cover. Snake could also hang from railings, hide in lockers, stash bodies in same, toss empty ammo clips to divert sentries, and lay down erotic magazines to distract them. Frankly, none of this stuff was necessary nor even very useful, aside from the hanging, which was only required at a few specific points. But all this interactive minutiae was a testament to the painstaking craftsmanship of the engine.

Enemies meanwhile behaved more realistically. Alarms no longer meant infinite guards appearing from out of nowhere. Instead, if there was trouble, they would call for backup, and a more heavily armed squad would arrive to clear the room. Ironically, although they were among the showcase additions, if you were playing Sons of Liberty well by its own stated terms as a stealth action game, you wouldn't even come across the new sweeper squads or riot shield soldiers. The shoot-from-cover mechanic likewise saw no real use past the demo. The same went for Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams's much publicized contributions to the score.

But the ability to aim and shoot in first-person view was a significant addition that completely altered my approach to the stealth progression. With the brand new silenced tranquilizer gun, I simply sniped each and every guard I came across from a safe distance. The only tricky spots involved the radio men. If they didn't make their scheduled reports on time, HQ would send squads to check in on them. If you were just passing through a room, however, there would still be plenty of time to pop everybody before anyone even noticed. It was only years later, while I was collecting dog tags, that the game became even remotely challenging. Another new feature, the dog tags determined what rewards the player unlocked upon completion of the game, and they could only be won from guards by sneaking right up behind them and holding them up. For most of the game, this was still easily achieved by just knocking them out first, and then rousing them and sticking them up as they rose. Some guards yielded immediately and wiggled the items out of their clothes, while more stubborn would-be heroes needed extra "encouragement" to the arm, after which they would be begging for their lives much like those scientists I incinerated back in Syphon Filter. I'll leave it to your imagination how I responded this time, but I'll say that, on one very sad occasion, I forgot that I had the Socom equipped instead of the non-lethal M9, and it was a slippery slope from there.

A slightly less significant change, once past the tanker stage, the radar was no longer active by default. Rather, in order to activate it in a given room, you would have to first locate the room's "node" and download the data. Since you wouldn't even know where the node was without the radar, this meant that, on first entering an area, you would have to sneak through without the omniscient advantage of a map marked with vision cones identifying all personnel. The new "AP Sensor" was a poor substitute that vibrated the controller as you got closer to an enemy. I had considered the radar to be rather an essential part of Metal Gear Solid's design, so this move away from its use confused me. The ability to track all enemy movements, placing the emphasis on the player's strategic response, lent the first game its puzzle feel, and the node-hunting, while perhaps fairer to the weak AI, also exposed the poorness of the overhead camera that clearly relied on the radar to give the player a more complete sense of a space. It led to a lot of stumbling around in the dark on my part. Needless to say, I gave up on that pretty quickly and switched to the "very easy" difficulty, which considerately left the radar on at all times. I did come back to the higher difficulties later while collecting dog tags, but, by then, I already knew all the guard routes by memory.

Whether the gameplay had changed too much or too little, the general consensus was that MGS2's mechanics were very strong. The controversies lay in the characters and story. Anybody who bothered to flip through the instruction manual first probably would have raised a curious eyebrow at the description of Raiden as the player character during the plant chapter. Perhaps Raiden's mission would be as short as the tanker episode, and then it would be back to Snake? Or maybe Raiden would just be cool? The reality was a twist that some players still have yet to get over. I personally didn't mind playing as Raiden, and, moreover, I wasn't even all that shocked to see him relieve Snake as the star. I suppose I was accustomed to series like Castlevania, where the player character changed all the time. I also always found it just a tad odd when players identified themselves too closely with their player characters. Whether I was controlling the rugged Snake or the effeminate Raiden didn't make any particular difference to me, so long as their abilities were the same. During the interactive parts, it was all me, while, during cut scenes, all the characters were just themselves and it was no reflection on me. That was how I preferred it.

Even if playing as Snake would not have made me feel manlier, might I not have preferred a story centered around him? Maybe, but Snake was still a major character in the game, and I honestly found Raiden and Rose to be fairly interesting, their relationship quite unlike any other in gaming. On the surface, Raiden seemed innocuous enough, especially in contrast with the legendary Solid Snake. But, precisely because he wasn't a legend and arrived with no backstory, he was a mystery, and I was intrigued to see this initially blank character filled out gradually, sometimes in unexpected directions, through his conversations with Rose. And if Raiden sounded whiny for a soldier, it only seemed to me a natural and human response to the contradictions around him. After having seen Snake play the unwitting dupe to four competing interests in the first game, I was pretty glad to hear Raiden voicing his frustrations.

