Thursday, November 19, 2009

Important Only To Game Geeks and Probably Not Many of Them

Zero Wing

My interest in other video game genres is cycling around again now that I’ve surmounted the Odin Sphere monolith. Some recent time has been spent on new racing games, which I’ll post about later, but I also just bought two games that are akin to a trip back to the early 90s, the tail end of the 2d shooter heyday.

At that time, I had been living on the East Coast a few years, and in between getting married, starting a career, and trying to carve out a comfortable space in which to raise kids, there wasn’t the kind of time to spend going to video arcades the way I used to. I might’ve found the available options depressing compared to previous years if I had as much free time because this was the time of the ‘great shrinkage’, where the small street corner arcade, and the game machines at every convenience store and pizza restaurant started to fade on down to the state things are in today. In the USA, arcades today, and for some years now, have basically been the occasional little mall space OR are the giant super-centers like Jillian’s, Dave & Busters or maybe Chuck E. Cheese. Admittedly, in these latter franchises it is pretty cool to be able to get a beer when you’re playing, but the video game machines are competing with other amusements that have big, attractive, imposing apparatus like pool tables, ball-toss games, or various simulators. Most of the video games themselves seem to be the big ride-on or specialist cabinet types. There’s nothing wrong with the custom cabs. Its great for an arcade machine to offer something not easily duplicated at home. So that’s where you go when you want to ride a virtual racing bike, man a firehose, or use an uzi in a light gun game. But all this spectacle kind of shrinks down the space and traffic for the traditional video game. I’m not saying you can’t find any great arcades, just that not every town is so blessed anymore.

At any rate, back in 1993 or thereabout, I could only eke out a little time for video gaming away from home. But what games they were! At this time sprite art ruled. The color and details in all game genres was overwhelming. Virtua Fighter had only just come out, so the drab dominance of polygons was still in the future. Most of my video gaming was done at home on a Sega Genesis. It couldn’t duplicate the speed and power of my favorite arcade machines but many of the conversions were good considering the limitations. I wasn’t sold on the 3DO. I had a NeoGeo, but carts for that beast were expensive. The Sega Saturn, really the machine that COULD absolutely duplicate those sprite-tastic arcade games was just around the corner.

I liked racing and fighting games a lot. Some great platformers and lightgun games too. But for me, arcade crack was the 2d shooting game, typically called an STG or shmup in the present generation. The 2d shooter is one of the oldest, most venerable video game genres, and at root one of the simplest. It has evolved through ever more complicated hazard patterns and more complex scoring systems, but in the main they are all just dodging and shooting. In a vertical shooter the shit’s coming down from above (Galaxian, Rayforce), in a horizontal shooter the shit’s coming in from the side, usually the right (UN Squadron, Zero Wing). Some games mix the two directions in various ways (Lifeforce for the NES, Thunder Force II). Some games are omnidirectional, usually eight directions actually (Sinistar, Subterranea). There is also the arena shooter, where your character/ship is confined to a single area, room, or space, moving to a new space when the current one is cleared (Robotron 2084, Geometry Wars).

It is the simplicity of the STG that makes it appealing and enduring. Going back to Space Invaders, the shooter has always epitomized the ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ maxim in gaming. You can just jump in with almost no foreknowledge of how to play, and then play however you wish; for survival, just ‘seeing how far you can get’, or for score, really digging into what enemies to shoot when, the best places to trigger bombs. Or a combination of the two goals, playing in whatever way suits your play style or your current ability with the game. The beauty of the STG compared to a lot of other video games is similar to a simple classic toy or game (or even a stick or cardboard box!) compared to some complicated licensed modern action figure or remote-controlled robot. The simple plaything fires the imagination and doesn’t require a lot of references. It isn’t about knowing a certain cartoon or movie, but you can certainly put that into the toy if appropriate. A simple old plastic gun can be any firearm needed for a play situation. Today’s popular toys are tied to some specific character in some specific show. They don’t require as much imagination, creativity, or effort on the part of the owner. Flashy, but limited. These modern contraptions are not the toys that kids tend to come back to again and again… and they are not the ones fondly remembered or saved for posterity.

It seems hokey, but STGs require little and can give back a lot. Because they are rooted in the old arcade scene, modern players may think the games just don’t have much to them. Played properly, without credit-feeding, they require one to play the same areas over and over again. But the best ones have a ‘just one more go’ addictive quality to them. As you play, you improve. Those small gains are hard fought and mastering these games is almost always a testament to raw skill… not luck, not finding the hidden super-weapon, not a spammable, unblockable move. And no guide book or FAQ is going to help you. The best you can do is watch online videos or ask experts for advice, but in the end you are still going to have to do the shooting, dodging, and scoring yourself.

STGs are kind of a niche or cult genre in video games now. Still around, still made, but rarely having any kind of high-profile or mainstream success, particularly in the US. But back in the years under discussion, the STG was still pretty popular. The height of its popularity was probably just past in 1993, but they were at a creative high point, a golden era to many of the shmup players today. I wanted to get back to THAT.

