Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is It Me Or What?

Wow. Raystorm, the sequel to Rayforce (Layer Section, Gunlock, etc.) is really fuckin’ hard.

This is notable because a) It was my first purchase in the series and I finished it years ago… so what? I’m getting old and slow now? And b) The first game, Rayforce, I just finished several days ago and that one is purported to be the most difficult one. Usually articles go out of their way to state how hard number one, Rayforce, is, but number two has no reputation for that apart from one review I’ve read that actually said it was easy.

I don’t know what that guy did that made it so easy. I’m assuming he didn’t just max out his ships and continues and turn the difficulty all the way down, which you CAN do in the options screen…I just really don’t want to do any of that crap. I want to play it as it was intended. Default. A few key differences that were implemented into this sequel could’ve made it a lot easier than Rayforce, but those advantages are offset by other issues…so to me it balances out…and in fact, I’m having more trouble, by far, with Raystorm.

Both games have a forward-firing ‘shot’ and a lock-on ‘laser’. As described in an earlier post, the game has a targeting reticle that floats ahead of your ship. Pass the reticle over an object and small red indicators attach to that object, signaling its ready to be hit with the laser. Since the enemy only has the ability to hurt you when firing at the same level/layer at which you fly (or angling a shot which has to rise up to you), the lock-on’s ability to target enemy BELOW your flight path—before they ever get to where they can shoot you—is a distinctly cool, and very necessary advantage. The powerups are basically the same for both games. Red and yellow power up your shot, green powers up (increases number of lockons for) your laser. Neither game has a speed control for your ship.

What’s different: in Rayforce you can only lock onto targets below you. In Raystorm you can now lock onto targets in your same layer. This gives you the ability to hit enemies traveling at the same level with the power of both the shot and the lockon lasers at the same time. For strong enemies this means hitting them with double the firepower. Also in Raystorm you have a bomb, the screen-clearing panic weapon that is standard issue in STGs. There is also one powerup that is different. Sometimes when you die and lose your last ship a special blue powerup appears that if you continue you get everything, shots and lasers, powered to the max. This was probably a carrot to encourage additional quarters in the arcade. This is quite common in STGs now, but apparently not in Rayforce’s day. Finally, there are multiple ship choices in the sequel, so you can pick the one that suits your style of play; shots emphasized, lasers emphasized, or balanced.

All of those things taken together would be advantages… and if the basic difficulty of the game remained the same, then a sequel encompassing those alterations would definitely be easier than the original. However Raystorm has 'complications' too. For one, the viewpoint has now been shifted to slightly rearward of the ship, instead of looking straight down. This has the effect of extending your view a bit, but muddying it at the same time. You can see further ahead of you, and so see enemies sooner than you could in Rayforce, but the new 3d polygonal graphics are not as sharp. So whatever advantage the viewing angle might give you is canceled by the lack of clarity in what you are actually seeing. Even the bright red bullets are not so obvious against the backdrop of enemy ships rising and falling between layers, and the swirling camera work. Couple this with the fact that many of your deaths will result from enemies that speed in from the top of the screen always at your layer, so your visibility window is no better than that in Rayforce.

And speaking of speeding: your ship is abysmally slow. It was no thoroughbred in Rayforce. In that game it was big, slow, and had a huge hitbox (the area of your onscreen ship that registers to the game as ‘hit-able’). But in Raystorm you are a positive slug. There are many times Raystorm chugs from slowdown, which might be an advantage in many games, but here it isn’t. The expanded ‘bullet time’ you get from slowdown doesn’t mean shit if you can’t actually move your ship. This game's default ship speed is every other game's slowdown speed.

Another thing that is driving me nuts is the ship’s centering. In Rayforce your ship centers a little bit. When you stop moving one direction and let the joystick center, your onscreen ship wobbles slightly in the opposite direction to simulate leveling off. A lot of games have a ship center or level after it veers, but the sprite's total outline stays in the exact same spot. Its' just a little artistic flourish to make the ship look cooler and act like it has some mass and weight to it. In Rayforce the entire sprite's area actually moves BACK the other direction a few pixels. This can be really frustrating if you are in a precision situation where every pixel counts. When you want the ship to stop and let some enemy fire graze past you, you have to really give yourself a bit of extra room (not always available!) because the ship rocks back into position if you stop moving. In Raystorm, this wobble is even larger, practically exaggerated even. Because of the shift to polygons, and a rearward tilt view, the designers appear to have decided this particular movement quirk was too subtle if done just like Rayforce. 'Graphics a bit unclear, more complicated 3D-simulation view, better really make that wobble apparent, eh?' Ugh. And much to the detriment of my ability to play it!

I mentioned how, with the updated lock-on, you can now target enemies at your layer, allowing twice the hurting to be placed on larger or stronger enemies. This doesn't really mean anything in Raystorm since they've simply upped the number of hits required to take down an enemy. Most enemy ships larger than the basic 'popcorn' size, take far more damage than their analogues in the first game. Especially the bosses. Rayforce had a great balance for its bosses actually. They were tough, and intense, but the intensity dragged on for the right amount of time. Just when you thought your skills wouldn't hold out any longer, the boss blew up. In Raystorm, the bosses just go on and on. They don't have life bars to tell you how you are doing-- so you have no idea how you are doing. Their ability to take damage (at least at default difficulty) far outlasts my stamina. Typically, the first ship you have when you face them (assuming you've fought them before and so aren't surprised by their attacks) will go the longest. After that one dies you're going to be so tired that whatever other ships you are going to lose will follow in short order. It almost doesn't matter if you get into 'the zone', because your hands and/or rhythm just won't hold out. The last level of the game is just one big boss fight. Actually, that's fine for me. The last level should be a bitch. That's the nature of these games. He's tough, huge, and complicated. But the funny thing is that despite all that HE isn't the toughest fight. The bosses of the two levels prior are. They have difficult, nigh-undodge-able attacks (it can be done, but it is a lot of work). As I said the issue is how long it takes for them to be destroyed. The balance, in my opinion, is off. Expecting you to deal with say, four minutes of intense boss fight with four instances of his nigh undodge-able super attack might be what you could expect. This game basically doubles that. And it is frustrating and kind of tedious actually. If those two penultimate bosses at least changed form to keep the battle interesting that'd be one thing. The very last boss does do that. But he's the entire eighth level. These two guys just do their same thing over and over and are just seemingly impervious to damage. I wind up using my bombs whenever possible just to get it over with, not because I'm down to my last ship.

If this makes it all sound like the game totally sucks, it doesn't. It is a good game. It is just kind of a letdown after the greatness of Rayforce. My attitude towards it is a bit like that expressed in my post about Shutokou Battle 2. I 'remember' it as a really good game, but my experience in the genre since playing it has perhaps refined my expectations, so the weaknesses are now more apparent to me. I don't want EXACTLY the same play experience as Rayforce. But it doesn't appear to me the gameplay (or graphic) additions are improvements. The whole thing would actually be a lot better if the bosses (all of them) had about half the 'hit points'. This would make everything a lot less frustrating--the viewpoint, the slowness, everything. Because the bosses are where you are going to lose the majority of your ships. If you spent half the time there, then you'd be bitchin a lot less about how slow the ship is, or how difficult it is to see what killed you.

There is no option to reduce 'boss difficulty', unfortunately. However, there is a mode in the game that lets you play each level for practice. That's what I'm gonna have to do. I don't mind the last boss being a total bitch. In fact, I've kind of learned to deal with most everything he throws at me. But I just don't quite get there with enough ships to beat him...owing to the two bastard bosses right before him.


There isn’t much I can add to various details you can read in the web reviews for Brüno, having seen it over the weekend and pretty much laughed my ass off.

Everyone goes on about how shocking and tasteless it is. All true. I have to say Cohen is absolutely fearless. While the audience is usually unsure who is in on the gags, who has been paid, or who has signed waivers… there’s no doubt that much of what you see is ‘real’ in the sense that the other people in the film are just as shocked as you are (for example, the hunters) or didn’t quite understand what they signed on for (like Paula Abdul). Given this real-life guerilla filmmaking aspect, it really seems Cohen’s personal safety is on the line quite a few times. I’ve only done a little research on the production…I wanted to watch it not knowing too much…but Cohen will go to any length to get what he wants, either a laugh or to make people uncomfortable… which can be funny in itself, though not always.

The point of this post isn’t so much to address the content, as it is the reactions to it.

To get a point of comparison to Borat out of the way, Austria for the most part seems to be handling this much better than Kazhakstan handled the earlier film. Maybe that is because Austrians have gotten a bad rap in recent years for fascist-leaning politicians (and the obvious associations with that most notorious Austrian with the toothbrush mustache), but they are bound to be more urbane or in touch with Western European and American social sensibilities than a former Soviet republic. To them, Brüno seems to be no big deal, and simply a cartoon person who happens to come from Austria…almost like any Schwarzenegger film character. Apparently Austrian filmgoers have even found the movie funny. I’m sure, at the very least; Cohen’s german-esque language is probably worth laughs in itself.

The usual parent groups and uptight reviewers are all offended or don’t think its funny. That’s okay. The movie isn’t aimed at them. I’m not going to say the intended audience is narrow, but it won’t be a lot of people’s cuppa. Certainly this is one of those movies, along with say, Event Horizon, Bad Lieutenant, and Caligula, belongs in the lockbox you never let your kids get into. I’m not going to recommend MY parents go see it, that’s for sure.