Hideo Kojima would later offer a few different explanations for why he introduced Raiden as the new lead. According to one account, during focus testing for the first Metal Gear Solid, one female player memorably declared her disinterest in the talky story full of old men characters. The pretty boy Raiden was thus designed to appeal to female gamers. That explanation implied that Kojima thought that Raiden would make the sequel more marketable. Why then, instead of being used to promote the game, was Raiden's existence kept such a secret until after its release? In those pre-release trailers, Konami even went so far as to hack Snake into scenes that, in the actual game, would feature Raiden instead. No, the bait-and-switch, with Snake the lone star of the trailers, the demo, and the box cover, seemed to me a calculated move to provoke players by betraying their expectations. In a more convincing explanation, Kojima insisted that Snake was the main character of Sons of Liberty, and the point was to elevate him by showing him from the perspective of a supporting character that shared in the player's admiration of him. Mission accomplished in that case, I'd say, because, whether or not Kojima intended for it to play out quite as it did, I suspect a lot of fans came away appreciating Snake more than they ever had coming in.

Even if marketing had played a part in Raiden's creation, Sons of Liberty was nevertheless a project driven by artistic aspirations far beyond most other games of its time, perhaps beyond what most players could appreciate. The original Metal Gear Solid felt very much like a video game version of a big-budget Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Some roughness in the script could be attributed to the newness of the medium, although I would have argued that Snake at least was a deeper and more contemplative soul than a good many action movie heroes. Nevertheless, for many gamers, myself included, a Bruckheimer production was exactly what we wanted from an action game. While those movies may not be the highest art, they thrill us with the spectacular moments that we then fantasize about experiencing ourselves. Metal Gear Solid allowed us a sampling of those experiences and left us wanting more. Sons of Liberty disappointed a lot of fans by shooting higher.

Agonizing quasi-incestuous angles notwithstanding, the story could not be labeled mere melodrama, nor was it trying for drama. It bordered on farce, laced jarringly with blunt philosophical meanderings. I don't know that I've ever come across a story more explicit in its messages than Sons of Liberty, yet the experience was still often bewildering.This was a multi-faceted metafictional narrative that could only be told through an interactive medium. Raiden was literally and figuratively the video game soldier prepped for the field through virtual reality simulations, including a Shadow Moses scenario that mirrored the player's experience with the last game. If the player had a hard time growing attached to him, it was no more than the alienation that defined Raiden's own existence, as a hollow man running away from who he was, and who ended up a pawn in a construct where possibly nothing was real. He was a game piece manipulated most of all by the player, yet when things went crazy, it was the player that the game would turn on, and, in the end, in order to "win the game," the player would have to share his role as a performer with no real say.

For those patient enough to wade through the hundreds of screens of text in the "Previous Story" section, the weirdness actually began even before the first bit of gameplay. Among the many cool inclusions in the original Metal Gear Solid had been the dramatic summaries of the previous two titles. Just as the VR training familiarized the player with the gameplay mechanics, these formal backstory synopses got the player up to speed with the events of the first two games, which most players would not or could not have played. Before the game even officially began, I came in consequently with a reverence for Solid Snake, despite never having actually seen him at work. With Sons of Liberty, I looked forward to a similar summary for Metal Gear Solid. Instead, I got a whole mess of bunk and one account that sounded plausible yet distressingly unfamiliar in parts. It seemed to me that anyone who had missed out on playing Metal Gear Solid would have been badly served by these misrepresentative reports. But then that made me question the reliability of the MGS summaries of the first two games. Years later, when I finally played them myself, sure enough, the most pertinent detail in those--Big Boss being Solid Snake's father--never even came up in the actual Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. It was a later revision, and the MGS account had practically assumed my ignorance and taken advantage of it to rewrite history.