As I said, the Genesis was my main outlet, and I did have a lot of STGs for it. The shooters made specifically for the machine get most of the good press. Everyone knows the Thunder Force series, Android Assault, MUSHA, and all those games. Greatness sure, but they don’t have the disadvantage of having an arcade original to compare them to. They got made with the console tools and specs in mind, pushing those limitations where possible. Suffering by comparison were the conversions. They always had a precedent to live up to, but a number of these were still pretty decent and went a long way towards making me okay with my lack of arcade time. One particular title was Zero Wing.

Zero Wing was a game that I originally played to death in an arcade in California. It came out in ’89 during what was probably the apex of STG popularity in terms of mass appeal. I loved that game. It wasn’t particularly fast or spectacular. It had a strange hook to the gameplay with your ship having an enemy-ensnaring tractor beam, but it didn’t seem to be that much of a standout feature. You could take it or leave it. There was just something about the combination of the kinda-strange music, and the very weird, dark graphics. The game was developed by Toaplan, who have a distinctive, odd style with their productions. But I liked it quite a bit, and still do. I kept at Zero Wing enough to eventually 1CC the game in the arcade. I was ecstatic when some time later I saw there was a Genesis port of the game. My copy was the Japanese one, so I missed out on the ‘all your base are belong to us’ subtitle that much later became an internet rage. The Genesis port had all the basics down. Music was the same, pace was the same, all the enemies were recognizable and I was really pleased that the odd (some almost disturbing) bosses were still huge and intact. Mostly it was background details that were missing. Again, I played that shit to death.


This brings us to the game Batsugun. Released about four years after Zero Wing, this was one of my go-to games for my infrequent arcade visits in the 90s. It still had the distinctive art and sound, but it was a little brighter and happier than previous Toaplan excursions like Zero Wing or Truxton. With financial dissolution looming however, Batsugun was the company’s last game. Ironically, it was also the start (arguably) of a revolution in STG play and philosophy. I didn’t know it was Toaplan’s final game at the time. I just recognized the name and the graphic style. The play was a different matter.

Batsugun is probably the progenitor of the manic style of shooter, also known as danmaku (literally curtain-fire) or bullet hell shooters. There may be a case for various staples of the subgenre to have derived from earlier games, but in Batsugun, you have the first game (that I’m aware of) that so many of the traits came together in a recognizable combination.

Manic shooters are typically short, even by the already short STG standards. They feature tons of enemy fire, a veritable curtain of it dropping down (hence the nickname) often in mesmerizing patterns. The enemy bullets tend to travel slower than previous forms of shmup, with the skill in dodging coming, not from memorization or sheer speed of reflexes, but from dexterity in threading your way through the bullet patterns or positioning yourself to ‘herd’ most of the fire into one spot on the screen so that you can maneuver yourself to a different spot. The ships or characters tend to have small hit boxes, the area on your sprite that can actually be struck for a kill by enemy fire. Other parts of the sprite will just pass the bullets on through. The games also equip the player with monumental amounts of firepower, with selectable ships trading off how wide your shot spread is versus striking power. Choose a ship with a wide, weak area of fire and you will have an easier time with the common ‘popcorn’ enemies. Choose a ship with a narrow, focused area of fire and you’ll have to move around a lot to kill all the popcorn enemies before they overwhelm you, but you’ll knock the life off the bosses or minibosses a lot quicker. The games also tend to feature complex or multilayered scoring systems. Keeping up sequential chains of hits, using certain weapons on certain enemies, or drawing out the boss battles, can all be features developed to reward skillful, knowledgeable players with higher scores than the scrubs can manage.

Batsugun's scoring was not particularly complex. The hitbox on your ship was not tiny. And a lot of the enemy bullets come at you pretty fast. But overall, playing the game you can see the shift toward a new style. The levels are brief but intense. Firepower from bosses and midbosses requires threading through waves of bullets or bullet herding. From about the third stage on, the smaller enemies become numerous enough for their firepower to become an aerial labyrinth. And in a display that may have yet to be equaled in video gaming, the ships in Batsugun spew out the most awesome swaths of pixellated death ever. Seriously. In a genre known for over-the-top firepower, this game from 1993 (sixteen years ago!) is still the top of the heap for equipping players with regular shots that surpass the badassedness of final boss weapons in most games. And once you are leveled up you get these weapons ALL THE TIME. Pretty much to the point you often can’t even tell what’s going on with enemy ships and bullets. That visual confusion aspect is probably why most shooters after Batsugun haven’t tried to match it. I won’t say Batsugun becomes unplayable, it doesn’t. But it might just be more than its worth for anyone else to try to find just the right balance of enemy elements and visual design to keep that shit workable. I’ve seen incredible player fire in modern STGs, but the unbelievable day-glo apocalypse of Batsugun seems unique. Nonetheless, whatever its excesses (or in the case of length, shortcomings) the game struck a chord with me (though this would take years to manifest) and shmup fans in Japan.

