Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Zuwhack Or Not Zuwhack!*

Not too long ago I watched the film Love and Honor. This is the third of Yoji Yamada’s recent films about peace-loving samurai forced to confront difficulties in old Japan just prior to the Meiji Restoration (Japan’s abolishment of the samurai caste, and reinstatement of the Emperor as head of the nation—effectively the country’s entry into the modern era). These movies are just the kind of dramatic, exotic, stunningly filmed pieces that film awards, critics, and art houses love. And they pretty much deserve every accolade they’ve gotten.

I’ve long been a martial arts film fan… not much of a surprise considering my involvement in actual martial arts! I like a lot of different subgenres within that rather broad category; kung fu movies old and new, the stunt-driven modern actioners of Jackie Chan and Tony Jaa, the fantastic ‘wire-fu’ of the current wuxia (Chinese swordplay), and at the top of the heap, the jidaigeki (lit. ‘period drama’) or samurai film.

Breaking down what is worthy and fun about all these different genres is probably fodder for a future post, but I’ve enjoyed the Yamada films of late specifically, so some context needs to be offered for these.

Most westerners probably think of ‘kung fu films’ when they think martial arts movies. Or Jackie Chan’s forays into Hollywood. If a filmgoer DOES know anything about jidaigeki, a highbrow fan usually thinks ‘Seven Samurai’ and the lowbrow fan goes with ‘Shogun Assassin’. But Japan actually has a huge, and very rich, tradition in cinema drawing from their feudal history. Some of the films are basically just action adventures (similar in some ways to a ‘cowboy’ western) others are dramatic takes on the conflicts between duty and conscience, and still others are scathing critiques of a social system that much of Japan today looks back on through rose-colored glasses.

If you run down to your local Suncoast Video you will easily find some Zatoichi or Lone Wolf and Cub films. These are highly recommended episodic films. You don’t have to watch them in any specific order to get the plots. Films like these do have cerebral moments and often have a lot to say about relationships, status, and honor in a world as harsh and uncompromising as feudal Japan could be. But they are also liberally dosed with tightly-choreographed duels and bloodshed, which are probably the main draw to watching them. Exciting stuff. But there are a number of films (mostly in the 1950s and 60s) that concentrated more on the emotional and political content and less on the dueling. As the 70s came along this sort of more dramatic treatment sort of fell out of favor but has recently been revived by Mr Yamada.

These films are incredibly well photographed, like most Japanese films are, with the typical minimal camerawork in play. Gorgeous color and scenery along with detailed, accurate locales and costuming are the norm. Although Japanese period films of the 70s and 80s often had theatrical, un-historical costumes for many of their heroes (particularly ‘ninja’ characters) there’s none of that here. The whole look and feel is drawn realistically from late-Tokugawa Japan, which unlike almost any other ‘horse and swords’ era we actually have some photographic record owing to how late in history the country’s feudal history lasted.

I’m the first person in line to see some good old sword-dueling, blood-gouting action. But that isn’t what’s on tap here, There is a somewhat gritty duel at the end of each installment… with the climactic battle at the end of The Hidden Blade probably the most shocking or gory, but also with the weakest actual fight choreography. All three films follow a similar plot. A lower-ranking samurai who just wants a peaceful life with his family gets involved in the machinations of his clan and eventually has to kill someone… an act justified by the samurai way philosophy but distinctly at odds with what has become the actual samurai lifestyle, at least the quiet lifestyle of each of these protagonists. The other thing the men have in common is that they are all secretly (more or less) quite expert at dueling, with the same sensei dispensing advice to each before their respective showdowns. The films are not connected continuity-wise in any obvious way, but they share the same mythical clan name and location along with this sword master.

Of the three films the one most likely to have been seen by western audiences is The Twilight Samurai. Hiroyuki ‘Henry’ Sanada is known over here as a protégé of Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba, who has long since made his way into some rather high profile American gigs like Rush Hour 3 and The Last Samurai. In Japan he was quite a heartthrob in those old Sonny Chiba films and is considered a very versatile and bankable actor. This is probably the best film to start with, and considering Sanada’s good grasp of English, the DVD extras can help a viewer get a good understanding of the philosophy and motivations behind these movies. He imbues his character Shinbei with a lot of humanity and pathos. In fact all the leads do, with the movie alternating their warmth, humor, and seriousness in their roles as fathers or husbands.