I had of course heard the old "nature vs. nurture" arguments before, but, at the risk of sounding ignorant, I'll admit that it was this video game that introduced me to the now Internet-prevalent concept of "memes," as introduced by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Although the word "meme" would not be used in Metal Gear until the Metal Gear Solid 3 trailer, Kojima's familiarity with Dawkins's book on evolution was already established with the first MGS. That game had used genes as a theme, and, looking back, it was denser than I had thought during my first playthrough, but it was still not exactly Gattaca. It had seemed about as deep a contemplation on the implications of genetic manipulation as James Cameron's Terminator movies were on artificial intelligence. In other words, it was intriguing, but, as far as I was concerned, it was only in there because the sci-fi action story had to be about something. And at the end of it, MGS made the optimistic argument that we as human beings were more than our genes. Hideo Kojima's work of fiction did not offer any scientific support for its conclusion, but it was a warm and fuzzy ending to a thoroughly satisfying journey. Sons of Liberty, however, perverted that idea with the truly disturbing suggestion that, if genetic manipulation yielded no supermen, the cultural engineers were nevertheless capable of controlling the rest of a man's makeup. And the worst part was that MGS2's ending offered no uplifting message to suggest otherwise. Indeed, in an increasingly senseless world awash with such Internet trash as TMZ, Twitter, Adult FriendFinder, this blog, I at times almost find myself agreeing with Fake Colonel Campbell that somebody ought to be regulating the nonsense. Honestly, I think these troubling questions without answers may have been at the heart of many players' frustrations with the story.

Or maybe it was the game's roster of the lamest villains ever, including a fatso named Fatman, a bisexual vampire named Vamp, and an obnoxiously self-pitying woman who could not die, though it was her one true wish. Ugh. Even Solidus, the third and most well-balanced Big Boss clone, was at times a goofy Dr. Octopus ripoff. And let's not forget Revolver Ocelot, back from the first game and periodically possessed, in perhaps the plot's most absurd and unexplained element, by the ghost of Liquid Snake, who somehow lived on through his arm that had replaced Ocelot's lost hand. Keep in mind, this was a universe where Big Boss had had all four limbs replaced by cybernetics. Yet Ocelot had to settle for a transplant from a cadaver, and Liquid specifically? And Ocelot kept it even though he knew it was allowing Liquid to take over? Crazy stuff.

Metal Gear Solid opened my eyes to where video games could go technically, but I still never imagined a game like Sons of Liberty. My enthusiasm for gaming soared after the first MGS, and, amazingly, by defying and far exceeding my expectations, the sequel managed to raise it another whole level. No less a milestone in my gaming history than its predecessor, Sons of Liberty changed the game again, and the pre-MGS2 world seemed so small in the face of the infinite possibilities it opened up for storytelling and narrative scope in the interactive medium.

Additional Information

A year after the original North American release, Konami came out with Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance as a timed exclusive for Microsoft's Xbox. In 2003, Substance arrived on the PS2 and PC as well. An expanded version of Sons of Liberty, it left the main game mostly unchanged, aside from swapping out the in-game pinups--many of them originally taken from magazines of the time--for more generic Konami-owned images. It added content in the form of tons of VR missions, as well as a set of "Snake Tales" scenarios that allowed the player to control Snake in non-canonical short stories. These goofy missions were presumably meant to appeal to Snake's fans who were disappointed at having to play as Raiden for most of Sons of Liberty, but without relevant plot contributions nor any voice acting to lend personality, I really didn't see the point, which I felt only strengthened my case that it didn't matter who you played as while you were playing. The VR missions likewise went ignored as I realized that I was only interested in playing MGS2 for its story.

For me, the most interesting thing in Substance was the "Casting Theater," a feature which had previously appeared in the Japanese and European releases of Sons of Liberty. It allowed you to view a small selection of the game's cut scenes while replacing the character models with different ones chosen from a list. A few scenes even included a completely different and much better-looking Meryl than the one in Twin Snakes.

The PS2 Substance also included a lame skateboarding mode that was supposed to help promote Konami's unremarkable Evolution Skateboarding game.

In 2002, Konami released The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2, one of the most bizarre titles on the PS2, at least among North American releases. An "interactive documentary," it was essentially a database of MGS2's art assets. There was Hideo Kojima's script that included the catastrophic New York end scenes that had been cut following 9/11. I hadn't noticed anything unusual when I first played through MGS2, because, by that point in the game, nothing made sense, but, replaying the game with knowledge of these edits, there were definitely some abrupt cuts where those scenes should have been. The Document also included a sound test, a concept art gallery, and a development timeline. You could also view any of the Sons of Liberty cut scenes, but with none of the audio. The most interesting inclusion may have been the complete MGS2 trailer history, which allowed the player to relive the deception that began over a year before the game was even released.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

If I were to design a motion control game

I'm not terribly excited about the prospect of a motion control future for video games. Waving the Wii Remote around is already an obnoxious experience most of the time. I wouldn't want to have to writhe about with my whole body to play a game. Oh wait, I already did that with the EyeToy. It sucked. Well, okay, it was an interesting novelty, but I don't need more of that.

