Friday, January 28, 2011

Before Steroids Got Such a Bad Rap

In the 80s we had a surfeit of action films starring brutish, muscleheads that carried big guns and spouted one-liners. Think Rambo, Commando, any Dolph or Jean-Claude movie. These movies are still remembered and exert a fair amount of influence on the summer blockbusters of today.

In the 90s, following the success of Doom, video gamers had a bounty of games letting them relive all the 'good parts' (ie the violence) of those testosterone flicks through the running, bouncing wonder of the first person shooter or FPS, though at that time, the term 'corridor shooter' was typical. As the environments opened up, 'corridor shooter' dropped from common usage.

These days the genre is extremely popular. As of this writing my Xbox 360 dashboard is dominated by announcements and advertisements for gobs of these things. At times it seems like there's nothing else getting released. Already past, but still showing ads for downloadable add-ons, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops and Borderlands. Just released Homefront. Coming soon: Bulletstorm, Crysis 2, and Brink. I know floaty-arm games are popular, but jumpin' Jeebus!

I like me some floaty-arm game, don't get me wrong. I'm just not devoted to them. As time has ground on and the genre has evolved, simply running and gunning like we did in the old days through Doom, Quake, Powerslave and Duke Nukem has been replaced by 'realistic' missions, level designs grounded in reality, and (game-)logical methods of accounting for player protection and health. The original Serious Sam games for PC and Xbox (before the Xbox 360) don't actually hail from the TRUE old days but they were designed to get back to the basic spirit in a genre that was (and is) getting bogged down in being too serious (ha) and reality-based to be fun all the time. Serious Sam HD games are just high definition remakes. The same retro-styled games but re-tooled for the giant flatscreens we all play on now.

For the most part, I liked being reminded of how it was. Weird enemies (and Sam's are weirder than most) throwing themselves at you. No complicated AI. Nothing about enemy grunts attempting to use cover or roll away from grenades. These alien scum just stand and shoot, moving only to get the clear shot or throwing themselves at you if they aren't armed with ranged weapons. They pop up out of thin air, frequently just as you've grabbed a box of ammo or a health up. This leads frequently to being startled and panic-firing whatever happens to be armed at the moment. Awesome. Constantly on edge. You have a lot of ammo lying around but there were times when the game threw so many enemies that I found myself rationing... just so I'd have some on hand for situations that really required specific guns. It isn't logical for health packs, armor, ammo and guns to be lying around either, but that's how it worked in the time before Master Chief-style regenerating shields or Battlefield Bad Company's (retarded) adrenalin shot.

Rant tangent: Honestly. The Bad Company health mechanic is the dumbest thing I've ever seen. You LITERALLY walk around with a permanent health pack, available at a button press. On the one hand, that would seem to make the game too easy, and I think early on it does. But as I understand it, later you'll be pushing that thing into your chest constantly. Bad Company might be finely tuned for balance, I don't know, but it just FEELS to me that having a method like that is just an excuse to not have to tune the enemies and stages very much. In Serious Sam there was something of a balance between just enough enemies to pose a challenge before you had another health-up available. If you picked a higher difficulty then there was a seesaw effect of more/harder enemies versus fewer/smaller health-ups. If someone has a health-up always on tap, it seems like a lot of this balance is lost... never mind that continually jamming a fucking great needle in your chest for instant life extension is hardly more realistic than enemy lairs having first aid kits strewn about the place.

But Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter was pretty damn fun. It was simple, over-the-top, and cheesy in just the right way. Sam spouts one-liners right from the Arnie playbook, though the voice actor has a really guttural voice, like he's speaking from a broken-glass shredded throat. The aliens are really strange, but the game plays them straight, complete with datafiles that matter-of-factly give background on scorpion-centaurs with chainguns, or headless humanoids running around with Wile E. Coyote bombs. One of the few concessions Serious Sam gives to the new gaming mentality is the ability to instantly save at any second. In the old days you had to reach checkpoints, or in some brutal cases the end of an entire level before you were given the opportunity to save. In SSHD it is almost too easy. I found once or twice, in an almost convulsive fit at some surprise, that I'd saved at a really bad place, and had to struggle to extricate myself from that frozen moment right in front of an enemy missile or flailing above a spike pit. I'd like to say insta-save is total bullshit and real men don't need 'em. But I was pretty grateful for it most of the time. There really were some serious frustrations in the old days when I had to restart an entire level, and play through it over and over again. That shit works fine on some arcade games like fighters or STGs, but on an FPS it can be beyond monotonous. These games are not thirty minute affairs from start to finish. Each level can be pretty long. And frankly, as an older dude and a parent I just don't have time to spend perfecting every room and hallway.

So the concession to today's pussy gamer was actually welcome. However, a little over halfway through the game I started to remember just why FPS games have moved away from this old model in other aspects too. I don't mind games being a bit repetitive. Almost all games and game genres suffer from this. But the basic style of the environment in Serious Sam, like Doom and Quake before it, never really changes. It is always Egypt, Egypt, Egypt. And while that might seem like a pretty unusual environment for an FPS, too much of a good thing gets old. And I happen to have played through Powerslave on the Saturn which is ALSO an Egypt-themed FPS, though it had a lot more variety to it.

Then there is enormous repetition in the enemies. By the time you've played a couple of hours, you've seen about all the enemies you are going to. From that point on it is just different combinations of the same grunts thrown at you over and over. Even if the game had no more enemies than it does (twenty I think), if it had spread them out a bit more over the course of the whole game it'd have been more appealing. I kept waiting for some new badass around every corner, or at the beginning of each new level... and he never showed up.

