Thursday, March 31, 2011


Sega really only ever marketed one video game console successfully; the Sega Genesis here in the states or The Mega Drive as it is known most everywhere else. Every other console they’ve launched has either lived in the shadow of a more successful machine or it has just flat tanked without really giving the competition much of a fight.

Sega's machines have been good, with really good games available. I don’t have much experience with the Master System or the Game Gear, but the Saturn and the Dreamcast have seen many MANY hours of play time in my house. Many games on Sega consoles were exclusives or were the best versions to own. But Sega made serious errors in marketing, timing, or the direction for their products.
I was definitely a Sega adherent at one point. Probably not up to the level of fanboy by today’s definition of the term, because while I definitely kept track of who had what advantage when Sega participated in the so-called console wars, I didn’t actually diss any other machines. I didn’t own a Super Nes or a TurboGrafx-16 during the Genesis era, and I didn’t own a PS1 during the Saturn era because I simply couldn’t afford multiple consoles and still buy as many games as I wanted to. But I thought the console-bashing was pointless since it was the games that mattered. My only negative feelings about any other system or fanbase was the little spurt of envy whenever a game I really wanted came out exclusively for a machine I didn’t own.

Since then I’ve picked up a PS1 and downloaded SNES and TG16 games on the Wii Virtual Console. Sega got out of the hardware business when they pulled the plug on the Dreamcast, but they are still a software powerhouse, releasing games for every system currently sold, which would, of course, include former rivals.

Amongst the parade of failures from Sega, sits one machine that seems particularly derided. The SegaCD (or Mega-CD as it is known in Europe and Japan). This console… console add-on really since you have to have a Genesis/Mega Drive to make it work… embodied everything that could be wrong with a video game console all in one shot. It was expensive. Its major marketing push was a new-ish gimmicky game tech (like Kinect, but in this case full-motion video or FMV). It promised hitherto unseen graphic and aural heights that weren’t actually new or were not frequently accessed by developers. Etc etc. You can read all about the system’s tragic history online, no need for me to reiterate that shit in detail. Ironically, with the SegaCD and the 32X (a plug-in for the Genesis) Sega essentially demonstrated that add-ons designed to boost your system specs really don’t work. Since this time, hardware companies don’t usually try to extend the life of dying consoles with upgrades, they simply come out with an all-new machine.

Looking past all the hype of the time, what the SegaCD offered was really an opportunity for bigger, more expansive Genesis games. The TurboGrafx-16 already had a CD-based edition, but not much was done with that beyond upgraded audio… real instrument based soundtracks instead of the bleepy-bloop music of rival consoles. So at the very least you’d get ‘bigger’ sound. The SuperNES had more colors on display than the Genesis (though it was slower to move the graphics) and hardware-based scaling, so Sega fans were expecting ‘bigger’ visuals to rival that console while maintaining the Genesis characteristic play speed. The storage capacity of a CD meant that you could have massive numbers of levels or huge casts of characters.

But in reality, this was rarely ever accomplished. The SegaCD WAS capable of many of the claims, but exploiting it was beyond the capabilities, desires, or budgets of many game companies. The idea of having an orchestral score in your game sounds all well and good but who is going to pay for that? Where’s the money coming from when formerly you were paying a small-time musician for some chiptunes? That's not to say there were no good games. There were quite a few. Some, like Sonic CD, delivered the goods in graphics, sounds, and size/variety. Others, like Android Assault, are great games, but could’ve just as easily been Genesis cartridge games apart from the soundtrack.

I actually own a number of the better SegaCD games, and really the whole point of this post is to draw some attention to a particularly good one that I’ve gotten back into. Recently I bought a Genesis with a hardware modification to allow it to output S-video and stereo sound. Hooking my old Genesis up to my current hi-definition TV setup was an exercise in disappointment and eyestrain. Every other old console had had cables upgraded to look good. Even Genesis Virtual Console games running from the Wii looked fine. Never mind trying to get my kids to understand why the Genesis was so great, when they couldn’t get past the fuzzy ghosting visuals. So the mod made a huge change and since the SegaCD outputs through the Genesis, its graphics carried right along in the same improvement.

This sudden leap up in fidelity caused something of a Genesis renaissance between my kids and myself. Suddenly Mickey Castle of Illusion and all the old Sonic games were wondrous displays of hand drawn animation goodness. And on the SegaCD, Earthworm Jim, Robo Aleste, and that kid and dog from Panic! live again. Totally badass. And the game I wanted most to get back to was Core Design’s Soul Star.

Core Design, famous for inventing Tomb Raider, seemed to be one of the few companies willing and able to realize the potential in the Sega CD. Battlecorps, Thunderstrike, and Soul Star are all fast-scrolling 3D showcases for the console. I like all of them, but Soul Star is a particular favorite, and in all the years I’ve owned it, I never completed the damn thing.

Consider THAT particular goal accomplished. Now that I have played it several times, and finished it on all difficulty settings I’m appreciating this game all over again. Soul Star is a third person 3D shooter. You move your ship up, down, left and right in the foreground while firing at targets coming at you or moving across the background. How your ship moves and controls varies with the stages, but you generally have the same powerups; several different types of weapons including a screen-clearing 'bomb' and replenishments for your shield.

Core Design was an English developer, and with most of their games a British aesthetic is very apparent. Soul Star is different. It is a speedy sprite scaling game that looks, at times like Sega’s old coin-op Space Harrier or the lesser-known Taito game Night Striker. But look closer and you’ll see that far from the ground stages having simple checkerboard or roadway patterns for terrain, many locations have sophisticated ‘skins’… like a texture map laid down on the flat surface. From that terrain artwork various sprite obstacles, rocks, buildings, or turrets, stand up appropriately from the surface. It is really quite impressive to see it in action. Check a Youtube video. Also many of the enemies have a decidedly 80s anime, that is to say Japanese, look to them… particularly referencing artists like Masamune Shiro of Appleseed fame. Almost every level has some glistening humanoid mech as a mid-sized enemy to comes skating along the ground towards your ship firing the whole time. The use of color also goes quite a bit beyond the ‘gritty’ colors schemes that try to be grounded in reality in western games. Much of the game has an almost painterly approach to the skies and starfield backgrounds.

In fact, there are tons of little aesthetic touches that seem commonplace now, but were just awesome to me back in the day. The huge tractor beam animated in the sky of the water planet. Debris falling from the ceiling of a hovercraft level as a self-destruct timer counts down. Flying over the surface of the sand planet, after you’ve passed through the initial wave of popcorn enemies and ground installations, a giant carrier appears in the sky and starts dropping shit. First these mechanical ground worms that try to collide with you, then mines, then shooty robots. Periodically the carrier itself has a big lens iris open on its hull to shoot little needle bursts of light at you from a mile away. Then it takes off and you enter another field of turrets and rocks. All the levels have distinct ‘sections’ like this that flow from one to the other. In the space levels you might have to pass through an asteroid field, and then a large orbital construct, before eventually descending to a planet… and it all comes at you in one contiguous action with small almost unnoticeable blips of load time from the disc.

And then there’s the soundtrack. Almost any mention of this game is going to include the awesome soundtrack. The sound effects are okay… but the music is outstanding, really setting the mood. In any other game, music this fine might push an okay game up to the realm of good, but this game doesn’t even need the help, it is just the icing on an already delicious cake.

If there’s anything to actually complain about (for me) in the game it is probably that the system gets overwhelmed by all the shit going on, very common complaint about 3D games that can be heard even today about recent releases. It doesn’t make the game unplayable but the stuttering frame rate can cause a bit of confusion when it comes to dodging enemy bullets. Also your ‘hit box’ is big. Really big. In fact you can be hit by stuff that just comes really close, not always seeming to need to hit your sprite. Your ship is fairly speedy so it isn’t too hard to put extra margin for error when you move out of the way… but in some levels where you are slower—as a hovercraft or walker—this can get pretty annoying. When piloting the slow free-roaming levels I frequently adopted a strategy of clearing out most or all of the enemies from long distance before moving in to accomplish the level’s goal. Some reveiwers have complained about the controls, particularly for the hovercraft form, but I didn't have a problem. Once I got use to them I found myself making pretty intricate maneuvers in the thing.

It may just be me that thinks this game is the cat’s ass. It seems to get pretty good reviews, frequently classed as equal or better than Starfox. But it also seems, most of the time, if I get hyped up on a game, it’s gonna be really expensive to acquire… owing to lots of other people thinking it’s the cat’s ass too. But from what I can tell Soul Star can be had pretty cheaply.

It’d probably take more than one good game to make tracking down and buying a SegaCD really worth it, but Soul Star is really good first choice. Maybe so good it is almost misleading. As I said, most games didn’t come close to pushing the hardware or taking advantage of its capabilities. This game is so spectacular it might make most everything else you’d buy something of a let-down.