As I said at the top, I recently watched the third (and presumably last) film in the series, Love and Honor. I knew going into it, from ad copy, that this film’s lead was going to be blinded. Sorry if that is a spoiler. I was skeptical that a duel (assuming the pattern of the first two films was going to be adhered to) could be pulled off in a plausible manner. These characters are good fighters but not preternaturally skilled like Zatoichi, that doesn’t fit with these films intent to portray their samurai as ‘regular joes’. But the movie manages everything believably, so I can recommend this film as much as the other two.

As much as Japan is said to be a conformist society, and the Japan described in the films is mired in a very rigid caste system, these movies are also very good illustrations of how the individual is celebrated and how even a culture enamored of its past has room for a critical look. If a viewer finds the humanity of the characters in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai just as compelling as the action scenes, Mr Yamada has struck just the right notes.

*Onomatopoeia for the sound of a sword striking through flesh in Japanese period films, frequently used also as the translated rendering of the same sound effect printed in period manga.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From Lords to Borders

I finally got to the end Lords of Thunder a few days ago. Cripes. Good game, but as I said in an earlier post, way more work than it should have been. And now I look back at it, and I’m still not sure why that was so hard. When I finally got to the end, I didn’t quite 1CC it but I was pretty close. The game defaults to three continues, and I had three left after purchasing one. It’s all in the knowing with these games sometimes. Once you’ve got the secret or (or sometimes the confidence) subsequent plays often become a cakewalk. That isn’t a problem. I often enjoy the visuals even if I know I’m going to crush a game OR I may play for score which can be a whole new level of pain from playing for survival.

When I play a game with limited continues, I count it as the first ‘win’ to be able to finish the game with the continues given. Then if my interest in it was high enough I’ll probably continue to play it in an effort to get the continues-used count down to a 1CC (one credit clear). Some games don’t warrant the continued play or time available may be a factor. Other games I enjoy playing but may be too hard for me to try to get down to a 1CC… again there’s a time factor there. Too many games out there and too little time.

It has become something of a regular feature for modern shooters to start with little or no continues and grant them over time (Mars Matrix has you buy the with credits earned through scoring). After a certain amount of playing time these things roll over to ‘free play’ or unlimited continues. For me, its not really a victory over a game to just credit feed ‘til the end. Oh, I’ll do it if I like the game and really want to see how it goes, but I always hope I’ll like it well enough to work on completing a game without credit feeding—at least trying to win on default continues if not a 1CC.

With Lords of Thunder, I just sort of changed up my approach and started making better progress. Originally, I just picked the earth armor (strongest additional shot) and took the stages in the shown order, because it seemed plain that was the best way, even though they can be chosen in any sequence. As it turns out, that isn’t really the best way for me. And I don’t know why I just adhered to that for so long. Duh. As it turns out, alternating between one ‘easy’ stage and one ‘difficult’ stage turns out to be the best method, earning the credits from the former, then buying better weapons and life to take on the latter, then doing it again—mostly alternating between earth and water armor, but using wind on the ice stage. The ice stage was something of a consistent problem for me. I had really good luck using water armor all the way through and then when I’d get to the boss the armor was useless. I’d lose, use a continue and then restart the boss wearing the earth armor which hosed him. Every time this spot in the game would cost me a continue. FINALLY, I thought maybe one of the other ‘weaker’ armors would be of some benefit. Turns out the wind armor is just strong/versatile enough to get you through the stage AND it is relatively effective on the boss. A compromise. Gaining that continue back allowed me to do the one thing I needed to do to finish the game, save enough score credits to buy a lifesaving elixir for the final boss. Even though I’d been able to get to the final boss a number of times, I’d gone through such a gauntlet of faux-final bosses I’d never have enough life left to survive him.

Will I go back and play for the 1CC? Probably. But I need to give that game a rest. It might have been my own stubbornness or narrow viewpoint that made that game so hard, but I still need a break from it.

I got Border Down for Christmas and it is the cat’s ass. So I’m spending most of my time on that. Pretty cool game. Most reviewers and fan’s point out how much gameplay and lineage this thing has in common with the Darius series, but I’m not feeling that so much. I see the similarities no doubt, but I never really got into Darius. I started on one of the early three-screen versions and after I’d gotten over the initial awe of that giant playfield the game just sorta lost me. The similarities to ‘Ray’ series (Rayforce, Raystorm, Raycrisis) are more what have me interested. Mostly that extends to music and graphic style, but the pace of the game seems a bit more hurried than Darius too.

This game is hard. And like Lords of Thunder it has an unconventional level setup. But I’m finding myself making much better progress in learning and finishing the game. It is probably the only shooter I’ve ever played that actually offers a reasonable explanation as to why you have three or more ‘lives’. In Border Down they are actually different ships approaching the same stages differently. So if you die, you switch ‘borders’ and become the pilot of a different craft ultimately making for the same goal as your original ship. Frequently you are actually on a different route making a stage play quite differently. All these stage variations give a six-level game a lot of variety and complexity. But so far it isn’t a chore, its really fun.

