Thursday, February 4, 2010

D-A-D Spells Evil

Today, a story of cruelty and loss:

Some month or so before the end of 2009, while I was walking down a hallway, my daughter jumped out from a doorway and startled me. Both my kids do this occasionally, as kids are wont to do, but usually it doesn't have the desired effect. It might be cute (or annoying) but it usually isn't scary. This time was different. I don't remember if I my mind, and therefore my awareness, was wandering... but she got me good. She knew it, seeing my reaction, and was totally pleased with herself.

I told her I'd get her back someday. Someday was last Sunday.

For weeks after she 'got' me, she'd remind me in a singsong voice that I still owed her for the scare. I don't know if it was just the fun of the game or whether she thought she'd be immune or what. My kids are not exactly nervy. I (and their mother) have maintained a pretty strict policy of what my kids get to watch (or play) and when. My love of transgressive entertainment has given me a pretty good idea of what's what out there, and I expose my kids to newer, ever more mature forms of entertainment just as I think they can handle it. This has probably helped the children hang on to some aspect of their innocence a bit longer than the average kid today who isn't actually Amish. It also means they aren't inured to things that are creepy, disturbing, or downright scary.

When I was their age I was up really late on Friday and Saturday nights, huddled in my living room with all the lights off watching Kolchak: The Night Stalker followed by The CBS Late Movie, which on weekends was frequently horror or science fiction. I deliberately, with my mom's approval (!) put myself in a position to have the bejeezus scared out of me on a regular basis. I loved it. But of course scary movies in those days were much less graphic... at least the ones that could be shown on television were.

Not only have my kids shown zero interest in scary movies (or games) they don't react particularly positively when I try to get them interested. We have a tradition about watching scary movies for Halloween, but my choices for them have been extremely limited... partly by the dearth of kid-appropriate fare but also because they are just effin' chicken. My goal is to get them up to being able to watch Robert Wise's The Haunting, a black and white film that doesn't rely on any real special effects or gore, but is an absolutely harrowing experience for kids and even adults.

In any case my kids may not be jaded over all the violence in movies, but they could stand a LITTLE toughening up on the emotional front.

So I discovered this little gem of a game called Soul on the Xbox Live Arcade's Indie channel. You control a little glowing ball of essence for some poor person who has just flatlined. Your goal is to guide the glowing ball up heaven. No buttons used, just the little analog stick on the controller. You have to move the soul through several screens representing the underworld, pictured largely like a rundown mental hospital a la Jacob's Ladder. As you guide the soul you can't touch the floors or walls and you have to avoid various hazards and beasties. It has the same nerve-wracking one-false-move feeling that the board game Operation! does. It also has an audio track (and a type of cheap shock scare) that make it a very creepy experience.

So bad Daddy that I am, I made the kids play it. I didn't tell them what it was exactly. I just described it as a sort of 'puzzler'. Like those guide-the-ball-through-the-labyrinth wooden toy games. My son was up first while his sister was over at a friends house. He was my guinea pig to see how scary this thing was to kids, and I was already considering this might be the very revenge I'd been promising my daughter. The short answer is that it made my son cry. About four minutes into the game, he had to quit and I had to console him. I was kind of laughing when I did it which he was none too happy about... but mission accomplished. Swearing him to secrecy, I waited for his sister to get home.

After she'd returned and gotten settled in I waxed enthusiastic about this new game I'd found. My son almost gave it away with an evil grin that she definitely saw. But she sat down to give it a try. At the exact same place my son came apart, she also was freaked out. But as the more disciplined of the two, she hung in there... a bit longer. Her nerves jangled she went on to try the next screen, and as she was trying to inch through a particularly touchy spot, I snuck up behind her and grabbed her, making a loud noise much like one of the scares in the game.

She jumped out of her skin. Then calmly put the controller down, went to her bed and laid down with the blanket over her head. It took me a few minutes of hugs to get her back out of there. And of course when she was calmed down and no longer upset with me, I told her I'd gotten her back at last.

According to her, revenge on my revenge is going to be really horrible.

