Monday, September 21, 2009

I HATE This Thing Sometimes!

I cannot get the spacing right on that last post no matter what I do.

I enter the paragraph breaks over and over again... even exaggerating the hell out of them, putting four or so in where on should do and it STILL will not format the way I want it to.

Forgive me for that last entry being so hard to read. Fuckshithelldamn.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Price of Power

Chikyuu Boueigun 2

Chikyuu Boueigun 3

In the world of film, there is a continual discussion of sorts as to whether visuals can make a movie, a movie quite apart from the sort of art film where the imagery IS the story or the language of the story. I’m talking about the ‘it was all special effects and no story’ versus ‘it was a great popcorn movie’ debate. More serious film buffs (read that ‘hardcore’, I guess) universally appreciate good special effects and visuals but don’t hinge their enjoyment on them. They are quite happy with modest or even broken effects if other aspects of the film are engaging. Casual viewers may not know, care, or have enough experience to see past the whizzing ships, and roaring dinosaurs to find out a movie blows.

There is an analogous video game debate. The graphically awesome/fucked up gameplay discussion. Usually the issue of who puts a lot of stock in graphics divides down between hardcore and casual (see a later entry for my opinon on this schism, a real can of worms) fans the same way it does with movies. Harcore fans appreciate amazing visuals but don't require them to give a game a chance.

The point of this entry is two games and their respective developers, smaller houses with limited budgets, who had to drop content in order to ramp up the graphics. I’m specifically picking two franchises with very similar games in both the current generation of consoles and the previous generation so there's no question of comparing apples to oranges. They are so similar in fact, that they would better be considered remakes than sequels. But what was gained and what was lost in the remaking?

The Chikyuu Boueigun 3. Over in Japan, the ‘Simple Series’ is a long-running string of games that are budget priced and usually feature uncomplicated gameplay or graphics. They don’t cost much because they don’t have a lot of cash plunked into development. They don’t qualify in the opinion of some marketing department as full-priced games. But they were worth making… or something like that. So there’s a lot of simple puzzle games, or cheapish-looking fighters in the series, but overall it is diverse. Occasionally there’s a breakout title where everything just comes together in spite of the low budget to produce a game that could easily run with the big dogs. The Chikyuu Boueigun is probably the most well-known example… though well-known is kind of overstating things, its still a very niche/cult game. Oneechanbara (Bikini Samura Squad in the USA) is another. The first two volumes of Chikyuu Boueigun were published for the PS2. They got releases in Europe as Monster Attack and Earth Defence Force (yes, with a ‘c’ in ‘defense’) for each chapter respectively. The third installment was released for the Xbox 360 not long after the console first came out. The western title released in Europe and also in the USA was called Earth Defense Force 2017.

As would be expected in a so-called ‘simple’ title, the premise and gameplay are pretty straightforward. You are a member of an elite science/military organization bent on eliminating an alien threat. The version this particular science fiction action staple takes is pretty much lifted whole from all the Ultraman tokusatu shows…where some form of ‘science patrol’ is the human defense against aliens and giant monsters. In these shows they have cool vehicles, and lots of beyond-present-day weapons technology. See also the more recent Godzilla films for the inspiration behind the military chatter and squad tactics. Godzilla Final Wars in particular lends a lot of its aesthetic to the Xbox 360 game—the alien ships in the film are dead ringers. While running around fighting kaiju (giant monsters) and aliens (even in a tank or plane) would usually be suicide (see almost any Godzilla movie) Final Wars equipped its foot soldiers with wicked enough guns to actually take the fight to the monsters and stand a chance. Chikyuu Boueigun gives you THOSE guns.

So you are an 'infantryman' (you can drive a tank, hoverbike, helicopter or walker, but I don’t recommend it typically) with a couple of big-ass weapons blowing the hell out of the aliens and their minions in all three games. That’s all you do. Blow up all the giant bugs, robots, ships, kaiju, flyers, and motherships. There is variety in tactics and terrain, but essentially your job, no matter the mission, is to kill every living thing not natural to this earth. And it is really gosh-damn fun. Repetitive to a degree, but so well done it is hard not to get engrossed. The missions move along quickly, and you cannot employ exactly the same approach, or use the same weapons to get through all of them. As you progress through the game you will get better, more powerful weapons as the enemies get stronger, faster, and more numerous. The viewpoint is third-person, and there is a little reticle in the center of the screen showing where your onscreen self is pointing. The action rarely slows down until the screen is just clogged with enemies, their fire, and explosions.