Being one of the last Dreamcast games (actually released after the death of the console) and pressed in limited numbers this game commands absurd prices on the internet. I don’t know if it is actually worth the dollars when you can get other STGs for a lot less, but its worth it to me. I always did love my Dreamcast, and this is a really good game for it.

Its interesting how much STGs actually tend to cost in the so-called secondary market now. If you have a Wii you can save a lot (doing without the cool packaging of course) by downloading older console shooters. I’m sure there are some XBLA (Xbox Live Arcade) titles too, I know Ikaruga and Triggerheart Excelica are both on there… originally Dreamcast titles both. But some consoles, notably the Sega Saturn, have a LOT of shooters that command just outrageous prices… and there doesn’t appear to be any relief from a download service. The Wii Virtual Console isn’t equipped to handle games the size of the Saturn’s generation (PS1 fits there too), and they are too old-fashioned for Microsoft to encourage them on their service with out significant overhauls (leading Treasure, for instance, to pretty much shelve bringing the highly sought-after Saturn game Radiant Silvergun to XBLA).
I have tons of shooters on my old consoles, but there’s always more to buy. With some of these prices— I already have Radiant Silvergun from way back, but check out Blast Wind, or Battle Garegga for Saturn, Harmful Park for PS1, Under Defeat for DC, or Mushihimesama for PS2—man, you gotta budget for that shit!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Why My Stereo goes to Eleven

I have a lot of interests, many bordering on passions…. er, too many probably.

Some, like martial arts, are lifestyle choices. Integrated into my weekly schedule, there’s actually set times devoted to practice, so its kind of placed before me on a regular basis and my interest keeps getting renewed through regular involvement. Any reading, practicing or communicating about the martial arts that goes beyond my scheduled sessions is fine, of course, but waxes and wanes like any other interest. Because practice is part of my routine, involvement (if not actual enthusiasm) means that attention to it never really gets to fall away completely.

Others, like video games or genre films, are pastimes that come and go on an almost cyclical basis. I always love this stuff, but interest in this sort of pastime isn’t always at a fever pitch. Currently I’m in video game mode (obviously, given their dominance in this blog), with a fair focus on manga (actually a media form along with anime that is seminal to the development of video games, though my interests don’t normally dovetail them together) as well. Current manga being read: Monster, Yagyu Ninja Scroll, Path of the Assassin, Berserk, and Initial D.

Still other interests are sort of always buzzing in the background. I like to read, so I’ve always got a book or periodical being worked through at any given point. I’m particular towards SF and horror, but I try to work classic literature into my book reading, and various lifestyle publications into my magazine list. At times this sort of interest can rise up to dominate my free time. That usually happens if I discover a new author or series or a favorite author comes out with a new work. Currently reading: Lukashenko’s DayWatch and various H.P. Lovecraft stories. The Lovecraft is of course a revisit. He’s a read-many-times staple author.

I don’t really ignore interests that aren’t currently front-and-center. They just don’t get equal time all the time. I suspect most people are like this. They find an interest, thoroughly work it, then if they don’t lose interest altogether, they at least backburner it for awhile and come back to it down the road when some new inspiration comes. I might be spread a little too thin. Having a lot of things you are interested in (and maybe more importantly, conversant in) makes for a more appealing person, but you’ll never get the most out of anything you do, if you don’t have focus. As with most people, I’ve had my share of interests that I got what I could out of them and then let them go, but I’ve been around long enough to where I’m not really adding any wholly new arenas… just circling around in the ones I already know and love.

This brings me around to music. Specific to me, listening (not playing) heavy music. If there was one interest/pastime/hobby/whatever that could be called my mistress this would probably be it. In this blog I’ve talked about video games (a lot!), martial arts, and racing. I’ve now mentioned film, manga, and books in this entry. I will probably get ‘round to hobby painting/modeling, wargames, anime and even booze. All this stuff... but the one big constant, the wallpaper in the background that is ‘visible in every shot’... is music. Through all the interests that have come and gone, changes in life, and places I’ve lived, I’ve never let my love for music dim.