But I find it interesting, though not at all surprising, that two groups on opposite sides of the fence have spoken up to blast the movie--far right Christian groups and gay advocacy organizations like GLAAD. I get the Christian groups. It has always been their thinking that gay characters of any sort are bad, bad, bad. There’s no shifting that. And never mind that all their protesting helps draw attention to the movie, prompting fence-sitters to go to the film to see what all the fuss is about. This movie isn’t going to lure viewers into the gay lifestyle. Drinking a lot of white wine does that.

Just as predictable, but more complex is the reaction by gay groups. Like many depictions of stereotypes, Brüno seems to get a positive reaction from individuals in the stereotyped group and a negative reaction from the so-called advocates. Like black folks who might get huge laughs from a Chris Rock routine, but where the NAACP thinks he’s undercutting the cause for blacks in general. Seems like the organizations try to staff themselves with people lacking in a sense of humor. It is all well and good to be protective of your culture, but the inability to laugh at that culture can be truly off-putting to me personally. In this case, while Brüno himself might contain elements that really occur in gay individuals, the character taken as a whole is so over-the-top that the only people who could possibly believe he stands for gay men in general are the very ignorant, inbred homophobes he points out during key moments of the film. And the GLT organizations are never going to convert those people to the cause anyway. I’ve been reading quotes about how Brüno is going to reinforce straight society’s discomfort around homosexuals. I’m sorry, but I know some pretty poufy gay men…and Brüno is at another rarified, almost non-human level altogether. No educated person is going to go to this movie and find his or her opinion changed or cemented to be anti-gay.

Brüno dresses and acts like he’s on the lead float at a Gay Pride parade all the time. Not just on the ‘I’m out and I’m proud’ festival moments, but always, continually…which brings up another interesting point; if GLAAD and the other GLT associations want to reinforce how normal gay relationships are, they could probably do a lot better than sponsor a typical big-city gay event where tons of gold lame, lascivious behavior, and just plain flaming oddness is on public display. It may be one of the few glimpses of gay society that some straights see, and this is what they get. Straight folks don’t often celebrate their sexual preferences cavorting on top of floats wearing mesh shirts and strap-ons, not on platforms and vehicles moving down the middle of Main Street anyway. I think the organizations are working somewhat at cross-purposes to the individuals, almost like they don’t want to admit who their constituency is. Said constituents are not Brüno. Brüno is a cartoon character, but almost all aspects of Brüno have a place in gay culture and Brüno is a send-up of that by concentrating it all in one really flamboyant man-boy. Gay organizations were bitching about Jack on Will & Grace too. Jack is not at all a stretch with his behavior; whatever GLAAD would want the public to believe. Will might be closer to their ideal, but just like straight folks-based shows, you have to have colorful characters to make it funny, or make it good television. Will and Grace without Jack or Karen would not have made it past season one. If there were straight organizations (apart from the usual ‘TV is filth’ from the Christian right) that complained about Karen’s degeneracy, I sure didn’t hear or read about it.

I realize I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has all the advantages. I’m a white male, straight and educated. I’m not wallowing in the ignorance of my upbringing or environment when it comes to most topics. I am tapped into the social and political discourse. I’m not poor. I’m not in the closet. I’m not persecuted, despite being somewhat eccentric by my community’s lights, with my long hair and mode of dress. So it might be unfair to aloofly challenge the view of people who have had to struggle most of their lives with unjust treatment and unkind stereotypes. But this is my space, so I’m challenging. I’m sympathetic to the view of any segment wanting to better the lot of its members. I am attached to a few subcultures that do get stereotyped. But I feel these causes would be served better by misunderstandings being handled with grace where possible rather than stridency. I don’t believe Brüno is a setback to ‘the cause’, any more than some goofy Wayans brothers characters are going to undo the Civil Rights Movement.

Every week Dethklok pokes fun at my most closely associated subculture…in the most unsubtle ways possible. Most metalheads I know can’t get enough of it, with most of the celebrities in the subculture lining up to get on the show! Granted, many subcultures like metalheads are proud of their outsider status and aren’t looking for mainstream acceptance. My point is really the ability to laugh at ourselves. Which some groups seem to have cultivated, and some haven’t. Seems like almost ALL advocacy groups lack any sort of humor or flexibility in this regard. Sascha Baron Cohen is British jew. A highly educated one, but I think he has some familiarity with being lumped in with a stereotyped or maligned minority. He’s found a way to laugh at that, and not with subtle little digs…if you’ve ever seen Borat.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mixed Feelings.

I’m in the middle of a nostalgic, but epic run through my beloved old games and systems. One of these old games is Shutokou Battle 2, known in the US as Tokyo Xtreme Racer 2.

I’ve got earlier entries that go on at nausea-inducing length about how much I love Genki racers like the Shutokou Battle games. This one, the second Dreamcast-based episode was the reason I got into them. See those earlier entries for the details if it matters.

In any case, I originally played the Japanese version. I was really smitten with the description and some demo I’d played of the first one, but I wanted the expanded world of the second one and didn’t want to wait for a localization that might never come. So importing it was the way to go. I didn’t understand all the text, mostly the wanderer descriptions, but all the upgrades and gameplay stuff was in English, so I got through it and thought it was practically masturbation material.

Recently, in my fit of oldskool fondness, I got ahold of a USA version of the game. I’ve played subsequent episodes in English, and knowing the details of the rivals and all that only added to the experience. It had been years since I’d even looked at this old game, and while I was digging my re-look at the Dreamcast, I figured I might as well replay this old love in an even more understandable, engaging form.

It ain’t quite the same. The graphics have aged pretty well. The cars and streets look fine. The music is still decent, with one tune being a real standout, and some of the best ‘racing battle’ music ever in a game. BUT, some of the actual gameplay specifics are just ass. The controls are part of the issue. The Dreamcast has analog triggers for gas and brakes (most racing games can be mapped to these controls) exactly as I prefer, but there is some disconnect between how hard you pull the trigger to apply the brakes and how hard they are actually applied. If you want a little bit of braking, you have to go REALLY light on the trigger. Pull the trigger halfway and you get full panic-stop brakes and your tires break loose from traction. This basically has the effect of making your brakes worthless IF you try to brake with the timing and feel of all the other Shutokou Battle games and most other racing games besides. It is really irritating. It must not have bothered me much back in the day because I was either enjoying the novelty of the other aspects so much OR I just didn’t know any better not having played many of the others. This is something I’ve gotten used to somewhat, but in the panic of a really close race I find myself reverting to my tried-and-true methods and timing and I typically blow the race. My win-loss record is truly pathetic compared to other Genki racers.

The other bigger problem is the balance between racing and upgrading. Most racing games have a ‘career mode’ of some kind. The one-player story sequence game where you start with a shit car and work your way up by winning races, upgrading your car, buying faster cars, and winning some more until you finally finish the game by having one all the races the game has in its roster. Most allow you to keep playing in an effort to unlock (or buy) any cars or parts you still don’t have.

Genki racers have a very specific methodology to their career modes, oft imitated, but in my opinion, never equaled. You still have to win, upgrade, then win some more. Racing games’ career modes have to strike a balance between challenging you with races that test you, but reward you with cars or parts around the time that you actually need them. When you first start, your car is crap but the races aren’t hard. You buy a few mods and then the races are easier at first, but then they start to get challenging. When you start to lose a few times or really have difficulty pulling off wins, the game unlocks more cars or parts… and this is the cycle. It is possible to suck so bad at racing that you lose and don’t unlock more parts, but most of the games will allow you to grind away at replaying races you’ve won until you earn enough money to buy parts that will allow you to overcome your suckiness. This ‘grinding’ is familiar to RPG players. They have to battle a lot of peon monsters to earn enough gold to get the super-item needed to get past an NPC or boss character. This repetition can often break the fun out of a game. Over the years Genki racers (and other racing franchises) have fine-tuned their play progression so that the player gets fed the ability to get additional parts at the ‘right time’, assuming your skill level is reasonable. If you can find reasonable racing lines, and stay off the walls and your opponents, you will win enough cash to afford better cars and parts as you need them. Memorizing new tracks so you race the correct lines, and learning how to stay off faster, more aggressive opponents in turns is the challenge part. If you get hung up in a game with a fair progression/difficulty curve it is because you need to learn the track better.

With Shutokou Battle 2 this is not so much the case. I have frequently found myself up against opponents that you simply cannot win against. Your car is not fast enough to keep up, no matter how you’ve tweaked the settings, and no matter how well you stay off the walls and avoid traffic. When you look about for better parts… either there aren’t any OR you don’t have nearly enough money. And the game is VERY stingy with the money. In the case of ‘I have money but there are no parts’ the game is basically telling you to buy a new car, but you’d have to have A LOT of money to both buy a car that is significantly better than the one you have already and to be able to upgrade it. You need to upgrade right away because you probably already have your current car maxed and no vehicle fresh off the showroom floor will be its match or better… certainly not one you can afford. So it becomes a money issue again.

So here’s the problem. Opponents you can’t beat, so you don’t progress. No parts to buy because you’ve bought the best of everything. Upgrading to another car is expensive, and the parts cost more on the better cars. So you’re left with ‘grinding for gold’ basically, by re-racing old opponents to slowly, tediously build up your cash and get a better car. This process is aggravated by the games insistence on making opponents worth less every time you race against them. So the game forces you to race for peanuts, over and over again. This process is why I don’t care for the Gran Turismo series. The nuts and bolts are a bit different in that franchise, but apart from the absolute lack of atmosphere and color, you have to race and re-race the same tracks for piddly amounts of cash. It just isn’t worth it to me, though I know a lot of players swear by those games. In iterations of Shutokou Battle after number two, you don’t really run into a lot of this problem. Between improved controls and a better progression curve, when you get hung up in the game it is typically because you need to learn the street section better (or confront them in a section in which you are stronger), get better about staying off the walls (because with the better rival, every tenth of a second of speed scrubbed off on a wall is a potential race loser), or tweak your cars settings. If you finally reach a point where a new car is needed you typically find that you are really close to affording it, if you didn’t buy unnecessary cars at some earlier point.