I’ve not had the opportunity to place the first episode, but my understanding is that the second episode basically retreads the same ground but with a lot of improvements. That's what the hop from second to third game was supposed to do as well.

I have a lot of play time in on Chikyuu Boueigun 2. A remake would have to be pretty badass to top that game. Seeing the trailers for said remake, one could tell the play specifics were pretty much the same… and that the graphics were amazing! Trailers can, of course, be misleading, but what was shown was really encouraging. If you’d played the PS2 one you knew what you were in for… only bigger and more shiny!

Alas, all was not as hoped. The trailers concentrated on the images that were absolutely awesome—the newly designed alien ships and walkers, and the new monster. These things are pretty intricate and have a new red-glow-and-chrome scheme quite different from the 50’s B-movie aliens from episode 2. A new aesthetic for the Xbox/PS3 generation, sure. Once you actually play the game though, it is pretty apparent the new chrome aliens are where almost all the money went. The rest of the game looks pretty much like the PS2 chapter, apart from better resolving textures and buildings that collapse with a few more polygons. The ants and spiders, the most common enemies, are almost exactly the same. I wasn’t really expecting the polygon count to go through the roof. There are tons of enemies and shit on the screen at once and I can understand simplifying the objects as much as possible to keep the speed up… it was kind of a miracle that the PS2 was even playable at times, though it stuttered like a fat man at a strip club during the most hectic moments. Generally the game does look better. It feels like there’s more variety and detail in the Xbox version and it doesn’t really matter that the game is more crude in places than the trailer let on, if the gameplay is up to snuff.

I didn’t really play the PS2 version using the second available character, the girl with the flight pack, Pale Wing. That’s not even an option in Chikyuu Boeigun 3. She got cut… or replaced with the big bulky (and nearly useless) walker vehicle, depending on how you look at it. The flying ants/wasps also got cut. Now THAT is a drag. The missions in the Xbox 360 game are largely the same as chapter 2, but one of my favorite levels in the earlier game was the one in which the ants had constructed a large hive, rising up out of the ground in the middle of a city that towered over everything around it. Seen in the hazy distance when you first start the mission, you almost can’t believe it… the scale of it. Complete with tiny (from so far away) flying ants circling the upper reaches, and wingless ants crawling up and down the sides. Simply awesome. And your job is to bring that huge bastard down! Xbox 360? No flying ants as I said, and no hive.
The newer game also short shrifts the kaiju in my opinion. In the PS2 game you had a regular-sized dinosaur-ish monster early in the game. Later you fight two little ones and when they die, in the same mission their mother, a beast much MUCH bigger (and spinier-looking, not just a resized object), comes out full of wrath to feed you your delicates. In the new game, you get a level with one 'improved' dinosaur-ish kaiju, then later a level with two of the same. And finally you get a level with one that is the same size, but was upgraded by teh aliens by chopping off its arms and attaching two mega-guns. There's no surprise and no drama to that compared to the first game. The Xbox one has a great sense of scale, as in what it actually shows you... but a lot of the awe is lost. The PS2 one had a great habit of letting you think you've settled in and seen the limit and then hitting you with something even more awesome to throw you for a loop. I have rarely said 'holy shit!' while playing this game. I said that a lot on the PS2 version... and it isn't just because the earlier chapter has me numb and jaded. The Xbox 360 one just doesn't REACH like the PS2 one did. With the little alien ships, the Chikyuu Boueigun 3 has two types, chrome ones and the much sturdier red ones. But they are just 'pallet swaps' really. Same ship two different colors. In Chikyuu Boueigun 2 the harder ships were actually a different design.

The money or time or motivation just wasn't into putting more into other elements apart from the graphics. The game has less, sometimes glaringly so. I don't know if these things were actually CUT, like the elements were planned and then dropped as opposed to never considered. I suspect they WERE dropped. Why wouldn't you have at least the same amount of variety if you could?