I'd wholeheartedly recommend Soul by the way. Simple game. Really controller-smashingly difficult in places. Short, but cheap. Seems to have some of the same design sensibilities as Braid, but not so obtuse.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Some You Win, Some You Lose

XII Stag
Amongst my various video game purchases recently, I had a package arrive with two STGs (Japan-derived acronym for 2d shooters: ShooTing Game) in it. Despite being in the same genre, they are incredibly different in most ways… including quality. Good examples of how much variety there can be even in what is perceived (by the mainstream) as a very limited, niche gaming style.

As a baseline for comparison, both games are arcade ports, vertical scrolling, and both are running on a Playstation 2 with a Hori EX Pro joystick used to control.

First the bad:
XII Stag for the PS2. I’m kind of a sucker for buying 2d shooting games (not arena shooters like Smash TV or Geometry Wars), though I’m not so blinkered about being a completist that I will overlook anything. Since you have to do quite a bit of research to track down niche video games, finding opinions just goes with the territory. For me STGs are not one of those game genres where the shitty ones are collectible BECAUSE they are shitty or weird. A shitty shooter is usually unplayable. So you aren’t going to get to enjoy whatever weirdness might be on tap without putting in way too much effort.

XII Stag is an exercise in mediocrity. I read reviews and mostly they said something along the lines of ‘doesn’t do anything new, but does it fine’. This is not what I found to be the case at all. XII Stag has ONE new thing to it, but pulls it off tepidly. Everything about the game is tepid.

I watched snatches of online videos and thought it looked pretty cool. The graphics weren’t groundbreaking, but they seemed detailed, speedy, and interesting enough. Now in real life? Bleagh. Wrong. The objects in the game are all pre-rendered sprites, and they have a kind of shiny aspect that looks pretty good on some of the bosses, but mostly they have this really blocky outline around all of them that just looks budget. Like the blue matte lines in old movies. The backgrounds and scrolling look cool at first, but as you play you realize each level’s background have very little variation and is not going to change. Whatever moonscape, swamp, or mountain range you are flying over… that’s what you are going to see for the rest of the level. Cave games do this to a degree too, but at least Cave usually knocks it out of the park with the enemy designs… along with so many bullets you almost can’t see the backgrounds. Background variation or transitioning started to become a staple of STGs back in the early days of the Genesis, but no one told the staff behind XII Stag apparently.

You get only one type of ship. That’s fine. Really, REALLY old school, but fine. There is only one type of power up. It makes your basic forward shot a little bigger with each powerup gained, up to four levels. The difference between your level one shot and your level four shot is, again, tepid. FAIL! Nothing else. No options, no additional or different firepower. Nada. The bombs it gives you operate in a somewhat interesting fashion… a huge shield from which you can shoot out, but the enemy cannot shoot in. But that’s all there is. Not fantastically spectacular or destructive.

The unique mechanic of XII Stag, ‘the gimmick’ since a lot of developers seem to think a shooting gimmick of some sort is needed, is the side and back shots from your ship. They are very short range but powerful, and raise up the multiplier for whatever enemies you kill. So the risk/reward system of the game is that you need to get close alongside a lot of the enemies in order to use your best weapon. The designers decided that wiggling the joystick back and forth was the way to trigger the side shots, but of course the shots are so limited in range that when you get that close to the enemy or its guns, jerking your ship left and right is the last thing you want to do. You CAN assign the side shots to a button, but your ship still goes all spastic when it fires these off. If you try to just NOT use the side shots you will find your front shots too weak, even fully powered up, to destroy a lot of the enemies in a reasonable amount of time… and your score will really suffer too.

I was so bored I credit fed through the game just to see what the ending was like. I need to research online to see if credit-feeding netted me the shittiest ending because just like the rest of the game it was a big fat nothing much. I finally beat Last Resort for the Neo Geo recently, a game notorious for giving you a crappy ending after such a difficult game… but at least Last Resort is pretty fucking spectacular on the way to the end. And Last Resort is OLD. It isn’t from this century. There is no excuse for XII Stag not giving you ‘something’. The whole game feels like they did the absolute minimum that they could and still have a game. Especially graphically.
XII Stag came out in the arcades in 2002, ported to PS2 in 2003. The developer of the game, Triangle Service, may not have had the budget of the established shooter companies, but it should’ve at least tried to match or beat the competition on some level. I also know Triangle Service HAS done better games. Cave’s first shooter Donpachi, was graphically kind of bleah next to some of the other stuff of the day (like Batsugun), but they made up for it with the unique play ideas that would become their bread and butter in modern times. In similar circumstances another small developer, G Rev, came out with their debut shooter Border Down for the Dreamcast a year after XII Stag, and it was wwaaaaayyyyy better than this game.