Maybe two years along from this I picked up the Sega Saturn. One of the reasons I love this machine so much… it might be my favorite console… is that it replicated the arcade games I loved so much. As stated earlier, I didn’t cotton to the 3DO, which was ahead of its time and did have some arcade-perfect conversions. If I recall right it came down to the expense really. A friend was generous enough to give me a NeoGeo that they didn’t want or need, and that really WAS an arcade machine. Being limited to SNK’s own games and a very limited circle of developers, the NeoGeo would only ever have the tiniest fraction of cool arcade games on it. Samurai Shodown is my favorite 2d fighting franchise, and that was no small thing, but it wasn’t enough of course. So when the Saturn came along it provided, for the first time really, AFFORDABLE arcade-perfect conversions. No real compromises apart from disk loading. It was awesome. Playing Capcom fighters like Street Fighter or Darkstalkers just like the ones down at the mall. The copy of Strikers 1945 at your local Chuck E. Cheese was just like the one on your bookshelf. I nearly shat myself with glee. Every game purchased for consoles prior to the Saturn was exciting (until a game turned out to be crap), but games purchased for Sega’s black box were fucking EVENTS, man! And I became the total import snob/whore too. Modding my Saturn happened in the third month of ownership. I was not missing out on any game possibilities just because of the fuckwit region coding. If you were a true arcade fetishist you probably could take each Saturn conversion and actually find details here and there where they differ from their arcade parent, but compared to previous console generations’ struggle to even get close, the differences amounted to nothing.

So it was and is really weird that I really don’t have all that many STGs on my Saturn. I have a lot of games for it, in all sorts of genres—2d fighters particularly. But not that many shmups. Not considering how popular they are with me, how popular they were when the Saturn came out, and how many actually got made for the console. Oh, I have some great ones. But considering how critical the genre is to my video game geekdom the small number is a symptom of a tremendous oversight.

A few years after the Saturn’s release and Toaplan’s demise, former staffers at Gazelle converted Batsugun to the Sega box for publisher Banpresto. I bought the Radiant Silverguns and the Soukyougurentais so well-known on the platform, but overlooked this one. I’m sure it was probably not so high-profile as other games, being Japan-only and in a genre that was by that time (1996) starting to drop off in popularity. It was also ‘old’. A version of a game long past its arcade debut.

But back in 1993, with Toaplan’s breakup, the artists and programmers went off to join other companies or form their own. Takumi, Raizing, and Gazelle all rose from the ashes of Toaplan. But the critical descendant in this post is Cave. If a gamer is at all a shmup fan it is likely they are aware of Cave. The company is world-reknowned today as the talented (but extremely focused) developer of complex (for the genre), meticulously-crafted, 2d shooting games. You really cannot have a shmup discussion of any length before this develper crops up. Love them or hate them (and their manic style DOES have it share of detractors), there is no doubt that Cave are the most influential shooter developer at present.


Before Cave rose to prominence though, they had to have started somewhere. Their first game was Donpachi, released to arcades in 1995. Donpachi continues a pretty tidy transition. Though the art style is markedly different, many of the concepts the ex-Toaplan gang still had in mind carried right on over to this new game. The ‘manic’ aspects had been even further developed in the two years between, so that Donpachi contained almost all the hallmarks of the manic shooter as we know it today. Donpachi’s graphics were not as distinctive (or as elaborate) as Batsugun’s. The promo materials were almost crude, with very simple images and design. Having just started, I doubt Cave had any kind of budget for the niceties and plugged everything they had time and money-wise into making the game itself as awesome as it could be. Interestingly, a hornet was the logo for some of the characters in Batsugun, and a bee became the symbol for Donpachi, establishing a winking continuity. A Saturn port was almost immediate, again with no money going to fancy packaging. Since it came out in 1996 and the Batsugun port was rather late, this had the interesting effect of putting a game and its sort-of sequel on sale at the same time. Apart from some puzzlingly lengthy disc spinning the Saturn version of Donpachi is really faithful to the arcade version just as expected.

In my halcyon days as a Saturn customer I didn’t know about Donpachi either. I was not on the cutting edge of shmup development and how I DID catch back up might be a tale for another post.

At any rate, to bring all this up the original desire fronting this post; when I saw the end of Odin Sphere was just a week or two off I knew I’d want to get back into short, sharp games for a bit. Between looking around my collection of unfinished games and shopping online for something new, I realized there was a seriously underrepresented ‘era’ in my shooters; late 80s and early 90s arcade ports or conversions. I played the hell out of the actual arcade games, why don’t I have that nostalgia trip covered on my shelves? Maybe I GOT enough of a fix of it then that I mostly bought different games. But I was missing it now. I decided to specifically target that moment of transition/revolution that ushered in the bullet hell shooter. I had a number of manic shooters in my collection, but I missed the beginnings. I rectified that by buying a copy each of the Saturn versions of Batsugun and Donpachi at the same time. It took a long damn time for these things to reach me from the seller in Japan. Donpachi was cheap, Batusugun not so much, though not up in the brutal ass-pirate price range that a lot of Saturn (or Dreamcast) shooters are. I got out some Saturn arcade sticks…no basic controllers for STGs boys and girls…and fired the games up.

