Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (PSP) (Square Enix, 2010)


Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PlayStation Portable (released in Japan as Tactics Ogre: Wheel of Fortune) is a remake of Quest's seminal Super Famicom (1995) and PlayStation (1997) tactical RPG. The PlayStation port (previously, the only version of the game available in North America) was one of the gems of the PS1 library, much lauded by genre enthusiasts and very hard to come by, regularly fetching high prices on the secondhand market. Finally, more than a decade later, Square Enix has made the classic much more widely available, and, for this PSP release, they've produced not just an enhanced port but an extensive remake on a par with the DS remakes of their Final Fantasy games.

Square Enix managed to reunite the original creative team of art director Hiroshi Minagawa, character designer Akihiko Yoshida, composers Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, and, most surprisingly, writer and designer Yasumi Matsuno. Matsuno, you may recall, had last worked with Square Enix as director on Final Fantasy XII (2006), before the company released a cryptic statement announcing his departure midway into the flagship title's much-troubled development. When a Japanese publisher "relieves you of your duties" under such mysterious circumstances, and in the middle of such a high-profile project, it is a typical outcome for you to never work in the industry again, let alone for the same company. But, although still neither side has ever elucidated the deterioration of their working relationship on FFXII, they are apparently on good enough terms that Matsuno was able to return to work in a freelance capacity on remaking the game that perhaps got him and his team onto Square's radar in the first place—ironically, the last game he ever worked on before joining Square, now the first Square Enix project he has worked on since leaving the company.

With Matsuno and his original team back in charge of the game that once catapulted their careers, this canonical remake is vastly more impressive than 2007's disappointing Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions for PSP, which was essentially a straight port by an outsourced B-team of a PS1 game with some added cut scenes. Visually, Tactics Ogre has been overhauled, with brand-new, high-resolution menus, text, and character portraits. Although the character sprites and maps, which still look 16-bit, are what players will spend the most time looking at, this is, after all, a genre where the action involves little sprite-people taking turns moving around on an isometric grid, and even recent original productions don't offer much more in the way of visual panache. The much sharper dressing on this remake, meanwhile, goes a long way toward making it feel like a modern release.

The game has also seen the addition of numerous playability enhancements. One thing that distinguished the original game from earlier tactical RPGs, such as Fire Emblem, was that, instead of the player and enemy sides taking turns moving all their units at once, the order of movement in Tactics Ogre was determined by each individual character's speed. To help players best take advantage of this, the remake has added a handy turn order chart visible at the bottom of the screen at all times during battles. I wish so badly that they could have added this feature to Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. You can, of course, bring up the turn order list in that game with a few simple button presses, but it's these little conveniences that make Tactics Ogre for the PSP feel so modern, despite it being founded largely on the DNA of a fifteen-year-old game.

The most significant such addition is the "Chariot Tarot"—essentially, an "undo" function—which, during battle, allows you to rewind up to fifty turns. Fifty turns is not nearly so many as you might imagine, but if you find yourself making a move you regret, perhaps only realizing a few turns later how crucially it screwed you over, you can go back and give yourself a chance to fix things, instead of having to replay the entire fight over after you lose. The Chariot Tarot can be used as many times as you like, and there is no penalty, other than the game recording how many fights you win with the aid of it. It can even be manipulated to make sure your attacks never miss and that you deal as many critical hits as possible. Normally, as in a typical tactical RPG, you base your decisions on predicted outcomes that the game provides. For example, it might report that an attack at an enemy from the side will have a 70 percent chance of landing for 20 damage. Of course, that means there's a 30 percent chance that the attack will miss, and if it does land, the damage inflicted might not be exact; it might be slightly less, slightly more, or, in the case of an unpredictable critical hit, significantly more. At any rate, you take your chances based on these projections. That is, unless you use the Chariot Tarot to take chance out of the equation. Making the same choices will result in the same outcome, you see, so, no matter how many times you attempt that attack with the supposed 70 percent chance of success, the result will actually always be the same. In other words, rather than landing 7 times out of 10, in actuality, if it lands even once, it will land every time. Likewise, if it misses even once, it will miss every time, despite the favorable odds. In that case, you can use the Chariot Tarot to attempt the attack from a different angle. You can do it as many times as you like, until you get the result you want. Even if the attack lands, you can try different angles just to see if any of them yield greater damage.

The potential is there for abuse, and, even if you don't check it every turn to optimize your results but only use it as needed to fix crucial mistakes, one might argue that the mechanic robs the experience of a sense of consequence. So much of the thrill and tension of these strategy games devoid of conventional "action," after all, is in the risk/reward factor—gambling on a ballsy and/or desperate move, knowing that its success or failure will make or break you. It's true that some of the thrill is lost, but gone with it also is the frustration of having to replay a difficult fight simply because a reasonably high-percentage attack ended up missing at a crucial juncture. In any case, it's entirely up to the player whether and to what extent to take advantage of it. Personally, I think this one of those cases where, although it may at times leave me reflecting on how games used to be harder and more "real," I ultimately don't ever want to see another tactical RPG released without this convenient feature. And, hey, sometimes rewinding thirty turns to see where exactly things went wrong can be an enlightening experience, granting one a larger perspective on the long game.

For the remake, the designers thoroughly overhauled the game's systems as well, and every story battle from the original has been revisited and retuned. For those for whom the PSP remake is their first time playing Tactics Ogre, this won't mean much. The gameplay should be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Final Fantasy Tactics (1997), originally developed by the same team, or to anyone who has played virtually any tactical RPG released since. Even with the reworked systems, this isn't the deepest tactical RPG ever crafted. The selection of skills your characters can learn is nowhere near as robust as in Final Fantasy Tactics and, overall, never very exciting. Nor can you mix and match skills earned from different classes, so usually the only reason to switch to a different class is if it is newly unlocked (which happens as you progress through the story, not as you advance through other classes) and preferable to a character's current class. Mages aside, most of your characters will be performing the basic "Melee Attack" almost every turn for the entire game. On the bright side (or not, depending on your perspective), most story battles in Tactics Ogre allow you to field up to twelve characters—about double what Final Fantasy Tactics allows—which can make for battles of impressive scale. If the gameplay maybe feels a step behind the game that was Tactics Ogre's own spiritual successor from the same team, its carefully balanced and addictive combat nevertheless outclasses that of any other imitator.

As much a part of the game's identity is the story. Set amid a backdrop of strife between ethnic groups, the narrative was supposedly inspired by Matsuno's perspective on the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. If you've played Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII, or even Vagrant Story, you'll find the story here to be typical Matsuno. There's a war of succession, a long-lost true heir to the crown, political backstabbing, multiple antagonists vying against one another for power, and some sinister gods and demonic forces lurking in the background. The parallels with Final Fantasy XII in particular are, in hindsight, shockingly numerous, with parts of that game even seeming like recreations of scenes from Tactics Ogre.

It's a compellingly dark and intricate war narrative, serious in tone and refreshingly free of many of the fantasy cliches that typify a lot of Japanese RPGs. It doesn't just build predictably toward a final showdown with the fate of the world at stake, but rather the story is as much a chess match as the gameplay, as the key players wage battles that are as much ideological as physical. And, even with as many soul-deadening war shooters as I've played, this game managed to crush me with one scene in particular that I felt captured the true toll of war better than any other video game I've ever played.

As with many of Matsuno's stories, it does open more strongly than it finishes, owing to his peculiar predilection for loading the back end with inane sidetracks (see also the Beowulf/Reis/Worker 8/Cloud side quest in Final Fantasy Tactics). In fairness, these sidetracks are optional, and I suppose there's no place more appropriate to slot them than toward the end of the game. On the whole, Matsuno manages probably to sustain the drama in Tactics Ogre longer than in any of his other stories, even if the ending is far less memorable than that to Final Fantasy Tactics, and a major thread is left hanging, apparently in anticipation of a sequel that, more than fifteen years on, still has yet to arrive.

One aspect of Tactics Ogre that originated with its predecessor, Ogre Battle (1993), but which didn't carry over to Matsuno's later games, is a morality system. Broadly, a player's decisions affect how other characters perceive protagonist Denam, which may determine which characters join or desert your party. In practice, the player's actions during battles have limited repercussions. Much more significant are the player's decisions when prompted at key points in the story, with each choice leading the narrative down a completely different path. The decisions are weighty, and the divergences in the story branches are appropriately drastic. The best part is that, thanks to the new "World Tarot" feature of the remake, you can go back after beating the game once and warp back to key points in the story, allowing you to play through the other paths without giving up any of the items you acquired or the characters you recruited along the first path you took. As the Chariot Tarot does for the battles, the World Tarot grants you a larger perspective on the story, allowing you to see how deeply events can be influenced by decisions made much earlier.

