Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi Extra

So I’ve spent some good time with Ketsui: Kizuna Jigoku Tachi Extra (literally Determination: Cutting the Bonds of Hell, uh, Extra) and I have to say it totally rocks out with its cock out.

I preordered the limited edition with a fair amount of hope, and a little trepidation. Ketsui kind of has a reputation… as a failure with the arcade public (in Japan, no USA exposure to speak of) but seriously lauded by the hardcore. In the time since the arcade game has come and gone (it was released in late 2002/early 2003) the prices for the pcb (the dedicated board you’d put in a cabinet) have climbed or remained steadily high. A testament to its standing and its dedicated following.

Ketsui’s rep is partly due to its rarity, but also to it just being badass. Not badass in the difficulty sense, though the game is goshdamn difficult. Cave, the developer, puts out shooters that require badass reflexes, have badass scoring systems, or feature badass bosses. But they also have cute loli-witches that soar through pumpkin lands or teen princesses riding giant golden beetles. Or androgynous looking replicants with huge butterfly wings. In short, a lot of cute or a lot of pretty. Even the Donpachi series, replete with tanks and jets, nowadays puts the loli-droid co-pilots at the front and center of all its PR materials.

Ketsui doesn’t have any of that. The pilots are not the most masculine looking dudes ever, but they are recognizably dudes. And all the backgrounds, music, and hardware on display hearken back to earlier days (re: the mid 90s) when a grittier, more ‘industrial’ aesthetic was the rage in shooters—see Raizing games like Battle Garegga. It is more testosterone fueled.

It seems like Cave chalked a large part of the game’s failure to this macho aesthetic. Later titles have mostly all done better and they all feature distinctly less masculine design choices. Of course, western players have been positively cuckoo over this game, searching out the pcb where possible and salivating over the possibilities of an Xbox 360 release. Personally, I don’t mind Cave’s design choices. They make great games. I’ve watched enough anime and read enough manga to be pretty well acclimated to the Japanese pop culture gender preferences. But it is nice to have some variety. The game also has a relatively simple in-your-face scoring system (Literally. The closer you are to an enemy when you kill them, the bigger the multiplier chip they spit out.). Ketsui is an older game, but amongst recent Cave output it’s almost a breath of fresh air.

The LE comes with a 2-disc pack containing the ‘arrange’ version soundtracks for both Ketsui and Dodonpachi Daioujou BLEX. I’m not the kind of player who listens to game music when NOT playing a game, but I make a few exceptions. The Ketsui soundtrack is one of them. These discs would be even better if they also had the original versions on there, but I’m not really complaining since what’s on here is so good.

The story of this port actually becoming reality is almost the video game world’s version of The Odyssey, threatening for a bit there to become another Duke Nukem. You can find a lot ranting and fist-shaking in posts and forums at places like Cave-STG or Shmups!

Essentially, when the Xbox 360 really started looking as a viable spot for home versions of shooting games, a company named 5pb managed to secure the rights to Dodonpachi Daioujou BLEX and Ketsui. Even BEFORE DDPDOJBLEX came out there was a lot of reservations expressed in the shooter fan community. 5pb was a ‘visual novel’ publisher whose content tended towards more eroge (Japanese contraction for erotic game) subject matter. ‘Visual novels’ are just that. Little interaction is required, mostly its reading the screen. The question was how a company big on artwork, writing, and little else was going to manage the demanding programming on something as intricate as a Cave STG. The answer turned out to be: they didn’t. At least not by themselves.

Several years ago, the PS2 saw an earlier iteration of Dodonpachi Daioujou released for it. The port is considered a high water mark for home versions of Cave games. THAT version was handled by Arika, and Mihara the man heading up the port is/was a known stickler for accuracy relative to the arcade version. It turns out some unscrupulous sorts at a subcontractor for 5pb used the code from Arika’s PS2 port as a baseline without permission. This meant 5pb got an up-and-running game, but appear to have run out of time to tweak and optimize everything. So there are a number of bugs and inconveniences to their Xbox 360 version of DDPDOJ. 5pb got a lot of hate for a long time. They fessed up to their people swiping the code, made some sort of amends to Arika, and buckled down to work on Ketsui. The reception DDPDOJBLEX got was tepid going to worse over time… as bugs and problems came to light. So dealing with the bad PR, pulling copies off shelves, avoiding legal problems with Arika, and wondering if Cave was going to pull the Ketsui rights probably all added up to the delay after delay Ketsui experienced.