Oddly, given my love for music, my appearance, and a lot of my lifestyle choices, I’m not actually a musician. I can keep decent time or rhythm, and I have reasonable manual dexterity to where I could probably learn an instrument relatively quickly (given other limitations inherent in trying to learn as an adult). People sometimes think I’m in a band, but more humorously (though tiresome) is the sheer volume of folks that think I look specifically like Peter Steele, vocalist for Type O Negative. I'll detail my opinion on this resemblance at a later date. Anyway folks, I’m not a musician. I’ve never been in a band. My music interest, HAS influenced my dress and style sense. So in expressing myself, I am sort of cultivating the band member look. Part of this comes from the many years I worked for Games Workshop. That company has a very image-conscious, rock and roll, guns and thunder mindset that cultivates ‘creative types’. So when you spend your work hours (the majority of your life) in an environment of cool, where being non-conformist is fine… well, you take it to heart. I didn’t quite grow up in some ways. That’ll maybe explain the hair, the music, the clothes, all my ‘juvenile’ interests, and of course, this blog.

Heavy music? A euphemism. I’m fuckin’ metal. There it is. The heaviest music is still metal. I’d like to think I’m a bit more cultured/cultivated than the stereotype (see Deathklok), and I’ve certainly met my share of metalheads that were not just beefy beerhounds in black t-shirts. Maybe it would be more correct, in a don’t-judge-me stereotype avoidance thing to say ‘rock’, but I have to face facts, ‘rock’ just isn’t specific enough. I DO like other kinds of music too, don’t get me wrong. As in all things, I think a person needs to be well-rounded, having at least some experience in things outside their normal sphere. I listen to the Beatles, Bowie, a lot of goth rock and various forms of industrial music.

But at the end of the day, I’m a metalhead. I’m not sure why I’m coming out of the closet in the blogosphere today—I’m already well out, and a town eccentric after a fashion, in real life. I guess this is the preface to why some blog entries will be dominated by opinions in music when music (metal) isn’t specifically thought of as a fanboy interest. Well, people can be just as geeky about anything. I’ll try to restrain myself on the volume of music entries.

Monday, January 5, 2009

What Goes Around Comes Around, Eventually


For about two months now, my son has been expressing an interest in starting up a Warhammer 40,000 army. Briefly, for those not in the know, Warhammer 40,000 is a tabletop wargame. It uses models (british english: toy soldiers) to represent the personnel and vehicles of an army based in Games Workshop's science fiction universe. You battle an opponent who has their own army on a set of miniature scenery. WH40K, as the game is usually abbreviated, is Games Workshop's most popular game, although not my personal favorite.

In any case, it was probably only a matter of time. My son remembers, dimly, a time when he ran around a warehouse full of toy soldiers, or barged in on friends of mine slaving over layouts and copy for White Dwarf magazine. UK design studio staff have met my kids. So now that he's ten suddenly he's put two-and-two together and realized he has some sort of heritage in this stuff. He probably would have found it cool and gravitated to it even without my employment history with them. It's hard to say. But knowing what he knows just injects that much more fervor into the hobby for him.

I left GW on good terms. My years with them were almost all positive, and I will never say a bad word about the company. A lot of GW fans and stockists have held negative opinions about them (as any popular company is going to generate), but being on the inside, and hearing the reasons why some decisions had been made I 'get' GW and why it does what it does. Really the only reason I'm not still working there is the move of their manufacturing facility from Baltimore to Memphis, and not making that move with them was my choice.

So I have no hard feelings. But I do miss that job. It was a large part of my identity and a lot of the residue still informs me today, even though I don't actively cultivate the hobby itself into my daily activities any more. Really my avoidance has more to do with feelings of melancholy and nostalgia than any sort of dislike.

But as I've said, it was probably only a matter of time before I had to face GW again. I don't know how ramped up I'll get about this stuff, I have enough things on my plate in both responsibilities AND pastimes... but I know that if my kid shows enough persistance to actually build this hobby for himself, I'll work with him. After Christmas when I started to help him paint some of the new soldiers he got, I found the old methods and rhythm to doing the work just fell right into place. Like riding a bicycle. Often when I worked for GW, people would quit, only to find themselves back there after months or even years. I used to joke that it was like the mafia. Once GW had their hooks into you, you could never leave.

I may be finding this to be true for myself. Truer than even I knew.

Racing, Not the Video Game Kind

After having posted verbosely about racing, it seems like a good idea to put down some kind of baseline for what real-life racing I enjoy, so terms and concepts are understood if I go batshit and start blogging a lot more about driving games.