That said, when I actually went back to see how differently things might have gone, I found some of the results rather contrived. At the end of the first chapter, you're presented with a major decision. Pick one path, and—SPOILER—one of your allies will unexpectedly turn on you. Pick the other path and you'll be betrayed by... the exact same ally, only for the opposite reason. This is already silly, but what's worse is that, although the game itself never frames your options as such, one of the choices is clearly evil by my reckoning. If you make the logical "good" choice, the traitorous ally reveals himself to be a total bastard, which kind of comes out of nowhere. If you make the "evil" choice, that same character becomes a heroic figure, which seems to make more sense... except that you've made the evil choice, which itself doesn't make sense. *Sigh* END SPOILER

With substantial, if not altogether organic, repercussions on the story, the branching narrative remains far less gimmicky than the binary morality systems found in many other games, and the new World Tarot makes it even less so. In keeping with the Japanese release's "Wheel of Fortune" subtitle, the designers likely intend for players to contemplate the theme of fate this time by considering the divergences themselves, rather than simply committing to one path, as the World Tarot allows you to explore all three major story paths in far less time than it would take to actually complete the game three times.

On the merits of both its gameplay and its writing, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together stands alongside Final Fantasy Tactics (or, at worst, just slightly behind it) as one of the greatest tactical RPGs I've ever played. The deluxe treatment Square Enix has given to this remake of a game not titled "Final Fantasy" is a pleasant surprise. It's the most—actually, pretty much the only thing—they've done with the Ogre Battle series since purchasing the IP. Dare we hope that this release signifies an intention to resurrect the franchise with even perhaps some new games? Well, three years on and not another peep since, so probably not. Then again, this remake was allegedly three years in development, and contingent on the staff members' availability amid other projects. Maybe they're just waiting for Yasumi Matsuno to free up his schedule again. One can only hope.

Friday, July 26, 2013

All-Star Superman (DTV) (Sam Liu, 2011)

For a better Superman movie than Man of Steel, check out All-Star Superman, a 2011 direct-to-video animated feature adapted from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's acclaimed 2005-2008 twelve-issue comic book series of the same name. Directed by Sam Liu and with a screenplay by the late Dwayne McDuffie, it is the best of DC and Warner's recent DTV animated movies, as well as one of the most unusual.

Despite being a fairly recent story, the original All-Star Superman comic regularly tops lists of recommended reads starring the most famous of all superheroes. The out-of-continuity story explored how Superman might choose to spend his last days, upon learning that he has absorbed a fatal amount of solar radiation. Drawing elements from the entire publication history of the character, it featured a classically (and cheerily) omnipotent Superman performing some of the greatest and most heroic feats of his life, a different adventure/challenge every issue.

The movie sticks close to the comic, and the episodic format of the source material shows. Whereas the comic originally trickled out as twelve issues released over the course of three years, the animated adaptation is presented as a single very brisk 76-minute tale, the stories of the individual issues now barely held together by the overarching narrative of Superman facing his own mortality (and the perhaps even more compelling parallel narrative of an especially inspired Lex Luthor, who is left to bitterly contemplate mortality simply as a byproduct of being a mere man in a world where Superman exists). There are some uneasy transitions between stories that frankly have nothing whatsoever to do with one another—one moment Superman's dealing with the Parasite, the next he's making the acquaintance of two hostile Kryptonians—yet which follow with such suddenness as to leave one incredulous at the suggestion of coincidence. It's a bit of a disjointed mess, raising questions about the script's suitability for a feature-length film, and yet it kind of works, for a couple reasons.

The jumping from one adventure to the next bestows the movie with a certain "a day in the life" feel, where the life in question happens to be Superman's. For a being so far beyond regular humans, doing the impossible and the unbelievable should be routine. Moreover, I actually find it odd how, in most superhero movies, the hero only has to contend with one primary villain, who usually has a personal connection to the hero. I think it makes more sense that, as someone generally committed to defending the innocent, a superhero should, at least on occasion, have to contend with multiple threats operating independently of one another (if not multiple at the same time, then at least, say, two within the span of a week) and with no connection to the hero himself. And All-Star Superman is, anyway, such a whimsical take on the lore—this is a story where Superman creates miniature suns to feed his pet baby sun-eater—that "anything goes" might as well give way to "everything goes."

It's definitely uneven, as some episodes are less interesting than others, but the result ultimately is one of the more crowd-pleasing and imaginative Superman stories, doing justice to the character's traditional role as an inspiring paragon of what is good, while tapping into the limitless storytelling potential when writing an alien with a cosmic life and perspective. And, even without a brooding tone, All-Star Superman attains a gravity by story's end that far surpasses Man of Steel's contrived reaching. Within this story that has no shortage of clever ideas lies a center that is, like Superman himself at his best, winningly heartfelt and sincere.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Street Fighter X Tekken (PlayStation 3) (Capcom, Dimps, 2012)

Street Fighter X Tekken

This game is trash.

Okay, let me back up there a second. At the competitive level, Street Fighter X Tekken is definitely the worst fighting game that Capcom has released since Capcom vs. SNK 2 (2001) at least. Capcom and producer Yoshinori Ono were clearly counting on this game superseding the Street Figher IV (2008) series and lasting a few years as the major title in the fighting game community. They gave it a heavy push, including highlighting it as the main event game at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary Tournament. If you watched any of the play from that tournament, however, or from the last two Evo championships (don't expect to see it back at Evo next year), then what you saw was a game intolerable to spectate, and quickly abandoned by the community, but for a few players likely competing for prize money rather than out of any fondness for the game. Among many in the competitive scene, the game just never caught on in the first place, because, whereas it usually takes at least a couple tournaments before a new game's brokenness at the highest level is exposed, even an SFxT novice playing casually against the CPU is certain to come up against the game's most egregious design flaw.

Far too frequently do rounds end by time over. Do the math and there seems to be an obvious issue that should have been caught and addressed well before the game ever saw release. By default, the clock starts with the same amount of time (99 seconds) as other Street Fighter games, and it runs down at the same speed. But, in a typical one-on-one Capcom fighting game, they grant you that much time to KO one character. In the two-on-two tag-team SFxT, you potentially have to beat two characters within that same amount of time. You can be laying a beatdown on your opponent's first character, and then, within an inch of taking them out, you see them manage to tag out, at which point you're almost starting from square one against a new character with full health. You may even see advantage shift dramatically against you, depending on how much health your first character lost in that effort to get to just short of victory. It can be a demoralizing moment, and this is something you'll encounter even without delving deeply into the game.

Of course, the popular Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a three-on-three game, and it runs according to an elimination format, meaning that a player is not beaten until all three of their characters are knocked out (unlike SFxT, where the round ends as soon as one character goes down), so you'd think that game would have the same issue to an even worse degree. The clock is a factor in MvC3, and tournaments see a lot of matches ending in time over, yet it is not an inordinate percentage, and running out of time is never an aggravating inevitability as in SFxT. It's not just that SFxT gives players too much work to do in too little time. It's how that time gets spent that makes SFxT such a joyless experience when playing to win. In SFxT, the clock is the most important factor (more critical than your super meter or even perhaps your health), and, as a result, every player ends up playing the "run down the clock" game.

Because, when your opponent tags out their nearly dead character for one with full health, you're actually not starting from square one. Between you and your opponent's active characters, they may have the lead now, but if you still hold the overall life lead (meaning the sum of your two characters' health is greater than the sum on your opponent's side), then theoretically, if the match were to end right then and there by time over, you would be declared the victor. And, after wearing down their first character, you probably are much closer now to the clock running out than to being able to take a second character down to zero health. So the play is obvious. Don't go for the KO—that ship has sailed—but hold that lead and run the clock down. And, unfortunately, it's pretty easy to hold a lead and run the clock down in SFxT.

In MvC3, a healthy character can be KO'd in a single combo, and momentum tends to stay with the player holding the numbers advantage, so eliminating three whole characters in under a minute is not unreasonable. SFxT has, as Capcom's nod to the Tekken series, some lengthy combos of its own, with characters routinely losing half their health in a single string, so you might think that, just as in MvC3, time would not be such an obstacle, especially since you don't even technically have to KO more than one of the opponent's two characters. But MvC3 operates at lightning speeds, and the assist system has multiple members of a team attacking in tandem. There's just too much crap to track and react to on defense, so you're encouraged to be aggressive and open up the other player first before they can open you up. That's not the case in SFxT, where characters move and attack at more normal Street Fighter speeds. If you can find an opening, then, yes, you'll have a chance at a combo that will drop the receiving character's health dramatically. But, when you're behind and trying for a comeback, that's a big "if" in SFxT, where defensive play is relatively safe and easy.