(pic stolen from Sega-16)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Y'know? In a post-script to that last entry about Aftermath/Genesis:

I have to hand it to Netflix for even carrying the DVD and so many other releases of a transgressive nature. This disc, and a lot of the other films discussed on this blog, are on many countries banned or censored list. And even if allowed by law in the USA, many stores won't stock them and certainly outlets like Blockbuster (RIP) wouldn't touch 'em with a ten foot pole.

I don't really get to go to horror conventions anymore, the places where transgressive movies thrive and survive. I live to far away now. While Netflix doesn't have posolutely everything, they are an absolute boon to anyone digging around in the far fringes away from sensible film viewing.

Censorship and banning in general really get my goat. I was preparing a post ranting about the restriction of the upcoming Mortal Kombat from the shores of Australia, but seeing as how the aussie government MAY be enacting ratings rules to fix that soon, I've belayed my tirade awaiting the result. I don't much like how Netflix is working to discourage DVD-mailer rentals and shifting more towards streaming, but as long as they keep such hard-to-find films in their listings, they'll keep my business too.

Love Never Dies

Aftermath/Genesis is a DVD release featuring three short films by director Nacho Cerda. Although technically spanish language, none of the films have any dialogue, so the there is no language barrier.

The first film (not included in the title), The Awakening, is a student film Nacho shot while enrolled in Southern California. The plot is very similar to the well-known Carnival of Souls. It isn't bad for a school project, I've seen better, I've seen worse. It serves the purpose of introducing Cerda's questions about death and  illustrates a concept about the actual moment of death. The most notorious segment, the middle film on the disc deals with what comes after.

Cerda indicates in the supplements that one of his great personal horrors is the fear of what might happen to his body after he has died. His fears were not helped when he observed a series of autopsies in person. I don't think fear of what is done with our earthly matter is universal, but I think just about everyone would prefer NOT to consider it too much... even if there's nothing more to it than lying in the earth decomposing.

In Aftermath, Cerda posits nearly the worst possible thing that could happen to your corpse if the circumstances of your death require an autopsy. At thirty minutes long, the autopsy process is about the only thing covered in the movie, but that span is more than adequate.

One can go on the web and find out more details about this film than I care to elaborate right now. The film is shot very well, the sounds are clear (and all the more disturbing for that) and as I said above, there is no dialogue. The music is mostly archived Mozart but effectively chosen. I was very prepared to be disturbed by this film. I'd avoided almost all direct plot references, but one cannot really read anything about the film without at least catching the phrase 'unspeakable atrocities on corpes' or somesuch. So y'know, expecting the worst.

In reality, what the film presents IS horrible and IS disturbing. The lead actor has a really hard time with one particular scene, as shown in the extras, and I can't imagine it wouldn't be scarring. BUT. I had one issue that really kept me from being overwhelmed like so many other viewers. I couldn't believe in the effects.

When you are a genre film buff, one aspect of viewing and enjoying is cultivating an appreciation for conventions, technology, and trends at the time of a film's production. There's a synonymous requirement in cultivating taste in any artform. You don't expect a piece of gothic fiction written in the 1800s or SF from the 50s to be written appealing to modern tastes. Artists today don't emulate medieval church paintings, yet many modern art mavens still find the old works beautiful. You have to place the work, whatever it is, in the context of its time.

In the case of horror films, what scared 'back in the day' may not be scary now. Effects makeup that shocked or looked realistic decades ago may be comical to a modern viewer. But when you watch an older horror film, you may have to substitute admiration for what was achieved for the original intentions of the filmmakers.

The problem for me with Aftermath is that the subject matter requires extensive viewing and interaction with fake corpses, and I didn't find the bodies believable. I have an appreciation for what was accomplished when the film was made in 1994. Considering the budget and tech available it is pretty good. But unlike a lot of horror films where the effect is a brief killing or a short view of a monster, the effects are on display constantly. The doctors performing the autopsies are continually working with them. The subject matter is horrifying, but the immersion in it was really incomplete for me. I have a huge tolerance for bad makeup effects. These makeup effects are not literally bad, they just aren't credible ENOUGH given how much onscreen time they occupy. I couldn't just say 'pretty good for the day' and move on to the next scene. Or overlook a deficiency because it is quickly past. The bodies are always there. Being cut, sawn, moved, etc.  Now I don't have enough experience with dead bodies to really say how accurate the film is with these depictions. For all I know, accident victims change after death EXACTLY as in the film. But I was just too aware 'dummies' the whole time.

The third film on the disc, Genesis, was much more successful to me. Again, extensive prostheses and makeup effects are used, but this time they document transformations further removed from reality and so they feel, to me, more successful.

Genesis is also a thirty minute short. The story of a sculptor who lost his wife in a car accident, and is trying to capture her essence in a tribute statue to her. He succeeds all to well. I liked this film a great deal though there are no real surprises in the narrative. Anyone who has seen the Guinea Pig segment Mermaid In A Manhole, knows more-or-less what to expect here. But the care and professionalism shown in this film go quite a bit beyond just about any horror short I can remember. Ironically, Aftermath would be a runner-up... also really well shot and staged. Genesis is bleak, but not thoroughly disgusting like Aftermath. And to me, much more believable, in the immersion sense, despite the more fantastic nature of the plot.

Only Genesis really bears repeat viewings, but you can watch Aftermath just to say you got through it, if you dare. Enh, I may have just ruined the experience now that I've got you looking really closely at the corpses.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Wonderland Of Violence

Holy shit. Golf N’Stuff in Ventura, California still exists! I’d dearly love to drop in and see what that place is like now.

Playing Super Street Fighter IV on my Xbox 360 has really gotten me nostalgic for the arcade ‘olden days’. I’ve actually been a bit choked up at times. I’m getting the same feeling watching the new Captain America trailer that just hit, but that’s a different, though similarly nostalgic story. The source here is SSFIV’s fight request option when you are playing Arcade Mode. You play through the one player game as normal, but people seeking online matches can drop in on your game, just like an opponent could walk up, drop in quarters or tokens, and push the 2P button on an arcade cabinet. The other night I had so many fight requests coming through I barely made any headway on the 1-player game. Which was fine. I was just playing Arcade Mode to practice and kill time waiting for matches.

I mention Golf N’Stuff in the opening paragraph because when I think back on the good old days of arcade gaming that place is the one with the clearest memories for me. There are specific games at other locations that also mean a lot to my history, but their respective arcades sort of blur and aren’t so identifiable.

Back in 1990, I lived in California. I’d been there a couple of years, and had been hired by Games Workshop to help man their store in Santa Monica… effectively the first one ever on the west coast. I worked in Santa Monica but lived in Ventura, a commute of about 55 minutes through Malibu. I owned a NES at home and had bought a Genesis pretty much on its release day in 1989, but I was a player from the arcades first and foremost. So having home consoles didn’t stop me from hitting the game places, of which Golf N’Stuff was probably the best that I knew.

Golf N’Stuff was/is based around a huge miniature golf course with very elaborate setpieces for most of the holes. And a pretty big go-kart track. It also had an arcade with the usual hoop shot or skeeball games, an air hockey table and A LOT of quarter munchers. I don’t know what all is in that part of the complex now, but their website says 100 arcade games, and they list many of the riding, driving, and shooting games that have big hardware with them… the kind of arcade games that dominate Dave & Busters or Jillian’s. Back in my memories of the place, the machinery on video games rarely got more elaborate than a periscope, mounted guns, or a steering wheel. Hopefully, Golf N’Stuff also has the good ol’ arcade cabs with nothing more than sticks and buttons too. Or maybe a trackball. Of course I ran through the miniature golf course, more than once. It was way too big and fun not to. I drove the go-karts. But it was the arcade I went back to repeatedly… frequently just going to the park for that.

They had tons of games. My first time there was overwhelming. Had to try most everything once. They had three-screen Darius AND Ninja Warriors machines. They had standbys like Rush ‘n’ Attack, Shinobi, and Galaga ’88.. There was the super-tech game at the time, Hard Drivin’. After the newness wore off, I settled down to just a fraction of the games, putting a lot of hours in on Space Harrier, Outrun, and Spy Hunter.

I think the game I played the most was Strider. I was determined to 1CC this game. The closest I got to that was clearing it on the second life of my second credit. I just couldn’t get through that last upside down section, with the moving spikes and robots before the last boss rush, without losing two lives or more. I’m still going to insist there’s some luck involved in getting through that part unscathed.

But there, in my memory, near the middle of the main room was this cabinet with an attract mode depicting one on one combat. It looked a bit like Karate Champ, except mounted on this shelf to the front of the cabinet were these big rubbery looking buttons the size of dessert plates. You used a joystick to move per standard, but then you smacked these big-ass buttons and the force detected determined the power of the punch or kick from your onscreen avatar. This was Street Fighter, people. The original. Later versions of this game switched out the giganto-buttons for a six-button layout in standard-sized components, but THIS is the one I remember:

I was NOT very good at the game. I don’t think I ever played it against another person actually. It was not a busy game, and I think part of that owed to the fact that the act of looking like a fool whaling away on a game hadn’t yet come into vogue the way it has with Samba de Amigo or the various Bemani games. Karaoke Syndrome. I tried it a few times, got a few victories, but never stuck with it enough to get decent. You couldn’t just credit feed to the end if you weren’t good enough to beat the AI opponents. I remember what Sagat, the boss, looks like from the game, so I guess I probably got that far.