The ship controls just fine (when you aren’t side-shooting), and is pretty small with no crazy hitbox problems. The level of enemy fire is sort of manic-lite. A bit heavier and slower than a typical Psikyo game. I have Shooting Love 200X on the way too, a compilation of later Triangle Service releases, but Shooting Love has actually garnered a lot of enthusiasm, particularly for the ‘shooting task’ game included. XII Stag hasn’t dampened my anticipation for it because every company has its blech moments, frequently their first game. My kid is just getting into STGs and he wants to hang on to XII Stag for awhile to see if it gels for him.

Strikers 1945

Now the good:
Strikers 1945 I & II for the Playstation 2. The games in this two-pack are arcade ports as well. My play time, and therefore these comments, are geared toward the first of the two games, though all evidence indicates the second is very similar. A good thing if you enjoyed the first, which I did.

Strikers 1945 came out in 1995 originally, some seven years before XII Stag. As stated in a previous entry the mid-90s was the tail-end of the shooter golden years. So there was plenty of history and competition to look at in designing an STG. Released by Psikyo, a developer known for cultivating a certain ‘style’ in shooting games the same way Raizing, Toaplan, and Cave all have. Psikyo was known for their very clean and colorful art style (frequently risqué) and bullet patterns that have come to be characterized as ‘few but fast’ in opposition to Cave’s manic style of ‘many but slow’. Psikyo game mechanics and techniques are the older style that hearken back to ‘twitchier’ games where memorization was important but not necessarily critical, and fast reflexes helped the player more than being able to thread your hitbox through labyrinthine bullet patterns.

Firing the game up, I was instantly reminded how lo-res the old arcade games were, but how much joy there was in the presentation. The game is set in an alternate 1945 where a new technologically superior threat masses against the former Axis and Ally nations. Psikyo’s art in the game is very precise and shiny, but also very detailed (considering the resolution) with really sharp animation. Particularly for the bosses who all transform from a ‘typical’ vehicle, like a ship or a train, into a mechs that have a sort of post-WWII style to them.

You get a number of planes to choose from, each with their own firepower spreads, options configuration, movement speed and bomb types. The powerups come frequently during the game and you can get your weapons up to pretty massive proportions. Your plane controls really well. The hit box matches the outline of your plane which will vary depending on how big the plane you selected is. There are a few primitive screen options, including ‘tate’ if you are able to flip your monitor or TV on its side.

The early levels are deceptively short and easy. When I was first playing, I knew Strikers did not have a rep as a particularly easy game, but I was blown away by how quickly I was ploughing through it. But there are more than the usual five levels that today’s shooters all seem to sport… and they get a lot more difficult, particularly the ‘boss rush’ that makes up the last quarter of the game. The final section that contains the end boss is worth the price of admission, ranking high on the ‘just when you thought it was over’ scale.

There is nothing super-fancy about this game, just like XII Stag. But this is an example of a game doing everything right. Everything about it is just polished to perfection. A new generation gamer might fire this up and be put off by the pixel-obvious visuals, but once you start playing it all becomes so right. This game is greater than the sum of its parts. I am something of a latecomer to the Psikyo party, as I was with Cave. So as much as I love shooters and have collected scads of them, I’m still getting to discover these extensive pockets of goodness. Psikyo is one of those companies who developed a reputation. Some players may not like the ‘style’ of shooter (few but fast bullets), but there is little doubt that they were good at what they did. There’s a reason why software houses develop followings, and this game is a really good example. It doesn’t even really have a ‘gimmick’ in its mechanics, like XII Stag, it is just a straight-forward blasting good time. When you play the much-more-recent Raiden Fighters games (collected on Xbox 360), which have been described by many as ‘good old-school games that gets back to basics’ this is the game the newer game is referencing. Raiden Fighters has an elaborate medal-chaining system, for modern players who need a deeper scoring mechanic, but at root it can be enjoyed in much the same way as Strikers 1945. They even look really, really similar.