The Tekken Tag Tournament games, whose tag-team format SFxT may be more closely modeled after, surprisingly also don't have anywhere near such bad clock issues. Tekken has never really had much of a range game. Characters are always in each other's faces, and defense is harder because you can't just block the majority of attacks by guarding low. SFxT, like other Street Fighter games, is full of projectiles, and characters can cover a lot of ground backward almost as quickly as forward, enabling a defensive "run away" style of play that would be extremely impractical in Tekken.

Although the designers of SFxT probably had noble intentions in trying to craft a game that, mechanically, would honor both Street Fighter and Tekken, the result only proves how incompatible the two styles are. It's hard to imagine how it could have been handled better. You could slow down the clock or add more time, but the pace of the game already drags so much; you don't really want matches to last any longer than they already do. Lowering characters' health wouldn't really help, because combos already do far more damage than in a normal modern Street Figher game, and, anyway, the problem isn't that characters take too many hits to KO; the problem is that the game so favors a low-risk defensive approach that it takes too long to land a clean hit. If anything, the high-damage combos only further encourage low-risk play, because players are so wary of losing a big lead very suddenly that they don't loosen up even when way ahead. That heightened wariness even encourages competitors to play defensively before either has the lead. Competitive play thus typically begins with players "respecting" one another—each just twitching at the fringes of the other's range, because neither wants to risk making the first move—for several seconds. Then, eventually someone does land that first huge combo, whereupon the player with the lead may try for the KO, until the opponent switches out. At that point, the player with the lead goes full-on into "turtle" mode,  while their opponent must take all the risks the rest of the way to chase them down and try to break through those defenses.

It's a shame, because SFxT does have a lot of things going for it. I bought it when it came out, played it for a weekend, and had fun with it when I wasn't trying to play seriously. For someone like me, who has always appreciated the artistic elements of Tekken rather better than I have ever been able to enjoy the gameplay, it's a treat getting to play the Tekken characters in an engine much more familiar to me. The looser, Tekken-inspired combo system can also be gratifying for casual players who struggle to link attacks in the mainline Street Fighter games. Much of the game's art is carried over from SFIV, only with less of a cel-shaded look, but the vaguely Namco-esque CG-animated cut scenes are a significant step up from SFIV's hand-drawn cinematics. The "Gem System," on the other hand, allowing players to equip their characters with selected power-ups during pre-match configurations, is not one of the game's brighter ideas; the interface is so cumbersome that matches start dragging at the character select screen.

The game's best feature, by far, is its support for multiple players on the same team, allowing up to four players to go at it in true two-on-two matches. This was something I loved in Street Figher EX3, and I always wanted to see it in a more traditional Street Figher game (which SFxT kind of is, as far as its physics and its cast). I even feel that four-player is how SFxT is meant to be played. Not that it fixes the game's core problem, but turning Street Fighter into a team competition produces genuinely a different experience in a genre that has otherwise not fundamentally changed in twenty years (not that it needs to).

In fairness, I can't say that a game that favors safe, patient, defensive play—even one that consistently ends in time over—is objectively bad or broken. I do find it extremely boring, and I think a boring game is bad. SFxT's failure to catch on with the community, which, five years since SFIV's debut, is still playing some version of SFIV, seems to support my position on that. It is unfortunate that the game's unexpectedly short lifespan has left Capcom without anything else to relieve SFIV but yet another (rather half-assed) update to SFIV. Oh well. Bring on Ultra Street Fighter IV anyway.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

Pacific Rim

Quick Take:

Everything you love about the Michael Bay Transformers movies... plus some of the things you hate. Still, the most awesome summer blockbuster of 2013. A giant robot/giant monster fan's dream. Highly recommended.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

Pacific Rim is a mecha and kaiju otaku's dreams come to life. This is not to suggest that the computer-generated imagery of Pacific Rim is more "alive" than the practical effects work of Japanese kaiju films or even the hand-drawn animation of mecha anime. But, like the Michael Bay Transformers movies, it takes the wild ideas of earlier artists' imaginations and newly realizes them through stunning visual effects to show how these colossi might truly look if they came crashing out of imagination and into our world.

It's a cartoonish take on our world, admittedly, still requiring a willing suspension of disbelief as the story suspends logic and the laws of physics and biology. And there are moments when the giant monsters deliberately evoke the lumbering "man in a rubber suit" movement of classic kaiju films. Meanwhile, the giant robot Jaegers, which technically are supposed to have humans inside, move like clunky machines, none of the grace of the Transformers, who, in Michael Bay's films, practice some form of high-flying robot martial art. Of course, it's all purely CG, but the wondrous thrill of Pacific Rim is in how the refreshed visuals of its titanic battles can inspire in today's viewers not only unabashed glee but also the same level of credulity with which audiences once viewed Godzilla, Ultraman, or Mazinger Z when those things were new (or new to us, whatever our generation, when we saw them as children with less critical eyes).

Like Godzilla, the biologically impossible kaiju of Pacific Rim are designed with surprisingly expressive faces that convey more personality than the average sci-fi monster, which makes them all the more menacing, when the carnage they wreak is accompanied by what appear to be contemptuous grins. But the real crowd-pleaser is star mecha Gipsy Danger. As the hero Jaeger races to the city's rescue and pounds away at kaiju adversaries, there is a weight to its every movement that is utterly convincing. Of course, my calling it "convincing" is as much informed by decades of watching cartoons as by actual understanding of physics. A bipedal humanoid giant robot suit, whose combat capability consists primarily of punching, is absurdly impractical as humankind's ultimate defense, but Pacific Rim is, if not sensible, then nevertheless faithful to some classical principles of heroic giant robot design. These steel behemoths, each with a one-of-a-kind make, possess as much character as their pilots, yet their mechanical movements ultimately remain endearingly robotic, as they strain against gravity and their own massiveness just to put one foot in front of the other. As the final mission commenced, simply watching two Jaegers march, one labored step at a time, miles toward their underwater destination was almost an applause-worthy moment for me, because it just looked so "right."

To say that Pacific Rim is influenced by past kaiju and mecha works would be an understatement. There is not a single scene or plot element in the movie that is not taken from somewhere else. A criticism that could be leveled against the film is that, in crafting this adoring pastiche, director Guillermo del Toro misses an opportunity to elevate the genre out of the otaku ghetto. Contrast this with Japanese anime studio Gainax, responsible for Gunbuster (1988) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)—two works that Pacific Rim, intentionally or not, definitely borrows from—which, on the surface, began as fanservice-filled mecha anime but then stealthily emerged as some of the most artistically ambitious, even subversive works that the historically commercially driven genre had ever seen. Pacific Rim is more content to settle for reliving past glories of the genre, and anybody who grew up loving the works it channels is likely to embrace its many nods and references. It rehashes every cliche in the book, some of which cannot be excused on the grounds of homage—the scrub pilots that are much hyped yet get taken down in seconds, the rival ace with a chip on his shoulder—because they are not cliches specific to the genre but are rather the calling cards of uninspired or unmotivated writing. And, even while acknowledging Pacific Rim's conscious intent to honor past works, one must admit that many of its adherences to genre convention yield substandard results. For example, the two young white male Jaeger pilots in this movie are weaker characters than those roles really require. Charlie Hunnam, as pilot Raleigh Becket, is a serviceable-at-best leading man, while his even less charismatic rival is one of the more useless rivals in cinema history.

Pacific Rim's biggest problems by far, however, are the comic relief characters, who are no less obnoxious than those in Transformers, and in much the same vein—loud, abrasive, one-note. Earnestness is the right tone for a movie with such an unavoidably cheesy foundation as this. You don't want to risk venturing into caricature with a few winks too many, further alienating anyone who isn't already a fan, while pandering to anyone who is.

Pacific Rim has its faults. Its story is not the most profound or narratively ambitious. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms, it is the most successful special effects picture of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. At its heart a kids' movie, though it is more likely to appeal to "big kids" (read: adult geeks), it is a film that shares the fans' deep affection for the kaiju and mecha classics of our childhoods, and then actually delivers by living up to our rose-colored images of those works not as they are now—crudely constructed and poorly aged—but as we would care to remember them—pure magnificent fun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Evo 2013 - Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition

Although now a five-year-old game, Street Fighter IV remained the main event at this year's Evo, the largest annual fighting game tournament in the world. Still the most prestigious title within the international fighting game community, this fifth SFIV Evo championship (the second held on this specific edition, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Ver. 2012) drew over 1,600 competitors from all over the world. In the early years of Evo, it was a big deal whenever a small crew of top Japanese players would be invited to take part, as much to put on a show as to compete for the prize money, which would hardly cover airfare. Now, in 2013, Evo had literally dozens of Japanese entrants, the vast majority of them unknown regular players, independently booking flights across the Pacific in order to test themselves against the world's best on the grandest stage. So stacked was the competition with players who had spent years training toward mastery that simply making it out of initial qualifying pools (essentially 100+ 16-man tournaments unto themselves) was equivalent to winning a high-level local tournament, and national champions would be squaring off as early as the semifinals.