Eventually, Games Workshop asked me to move across country to the HQ in Baltimore, Maryland. So my visits to Golf N’Stuff came to an end. But not before a thunderbolt struck. Street Fighter II. I only got a few games in over what was probably my last time there. There were crowds around this machine. All the serious players seemed to want to get in on this. All the combos, the specials, the tiers and matchups hadn’t been worked out yet. The internet wasn’t pervasive enough for players to have read up on all the strats before seeing the game. I tried Ryu and Guile. But I pretty much fell in love with Chun-Li.

Over in Baltimore, I never really found an arcade that could compete with Golf N’Stuff. The closest thing was a Sega Center that was in Towson north of the city. Arcade machines usually were found in the closet-sized arcades in shopping malls or in the lobbies of movie theaters. But there was always a version of Street Fighter II (CE, Turbo, Hyper Fighting, whatever) available to play. And usually already stocked with players, observers, and on-deck opponents. I remember vividly now how it was to switch out back and forth with other people waiting to play. Not a lot of words spoken. I rarely saw the same players from one day to the next. There were no organized meetings that I could detect. But that didn’t matter. It was intense. Stories from old players about that time are everywhere on the internet. Many of the tournament champs that arose then are still active experts today.

We seem to have no arcades left these days. Home consoles changed the way we game. I didn’t just give up fighting games altogether as arcades got scarce. I went along with the times, got into other genres more popular on home platforms, and just kept plugging away at the one-player-versus-CPU mode of 2D fighters like Samurai Shodown IV or 3D fighters like Soul Calibur. I just sort of kept at it off-and-on as the mood struck me. I’m sure many other arcade enthusiasts drifted out of fighting games altogether without a ready supply of human opponents. With the passing of the arcades and their respective scenes, game genres with fat ties to arcades (fighting, shmups, light guns, etc.) have been largely relegated to niche corners of the video game universe.

But fighting games kept being produced even if the customer base was a small cult. Online play has to fill the competitive void for most players, but it is dominated by massive multiplayer online games and first person shooter arenas. Every now and then SNK would release some special volume of collected King of Fighter games, or a young studio would re-tool a Capcom classic for the HD-generation to download over XBLA or PSN.

For fighting games that niche-yness changed with Capcom’s recent decision to update and revisit their Street Fighter series for real. Street Fighter IV, released in 2008, was a big budget return to the most popular 2D fighting series of them all. Gathering in many of the old favorites and pitting them against new faces, Capcom decided to go with polygonal fighters (like Soul Calibur or Tekken) instead of the venerable hand-drawn sprite approach in portraying all the characters. However they also made two critical decisions that ensured the blockbuster sales that followed. First, the characters are polygonal but have rendered in a very detailed, almost painterly way. Features like hands and feet are more exaggerated compared to their old portrayals… it looked odd to me at first… but there’s no denying the attention to details, and the artistry involved in the shading and modeling. More importantly, Capcom kept the mechanics within a 2D plane. The characters are 3D models, but the camera only moves around them during certain special moves… for drama’s sake really. The game is played along only two axes just like it always has. So you have all the detail and flashiness of a modern game with the tried and true delivery of traditional Street Fighter.

Super Street Fighter IV

Capcom released an update with some tweaks to the mechanics and moves, and several new characters in 2009, with Super Street Fighter IV. Although I bought SFIV, it wasn’t until Super that I really found myself trying to get back into Street Fighter mode. And that only just recently. I’m kind of a latecomer. I practiced quite a bit with good old Chun-Li and some with Fei Long… the Bruce Lee lookalike that I never used in the arcades, but that had grown on me in the various home versions of Street Fighter II and Street Fighter Alpha. I really like the new mechanics and this feels like the most rigorously balanced of any modern fighting game.

When I decided to go online and give versus play a go, I got several rude awakenings. I already knew I wasn’t that good. It had been long enough since I’d played any Street Fighter game, and there were enough differences, that I didn’t expect to be kicking ass. I also knew there’d be ruthless people out there, spamming difficult-to-defend moves, and doing anything to win. That’s fine. That’s part of the game. It is an old fighting game tradition that when someone shows up with some move or combination of moves that supposedly breaks the game, a veteran will come along and take them down a peg. In the absence of real-life experts to demonstrate this, the internet is full of advice and videos and discussions covering this very issue. If you become skilled enough you will be able to handle even seemingly ‘unfair’ characters or moves.

But one thing I didn’t expect was experienced players masquerading as n00bs. I just didn’t consider it prior to playing online. Why would someone who is obviously ‘good’ want to start a whole new account just so they’d get matched up with new suck-ass players and crush them? What would be the point of that? Yet it happened numerous times in my first out. I was bewildered. Here is a guy with zero ranking, but I can’t lay a glove on him and he’s obviously using sophisticated tactics with ease. Surely someone that good would have more pride, wouldn’t they? I have since come to understand that some decent players go to the trouble of starting new gamertags specifically so they try out new characters or new strategies and they want non-expert players to do it with. Someone who’ll have less predictability than the CPU, but will still leave them plenty of openings to try stuff out. I can’t say I respect this very much, but it is what it is. The matching service ‘thinks’ they are novices and so it puts them up against people like me, where they proceed to rip me one before I can blink.

The other shock was losing ranking points when beaten by a much higher ranked player. Before doing this I figured if you played against a MUCH better player (as determined by their points, there’s nothing telling the system about a masquerading expert) you wouldn’t go DOWN in rank. Hell, if you did well you might even gain some rank despite the loss. Nope. If you lose, you drop points. Yeah, if you lose to someone mighty, your points loss is less. But there seems to be very little ‘incentive’ to how the losses and gains work. I’d have created the system to be much more dynamic and encouraging. Even allowing some gains if you manage to do well or even win a round against a vastly superior player… which I did do but it mattered fuck-all to the ranking points. I’m sure a lot of hardcore players think this is fine, and don’t really care if the n00bs (forgetting they were new at one time) ever claw their way up from the ranks of pathetic-dom.

I have since adopted the philosophy (similar to real martial arts actually) that you can learn from someone who beats the shit out of you and to not take the ranking points very seriously. They show progress and all, but getting hung up on the points takes the fun out of it. It’s supposed to be a game. The game has a facility for matching you up with opponents close to your skill level but I wasn’t having much luck with that. That’s what I get for starting so late. It wouldn’t hook me up with other newbies. The lobbies are full of people that are all way better than I am. So if I set the matching to just take whatever I could get… BZANG!… ass handed to me.

After a few days of this discouragement, but before I’d learned to wax philosophical about it, I read someone’s suggestion of using the ‘fight request’ feature in Arcade Mode. So the next night I did that. I started the game with Fei Long on single player, to practice with him against the CPU, with my request parameters set to ‘same skill level’.

This worked out pretty well. As I said at the beginning of this post, it has been, to me, a really fun, nostalgic reawakening of that old arcade excitement. You’re sitting there trying to beat the AI opponent when suddenly ‘Here Comes A New Challenger’ splits out across the screen. You get a chance to re-select your character and his or her ultra, but then you’re off and fighting. I kind of wish when they showed you the gamertag prior to the match you could also see their ranking, but in the main, the ‘same skill level’ setting in this context worked pretty well… much better than it did when I was manually requesting same-skill fights outside of Arcade Mode.

And I’m winning more matches. I still suck, but I’m winning a bit more. I have the hardest time with the relatively new characters… or the ones originating from Street Fighter III which I have less experience with than SFII or SF Alpha. And even when I lose, it is a pretty priceless feeling to wake a better player up by beating them in a round and making them work harder for their victory.

Getting out there and fighting online is an exercise in ego-check for sure. It was pretty frustrating at first, but there have been a few people I had to send a kudo to for being good sports. More than one guy let me have a decent round (without just handing it to me) before wiping up the floor with balls. I think you can do what you have to in these games, and I’m not going to cry over tricky moves and tactics, but a little sportsmanship when you obviously dominate is a pretty decent thing to hand out.

Now that Marvel Vs Capcom 3 just came out and the new generation Mortal Kombat is on the horizon, I may find my pool of potential opponents shrinking considerably. I don’t think it will stay that way. SSFIV is the only one I really feel like being competitive with. Something to do with my old history with it, something about how they’ve worked so hard to make it balanced. MvC and Mortal Kombat have their appeal… I will buy and play both. SSFIV seems to have rather opened a floodgate and now lots of 2D fighters are starting to come out. These new hot fighting games are super-flashy or gory, but they’re usually relegated to novelty status by the most hardcore fighting players, who play them to see everything and unlock everyone… maybe prove their online dominance… and then gravitate back to the more technical shit like King of Fighters and Street Fighter.

I’m not a hardcore fighting game player by any stretch, but I’ll probably do the same thing. Enjoy the other fighters, but always come back to Golf N’Stuff in my living room with Street Fighter.

