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.

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