Early highlights included a match between France's Olivier "Luffy" Hay and Singapore's Ho Kun Xian in the semifinal round of 32. Besides being national champions, these guys are the premier specialists in the world with two rarely selected characters. With his Rose, Luffy had already scored notable victories over Evo 2010 runner-up Ricky Ortiz and famed Japanese player Kenryo "Mago" Hayashi. Meanwhile, Xian's immaculate Gen, which had first made waves when Xian decisively defeated none other than Daigo "The Beast" Umehara in a first-to-7 set (as honest as it gets!) at the 2012 South East Asia Major, entered Evo 2013 as a favorite to place top 3 at least. This is a matchup you would not likely find anywhere other than at Evo, and, with impressive play from both sides, it proved an excellent display of the diversity in the game even at the highest levels.


But the most exciting match from the first day of competition had to be the round of 16 encounter between Eduardo "PR Balrog" Perez and South Korea's Seon-woo Lee (AKA "Infiltration"). PR Balrog, despite being originally from Puerto Rico, had been viewed, going into Evo 2013, as the last great U.S. hope for a trophy (or at least a spoiler) in SFIV. The state of the U.S. Street Fighter scene had come rather to resemble the state of U.S. men's tennis, as no American had ever won SFIV at Evo, and results over the last couple years even suggested a trend toward further irrelevance for the U.S., as players from not only Japan but also South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore were outpacing America's best. PR Balrog had at least managed a respectable 3rd-place finish at Evo 2012, and, true to his placing, he came to be widely regarded as the best player in the U.S. But here he was up against the guy who had actually won Evo 2012.

Infiltration not only won Evo 2012 in dominating fashion but also took the perhaps even more coveted grand prize at Capcom's official Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament later that year. He is the cleanest, most complete Street Fighter player I've ever seen. His knowledge of the game is unrivaled, as he truly approaches it with a scientific perspective, thoroughly researching the mechanics and studying footage of other players, and always consulting the copious notes on his smartphone even between rounds of a match. Technically, mentally, emotionally, he never shows any cracks in his game, and his Akuma is known for simply wearing down opponents. Clearly the best in the world at SSFIV, he has lost a few tournaments here and there, usually to Cammy players, the lightning-fast Cammy being probably the most shenanigans character in the game and therefore capable of scoring random upsets even against the best. But PR Balrog doesn't play Cammy. What were the odds that he would be able to score an honest victory over the reigning and undisputed champion?


After a disastrous first game with a tentative Fei Long, PR Balrog came back with his old signature character and took the fight right to Infiltration. No tricks here, and no character advantage against Infiltration's Akuma, PR Balrog plain beat Infiltration two games in a row to uproarious applause, sending the Evo 2012 champion to the losers bracket in this double-elimination tournament.

Among the other disadvantages of being sent to the losers bracket early, Infiltration would later face the unhappy prospect of having to play an elimination match against Ryan "Laugh" Ahn, his good friend and partner/coach. A veteran member of the Shoryuken.com community, who lived for a long time in the U.S., Laugh is often credited as a large part of why Infiltration is such a dominant force now. The other half of their scientific team, Laugh could always be counted on to offer mid-match counsel at Infiltration's side through all of the Evo 2012 champion's major tournament wins. But Laugh is also a competitor himself, and, with advancement at Evo on the line, he was going to make his friend earn it. Infiltration did, winning it 2-1, but the night wrapped on a room-chilling note with their match, as clearly neither was happy with the way things turned out.

After a first day that saw numerous top players and former champions go down as that initial pool of 1,600+ was whittled down to a final 8, the real tournament was ready to begin as the main event at Evo. It was as stacked a final 8 as one could imagine, including not only Infiltration and PR Balrog but also Xian, Taiwan's Bruce "GamerBee" Hsiang, and four of Japan's "Five Gods of Fighting Games" (Daigo Umehara, Hajime "Tokido" Taniguchi, Sako Naoto, and Tatsuya Haitani (the fifth, Shinya Ohnuki, was not in attendance)). Nearly every match would be an instant classic, and kicking it off was an elimination match between Infiltration and Daigo, the two players many predicted would face off in the grand finals.

Daigo almost needs no introduction; he's the most legendary fighting game player in history. He has fallen short at recent majors, leading many to question whether he's still got it. A runner-up placing at the Street Fighter 25th Anniversary tournament, including an impressive 3-0 victory over Infiltration, proved he still has the skills and the hunger, but then Infiltration answered back that same tournament, winning 6 straight games to take the trophy.

It's an interesting contrast between these two top players. Infiltration is a technically flawless, mentally unbreakable, admittedly mechanical player, whom everybody kind of wants to see get taken down. Meanwhile, Daigo is a player who famously operates almost purely on instinct. When he steps up to play, the commentators are reduced to poetical language about his philosophical approach or spiritual state, because his game defies coherent analysis. When he nails an opponent out of nowhere with one of his signature "Ume-Shoryu" Dragon Punches, he seems either to have had his opponent on a string or to be flat-out psychic. When he misses and misses badly, as he often does, he looks like a rank amateur just throwing out random uppercuts. But we know they can't be random, because he wins far too consistently! And, even when coming into a tournament as the favored Goliath, nobody ever really roots against Daigo, because there's something oddly, yes, inspiring and even almost heroic about the way he plays—daring, individual, unfettered.

At Evo 2013, in this clash of styles between the uncompromising maverick and the consummate student, Infiltration once again held the upper hand, and, in textbook Infiltration fashion, it was never really in doubt.


The demise of Daigo's Evo hopes were followed up by another elimination match, this one between GamerBee and Haitani. GamerBee first burst onto the scene at Evo 2010, where he stunned the world by eliminating Justin Wong, among other strong players, while using Adon, then considered one of the weakest characters in the game. GamerBee has since grown to become one of the scene's perennial heavyweights, his signature character an acknowledged powerhouse, though still he is the only player to take Adon deep into tournaments, including a runner-up finish at Evo 2012. Haitani, one of the lesser-known "Five Gods" outside of Japan (and I should point out that that appellation, aside from being unofficial, dates to an earlier era in Capcom fighting games; they are not the "Five Gods of SFIV"), plays an equally uncommon character, Makoto, which he has likewise raised to a level few thought within the character's reach. As with the Luffy vs. Xian match, this is an enlightening back-and-forth bout between two masters of very rare and very different characters.


Speaking of Xian, he and his Gen would be facing off in a winners bracket match against Sako, the most technically formidable of the "Five Gods." Sako did not make many appearances on the first day's live stream of the tournament, but he had come into the final 8 undefeated, which said enough about his skills. His Ibuki—yes, another uncommon character—was something to be feared, but, even more frightening, Sako backed that up with Evil Ryu, probably the rarest character of all, as his secret weapon. Against Xian's Gen, Sako would need to bring both Ibuki and Evil Ryu.


On the other side of the final 8 winners bracket were Tokido and PR Balrog. Another one of the "Five Gods," Tokido competes in many U.S. tournaments. A more natural showman than the other Japanese top players, he has long been a popular personality around the U.S. circuit. A fairly consistent top 8 player, he plays Akuma. In an SSFIV landscape ruled by Infiltration's Akuma, all others tend to come across as second-rate, so you might have thought PR Balrog would have the edge coming off his recent victory. But Tokido seemed to have a better read on PR Balrog than did Infiltration, and he was in complete control as he dismissed PR Balrog to the losers bracket.

Returning to the losers bracket, it was Infiltration up against Sako, and there was an interesting sub-narrative developing here. As much as the U.S. Street Fighter scene seems to have fallen behind in recent years, Japan has had even more pride to lose. Japan is the home of Street Fighter and traditionally had been the major power in the competitive scene, until Infiltration, a South Korean, convincingly unseated them. Daigo had already tried and failed to take the title of "World's Best" back to Japan. Now, Infiltration was facing another Japanese legend, one less familiar to him. Did Japan have anything left to show Infiltration, or was the Korean just going to slay one "god" after another?


In the end, Infiltration took it 3-1, even scoring a perfect, and Sako didn't even dare bust out Evil Ryu. Although Japan may still have the greatest number of top players, Infiltration showed the world that that's just a lot of notches on his belt.