So this is kind of a drag. I guess this didn’t bother me much years ago, because I hadn’t been spoiled by the more balanced progression Genki would come to dial into their games. I’ve also got the much more recent Kaido Battle Touge No Densetsu (Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2 in the States) going on as well, and it is the very model of the balanced progression I’ve been talking about. There is some grinding, but it is as much to learn the tracks I suck at, as it is to earn money. AND they give you quick and easy ways to earn cash other ways. Repetitive to a degree, but not like the seeking out and racing of penny-ante drivers in Shutokou 2.

I still see what was great about this game. It IS obviously a step in the evolutionary process of Genki developing their racing system. Sometimes you go back to some old game you remember fondly, and it is just lame. Often the graphics play a big part of this. Most people, particularly old school gamers, don’t want to cotton to being graphics whores, but it is awfully hard to sit through hours of NES graphics (or heaven help you, Atari 2600 or Mattel Intellivision screens) when you’ve been spoiled by modern games. The eye candy of 16-bit consoles (Genesis, TurboGrafx-16, and SNES) can still hold up okay. This being a Dreamcast game, and not an early one, it really doesn’t look far off from the PS2 or Wii. The game’s system is the hang up. Like an old movie you find doesn’t scare you the way it did when you were a kid….no matter how well filmed.

At this stage the game is a chore. When I finally upgrade the new car (which I’ve bought, I’m just grinding for parts money), maybe the game will break wide open and be fun again. But the gloss is off now. Not tarnished exactly, but not the same as it was. Never thought I’d say that about any game in this series.

I’ll just blame Genki actually. It’s their fault for improving the damn things so much.
(screenshot swiped from IGN)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Shodan It Is.

So I went to the dojo on Thursday night during an aikido class. Much of the sword drills we do are an adjunct of aikido training, so I was thinking it was logical to award me whatever promotion I was getting at that time... and not take up additional karate class when I was tested.

Turns out the weekend test was only part one. On Thursday night I was asked to suit up, and basically work at the head of the aikido class. Additionally there were vocabulary questions (stance/position names mostly) directed to me... and of course plenty more opportunities to screw up. Which I guess didn't happen.

I came away from the class-- and an overall seventy or eighty minutes of testing-- with a shodan, the first rank of black belt.

Oddly, it didn't really click with me. I mean I'm happy I got it of course, but it didn't really register with me as a significant accomplishment. Looking at it, I think there are a number of reasons, it just kind of sucks that they seem to override any sense of personal triumph:

One, I really DON'T put a lot of stock in belts. In 'traditional' sword schools and the branches derived from them, there are no colored belts. The classic sword uniform is a pair of hakama (wide pleated) 'samurai pants, and a white or black kendogi/iaidogi top that resembles a karate gi superficially, but has wider sleeves. The top tucks into the pants and has a four inch wide belt that is wound around the body three times or more. The hakama are then pulled up over the bottom of the jacket AND the belt and has its own set of ties... all to the end of holding the saya (scabbard) very firmly. That wide belt doesn't have different colors depending on your rank... it isn't even usually seen except a tiny bit in the vents at the side of the hakama. All students wear the same belt OR the belt color means nothing depending on the rules of the school. In our class because we are part of a karate school (and for cost reasons) we wear the same gi as the karate classes. Our teachers also feel it is beneficial for us to have belt-indicated ranks the same as the rest of the dojo. It makes us feel part of the organisation and we don't have to just have a white belt on the whole three years it takes to reach black belt. But in my head, even before taking up a sword, I have been conditioned to understand that belt colors are really more guideposts than goals unto themselves. So this black belt is not lacking value to me, but it doesn't represent a specific goal either.

Two, as stated in an earlier post, getting a black belt in many ways is the beginning of your training. It is an old maxim that the more you know, the more you know you don't know... or something like that. I feel the additional learning and the increased responsibility in a more profound way than I do the accomplishment.

Three, I don't really feel I deserved it. I am absolutely not able to second-guess my instructors, but as most of us tend to be, I am most critical of myself. And I just see all the work I need to do, not what I've done.

Four, there are who have been in this class longer than I have that are now all ranked lower than myself. I feel incredibly awkward to be in this position. I am empathetic to their having been passed by. I have had a class session now with this rank, and the students there were congratulatory and all that, but none of them were the ones with significant seniority. I know this isn't my 'fault' or anything that I really should be concerned with, but my empathy still makes this tense for me. This aspect of my ambivalence towards my belt will be cured with time as we all settle into the new order... but it is still pretty uncomfortable right now.

A lot of what got me my promotion I think, is what westerners would call 'spirit'. Basically, I'm the only student who acts like they would take a sword or a stick in a confrontation, not totally panic or spaz out, and kill or injure someone to protect myself.... or rather I'm the closest to that. I'm not technically perfect, I'm not imbued with an icy calm. I think my instructors can just see flashes of that, so there's a path there that I've been set upon now.

Some people might say my reaction to my belt is actually the correct one. The Japanese themselves would probably say my attitude is proper. Grateful, but not feeling worthy. People around me, that I've told about the promotion, don't really get it. They understand my reasoning, but they think I should just put that aside, and 'enjoy the moment' or something like that. My attitude towards this isn't any kind of put-on or false humility and nobody has suggested that either.

When I was in my last class I saw myself in a dojo mirror with the black belt on for the first time. It did look good. I had to get a longer belt and the one shihan traded out for me fits exactly right. Seeing myself like that there was some... I dunno... 'satisfaction' or something. A quiet something, but it felt pretty good.

Like EVENTUALLY I will get used to this.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

No Samurai, Me.

Had a belt test for iaido/akiken last weekend.

I’m not sure exactly how I did. I know I’ve been promoted, but the test took place during a karate class, so there wasn’t time for the head of our dojo and my instructor to confer. The actual ‘award’ was put off ‘til tonight. I don’t know whether I’ve moved up another kyu rank in the brown belt range or up to shodan, the first black belt rank. I know the latter was the goal the dojo head (shihan) was hoping for. I won’t know until after work whether I actually measured up that or not.

I don’t actually test very well. I have a severe nervousness problem. It seems to have nothing to do with how well I know the material. I could know the moves sleepwalking, yet when I have to perform in front of a group (or even be on-the-spot for just the sensei or shihan) my heart pounds and my stomach liquefies. This test was in front of the entire school and went on for about forty minutes. It alternated between the kata that just the aikiken class knows (mostly the seitei) and waza that the karate class is learning (Toyama-ryu battodo). The class participated along with me in the batto drills, but I was still at the front. It was really nerve-racking.

The funny part is that I don’t really have nerves getting up in front of people in other circumstances. Leading a meeting or making a speech doesn’t give me trouble. I’m not sure what it is about martial arts testing that makes me so self-conscious and nervous. I want to do well, sure. Everyone does. I don’t believe getting belts is the goal of martial arts, so if I ‘fail’ it isn’t like it’d change anything or cause me to quit.

The same thing happens to me at tournaments. I don’t freeze up, but I get really awkward and stiff, hesitant even… and it can be really obvious. I tend to be confident in most other situations, so this is really, glaringly, uncharacteristic of me. I didn’t do well, in my opinion, though shihan was complementary of me…. And I do know I got some form of promotion.

We have over time had some of our higher-ranking students drop from class so we are without a dan-ranked (black belt) student. Our shihan really wants to have a black belt back in there. On the point of technical proficiency (if I’m not being watched) I’m probably in the ballpark. But much of the point of earning a rank is that you can perform the material in any circumstance, from a cold start if necessary. I obviously have trouble in a certain situation—being under a critical eye. Typically repetition, training, training, training, is the answer to most of the issues and hurdles for practitioners. The idea is to get your body to the point that it has memorized the techniques pretty much without your mind being involved. And your mind is able to utilize mushin and just tune everything else out. I’m not sure repetition will get me to mushin. I’m not sure what will. This appears to be deeply rooted problem in my confidence. I never get a chance to breathe, relax, and move with a no-mind mushin state because as soon as the test starts, the relaxation becomes impossible.

It may be purely a confidence thing. Although I don’t get nervous in the literal sense playing video games, there can often be a huge difference in how well I play a game AFTER I’ve beaten it. Like there’s a surety of play when you know there’s nothing in the game that you can’t get past. This might be something like that. Although I put no stock in getting a black belt for myself, and I certainly don’t see that as the goal of my training, there may be a part of myself emotionally that will settle the fuck down after I have my black belt. A confidence that comes with having gotten ‘all the way through it’.

Contrary to popular belief, a black belt is not any sign of mastery. It is a symbol that a martial arts student is ready to begin his REAL training. That he has the fundamentals down and can perform them correctly, consistently, with confidence. A dan rank is just the first step towards truly learning one’s art. Most martial arts would probably not consider a practitioner as being a ‘master’ (if that word can really mean anything when the master himself usually doesn’t consider himself such) until they are up into the sixth dan and beyond. Normally you can’t lead a class on your own until you are fourth or fifth dan.