These games really are fantastic. They are addicting but exhausting too once you’ve broken into playing the later levels. The graphics are strictly old school in the sense of being hand-drawn sprites and no scaling or fancy effects. There isn’t even much in the way of parallax (multi-plane) scrolling. Instead, all the processing is going into having many enemies onscreen at once and about a bazillion bullets. That’s less than the kajillion bullets modern manic shooters throw at you perhaps, but still impressive. I’ve already noted the completely insane firepower in Batsugun, but Donpachi’s no slouch either. You can either tap the fire button to get your usual shots or hold the button down for an absolute geyser of destructive power. The tradeoff is that your ship slows down while ‘geysering’. Add in three selectable ships and two bomb types and you have all the makings of a shooter orgasm. I actually find Donpachi to be more spectacular than its 2002 sequel Dodonpachi Daioujou. Daioujou has more detailed rendered graphics, and is more polished and modern. But it is also somehow 'scaled down' and more muted. Daioujou is a great game, and I’m not saying it is less of a game than the first one. But the graphics, particularly the weapons, just don’t have the same eye-searing impact as Donpachi’s. Having played a fair amount of Daioujou, I kind of expected something of the same play and scoring system in its ancestor, but I was actually surprised by how much was already in place in this first game… or maybe it would be better to say how little has changed through all the Donpachi chapters through the years.

Its really been interesting and fun. On the one hand Batsugun looks like a Toaplan game superficially but plays like something much more recent. As if someone had a time machine that saw the shooters of the future and implemented what they saw as best they could on their hardware when they got back to their own time. Not understanding the balance between super-blasting weapons and visibility that characterises the modern bullet hell shmup, they just went for as big a weapons as they could.

Donpachi on the other hand plays like someone took a modern manic shooter’s code and built all the visuals and sounds out of old assets. Like it is a current Cave game clone that someone had to put old sprites on. In no way is that meant to be derogatory. I think rather it is a testament to how forward thinking Cave’s basic play idea was even in that first early game.

A great nostalgia trip. I'll be hacking away at improving my game on both of these shooters and probably continuing to play them together. I also need to keep filling in my Saturn shooter catalog, notably with the sequel Dodonpachi.
(pics mostly from Satakore)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Beautiful Slog

If you’ve read any game forum bitching from me over the last two months, it has largely revolved around one game, Odin Sphere for the PS2.

Back in 1997, a game called Princess Crown came out for the Sega Saturn. This game was being hailed as the cat’s ass at the time, for its phenomenal graphics, outstanding music and production values, and its real-time battle sequences. Being the import-crazy fan that I was (am) and with all the critical nods, it wasn’t long after its Japan-only release that I bought a copy. It didn’t disappoint. The combat was kind of quirky. Although it looked like a 2d fighting game, it still had something of the ‘we each take a turn’ flow of an RPG. It was in real-time, but the recovery times, power bar, and other aspects made it so you couldn’t just whale away like you might in Street Fighter. It was more tactical. Timing your defense (blocking or evading) could be difficult, especially given how committed you were once your character entered the combo slash sequence. Wise item use was also required, with inventory management important even during a fight. But the cool story, amazing artwork, and just all-around uniqueness of the game made it enjoyable and memorable. Once you got the hang of the fighting, the only downside was that all those incredible art assets meant that the development time and budget would only go so far, and to get the game up to an appropriate length quite a bit of repetition is involved in backgrounds, enemies, and soundtrack.

I guess the length a game of this type needs to be will be a major fiber in the fabic of this ‘blog entry. Odin Sphere was released ten years after Princess Crown, but is still very much a similar animal. Now on the next generation of hardware, Odin Sphere kept Princess Crown’s core play concepts the same while improving in almost every area (except the aforementioned length). Again, the fighting is quirky and oddly reminiscent of RPG combat, with copious inventories and gaining levels in both magic points and hit points.
But the graphics, animation and music are onto a whole ‘nother level of kickass. HG101 states this as making all other PS2 games ‘embarrassing’ by comparison, and I have to agree...with the addition that if you are a fan of 2d artwork it might make ALL other games embarrassing, even through the current generation. I’m not going to go so far as to say it is the best looking and sounding game EVER, but it is probably in the top few. I’m not even going to brook discussion about that. If you go online and watch videos of this thing and still don’t agree, you’re fucking blind and an imbecile. Begone.

I dislike the term 'action-RPG' because it has come to mean so many different things to so many different people... and ANY game with a protagonist that progresses in his/her abilities (levels up usually) and isn't turn-based seems to get saddled with that epithet. In this case action-RPG seems to be appropriate, to me at any rate, since I tend to use it exclusively for RPGs that have combat and movement in real-time and not games like Dynasty Warriors or Castlevanian: Symphony of the Night.

In this game, the blending of genres is done well on the surface, but as I played became central to the issues I have with the game. On the one hand, if you play a role-playing game, you know what you're in for time-and-effort-wise. Whether the game is long or short by RPG standards, you understand going into it that it is going to be detailed, involved, and more brain-centered than twitch-heavy. Action games are just the opposite. Your brain may be engaged in sorting out puzzle sections, finding all the hidden items, or figuring out how to beat a boss, but the game is still expected to move along at a brisk pace, and your progress is down to your (physical) skill at jumping, hitting, or shooting. If an item is absolutely necessary for progress it is usually provided to you right in the flow of the game. To me there are two totally different mindsets in place here. Playing an RPG is like settling in with a good long book. You learn about the characters and their backstories, there's no hurry to blast through it. The exploration and learning is THE thing. Action games are more like an issue of monthly magazine. Colorful, entertaining, quickly moving you along to the next treat for your senses, and (with the good ones) over too soon.