Right off the starting line, I'm not a NASCAR fan. I keep up with the Nextel Cup standings each year and occasionally catch a race (or the highlights of one), but I'm not a frother about it. There was a time when the cars represented something more like a car you could buy. I'm not saying they REALLY were like street cars... the term 'stock' in stock car racing has been false at that level of racing for a long time now. But the cars were not entirely fabricated for a particular race or track type like they are now. The money and sponsorships have just taken the competition 'fun' right out of NASCAR. Everything and everyone has to conform. Very strict templates. Very strict rules. The cars are almost interchangeable, apart from the very rich teams who have the money to squeeze one last tiny ounce of engineering advantage over the poorer teams. A sport that used to have fans (and rivalries) at the driver level, car level, and manufacturer level now really only varies in its drivers. If you are a Chevy fan and Jimmy Johnson wins again, you can't in all fairness say 'Whoooo, Chevy rulez!'.... because Chevrolet had nothing to do with his victory other than supplying sponsorship money. They don't supply the car, the engine has no real-world basis of comparison, even the tires-- arguably the most important part of the car-- are all the same across all the teams in the interest of fairness. And whatever the drivers, sponsors, or fans will tell you, these cars are not on any pinnacle of technology. They use old technology based on simple systems that no person driving on the street would still want to be stuck with. I don't begrudge people that ARE fans, and as I mentioned I do keep up some. It just isn't my deal.

I could make almost the exact same arguments for Formula 1. At least Formula 1 cars ARE cutting edge technology. But this league is also mired by dollars and an incredible list of rules. These big league races want to keep competition close (a good thing) but it just seems making the teams conform to huge rule sets is not the best way to go about it. I keep one eye on Formula 1 too just as I do NASCAR, and I'll give 'em this: this last 2008 season was the best one in a long time. All props to Schuey, probably the greatest race driver in history, but with him out, a lot of the excitment (for people other than Ferrari fans) is back in. His absence is NOT the only reason, but I think it probably helps.

Similar bullet points for open wheel racing in other leagues, like IRL and (in times past) Champ Cars/CART. But these leagues had the additional burden of politics. And not just the kind of personality politics that can make NASCAR interesting at times, but bullshit suits-making-decisions politics.

I don't follow drag racing much either. I admire the enormous work that goes into making a car go as fast as possible, hold to the road, and not blow up. I think to be involved, as driver or crew, is probably pretty exciting (and I enjoy the video game version of the sport), but watching it doesn't engross me. It's over so fast there doesn't seem to be enough time to appreciate driver ability before-- WHOOOSH-- its over and there's another car up on the marks. I would never say there is no driver talent because keeping one of those monsters under control while you shift perfectly (or at least better than the other driver) is more than most people could do.

I follow sports car and rally racing. That'd be SuperGT, GrandAm, and American LeMans, along with various Speed Channel and Touring or GT events in Europe for sports cars, and WRC for Rally racing. Sports car racing covers a lot of different classes of car. Some don't really have an analogy to a car you can just buy and drive yourself, particularly the prototype classes in GrandAm and ALMS. But the cars in the majority of classes closely resemble their street counterparts, particularly if you like to mod street cars, and the manufacturers are frequently more directly involved or support privateer teams. Much of the technology or even the parts themselves are streetable. Hey, their headlights have to work. You can't get by with stickers. You might be driving at night, or in the rain, or through mud and snow (in rally races). They have lists of rules to keep driving close, but it doesn't seem as restrictive as the really big money leagues. Adding weights to winners may seem odd, but I think it beats the shit out of having all the cars conform to a template. And these races aren't just around ovals, like stock car racing. You gotta turn right too. Or go up a hill. Or through a tunnel. It doesn't allow the cars to just blaze around the whole track at 200mph... theres' finesse involved. Which is probably why a lot of NASCAR drivers just throw their hands up at the couple of road races they have to run each year. Or get ringers with road racing experience like Boris Said. You can see some really high speeds in these races (the ultimate probably being the Nurburgring in Germany or the Lusanne Straight at LeMans in France. But this type of racing requires more than taking your foot on and off the gas and knowing how to bump around in a pack of sheet metal.

If your an import tuner fan, sports car or rally racing should be your sport (along with some drag racing and drifting). A lot of the culture and technology dovetails really well with street tuning methodology. Like that Nissan Z or a Suburu Impreza you saw at the car show? Sports car teams run the Z and rally teams run the Impreza. You want to put Eibach springs on your car? Chances are a sports car team out there is running some version of them.

So my video game playing tends to mirror what racing I catch on television. Unfortunately I don't live in a burg that has a racetrack. The weather here is actually detrimental to tuning cars or even owning a decent ride. In amongst my dreams of moving from here, I include the fantasy about buying a ride and fixing it up. It'd be nice to move past just being an armchair driver. But you do what you can do.