Feeling Kinda Jorn-y

On the heels of my not-so-positive Katatonia review, I'll post this nicer one. In the same buying spree mentioned before, I also snagged Masterplan's Time To Be King.

On paper, Masterplan should be the height of cheese. German power metal band. Ex-members of 80s powerhouse Helloween. Giant crown on album cover with fist-pumping slogan/title underneath.

Bastard child of cro-magnon metallers Manowar and frilly unicorn riders Rhapsody of Fire from the looks of things. I can handle doses of over-pomp (Royal Hunt) and a switching things up, like Kamelot recruiting Shagrath from Dimmu Borgir to do some black metal rasps within their usually Renn Faire stylings, can go a long way to establishing some coolness.

Masterplan gets its props past the swords and fairies for two reasons; they can be deadly 'hard' at times with serious chunk to the guitars and whopping double base, yeah... but the BIG reason is the vocalist, motherfuckin' Jorn Lande.

Khan in Kamelot can sing. He's a great singer. Hell, most power metal bands have vocalists with decent pipes... if tending a little too much in the upper registers. But Jorn is the fucking man. He does not get way up high in the shriek-y ranges, though given the power and range he does display it wouldn't suprise me if he could. He has feeling, real emotive power. Masterplan's song subjects range all over the place, but are usually personal or individual. Stuff about love, loss, isolation, etc. They cover the occasional power metal staples about fighting, glory, or evil, but mostly it is Jorn singing about the kind of thing you'd find in other forms of rock music only its done to punchy, galloping metal. This album cover and title is actually kind of an odd choice. Earlier album Aeronautics looks much more sophisticated (read less stereotypical) and seems MUCH more accurate in terms of what you're getting with this band.

Jorn reminds me of Russell Allen of Symphony X somewhat. In more recent years Russell has varied his vocals quite a bit to suit the subject matter of SymX's songs and consequently he's had to reach down for really low or gruff deliveries at times. His recent stuff on album Paradise Lost is much more varied and emotional than the earlier releases like Damnation Game. Some genius saw this same parallel because Russell and Jorne have released some collaborative albums. I like Russell just fine, but Jorn is even better.

He is just so 'soulful' I think. That's a weird term to use for a power metal vocalist, but Jorn does a lot of singing that probably wouldn't fall in that genre... Masterplan ain't his only gig. Actually he left the band after Aeronautics and I figured that was probably the end of my Masterplan purchases. But he came back and really helped knock Time To Be King out of the park. Take your favorite rock vocalist (that doesn't sound drunk or like a girl) and cross them with Evergrey's Tom Englund (or mainstream-ly maybe Bob Seger or Joe Cocker) and you'll get some idea of all the places Jorn can reach.

Metal music by its nature is dramatic. As often as not, over-the-top. Whether it's dark, or pompous, or partying, or gory, metal doesn't really deal in half-measures. Masterplan is not going to make anyone really dig the power metal style if there's absolutely no taste for it, but Jorn will certainly get the listener to forget about that cover. Or that power metal HAS to have kings and dragons in it. Even when he's singing about kings and dragons.

Days And Nights Blurring Together

In a recent spate of music purchase catch-up I picked up Katatonia's most recent album (from 2009) Night Is The New Day.

Katatonia is an extremely accomplished Swedish band whose output is usually labeled doom metal, though they sound pretty distinct from My Dying Bride, Swallow The Sun, or any other staple of that genre. And this is a really good record. REALLY good. Very melancholic, but with some great tempo changes, very heavy in places, and great vibrant production. The critics love it. 'Best ever' many say.

Here's my problem with it, though. It is Katatonia.

What I mean is that Katatonia is so recognisable, and so exacting at what they do, that I'm not finding this album to be any different from what I've heard from them many times before. This newest release might be the highest 'quality' album they've ever done, but I'm just not wowed by anything on here because it all sounds like variations on previous songs. This can, of course, be a problem with any band that has a signature sound. Sometimes I get in the mood to listen to a certain band 'for a while'. Rather than just play a new disc over and over, I'll re-explore their back catalog. Bands like Katatonia suffer in this regard. A new album from them every couple of years is great. You haven't listened to them in a while, and it is like an old friend visiting when you finally pop in the new release. But if you subject yourself to a lot of their stuff, the welcome wears out before you get very far. My problem may be that I listened to two Katatonia albums not too long before buying this. THIS one is better. But not SO much better that particular songs are just sticking with me right now.

Years ago, Katatonia came out with Last Fair Deal Gone Down. That release got a lot of criticism for being too soft, too much of a departure from what fans expected. Think Opeth's mostly acoustic album Damnation and you get the idea... though Opeth escaped fan wrath, probably because they warned everyone before the release date arrived. I, however, think Last Fair Deal is a stellar album, and it is probably the most memorable Katatonia record for me. It breaks from all the other stuff, while still sounding like it is music from the same set of musicians. If Night Is The New Day were the only Katatonia album I had, it'd be a revelation... but it isn't. And ironically if it were the only album I owned it'd spur me on to buy their back catalog, which would of course then show me that their releases all sound largely the same.

I guess this reads a lot more critical than I really intend. Katatonia are good at what they do. And I like what they do. It seems weird to make them out to be a one-trick pony like most death metal or grindcore bands are because they aren't locked into particular instruments, tempos, structures or any of that stuff. The singer Jonas Renske's vocal style is not harsh. He can sing. But everything they do is SO specific to THEM.

I can easily recommend this album to anyone who likes stuff like Anathema or the clean-singing parts of Opeth. But once you buy it, sadly, you've pretty much heard everything they seem to have to say. I think I need to listen to this some more and let it prove out its uniqueness if it can.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Road's Beginning

Watching the recent film The Road on DVD has me now wanting to seek out Cormac McCarthy's novels. This is the second bleak, but amazing film I've seen based on his work (No Country For Old Men is the other) and it just amazes me now that I've missed out on reading anything by him. Many critics make him out to be a present day Faulkner. Both in eschewing straight narratie convention and in picking out hidden corners of American civilisation (or lack thereof) as a setting.

I'm going to start with Child of God, I think. Short, and if I dig it I'll move on to Blood Meridian.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Japan Catastrophe

At the time of this writing, it is one week after the nation of Japan has been hit by a 9.0 earthquake, a 30ft high tsunami, and all hell breaking loose at a major nuclear reactor complex.

I try to keep this blog about light subjects. I try not to let heavy personal stuff, politics (except where it impacts my hobbies or interests), or real downers get in here.

But the crises in Japan are rather close to the heart for myself and a lot of the topics I blather on about. If you have any interest in video games, anime, kaiju eiga, martial arts, or Asian cinema, then you're connected. And if you aren't interested in any of those things you probably have no business being here!

Watching a film like The Submersion of Japan for the first time, my mind was held in suspense waiting to see what was going to happen. Now my heart is breaking to see such similar catastrophe occurring there now for real.

I've thrown a link up to the top of the right hand column that can show you how you can help. But a lot of vendors and organisations are also throwing donations into the effort to help Japan so patronising these places is doing something as well. Japan is the world's third largest economy, a high-tech nation, and anything but a third world country. And yet, the overwhelming nature of this mult-part disaster has swamped the government there and put large numbers of people at risk for basics like food, water, medicine, and heat.

Do what you can. This is something vital. I know the economy is tough, and there is more going on in our country and the world than just this disaster, but doing with just a little less for yourself could mean an awful lot to a people and a culture that has given the world so much.

I apologise for bummin' on ya.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Check Your Kairo

Count another movie where the American remake is an epic fail. I watched the Japanese film Pulse, also known as Kairo (lit. 'Circuit), a very creepy if sometimes confusing technological ghost story. The confusion is deliberate since not understanding exactly what is happening is crucial to the film doing what it does and making the points that it makes.

Despite the murky nature of the narrative ideas, Kairo is quite well-considered amongst critics and viewers. Not so much the case with the American version. I don't think I'm even going to watch it. Frequently I do watch for comparison's sake... I watched Quarantine several months ago, and then recently, the original Spanish film REC. Quarantine and REC are almost the same film... shot for shot. And they both do their job pretty effectively. I preferred the lead in Quarantine, but I thought the lower-tech climactic horror in REC was actually creepier.

The American Pulse is so badly reviewed and for such fundamental reasons, I can't be bothered to spend the two hours watching it. I'll be pissed I can't get that time back.

Ironically, it was a pretty interesting trailer for the American Pulse that made me seek out the Japanese one.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Porkin' That Sweet Pink

Yeah, I know, right?

Using words from a game title like that is truly sophomoric, but I’m sure half the game’s purchasers have already made a similar joke themselves. Muchi Muchi Pork & Pink Sweets, is the name of the recent double-pack of manic shooters from Cave for the Xbox 360. Hell, Cave had to know what fodder for dirty phrasing they had when they decided to put the games together!

Okay, I’m only making it worse by putting the artwork for the protagonists in Pink Sweets, the Rose Sisters, up at the top there. I’ll put an in-game shot in here somewhere too… to prove it ain’t THAT kind of game.