It appeared the majority fan opinion that Ketsui was going to be cancelled. A few people held out hope. The idea that Cave themselves might pick it back up and release their own version was balanced by the fact that they seemed interested only in the newer parts of their catalog (this has since been excepted by their announcement of Guwange, but as an XBLA title).

Personally, I like DDPDOJBLEX just fine. It COULD be better. It has now-infamous long load times… and those ARE a bitch to wait through. But some of the other issues that seem to break this game for fans I never really suffered. The menus don’t bother me, and I don’t experience the button inconsistencies reported from within those menus. The graphics have been subjected to endless debate and scrutiny, mostly owing to CRT-designed objects being displayed on HD televisions. But on my setup, component cables running to a Panasonic plasma screen, the picture looks fine. Fanatics for certain games can wax endlessly about how close a home version is to the arcade original and apparently there are some pretty glaring inconsistencies in DDPDOJBLEX, but with no experience of the original I don’t have the same frustrations. I think the greatness of the game still comes through. Maybe if I owned the PS2 one and saw what its like to be closer to the original I’d feel differently. The Xbox 360 version includes the Black Label version of the game and by all accounts it is a better, more balanced game, so that works for me. The goobs can complain all they want but at the end of the day, DDPDOJBLEX is a fun game and that’s what counts most.

So for me, back on the Ketsui front, the fact that 5pb was doing the port did NOT mean it had to suck. I figured at the very least they’d learn their lesson and get the load times down and the major bugs all ironed out, IF in fact they actually released the game! Ironically, Ketsui was also on the slate for Arika to port to the PS2 back in the day, but they decided against it owing to the PS2’s lack of power for handling certain sections of the game. So there was no finished code to be kyped in Ketsui’s case, I guess.

To almost all fandom’s surprise, the Ketsui port is great. Now the terms used are ‘amazing’, ‘redeemed’ and of course the one I’m pushing, ‘badass’. There’s even some interest now in 5pb’s future original shooting game. The eroge novel team proved they could pull this off. There are, of course, tons of threads and posts comparing graphics, accuracy, and all that shit. But there appear to be no bugs (apart from an intentional one that replicates a bug in the arcade… and that you can turn off!) AND the load times are practically non-existent.

Details about game mechanics are readily available on the internet with the best one probably the guide in the strategy section at Shmups! My point with this post is not to give a review in the same way a proper review is written. More to give my feelings about the game on a personal level, since it has had a pretty strong impact on me, even as the experienced STG player that I am.

The game is easy to get into, but the difficulty in making progress might make it unapproachable, a trait common to the manic shooter sub-genre. But there might be enough badassedness to get non-Cave fans to hang in there. 5pb included an additional ‘arrange’ version of the game called X-Mode. It involves a bullet canceling mechanic somewhat akin to switching to zesshikai in Espgaluda II. There’s a shot timer in arcade mode, manipulation of which increases your multiplier chips. In X-Mode, doing something similar also cancels all killed enemys’ bullets. So it is basically a screen-filling, bonus-raking free-for-all.

There’s also a level select for practice, and a selection of achievements mostly easy to get. The game doesn’t start out giving you enough credits to credit feed to the end, but it doesn’t take long to earn them… probably one of the few ticks in the ‘con column’ I’d give the game. I like the earning credit procedure in general but this goes by too quickly. There are leaderboard and replay options. All the usual stuff. As per 5pb’s previous release it DOES NOT contain versions of the game with re-rendered sprites for HDTVs. So the visuals will not be the unbelievably sharp objects Cave blessed us with in Deathsmiles or Mushihimesama Futari.

Ketsui doesn’t reinvent the 2d shooter genre. If you can’t see replaying the same levels to get better and better, trying to go further on one credit or reduce the number of credits it takes to reach the end, then this one ain’t gonna change your mind. It just does what it does very well. Any criticism I have for this port would be about the stuff ‘around’ the game, like the too-soon credits, or the plain menus. The game itself is stellar.