The nervousness I’m describing is really common in martial arts. Maybe not as crippling for most people as it is for me. But tests and tournaments both engender fear and anxiety that is necessary for growth I think. Martial arts are supposed to be training you to react to dangerous, even life-threatening situations… in addition to their other benefits. A dojo is hard-pressed to accurately simulate the emotional side of a dangerous encounter. You always know your instructor or fellow students do not want to injure you. There will never be a lethal weapon actually wielded against you. Even in the so-called reality training classes, lawsuits and civility mean you wear lots of protective gear when weapons or actual striking are brought into play. The fear preceding a test or tournament is a way of feeling something akin to combat fear. Like warriors preparing for a battle, you want to ‘survive’ (do well) and not ‘die’ (embarrass yourself). And wow, when you suck during these times, you’ll almost wish you DID die. Death in a test or tournament is really a long drawn-out affair as you walk back off the floor, everyone’s eyes on you (or obviously trying NOT to look at you!).

I’m not hopeful for a shodan rank. Given the black belt criteria I gave above, I do not meet that standard. I am unable to perform consistently. It would be interesting to know if I’d be just as awkward in a dangerous sword encounter… not that that will actually happen in this day and age. The times I’ve actually been in a fight (or close to getting in one) in real life, I did NOT feel this way. Adrenalin pumping readiness, yes. Bowel-loosening fear, no. So there may be enough of a difference between potential combat and a test that my mind actually divides the emotional nuance really clearly. Or maybe it is just that in a fight I’ve never felt all that threatened.

All I can do is continue to train.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What's In A Name?


Two days ago, while having a go at an old video game, I unexpectedly found myself 'in the zone' and finished it. I had a little time between various kid events and really hadn't expected to do anything with it but get in some practice. The game is the Saturn version of Galactic Attack from Taito, which is also known as Layer Section... or Gunlock... or Rayforce. The game must be on the FBI's Most Wanted List with that many aliases.

In martial arts, and most sports, there is a state of mind the practitioner strives toward. In Japanese it is the two-fold state owning both 'zanshin' (readiness/awareness) and 'mushin' (no mind). In this place, 'the zone' as many westerners know it is where everything clicks. You've shut out the distractions, nothing can touch you, and your performance is 'on' like you know just where to go and what to do. The better atheletes can enter this state much more easily than poorer players... it is one of the reasons they are better. When I am practicing various kata for swordwork there is a huge difference when I am in the zone and when I am not.

I kind of just fell into the zone playing Rayforce. This is a game I've owned for a long time, and I like it a lot, but I'd never put that much time into playing it... certainly had never finished it. Originally, I bought Raystorm (Layer Section 2), played it, finished it and reading reviews that said the first one was even better, I eventually tracked it down and bought it. I think all the Layer Section games are underappreciated, but the first one has a pretty good rep. The other two not so much, but in my opinion that's undeserved. Much of the play mechanics, looks, and music style eventually made their way into G. Rev's game Border Down. Not surprising considering the ex-Taito folks working at G. Rev.

This first one is a 2D graphic spectacle, has awesome sound effects, and pretty good music if you like 'the spacy jazz stylings' of Zuntata, the old in-house band for Taito. The name 'Layer Section' actually comes from the level design... you move down through 'layers' from space through a planet's atmosphere to a mechanised tower at its core... and the gameplay which has you destroying enemies at two separate heights, an upper and lower 'layer'. As each level ends, your ship smoothly moves to the next with no interruption of the graphics, so the whole thing looks like one continuous journey. It is quite cool and really helps make the game world feel more real. You are given a 'bullets' to shoot down enemies on your layer (at your level) and homing 'lasers' to blast the enemies on the layer below you. There is a crosshairs a short distance ahead of your ship that you use to lock on with the homing lasers. There's a lot of scaling and parallax scrolling effects to reinforce the 3D play concepts but all using 2D objects and art.


Those gameplay basics don't change for the sequels. The changes in the later episodes come with the designers giving you multiple ships to choose from, so the specifics of the weaponry vary slightly though they operate under the same two-layer, lock-on homing idea. They also shift the viewpoint slightly to the rear of the ship (a la Silpheed) so that the switch to polygon graphics (from the sprites of the original) becomes more dramatic. The game is still a 2D shooter, but it is played over a three-dimensional background. I played and finished the second one years ago, but will be giving that another go in preparation for playing the third one, Raycrisis. I didn't really want to do that until I'd finished the first one, which I've been trying to do off and on for a month. Doing things in the correct order, now that I have all the games, was just important to me. I'm retarded like that.

My kids think I'm retarded anyway. They understand liking video games a lot. They do themselves, especially during the long, gonad-cracking winters. What they don't see is the 2D shooter love. My son does a little. He thinks Thunderforce 6 is the cat's ass. But that's a really modern game (despite the oldskool gameplay) complete with super-flash polygonal graphics and multiple unlockable ships. Thunderforce's designers also included a difficulty level a kid can actually handle, so he can make reasonable progress and not feel stymied. But in general, the don't get it. Currently their game of choice is the online MMO for kids Wizard101. Its a 3D collector game, RPG, and social center all in one. Everything the current craze in 'massive multiplayer online' caters to. Having to repetitively practice the same levels with no save points, no customisable characters, and a game length measured in minutes, just has no appeal to them, and no appeal to mainstream gaming itself anymore.

In terms of 'finishing' Rayforce, I'm calling it that for getting all the way through the game on the initial allotment of credits. I don't really use the term 'beating' it. There's a school of thought that beating a game literally would mean getting the 1CC or one-credit-clear... that is, finishing the game on just the inital batch of ships you are given and any extras (extends) you are awarded during the game. Successfully playing for survival. I subscribe to that belief, even though by that standard I will rarely ever 'beat' a game because I just can't put that much time into learning all the ins and outs to be good enough. I look online at how much time some players put into dominating their chosen shooters and it is just more than a responsible parent can probably do. So most of the time, I'm just going to have to be happy with getting all the way through on the basic number of credits/continues. If a shooter has unlimited continues and no way to turn that off, then only four credits count towards the finish. I might use the unlimited continues to practice later levels, but I won't chalk it up as a victory. Again, retarded. At least by some people's standards. But this is how you get value out of what is essentially a very short, but intense play experience. You're simulating approaching the game in an arcade... you wouldn't drop unlimited amounts of money in a cabinet, so I don't use unlimited continues. The last game I 1CC'd for the first time was probably Lords of Thunder.

Rank is a feature of Rayforce. I don't recall if the other Layer Section games enforce rank. I'll find out when I play them again (though I've never put much time into Raycrisis anyway). The more ships you have in reserve, and the stronger your firepower, the more enemies and bullets the game throws at you. Some games (like Ibara or the infamous Battle Garegga) the rank is so furious that suiciding your ships and avoiding powerups is actually a strategy in playing, especially playing for survival. I like those two games, but like a lot of people I think the whole concept of doing 'less than great' in a sense is really a counterintuitive way to play. I get the whole rank thing. These machines were spawned out of an environment where the games were trying to suck quarters out of you. Apart from the natural increase in difficulty that comes with progress (the seventh level would always be harder than the first) the games became 'artificially' more difficult to end your game and get you to feed more money in to see what comes next. I am not a fan of rank, and certainly don't like the idea of rank-control becoming the focus of playing, but fierce as the rank is in Rayforce it didn't totally destroy the fun. A lot of Rayforce skill is based in being in the right place to destroy enemies before they can really do anything to you. And if you get good at that, the extra bullets don't mean much.


On to the other Layer Sections. I know the second one was fun, and as I recall easier than the Rayforce. Hopefully I'll enjoy the last one just as much.

More Cinema Glances

The Orphanage- okay, this one was on DVD. The packaging made this look like it was a sort of directorial followup by Guillermo Del Tor to Pan's Labyrinth, but it isn't. He was a producer, but some other Spaniard is the actual director. Nonetheless, this is a pretty effective ghost story. It relies more on lighting and sound effects, in the tradition of The Haunting, to make its scares. The little kid in the film becomes 'disagreeable' way too quickly to be believable but all the rest of it is pretty good, including the film's ending... which could have been really syrupy and mawkish, but since the whole film deals with bad things happening to children a little relief was warranted.

Public Enemies- Michael Mann's revisit of Heat, only set in the 1930's. A fair number of liberties taken with history, but the period 'feels' really real, in this gangster movie based on a nonfiction book (that didn't have said liberties in it). While this movie is good, I came away from it really feeling like it was a missed opportunity. I liked Johnny Depp and Christian Bale both, no problems with any actors, but this movie just lacked drama. It reminded me oddly of Tom Cruise's recent Valkyrie. That film had everything going for it but was just not 'there'. This is a well-made movie that will just NOT go into the upper tier of gangster movies like Miller's Crossing or The Untouchables. Heat all those years ago had the same problem. The fireworks promised by having De Niro and Pacino in the same film never materialised. I think Michael Mann has an eye for making a good looking film but he just won't push the content to where the audience is really moved. There are moments in The Untouchables or my personal highwater mark for gangster movies, Road to Perdition that I will just never forget. This movie doesn't have any such moments.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs- really well-animated and the texture work on the various critters is unbelievable. A great argument for CG being the new stop-motion animation in a way. I saw the 3D version and it worked really well. Clear picture and no post-film headache. The story is not nearly as funny as the first one, but the quest plot moves along fast enough to keep it interesting. It does have some good moments, the highlight for me being the laughing gas scene I think.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince- my view is pretty much the same as the majority of reviewers. It is good, darker than the others, more grown up. The movie dispenses with a lot of the side characters and background to focus on the teenage love pangs, which the book did not get into nearly as much, but that you really could believe was going on. In other words, the movie is a pretty good version of the events told in the book, but from a slightly different viewpoint. It was probably a good move. Most of the background details are alluded to in the movie for all the Potterphiles who need them... the movie doesn't contradict. There are some pretty scary bits in the movie, and I don't mean that just little kids would find them scary. Considering how dark and violent the last book is, this movie is a pretty good indicator that they won't try to pull punches in the last two movies.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Past Blast Froth Fest pt1

Some oldie-games cracked open for the first time in years. For a lot of these modern, spoon-fed, shovel-ware gamers need not bother. They can be harder than an angry black cock.