Currently On My Plate

So I've been playing STGs (2D shooting games) almost exclusively lately. I like other genres but I've been in kind of a mood (rut) the last six weeks or so. Two months from now, I could be totally immersed in fighting or driving games. I am getting something of a hankering to tackle Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2 (the US version of Kaido Battle Touge no Densetsu), but I keep putting it off because I have not quite finished (100% completion) Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix and I don't like to have too many of the same sort of game 'open' at the same time, if that makes sense. I already have Need For Speed: Most Wanted and an iteration of Burnout still waiting for me to complete as well. So actually that makes three racing games on my plate.

I was working through GT4 at one point, but y'know? I just find the Gran Turismo games to be 'too big'. They are great for what they are... but what they are is also just endless. They are simulations-- lots of realism, no drama. They have the some of the best physics, but no wrecks, no damage, no story, and no real opponent AI. So to get through the entire Gran Turismo experience (in all the chapters) is about endless racing in very pretty cars through very pretty scenery but absolutely no emotional content apart from just digging the cars. I find that some kind of competition really makes my motivation to get through this sort of game. Even a game somewhat thin on the human drama like LeMans 24 hours is more interesting to me. THAT game wasn't quite as big (so as not to seem so endless) and had more of a focused goal, even if one of the things you had to finish was a real-time 24 hour endurance race, amongst all the other races. I liked that game so much that I've played all the way through two different consoles' versions though the difference between the two was miniscule... only a couple of new/different cars. It doesn't hurt that I'm a huge sports car racing fan though.

Ever since Need For Speed went 'import tuner' with the Underground chapters, I started playing them. I finished Underground 1 and 2 in pretty much no time flat. Then got into Most Wanted, and pretty got hung up on cop evasion issues. I'm at 69% completion but the level the cops pursue now gets so much in the way of the actual racing that it is frustrating. I like the idea of the cops involvement but they just throw so much at you so quickly... and a large part of completing the game is involved in very un-racing behavior-- wrecking stuff, hitting cop cars, ad nauseum. So much of it isn't a real racing game, kind of the point of playing a RACING game. Complicating things is the fact that doing well at it requires a lot of memorisation of the city layout, and the more time I spend away from the game the more time I'm going to have to spend re-learning what is where when I do pick it up again. A lot of the same could be said for Burnout (Revenge I think). Good game, awesome wrecks. BUT. Racing is only part of the overall play. It has a lot of non-racing you have to do. And to top it all off I was at 89% complete and my game save got corrupted. That's just discouraging. In my head I want to start over and try again, but my heart just isn't in it. I'm hoping to let enough time go by before restarting so that the game will seem somewhat fresh, but as time goes by there' always that next newer, cooler game... including new chapters of Burnout, of course. I probably won't be a completist and try to do a lot more Underground or Burnout chapters. I played through the DS version of Need For Speed Carbon and it was just okay. I think the only racing game company or series that ritually holds my interest is probably anything by Genki Racing Project. That'll be the Kaido Battle, Racing Battle, and Shutokou Battle games.

Like any car game, racing in Genki games gets repetitive. The Underground games (which are from Electronic Arts, not Genki) tried to get around this by really mixing up the race types. They have drag races, circuit races, street races, drift competitions, etc. all aimed at giving you a varied experience and keeping your interest in the long career modes. And of course they want to cover all the types of racing that can appeal to import car fans. Apart from Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix, Genki games don't really have that many different types of racing in each game. But what they do have is drama of a sort. They have characters, even gangs of racers for you to compete against, all with their own customised cars, driving styles, and in the later games, messages. There are even 'bosses' to defeat to get to the next level. There's a whole immersion factor here that most racing game makers just don't reach. The Underground games give you a whole city to roam around in and 'find' your races. That helps it feel like you are in a lifelike environment, really strutting your car around in a city. But Shutokou Battle did that first. From a pretty early point in the series you could literally drive around the Tokyo freeway complex looking for opponents, and because the streets had real counterparts, it added a dimension of 'you are there' that other racing games just don't have (to me). Genki driving games are all still like this. I love the games so much, a few times the release of one has tipped me into buying a new console earlier than I otherwise would have. I think Import Tuner Challenge, which is Shutokou Battle for the Xbox 360 is probably the only one I don't have, and the reason for THAT is a different, longer story that involves the high price of the console AND my indecision over whether to spring for a US or Japan version machine. I'll discuss my feelings about the Xbox in a near-future rant about region lockouts or the state of video gaming in America.