And bosses are kind of a fixture for video games in general. Most puzzle games don't have them. Rhythm games don't have them. Racing games used to not have them, but a lot of racers have narratives now, so a boss driver isn't all that uncommon these days. Sports games based on real leagues don't have them... and uh, neither does Serious Sam.

Here is a game that absolutely REVELS in bizarre creature design, and the designers took no opportunity really to go all-out and just wow the player with some big motherfucker of an alien/weapon hybrid? What the hell? As I got to the end of each level, at first I was thinking 'okay here we go' expecting to be tested, and have to find some new inventive way to use my weapons or my dodging skills. Nope. Usually just a big room with a horde of grunts and then a quick cutscene of Sam running up to grab the item-of-the-level. Bosses are NOT a new video game convention. And there ARE games where it'd be stupid to include them. But this just feels like a huge missed opportunity. The irony is that there are two bosses and both of them are really huge and epic. Did they just run out of development money? No, thinking back on it... A LOT of those old FPS games didn't have bosses. But hell, I just played the new Wolfenstein game and it managed a few boss fights from occult-obssessed Nazis. Surely invading aliens with a penchant for grafting weapons onto corpses could've managed to do at least as well.

The enemies teleporting in, especially as I touched an item in a room kinda wore thin after a while too. It made the game tense, but when they'd teleport behind you, especially in a room you'd already 'cleared', that went from tense to annoying. The game frequently generated enemies up in high places that had a clear shot at me, but that would take precious minutes to search out and destroy. And when you're getting shot (or stabbed, or punched) the game, like many old corridor shooters, gives you no indication which direction it's coming from. These sorts of things; popup enemies or difficult-to-trace damage make the game more challenging, but they also feel sort of cheap. Like they are substitutes for more substantially thought-out challenges. In the old days, these difficult mechanics existed because the genre was nascent. There wasn't money, knowledge, or time to NOT have these things. Now that FPS have developed out of these old tropes it is odd to experience them again. I know Serious Sam, whose original version is still relatively new, is determinedly looking back at games like Quake. It's gibs instead of ragdoll physics for Sam. I just can't believe I'm actually finding myself appreciative of the mollycoddling and over-complexifying (I'm trademarking that word by the way) in modern FPS games.

We played and loved those old games because that's all there was. None of us knew any better. I still enjoyed most of Serious Sam HD: TFE. I particularly dug giving my kid endless shit about playing it on easy, but frankly he just didn't want to die as much as he saw was happening with me. As it turns out, the step down from Normal to Easy is a huge one. Easy is wwaaayyyy fucking easy. I think my son died three times in the entire game. And he has very little FPS experience, let alone with this older, balls-to-barbed-wire style represented here.

I'd still recommend Sam. It is pretty enough to not put newer gamers off on the graphics... because, well they're new... and it certainly makes a different play experience from the Call of Duty episode of the trimester. Looking at Bulletstorm or the new Duke Nukem (finally!) it isn't like tongue-in-cheek or bizarre FPS games are dead, but these games will probably not bend you over your cell cot like Serious Sam does.

Please note this post contains a lot of hyperbole and simplification. It isn't my intent to provide a thorough and accurate history of FPS games. I KNOW there have been exceptions and exemptions to almost every generalisation I made up there. Tough shit. I'm just framing my emotions upon playing Serious Sam.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

À l'intérieur

Another notch in the gun for watching films from the so-called New French Extremity, and this one is a keeper, though that's kind of a dubious, guilt-inducing admission. Inside (À l'intérieur in French), made by a tag-team directing duo (similar to the Wachowski brothers) is not only cringe-inducing because of the subject matter, but severely creepy and scary... moreso than most any film I've seen recently apart from Martyrs, another film associated with the NFE.

The New French Extremity (not so new anymore) is a sort of 'trend' mock-echoing the French New Wave cinema of the middle 20th century. Recent French and French-speaking directors (there are some Belgian and Canadian films that fall under the envelope) have been pushing the envelope in regards to subject matter and depiction, and usually pushing audience hot button when they go too far with sex and/or violence. Although no genre is necessarily excluded from the NFE, horror films and dark dramas tend to dominate.

Viewers attracted to these films not only find directors pushing into directions no Hollywood (or even most independent) filmmaker would go, but they contain a sensibility (how very Frahnch) in how the narratives are developed that is startling and refreshing at its best, confusing or pretentious at its worst.... just like the New Wave back in the 50s. NFE films tend to be low-budget, small cast affairs, but usually shot really well or if shot badly... at least done so with intent. The stories on paper read like hundreds of other films, common plots done to death. In the horror films I gravitate to, abduction of a man/woman/couple by a band of subhumans is a frequent script. BUT. There is often a bleak, nihilistic, or dramatic approach that sets these films apart. Not plot twists so much, as directions taken that skew genre conventions. What 'good' filmmaking should be all about. Inside is a perfect example.

Inside is 'basically' about a pregnant girl who is the victim of a home invasion. And the invader wants her baby. Straight out of her womb.