PR Balrog then impressively dispatched Haitani, setting up an anticipated rematch with Infiltration. Any time an underdog sends a favorite to the losers bracket in a stunning upset, as PR Balrog had the other day, in the back of that underdog's mind, they've gotta be hoping someone else will finish the job, so that they won't have to see that guy again later in the tournament. But somehow it's almost never that easy. Maybe it's destiny. In any case, PR Balrog, who had already earned one honest victory against Infiltration—maybe the hardest achievement in the game—was now having to do it one more time, and not long after Infiltration had gotten to see PR Balrog manhandled by another Akuma player. What followed was, if perhaps not the most polished, then undoubtedly the most dramatic match at Evo 2013, and maybe the greatest either player had ever taken part in.

In three close games, PR Balrog proved that his first win was no fluke, as he took a 2-1 lead with his Balrog, who just seemed to have Infiltration's number. Down to his last life, the strongest player in the world had to think long and hard about how to proceed. He took things back to the character select screen and, after much quiet deliberation, decided to swap out Akuma for... Hakan?!

One of the unique aspects to Infiltration's game that makes him the most complete player I've ever seen is that, although he is primarily an Akuma player, he is actually, unlike most players, willing and able to play other characters in tournament situations. Back in the pre-Shoryuken.com days, tournament players generally considered it a good idea to have not just one main character but also at least one alternate you could switch to. In case you ran into an opponent you couldn't handle with your usual character, you could turn to your backup. In the days of games with only 16 playable characters, you could maybe even develop some rudimentary ability with every character, so that you could take advantage of mismatches and "counter-pick" (purposely selecting a character that, on paper, has a favorable matchup against the opponent's). In the Street Fighter IV era, top players still advise learning multiple characters, and often one hears talk about competitors having "secret weapons," but the reality is that I've never seen any player other than Infiltration turn to a "pocket character" and have it pay off. Even Sako's Evil Ryu was ultimately more a gimmick than a legitimate secret weapon; any time his Ibuki failed him, switching to Evil Ryu didn't help.

Infiltration doesn't have secret weapons or desperation characters. He has one main character, Akuma, and then several other characters with specialized uses. And that includes obscure characters like Gouken, whose supreme fireball game he'll turn to as a legit pick to zone out Guile. No, Infiltration's not above switching away from his main character just to get a counter-pick advantage. Heck, this is someone known to wait, even before the first game of a set, to see what character his opponent will pick first, before deciding how to proceed. That said, conventional wisdom has always ranked Hakan among the worst characters in the game. Down to his last life, was Infiltration really going to bet it all on this pick?

Well, Infiltration actually has turned to Hakan in the past, so he has legit experience playing as the character. And, historically, grapplers have always been the natural counter to Balrog. So, in theory, this was actually a shrewd choice, even if it looked crazy. But maybe it was even better to be crazy! Infiltration has never been a player especially to endear himself to spectators. It's not that he has a bad attitude or anything; he's well-liked as a person. But his Akuma, a model of rote ruthlessness is not the most exciting to watch. It's actually a little sad every time watching his Akuma dominate Daigo's hopeless Ryu. But responding with an unconventional low-tier character when his own back is to the wall? The American crowd loves risk-takers, and they loved Infiltration for this, even up against their own PR Balrog.


It came down to the final round of the final game, but, in the end, PR Balrog succumbed to the moment, taking a few too many late-game gambles in his desperation to close it out. Still, this was one of those rare matches where the crowd cheered for both players equally. They cheered for a great match, no matter the outcome.

The remaining matches of the night couldn't quite live up to that high mark. Infiltration's victory set him up to next face Tokido, whom Xian had outclassed to send to losers. Akuma is maybe the most boring character to watch, and, with Infiltration now free to drop Hakan and start afresh with his main character against a new opponent, we were getting an Akuma mirror match. Ugh.

As expected, this battle of the two Akumas consisted of a ton of air fireballs from both sides. The surprise, however, was Infiltration, AKA "the one true Akuma," falling behind early to Tokido's. This is hard to account for, but, in many of the rounds, Tokido seemed just to open with some good reads to gain an early life lead, which took Infiltration out of his comfort zone.

Infiltration's Akuma tends to be a lot more intimidating when he's playing with the lead. Seriously, nobody ever comes back in a round against Infiltration. He's usually the best there is at reading other players, and, when he's got the lead, that makes his opponents that much easier to read. With the clock running down (and Akuma can run down the clock very effectively), they know the onus is on them to make something happen, and, since Infiltration knows their options in that situation probably better than they themselves do, he can completely shut them down by basically reacting to things they haven't yet done but are about to do.

Again, that depends on Infiltration having the lead. When it's even or he's behind, the opponent still has the option of playing defensively. In this case, Tokido, one of the most shameless players around (he's known for picking the cheapest character in every game he plays), is more than happy to play the "run away" game and "lame it out" (run down the clock), but he's also confident enough to go in. While he holds the lead, he's free to do either, which makes it much harder for Infiltration to get a read on him.

Basically, whether by luck or just because he was in the zone that match, Tokido managed to consistently win the opening gambits. From there, he was able to dictate the pace of the round, and, with his very patient play, he simply outlasted Infiltration, eliminating the defending champ 3-1.


Having cleaned out the rest of the losers bracket, Tokido booked a place in the grand finals against the last man in winners, Xian. This was a bit of an anticlimactic ending, as Xian clearly seemed the stronger player and had already beaten Tokido badly once this tournament.


Sure enough, Xian would do it again, and Evo 2013 wrapped with the once unthinkable outcome of a Gen player taking home the biggest prize. In the end, a well-earned victory for Xian in one of the most competitive and diverse tournaments in Street Fighter history.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Evo 2013 - Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3

The Evolution Championship Series (Evo), the largest annual fighting game tournament in the world, was held this past weekend in Las Vegas. Within the U.S. fighting game community, undoubtedly the most coveted trophy was that for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

As a spectator, I have to say, this game is pretty broken. That's not necessarily a negative; most fighting games, at the competitive level, are broken in some way. It's only a question of whether it's the good kind of broken (the kind that opens the game up to all sorts of crazy and entertaining shenanigans that the creators never envisioned) or one of the bad kinds (the kinds that render the game either too insufferably narrow or too random and competitively compromised). UMvC3 seems to me, more than any of the other games at Evo, one where matches are pivotally determined by unforced errors. In a game of such drawn-out combos, where full-health characters often die off a single hit, and where a comeback, even from down to the last sliver of your last character against a full three-character team, is never out of the question, provided you still have "X-Factor" (a massive power-up, which every player can activate once per round), any time a competitor "drops their combo" (fails to complete their combo due to an input error), they are, in effect, granting their opponent an extra life. You'd like to imagine that, at the highest level, players would have perfect execution, but the reality is that even the best players in the world drop their combos multiple times per match. Thus, who wins a match is almost, in a way, not so much directly determined by who KOs whom but indirectly by who finishes with the most extra lives courtesy of their opponent's errors. But, as with many spectator sports, it is often not the most polished play that produces the greatest entertainment, and UMvC3 produced some of the wildest, most dramatic, and most memorable moments at Evo this year.

The narrative heading into Evo 2013 was "Who can stop Chris G.?" A year prior, New York's Christopher Gonzalez had innovated the strategy of activating Morrigan's "Astral Vision," which creates a mirror image of the character on the opposite side of the screen, then filling the screen with fireballs coming from both sides, smothering the opponent in a nearly inescapable gauntlet of projectiles chipping away at their health. Chris G.'s projectile-spamming strategy quickly earned him the scorn of spectators, but some regarded it as merely tricky shenanigans. Sufficiently skilled players were still able to thread the needle through the wall of projectiles to get at Morrigan, whereupon Chris G.'s team would quickly unravel without her. Within another year, however, Chris G. had honed his Morrigan skills to near perfection, winning nearly every tournament he entered along the road to Evo 2013.

Check out this sequence between Chris G. and Justin Wong from CEO 2013, the last major tournament before Evo, and observe that, once that Morrigan gets going, there doesn't appear to be anything that Justin, though himself the most accomplished player in Marvel vs. Capcom history, can do:


Morrigan's fireballs own the ground, Doctor Doom's "Hidden Missiles" assist intercepts any advance, and there's not even any waiting out the Astral Vision technique, because, by the time it runs its course, Chris G. has almost accumulated enough Hyper Combo meter to activate it again. With such domination as had become routine for Chris G. throughout the 2013 season leading up to Evo, he established himself as not only the safe-money bet but also the villain among those bored and frustrated by his demoralizing style of play. People were praying that someone would be able to stop Chris G. at Evo, but who could possibly climb that mountain?