For Odin Sphere, the action elements propel you through the game... run through each area to defeat the hordes of enemies and get to the incredible boss. But the RPG elements run counter to this and actually hinder you. George Kamitani, director of Odin Sphere, acknowledged this problem in a recent interview. He called it 'confusion' for players over whether they should be approaching the game as an RPG, and taking time to level up, OR as an action game, taking on the enemies through sheer skill. He calls it exactly right. Because of the fighting game nature of the combat, even though it is quirky to learn how to fight without getting hit too much, once you get the hang of it you can make up for a lack of items and hit points with skillful play. Until you get to a boss. Then your failure to 'level up properly' will hit you right in the balls. The bosses do not play like fighting game opponents and frequently have shit dropping from the sky or area effect weapons. Going in to these encounters requires you have enough healing items, and enough hit points to be able to weather the undodgeable attacks... exactly what the player, heady with his action/fighting skills, probably did not account for. Your characters move quickly. The controls are responsive. The item inventories are available right there on the main screen, with no flipping through menus. Everything 'feels' like you should be able to just 'fight' your way all the way to the end. Once I'd figured out the timing, and how to avoid getting hit so much, the combat worked pretty well. And the levels were brisk and short.

But no. There's a reason why the game makes it simple to back out of various screens or return to the overworld map to choose a new area; you are going to have to grind for items and levels. By the time you get your ass leveled and equipped to the nines, upon marching through the areas again on the way to that boss you need to beat, you will find the all the rest of the fighting to be a cakewalk. The bosses are really the only thing you NEED to approach with an RPG mindset, but the effort involved will take up a lot of the time spent in the game.

Perversely, there then seems to have been a realisation on the part of the designers that the game really IS too fast for something so akin (in spirit at least) to an intricately plotted RPG. 'We have all this great production-- graphics, soundtrack, voice acting, writing-- we need to keep the players in here for a while'. So in addition to the need to grind to beat bosses, they also made five characters you have to play through, all of them seven chapters (areas) in length, with complete stories for each. The plot of each character is unique, as are their combat attacks, but the stories intersect and overlap so you have to go through the same limited number of areas, enemies and bosses every time. Each character has maybe one boss that is unique to them. This is a way for Vanillaware to use the same production assets to give you a game five times longer than it would be if it was just a one-character action game and fills it out to decent-sized RPG length.
As I said though, it doesn't PLAY like an RPG. It was just a drag to have to go through the same areas, with the same enemies over and over again. The unique attacks for each character helped. And fortunately (this is a big fortunately) subsequent characters get access to all the stuff learned by previous characters. So if you found a really useful potion recipe early on, you can equip with it very quickly in the later stories. As there is a grinding opportunity purposely made available to you right before the climax, you can even take early characters and go get some of the later-found recipes and items for them. For instance, you don't learn to make the super-healing Elixer potion until the third or fourth character, so you need to take the first few back out to make some Elixirs in preparation for their final encounters. Honestly, five characters to go through is too much. Or if they'd felt it important to have the player actually BE all five, then they could've cut the number of chapters each from seven down to four.

All this verbiage makes it plain that the game is a slog. No matter how beautiful, most players are not going to want to see the same thing over and over and over again. So why keep playing? Why did I plug a little over fifty hours into this thing?

It has quite a bit more going for it than just being pretty or having a great soundtrack. Both those aspects get repetitive no matter how well done. The framework that all these stories hang upon is the idea that a little girl is up in her attic reading each character's plot as a book. The books all tell some aspect of the world's prophesied final days. Each character is a key figure. So as you read each book, the characters meet each other, or you learn about a sequence of events from another point of view. As you play, all of this echoes a poem written about the game world's 'armageddon'. The poem has a number of stanzas with allegorical figures described participating in the end times. Seeing how this is all going to play out is pretty appealing since, in spite of too much time spent playing them, you really do learn to have an interest in the five. The plot is melodramatic in the extreme. Every character is doomed, sad, and depressed. Though they typically end up on a positive note in each of their respective books, they go through angsty, abusive hell to get there. There are lovers torn apart, parental yearning and abuse, heroes with no idea their true past, etc. etc. But Odin Sphere has such a good localisation in both the actual dialogue written and the voice acting that the game really sells the drama. Going through the first book, I was amazed by the quality, but rolling my eyes at how 'serious' it all was (so soon in the game). Several hours later I was totally buying into it, and actually found myself quite moved at parts. The scenery, soundtrack, and enemies may be repetitive but I was really rooting for these characters to turn out okay. As you get to the later books you already know how some characters are going to end up, but the game is so well done that it is still fascinating to see how they get there.