Its hard to explain the Shutokou/Kaido/Racing Battle to other gamers. Genki racing games are kind of a cult thing. A lot of driving game fans play them and just don't see what makes them so great. Its like being a fan of STGs, which are generally 2D, have somewhat old-school graphics most of the time, and a play mechanic that is based on one of the oldest video games known (Space Invaders or more correctly Galaxian). How can you explain to the modern gamer the badassedness of an STG when they are ducking for cover from 1000-polygon missiles in surround sound in the latest FPS, or trying to put one over on another dozen gamers in the massive multiplayer online RPG du jour?

You either get it or you don't. Age probably makes a difference. While newer-generation gamers ARE getting turned on to some of the cult genres, most of the hardcore seem to be old enough to have some firsthand experience of the time when the genre in question ruled the arcades. Genki racing, though not specifically arcade based (Wangan Midnight aside). They don't have the spiffiest graphics (though they aren't bad either). Their driving physics tend to 'arcade-style' as opposed to GT's more simulation-style.... though not as arcade-y as Underground. But they are just more exciting I think. Sometimes you really get some rivalries going-- just as in some more human character-based games. There'll be that one diver (often a boss) who is just a pain, and its just awesome when you squeeze out a victory over them. And the rivalries and feelings can carry over into other games. I remember seeing a boss in Shutokou Battle Zero who I'd met and raced in previous chapters, and if he had given me trouble it was like, 'okay man, let's see what you've got in your new car', because frequently the characters will upgrade between games, 'I will still leave you sucking my exhaust.'. Most racing games with a career mode (and that would be almost all of 'em) have a sort of RPG-aspect to them. You go along in your career and as you conquer opponents you get cash and can buy upgrades to your car, analagous to a character in an RPG, who defeats enemies, gets gold and buys better equipment. I guess for me, Genki racers just do this better because they put faces (or rather car stickers) and names to all your rivals, even having some come looking for you when you defeat their rivals or friends.

So yeah. I really should be getting back to finishing my racing games. As I said, I've only got a few characters left to beat for 100% completion in Racing Battle, but getting those last few to appear has been difficult. Difficult enough for me to put THAT game aside for awhile too. Racing Battle is one of the few Genki racing games that has not gotten an english version and so it is much harder to figure out and fulfill the conditions required to make all the rivals available if you don't read japanese.

On the shooter front:
I made a giant jump in progress in Lords of Thunder. Probably would've beaten it by giving it another go, but I had other stuff I had to do so conquering must wait. The game, according to internet information isn't actually that hard, but it took me awhile to come to grips it, as I posted in another 'blog entry. I did fit in completing Gleylancer though. This is an odd-duck little shooter. Great option system (options being the generic term for the little side pods that are power ups in many shooting games), and your hit box is pretty forgiving-- smaller than it might appear from the size of your ship. But the art style is strangely primitive, just sort of utilitarian with some enemy designs just sort of slapped together. Some of the choices in backgrounds are weird too. The colors chosen and the scrolling speed make some of the enemies and their bullets really difficult to see. This is mostly a game-breaking problem in the first level, so once you get past that, the visibility goes way up most of the the rest of the game. But it is still a strange game. It was fun, but compared to contemporaries like Thunder Force 3 or Gates of Thunder it is no classic. Can't complain though. You can get it for pretty cheap as a download on the Wii Virtual Console and it was an rare-ish import-only title.

There's a lot of neat little import titles appearing on the Wii shop channel. I have always been an import maniac through all the consoles I've owned, but even I couldn't find or afford all the titles I'd have liked. This service gives me a second chance. I downloaded Cho Aniki awhile back and that game was a hilarous good time. I see Gradius Gofer no Yabou on there, and when I get into a Gradius mood, I'm sure I'll get that one too.

STGs are a great pick up and play game genre. They generally only take a half hour or less to complete (Treasure mega-epics aside) if you are expert enough to get all the way through. Even if you aren't a couple good runs that get you part way to the end can be really fun (or you can credit feed to the end, but that cuts their replay value way down). The graphics may be old-school (2D) but they are often spectacular, with pulse-pounding music to go along. And their difficulty (optimistically read 'challenge') is something not often found in more modern gaming genres. Shooters are kind of the archetypical 'boss fight' genre. In short, they're kind of a potent gaming 'shot'. Good stuff for adults that just can't sit down for hours at a stretch or who may be away from their consoles for long periods and don't want to have to figure out where they left off. They also lend themselves to being a good one-player experience.

Current STGs playing: Thunder Force VI, Lords of Thunder, Mushihimesama, and Border Down.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Smashing and Spazzing

My son has a new (current) favorite video game; Super Smash Brothers Brawl please step forward. His sister thinks its fairly decent too, but for him its just a ragin’ good time.