Actually, it happened a lot earlier than anyone expected. In the quarterfinal round, player WindZero came out with a surprising point character choice of Chris Redfield, who could actually go prone under Morrigan's fireballs. Together with a likewise unconventional anchor of Jill Valentine, this was enough to help WindZero sneak a victory past Chris G. Evo being a double-elimination tournament, however, Chris G. was still alive, albeit in the unenviable position of having to fight his way back through the losers bracket. With nobody else able to finish the job WindZero started, destiny would have it that WindZero himself would cross paths with Chris G. again later that same day, and the result the second time around was much closer to what everyone expected, Chris G. winning handily.

Meanwhile, in a different section of the bracket, Justin Wong, the aforementioned winningest Marvel vs. Capcom 2 player of all time, but someone whom most had counted out in this game, was making his own bid to get back on that finals stage. It began with a semifinal match against Evo 2012 champion Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez.

Filipino Champ, one of the cockiest players in the scene, plays a team anchored by Phoenix, who was formerly the most terrifying character in the original version of Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Although she was by far the most fragile character in the game, if the Phoenix player's team managed to build up the maximum 5 Hyper Combo gauge stocks, she would be able to resurrect upon death and become Dark Phoenix, easily capable of decimating an entire opposing team by herself within a matter of seconds. Despite a few tweaks that made it harder to achieve Dark Phoenix mode in the Ultimate revision, still few players have a reliable answer once Dark Phoenix does awaken.

Meanwhile, Justin runs a team of dubious makeup, mostly relying on his point character, Wolverine, to blitz the opponent. His second character, Storm, was top-tier in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 but is highly suspect in UMvC3. Akuma, as anchor, is on the team mostly for his assist. Clearly, Justin was the underdog here against one of the most dangerous players in the tournament.


The YouTube video cuts off before you can catch the audience's reaction, but Justin's upset victory earned him the loudest applause of any result on the live stream all day. All he had really done was send Filipino Champ to the losers bracket, but, from the cheering, you might have thought Justin had just won the whole thing. Of course, this really was just the beginning.

Having made it to the final round of 8, Justin faced off the following day against Job "Flocker" Figueroa, a player who pioneered the use of Zero on point. Next to Morrigan (Chris G.'s Morrigan specifically) and maybe Dark Phoenix, Zero is the most devastating character in the game. I mentioned earlier that this is a game where a single combo can take a character from full health down to nothing. Zero is the epitome of that, as he can convert almost any hit he lands anywhere on the screen and at any point in the match into a "touch of death" combo (again, provided the Zero player executes). Up against the best Zero player in the world, Justin's team was at a severe disadvantage, and Flocker quickly exposed the deficiencies of a Storm and Akuma team, taking the match 3-0.

That being Justin's first loss of the tournament, he was still alive in the losers bracket. But who else was there lurking in the losers bracket? None other than Chris G., still the odds-on favorite, who was now playing with a vengeance ever since landing in losers. Up against the game's most dominant player, who had had Justin's number their last several encounters, and who was running a team nobody had an answer for, this would be an even steeper climb for Justin than the Zero match-up had been.

The first 2 games in the best-of-5 series played out to script, Chris G. dominating Justin as always. But then (beginning at 5:43 in the video), after regrouping, Justin actually began to mount a comeback. Whatever the final outcome of the tournament, the next 3 games would instantly rank among the greatest ever played on the Evo stage.


This time, you can hear the crowd going nuts, chanting Justin's name even before the final round is over. I went over Chris G.'s role as the community's current favorite villain earlier. Once upon a time, Justin himself had been the villain—the teen vanguard of an East Coast invasion force (or at least viewed so by a fighting game community sown on Shoryuken.com (SRK), the one-stop online forum founded by a couple of West Coast players). That seemed now a lifetime ago—a lifetime ago since Justin Wong had won any tournament of consequence. But if his former dominance had perhaps become a distant memory, Justin was nevertheless ready to remind everyone that there has never been a player more clutch.

The narrative heading into Evo 2013 was "Who can stop Chris G.?" The narrative coming out belonged to Justin Wong. Well, almost. The only worthy followup to that Chris G. match would have been for Justin to go all the way and win it. Three more opponents stood in his way.

First up was Cloud805, another Zero player. Every year, there will be some relatively unknown player showing up with a Zero/Vergil/Dante team (dubbed "Zero May Cry" within the community) and an immaculate mastery of Zero's notoriously high-execution combos, honed through countless hours of home practice and online play. Actually, this year, there were two new Zero May Cry players in the final 8, but Cloud805 was clearly the more serious, and he had already shown nerves of steel while eliminating defending champion Filipino Champ a match prior to much grand stage applause of his own. Again facing this mismatch against Zero, the very character that had sent him to the losers bracket, Justin nevertheless drew on his unparalleled experience and legendary instincts to handle Cloud805 3-0.

Next up for Justin was a match against Angelic. A strong player running a Wolverine of his own and a rare Shuma-Gorath anchor, Angelic had earned the nickname "Mr. 3-0" for his many sweeps during the course of the tournament. No Morrigan or Zero to deal with, however, Justin had more breathing room to control the match, taking it 3-1.

That victory earned Justin a place in the grand finals against Flocker, who had already beaten Justin convincingly earlier that day. And, as Flocker was the last remaining player in the winners bracket, Justin would have to win two sets in a row against him—the first to even the score and send Flocker to the losers bracket, the second to take it all—whereas Flocker would only need to win one to eliminate Justin and win the tournament. Two whole sets against a guy he hadn't been able to take a single game from last time.... Could Justin dig deep and find a little more even than he had already shown?



It went down to the wire, but, at the end of the day, Flocker proved the best UMvC3 player at Evo 2013, Justin falling perhaps one dropped Storm combo short of a fairy tale ending to his nonetheless magnificent run. But what makes these moments great is that you can't script them. As fiction, it would be too unbelievable, but this was real, and that's precisely what makes it the stuff of legend.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

Man of Steel

Quick Take:

Not a well-balanced film. Willfully disjointed, at times incoherent, feels even perhaps incomplete and disappointingly insubstantial. But the highs are pretty high, as the action delivers in a way that no previous superhero film ever has. Decent.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

Despite Christopher Nolan's name being attached to the movie as writer and producer, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is not The Dark Knight of Superman films. Actually, it's a lot closer to Green Lantern. It's not as stupid as GL, certainly, but it similarly seems to lack a firm grasp on the story it wants to tell, consequently feeling somewhat hollow and inconsequential. Nevertheless, it is appropriately the most "super" of all superhero films thus far.

As good as most of the Marvel movies have been, the one area where I've felt they've consistently fallen short has been the fighting. Yeah, so maybe when working to legitimize the superhero genre with a film that can be taken seriously by more than just the Con crowd, "great fighting" shouldn't usually be the aspirational filmmaker's priority. But it's also fair to say that, for a lot of geeks, one of the biggest appeals of superhero comics is the prospect of seeing two superpowered titans slugging it out. In fact, there have been multiple entire websites and endless forum topics devoted just to debating who would win in a given hypothetical throwdown between two characters. Among the Marvel films, only the Hulk movies have ever really come close to living up to that. The rest of the time, we get stupid stuff like Iron Man fighting a bunch of disposable robots, or the Avengers taking on an army of generic interchangeable aliens. Those scenes lack punch because the heroes' foes lack identity, and, truthfully, such would-be threats aren't even worthy of a full display of the heroes' powers and abilities. But Man of Steel at last delivers with action sequences that live up to how I always imagined such supremely superpowered beings really would fight. (And you're asking, "But Henry, why would you need to imagine, when these comics have pictures blah blah blah?")

Superman and Zod possess the traditional full assortment of Kyptonian powers (with the exception of the conspicuously absent freeze breath—expect Superman to bust out this "secret weapon" early in the sequel to much fanfare) and to a scale that justifies regarding them as living WMDs and veritable gods on Earth. Characters fly, zip around with super speed, withstand artillery, and throw punches that could level skyscrapers. And, most spectacularly, they connect with these punches on one another. (Oh, how I wanted Superman to just punch somebody in Superman Returns.) It's incredible and yet, in a way, more credible than the Marvel movies in exploring how bringing to Earth such beings of godlike power would necessarily upend the order of things on a grand scale.