Though the topic tragically comes into the headlines in real life sometimes, this is a violation that most filmmakers won't touch... or at least won't make the fulcrum of their film. Even if they DID make a movie about this (and a USA remake of Inside IS rumored now) nothing I have ever seen in American cinema makes me think it would be handled nearly as (excruciatingly) well. The fact that I have kids myself never even entered my mind while I was watching this. What the filmmakers did so well, was highlight the incredible vulnerability that not only the child has, but that the mother feels. And the portrayal didn't make her particularly weak or incapable of looking to her own defense. Beatrice Dalle, the interloper actress, gets my vote as perhaps the creepiest, most believable psycho-lady in years, maybe forever. My understanding from the extras on the DVD, is that the writer/directors did NOT have Beatrice's character defined so specifically, but Beatrice brought a bunch of ideas and they let her run with it. And she is a tour de force.

And wherever you might be afraid a movie like this might go... this one goes there. So many times with horror movies... or any film with shocking content promised... expectations just can't be met. This is one of those movies where its as bad or worse than you imagine. And that isn't just owing to the violence (which is extreme, borderline exaggerated) but the choices made... lighting, sound, music, all of it. Everything about the film is focused like a laser on wringing the most tension out of the plot.

And it never feels forced, at least not to me. There is a reason for everything. All plot developments follow right along. Ever wonder why no one thinks to call the cops in these movies? She does call them. They even believe her. They even send cops up to her door to check on her. They even figure out someone is in there with her. The movie is short, with no footage wasted for extraneous development. There IS character development, particularly with Allyson Paradis' character, the pregnant girl. She is the survivor of a car accident that killed her husband. She is alone and depressed, and not sure how she can be a mother to the child. She is played as a woman who has run out of tears, but not a simple filmic emo stereotype, and her quiet masks her real feelings for the baby to everyone around her. She doesn't 'say' any of this. There's no exposition really.

Like a lot of the films I discuss in this blog, this one is difficult to recommend. It is a really good film of its type. Hell, even the crappier films of the NFE that I've watched are at least interesting (I'm looking at you High Tension). The tears and difficulty in dealing with this subject matter were readily apparent behind the scenes. It isn't awful in the same sense Irreversible is because despite the horrific topic, forced caesarian abductions are not common. They aren't a tragedy played out every day like rape is. And weirdly, there IS a scintilla of sympathy on tap for the invader-lady in Inside. The fact that this film can be as intense and awful as it is, and still manage that, is probably the highest praise I can give it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Manga Trumps Film Again

Watched Shinobi: Heart Under Blade. It is not a bad movie, with some aspects like the cinematography and visual effects particularly noteworthy. That it is shot beautifully is not unusual for a Japanese film, but the CG and wire effects used to show off the ninja superpowers, while not up the level of high-buck Hollywood films, is way better than most things I've seen about super-powered martial arts coming out of Hong Kong. This film almost completely eliminates the 'floatiness' of wire-fighting.

However it doesn't hold a candle to the manga version of the story, released in the USA as Basilisk. The whole thing actually originated as a novel, The Koga Ninja Scroll, but I have not read it. My understanding is that both film and manga depart rather a lot from the source material. While the film does read on paper as having the same plot as the comic, the comic is just a more spectacular piece all around.

I had a discussion not too long ago with the manager of our local comic shop about how comics were dying off. Or at the very least, about to hit a huge downturn. His point was that with all the different distractions and pastimes available to kids (and adults) these days, comics just get lost in the shuffle. He felt kids from this point on would STILL find the great stories of the heroes and characters we grew up with in the comics, but that they would know them as TV and movie heroes predominantly. So many more people have probably seen the Iron Man films than have ever cracked open an Iron Man comic book.

I don't think comics, manga, or graphic novels will ever go away. I think they may have to die down from the huge levels of excessive publishing that is still evident in Barnes & Noble and my local comic shop. In relating information about comic book-originated characters to my own kids I really work to make sure they understand where these things all come from.... but it is REALLY difficult to show any advantages to comics over movies or video games. Comics are, by and large, unnecessary to them.

Despite this my kids ARE getting into some comics, manga specifically. Japanese comics have the benefit of being finite.... and having disposable characters. They don't play by the same rules. Most of them tend to be auteur-driven and the creator has an end in sight for his or her story. Manga can be really long-running, but the characters don't run through dozens of writers and artists all of whom have their own ideas about how things should go... or a big company keeping them within the rigors of the house universe. There are tons of American, British, and European graphic novels that break the endless superhero mold, but they don't seem to feature the same iconic (read fan attractive) characters that most manga do. And it is much easier to get started on a manga. Want to read Batman? Where do you frickin' start? Like the Avengers cartoon and want to get more from the comics? Good luck figuring that out. There's the Avengers, New Avengers, Dark Avengers, Ultimate Avengers. Fucking hell. I know a lot about the Avengers, but even I get totally lost. I flip through a couple of books every now and then just to feel like I'm keeping up with the major plot points, but it is all so convoluted... and really it always has been, I just didn't have so much to the rest of my life.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pan and Scan Bullcrap

I recently got Hideo Gosha's mid-70s jidaigeki (samurai action drama) Bandits Versus Samurai Squadron sent to me through NetFlix. It was spread over two discs and delayed quite awhile from its original place in my queue.

Finally getting to see this I was supremely disappointed in the transfer on the DVD. It's a legit copy, but from a Hong Kong distributor, and not one of the big ones like Tai Seng. Long before widescreen became the norm here in the USA, Asian distributors often had it as standard on their VHS tapes and later on laserdisc and DVD. It was just easier. Pan and scan requires you zoom in on the widescreen picture and then move the 'camera' around seeking to keep (whatever the operator feels is) the focal point of the action centered. With widescreen you just let the image roll.