They wanted to get the game out early in the Xbox 360's shelf life, maybe because they knew the unsophisticated graphic elements, such as there are, would wear less well as time went on, but this game plays great (and uniquely) and the graphics are the least of your concerns during most of the game, when you are trying to run away and destroy hundreds of enemies at the same time. Looking beyond the polish of those shiny ships, the PS2 version just has more GAME to it, and for me, is the definitive version up to this point. I hope the Xbox 360 version sold well enough for there to be a number four that will improve this game in the same way I understand episode two upgraded the first game.
Shutokou Battle X. Another Xbox 360 'improvement on an older game'. Genki has been making Shutokou Battle (Tokyo Xtreme Racer in the USA) games for ages. See earlier posts about my ongoing love affair with the series. Just about every game console has seen a version of Shutokou Battle. Most more than one. I have most of these, though my collection goes back only as far as the PS1/Saturn era. Apparently there were NES or SNES ones as well. At any rate, the usual pattern for Genki seems to follow getting a new Shutokou Battle game out soon after a console launches, and then make an improved episode later in the console's life. The improvements can be quite radical. The differences between the two Dreamcast episodes or the two PS2 episodes are extreme. The Xbox 360 version in the US lacks the Tokyo Xtreme moniker and goes by the name Import Tuner Challenge.

I don't need to go into quite as much detail about this franchise as I did the Chikyuu Boueigun above. I have not yet bought the Xbox iteration, but I already know from 'net info and trailers what the issue for me will be. Dropped cars.
It almost doesn't matter how whiz-bang the graphics are. Shutokou Battle has never had the slickest visuals in a racer. They would normally be best described as serviceable. And what they usually provide in service is speed. The cars and environments aren't as pretty as the Gran Turismos and Forzas but they have a way more exhilirating sense of tearing down the streets. The games are immersive because of the atmosphere, real-world locations, and rival system, and the graphics are good enough to keep you into the experience. So graphically the Xbox 360 chapter should be the best yet... the bits of it I 've seen certainly live up to that. Even if the visuals aren't the most important aspect, if a system can render more realistic images while keeping the speed up, that can only be a good thing, yeah? Icing on the gameplay cake.

Another aspect the Shutokou Battle games are known for is variety. The DO rival some of the big franchises for sheer number of cars, and outdo most of them for customisation options. Early chapters not so much, though they had quite a few for their day... but the later Dreamcast chapter and the PS2 episodes had well over a hundred car models available.
Is the Xbox 360 version you get less than twenty.


This doesn't just have a dampening effect on what you drive. Typically in a Shutokou Battle game ALL the car models of the rivals eventually become available to drive. If the game only has eighteen or so car models TOTAL how much variety can you possible give to the hundreds of rivals in the game? One of the series selling points is the 'real-life' variety of all your opponents. This will cut the variety down to a fraction of its former glory. How many rivals will be driving the same car... I don't care how many aftermarket parts they have to choose from. Ugh.
I think... rather I HOPE.. this is just the typical Genki thing of first game on a console being relatively weak, later game being the real deal. That happened on the PS1, the Dreamcast and the PS2. The later games for each console were monumental improvements. Trouble is, its been a long time since Shutokou Battle X came out, and I don't think there is a sequel on the horizon.
Being a Shutokou Battle completist I'm going to get Shutokou Battle X. But this may be the first time in my life I'll be playing one of these games with an arms-folded attitude of 'impress me motherfucker'. Something's going to have to be impressive to make up for the loss. If it does surprise me somehow, I'll post it and apologise for doubting.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Double Shot of Double Oh Seven.

I've finally watched the two most recent James Bond films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.

As many Bond films as I've seen (though I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan) I couldn't help but enter into viewing these with certain expectations. Expectations to be met by these being Bond films-- the traditions I guess-- and expectations about what this 'reboot' would contain considering the modern penchant for turning series' grim and gritty. Casting Daniel Craig as the new Bond only cemented my prognostication since Craig is NOT the go-to guy for a debonaire, classically handsome, gentleman-spy type. And leave it to trailers to even further establish these expectations. I had been expecting basically the English equivalent to the Bourne films that starred Matt Damon.

And none of that was too far off, now that I've seen them.

