Thursday, July 28, 2011


I passed fairly lengthy judgement on the new film Captain America: The First Avenger elsewhere on an online forum. So to save time I'm going to paste that diatribe in here:

"I was disappointed by the movie. But I had unreasonably high hopes.

Too much CG for a character that screams practical effects only. Was done for Indiana Jones and every early Jackie Chan movie. So here you have the ultimate human combatant in a story set in the 1940s. Seems like as solid and non-tech as you could get it would be the way to go. They were already pushing things with all the Hydra gear.

I also think they missed some essential things that make the character great. I enjoyed the first act while he was skinny Steve and actually liked the handling of the experiment's saboteur a lot... it was better than most comic re-tellings. The cast were all fine, mostly correctly pitched as the simple pulpy characters they needed to be.

But after that origin section Cap never gets beyond 'kid from Brooklyn with big heart'. I realise this is 'Cap's early times' and all that, but by the time he was 'removed' from the war, his training, experiences, and exposure to all facets of humanity had made hime the embodiment of many American ideals (as opposed to propaganda, which is what he started as). When he awakens in modern times in the comics, he is a master tactician, incredibly adaptable, in full understanding of the limits of the super-soldier serum, and probably the Marvel Universe's foremost close combat specialist. The Avengers, Shield, and everyone else grossly underestimated him because they thought of him just as a beefy out-of-his-time-and-depth relic.

The film doesn't really get him past that. They give you glimpses... ie, memorising Hydra's goal map in about four seconds... but he just didn't become the Cap I always picture. Different people emphasize different things, so I'm grateful he got a picture good enough to erase memories of the old TV specials. I think as a movie it is better than Thor or the Edward Norton Hulk film... but I think all the other Avengers movies so far have nailed the essence of their heroes better.

....and him hitting a heavy bag for twelve seconds after the credits is no substitute for months and months of physical combat training he had prior to even being sent out on his first mission. He should, in a lot of ways be treated like the Batman. Not dark and scary, but unswerving, dedicated, and extremely well-trained.

Cap's comics are frequently at their most fun when modern characters act like Cap is literally old or from a more ignorant time. And then they not only find he is lightning quick and mentally adapatable but his supposedly out-of-date viewpoint is highly relevant to modern situations. Its like when Clint Eastwood cranks out a powerful filmic statement on racism. Old two-fisted Clint seems like the last guy that would make anything sensitive (if you buy into liberal establishment stereotypes) but there he goes making Invictus and El Torino, the crazy old bastard. People have more to them than just some checklist based on age or background.

The new Captain America film just keeps the character like he's a kid more-or-less. The Cap I know doesn't still have a lot to learn on-the-job by the time he wakes up with the Avengers."

Now. I realize my view, what I wanted out of the movie and the portrayal, comes from an extremely fanboyish/slavering comic nerd perspective. I'm pushing at little nodules of dislike that most viewers, even a lot of Marvel comic fans are never going to notice or care about. But I care. It is possible that the filmmakers can recapture lost ground with me in subsequent movies. But as it stands, Captain America: The First Avenger, despite my applause at the idea of a big-budget treatment, didn't do it for me.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Getting Gold For Releasing Your Load

A lot of people are pretty passionate about so-called 'social games' on computers and smartphones currently. Okay, passionate is not the right word. ADDICTED is probably the right word. Like there’s a thin membrane laced with crack cocaine right under the touch screens and its been seeping into their skins. None of that namby-pamby baking, shopping, or tending for me though.

My crack-game of late has been Akai Katana Shin on the Xbox 360. I’ve spent more recent hours on Mortal Kombat attempting to get a last few achievements, in what should’ve been an afterthought, but turned out to be way too much work. Freeing myself from that bloodbath, I’ve been playing Cave’s latest shooter in earnest now, and I find it really hard to put down.

I enjoy Cave shooting games in general, but this title has even more of ‘the one more try’ factor than the rest of their catalog. The disc has three versions of Akai Katana on it, Shin, Arcade, and Zetsu. I’ve been playing Shin mode predominantly, and it has weapons and scoring so awesome and cathartic that replaying the early stages on restart hasn’t gotten the least bit tiresome to me. This post is going to deal mostly with Shin mode, then. The disc is region-locked to Japan. If you don't have a JPN console you can't play this, though I'd dare to say this game would be a big incentive to get one.