So I expected an HK firm to have a crap master. Dark, grainy, or blurry. They aren't going to hit up original studio Shochiku in Japan for a superior transfer. But the pan and scan thing was just unexpected. The film starts out brutal and bloody but then has a pretty long central section where they are introducing characters left and right, and generally raising plot points that are only partway explained and really leave the viewer scratching their head. But sticking through this, the last hour or so is pretty awesome. Or it would've been if I could have seen what was going on.

There are plot twists at the end, taking the movie in a completely unforeseen, but welcome direction... shot through with the gritty sword battles that Gosha typically showcases in his films. He has this way of filming the fights so the blood flows in a convincing fashion (in real time, not in some post-slice closeup) and even the scenery gets cut too, as part of choreography shot in long takes. Included in the climax might just be the longest continuous duel I've seen in a samurai film. And it was still really believable. Samurai film duels are shockingly short compared to most martial arts portrayals in movies. Gosha's fights aren't nearly as stylised as a lot of jidaigeki directors either. There were a few closeups (clashes and grapples) where they are using really sharp goshdamn swords that had me rather tense. I saw enough in the murk of this shitty copy to at least get that much out of it.

I've seen some footage on the web showing this film in a much brighter fashion in widescreen. Even if THAT copy isn't subtitled like mine was, it'd probably be worth me tracking it down. I'm a huge fan of Hideo Gosha and I'm glad I watched this little-seen film of his... but I still feel like I missed a lot! If I was recommending films of his to track down, I'd probably go first to Goyokin or Tenchu.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Game Of The Year 2010

Looks like alot of people online... at least in the dungeons where I travel... thought 2010 was a crappy year for games. I didn't find that to be the case personally. I'm not super-big on playing new games *just* as they come out, frequently splitting my time with games for older consoles or trying to play catch-up on my backlog.

Still and all, there were a lot of new first-run games that I bought and I enjoyed nearly all of them a great deal. Of particular note: Ketsui, Vanquish, Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu, Super Street Fighter IV, Limbo. All top tier games I've spent a lot of time with. Other notables that aren't really my thing, but that I've dorked around with and feel are really damn decent: Epic Mickey, Super Mario Galaxy 2, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Halo: Reach, Super Meat Boy.

I spent a lot of time in older games like Okami, Brutal Legend, Wolfenstein, Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, Battle Garegga... easily as much or more than I did new games, so I might not be the best judge of the best game in a year of its release. There's so much I didn't get to. I probably should rename this (dubiously distinctive) award 'Game I Had The Most Fun Playing 2010' so that I could cast a wider net for titles that were more representative of my time. But that doesn't roll of the tongue or type quite as easily as Game Of The Year. So I'll stick with GOTY and do the traditional thing everyone else does and stick to just the year's releases.

This was a really good year for Cave fans (and a lot of general STG fans) with all the releases from that publisher. And I gotta say Ketsui and Daifukkatsu really impressed me. I still play both games frequently. Daifukkatsu isn't actually that old, but that I still need to give Ketsui 'one more go' months and months after its release is saying something. My love for Vanquish is the subject of a lot pedantry on this 'blog. It is the Xbox 360 game I am closest to getting all achievements for... and I have no real interest in achievements as a whole.

However, Game Of The Year for 2010 was undoubtedly Sin and Punishment: Star Successor for the Nintendo Wii. While I spend more time on my Xbox 360 (and probably my Sega Saturn) than I do the Wii, the little white box once again (second year in a row) comes up with that one game that leaps to the top. And once again it is a game with firm roots in a venerable arcade style of gaming. Where Muramasa last year was a platformer and loosely, a beat 'em up, S&P is a rail shooter. Muramasa added elements to the basic formuals of old games and coupled that with a stunning art style. S&P does more or less the same thing, adding dodging and melee elements to a game that could've been just like House of the Dead or Time Crisis.

I don't need to rehash what I've already said in another post about this game's details. It is simply awesome. And it just goes to show that you don't need super PS3 visuals, or a completely modern set of mechanics to make the best game. If there's anything particularly forward-thinking about this game, it is that it's probably the best use of a motion controller I've seen yet. The wiimote/nunchuk combo is perfect for it. The mechanics themselves aren't even new... they were clearly defined in the first S&P game that came out for the Nintendo64 years ago (now on the Virtual Console, go buy it). But those original controls took some serious getting used to, but on the Wii they're a breeze.

Given the legendary setpieces of the original S&P game, and the sheer scale of its onscreen action (pretty much developer Treasure's standard) it would've taken one hell of a game for the sequel to top the original. And that's exactly what was delivered.

Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is a must-own title for the Wii. And an swift shot to the balls of anyone who trots out the usual bullshit about the Wii being a suckass console. It has incredible visuals, blazing action, is difficult, hardcore, and a high point for the machine's standard controller.

Score that ten out of ten.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Accidently Awesome

Yesterday after work I was utterly exhausted. I went home and just fell asleep, not waking up for almost three hours. After grabbing some dinner, I still felt out of it. But I sat down to my Xbox 360 expecting to just dork around with the odd game and not really accomplish anything.

I had downloaded the demo of the indie title Vorpal, a game of one-on-one bullet hell battles, sort of like Senko No Ronde except you are always oriented facing straight up as if it were a scrolling shooter. As much experience as I have with shooters, this demo had been giving me trouble. The demo only includes the first level/fight and I couldn't even get past that before. I don't know if my tiredness allowed me to slip into 'the zone' or what, but I managed to finally clear the demo. I'm still unsure I like the game well enough to download the complete version. The soundtrack is pretty cool though and got a little stuck in my head.