I have so many games on my list to get to, and so many that I like to return to, that attempting a 1CC on a shooter just isn’t usually in the cards. I try to play shooters enough to where I ‘finish them on a buck’. In the old days I used to give myself about a dollar to spend on each game. So it is traditional for me to allow myself the initial play and three credits on arcade style games—shooters, fighting games, etc. Occasionally if a game hits me just right, I may take the time to go for the 1CC. Ketsui is probably such a game. I don’t know if I’ll do or how long it’ll take. Ketsui is also known for having two separate second loops, one extremely difficult, and one full-on prison-love brutal. I don’t now at this point whether I’ll require THAT of myself to count the clear. I may just not be able to invest the time. We'll see. I'm getting to the middle of level three on my first credit. Figuring out how to manage all the battleships on that level is taking some doing.

If you have the wherewithal to play import Xbox 360 games and you like the genre, this is a no-brainer buy. Unless something miraculous happens with Cave releases over here (probably contingent on how the first one, Deathsmiles does) shooting fans should just assume they need to own a JPN Xbox 360 anyway.

Weirdly, for all its western aesthetics and appeal, this may be one of the least likely of Cave’s home ports to come over here. But that won’t stop the baddassedness at MY house!

PS: I realise there is a Nintendo DS iteration of Ketsui. Not really the same thing.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

New Holy Grail Contender

Ketsui Limited Edition received today.

Anyone up on Cave shooting games knows this thing has been rumored, announced, feared and delayed all to hell. The developer 5pb has had the rights to this thing for an age, but all the contorversy and glitchiness surrounding their previous Cave port Dodonpachi Daioujou Black Label Extra has had the shooter nerds all nervous and critical about the possibilites for this port.

One of the few Cave games released recently (though the arcade original is almost eight years old) that doesn't feature young girl protagonists, it is quite a bit more gritty and rockin' than one might expect. And the port is GREAT (Tony the tiger voice)!

More on this game later, but I had to make something of a deal of it. I was trying not to buy into the hype about this game, but still really anticipated it. The LE includes a booklet and a DVD case with two soundtrack CDs in it.


Still Engrish or Janglish.

But still.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Where's My Gun?

I just washed my car.

I didn't know we had condors where I live.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Limits of Manliness

Quote from on online vendor:

Cain Maduro (Nicaragua)
Strong and complex, Cain cigars are a blend of 100% Ligero tobaccos. That's 25% Esteli, 27% Condega, and 30% Jalapa. Because these cigars feature a blend of some of the strongest tobaccos in the world close attention is placed on the fermentation process. Triple fermentation allows flavors and strength to fully develop and makes these 100% ligero cigars rich and complex.

Okay. As I said before, summertime is cigar time. A couple of days ago, my beginning-of-summer cigar order arrived and some of these sticks pictured above were amongst the purchases. As with many cigar smokers my tastes have matured over time, and I have worked stronger and stronger cigars into my rotation. ‘Strength’ in the case of cigars doesn’t typically mean intensity of flavor… it means more the ‘richness’ of the smoke… the amount of nicotine and other particulate matter that make up other aspects of the smoking experience. So it is analogous to the alcohol content in a drink. You can have a strongly alcoholic drink but the taste could range from very sweet to very dry.

As you can see from the description up top, these cigars are made to be potent. Ligero tobacco is usually used as just a fraction of the mix in most cigars. Being oily and super-fermented it doesn’t burn as well as the viso and seco tobaccos that dominate most cigars. More or less ligero doesn’t typically make a huge difference in a cigar’s price, but it can affect flavor and it most definitely affects strength.

So I was game to try one of these babies. MY cigar vendor’s catalog description suggests a really big meal before trying one (probably for the same reason having food in your stomach helps you handle strong booze). But did I pay attention to that? No. No I did not.

I was thinking: y’know, I’m up for a good challenge here. I’m a seasoned man of the world. Let’s move on to a new level. Let’s BE a connoisseur.