In The Hunt

In The Hunt- Sega Saturn. Graphically incredible 2D (sprite graphics) submarine shooter from Irem. Development team formed Nazca and made Metal Slug for the Neo Geo. So if you are familiar with that game you should have some idea what this looks like. In fact, Metal Slug in a submarine is probably an apt description. Mostly a shooter, it has the player controlling the scrolling like the run 'n' gun that Metal Slug is. The pacing may be off-putting for gamers expecting the forced scrolling of a typical horizontal STG, but I think the game's other details more than make up for it. Unbelievable animation and detail. Gobs of destructible scenery which is atypical for any 2D game, let alone a shooter. A game that shows all the Saturn's strengths. Only five levels long with the last two-thirds of the fifth level (the fucking volcanoes and beyond) really putting the stones to you. There's probably some trick to getting past all the lava chunks without losing a bunch of subs, but I haven't figured it out yet.

Assault Suit Leynos 2- Sega Saturn. Sprite-based sequel to Target Earth on the Genesis and Assault Suits Valken (Cybernator) on the SNES. A run'n'gun with platforming elements like those games. Unlike the other two games, the production values surrounding the game look shite. The FMV intro and the manual art look totally second rate. Check out the man-breasts on the protagonist! The game even feels truncated with only seven pretty short levels, which for a shooter would be typical, but for a run'n'gun is pretty weak. If you're going to have so few, they need to be longer to make it your money's worth, ie the aforementioned Metal Slug, which has levels that might be too long. Leynos 2, the game itself mostly makes up for all these shortcomings. You pilot a mech-suit with abilities lifted straight from the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam (plots and scenarios largely lifted too, in all the games in the series). The graphics are pretty decent (sprites) with occasional huge bosses (like Gundam mobile armors), and a really neat weapon and suit customisation menu. It is an import only game, so plot details and conversations will be lost on the non-Japanese speaker, but the controls, though complex, are not difficult to figure out since the menus are in English. I could recommend this to Gundam fans or people who enjoyed the other Assault Suits games. It is easier than the earlier games because I think the idea is to play through it multiple times, getting better grades each time because you've earned better weapons and suits. There may be some additional level or ending when you earn everything, but I'm not that good at it yet. Internet info on this thing is bloody scarce, especially since it is a robot action game and not an effing dating sim.

Ultraman Fighting Evolution Rebirth- PS2. 2D fighting game with polygonal graphics. Bought this one mostly for my son, based mostly on Youtube videos since, again, internet info (in English at least) is really lacking on gameplay details. Fortunately this turned out to not only be better than a license like this has any right to be, I found it to be fun enough myself to see it all the way through to the end. Which was good because my son is totally intimidated by fighting games, primarily because he doesn't feel up to the task of managing command inputs like the so-called dragon punch from Street Fighter, and with my going through the game first, I was able to coach him through finishing the game himself. There are no command inputs for this game, but it was still a hurdle to overcome his reluctance, despite the subject matter which he loves. The game does a really good job fitting in the particulars of the various Ultraseries which is no small accomplishment. With episodes and characters spanning forty years of television, plots that change the characters powers and weaknesses at the writers' whims, and all kinds of abilities like firing beams, transformations, wrestling, and super-strength, it was herculean to make a game that was even playable and somewhat balanced. I won't say it IS super-balanced, it isn't a 'formal' tournament-ready fighting game, but it works surprising well. The controls are slower to respond than the Street Fighter-type games (I'd say its more 'tactical' like early Samurai Shodown) but it conveys the giant size and massive impacts of the characters... much like the recent Godzilla console games Atari distributed. The TV episodes almost always end with a huge finishing move, and they've worked those into the game, even giving finishers to all the monsters, because unlike the shows, HERE the monsters can win. To help ease things for younger players, and because the game IS rather tactical (with a detailed plot for a fighting game) the game saves after every fight in story mode. The battle mode is more like the conventional fighting game, shedding the plot pauses and the saves. The overall sheen of the game lets the older Ultraman characters fit right in with the new ones and its really fun (if you're a fan) to explore these sorts of 'crossovers' between the series. Many of the characters and backgrounds need to be unlocked, so there's a lot of replay incentive. I'm letting a huge bias cloud my opinion, I realize. People who have no interest in Ultraman will likely not see any draw to this game. But Ultrafans will find this much cooler than they would probably expect, and shows what the license could be like taken seriously... well, as seriously as it could be. The game is somewhat easy, and experienced gamers should have no trouble getting to final boss... but that's when black cock strikes, and you fight what might be the award winner for most frequently regenerated lifebars/most transformations in a game. The final chapter goes on for scadloads longer than any of the other chapters and unless you figure out a certain secret for one of the the boss's forms, it WILL go on forever until your character just wears down and dies.


Flink- Sega CD. 2D platformer, sprites. Another amazing graphic masterpiece. Games like this and In The Hunt were the real catalysts for my 'No Love...' post from several days back. This is a thoroughly European game, contrasted against the overwhelming majority of Japanese games and a smattering of American ones. The style of this game brings to mind the detailed, characterful artwork of Brian Froud, Arthur Suydam, or Patrick Woodruff. Every leaf, every blade of grass delineated in loving detail. An amazing soundtrack to go along with it, partly owing to the CD format of the game. The gameplay is pretty basic, jumping, bouncing on enemies, or throwing objects at them-- standard Mario-style-- but additionally, there is mildly RPG-like magic system involving finding and mixing ingredients. Some of the more involved precision jumping sections can get frustrating because Flink's jumps cannot be controlled quite as well as say Mario or Sonic. But the immersion factor is just huge because of all the care lavished on this game. The opening intro alone will tell you the designers poured everything they had into the details, and the intro doesn't use any FMV or anything... it is the same sort of graphic design used in the game itself! Awesome game if you are one of the few (or the insane) who actually own a Sega CD.

Soul Star- Sega CD. 3D shooter, sprite-based graphics. The Sega CD was supposed to be a huge leap in graphics and sound from the Sega Genesis, but apart from more elaborate FMV intros and CD soundtracks they didn't really live up to the hype. Especially when so many of the early games were 'cinema adventure' games that set new standards for suckage. Eventually some great games did come out, and they had the expected super music quality, but only a select few like Flink above, or this one, Soul Star actually LOOKED like a big step up from the Genesis. Again Soul Star's gameplay, like Flink's isn't revolutionary, but it does it what it does pretty well. You pilot three vehicles, a spaceship, a hovercraft, and towards the end, a walker. Each vehicle has a different type of playfield with the spacecraft a rail shooter (see Space Harrier or Panzer Dragoon), and the other two working in more free-roaming areas. The graphics are pretty amazing. Smooth scaling, relatively high speeds, and cool enemy designs, particulary the mechs and bosses later in the game. Planets and ships in the distance gradually scroll forward as you play to become the site of the next level. The control scheme for the hovercraft takes a helluva lot of getting used to, but I enjoyed the game so much I stuck with it. The music is almost haunting in places. This is another game where the designers were obviously enamored with their idea and really went to town creating an immersive experience. I'm not a huge fan of films that are hung up on just their special effects, but occasionally a strong setting or artful cinematography can elevate a mundane story. The interactive nature of a video game means this sort of successful world-building can be even more successful.

Vampire Savior

Vampire Savior- Sega Saturn. 2D fighting game, sprite-based graphics. Third in the DarkStalkers series. It is not hard to find heaping piles of praise for this game on the internet, but its been a long time since I played it, so I'm adding my own droppings to the pile. Saturn version, arcade-perfect, playing to the Saturns strengths. Absolutely jaw-dropping art and animation especially when seen on today's flat-panel TVs. The gameplay is deep with an elaborate and satisfying system for the specials and supers. One of Capcom's best. Not as perfectionist-technical as Street Fighter or King of Fighters tend to be... its more for fun. But not as retardedly over-the-top as Marvel vs Capcom either. A good balance. With some of the greatest, but decidedly underappreciated characters in all of gaming. My son's lack of patience for games like this makes me want to sell him to the gypsies.

GigaWing 2- Sega Dreamcast. 2D shooter with polygonal graphics. Flashy, somewhat cute-seeming blast fest... until about thirty seconds in. Then it initiates you into the world of manic shooters (aka danmaku, 'curtain fire') with all the subtlety of a rigorous fisting. The manic shooter is a relatively modern variant on the old 2D STG, usually vertically-oriented. It is characterised by a small hitbox (collision area) for the ship (often just the cockpit), massive streams of firepower available to the player, and screen-filling amounts of neon-colored projectiles. I'll probably devote more 'blog space to specifics of manic shooters (or bullet hell shooters as they are often called) in the future. But suffice to say this one is right alongside the notorious difficulty level many manic shooters lay claim to. It has a shield/reflection system similar to Mars Matrix (another game by the same house, Takumi), but using it well enough to survive is an exercise in practice, practice, practice. Short, intense, difficult. It took me a long while to warm up to this game, so unlike the shooters I've been used to. Now I'm a manic shooter devotee. I'd say the biggest strike against the game is the unlimited continues. It doesn't matter how hard a game is, or how worthy of practice, if you can just 'credit feed' your way through it. I wish this had an option to limit the continues. There's no incentive to really work when the temptation to just hit continue (again) exists. I really like the method used by Ikaruga, Radiant Silvergun, and Border Down of 'earning continues' through play time. By the time you've earned enough continues to finish the game your need for them should have dropped. Gigawing 2 is not even close to being one of my favorite shooters, but its decent.