So I then have a go at the demo for another indie game, Revolver 360. This game has a pretty unique mechanic allowing you to rotate the axis on which your ship is hurtling, adding an extra dimension to the dodging aspect. It has REALLY great graphics and sound for an indie game, though the enemy designs are simplistic, being just basic geometric shapes. Again, REALLY kicking soundtrack... like Vorpal's tunes, a beat-heavy electronic score that doesn't quite veer into EBM or industrial dance floor stuff.

But it got me inspired to put Rotersand's album Random Is Resistance on the surround system. Much of the stuff on this record is dark, stomping music. I then fired up Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu 1.5 (translation: Angry Bee Boss Great Resurrection 1.5) listening to Rotersand instead of the in-game music. DDF1.5 is a full release game (not a download) I got over Christmas. It is arguably the flashiest, most spectacular STG (ShooTing Game) ever made.

Something about being tired or relaxed and not giving a crap about doing well, coupled with the rhythm of the music, made some magic happen. I like Cave's 'pachi' series, but I'm not a slave to playing them for score. I usually just play them for survival, which is tough enough. I don't have time available in my life to learn and practice all the ins and outs of the pachis strict scoring systems, which involve mainting successive hits (chains) throughout the levels as much as possible. If you go too long between hitting enemies your 'chain' drops and your scoring suffers. Super players basically know patterns to maintain their chains undropped through the whole game. I'll never play at that level though the new game, Daifukkatsu, IS less strict about how much time you get before your chain ends.

As noted I was tired and really just messing around. I figured I'd just play informally, as it were, and go for a simple goal instead of trying hard to survive the game on as few credits as possible. Daifukkatsu has two routes through each level, the regular path and a hidden (ura) path. If you fulfill certain requirements, the game warps you over to the ura path, swapping out the midboss for an end boss from a previous game in the pachi series, Dodonpachi. After each mid-boss battle the rest of the ura path includes more enemies and an extra pair of bee items to be found before the level terminates at its boss. My goal was simply to recover as many bees as I could and hop over to the ura path on each stage. I'd done it here and there on previous runs, but I wasn't sure I'd seen all of them. Really? I just wanted to see the 'old' bosses, who I know from their lower resolution Saturn incarnations, done up in new HD-friendly graphics.

So I'm playing and the rhythm of the music I've put on is really suitable to the onscreen action. I'm uncovering and grabbing bees and being largely successful at moving onto the ura paths. The Xbox throws an achievement notification up onscreen periodically that I've hit an ura boss that I hadn't before, so I'm managing my modest goal.

Then it throws up a new notification. 'Achievement 5000 hit chain'. Total surprise. A goal I've never really tried for, not knowing if it'd be particularly difficult to achieve. The next 'chaining' achievement is awarded for a 10,000 hit chain. So when I finally die, I restart the game and figure what the hell, let's see if I can get the 10K chain. I'll pick up bees (they can fuel your extra strong Hyper fire), but I won't be as religious about it as I was trying to get the ura paths and bosses. Just grab whatever you can while looping around to maintain the hits. I didn't accomplish my goal though I got very close several times during the run.

Here's what DID happen: In hitting my stride and trying to cack every enemy in a logical sequence I 'accidentally' got through the entire first loop with only one life lost. And somehow managed to pick up almost all the bees. I sort of woke up out the zone when I saw I was fighting the level five boss. I hadn't noticed the progress up to that point. That's also when I realised I hadn't died getting there. Then a mere 60 hits from getting the 10,000 chain the level five boss DID kill me, ending my chain and squashing my goal. BUT. After she got dusted by my second ship a minute later... I was crossing my fingers that in my dazed play I had managed to collect enough bees to actually enter the second loop. Then when the common 'poor' ending would've started, the screen asked me if I wanted to move forward yes or no. Of course I selected 'yes' and then entered Daifukkatsu's 'tsuujou' second loop.

I somehow managed to keep my nerves in order and battle my way nearly to the end of the third stage before finally succumbing and having to use my first continue. But I was pretty happy. I had 1-ALLed Daifukkatsu before, but not well enough to enter the second loop. And the coolness didn't stop there. After having to credit feed twice, and after killing the level five boss again, where the ending sequence would then play, my ship carrier (a sort of flying HQ) suddenly went down in flames and I was left to face the almost-TLB (True Last Boss) Taisabachi. If a player manages to play better through the first loop than I did they can reach the ura (as opposed to tsuujou) version of the second loop and face Taisabachi first, then the TLB of all the pachi games, Hibachi.

Finding and then fighting Taisabachi was exhilirating. Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu is not Cave's most difficult game. The requirments for getting to Taisabachi are not ridiculously demanding (for experienced shooter players). I didn't play anything near world class levels. But it was awesome FOR ME. And even moreso because it totally caught me off guard. You better believe I'm going to try (to no avail probably) to duplicate the mindset under which I did this well.