Originally MMP and PS were NOT together. The disc is based on arcade games put out back in 2007 and 2006 respectively. Home versions of the arcade originals are 1.00 in the package, and they are accompanied by tweaked versions 1.01 that reduce the brutality somewhat, along with Cave’s usual assortment of so-called arrange modes. Also there’s a really neat ‘matsuri version’ (as DLC) that drops the Pink Sweets bosses into a version of the MMP game.

No HD-friendly upgrading has been done to the visuals. There are a variety of options for resizing the play area to fit your screen, and there is the typical smoothing filter that can be toggled. Players can also change between arcade and arrange soundtracks for each stage of both games. Some of the alternate tracks didn’t sound like different musical arrangements at all, but wholly different compositions. In general I prefer the originals, they seem to fit the themes of the games better.

And the games have VERY distinct themes. I used the word brutality earlier in the post, but looking at these games artwork, ‘brutal’ might not be a word that’d come to mind. Both games are cute and comedic, with Pink Sweets going heavy on the cuteness-- bright rainbow colors and toy-like enemies, and Muchi Muchi Pork leaning toward comedy with everything being pig-themed and slapstick. Despite the pixellated nature of the graphics, the art styles really shine through. Muchi Muchi Pork in particular has a ton of variety to the backgrounds and enemies and really cool drawn inserts to further the story, with awesome little frames of animated robots every time you launch a bomb.

Pink Sweets

But yuks and sweetness aside, the games are monsters on the difficulty… bordering on abusive. Danmaku (curtain fire, manic, or bullet hell, take your pick) shooters, as all of Cave’s shooter output is, these games bear the stamp of lead programmer Shinobu Yagawa. If you’ve played Battle Garegga or Battle Bakraid, then you’ll have some idea, mechanically, about what you can expect from these games. Tons of enemies coming at you from all directions, gobs of stuff you have to collect (including bomb fragments in MMP), and rank, rank, rank… the difficulty increase leveraged in-game if a player is doing well. It is typical for expert players of Yagawa-made games to have all sorts of strategies for avoiding powerups, and reducing stocks of extra ships and bombs, all towards inducing the game to keep the rank low. Conversely, experts playing for score might do everything they can do jack the rank up high, at least at certain points, to force out as many enemies or bullets (if there’s a bullet canceling aspect) as possible. As I understand it, by reputation MMP’s rank is manageable and not much of a concern to good players until near the end of the game. But Pink Sweets has a rep for being perhaps the most punishing Cave game of all. With all the attention and notoriety that rank has in these games, this home version set comes with visible ‘rank meters’ (called ‘difficulty gage’) that you can display to show you how your play strategies and skills are affecting the abuse level.

Having played both of them now, I have to say they are both good games, but far beyond my ability to play well at this point. Pink Sweets is understandable. It is hard, ranks up quickly, and has bomb and powerup mechanics that are really different than any other Cave game. Certain enemy bullet types can be destroyed by your own shot and I’m sure learning these is a necessary part of progressing and will come with time. Interestingly, I’ve found the bosses to be much easier than the actual levels, which I’ve only felt with Ketsui before this. Muchi Muchi Pork is a different story entirely.

Muchi Muchi Pork

I’m not sure what is giving me trouble with the Pig Girls. Rank never even gets a chance to enter into it because I can’t last long enough for it to get very high. There are not an unbelievable amount of enemies in the early going. The enemy bullets are highly visible. The amount of firepower the game gives the player is extremely high and most enemies do not last long under it. There would seem to be no reason why I can’t progress just as well with this game as most any other shooter.

But I am just stumbling along at it. I know the sheer number of item drops is causing me to approach this a little differently… and maybe cause some screen confusion. I can’t tell. I just see myself having simple, avoidable deaths over and over again. And my REAL sticking point is the boss of the second stage. Holy shit. Rarely do I get past it without using a continue, and if I do continue and play on, the rest of the game, though difficult, doesn’t cause me nearly as much trouble relatively speaking. I mean the 4th and 5th levels are really tough, but they are about what you’d expect. I don’t expect to get totally hung up on the gosh damn second level boss… but there’s something about the guy, and the game in general, that just makes me panic and act like I’m playing with my feet. I can breeze through the first level boss NOW but it took forever to learn it. I’m just intimidated or something. Pink Sweets is a harder game, but I can get further in it. The 2nd level boss in MMP fires his bullets REALLY close to the player, and he has a lot of different fire types. I just don’t have the order and locations memorized yet… though I damn well should, I’ve played it enough times.

Kind of a drag because I really like the game. It is REALLY different from every other Cave game, just as Pink Sweets is. I’m not going to stop playing it, I just have to sigh and resign myself to fighting and struggling for every scrap of progress I’m going to make (or not make) in it.

My experience shouldn't discourage anyone else from checking this release out. Most bullet hell shooter fans will not have my bizarre hangup! The package is awesome. It was a good idea for Cave to pair up their two oddball cute but funny games (with weird mechanics), and offer them for a package price. AND they’re region-free. So you don’t have to own a JPN Xbox 360 to play ‘em. Don’t be put off by the visuals not being modified for HDTVs (some Cave releases were, ie Daifukkatsu). The graphics are still outstanding.

They’re not going to set most American gamers’ hearts afire, because hey, the whole anime cutesy-humor thing doesn’t play to the masses here, but these are explosive rock-hard shooters under all the boobs and batted eyelashes. And pork. There’s a lot of pork.
(pics stolen from Adriasang)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lost & Found

I've obviously made my previous post about my Gamercard going away null and void, because there's one sitting over in the sidebar again! I don't think this version is as attractive as the MyGamerCard one, but you take what you can get.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Several Pounds of Dubious Material

Last week in Barnes & Noble I stumbled across the book '1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die'. I'd read a capsule review and the writer liked the book, feeling the only downside was that no one is going to agree with a lot of the choices, which yeah, no 'list' a reader didn't write is going to line up with his or her choices. The most positive thing they said was that the book was valuable as a historical overview rather than as a chance to validate the reader's own favorites, which is almost always what 'best of' lists are used for... validation... not as buyer's guides.

Anyway, I flipped through the book and the production values were good, the book was thick but not super-gigantic, and the few reviews I skimmed seemed okay. I wouldn't expect any of them to be incisive. The book needs to cover a thousand and one games and they're already winners in the eyes of the writers' just by being included, yes?

So I bought it, a sale and my B&N membership cooperating to bring the price way down for a fat hardbound.

Then I get the thing home. Peter Molyneux introduction. Ugh. Even if I'd noticed that blowhard's name on the cover... which I didn't... I probably would've bought it. Introductions don't affect the contents. Then as I'm flipping through the book... hmm it IS probably useful as a history lesson, the editors wisely choosing to organise the entries by year of release. So you can see the evolution of gaming, graphical fidelity, complexity, etc pretty clearly from pictures or text. But what's this? Seems like an pretty big selection of British computer games are in here.

Now I'm not knocking the UK's contribution to video games. Rare used to be a force to be reckoned with as a developer and I just recently sung the praises of a Codemasters racing title. UK coding houses are the rival of anyone anywhere. However, when it comes to seminal video games, the Brits seemed determined to fly the flag for the Spectrum, Amstrad, Acorn, BBC Micro and whatever other plastic brick with a keyboard got a limey boy's weenie hard in the 80s. English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh game writers don't typically say their homegrown games are superior to the rest of the world's or anything like that, but the UK had a whole slew of home computers that the rest of the world knows very little about. They are writing to their domestic audience first and that means including the game machines they grew up on. But the impact of games like Spindizzy, or the Saberman games on the rest of the video game world is minimal at best. I love Retro Gamer magazine, but when they tell me about the profound effect of the graphics in Knight Lore, I have to recalibrate that statement in my head to mean 'in England'. So the plethora represented in the book puzzled me. For about twelve seconds.

It took about that long to find the list of contributors and scan down through about a third of it. My suspicion was confirmed, and as I ran through the rest, it was pretty clear that the book was basically written by Edge Magazine. I knew the main editor worked at Edge (as told to me by the text on the back cover), but given the huge scope of the book, and the budget it appears to have had, I figured he'd pretty well cast a wide net looking for input.

Nope. And if you have read anything about gaming mags in this blog you probably will have run across the fact that I am no fan of Edge. They are like the video game equivalent of the Grey Poupon guys. Snotty and grey. They are the prime examples of a group of game writers who appear to have totally forgotten what it is like to have fun. Their work is literate, but unbelievably pompous and frequently fickle. It's like the magazine has a goal of bringing legitimacy to video games (unnecessary) and have decided that talking down their nose is the way to do it. I want Graham Chapman to rise from the dead and give them a good verbal thrashing for it: 'Oh oh, putting on airs are we? Oh, we're all posh now? Oh oh!'