Unfortunately, as much as Snyder nails the scale of the superpowered action, Man of Steel is unexpectedly weaker than even the mediocre, less inspired superhero films when it comes to a lot of the basics of story and world-building, to the extent that the movie feels oddly small. Superman has always been a character that I've enjoyed much more for his powers and their potential for entertaining action than for his personality or supporting cast. So you might think I'd be satisfied with a Superman movie that goes all-in on the action (and Snyder, if nothing else, is a director who commits, consistently going all-in on painting a particular image for each of his films). The problem is that action, to be truly exhilarating, must possess not only scale but also weight. In the Marvel movies, the stakes have always seemed low because the threats have never been adequately convincing. In Man of Steel, it's the world (i.e. what's at stake) that's not convincing.

A large part of the problem stems from the writers' decision to dispense with Superman's civilian life as Clark Kent, instead giving us a Superman largely isolated from humanity, who drifts from place to place, both in search of a path and in order to keep anyone from getting close enough to uncover his secret. The "soul-searching Superman" angle is obnoxious, but the elimination of the Clark Kent persona actually makes a lot of sense. There has always been this question, after all, of why this not only physically but morally superior being would ever need a secret identity. Nobody could ever threaten him, and, more than any other hero, he already takes it upon himself to protect everyone, so it's not as if a foe would gain any particular advantage by targeting his friends and family specifically. So why wouldn't he just be Superman full-time? Going further, how can a guy like this, not only nigh omnipotent but also nearly omniscient (with those ears that could hear cells divide), ever allow himself to be off the clock, knowing that the enemy—be it a supervillain, a natural disaster, or just an accident—never sleeps and that he can always make the difference?

Cut Clark Kent and a lot else goes out with him, however, and Nolan and his Dark Knight trilogy collaborator David S. Goyer seem not to have thought through how to let go of all that. There are huge gaps in Superman's life, for example, and the nonlinear narrative structure does little to distract viewers from needing answers about what the hell this guy has been doing all this time. More importantly, with him not having been a presence in Metropolis prior to Zod's demanding he show himself, Metropolis itself is largely lost. Although Batman is often raised up as a more realistic character, I've always found Superman's world closer to my reality, because Metropolis basically resembles a real American metropolis, whereas Gotham City is typically this misbegotten Gothic-noir nightmare. But Man of Steel doesn't establish Metropolis as a fully realized city populated by millions of people living lives not unlike our own, and neither are any of the other settings that the character and story pass through, providing only incongruous glimpses of this world, which consequently feels like some kind of incomplete bubble universe, disconnected from ours, though resembling it on the surface as a crude model.

Superman's relationship with Lois Lane also doesn't ring true, because, whereas in the comics, as both Superman and Clark Kent, he sees multiple sides to her while spending much of his daily life with her even before she knows his secret, meanwhile, in the movie, she's just some girl he doesn't even know but in whom he places an extraordinary amount of trust very quickly. And she knows perhaps even less about him, because, whatever she's managed to dig up about his story, when it comes to letting people in on his personality, he is, in her own words, "a cipher."

That's no fault of Henry Cavill's, who, although given little to work with, is close to ideal as Superman. And did anyone else find that, with his cheekbones, he surprisingly looked a lot like Tom Welling when he finally smiled at the end as Clark Kent? Speaking of which, how about that ending? How about the movie going back on its bold new direction of a Superman without a civilian identity? Well, it comes far too late to fix any of the problems in this movie, and, far from it, it actually introduces a flurry of implausibilities, from the traditional (how do people not notice that Clark Kent is just Superman with glasses?) to those that Man of Steel newly saddles itself with (how does being Clark Kent hide anything, considering he never tried very hard to cover Superman's tracks, Lois Lane found him pretty easily, and numerous people already know?) to assault the viewer all at once at the last minute.

Despite some enormous talent and inspired casting decisions, the rest of the characters are all woefully one-dimensional. Russell Crowe at least is a significant upgrade over the classic 1978 Superman's Marlon Brando, as he seems surprisingly into his role as Jor-El. But Diane Lane is reduced to playing basically a crazy cat lady-type, while Kevin Costner's Jonathan Kent, whatever the writers' intentions, comes across as no more than an obstacle, holding back a young Clark Kent from his destiny as Earth's greatest champion, spouting vague nonsense about how it's not the right time. The writers script the most contrived death scene imaginable for Pa Kent to lend gravity to his lessons, but, at the end of the movie, take a step back and see that still nothing in the story ever actually pays off Clark's trust in his father's wisdom. Michael Shannon gives a good, albeit, again, one-dimensional performance as Zod, and perhaps my favorite part of the story is the explanation for why Zod is one-dimensional, but he unfortunately just doesn't look cool and never inspires the appropriate awe opposite Henry Cavill's ridiculously good-looking Superman. It's superficial, I admit, but, in a movie where we already know the good guy is going to win anyway, it's doubly hard to take the bad guy seriously when he looks like a generically brutish henchman.

Even with its many shortcomings, Man of Steel at least is never as embarrassingly bad as Green Lantern. There is nothing here that can't be redeemed, and the sequel could be good, even potentially great. And, much as I believe Snyder's Watchmen bestowed the modern superhero movie with more personality by his commitment to bringing back outlandish costumes, I think he has here pushed the boundaries for insanely over-the-top superhero clashes, which I hope other filmmakers in the genre learn from (while making better movies than this).

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Girl Who Would Be King (Kelly Thompson, 2012)

A novel about two teenage girls with superpowers—one good, one evil—both discovering their abilities and limits while, at the same time, stumbling through life's lessons—relationships and all the accompanying emotional baggage—toward adulthood, The Girl Who Would Be King sounds like a young adult title, but author Kelly Thompson comes from a different background. A prolific and well-liked comics blogger and reviewer, Thompson early references her major source of inspiration, which, in her novel, also serves to inspire Bonnie Braverman, the virtuous of the story's two opposed protagonists, along her heroic path. And, as the story ramps up into spectacular superheroic action sequences, it becomes clear that, despite being a prose novel, The Girl Who Would Be King is far more DC than YA.

The story begins with six-year-old Bonnie miraculously surviving (Unbreakable-style, natch) the car crash that claims the lives of her parents. The first-person narrative then shifts a few years forward to teenage Lola LeFever, who murders her own emotionally distant mother in order to steal her power—a concept that Lola seems to grasp only by instinct and intuition. The novel then progresses in alternating chapters between Bonnie and Lola, as they deal both with living on their own and with how to proceed with the superhuman abilities—strength, athleticism, healing (and that's just for starters)—that, for reasons unknown to either girl, they have inherited from their mothers. Cosmically, the girls, although initially each unaware of the other's existence, are set on a collision course, because, again for reasons unknown to them, Bonnie is intrinsically compelled to do good, while Lola thirsts for power and favors a conscienceless pursuit of it.

The parallel narrative may be the distinguishing hook of The Girl Who Would Be King, but I early on found Lola to be the more entertaining character by far, to the extent that getting through the Bonnie chapters to get back to Lola occasionally felt like a chore that also wrecked the pacing. It's hardly a new phenomenon for readers, bored with predictable heroes, to connect better with "the bad guy" and even to want to see them win. Thompson's own fascination with exploring villains is surely what motivated her to write from Lola's perspective. More than that, as an adult reader weary of angsty YA protagonists, I just found Lola's sarcasm and pitiless candor refreshing, and it's hilarious seeing how the world breaks down—shallow, senseless, annoying—through her eyes. There is angst to her story for sure, as, setting aside the seemingly supernaturally imposed dichotomy that inclines her toward evil, her journey is largely defined by her being let down by every person in her life. But her commitment to being a badass precludes her from wallowing in self-pity. She's got a world to take over, after all. And, even as she cynically observes other people at their most worthless, she's also introspective enough to recognize that, self-described supervillain though she may be, she herself is still just a teenager, with no real idea what the hell she's doing (and often regretting in hindsight when she hasn't handled herself in as smart or as cool a manner as she might have).

Bonnie, meanwhile, is a more typical heroic protagonist, a little boring and perhaps at times even insipid. She takes far longer to commit to her path, because she must continually agonize over all the implications and considerations, from the big-picture (gifted with extraordinary powers, what are her responsibilities to the world?) to the personal (how to balance secret superhero activities with her love life). Although her story is ostensibly the more realistic—Bonnie works crummy jobs to make rent, deals with snotty coworkers, and meets quirky hipster friends, and she also settles on the East Coast, where Thompson herself resides, whereas Lola, located in the West, marches toward world domination and does't need to saddle herself with adult responsibilities—the Bonnie half of the novel strangely does not ring as true, as though Thompson writes it with less genuine interest, not because she has less to say about this character (who is probably drawn from her own life experience more so than is Lola) but because the hero's story is so well-trodden that, compared to the fun of writing a charismatic villain, it is actually much harder work to craft an original and compelling hero. The Bonnie story consequently feels sometimes more like an obligatory inclusion than an organically unfolding narrative.