I'm not bad at shooters, but I'm rarely able to put in the kind of time to learn details and patterns to be *truly* good. Getting a 1CC (One Credit Clear) or a 1-ALL (one loop cleared one credit) is a kind of triumphant moment that trumps almost any other video game victory. It isn't just 'finishing' a game like you'd do with an RPG, or an FPS. You've made the game your bitch. This felt even better than that. The game handed me my ass near the end, but it was still so much more awesome because there was more to do having played that well. I've had a fair number of 1CCs in my time, but this was one for my books... and I can't even imagine how awesome a 2-ALL (both loops cleared one credit). It almost seems goshdamn do-able on this game now. I'd probably go jump off a tall building moments after a Cave 2-ALL just so the high was savored through my last moments of life.

Okay. Not really.

Even if I hadn't done so well... and please video game Jesus, please don't let that hour in the zone have been a fluke... I'd still heartily recommend this game. The scoring is complicated, but I think it is a damn fine time even played for survival. A more spectacular, eye-searing shooter you will not find... though it may not be for folks with absolutely no STG experience... I'd probably recommend the equally great Deathsmiles or Mushihmesama Futari as entry level Cave games because of the easier modes and level choices they offer.

I'm almost afraid to play the damn thing again now because of the almost-certainty I will be unable to match that last game!

(pic cribbed from the Shmups! forum)

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Metal Path Nears Its End

I finished the single-player campaign for Brutal Legend last night. Given all the ranting I usually do about game length, I find myself in the unusual position of being sorry it is over. Technically I don't think the game is too short. And like a lot of open-world games it puts you back into the game world to finish finding whatever you missed, replay side missions, and generally explore to your heart's content. But I actually would like THIS main game to go on for a bit more.

So I don't HAVE to leave, but the save-the-world narrative is complete. I like the game enough to definitely travel around in it to finish up all the loose ends. I don't even care that it'll net achievements or gamerpoints for me, it is just plain fun!

The last few dreaded RTS 'stage battles' were much less awful than I feared. At one point I was reading the BL guidebook, looking for any help to just get through a battle that was kicking my ass, when one particular tactic sort of leaped out at me. I tried it, and it got me through the shitty part. On the next battle I applied it again, and it made it much easier than the one before, though it had much tougher enemy troop types involved. I died once total through all the rest of the games stage battles.

Basically, my problem before was overthinking the battlefield, and trying to do everything at once. The key to Brutal Legend single-player stage battles turns out to be simplicity. I took the time to amass a large force at the get-go, before sending any one of them to any objective, THEN tackling each objective whether it was a power source, a bottleneck, or whatever, with my entire force in turn... one at a time. Since the AI opponent doesn't build forces faster than you do (at the normal difficulty level anyway), keeping everything you have together is going to roll over anything the enemy has. The AI DOES split its forces a bit, but if you're whole army is hammering away at his main force, Eddie can break off to crush an enemy splinter force on his own. Finding a good bottleneck or main route on the field and blocking it with your entire army does wonders for how much running around Eddie has to do. Very little. And that's what was so frustrating before. I couldn't keep tabs on everything. So my epiphany basically was 'don't try to cover it all, keep everyone together'. Stopping up a bottleneck with my entire force, always sending reinforcements to that exact same place, and then rolling them forward towards the enemy HQ, the AI can't get around you, so the resources on your side are all safe. I definitely felt my nerd-boner push out my pants when I learned this!

Anyway, blah blah blah. The final fight, a one-on-one action confrontation (NOT a stage battle) was a LITTLE on the easy side, but Tim Curry's dialogue and awesome death scene ('deeecaaapiiitaaaatioooooon!) made that section rock anyway.

Too cool. I'll putz around in BL world for awhile as I decide what my next 'big game' is. Current contenders are Darksiders for the Xbox 360, Baroque for the Wii, and Epic Mickey for the Wii. Probably I'm going to have to strike Mickey from the list since my kids are both currently working on it, and if I get ahead of them it'd be shitty for them to see any spoilers. I've been spending a fair amount of time on Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu (Angry Bee Boss Great Resurrection) the newest Cave home port. It is absolute awesome, but as with all shooters, something I sit down with for a half-hour to an hour at time, between forays into 'the big game'.

Future entries will cover my thoughts on all the 'pachi' (bee boss) games. I've also ruminated on what I think my Game of the Year for 2010 is. And y'know? MY award for GOTY is the one all the developers should be courting. But they're dumb. I read this roundtable discussion about what should be GOTY between several high profile writers and reviewers and their points (and most of their choices) were utter ass. So it is up to me, in THIS 'blog to fix that.


I've added a few more entries to the mini game reviews.


At the time of this writing I've got the film 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?' listed over in the 'just watched' section of the blog. Normally I only list movies I've seen for the first time. I'm watching through the Terminator films currently and I'm not listing them.

But I'm making an exception for 'Baby Jane' because it has been a long time since I've seen it and I want to draw a bit of attention to it. It is one of the earliest and probably the seminal work in the peculiar little sub-genre known as 'psycho-biddies'. Most psycho-biddy films are horror movies (yay!), but they poke into other genres too. I'm finding it interesting that certain scenes of psychological torture in this film are at least as excruciating and suspenseful as a lot of the modern uber-grue that I've been watching lately. This from a film released in black and white in 1962. Like I'd say with the original version of The Haunting, don't pass up quality films just because they're old, kids! The quality of the performances (though a bit melodramatic) from Bette Davis and Joan Crawford really help.