The final character, Velvet, has a story that ties up the threads from all the other protagonists. She knows more, and discovers more, than the others about the nature of the events they've all been going through. Her book finally reveals the prophecy poem and ends the individual character narratives. It is at this point that the tales from the books intersect with the larger meta-frame of the girl in the attic. A last book becomes available and playing it makes the final fate of all the characters known. The suspense ratchets up another notch, as the player is faced with one last encounter for each hero, all but one of them an uber-boss that you have never fought up to this point. As grueling as the grinding and repetition got to be, after all the heart and effort put by the designers into the game (and by the player in getting to the end) the climax plays out in truly epic fashion. I was hoping (and had read) that the end made all the work worthwhile. And it really did. Apart from the armageddon encounters being visually incredible (in an already incredible-looking game, mind you) they were mostly unlike anything that had gone before, and forced me to take two characters a little ways back through their individual books to get a few more items. After you are done, if you match the right character to the right finale (the prophecy gives clues to how to do this) the ending is a 20 minute piece of sheer awesome. I'd venture to say it might be the best video game ending ever... certainly in terms of how much work went into it.
It kind of took knowing that the last book was going to be great, though not how it would actually play out, to keep me grinding on. I kind of feel bad for anyone who tried this early on in the game's shelf life and just petered out playing it. To be fair, each hero gets their story done faster than the previous ones, because the player is better AND they have access to previously discovered assets. But in those days just after Odin Sphere's release new players would have to have played Princess Crown to have some idea what the game could have in store, and Princess Crown was released TEN YEARS prior.

My kids who had been following my progress through the game off and on, were riveted by most of the armageddon encounters and the ending. So much so that they immediately started their own save files, though I doubt they'll actually persevere through the game.

Odin Sphere winds up being one of those things I would recommend with reservations. Like a movie you know is great but has subject matter that could be objectionable. Now that its over, I'm really glad I played it. And all the levels, cutscenes, and ending bits are available for replay at any time. If I wanted to play it again it would be a relative breeze, given the ability to skip around, and the awesome saved state of the heroes. Its odd having something with so much going for it that you still have to do so much explaining about the drawbacks. That's what this whole post is, and that's what I'd have to do in recommending the game to a potential player.
If you don't mind grueling stretches of repetition, going through the same motions again and again just for snatches of plot, its really great! Some kind of sales pitch that is.

Vanillaware has recently released Muramasa: The Demon Blade for the Nintendo wii. I've mucked around with it a bit, and it looks to have similarly stellar production values and artwork. Based on the aforementioned interview with the director, Vanillaware knows all the drawbacks to Odin Sphere and addressed them in this new game. They've gone for more of an action game, keeping the items and leveling up, but making placing it more in the flow of the game. It appears that if you get somewhere then you are equipped to deal with whatever appears there. There are also only two characters to play through. I don't know how long their stories are yet, but it would be almost impossible for this game to be bloated like Odin Sphere. I know there is repetition. That's pretty much the price you pay for the incredible graphics and music on the budget of a smaller studio. See my blog entry about Earth Defense Force 2017 for a related topic.

I'm looking forward to it, but I need a break. I'm going to concentrate on driving games and a few STGs before tackling Muramasa.
Hm. Those games are also from cult Japanese developers. I smell 'blog entries coming on for those too.
(image kyped from HG101)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cinema Bits

I'm still into heavy video game times, but I've become bogged down in one particular game almost to the exclusion of all other play. When I finish that thing soon, I'll put up a 'blog entry on it and get on to some other game topics too. Here's some films or DVDs I've managed to squeeze in over the last few weeks:

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto. Rob Zombie's years-long-production animated comedy. Surprisingly polished animation on a very raunchy violent story. At first, if one is an 'elderly person' such as myself, it might put you in mind of Ralph Bakshi's adult-oriented cartoons like Wizards or Fritz the Cat. But the spazziness and surreal humor actually has more in common I think with Spongebob Squarepants or The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. Be warned: the violence, nudity, and cussin' are off the scale, though humorous in nature and not realistic. Special mention needs to be made of how hilarious Rosario Dawson is as a ebonics-spouting WHITE ho, and the songs are unbelievably funny, IF you really pay attention to the lyrics... particularly the Yellow Submarine-esque song playing behind Suzy X's first battle with the nazis. Open-minded pop-culture mavens should get this but keep it locked away from the kids.

Where The Wild Things Are. This was on my list to take my kids to go see because the book is great and a staple of just about every family library. I wasn't sure how they could expand a work made of about a dozen lines of poem into a feature film, but the production design and cinematography in the trailer looked so stunning I was willing to give the idea a chance. Then came the controversy. In the media, parents supposedly found the movie inappropriate. Well I like me some controversial films, so that made going to see this that much more appealing. I deliberately avoided actually reading up on what was so disturbing because I wanted to see if I could discern what the fuss was about myself, and see if my kids actually noticed anything objectionable from their point-of-view. First off the movie is okay. As expected from the promo reels the look and sound of the movie is unique and very well done, but quite melancholy compared to the book. I can see how the writers and director derived this feel from the story, but it isn't something I've ever felt myself all the times I've read it so it was a surprise. Also, the misbehavior on Max's part, which could be interpreted as just a mild issue read from the book, is treated as a serious alienation or ADD-related emotional disturbance. And this all may be why the movie was only 'okay' for me. It isn't like the tone was truly awful (to me) or invalid, but it wasn't joyous or cheerfully humorous in anyway. The wild things themselves are given 'everyday people' sorts of voices and they seem neurotic and dreary too.