Interestingly (and refreshingly), this book doesn't read much like Edge itself does. No, these guys have decided that these games 'made it' in their eyes, so they no longer dissect the fun out of them. So the blurbs are pretty positive. But I'm just kind of cranky I gave money out to Edge, more or less. I used to buy Edge occasionally but I've pretty much quit now that GameFan is going again. I also know that what I want in a game, what I think is influential in a game, and it ain't what Edge and its house policies think it is. So now I'm dealing with a diametrically opposed editorial policy on top of the minefield of personal opinion and judgement.

So, somewhat useful as a history, but be warned even apart from the limitations of any 'best of' list, the book is British, so you will get an inordinate amount of entries that UK pundits think are important. There looks to be little to no American, European or Japanese contributors. The editors do have the majority of games derived from outside the UK... I was actually surprised to find a few entries from Commodore computers which had Apple versions... those two machines would be the American nerd-stiffening computer experience of the 80s. You also have the filter of Edge taste, laid over the choices... and while they are not being overly-hard on any of the games in here, readers from other countries might be scratching their heads. No Space War? No Computer Trek. No Metrod (the first one)? Nothing from Castlevania 'til the 4th installment. No Phantasy Star. These are all games that changed the face of gaming globally AND all games that still have dogged adherents today. Okay, there probably aren't many Computer Trek players, but it sure as hell had as much influence as Eamon, which IS included in the book!

The title of the book makes you think the games will all be quality, but that title is a bit misleading. The games are all good or WERE good to at least a segment of gamers at one time, but they are not all interesting or even playable by today's standards. The book is really about influential games in its first third or so, and then the rest of the book could be argued to be 'good games' by today's standards because modern gamers can mostly stomach the graphics and mechanics from about the PC-Engine/MegaDrive era on. The general editor admits this in the intro, but I guess calling the book '1001 Most Influential Video Games' just didn't have the same impact as the chosen title. And really the book almost has two sections as I said. One title isn't directly appropriate to the tenor of both parts.

Whatever. I'm not in marketing.

I'm not going to throw the book out. It isn't terrible. In some ways I find it perversely gratifying to read so many Edge people being so positive. And in certain moods I am interested to read about the UK tree of video game history, even if there's so much Speccy talk thrown about. To be honest, I'm not really a fan of computer/PC based video gaming anyway. I got out of it after the Apple II computers fell out of fashion. So ANY list book from any country that is comprehensive enough to include computer games is probably going to have a lot in it that I could care less about.

Consoles only. Keep it simple. Or as simple as it can be when our consoles now have hard drives, internet, NetFlix, and can interface with our computers.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Renaissance: Bullet Heaven


What is with all the shooter (STG or shmup) releases now? This was (and by many still is) considered a dying video game genre. But man, is it ever coming back into vogue!

I'm one of the original video game dinosaurs. I dabble in all sorts of genres but my gamer's heart belongs to those styles I dumped so many quarters into back in the day. That means driving games, platformers, fighting games, and forced-scrolling shooters. All of these genres have evolved from the old days... not just graphically, but also the goals have gotten multi-layered, the simulated physics more important, the scoring more complex, and the narrative behind the action more detailed. But the core game mechanics are still the same as ever. In driving games you race your car to beat opponent racers. In platformers you still run and jump and grab items while killing (or knocking out) enemies. In fighting games, you still just work to defeat an opponent or the opposing team, no matter how complex the movesets or over-the-top the supers. And in shooters you still just pilot your ship killing almost every enemy that comes onscreen while managing the state of your powerups.

I love STGs. Ancient like Galaga, old school like R-type, golden age like Battle Garegga, or modern bullet hell like Mushihimesama Futari... it doesn't matter. Not all shooters are good, mind you... there are shitty or boring ones... but I willing to give anything in the genre a try at least. Enh, maybe not the ones on handheld game machines. I can't really hang with little d-pad/cross-pad.

In any case, since the golden age of the shooter in the mid-90s when the great old houses Psikyo, Raizing, and Toaplan folded (or just quit making them), there has been a significant drought. Occasionally a franchise sequel (Raiden IV) or a remake (Raystorm HD) would appear. Only Cave, rising from the ashes of Toaplan and Raizing, and a few other stalwarts, like Milestone and G.Rev, have kept the STG flag flying, year by year being relegated to more specialised, cult corner of the video game universe but still cranking out new games.

In recent months though, something has clicked with Xbox 360. From fairly early in the lifespan of the console, there've been shooters old and new. Not a ton, but every so often one dropped for eager players, sometimes even from one of the big companies, like Konami releasing Otomedius G. Cave decided at some point to see if conversions of their arcade games would bring in additional income considering even in Japan arcade sales were in decline. They licensed brutal old shooter Dondonpachi Daioujou to another company, and brought Deathsmiles out themselves. I don't know the specific profitability figures or margins belonging to any Cave release, but they indicated to Cave that ports of their arcade games was the way to go. Inspiring a slew of non-Japanese customers to buy JPN consoles, Cave have also prompted some of the most active online discussions, fired up collectors, and almost single-handedly revived the STG genre for home audiences. I'm not going to say there have been no other impactful shooter releases since the 90s. Of particular note are all the Triangle Service and G.Rev releases on the Dreamcast after that system was pulled from the market. But the huge upswing we are experiencing at present has to be laid firmly at their door.

On the heels of the success across multiple titles that Cave has had... they typically release or license for release about two or three games a year... we now have loads pouring in from other companies. Konami, G.Rev, Qute, and German nutters NG:Dev Team all have released or are imminently releasing new games. And Treasure, developer-gods almost as crazy as Cave, have their own shooter titles in progress, something they haven't done in ages.

Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu 1.5- Cave
Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu Black Label- Cave
Muchi Muchi Pork & Pink Sweets- Cave
Akai Katana Shin- Cave
Otomedius Perfect- Konami
Bullet Soul- 5pb
Eschatos- Qute
Strania- G.Rev
Radiant Silvergun HD- Treasure
Fast Striker- NG: Dev Team
Sturmwind- RedSpotGames
Bangaioh HD: Missile Fury (yeah, this one isn't literally an STG, but it has a ton of similar elements and appeals to the STG audience)

I know I'm missing some still and didn't even try to list the various indie shooters that have come up like Revolver360 or Lethal Judgement 2.

One point to be made is that an Xbox 360 is pretty much mandatory to exploit this list. The NG: Dev Team titles are for the Dreamcast, and some of the XBLA titles like Strania or Radiant Silvergun could show up on the PlayStation Network, but if you want modern shooter titles getting the Microsoft console keeps it simple. It is the platform developers of niche gaming genres have decided to go with even though sales of the machine in Japan are decidedly low.

You'll have even better luck if you just plunk down a bit more cash and get a JPN-based Xbox 360. I can't tell you how many online posts or blog entries I've read from some gamer who is lamenting the region protection on some goshdamn shooter he wants. Get a friggin' Japanese box and be done with it. It is more expensive, yes. Most, not all USA games are playable on the thing. So in some cases you would have to buy a Japanese or Asian version of a game and these may also cost more. Here's a list of games that I want, bought, or for some reason checked, that the USA version does not work on my Japanese console:

Kengo Zero
Gundam Musou (any chapter)
Fist of the North Star
Quantum Theory
Import Tuner Challenge

These titles all come from Genki, Square Enix, and Koei Tecmo. So it is reasonable to assume one would have problems with ANY title from these companies. Shit from Capcom, Sega, or any Western-based outfit like EA, Bioware, or Codemasters all work fine, assuming you are talking about an NTSC title and not PAL. None of the original Xbox (not 360) titles I've tried; Halo, Return to Wolfenstein, or Panzer Dragoon Orta worked. I had to buy Japanese versions of all of those.

But if shooters are your thing and you don't want to sit around waiting and hoping the lastest shooter is going to appear in the USA, the positives outweigh the occasional inconvenience. All other shit, like XBLA, Netflix, all of that, work exactly the same regardless of the platform's country of origin. I have two XBLA accounts on one machine, one for the Japanese marketplace and one for the American. I've read many people who are dreading having to do this to get some of the DLC for shooters, but jiminy christmas it isn't that hard and you only have to do it once.

Recent days are looking so good for shmup fans that I don't know where the time and money will be found to take advantage of it all! Wait, that's not a complaint!

(pic kyped from jeuxvideo)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nerd-Stick Part Deux

I got the proper part in (thank you Gremlin Solutions in the UK) and finished off the modification of my Xbox 360 joystick, the HRAP EX. My daughter helped me on this part of the project, as she did with the buttons two weeks ago, proclaiming that snipping the wires to the old Sanwa stick was ‘cutting the nerves to the brain’.

The Hori Real Arcade Pro EX does NOT have a simple little molex connector that harnesses the wires for easy hookup. It has a ribbon cable with tiny fine wires all splayed apart and soldered individually to each lead and ground on the four individual switches of the Sanwa stick. So eight connections to have to account for. The kiddo helped me make up masking tape labels to stick on each wire, so we’d hook up the correct directions when the new part went in.