I had a normal, not-really-big dinner, then about an hour later I poured myself a glass of port, went outside and fired one of these up. Oh it tasted good. Not the best ever, but pretty decent.

But now I’ve discovered a limit I’m not set to go beyond. Certainly not yet. Despite my bravado, I am not equipped. I could only manage about two-thirds of this toro-sized (four of its six inches) before putting it down.

A lot of men have stories of when they were boys and had their first experience with tobacco. For me it was chewing tobacco when I was in Little League Baseball. Other dudes it’s cigarettes with edgier friends in the school bathroom. Along with the gagging on tobacco juice, or coughing your lungs out on smoke, there is a nausea, dizziness, or headache component that usually accompanies your first time. The pain, as it were, of losing your tobacco virginity.

Cain cigars made me feel like a virgin again. And not the cinematic, two-tears-of-happiness, sighing-on-her-pillow kind either. I’m not proud saying that, but wow. Not only was I made dizzy during the smoking, but I had something of an upset stomach and mild vertigo for almost an hour after I quit. I felt like a complete pussy. I had a cigar hangover.

I’m not going to just throw them away or anything because they are good, and quite different to other cigars I have. But these are going to need a little caution and experimentation before I settle on the best way to enjoy them. Part of the issue is that ligero tobacco doesn’t stay lit quite as well, so you wind up puffing on it a bit more than other cigars. Lightening up on how big my draw is each time would probably help. And the big goshdamn meal thing too.

I might just have to resolve that these are cigars I smoke halfway down and then exit. There’s no way I’m going to smoke enough cigars to just ‘condition’ myself to be able to handle these the same way as other smokes. I’d have to be one of those big Italian or Latin American guys who always has a giant Churchill sized motherfucker in hand.

I think the adline should be: Cain. The cigar that makes you its bitch.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Aw Man. RIP Mr. Steele

I'm adding my personal note to the outpouring that appears to be building on this bit of news:

Peter Steele, front man for Type O Negative died yesterday of (what appears to be) heart failure at the age of 48.

I'm not going to go into a big personal entry on how much Type O Negative influenced me, or meant to me... or any of that shit. Music is personal, and I'm not introspective enough to define EXACT effects of music on me... though it is hard to overstate how important music is in my life.

But Peter was unique. A unique voice and personality. I liked Type O Negative A LOT. I've seen them live and a lot of people (in more than one locale) have walked up to me and said I looked like him. I don't really look that much like Peter, but people cue in on the height and the long hair. And he was well-known enough in metal, goth, and rock and roll circles to be a name people could put to their impression.

Now I'm going to be the same position as people who resemble Elvis I guess.

Anyway, the point of this is not to be super-maudlin or turn anyone onto Peter's work with TON posthumously. If you don't like their music or somber goth-metal (with dark humor served in heavy doses) than there's no sense in changing that. But his work (and humor) meant a lot to me.

Too bad, sincerely. He made a sort of peace with himself in recent times after being quite the tortured soul most of his adult years. He probably had a lot of good music and showmanship left in him, despite the band's constant sarcasm about always being on the verge of breaking up. Josh and Kenny are making noise like TON will still continue but this is one band who definitely will suffer without its first, best voice.

And Now A Somewhat Un-Nerdly Topic...

Summer is baseball season, hot dog season, grass-cutting season… a lot of different things to different people. Where I live summer is all those things and also very very short. We don’t really even have a traditional spring, which would be NOW (as this is being typed) everywhere else.

Here the weather is warmer than it has been for months and months but still not literally ‘warm’… not to the point I want to spend a lot of time outside anyway. But warm-enough-to-be-outside temperatures will here soon. That means in addition to all the other things summer is, to me its cigar season.

I don’t smoke cigars in my domicile. In winter that means I have to go smoke ‘em in bars that allow it. A lot of bars here have gone smoke free, and only a few that do still allow smoking really allow cigars. This makes winter smoking do-able but a big enough pain in the ass to not be done much. The lion’s share of cigar smoking has to be outside. In winter that just isn’t desirable. Folks addicted to cigarettes DO smoke outside here, but they are a miserable lot huddled outside the doors to restaurants and workplaces, hunched over in their parkas, trying to keep the wind and snow off their smokes. And trying to suck down those smokes as fast as possible to get back inside where it’s warm.