I usually like my expectations to be challenged in a film, book, or game, but in this case my view of the source material is too strongly rooted. In the same way the Lord of The Rings were written in stone for uber-fans before Peter Jackson's trilogy of films came out.

So when I followed up on the controversy the next day I expected the emotional issues and realistically awful problems this creates in Max's family to be the point. There is also a lesson about abusive relationships taught to Max (by example) on the wild things' island. I figured THAT stuff was what would be objectionable. Well, the depressing tone, and unfriendly depiction of relationships was mentioned by critics... but what did parents object to? Scary scenes.

What the fuck? The wild things are MONSTERS. In the book and in the movie. They are stylized on the printed page as per Maurice Sendak's art style. Apart from doing the film as animation (or a Muppet Movie) the monsters, though derived directly from the book illustrations, ARE going to be more realistic. They just are. And what do parents think the wild things do on that island when Max isn't lording it over them? They must do what monsters do. So in an expanded format you are going to have to see some other behaviors. I think there are three scary 'things' that parents objected to. Shots of bones, indicating the wild things have eaten people in the past, a sequence involving the lead wild thing chasing Max down threatening to eat him, and a scene where that selfsame wild thing rips the arm off another wild thing... bloodless and treated humorously by the victim.

This is totally retarded. My kids didn't find anything objectionable in the movie. Nothing scary. They just found Max to be a bit of a dick and were glad he seemed to have reformed a bit by movie's end. And my kids are not jaded either. They get nightmares from images seen in Hammer horror films over Halloween (more on that below). They get apprehensive from previews of Harry Potter movies. But nothing in Where The Wild Things Are induced that sort of fear in them. I like Sendak's quote on the matter. Parents who find the content too disturbing for kids can: "go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate" and he further noted "I saw the most horrendous movies that were unfit for child's eyes. So what? I managed to survive."

Speaking of which-

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave. This is a goshdamn awesome old movie. Everything a fan of Hammer films loves is in here apart from Peter Cushing. When I was a kid of about nine, my Mom started letting me stay up late on Friday and Saturday nights to watch old horror films and Kolchak the Night Stalker. Afternoons after school had the Harryhausen, 50's science fiction, and occasional Godzilla movie. But late-night was the dark stuff. Literally. I would sit close in front of the TV with all the lights out, some snack going uneaten while I absorbed the horrific spectacles paraded out in grainy prints from Universal, Hammer, Amicus, AIP and others. My Mom was a good church-going woman, but she just didn't see the harm in these rendezvous with FICTION. She trusted that I was discerning enough to keep a bedrock of disbelief underneath the enjoyment or fear. And it didn't hurt that I never complained about nightmares. Even when I did have them, the possibility of being banned (like other kids including my brother-- hah!) kept my trap shut on the subject.

Anyway. The movie. Risen is the third in Hammer's Dracula series. Hammer studios was known for very 'English' actors and acting, colorful 'stagey' costumes and sets, and most of all for putting the sex and blood into horror. The sex was mostly lowcut bodices on the victims and heroines, and the blood was the luridly colored 'paint' common to films of the 60's. But at the time of their release (before I was watching them on TV mind you) they were pretty strong stuff... to the point of being severely censored or banned in many countries. The over-the-top acting (and very theatrical costumes and sets) were the standard for films of the day, but the color and style really set the Hammer films apart. And of course Christopher Lee's version of Dracula, made more of an actual personality in this film, is just the cherry on top. The movie drags a bit in the middle as it sets up all the people and logistics necessary to move Dracula from the village he's terrorised in the previous film to the big city, but the climax more than makes up for it.

Spoiler Alert: It had been a long time since I'd seen this film, so I didn't remember a lot of specifics... even the ending. Considering this film was made in 1968, I still found the climax in this film to be more hair-raising and just-plain-awesome than dozens of more modern films... including just about any 'Dracula' movie you can name. Near the end of the film, Dracula has been 'staked' by the hero. This is a particularly graphic scene... probably cut when I saw this on TV as a kid... I'm mean, no shit, the blood is pouring out. But in THIS vampire mythos you can't just stake the vampire (at least not one as powerful as Dracula) you have to say a rite just after to complete the process. Well, no one manages to get the words out, so Dracula motherfucking gets out of his coffin and pulls this huge, and I mean huge, stake out of his own chest and gets on with the business of knocking the hero around and kidnapping the girl. When he gets back to his castle he orders the girl to remove this huge gilded cross that is sealing the main doors. She throws it over the side of the short cliff on which the castle resides and after the climactic struggle with the hero a few minutes later, Dracula falls off same cliff and lands impaled on the gold cross. But of course it doesn't end there. You gotta say the rites. This time a formerly-enthralled priest does the honors... all the while Dracula is spitting and writhing on this cross, and almost manages to get himself off of it. But the words are spoken, and the end of Dracula is shreds of his cloak and copious amounts of blood running down the cross. It probably doesn't get much better than THAT to a horror-seeking kid plomped in front of a late-night television set. How can Where The Wild Things Are even approach that? It isn't realistic looking in the modern sense, but once you spend the earlier part of the film getting involved and buying into Hammer-world, it's pretty damn intense. And I would still let my kids watch this. It was part of my growing up. I just can't see this as damaging. I almost feel like I'd be depriving them if I didn't at least give them a chance to see Hammer films as I saw them. Well better than I saw them actually...