Cool Cool Toon

Cool Cool Toon- Sega Dreamcast. Rhythm game with polygonal graphics. I am definitely NOT a fan of rhythm games. The only one I even have near me is some chapter of DDR that I got for my kids (complete with dance pad). So I cannot claim to be any sort of fan or expert. This game, however, struck me as interesting when I first saw previews for it on import sites. It has a very quirky art and music style. The graphics are polygonal but in a very cartoony solid-color style, that sort of looks like a precursor to cel-shaded graphics. The music is equally offbeat, cover a lot of different musical styles. That could be plus or a minus for the game depending on how closed-minded you are about your music... all of it is sort of 'dancey' as you'd expect. No beat, no game y'know? Its a pretty cool as the title say. There's nothing else really like it. But the game incorporates analog stick movements in addition to button presses (no dance pad, its more akin to playing an instrument than placing dance steps), and therein lies the game's main problem. Control. Odd thing to say if you place it in context of most other rhythm (or music games like Guitar Hero) since control is the last thing you worry about with simple button presses. Cool Cool Toon requires precise exact movements of the Dreamcast's analog stick though, and this proves incredibly difficult and frustrating. There are no detents or 'clicks' as you guide the stick in the clockface directions during the game. So no aids to your the exact placement. You just slide around rather loosely. At first this is no problem, the pauses between beats allow some correction, but as speed and complexity ramp up, you'll wish abominable tortures down upon the designers' children. I guess like a lot of other activities it takes practice. But this control scheme seems needlessly difficult, literally problematic to the goals of the game. There are already grueling memorisation tasks in other parts. So this one gets a lot of points on style, but only people absolutely in love with that style, and so willing to tackle the incredible learning/practice curve should seek out this game. Note: the clearest screenshots of this game seemed to come from the Planet-SNK site, so that's where I filched this pic. The huge 'nexgam' logo is NOT in the actual game.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike- Sega Dreamcast. 2D fighting game with sprite graphics. As most people know this game is basically a clinic on how to do shit-hot 2D animation. The sprites are huge, move fluidly and are cool updates on the classic Street Fighter characters. Fans are split on whether this game or the concurrently available Street Fighter Alpha 3 game was better. I tend to fall in the Alpha camp. That game is just more fun. This one is much more restrained and technical, and I do think it is a great game, I just prefer the characters in Alpha and the greater number of options for your super bar and special moves. If you want a Street Fighter game that 'feels' realistic, this is your boy.

Okay, that's enough for now. More later.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Sorry about the huge run-on paragraph that is the Lone Wolf discussion. No matter what I do, the editor will not let me insert paragraph breaks.

If You Like That...

Quick note about additional translated work by Koike/Kojima.

Dark Horse has available Samurai Executioner and Path of the Assassin.

Samurai Executioner is the story of Yamada Asaemon, executioner of 'common' criminals for the government in Edo (the capital, Tokyo nowadays) and sword-tester. He is a character who eventually runs across Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub, but he has a ten-volume manga all his own. He is honorable and expert in his way, as Ogami was, but his circumstances are quite different. He basically addresses many of the questions about samurai society, bushido, and life in general from the standpoint of his official position. The stories each tend to stand on their own, with no overall narrative arc. But each tale is fascinating and the artwork is basically of the same quality and with the same extremes as Lone Wolf. There was something of a melancholy air over the whole thing knowing how this noble character was eventually going to end up, though that finale isn't contained in this work.

Path of the Assassin is probably the weakest entry. It is a good story, and contains quite a bit of action tending towards ninja (shinobi) intrigues as opposed to straight up samurai dueling, the staple of Lone Wolf. But the story is about the friendship and drama surrounding Tokugawa Ieyasu (real historical figure), and Hattori Hanzo (historical figure with a lot of myth surrounding him). So it is more of a history lesson than anything else much of the time. For readers growing up in Japan some or most of this is at least vaguely familiar, and it might be fascinating for them to see the intrigues going on behind-the-scenes to make the historical events play out, but for MOST Western readers it's probably too dense and too dry. Their are endless lists of generals and lords, lots of battles and political manuevering. Dark Horse does an admirable job helping keep track of it all for English readers, but it is just kind of an esoteric subject... for real Japanophiles, samurai or tactical goobs, or fans/followers of studies in history and government. I qualify in some capacity for all of that, but even I find it dry going, if not actually confusing. The realistic grounding of the shinobi skills is pretty cool though. Much the way fantastic aspects of Lone Wolf were handled.

So fans of Kozure Okami should run, not walk to get Samurai Executioner. With Path of The Assassin, you should look over a volume or two to make sure it works for you.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Suio-ryu Zanbato!

I've finished reading the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub for what is probably the seventh or eighth time. Maybe I've 'read' the Japanese version four or five times, and then since Dark Horse came out with an English-language edition (I did collect First Comics monthly installments when they were publishing) I've probably gone through it the same number of runs again.
In my opinion, this is just the greatest graphic story ever written.
To anyone who knows me, the surface elements already just seem to fit many of my interests; Japanese history and pop culture, martial arts, comics, exploitative or transgressive media-- its got it all. Even if you are not a fan of any of that stuff, this work is still something you should seek out. Unless you cannot deal with mature subject matter I cannot recommend it highly enough. I'd actually dare to put it alongside literary classics, though I won't claim enough expertise or credentials for anyone to take that move seriously. I'm no stranger to the great novels (or their criticism and context). Apart from the format (sequential illustrations, the so-called graphic novel) there is no less resonance, effort, talent or intelligence in this work. In fact there's probably more effort and talent comparatively, since it is collaborative between writer and artist... AND coupled with Dark Horse's translation staff pulling off a heroic feat in bringing this work to the English reader with dignity, and most cultural specifics intact.
The work of writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub (Kozure Okami in Japanese) was a years-long serial that ran in a monthly adult manga magazine in Japan in the early 70s. Hugely popular in its home country it spawned the expected films, TV shows, etc. that blockbuster movies do here. A country, after all, that has accorded comics a level of respect that we are only recently giving to our own. Despite this, due to the language and the culturally-specific nature of the material the book took decades to get translated into English in its entirety-- its twenty-eight volume, hundreds-of-pages-per-book entirety.
Despite its length, the story never gets dull. Part of this is due to the nature of the medium-- comics usually just read faster than books on a page-per-minute basis being mosly drawings, but here it is coupled with Kojima's penchant for huge sections of purely illustrated sequences devoid of dialogue or narration. You'll get through it at a brisk pace. The artwork is extraordinary. Realistic in one sense, and very stylised in another, it recalls much in the way of classical Japanese brushwork in calligraphy and painting while still using a lot of the conventions of modern comics and manga. And despite the exaggerated nature of some of the characters physical abilities, or the fictitious details in some of the martial arts and people, the book is pretty firmly rooted in reality, taking itself very seriously without somehow seeming to overstate its drama. It's intense or moving without seeming forced or corny.
The lead character Itto Ogami is an absolute killing machine in a way no real person could ever be, but by the time you get halfway through the second book not only will you buy into his abilities you'll halfway believe he was a real person. The book really backs up even its most (seemingly-) exagerrated aspects with a historical grounding. I would've told you the duckfoot gun in the baby cart was complete bullshit, until I saw the museum-held drawings of just such a design. No one had ever used one the way Itto did in the story, but that there was at least a precedent for the concept. Wow. And almost everything in the book is that way, with a historical fiber running through everything. Not TRUTH, but verisimilitude at least.
There is a lot of drama in the work. The basic story is about Itto Ogami's quest for revenge against the Yagyu clan. The Yagu killed his wife, framed him out of his position, and destroyed his life. He takes his infant son along on journey to avenge his family and his name, becoming an assassin-for-hire to be able to live on the road and to acquire money to finance his goal. The thing that prevents this from just being an endless series of violent setpieces is the boy, Daigoro. Daigoro makes possible a lot of the moments that let us actually connect emotionally with Itto because Daigoro himself does. He is also Itto's link with the rest of humanity and frequently Daigoro is himself the story. We basically have to watch him grow up in this brutal time amongst all the bloodletting his father's chosen path brings... and yet his father is a man of honor in a dishonorable profession, and so Daigoro forces us to reconcile our feelings towards Itto as more than just an assassin.
Warning. There is a lot of sex and violence in this series. It takes place in feudal Japan in the 1700s so there is the requisite samurai and yakuza carving people up, but the nudity and exploitation quotient is quite high. It is typically done in a way that serves the story, showing the underbelly of prostitution or insanity or slavery, but to some readers the presentation will come off as gratuitous. Personally, I think to bring these situations home, the degradation or horror of them, you kinda need to shock your reader. Its one of the reasons I enjoy transgressive cinema so much. Sensationalist to be sure but balanced by equally profound or touching moments as the story moves along.
The translation is superb, probably a model for how all film, DVD, anime, TV show, and manga translators should approach their work. As far as non-comic media goes only Animeigo probably approaches the quality here. The language is natural, respectful, and in many instances they leave the Japanese intact (in English characters, duh) because there is no direct English equivalent AND because the reader really NEEDS to be educated as the story goes along. They could've substituted 'lord' for 'daimyo' every time daimyo is used, but they aren't EXACTLY the same thing, and it just helps the immersion of the reader to get on board with the culture a little more. There is a glossary in the back to help the English reader. It might be jarring to have to flip back to learn a definition, but it beats Dark Horse having to awkwardly figure out what alternate word (or often a whole phrase) to jam in their to keep you from having to do that. Their handling of honorifics, the -san, -sama, etc that suffix names when you address someone. They leave them in. You just need to learn what they are and go with it. Again, they define them in the back. Its worth the work getting used to it. Another illustration of the the translators difficulty; Daigoro calls his father 'Chan'. This is an honorific used as a term of endearment usually to young girls, or to and from little kids. So to say 'Sakura-chan' to a five year old girl is to call her 'dear Sakura'. Daigoro is abbreviating the phrase 'daddy dear', as three year olds might do to just the honorific. Just the -chan part. So it would not make any sense to an English reader to hear Daigoro calling his Dad 'dear' or 'sweet' all the time. In our culture it is just strange. So the translators change it to 'Papa'. A little kids endearment-laden term for his Dad. In my opinion, a REALLY good choice, but not a direct translation.
At times there are quite a few English expletives used which were Dark Horse's choice to represent words that don't mean the same thing in Japanese but still occupy the place of swear words in that language. Translators of anime run into this issue a lot. The word, 'chikusho' for instance, actually means 'beast' in Japanese and usually an expletive issued when someone is confronted with something they don't like. So most translators go with the word 'shit' or 'damn' because saying 'Beast!' in that context doesn't convey correctly to English speakers.
Since we're on the subject of the English translation, I will move to pointing out a few of the weaknesses in this work. There are times when a dialect needs to make an appearance in the story. People living in Japan can often tell what region a person hails from or what occupation they hold by peculiarities of language in the speaker, ie someone from Osaka speaks differently than a person from Tokyo. Rather the same as people from Boston or Mississippi speak distinctly different from someone from California, both in accent and the words chosen. So in order to convey rustic or less-educated people in Lone Wolf and Cub, the translators have chose to give them 'Americanized rustic' modes of speech. So you'll see lots of 'ain't' and 'no never mind'... that sort of thing. A little like black folks spoke in movies from the 40s. While I understand what the translators are going for, and the people in the story DO occupy an analgous place in society to the roots of that American dialect, it is just jarring to read that mode of speech in a story that is otherwise so obviously 'foreign'. I'm sure I'm not smart enough to have come up with a better method, but it was still one of the few elements actually taking me out of the story, and took me longer than other translation aspects to get used to.
Another problem is the format. The books are really REALLY small. I know this was done to keep costs down, and guarantee the whole series would sell. They are ten bucks a pop. So the whole thing will run you 280 dollars. I can see any bigger edition might be daunting to prospective buyers if they knew just how much of a commitment they were in for. Dark Horse continues to issue other series of similar subject matter in this same size. I'm sure that is for consistency of format with Lone Wolf which was the original release in these Koike/Kojima historical fiction manga.
But it is high time Dark Horse came out with a bigger edition. The Lone Wolf books have proven themselves to stand the test of time AND be great sellers. Even at substantially higher cost, these need to be in larger volumes that show the artwork to best effect, and perhaps even printing in color those sections that actually were in color during the manga's original serial comic release. And if you are going to re-release it, flip the pages back. Japanese manga are read 'backwards' to English readers. They read right to left. When Lone Wolf and Cub was first released in the USA it was (just like the size) considered too daunting to expect readers to accomodate reading backwards. Dark Horse was already making the fans accept Japanese feudal terminology, history, glossaries, and all that stuff. They needed to turn the needle back to 'accessible' in some way, so flipping all the art so that the reader could go left to right was the way to go. But it had the effect of making everyone left-handed, along with a few other peculiarities. In the years since this series came out, the American public has been coached into accepting the Japanese direction for reading. Almost all manga series now follow THEIR convention. Even the subsequent manga Dark Horse publishes from Koike/Kojima. Time to get the greatest manga ever back into line with its Japanese format and all other manga releases, expense be damned.
That's really about it. Apart from dialect stuff, and my own preferences for a bigger 'correct' edition, the series is awesome. You will laugh, cry, be stunned, and get an education through thousands of pages of the world's greatest comic.
And here's a cool thing: Dark Horse MUST re-issue these books bigger and flipped because they've acquired the rights to the sequel which began in Japan not to long ago. I think as of this writing it is up to six volumes or so. Artist Goseki Kojima died several years ago, but new artist Hideo Mori seems very respectful of the older material. Despite his style being different his Daigoro is a dead ringer from the pics I've seen. For this new manga to be issued in a decent edition, it would follow that its progenitor should be done at least that well.
More about this when Shin Kozure Okami (New Lone Wolf and Cub) finally comes out over here.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