I really didn’t want to have to solder, especially since their was ten-year-old child I wanted to keep involved. The switches on the new Seimitsu stick have flat pegs (blade connectors if you will) that internet searching told me could take a certain type of flat connector. So I hunted all over town for some female quick-disconnect ends that I could crimp on to each wire and as luck would have it, after every other outlets items were all too big, Radio Shack came through.

The disconnect ends themselves fit the Seimitsu stick perfectly. The end you push the wire into for crimping was a bit problematic. The wires off the ribbon cable were just so small. You had to really crunch down on the connector ends to get them to hold onto them. It looked a bit odd to see the smallest quick-disconnects in town sticking off the end of each tiny gray filament, but it worked. I almost got everything screwed back together when I realized the stick seemed short sticking up from the top of the faceplate of the unit when I was testing it on a game to make sure it all worked and the directions were correct.

I then remembered something I’d read when researching this project in the first place. The flush-style mounting plate that comes on a Seimitsu LS-32 stick isn’t quite correct to go into a HRAP. The SS-style mounting plate that I needed (named for the curvy cross-section of each end) actually comes on the LS-32-01 stick that I originally bought… y’know the one with the useless connector (and PCB). So I was okay on having the right part, but if I didn’t know better I’d swear there was some sort of evil afoot with the makers of the HRAP. If you want to swap in a Seimitsu stick you need the body of one model with the mounting plate of another?

Anyway, the SS plate nestles the top of the Seimitsu stick right up where it is supposed to be, so all worked out. A green ball top added on, and my daughters small hands to help me close up the case. I’m glad I went back in and fixed the plate because the difference in height switching between the two HRAPs would’ve driven me nuts.

The green of the joystick top and the A button don’t exactly match Microsoft’s more leafy green that is the Xbox 360 hallmark, but that’s okay. Controls on Japanese candy cabs in arcades tend to have bright party colors, so that’s what this green is, but it is close enough.

As I said in the first part post, the big push for me to do this was because I was having assloads of trouble pulling off double-hadouken motions in Super Street Fighter IV. I was hoping the characteristics of this Seimitsu joystick would help me. While I was waiting for this new stick to arrive I happened to re-read one of the online tutorials at and happened upon a paragraph that I completely overlooked before. The author was swapping out his Sanwa for a Seimitsu (on a PS2 HRAP) for the exact same reason. I was inspired to try it by shooting game fans’ describing shorter, more precise movement capability. He got good results so that only made my waiting that much more difficult.

Now that it was all together, I didn’t waste any time testing it out. For STG/shmup games you can definitely notice a difference during quick direction changes. There is a lot less of a dead zone (virtually none really) when the stick is centered. For SSIV, I’m still not awesome at complicated command motions in the game, but I can get them out with at least twice the frequency after one short session. The flip side to this is that I have to be less sloppy or I’ll inadvertently move a way I don’t want to. A quarter circle for a hadouken is MUCH easier to accidentally turn into a forward jump if you push a little up past the 3 o’clock mark on the stick.

The new buttons are nice too. The original Hori buttons weren’t a problem, but these definitely feel less mushy.

All told, the whole thing, both joysticks, went well… and I’m pretty happy with the results. No glaring difference in appearances from the originals, but the play is the thing and that seems quite improved. It took a month from start to finish, but only two evenings and one afternoon were actual work. The rest was waiting on the mail. As I said in part one, I’m not actually enamored of this sort of work, so if I had to get another HRAP I’d probably get the EX-SE model that has all Seimitsu parts to begin with.

Gamercard Note

I only had it up a short while and I'm already removing my Gamercard insert that sat in the right column there. That's because Morgon, the guy that runs the service has shut it down. Best of luck to him at whatever else he is doing. It was fun while it lasted.

A Couple of Conquerings

Race Driver: Grid

Last week I finished Race Driver: Grid (alternately known as just GRID). After the drying-up of new racing games from Japanese developer Genki, I decided I needed to try a new route (heh) to get my racing fix. I did some investigating, reading reviews and playing demos before finally settling on GRID, Codemasters mixed-discipline racer.

Codemasters has a lot of racing games under their belt, including the extensive TOCA Race Driver series of which GRID is supposed to be the most recent chapter. I've looked in on TOCA at different times actually buying one for the PS2 at one point, but it just didn't catch my fancy. It emphasized sports and touring cars which are my favorite forms of formal real-life racing, but the narrative in the game just didn't click with me. I really like racing games making things personal. It is one of the reasons I think Genki's driving games have it all over stuff like Gran Turismo or Forza. But TOCA puts you in the shoes of a specific character with specific motivations and that, perversely compared to other types of games, actually served to de-immerse me. But my understanding before buying GRID (and demonstrated in a demo) was that it personalised your experience (gave a loose narrative or leveling up experience) without slapping it into a drama.

Obviously the particulars of this game must've clicked for me because I've just played it through. It was actually one of the most immersive video games I've ever played racing or otherwise. Codemasters absolutely hit on the formula for making it about YOU with a fun ladder to climb through the ranks, but without forcing in some melodramatic story points. The drama is on the track where it really counts, but pretty exciting during down time too, when you are managing your sponsors, or seeing that you've been challenged by the everpresent villains of the piece, Ravenwest Motorsports. A big part of this is the mechanism whereby the in-game speech addresses you by your real name... a feature officially labeled 'creepy' by my kids, but that really made everything in the game much more personal and affecting.

And then there is the driving itself. There aren't tons of cars. There aren't a lot of tracks. But each car is so lovingly detailed. Each track is so realistically presented. The sounds and bumps when you are jostling in the pack, particularly if you have an over the hood or in-car camera view (look at that shit, the pic I posted at the top of this entry). And the radio communication from your crew chief and your on-track teammate, though repetitive and sometimes inaccurate, is pretty well done. It is unbelievable how intense the driving got at times. Codemasters also made a couple of decisions about the opponent AI that I have to applaud. It had some drawbacks which I'll detail below, but this is one of the few times outside of Genki racers where I felt almost like there were people in those other cars, complete with mistakes made and tempers lost. Most racing games the opponent drivers just hew to the racing line as if there was no one else on the track. They will robotically race the same way every time. In GRID, opposing drivers sometimes push hard to get ahead of you and then neglect to check up enough in the next corner and skid wide, sometimes crashing outright. If you're in the back of a twelve car pack it might seem you'll never get past everyone, but the opponent drivers fuck each other over so frequently, that you'll almost always have a shot. Compare to typical driving games where cars form packs and because they don't spin out, AND because damage isn't taken into account really, the way you usually have to get through the pack is by unrealistically crashing and grinding your way through them.

Not only do you not need to do that so much in GRID, but given that this game DOES model damage, you really can't. Or at least you really have to be judicious about it. I also give props to Codemasters for not (seeming) to rely on rubberband AI. This is the annoying tendency built into racing games for computer opponents to suddenly exhibit supernatural abilities when they fall behind. You can see it in some other types of games too, most notably fighters where a computer-controlled opponent plays twice as fast and pulls out inhuman combos when you've beaten them in the first round of the possible three. In GRID when you get ahead you can stay ahead by the same interval if you keep driving consistently.

All that being said, the game has some annoyances, and they are tied to some of the same things that make the game great. GRID has the appearance of a simulation-style racer as opposed to a so-called arcade racer, but it IS actually skewed to the quicker arcade-style model. There is no tuning. So when you pick a car, if you don't like how it handles, tough shit. You can't change it. All you can do is get by until further in the game and more cars are unlocked.

This rarely presented a problem for me, but there were a few categories of races that made me wish for tuning. On the one hand, it's nice that the cars do all handle with noticeable differences. On the other, a driver wants to emphasise one thing or another in a car, making changes for certain tracks or variables like weather conditions. With GRID if the car you are driving is too slippery to be really effective on a twisty track... you gotta suck it up. In most sim-style games you could use the suspension settings to dial this out of the car. The compensation in GRID is that each individual race can have its difficulty turned up or down. So while I felt a bit guilty about it, after struggling with open wheel cars and club car races (Tuscan TVRs drive like little lead ingots on skis), later in the game I notched the difficulty down one pip. I just don't have the time or wherewithal to learn the nuances on the classes of cars that handle so radcially different to all the others. Turning down the difficulty turns down the speed and aggressiveness of the opponent drivers so that if you don't drive quite so accurately you don't suffer as much for it.

The flip-side of the driver AI: GRID models and reflects damage. It isn't comprehensive enough to drive the game into full-on realistic simulation territory, but it is significant. Through all the years I've played driving games damage modeling has just not been a real factor. Most games just haven't done it. It requires intense processing power, particularly if you want multiple makes and models of automobiles in one race, AND you need the car manufacturers to agree to it if the game is based on street cars. Most car makers are not all that keen for a game to show their car flipping around with the doors and tires flying off. TOCA games did show some damage but it didn't affect performance much. In this generation of video game consoles we now have the power to model damage extensively and realistically... even to the point of wreck debris littering the track laps after the original accident. I've always thought prior to this that I wanted damage modeling. It would just add that much more realism and drama. Playing this game shows me it isn't an all-good addition.