The DVD I watched comes in a set and the print is so much more colorful and clear than anything previously available for any Hammer film. Watching a DVD like this, especially on an HDTV, will give the viewer some idea what it must have been like to see them in a theater, before grainy, scratchy, washed-out prints became the norm. And even with those faults, I still remember Hammer films as being the most colorful selections in my late-night fare. I'll single out Veronica Carlson here too. I met her sometime in the 90's at a horror convention in Baltimore. She looked pretty good there still, but watching this movie will let you in on why she was mobbed at that meet. She made wearing a bodice and tilting your neck for the vampire an art form.

Since the color and stageyness of the Hammer films lends an air of unreality watching one of these has become a sort of tradition with my kids at Halloween. This year it was The Mummy. Pretty much all the positives I mentioned for the above film would apply to The Mummy as well, subtracting the gore, but adding in very creepy living eyes in a dead face (again supplied by Lee), and the presence of Peter Cushing. No blood but still a real wincer of a scene during a flashback to ancient Egypt. I highly recommend Hammer films as a Halloween tradition. They still give my kids sleep problems, but I look at it as necessary toughening up.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Drag Me To Crapville

Wow. Color me amazed at how wrong 'the critics' are about the film Drag Me To Hell.

I rented this thing after reading up and down the 'net about how great this thing was. 'A return to form for Raimi', 'scariest film of the year', 'funny and shocking'... blah blah blah. Almost all the majors, Ebert, Travers, etc lined up with positive things to say about this movie.

A big thumbs down to all of them I say.

After doing the Halloween thing with the kids I was hoping to settle down with a good horror movie for the later part of the evening since I didn't have any plans to go out. I had missed seeing Drag Me To Hell in the theater, and was not happy about that. So for several months it has been my plan to make up for that miss by watching this movie over Halloween. Raimi has been an okay director in my book. I like the Spiderman films just fine, but this was looking to be a return to form of the Evil Dead variety. I should have known this would be more Evil Dead 2, my least favorite, than Evil Dead 1, my most-est favorite.

I went with the unrated version thinking THAT would be Raimi's Evil Dead 1 self really unleashed as opposed to the PG-13 rating that I thought he'd been saddled with to justify the budget that probably went into Drag Me To Hell.

As it turns out the budget was pretty big for a horror film, but small time for Raimi after doing shit like the Spiderman trilogy. He also wasn't reigned in by the PG-13 rating apparently, since he's quoted as not wanting gore to be the draw. That's fine. Gore shouldn't have to be the draw in (all) horror films. Having seen only the unrated version, I can't imagine what was cut since NOTHING about Drag Me To Hell rises to an R level. In fact, apart from a few very cartoony gross-out effects I'm not sure much of this gets to a PG-13 level.

This film has nothing to recommend it. I can't believe it was the horror darling of the critics. The characters are likable but boring apart the different and awful cursing gyspy woman. She was great (and disgusting). Not enough to make a great scream flick. Not one bit of this movie's plot was a surprise. Not one scene was scary. The only thing shocking was how many different ways Raimi could force foreign objects into the heroine's mouth. It went beyond oral fixation. She's eating drool, worms, embalming fluid, a fly, a shawl, everything except, presumably, Raimi's cock since it wouldn't require any auditioning 'extras' to land the lead part. I take that back. It DID take some sort of bravery and fortitude to eat everything Raimi required on film.

What the fuck? What did I miss? I feel like Will Ferrel's character Mugatu in Zoolander. Mugatu laments at the climax that he 'must be taking crazy pills' if everyone else sees talent in Derek Zoolander where he doesn't. 'I invented the piano necktie, Derek! What have you ever done!'

I felt like that watching this movie. I sat there just waiting for the part that everyone found so great. And it never happened. The movie started out fine. Complete with a child, A CHILD, getting pulled down to hell. That made me think 'wow, this movie might pull very few punches'. The first encounter with the gyspy woman is fine too. But the movie never really tries to be anything but sort of blackly humored fantasy movie. Everything is too brightly lit to be atmospheric. Everything is shown right out in the open. There are a few jump-at-you bits, but they are pretty weak since they are boldly foreshadowed. And nothing in the movie is as grim as the very first bit where the kid is pulled down by demons... until the heroine herself is pulled down by demons.

What? Did I just post a spoiler? No. I just saved you the rental fee. Even if everyone else in the world likes this movie, I'm considering this the opening (and likely only) volley in my personal campaign against the film.