Since cigar smoking for me is optional, summer (such as it is here) is a time of opportunity. I might get in an average of one cigar every three weeks in winter. In summer this goes up to about three a week. So I’ve gotten some money together with a couple of other dudes at my workplace and fired off an order to stuff my humidor and get me through most of the summer months. See the link for Famous Smokes in the sidebar if you want to visit my cigar vendor of choice. I bought a selection of different 5-paks. Its more expensive per stick than buying boxes, but because I’m pooling money and there’s a greater array of tastes to cater to this was the choice to make. I think I spread the purchases out amongst six cigar brands, and it is typical for Famous to throw in samples and freebies.

Now I have to figure out what I’m drinking with these babies when they arrive in a week. I am a fan of most of the traditional cigar drinks. But being a so-called luxury item, the booze typically paired with cigars is also pretty lux so it can be expensive… typically more expensive per use than the cigars themselves. Good cigars can actually be had for less money than a lot of luxuries. You CAN fork over ungodly amounts, but you don’t have to… particularly if you take advantage of good vendors and special offers. In this order the cigars are going to run about four or five bucks apiece. All good brands in big sizes that would typically run seven to eleven dollars each in stores. Each smoke will be good for sixty to ninety minutes. That’s cheaper than going to a movie. Is going to the movies considered a luxury?

The booze I typically pair with cigars is the stereotype: port, cognac, and whiskey or whiskey-based drinks. There’s a reason these are considered cigar booze… duh, they really go good with cigars. But the better marks of all these things can get pretty pricey. And I don’t have the ducats available to buy all sorts of booze to pair with all different cigars. It’s like food. You’re supposed to match a strong cigar with a heavy drink, lighter cigars with milder booze. I can’t do that too much. I tend to smoke mostly fuller cigars, so I have to go with one premium ‘hard’ booze at a time… and maybe use a cheaper drink, like a microbrewery hefweizen for lighter cigars. Because I’ll blow through the alcohol much faster than the cigars (typically I get two drinks in for every cigar), over the course of the season I will have eventually enjoyed the cigars with most of the booze that goes well with ‘em.

Such is the price paid for having kids and a video game habit. Do yourself and everyone you know a favor and find an excuse to get outside this summer. Away from the games. I’m gonna break out my bike this weekend, and work regular rides back into my routine, too.

Not that my enjoyment of booze and cigars is particularly healthy, but it beats nothing but TV-based entertainment and it doesn’t pack the weight on quite as bad as food! Huh. Actually I see barbecuing in my future too.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lipschitz and Lipschitz, Name Change Specialists

So I've gotten back into playing Kaido Battle: Touge no Densetsu for the PS2, known in the USA as Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2. A Genki racing game that I started last year, but then wound up putting off when I got an Xbox 360. I am again making good progress (huge game) despite trouble getting back into handling drift events. I can't believe I was good at these several months ago.

Anyway, the point of the post. Genki racers all have rivals, named opponents for you to race. The game also gives YOU a street name, that changes as you progress. Sometimes your street name is cool, sometimes its lame, and sometimes it doesn't make sense.... a combination of the parser Genki uses and how the Japanese translates to English. So I frequently get stuff like 'Meteor of Destruction' or 'Money Maniac'. Yesterday the game bestowed a street name on me that is somewhat disturbing and I hope really inappropriate to me:

Essence of Boy

Now I realize this is just an unfortunate pairing in the parser of 'Essence of' (which goes best with stuff like 'speed' or 'power') and 'Boy' (which could be a suffix for just about anything; 'racing', 'drifting', Nissan, etc). But those two together?

I have to hurry up and gain another milestone that'll flip that name over. Not something I'm particularly comfortable with my kids seeing up on screen either, even if I don't actually have to explain it. Makes Cho Aniki's Holy Protein obsession seem almost tame.

Yes, yes. I'm sure there are plenty of funny and derogatory comments to be made. Let fly, everyone! I may have to forego publishing the comments on this post if it gets too nasty!

Note: The post title is an SCTV reference, kids.