Codemasters knew bashing around trying to race without getting your vehicle disabled was going to be tough, particularly on scads of gamers weaned on Gran Turismo, where you can literally ride on an opponents doors all the way around a tough corner. So even though AI drivers can screw up in GRID, the developer still included a now-famous time-rewind function that lets you to roll back up to ten seconds of driving to allow yourself to re-drive to avoid a bad slip or game-ending accident. The lower you set the aforementioned difficulty setting the more of these rewinds a player gets. As I've said in previous posts there's no way a racing game can simulate a lot of the tactile aspects that really help a driver in real life and this game also shows the limitations on duplicating the visual aspects. Because gamers don't have four screens set 360 degrees around their seat, you've got a button for looking back, and the right stick lets you turn your virtual head to look out the side windows. But compared to the glancing, quick-snap method one uses in real-life to acquire and process all the information; mirrors, rear window, side windows, guages, road feel, etc... the different views in-game are highly disorienting and I found myself basically NOT using them. Since the AI players presumably DO have all of the computer's awareness of what is going on around them, essentially they get the benefits of 'using' all the views correctly, the rewind function is a really cool way to offset this advantage.

So with a rewind function, AI drivers that screw up, adjustable difficulty per race, and pretty good fixed tuning on all cars I gotta say GRID ironed out pretty much every potential frustration while still presenting a fun, challenging game. The only real unaddressed gripe I have with the game (and one a GRID sequel could easily fix) is that the computer opponents seemed 'dim' in how they treated some car types, particularly the prototype cars. In muscle car or touring car categories there is, in real life, a certain amount of jostling and bashing for position, particularly in the first turn of any given race. The cars are built similar to street cars, have sheet metal skins, and don't go uproariously fast. But prototype cars are purpose built race cars usually with a lot of carbon fiber and aluminum. They are fast and tremendously expensive. Yet in GRID, the AI drivers were bashing me around the same as in touring car races. Needless to say the results of a mild shunt at 190 miles per hour in a lightweight prototype are hugely different to one at 60 miles per hour in a fat Dodge Challenger. In the open wheel races the opponents seemed aware that you can't just smash the huge fenderless tires into each other, but in prototypes this sort of care was sorely lacking. And minor though it is, it grated because I really REALLY like real-life prototype racing a la the various Le Mans series LMP categories.

I would highly HIGHLY recommend this game to racing enthusiasts. It does so many things right, I find racing even after completing the campaign to be almost as fun as when I started. My son feels the damage makes the game too difficult... yet he is compelled to try because it just FEELS like the closest thing to being in a race yet. Great stuff. A word of warning though: I'm not really much of an online competitive player so I can't comment on how the online versus racing is... but I've read that it is pretty rough. All versus gaming online suffers from so-called 'griefers' the people who deliberately try to wreck other players' experience. GRID with its damage and its ability to easily wreck out of a race seems a prime target for this sort of abuse. There is a code that allows one to turn damage off, but I don't know how prevalent the use of it is. I didn't get access to the code until I finished career mode, so GRID doesn't give you THAT easy out during the single player campaign.


In a completely opposite direction we have Illbleed for the Sega Dreamcast which I finished nearly the same time as GRID.

Illbleed is one of those titles that on paper doesn't read like it would be a very good game, particularly to modern gamer sensibilities, but the weirdness was so compelling that it just forced me on and on to get through it. 'Kusoge', literally 'shit game' in Japanese is a term used to describe a game that is low-quality or has serious deficiencies and yet is considered fondly or seriously by some segment of the gaming community. That might be for character/licensing reasons, uber-difficulty, nostalgia, or a bizarre sense of humor. Illbleed isn't literally a kusoge in MY book, but it is just the sort of game that could be to some gamers and mostly for its strange, borderline disturbing, plot and visuals coupled with weird mechanics. It is certainly NOT unplayable or beyond-belief difficult.

In simplest terms it is a third-person survival horror action game. Unlike early Resident Evil episodes, the camera is only fixed during combat. Most of the time it follows around behind your avatar. This means that the game can't really use a forced viewpoint or unseen areas to provide shock scares. You can move your view to wherever you wish, so nothing is going to jump out at you like RE's famous window-breaking dogs. But Illbleed does manage creeping menace pretty well, at least at first. After a while, when you've got a good handle on healing item stock and how mortal your character actually is, much of the suspense and anxiety goes away, but the narrative gets wacky and unpredictable to make up for it.

The story is that you are navigating your way through the various areas in a deadly horror-themed amusement park. There is a cash reward (in game terms, duh) for doing so, but the money is secondary to rescuing your friends who went in ahead of you. Originally, your character Eriko had zero interest in going to the park because your Dad used to run a haunted house attraction himself and you've been there and done that. This of course, makes you the ideal person to go rescue your friends when this amusement park appears to have gone all lethal. Eriko is basically skeptical and has nerves of steel.

The game that follows on is, by turns, funny, creepy, and puzzling. Like a dream or a bad drug trip filtered through Rob Zombie's garish take on B-movies. The tale in each area is a take on a horror or fantasy movie plot cliche, but each level plays out in a unique and hallucinatory way. By the time I was done with the game I'd seen faces pushing out of blood puddles, pieces of pork and chicken chasing me around on a giant grill, a tree that eats people, and a parody of Woody from Toy Story battling a huge demonic version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The pic above is a spider boss with a head for its abdomen. All of this is interspersed with overly-copious amounts of bloodletting and an awesome soundtrack.

If you're like me all that stuff would only drive you on to seek out and play the game. Hell, that's exactly what it did in my case. But there are complications. I bought this game during the actual shelf life of the Dreamcast. I started playing it soon after, but the play mechanics were off-putting. Illbleed isn't actually about running, jumping, and shooting the ghoulies. It requires a methodical, exploratory approach. Eriko has all kinds of vital signs that need to be monitored. The game tracks her heartbeat, blood loss, health, etc. And keeping all of this stuff within safe levels is quite an exercise. The game also gives you a pair of night-vision goggles called a 'horror monitor'. You use this device to set off traps and scares ahead of time so that Eriko won't be shocked or injured when she actually gets to the triggering point.

When I originally started playing the game, this all seemed a huge load on the player and not really what I was after in a horror-themed game. But recently when I felt like playing something 'different' I gave it another go. The Dreamcast is capable of some pretty astounding visuals (think Ikaruga), but a lot of the console's titles have sort of glossy early PS2 graphics... which is appropriate considering the DC just precedes the PS2 chronologically. Illbleed is hardly cutting edge visually. In fact, it's pretty ghetto. But most of the time, that only adds to the games charm. Same thing with the mostly crap voice acting. Climax/Crazy Games is obviously not a big budget game maker, but in Illbleed's case a lot of the cheesiness seems very much deliberate. Only Eriko really looks and sounds 'normal' with a polished character model and mostly okay vocals, an anchor amongst all the confusion and strangeness. I think the choices made in the game just reflect a very Japanese take on the appeal of low-grade horror films... and LSD trips.

Once the player wraps their head around the not-at-all-obvious way exploring is done with the horror monitor, and the way one has to monitor Eriko's life signs like a crack trauma team, there are still some really odd choices the designers made in other ways. Sometimes these choices just fit right in, like playing jump rope with a murderous doll. Other times the mechanics seem needlessly old-fashioned and can be pretty frustrating. Mostly this comes from combat. The controls are a variant on the old Resident Evil scheme and they come with similar movement and collision detection problems. They are functional and the game usually gives you a way to get out of combat encounters (a rescue helicopter!!!!), but this game isn't so old that a more workable fighting system couldn't have been implemented. There are a number of places where it seems Eriko just can't connect with an attacking enemy, but of course they have no problem ripping the shit out of her.

The save points are also really infrequent. This doesn't normally bother me because I kinda feel today's gamers with insta-save all over the place are being enabled right past a video game's challenges. But in Illbleed, even accustomed to Eriko's precarious life functions in the first few levels (you get the hang of managing them), the deliberate pace of the game meant huge stretches of time between save points when I really needed to quit out and get onto the business of the rest of my life. A few times I had to leave the DC on to do something else, which sucks because the game penalises you monetarily, the longer you take getting through a level... and the clock ticks even if the game is paused.

Anyway. Through all the quirkiness, this time I persevered and was rewarded with a game experience I won't soon forget. There are multiple secrets I missed, and I didn't get the best ending, but I felt pretty triumphant just getting through such a bizarre, often confusing video game. I had to consult an online walkthrough twice to figure out what the game actually wanted from me. Now that I understand so much more about how the vital signs and horror monitor work... not to mention being much more practised at fighting... I could see myself having at this again to do better. I wouldn't say the learning curve is super steep, it is just that the game, and what it expects from the player, are so different to everything else out there. And the manual is pretty much no help at all.

Illbleed is like a lot of the movies I watch when it comes to defining its target owner. Not something I can just recommend to anyone, but with the right audience the positives would outweigh the frustrations. If you have fair patience and really liked Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses, then this is probably the game for you.