Now don't get me wrong. I like the Bourne films just fine. The first one was understandably influential in how the suspense/spy genre was going to be depicted from that point on. Almost revolutionary. The Bond films are not the only ones in the genre to wear the Bourne influence.

The Daniel Craig version's movies basically wind the clock back all the way to Bond's early adventures after just getting his double-oh license, the license to kill. The films have separate characters but essentially describe one large arc and I found the first film a lot stronger as a companion piece to the second. I actually felt the presence of the character of Vesper (Bond's girlfriend) to be quite strong in the second film despite Vesper not actually appearing there.

Negatives out of the way first: It was COMPLETELY what I expected. In addition to that, the big dramatic moment at the end was boldly telegraphed and was in fact a virtual blueprint for how love interests in spy films-- and Bond in particular-- are handled. The only thing that suprised me in the film was that they DID go to the cliched 'betrayal/she had to' plot device. I also found the editing and some of the dialogue left me confused. This is not a huge problem watching the films on DVD, but I had a few too many WTF moments that required a rewind to see what I missed. I'm thinking in a theatrical screening this would be problematic. And this is coming from a guy who watches all kinds of movies with weird accents and dialogue and is a veteran of Hong Kong's most spastic scene cutting practices. On a second viewing I'm sure it would all fall into place, but these films are pretty fast paced and even I found my focused attention missed some stuff. Probably the only plot detail I found totally unconvincing in a 'that's Hollywood' kind of way, was Bond's treatment and recovery from being poisoned in the first film.

Positives: Bond probably need a reboot. While I find it becoming tiresome that almost all 're-imagings' (and film adaptations in general) feel the need to go all grim and gritty, I think in Bond's case it was probably necessary. The series' was absolutely becoming formulaic. And Daniel Craig DOES do a passable job in the various elegant sections when necessary. That shit just doesn't last very long. It is only five minutes work to be playing cards or sipping Dom before he has to bury an elbow in some cronie's eye socket. And that's another positive. More even than the Bourne movies these two films have a hyperkinetic pace. Most movies with that pace really push the believability envelope even for their fantastic premises (Indiana in a fridge, anyone?). Bond only really did it (for me) with the poisoning scene mentioned above. While I want to complain about the fact that Bond has almost no 'regular' adventures so soon after getting his license to kill-- the movies have an intense sort of plot most series wouldn't get to for a few episodes-- it is still true that Bond as an idea really needs no introductions or setups. It struck me as odd that he is already at odds with M and having a serious love interest/betrayal plot in what amounts to his first double-oh adventure, but after viewing them both, I think it was probably the way to go. The movies cram a lot into the running times, but still manage to have some long almost Jackie-chan style chase setpieces. And I liked how Craig's Bond is more physical/visceral but no attempt was made to make him some kind of kung-fu acrobat fighter guy. The films show him calculate the quickest way to cut off his more nimble quarry, and when he gets to them, he just plows through them Krav Maga style with lots of locks, disarms, and short sharp blows to the vitals. Bond has always been on the ruthless side, but Craig's is pretty realistically cold. I was actually moved when he himself finally finds reasons to be emotional himself. This owes a lot to Craig's performance. I don't think any of it was much of a stretch, but he was nuanced in a way that former Bond actors have not been.

Would I recommend them? Yes. If you are a hardcore Bond fan it may be necessary to put some of your fanboy expectations on the back burner and be open-minded. I am not so married to a particular concept of Bond that this was difficult for me, but others might have some work there. The films are a pretty good example of really fast-pacing that is not exhausting in the same way as the Indiana Jones movies or anything starring Vin Diesel or Brendan Frasier.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Monthly Fix

Here's a look at the periodicals I read every month (or when published) and why:

Modified. Car magazine leaning towards the import tuner segment. I go for this one because I myself tend towards Japanese or European street car tuning as opposed to American muscle cars or exotics, it isn't so yo-boy with excessive hip-hop and girl coverage, and it covers more real racing and tuning for racing than the other magazines do. There IS a whole culture associated with import tuning and I'm not suggesting it be ignored, I just find most magazines to focus way too much on that stuff. I used to buy Racer magazine (not available where I live now) and I tune into the Speed Channel quite a bit for non-NASCAR races, this is one of the few periodicals that aims at THAT sort of thing with more than just a cursory glance. There are better magazines at what they do than Modified (like the UK's EVO magazine) but they are too focused on specific cars or nationalities. I really only want to spend on one car rag a month.