No Love for 2D

'Older' hardcore gamers know this old chestnut: '2D gets no love'.

Recently I got ahold of some of my old video game systems and planned to bring to light some good (often overlooked) games on this 'blog. But, as is often the case, I feel a burning need to define the context of my reviews and essays. One of these days I'll have all this 'background for the uninitiated' shit out of the way and can just put links into new posts. The posts will get shorter as we go along and everyone will probably be happier.

For the purposes of this post, '2D' will most often refer to games with play oriented along a 'flat' XY field, and lacking the Z 'depth' axis. So horizontal or vertical shooters, most platformers, most older fighting games, older RPG and strategy games, and many puzzle games would all fit this model. Some games that PLAY in 3D will still count as '2D' for this monologue, if most of the creative elements (graphics, controls, etc) are crafted in the same manner as a typical 2D game. See Space Harrier for an easy example of this convention. Likewise, some games with polygonal objects play in a 2D field. While I'm going to decry the 'lost art' of crafting 2D sprites, many polygonal games (or games combining sprites and polygons) are actually still really good examples of 2D gameplay, like Radiant Silvergun or even the very recent Super Smash Brother Brawl.

Space Harrier

Radiant Silvergun

It's pretty much a matter of record for American video game history that two-dimensional gameplay (and the various creative aspects associated) died with the popularising of the first Sony Playstation. That death wasn't quick, and in fact isn't complete even now... so maybe 'death' isn't the right word... 'terminal decline' might be better, but I'm going to use 'death' because its quicker to type, simpler, and suits my sense of hyperbole for this post. For all intents and purposes, the only place 2D games flourish now, in this country, is on the portables, ie the Sony PSP (itself headed for the chopping block) and the various Nintendo DS flavors of the month. In Japan this hasn't been so much the case, as their gamers tend to tolerate more genres, and embrace a wider variety of play experiences. This has the added effect of keeping consoles (or handhelds) alive as viable products much longer than the same machines are sold in the USA. One conclusion to be drawn from this trend is that if you are willing to make certain efforts and import Japanese games you can get a lot more out of your machine. If you are anything like a serious video gamer most of this is stuff you already know. But if you are a YOUNG gamer than the decline/demise of 2D might be something you aren't concerned with or even aware of, but you should be, dammit.

The death of 2D corresponds to the end of the video arcade. Again I'm largely referring to the situation as it exists in the US. In another country your mileage may vary. With the arrival of the Playstation (or PSX or PS1 whichever you prefer) 'pushing polygons' became the order of the day. Previous consoles had run the occasional polygonal game, but these were pretty simple affairs by today's standards, with simple shapes often no more than a graphical gimmick, and usually married to 2D gameplay (like Vectorman for the Genesis or Silpheed for the Sega CD). Every polygonal game devised, whether 2D or 3D was another step by designers towards more realistic (or at least more cinematic) physics and game worlds. As the years and games rolled by, the polygons became less of a gimmick and more integral to the play itself, leading up to the watershed moment (by my recollection at any rate) Virtua Fighter.

Virtua Fighter

Virtua Fighter was an arcade game first. As was often the case prior to the PS1, home video games were often ports of arcade games. There had been a number of outstanding 3D games before Virtua Fighter, especially if you counted all the vector-technology games like Tempest or Tac Scan. But Virtua Fighter had a big rollout, was in a ton of arcades and really made an impact on gamers. 2D fighting games like Street Fighter and Samurai Shodown were in their heyday and developers were struggling to tap gamers' huge appetite for fighters while still having a game that stood out from the crowd... well, stood out enough for gamers to take a break from Ken and Ryu. Virtua Fighter was at once familiar (two opponents slugging it out, archetype characters, life bars, timed rounds, etc), but at the same time wildly different with its weird looking art style, but 'realistic' physics. Here was a game where, yeah the people didn't look all that great, but they sure moved cool... and the camera swooped all around them, giving views of the action that looked much more like a martial arts film then a staid anime-still look of the 2D fighters.

Here's something I find pretty ironic: The Sega Saturn, direct competitor to the PS1, was a 2D powerhouse. It was designed to bring the arcade experience home in a way truer than had ever been possible before. With that machine, you actually had hardware that could match many of the circuit boards housed in arcade cabinets. And at that time MOST arcade games were still two-dimensional in both art and gameplay. Sega ported Virtua Fighter to the Saturn, a no-brainer considering VF's success in the arcades, and the designers and the console did a passable job with it. However, polygonal games were NOT easy to manage on the Saturn. For the Playstation which released VERY soon after, programming polygonal games was a cinch.

See where this is going? Sega created perhaps the best argument for 3D gaming, and yet launched a console less up to the task than their competitor. I've seen many articles about the whole Saturn versus Playstation thing, how one was 2D and the other 3D... but I don't think I've ever seen notice of this irony. Most people talk about Sega's awful marketing of its consoles, particularly in the US. The Master System, Saturn, and Dreamcast all 'failures' by comparison with their competitors in each generation. But in the case of the Saturn I'd put as much blame on the success of Sega's 3D arcade games, particularly VF... GOOD marketing in a sense, as I would to the fact that Sega mishandled how the console itself was marketed or how the machine was underpowered for the new style of games.