That's not to say that Bonnie is a bad character. I found the arc of her story less interesting than Lola's, but, whatever the weaknesses of the Bonnie chapters, Thompson brings a down-to-earth contemplativeness to both perspectives that is rarely to be found in superhero stories. These teenagers, with eyes still fresh, provide honest observations and insights about right and wrong, responsibility, adulthood, solitude, and contentment. It's also impressive that Thompson manages to have each narrate with a distinct voice. Bonnie is more wistful and poetic, whereas Lola narrates without a filter and often changes her mind mid-paragraph about what she's saying.

But The Girl Who Would Be King is perhaps at its very strongest when Thompson is writing the action, which is where her affection for superhero comics really comes through. It's a violent story, and Thompson pulls no punches in describing the violence. More than any of Bonnie and Lola's other powers, Thompson seems especially to take advantage of their healing abilities, as repeatedly the characters suffer gruesome injuries that are described in graphic detail. Thankfully, she provides the same level of detail when writing the fight sequences, delivering literally blow-by-blow descriptions of the action. These sections are composed with the meticulousness of an expert action choreographer, and indeed the action in the book finally scales up to such a spectacular degree as to make any of those big-budget superhero movies seem small by comparison. What early on gives the impression perhaps of an adolescent allegory of two teenage girls eventually explodes into a struggle of two forces of nature with enough power to potentially wipe out a city with just the collateral damage from their combat. There are scenes of characters punching one another with such force that the recipient's body leaves a them-shaped hole in the wall through which they are punched. 'Nuff said.

Toward the end, there is some underdeveloped mythology, some questionable plot devices, and a painful sense of inevitability to The Girl Who Would Be King, and I did find that, as characters, both Bonnie and Lola seemed to become more one-dimensional during the final quarter of the novel. It's not an absolutely brilliant piece of fiction, but it's a page-turner most of the way through, and if you like superheroes at all (or have ever wanted to like them but couldn't deal with the shallow hypermasculine characterizations that typify a lot of superhero comics), it does enough interesting things to merit a look.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Kirby's Return to Dream Land (Wii) (HAL Laboratory, Nintendo, 2011)


I used to be quite an admirer of Nintendo and HAL's Kirby series, even preferring it to Mario among platformers. I wouldn't argue that the Kirby games were better than Mario necessarily, but they appealed more to my personal tastes and background as a gamer. All the running around and jumping in Mario never meant much to me, but Kirby, despite being targeted at younger audiences, offered a much greater action component, with Kirby utilizing a variety of weapons and abilities to directly attack his foes. My favorite entry, Kirby Super Star (1996) for the SNES, even implemented a guard mechanic (the clear precursor to the guarding in HAL's Super Smash Bros.) and a more solid collision system that gave it slightly a beat 'em up feel—right up my alley. But perhaps the best thing about Kirby was the cooperative gameplay. Kirby Super Star and Kirby's Dream Land 3 (1997) both offered simultaneous play for two players—a rare feature in the genre—which allowed me to enjoy the games alongside my younger sister, who, at the time a beginner gamer, although more easily able to connect with Kirby than with most other video games in our house, still needed help to get through the harder parts.

That was all in the 16-bit days, though. Kirby was afterward relegated mostly to handhelds, or else the brand was used more for developers to pursue experimental designs. Finally, when Nintendo released Kirby's Return to Dream Land, a brand new traditional Kirby game, I was... well, not really that excited—my tastes having changed with age, I can't say the years-long absence of traditional Kirby had left any noticeable void in my life that needed filling—but I got a bit nostalgic and maybe hopeful for a chance to revisit old and simple gaming pleasures anew. Alas, this return to Dream Land felt a little too old and simple, while its primary addition to the classic formula—the souped-up four-player cooperative mode—proved its greatest source of frustration.

As mentioned, cooperative gameplay had been a hallmark of the series that had helped distinguish many of the entries from other character-based platformers. Following the release of Nintendo's own superb New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009), however, suddenly co-op seemed less a bonus and more a necessity for 2-D platformers. Kirby's Return to Dream Land seemed to be following New Super Mario Bros. Wii's lead, not only riding a resurgence in the popularity of 2-D platformers, but also prioritizing the hectic co-op as the major selling point.

For Kirby's partners, the developers did not opt to bring back any of his old friends from previous games but instead turned to a trio of old foes, which is maybe not so strange, since the denizens of Kirby's world, rather than being principally good or bad, have always been more silly and lazy first. King Dedede and Meta Knight, familiar to Super Smash Bros. Brawl players, were obvious choices. The final player character is, more surprisingly (but an adorable surprise), a random Waddle Dee, this series' equivalent to the Koopa Troopa, although this one at least has a bandanna to differentiate it from generic enemy Waddle Dees, and it also has the previously undocumented ability to jump infinitely, which is how it keeps up with the other flying/floating player characters. Alternatively, players 2-4 can choose to play as differently colored Kirby clones (player 1 has no choice but to play as pink Kirby).

Disappointingly, none of the non-Kirby characters actually possess unique skills. Instead, they are each just based off one of Kirby's copy abilities—hammer, sword, and spear, respectively. Technically, playing as a Kirby then offers greater versatility, since you would have access to all those abilities and many more, but the major benefit to the other characters is that they are never unarmed, whereas Kirby can quite easily have any acquired power knocked out of him when struck by an enemy. And, of course, it becomes a very different, less mashy game when playing as a naked Kirby. Boss fights require a great deal of care suddenly, since your only source of offense is to wait for the boss to drop an object for you to swallow and spit back out at them. Theoretically, of course, any Kirby player has to be careful during boss fights, no matter whether they are naked or armed, because any misstep will leave you scrambling to recover your fleeing ability anyway. In practice, care and precision go out the window when playing co-op.

Anybody playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii surely has had the sensation of getting jumped on by one of their fellow players (as well as doing it themselves). It was probably funny the first few times, but if it ever happened accidentally during a more delicate sequence, it became infuriating and cause for icy glares at the culprit/saboteur. Kirby's Return to Dream Land has that same problem, but taken to an exponentially more aggravating degree. The characters are larger, first of all, and they can also fly. The effect is that playing this game with a full four players is often rather like having to navigate four helicopters through a tunnel. This would be a dicey proposition under any circumstances, but add to that obstacles and enemies, and, well, people are gonna die. Players inadvertently bounce off one another constantly and just generally get in each other's way.

Furthermore, although Kirby has always been regarded as a game for younger players, that's not the same as being suitable for casual gamers. It's less challenging but also less intuitive than Mario, which mostly involves only running and jumping. Kirby, besides being conceptually harder to explain ("You inhale and swallow your enemies, and that allows you to use their abilities as your own, because, um...."), involves a lot of different mechanics and accompanying button combinations to keep track of. Playing with a team of novices, the mayhem may be amusing during early levels, but once you get to the late-game, where the lesser players become complete liabilities, the atmosphere in the room completely changes, from one of group fun to one of three KO'd players holding their breaths on the sidelines while waiting for the one serious (and now extremely PO'd at his/her teammates) player to get through the tricky section alone before signaling the others that it's okay to jump back in. But why would they bother, since it's all just going to get too hard for them again very quickly?

And, yes, players 2-4 do enjoy infinite lives, in a sense. They must draw from player 1's extra lives in order to join in, but they can continue to come back even if player 1 has none in reserve. The only one with a finite number of lives technically is player 1 as the pink Kirby, although it helps a great deal for the other players not to be reckless and wasteful with them, or else you can expect more icy glares from player 1, as their incompetent teammates blow through all the reserves in a matter of seconds. (And I'll confess right now that I was not player 1, but rather one of the three fools in my group being advised essentially to "stay down" whenever I got put down during the harder parts. What can I say—I'm not as young as I used to be, and gaming is a perishable skill.) If you want to be cheap, one strategy is to have player 1 just play defensively, while the effectively immortal players 2-4 throw their bodies at the enemy until the fight is won. That obviously works better for boss fights than for some of the tougher auto-scrolling platforming levels.

So the co-op is an overly busy mess. But would I have preferred the game not have it at all? No, I don't think I would even have played it by myself. And there is still the option to play the game alone. In fact, the experience is so different that it's fair to treat the single-player and co-op as distinct modes, even if all the levels are the same. As a single-player (or two-player—still reasonable) experience, Kirby's Return to Dream Land is not especially fresh or exciting. As a more mature gamer, I can recognize it now as a slower, more tepid experience than Mario, and the armed combat is generally shallow and repetitive. If it can manage to hold your attention that long, the later levels and boss fights do offer enough challenge to stimulate, but it's not a platformer for the ages.