Masters Magazine. Martial arts magazine heavy on interviews and skewing towards traditional arts as opposed to more recent stuff like MMA. The other newstand offerings are full on non-traditonal stuff and loads of ads for charlatans and bullshit. Black Belt and its ilk are so scattered and whorish that a reader has no idea what to believe. Masters magazine is incredibly repetitive issue to issue. The practitioners they interview espouse almost the exact same philosophies so you aren't learning a lot of new practical ideas. Instead you get a lot of insight into personalities and history. And the repeated themes that come up rather tend to reinforce that much of what is taught in traditional martial arts are universal, core values. There are even more informative periodicals available on the internet, but I don't have time to really hunt that stuff down every time there is a new issue. Masters only comes out quarterly, so interviews don't get so repetitive I can't stand it. And the DVD that comes with each one really helps you see what these guys are all about. Nothing shows you a 'master' like watching him do his stuff.

Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles. Heavy metal and hard rock magazine. Okay. As important as music is to me, I've been through A LOT of music magazines. Occasionally I'll buy another title if it looks like it has something to offer, even if it isn't metal-focused. I actually miss Industrial Nation A LOT. But BWBK has an unbelievable amount of info in each issue, even to having to use full-length sidebars on many of the pages. I prefer it because it doesn't focus on the more flamboyant aspects of the metal scene. I mean that shit is fun in its way, but bad boy behavior, trash talk, and controversy can still all be dealt with in a way that at least resembles journalism rather than out-and-out reveling in it. There are actually decent articles on the subject in a lot of metal mags, but since I buy only one, this one gets the nod for being somewhat above the grue despite the book's title. I actually find it worth chasing down and subscribing too, since no local bookstore carries it here, though we do have a Barnes & Noble and I know that shop carries it in some locales. This one comes with a music disc too.

Play. Video game magazine. The whys and wherefores of buying this one probably need their own entry. The short answer is that there are a lot of video game rags but most of them are absolute crap... driven like no other reporting media by their advertisers. Many of the biggest best-produced magazines (I'm looking at you, Edge and other UK periodicals) get totally bogged down in developer bullshit and a lot of high-minded programmer-speak. It is almost impossible to tell if anything is actually any fun. Play, at least comes closest to my personal mindset on games and while thin on its amount of coverage, at least tends to emphasize the kind of stuff I like.

Gentlemen's Quarterly. That's right, fucking GQ. Ugh. This is my sin that I must hide from those who actually know me. Although I have a rather specific personal style, I find a lot of the ideas about style and fashion to be pretty useful especially for situations where being a rocker-type needs to be toned down. There's articles covering a lot of other lifestyle and news issues, which I usually find entertaining (largely because of the sarcastic slightly upper-class view) even if I don't always agree with the writers. Living where I do, it is amazing anyone here even buys this thing-- my town knows nothing about 'style' whatever you'd apply that to. This mag is pretty much another tool I use to carve out a bit of civilization in my backwater burg.

Since I don't like to just stand around in the magazine aisles at Barnes & Noble browsing, I do occasionally buy other periodicals just to see if any are good, or if any old attempts have improved. But the above list is my regular set for now.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Left Hand Feels Different

I have recently read Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Kind of a spooky title considering the actual subject matter in the book. The story is about a (normal) human’s adventures as an ambassador to a planet peopled by beings who are part of the human family (a genetically engineered subbranch), but are all of neutral/changeable gender. The ‘left hand’ of the title is part of a quote in the literature of the planet’s take on the philosophy of dualism similar to our concept of yin/yang.

While this book was written in 1969 it manages to still be largely relevant (I think) to the 21st century reader, in theme and subject as well as avoiding anachronism. LeGuin isn’t really concerned with technology or, given the subject matter, really technical aspects of genetic engineering. She lays down the hard science and hard science fiction bits down with somewhat broad strokes so there’s not a lot of fuel for nitpicking, and the ‘science’ isn’t the point of the story anyway. Where she packs in details is the world building aspect, especially the society and history of the Gethenian (planet Gethen or Winter) peoples. She has a pretty clever seamless knack for alternating between present narrative, and relevant myth and history chapters.