This is probably NOT the start of some cycle for me where I try to cram as much psycho-biddy watching as I possible can, but I probably will try to at least get the companion film, 'Hush...hush, Sweet Charlotte', under my belt.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Brutal Hybrid




As I knew they would, the Real Time Strategy aspects of Brutal Legend are giving me fits.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you may remember some ranting about my general lack of skill and/or patience with strategy-based pursuits (and some puzzles or puzzle games). I like the idea of being an armchair general, and in fact I have a decent track record with tabletop wargames like Warhammer. But Warhammer and 40K are turn-based. You take a turn, then I take a turn. You have time to think about what you are doing. The ‘real time’ aspect of RTS games kicks me in the nuts.

It shouldn’t. Emotionally I think an RTS is a good idea. If you were commanding a real battle, the enemy doesn’t pause while you consider your next move. Not that video games are really like actual war, but the continual unfolding of events whether you direct it or not, is a feature in warfare (and so many other things) that video games are uniquely able to duplicate or simulate.

But I’m terrible at it. It is the whole resources management and control facets that suck the fun out of it. Almost universally, there’s a ‘cost’ to building or acquiring units in RTS fames. Usually it is money, energy, fuel, or some other facsimile of a real-life resource. In Brutal Legend, the resources are the fans, as in concert fans. The more ‘fans’ you have pouring power into your ‘show’, the more frequently you can call up troops. RTS games also frequently have time delays to the arrival of your units (representing travel, build, or recruitment time), and depending on the technology represented, command and control limits… ie, your general can’t be everywhere at once.

All these restrictions are a fundamental part of the genre, simulating the limitations that might be imposed on real commanders, and composing much of the challenge. You have to learn to make do with what you have, and learn to adjust on-the-fly as the situation changes and your resources wax and wane. But for me, that shit just isn’t fun. It is too much like real work! I don’t think the genre should change for me, but I usually steer well clear of these games. My video game enjoyment is almost entirely predicated on immediate feedback, physical coordination skills, and memorization. That’s why the preponderance of my game collection comprises 2D shooting games, racers, fighting games, and platformers. With a few first person shooters and third person action games thrown in. I have a mere sprinkling of RPGs because I don’t cotton to the lack of immediate, direct control. So for real-time video wargames I think I have three… and that’s including Brutal Legend. My gaming background springs from the arcades, ‘twitch gaming’ as it were, and on home consoles I’m happiest near my roots.

So I’m running around BL, enjoying the utterly spectacular and badass scenery, getting in the occasional small fight, and finding the hidden items. The game makes finding stuff really rewarding because they aren’t just items collected for some long-term goal, you frequently get new abilities and entire new music tracks. The game keeps throwing something cool or interesting at me. My kid is just blowing through the story mode and it's a shame because a lot of work went into making this world. A player really needs to slow down and look around in it.

Then it comes time to fight one of the major battles. The RTS battles. I don’t feel like they are just shoehorned into the game like some reviewers have opined. The designers did an okay job justifying the mechanics and integrating them into the story. BUT. I hate this kind of battle nonetheless. They shove me all the way from having the time of my life to getting apoplectic with frustration. It isn’t that I can’t learn how to play the RTS battles… but I really don’t want to. Like I said before, it is too much like work. Everyday life is an exercise in resource management. Balancing a checkbook or juggling priorities at my job might not be as cool-sounding as ordering a unit of Razorgirls to annihilate enemy Grave Diggers, but it comes off even more of a hassle because its landing square in the middle of my fun. I’d feel the same way if someone handed me that checkbook to balance just as I was climbing aboard a rollercoaster.

So I’m being a total lame-ass and using the guide to help me. I just don’t have personal ‘resources’ to get good at this on my own. And using the book isn’t sailing me through these parts either, because it is terrible… one of the worst game guides I’ve ever seen. The map poster is useful. Everything else about it, the organization, descriptions, everything is jank. In effect, even making the book useful (during the battles) is WORK.

This isn’t killing my enjoyment of the game as a whole. The rest of the game is just too much fun for that. This game could’ve easily just been a total joke. A game about heavy metal? How did that even get greenlit, much less turn out to be fucking awesome?

From the point where I am in the game I think I have three more of these ‘stage battles’ to go. I’d rather they’d made the RTS stuff a separate mode, but its obvious a shitload of work went into that part of the game too, so that might be more than I could reasonably expect. Hopefully I can shut up about it now, get through the RTS battles as they come up, and remember the game for its strong points after its over!

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Limit

As something of a film buff, one of my interests is viewing extreme or so-called transgressive cinema. Always looking to see what is new and different (dare I say hip) in the genres most likely to be controversial or offensive. Usually this is in horror or 'thrillers'.

Currently France with its loosely-grouped 'New French Extremity' films is the forefront of my, uh, educational viewing. Most of these I've found to be pretty good, delivering as advertised; shocking, compelling horror that goes places US releases fear to tread.

I have a strong stomach and an ability to handle (at least for the viewing duration) different messages, themes, and subtexts... but if done 'effectively' I still react to this material something like the way intended by the film. All the stuff I've seen has certainly built some level of tolerance and immunity to screen horrors, but I'm not jaded. All my social and cultural boundaries are intact and in place, I'm just able to lift them up enough to see whatever screen controversy is next on the list. I don't really like poor filmmaking per se, and there are plenty of extreme films that are just dumb or cruel. Occasionally one comes along that makes me think about acceptable limits.

I think I've just seen the signpost for my limit. The film 'Irreversible'.