Me? Enh, not so much. I’d probably have called it Super Spaz Brothers Brawl.

Here’s the deal. It is just so chaotic and frenetic there doesn’t seem to be any strategy to it. I think that there probably is… but I’m just not interested in sorting it out amongst all the flashes, characters, and items. I’ve never seen a game with so many power ups. A lot of characters is kind of becoming the norm, but power ups? There seems to be almost as many different items to pick up and use as there are fighters, and I think the game boast sixty-two combatants! And they all seem to have basically the same (or very similar) moves, that are all executed the same way. Nintendo’s answer to game balance issues seems to have been just make all the same character with different skins and a few tweaked nuances.

I’m sure I’m waaaaayyy simplifying, but that’s what it looks and feels like. I’ve spent about three hours playing it now. I get why the game was anticipated, why it sold a ton, and why it is still pretty popular as of this writing which is a half-year after its release. There is a lot to do in the game; it has a nearly full-size single-player adventure mode despite its basic design as a multi-player fighting game. It has cool character designs, many of which span the entire history of home video game consoles (Pitt from Kid Icarus? Wow!), and tons of unlockables. If you like the basic play you have tons of reasons to stay at it. But every time I’ve played it, it becomes an exercise in alternating button-mashing with trying to stay/float/jump/glide on to the platforms of each stage.

All the flashes, blams, item effects and specials make a Soul Caliber 3 fight look dim by comparison. Even with making the characters look quite different from each other it is still quite easy to lose where you are and wind up getting socko-ed into the sky. I’ve enjoyed other spastic fighting games… not Smash Brothers so much, I’m more of a Power Stone man myself… but this one is just too much, I guess. It kind of reminds me of the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja series. Those are closer to a traditional 2D fighting game in presentation, but they are still muy spastico with very little in the way of finesse, and a lot of items, flash, and running around all over the stages.
Like I said, I can see what is great about Super Smash Brothers Brawl. There’s no way I’m going to criticize it around my kids. But I gave it a shot, to see what all the hype was about, and it just ain’t my thing. Am I getting to old for this stuff?

Flying Knights and Wailing Guitars

Thunder Force VI continues to climb in my esteem each time I play it, though over the holidays I’ve reduced my efforts with it. I’ve unlocked all ships, seen all endings so now I’m playing it for score. I’m currently putting most of my play-time, and it isn’t a ton, into Lords of Thunder. Sounds like it’s be some kind of sequel or related-game to the aforementioned Thunder Force, but it isn’t. It’s an older shooter originally released for the PC-Engine (TurboGrafx-16) and was fairly well known for it’s colorful fantasy-themed graphics (an atypical theme for shooters then AND now) and its rocking soundtrack. At one point I had the Sega CD version of this game, but never took the time to get into, though I’d always meant to. With most of my old consoles packed away in storage, I needed to download the PC-Engine version from the Wii Virtual Console in order to try it again.

It’s pretty good stuff. I won’t say its at the top of the heap for its time or anything like that, but I definitely see the appeal it had… and still has. It has held up pretty well for being 15 years old. All hand-drawn 2D graphics, but with a lot of flair. It has proven more challenging to me than I expected. You have a life bar instead of getting killed on the first hit, but you seriously power-down as you get hit and parts of the game become a pain to negotiate with just your lowest-grade firepower. It is ‘gradius syndrome’ to be sure. So you get hit and without enough shootiness to defend yourself you get hit again, and again. The little invincibility window most shooters give when you get hit and respawn is almost nonexistent because you don’t respawn—you have the life bar and once its gone, your one ‘ship’ (warrior in armor really) is dead and its game over. So one hit frequently becomes multiple hits.

Players also get to choose in which order they tackle the various levels (except the last one) and their armor which determines the shot type used in each of the levels. I’m finding the juggling of all these choices really affects how well I do in the game rather than just being a sort of variety-gimmick as I first viewed them.

The soundtrack is one of the game's most well-known aspects. Its a 80s-90s era hard rock/metal, but without *quite* the cheese level that many associate with 'hard' music in those years. When you say 80s metal most people think 'hair bands', the glam metal sold by bands like Cinderella, Ratt, Motley Crue, and (yes people) Guns and Roses.

People kinda forget that Iron Maiden, and others were still putting music out and those years are the birth-time of Metallica, Megadeth and the other progenitors of thrash. The music in Lords of Thunder is not quite Poison-level cheese, the lack of vocals probably goes a long way towards helping this out.

Well worth the Wii points to get this game.