Part of the joy of video games is that I can do so much in the virtual world that I wouldn't be able to in my real life. It's not about simulating real activities, but about doing and being more and better. In Dynasty Warriors, I tap a few buttons, and, on screen, Guan Yu spins around and wrecks a hundred guys. The feedback is tremendous relative to the input. I would probably die if I had to swing my arms or a wand for each of those kills.

Those Microsoft and Sony concept videos and tech demos of people jumping and dodging around for real do not appeal to me. Without at least a Wii Nunchuk, how do you even navigate the virtual map of, say, a first-person shooter? Am I supposed to run in place and duck around my room? That's not even feasible for a lot of people or rooms.

But it's true that I lack imagination, and hopefully the developers working with the technology know much better what they are doing.

In the meantime, here's my idea for a simple sword fighting game using Sony's Sixaxis controller:

Attacks are performed with traditional button inputs. To block, you hold down the shoulder buttons and then fold the controller in. To parry, you hold the shoulder buttons and quickly tilt the controller to one side. To counter, you hold the shoulders and tilt forward. When two fighters lock swords, you grip all shoulder buttons as deeply as possible and then rock the controller side-to-side in a rhythmic manner. Rather than focusing just on the motion control, the emphasis is equally on using the depth of the analog shoulder buttons to simulate the tactile feel and tension of gripping a sword.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The End of a Saga

Yes, after a little over two years of searching, I have finally managed to acquire a copy of the Aura Battler Dunbine Vol. 11 DVD, thus completing my twelve-volume collection.

For those unaware, Dunbine was an 80s mecha anime from Sunrise and Yoshiyuki Tomino, better known as the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. I picked up the first DVD after hearing that one of my favorite shows, Escaflowne, was heavily inspired by Dunbine, which was also about a teenager magically transported from modern Japan to a medieval fantasy universe full of giant mechanized suits of armor. The episodes I saw were pretty good, but buying the rest was not a high priority, and I only remembered it after I found volumes 2-10 for dirt cheap. Alas, 11 and 12 were less readily available.

Dunbine had been a commercial failure right off, so US license-holder ADV produced very few copies of the last two volumes. Thus, by the time I got around to collecting, volumes 11 and 12 were already among the rarest anime DVDs in America. I didn't like it enough to pay the ridiculous asking prices for each, but I lucked out on a copy of 12 about two years ago, and, with that purchase, I thought I could see the finish line. So close yet so far.

Obtaining 12 did not make 11 any less rare, and I was left waiting for lightning to strike a second time. As more and more time passed, this situation grew increasingly irritating. I was eventually driven to seek out alternative means of watching the episodes, but, as a collector, I couldn't stand having this gap in my box set. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was worthless without 11, but, even as fruitless months turned to years, I couldn't abandon hope and give up on what I'd already collected.

A few weeks ago, a new copy showed up on the Amazon.com Marketplace for $79.99--less than half what it usually goes for on eBay. Checking the seller's info, I immediately recognized the username "shawnek." There was no doubt in my mind that this was Shawne Kleckner, CEO of The Right Stuf International, a small-time American anime licensor that has a much larger presence as an online store that specializes in all domestic anime and manga releases. I had done business with the store in the past and always come away satisfied. In fact, TRSI was where I got Dunbine 12, when, miraculously, a stock of about twenty copies just showed up at regular price. That was already well after it had started going for ridiculous prices elsewhere. TRSI must have found a forgotten stash, and I kept checking back in the hope that they might uncover a pile of 11s as well, but it never came to pass.

Fast forward to now, and, sure enough, "shawnek" must have found at least one stray copy in the warehouse, and, for $79.99, it would be mine. I was maybe a little disappointed that he decided to go the Amazon Marketplace route--clearly, he wasn't comfortable listing it on his own always customer-friendly TRSI at such a markup--but the price was still a steal compared to what anyone else would ask, while, at the same time, I suppose it had to be just high enough that the buyer would have to want the item itself and not the mere hundred bucks from flipping it. All things considered, I'm satisfied with this transaction.

And thus ends at last the saga of my search for the complete Dunbine.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New Slurm

Even six years since its cancellation, the official announcement of Futurama's return as a full-blown television series is not altogether surprising, considering how it has thrived through cable reruns. And the recent direct-to-video features demonstrated that the cast and crew were ready and available at any time to pick up where they left off.

I remember watching the show while Fox was still airing first-run episodes, but, for some reason, I found it a lot funnier watching it nightly post-cancellation in cable syndication. I found the direct-to-video movies to be a mixed bag, but I'll be looking forward to its real return as a TV series.