So there you go. I’ve discovered it really is possible to find an absolutely dismissable example of my favorite game genre. One that doesn’t even have the benefit of being ancient. So mediocre it doesn’t even have any camp or ‘so bad its good’ factor. And then in the same mailing, the first of what I hope will be a lot of old Psikyo shooters flowing into my collection. Not EVERY Psikyo game is a winner (I’m still not over the mental scars of Sol Divide, probably why I haven’t bought Psikyo since then), but there’s a lot to look forward to.

Where No Kid Has Gone Before

When I was in grade school, my Mom and I used to have an after-school routine. I’d get done whatever homework I had, I’d watch the afternoon movie (frequently some science fiction film from the 50s), and then a bit before dinner we would watch an episode of Star Trek being run in syndication. We rarely missed an episode. I remember one Christmas where Santa Claus brought me a complete set of the Mego Star Trek action figures, including two Klingons, and an Enterprise bridge with working transporter. Star Trek was not the only thing I was into at the time… probably not even the biggest thing I was into… but it was important.

One of my best friends throughout my childhood was an even bigger fan. He would have definitely been a Trekker by today’s standards, though the whole convention experience was not well-known at that time. He was always Spock. I was always Kirk, and we seemed to always come up with some plot that required us to be against each other… mind control, alien possession, whatever. Boys must get into wrestling matches as always.

I left my Star Trek ways behind me along with my childhood. I watched the films as they were released in theaters, recapturing some of those lost feelings, but not compelled to be a diehard fan. This wasn’t a case of putting Star Trek aside to devote loyalty to Star Wars either. Like with video game consoles there seems to be a real either/or mentality at work in the various fan bases. You either REALLY like Star Trek or you REALLY like Star Wars. I liked both, but neither one had me slobbering after it. When Star Trek: The Next Generation was announced, I was hugely skeptical. I knew that the real draw to the original series was not the science fiction or the social commentary. No, the real meat on that show was the triangle of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and the hugely likable supporting cast propping those three up. And I didn’t feel lightning could strike twice. When I did finally cave and give TNG a grudging try, I found it to be a decent TV show. It didn’t have ‘the big three’ but it had its own identity, and found its place in Roddenberry’s universe of big ideas and big optimism. As okay with TNG as I was to become, it didn’t propel my interest enough to then also watch Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise. I kind of peripherally knew what those shows were about, and I gleaned some of the series’ major events from somewhere… maybe watching an occasional episode, but apart from the TNG films, I hadn’t really gone back to the Trek universe for years.

As my children have gotten older, something spoke to me that maybe Star Trek would be something they would need to see. My kids are pretty media savvy, and they have the usual smattering of fan-love. My daughter digs the Disney tween shows, especially Wizards of Waverly Place. And Narnia is more-or-less her Middle Earth… books and films both. My son’s interests run closer to my own and he’s into Godzilla and Ultraman, Gundam, Warhammer 40K, and a lot of other things his friends at school have no clue about.

With all my love of transgressive film, music, and print… I am actually quite restrictive on what my children get to put into their eyes and ears. I exercise huge control, fully using, cable TV channel locks, internet nanny software, and film, DVD, and video game ratings. And when in doubt about whether something is suitable, I will watch it myself first or research the hell out of it. Only recently have I let my son play Halo, maybe the one thing his friends DO enjoy in common with him.

I needed something we could all do together. Something both my son and my daughter would like equally, that would be ‘safe’ family fare, and that we could all share together. I remembered what a great bonding experience watching and talking about Star Trek was when I spent that time with my Mom. The kids excitement over the 2009 Star Trek film’s trailer got me to thinking.

Star Trek: The Original Series, as it is now called, has been out on DVD for some time now, but it has been ‘remastered’. Cleaning up and re-recording the show for modern players and televisions is fine, but they also replaced many of the old effects shots with new modern ones. The new shots don’t actually try to look super-realistic… the designers did a pretty good job of integrating them with the shows dated look, but there’s something about being able to see ‘how things were done’ back in the day, that needs to be preserved. Fans who know the difference between Star Wars and Star Wars Special Edition know what I’m talking about.

Enter Blu-ray. Although my AV setup is fully capable of taking advantage of Blu-ray, and I CAN (unlike much of the public apparently) see a difference between this media and DVD… I didn’t see enough of a difference to add Blu-ray to my home. Star Trek forced me into the 21st century. The Blu-ray editions allow seamless branching between new and old effects. So I bought a player, wrangled it into my video morass, and made the kids start watching them.