With all the difficult-to-handle stuff I've seen the first twenty minutes of this movie probably the most harrowing of all. Movies like 'Salo', although well-made, are held out as immoral and repulsive. 'Wolf Creek' is considered utterly bleak and misogynist. 'The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things' is perverse and nihilistic. Yep. Maybe true for some and all depending on your view. I can see the point for anyone reviling these films for the above listed reasons and more.
But they are all pretty tame, ultimately, compared to 'Irreversible'. There aren't many things I wish I could un-see... and I probably don't really want to un-see this movie either, but I'm damn close. As any internet search can tell you, the movie is about the events leading up to a rape and subsequent revenge, but told in reverse chronological order. A very early film in what would become The New French Extremity, the movie is well-made (apart from an overabundance of swirly between-scenes camera work) not some back alley straight-to video-quickie, though it looks it. It is grimy-looking on purpose, with improvised (French) dialogue that was effective for me.

The first scenes are set in a gay 'club' and features some disturbing scenes and characters, (the place is called The Rectum, so you figure out what kind of activity's going on there), as the two male leads march through the place looking for a rapist. These rapid-fire handheld shots culminate in a very effective, horrific act of violence that makes the viewer flinch the way seeing real violence on a war documentary might. So that in itself is pretty grim.

But moments later, Monica Belucci becomes the victim in the rape scene. THE rape scene. Notorious. It is nine excruciating minutes of unblinking, hyper-realistic degradation that the viewer is given absolutely no respite from. The camera just sits at ground level as if dropped there by some passerby in a hurry to get off the location. I guess Belucci should get some kind of kudos for having the guts to do this scene. She's been interviewed dozens of times about it, and seems pretty unaffected. But husband (and co-star as her vengeful boyfriend) WAS affected. Belucci asked him not to be on set when this was filmed, and he was in tears during the screening at Cannes.

I want to give props to the filmmakers too, because the film IS some kind of art, but it is difficult. Art can be difficult, I know.

The rape isn't the only thing in the movie, the rest of it is interesting, and it does some cool things with foreshadowing in reverse. The story would probably be strictly exploitation fare if it weren't for the methodology in ordering the scenes. Belucci and Cassel (and the third lead) are all pretty funny and kind with each other... which of course makes the shit you've already seen even worse. The film shows Cassel just go ballistic and loose a bunch of verbal abuse on gays, a transsexual, and a chinese cab driver. I won't say his behavior is literally justifiable, but the subsequent scenes make it more and more understandable... and I'd say the more idyllic stuff that comes AFTER the rape make the point perhaps even more because they show how HE thinks about her... what he may have lost.

But the rape dominates. It just fricking sprawls all over this movie. As it is supposed to. And given the absolutely horrible way it is depicted I'm not sure I CAN give props to the filmmakers. There is a message in here about the fleeting nature of ordinary lives... maybe even a 'hey ladies, be smart when you're alone' deal in there somewhere. I could definitely see this movie inspiring some women to think twice about their own security. Hopefully constructively. But it just hard to drum up a recommendation on any level for this thing. I suppose it could be used to 'teach' someone how horrible and destructive the crime is... I dunno.

I actually feel bad about the guy playing the rapist. It'd be easy to say he has something in him to be able to play the part... he sure is 'good' at it. I'm sure he had to dig down and do it the same way Belucci did. And the scene is one long take. She said it was done like six times or something. I'd feel horrible about 'going there' to do that scene... like Bill Moseley did during certain scenes of 'The Devil's Rejects'.

Couple of additonal notes about 'Irreversible'. Screened at Cannes, the movie was extremely divisive, as one would expect. No one 'liked' it, but some people walked out (fair enough) and others shouted at the screen or at the filmmakers afterward... including Belucci. Now I can't speak for anyone else, but whatever one thinks about the film and its motives, the rape scene is not exploitative. Its about as far from that as is possible to get, in my opinion. So shouting expletives at Belucci *feels* a bit like someone telling a rape victim they deserved it. She did a job, and she did it (too) well. There is barely any nudity in the scene, it isn't explicit in the sense usually meant when describing a sexual screen topic. People blame HER for the film getting made? Like the director wouldn't be able to find someone else? Or what? I'm kinda bewildered by that... not that Cannes audiences don't have their loonies.

That brings me to another bit of looniness. Roger Ebert. Reading his review, I largely found myself agreeing or at least understanding his points... until he starts talking about women's 'wisdom' in how they dress. WTF? Here is one of the most-read film critics in the world, a man who is known for his tolerance for genres that other critics dismiss, and HE throws in a passive reference to 'she was asking for it'. Belucci IS dressed provocatively. She was attending a pretty debauched party. If Roger saw the same film I did, it'd be obvious that how she was dressed made absolutely no difference to the attacker. The rapist, was an extreme abuser and hater and Belucci was a bystander to his horrible behavior. Being female she was going to get it even if she was 85 years old and dressed in a roll of astroturf. Not that Roger has never said something asinine before, but cripes! Here is the actual error on the character's part: going somewhere in a big city unfamiliar, alone, late at night, particularly as a woman. I'm not saying she doesn't have 'the right' to do so, but if there is wisdom lacking... to me, THAT course of action was it. Even then, the film sets up what happens as pretty believable. She isn't far from friends and she takes the route she does on advice from a young woman, after failing to hail a cab. Running across the rapist (a pimp berating a whore) in an underground street crossing was pretty much just the worst luck.

And THAT is the point of the movie, necessary or not, enlightening or otherwise. Through circumstances beyond your control, your life can be wrecked in an instant. Watch this film if you want the point made in the worst possible way.