At any rate, upon the release of the Playstation, Sony took an unusal step; they actively discouraged the development of 2D games. This was really kind of a weird move. In an effort to keep costs down the PS1 hardware was designed to push polygons and sprite-based designs were not a priority. The PS1 could do it, but it had limitations the way the Saturn did with polygons. But to actually say 'no' to 2D games seems strange. I mean if a developer had a good 2D game design or wanted to do an arcade port and they could make it work well enough on the PS1 why would you not encourage that? Be all things to all people? Cast as wide a net as possible? The PS1's success was largely apparent from the day it launched. So while it is possible that this move was designed separate the Playstation from the Saturn, define their strengths and discourage people from designing for both platforms, the Saturn never really presented a serious threat to Sony. Even when the Saturn was on its way out, Sony never encouraged 'old-skool' gaming on what was to become one of the bestselling pieces of home technology ever made. And so that begs a question. Did Sony see the writing on the wall and just cross over to polygonal games before everyone else? Or are they actually culpable for the decline, like a reporter who gets involved and becomes the news? They acted like 2D games were on the way out and had no significant place in the future of home consoles, but was this precognitive or part of a plan?

Now a downward spiral was set. The bestselling console was not encouraging the style of gaming prevalent in the arcades, and was providing a great play experience at home. Why go out and feed quarters into arcade cabinets? Actually, there is a competitive reason to go out to arcades, even to this day, but the majority of the video gaming public didn't/doesn't find that compelling enough. Arcades specialised in pick-up-and-play gaming. You didn't have to read big instruction books or map out levels or anything like that. Arcade games could be deep or complex, but you didn't have to be an acolyte to get something out of them. Home consoles offered some of that, but also had huge story experiences in their so-called RPGs, and deeper/different gameplay in their strategy games and simulations. Basically the stuff you need a saved game for.

So in America, the aftermath of the PS1 era is newer generations of consoles (at the time of this writing, the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360) with their most popular games being first-person shooters and polygonal action games. Man, I've lost count of the number of 'gritty, destructible scenery, you versus the totalitarian regime/aliens/robots' type of FPS. Arcades are pretty much gone.

Why should any of this matter? It is just the logical progression or evolution of the video gaming scene, right? Who cares about those old-timey games? Well, old-timers do. The kind with lots of disposable income now that they are working, responsible adults. They come from a time when the play was the thing. In some sense a purer time. Yeah, graphics and music were important. It is hard to deny the coolness factor of many of the oldskool games, even today, when faced with the incredible graphics of a Metal Slug or the bitchin' soundtrack of a Thunderforce game. But the simplicity of the pick-up-and-play mechanics meant that your 'skillz' were put to the test in a direct, primal way. And you might be able to exploit safe spots or poor enemy AI, but you weren't going to just 'think' your way through the tough spots. These types of games required practice, repetition, and patience. Nowadays, games are designed to either be played through once or have to have tons of unlockables to encourage replay. I'm not knocking unlockables. I think they are great in a home video game of any sort. But old-timey (mostly arcade or arcade-style) games were not something you were going to just move through, seeing each part once. See other entries (rants) in this 'blog for my opinions on entitlement and whiney gamers. They're related. I don't really have a problem with epic, one-shot through adventure games either. Shadow of the Colossus was a gaming orgasm as far as I'm concerned. But this stuff (especially the aforementioned FPS genre) has just come to DOMINATE. And almost all of it is polygonal, three-dimensional, and in its way cold and sterile. In the early days of polygon-pushing games 'cold and sterile' could easily be seen in the graphics. The impressive part was the motion and the camerawork, not the 'art' of it. But as the details have gotten finer, the skins on the polygons have gotten more sophisticated, and the number of polygons pushed every second has climbed, the graphics have gotten better... but still have a lack of... something.

There is the analagous decline happening in theatrical animation. How many cel animation films have you seen released in the last year. How many CG animated movies? There's your story right there. No cel animation (one coming up soon, Frog Princess), a bazillion CG cartoons. And y'know? There isn't LESS art to making a CG movie, or a polygon-based game (nowadays anyway). You still have to have artists designing the characters, sculptors creating models for rendering, painters (working in a digital medium), writers, musicians... all of it. But there is just an 'artistry' missing from most CG work. CG animation IS artistic, but most of the time it still FEELS manufactured, though we are past the point where 'realism' is much the issue. For the same reason that cel animation going away is a shame, so too the 2D video game.

2D video games required artists to draw the objects in the game. Either by hand in an draw/paint program or as an actual pen and paint work that was then converted to a digital image. Some 2D games look like polygonal games at first glance because their sprites were pre-rendered from models and appear to turn and move to smoothly show sides and backs the same way polygonal models do (see Mars Matrix or Soukyugurentai).


This could just be the cry of an old fart, lamenting better days gone by, but there is whole cult of these old fart connecting and lamenting together, mostly facilitated by online communications. And they are adding brisk fresh farts to their ranks all the time. With access to PC-based emulators and 'classic collections' on home consoles, newer players are discovering there really is something compelling and timeless under the primitive skins of many of these older games. Have a look at some of the classic gaming sites like or Hardcore Gaming 101. These are vigourous communities that not only spend a lot of time being nostalgic about the old days, but are clamoring for new experiences in the same vein... and trumpeting the hell out of any new software that delivers it.

Now I have to go back a little on my earlier drama. There are actually a few 2D games, even high profile ones, being made and marketed. Sprite art seems to truly be dead or dying, but gameplay like the old days can still be found, sometimes right under our noses. Typically these are recent interations of venerable franchises like Street Fighter. The recent Street Fighter IV for the PS3 and Xbox 360 has the very latest in detailed polygonal character models (and are a great argument for polygons as art) but is STILL a 2D fighter. There is no moving 'into' the screen playfield. The camera can move in 3D for dramatic effect, but that's it. There's also the aforementioned Super Smash Brothers Brawl, again a flashy polygon fest object-wise, but never playing along the Z axis. The one-player game included 'Subspace Emissary' is even a 2D platformer very much in the style of Hal Laboratory's Kirby games.

Street Fighter IV

Then there is Cave.

Back in the halcyon days of arcade gaming there were the big boys like Capcom or Namco that developed (and still do develop) all sorts of games in all sorts of genres. And then there were the littler guys that tended to specialize, like SNK with fighting games and Toaplan with STGs (shmups). At heart STGs are basically just move your ship (or person) and blast all enemies, picking up powerups and maybe avoiding some obstacles. There isn't and hasn't been all that much development from that core premise. And really, the genre doesn't need it. It is designed to be pure twitch gaming and that's it. Mostly what distinguishes STGs from each other, and indeed a good one from a bad one, is in the details. Graphics play a huge part, the appeal of the see-what-comes-next factor. But scoring mechanics, the control of your ship, the 'fairness' all play a part too. Even difficulty.

Toaplan mostly developed STGs, and were known for their weird, dark art style, and the occasional innovative play or scoring mechanic. When they disbanded, the staff went on to work at the companies Takumi and Raizing/Eighting, both companies also known for the cool shooters they made. Eventually the Raizing part went away and so did their shooting games (Eighting still exists). Ex-Raizing developers and some others eventually formed Cave.

Love their games or hate them (and shooter fans are typically really polarized on this topic), Cave are instrumental in keeping STGs (a cornerstone of 2D gaming) alive AND continuing to champion intricate 2D (sprite-based) artwork. They are also masters of putting a lot of innovation into the scoring and play mechanics of this very limiting genre. Unfortunately Cave products are almost exclusive to Japan. Thanks to the internet Westerners know about them and are able to play them, but in terms of their (arguable) brilliance having any discernible impact on the gaming market HERE, that's unlikely. Ya gotta import. Look for Mushihimesama, Espgaluda, or Dodonpachi Daioujou on the PS2, DeathSmiles on the Xbox 360 (a version of Dodonpachi Daioujou is on the Xbox 360 as well but is not well thought of).


Mostly I've held off on including handhelds in this discussion mostly from my own personal distaste for them, but I'll admit to getting some 2D love from the Nintendo DS. There are actually tons of 2D games on there, but oldskool play that I've particularly enjoyed are Bangaioh Spirits, Gunstar Super Heroes, and Nanostray 2. There's even a Cave game, Ketsui, if you are willing to import, but I'm almost afraid to try a game as manic as that on the DS's small screen. Nintendo is actually a major league anchor for old timey gaming. There dowload service for both Wiiware and the Virtual Console are bastions of 2d art and gaming though much of it is rereleases of older games. This service makes available a lot of games even old timers may never have seen or were unable to afford.

Things move ever forward. But I think we are losing something here. With all the concern about realistic graphics, licensed music tracks, and the number of weapons available, we are filling our heads up with a lot of stuff that, though fun and interesting, has little to do with the core idea of PLAYING. There was a time when you could see the fun the developers and artists had coming up with the game (I recently really saw this in the old SNK run 'n' gun Shock Troopers). When gamers didn't mind playing through the same levels over and over again, because there was enough to the levels and the play, that you WANTED to get better.

Even if there's never a literal resurgence of 2D games on home consoles it is well worth the time of any serious gamer to scrounge up some play time on some of the great old games. I'm not suggesting going back as far as DigDug and Burgertime. Many games, particularly the REALLY old ones haven't aged that well. As much as I'm a 2d STG fan I'm not avid to play Zanac. As this post was inspired by my rediscovering stuff on my old consoles, in upcoming posts I'm going to give opinions and impressions on games that you won't find in your local Gamestop today, but that you could probably still scrounge up on ebay.

(images filched largely from Hardcore Gaming 101)