LeGuin is known for a feminist slant to her stories and a distaste for violence. Both of these traits are on display in LHOD but they aren’t particularly heavy handed or preachy. In fact, the feminism aspects might be surprisingly level and almost understated for readers whose concept of the term is more strident or who are able to place the story in its real-world historical context. LeGuin speculates on both male and female aspects contributing to social constructs, positing the usual ‘men equal aggression’ trope (Gethenians lacking male identities most of their lives have no war), but also finding that the Gethenians are rather lifeless and stagnant without this male dynamic. Gethenians are shown to be a socially concerned, nurturing society… stereotypically feminine traits, but it was never clear to me why a neutral-gender population would default to this feminine standard… probably the only glaring question I really had reading the book. Probably LeGuin didn’t intend it to come off as feminine specifically—more as ‘neutral’ and that if the Gethenians had instead been feminine-dominant there’d have been some other societal imbalance indicated. Obviously I have to view this as a male reader seeing this with a mindset forty years after it was written!

Her handling of violence was also done well. The (main) protagonist comes from an ‘enlightened’ galactic confederation, and in time-honored SF tradition that means violence-disinclined, more Picard than Kirk as it were. But the ambassador is also cognizant of more primitive society’s need to grow up and through their violent tendencies. Gethen, lacking male aggressiveness and hindered in warfare possibilities by the bitter, lethal nature of their planet’s climate, keep their own violence frequent but relatively low-level… on the nature of raids into rival territory or as aspects of politics, assassinations and the like. LeGuin manages to somehow make violence (and punishment in general) futile and distasteful, without avoiding or ignoring it unrealistically or going with the ‘but sometimes it is necessary’ that most peace-espousing good guys seem to need to fall back on in American-fictive conflict resolution/rationalization.

(This actually brings up an interesting reminder to me about Lukyanenko’s Night Watch novels that I’m also reading. It is a horror adventure series set in Russia written by a Russian author, and half of what makes it so interesting is the completely different moral stance from which it is written. No attempt has been made by the translators to Americanize the books, which is all the better. But Wow! Russians sure don’t think like we do. Not that I expected them to, but it is still quite a nail in the forehead some of the conclusions the Russian heroes come to, or the decisions they make. As a white Euro-descended male, the typical Russian doesn’t look that far off from myself or most people I see every day, but it is easy to forget the EASTERN European/Asian history and context that is SO different from our anglo/gallic/latin bedrock. Lukyanenko is considered quite popular as a street-wise, every-man author too… so I’m going to assume his views are NOT atypical of modern Russians. I could be wrong about that, of course.)

I think one of the greatest things about this book is that it is one of the many examples that packs a lot of story in a spare space. I think this shit is a lost art. Authors like Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and LeGuin here could world-build complete with myth and history in a fraction of the page count of more modern authors. And I don’t feel like I’m lacking anything after I finish one of their books either. I’m not saying I don’t want to know more about the worlds, or that thick books are all beneath consideration. I just find the ‘old ways’ admirable. Spare plotting, picking up the details along the way, minimal exposition… all demanded by the minimal page counts demanded by paperback marketing of the day. LeGuin has some pretty big books out there now, as does Moorcock, whose ‘plot is everything’ philosophy really scores points with me. But those fat-ass novels still really move. Its not really about putting your characters through a breakneck pace series of events. Hell, Tanith Lee is the queen of purple prose and she still got the work done in sliver-sized paperbacks. It more about focused, concise writing that doesn’t wallow in indulgent bullshit. If someone was just learning the basics of writing and their chosen genre was SF, fantasy, or horror (hell, any genre maybe) I think they’d do better looking to this style than to the Tolkiens or Eddings. Not only will these old authors show how to get to the nuts and bolts of the craft, but if one is breaking in by contributing shorter work to fanzines or webzines one needs to know how to get the job done with space to spare.

LeGuin won just about every SF award you can get for this work, and it holds up. In a time where we like to bloat just about everything we touch; books, movies, serving sizes for food, it was quite a refreshing turn. Too bad you have to reach back so far for this kind of workmanship, but good there are so many examples to be had.