They love them. The effect has been almost exactly the same as I remembered from my childhood. These children have the added benefit of watching them in broadcast order (I tinkered this when I knew the broadcast order was detrimental to seeing the show’s evolution), then watching the films. So they get the whole story. There was a chance my daughter would not take to the show since her world is mostly caught up in friends, fashion, pop songs, and gossip… but she has a vivid imagination, and the beauty of this show is that for all its dated look and relatively simplistic plots (by today’s standards) the friendship of the characters transcends the limitations of the show and of what one thinks a science fiction show should be about. I had remembered this and hoped for the best, mostly because my mother liked it so much… and she is absolutely not the science fiction or action show type.

The kids laughed and cried in all the right places. As soon as one show ended they’d be psyched for the next. And when we finally got done with the television episodes, my son was very eager to see what would happen with the ships and special effects when a few years and much bigger budgets would make a difference. Cue Wrath of Khan. This film had the effect of tearing everything down that they loved about the series, and rebuilt it even better. The space battles and sets showed them what they thought Star Trek would actually look like if the TV series hadn’t been so small-scale. Spock’s death required me to console them. I had to take great pains to NOT give anything about the subsequent film away while still asking that they keep open minds and keep watching. They were all choked up when Spock begins to recognize Jim again at the end of Search for Spock. All the notes were hit exactly right for them. Amazingly, for all that he enjoyed the bigger more expansive battle scenes, aliens, and all that… at the end of the day, what mattered most was what was going to happen to the big three. The kids were genuinely melancholy to watch these characters age, and finally retire, as the Trek universe changed around them and their bodies could no longer keep up.

JJ Abrams new Star Trek film was a sort of icing on the cake. They were very excited to see it, even before they started watching the series. I was cruel and required them to watch all the original series and the films before allowing them to get to it. They enjoyed the series, but the 2009 film’s trailer is at the beginning of every Blu-ray disc so they were repeatedly bombarded with this titano-budget reboot that had all the now-generation sensibilities that they were accustomed to. I patiently reminded them over and over that they needed to hang in there because the new film would make a lot more sense if they had the original series under their belt.

It isn’t like the film is a bad viewing even if you don’t know the series, but I wanted them to get as much out of the work ‘for the fans’ that Abrams and company did as I got out of it. They especially needed to understand the momentous change that would be brought about by Nero and Spock fucking about with time travel.

It totally worked. Watching the new movie I had to pause it like twice for the gravity of certain situations to settle in as the kids jumped up from the couch to question the sanity of what they were watching. Kirk no longer being the first to see Romulans. The appearance of Leonard Nimoy. Uhuru and Spock’s relationship. I orchestrated this whole thing from beginning to end, and by the time it was over the kids didn’t begrudge me my puppet-master shenanigans one bit. They pretty much picked up on every little thing. The only plot element I really had to explain ahead of time was Spock’s role as ambassador to the Romulans from The Next Generation.

I’m sure we will re-visit Star Trek at some point. We’ll pick out an episode or film every now and then. Or maybe at some point we’ll do this whole exercise again. I’m undecided as to whether I want to move on to TNG. On the one hand, it would be more adventures in that universe (though my son doesn’t see how it could be Star Trek without the big three—that’s my boy!),nad the show IS good. On the other hand, it is much, MUCH longer than the original series and is not out on Blu-ray. I’m not sure I want to make that big of an investment in a format that isn’t as good as the Star Trek stuff we already have. Finding out I could get TNG in Blu-ray will probably convince me to start us up on that.

All told the Star Trek ‘project’ took us about three months to get through. I guess that lines up with today’s accelerated, instant-gratification pace. When I was watching Star Trek with my Mom there were no Blu-ray players and HDTVs. She didn’t orchestrate the viewing with some overall plan. We just ENJOYED them. I probably overdid it. But I know in this day and age of bigger, better, and more spectacular I felt like I really wanted this show to have an impact on my kids… like it did on me. I wasn’t a big fan all my life, but the influence on my future tastes, and my discernment about what was important in a story, was huge… maybe incalculable. So we made this big event out of it so Star Trek wouldn’t just become another show. Lost in all the TV, movies, video games, internet surfing, phone texting, etc etc.
Now they KNOW what a good show actually is.