Like any Cave shooter, you can either play ‘for survival’ or ‘for score’… these terms used by gamers as nutshell phrases trying to encompass the balance between risk and reward. If you want to generate more or bigger scoring items you are going to have to put your ship (or avatar) at risk by getting closer to enemies before you shoot them, letting the screen fill with extra bullets, or milk boss characters for extended lengths of time… some version of ‘extra jeopardy’ rather than simply trying to kill every enemy as fast as possible to increase each ship’s survival time by minimising enemy fire. It is these sorts of risk/reward mechanics that make shooters compelling, and it’s where Cave’s particular style of STG excels. Also in Akai Katana Shin, as in most Cave games, learning to play well for score eventually ends up benefiting your survival as the extends come sooner or more frequently, and the timing and strategy you needed to get that score translate into survival skills. Once a player learns the ins and outs of a Cave game, playing for score IS playing for survival.

The thing about Akai Katana Shin for me is that the visual and audio depiction of the scoring system is so frickin’ cool… it just has ‘something’. But the risk, most of the time, is not nearly as brutal as other Cave games. And it is recoverable. If you fail to take advantage of a high scoring section, it won’t take long for you to reach another opportunity. It doesn’t feel (though I could be wrong) that getting the highest scores is nearly as ‘scripted’ as it is in say Ketsui or Dodonpachi Daioujou.

I also found that the blending of score and survival play styles came MUCH sooner. I love Ketsui, and I’ve dumped a lot of hours into it, but I’m still playing the entire second half of that game in pure survival mode. With Akai Katana Shin, I’m deliberately risking ruining great runs to the end by trying to keep huge chains alive and lining up as many bullets as possible in the sights of my super-weapon… and loving every minute of it. Yeah, yeah, I still curse when I die, but I think Cave hit on the perfect combination for me. In an earlier post about Bangai-O HD, I remarked on the cathartic thrill of that game’s over-the-top screen-filling uber-weapon. Akai Katana Shin pushes the same buttons with its ‘Ninja mode’ katana blitz.

For those who can’t be bothered with trying to dig up the info online: In Akai Katana Shin you pick one of three pilots/planes. Each corresponds to the typical Cave rules; one with narrow, straight but strong shots. One with a fair amount of spread to the pattern, but a little weaker. One with wide, fanned out shots that catch most of the screen but are quite weak and will not make short work of many of the enemies. Each pilot also has a ‘Ninja’ companion, who normally exists as a sort of ‘option’ orbiting the player’s plane. After building meter, you push a button and your plane switches out for a large, flying human (and no option), who has enhanced abilites and is the secret to triggering the aforementioned uber-weapon awesomeness. Again typical of Cave (and danmaku in general) if you hold down the fire button in any mode it focuses your shots at the expense of speed. The bombs in Akai Katana do clear enemy bullets as well as destroying the enemy themselves. A form of auto-bomb is the default. If you get hit by an enemy, while on your last life, the game will trigger your entire remaining bomb stock to keep you alive.

--If you use normal shot (rhythmic tapping), dead or injured enemies release light blue orbs (magatama actually, the comma-shape that figures heavily in Japanese history and myth) that power a couple of your Ninja abilities and keep a chain counter going.
--If you use focused shot (button held) the enemies release green energy orbs that increase the amount of time you can spend in Ninja mode.

When you are all ready to go, switching to Ninja form gives you two options;

--A defensive ‘blue Ninja’ (rhythmic tapping) who slows incoming bullets down and can continue to collect blue orbs.
--Or the offensive ‘red Ninja’ whose fire collects ‘katana’ swords from dead enemies. .

So basically, you fly through the stages, mostly using regular shot to collect blue orbs, with the occasional dip into focused shot to get some green E’s, it doesn’t take a lot of energy to fill up and sporadic use of focused shot won’t break your hit chain.

Progress collecting is indicated by a glowing ring of characters around your ship and a green bar at the top of the screen. At any time you can switch to Ninja mode and it will consume whatever you have in green bar. The blue orbs you collected will be reflected in the number of magatama surrounding your ninja. You can stay ‘defensive’and treat the Ninja like your regular old ship albeit he/she can slow down incoming fire somewhat, but there’s a time limit based on how much green you had in the meter before you changed. Or you can go ‘offensive’, by holding down the fire button, switching to red. This shoots out the circle of magatama and they cause damage to enemies and cancel bullets. As they do this, they fling katana back to your ninja. So really, the more blue orbs you collect before you switch, the more magatama, and katana, you will have to work with. If you hold fire down as the red Ninja portions of your fire output will gather additional katana from dead enemy, but your green bar timer is still counting down, so it’s better to collect what you can before triggering Ninja mode.

With a cloud of katana surrounding you, here’s the REALLY fun bit. Apart from the blue orbs and green E items, there are gold scoring items marked with a red G. You get these in various sizes when you kill enemies in different ways in Ninja mode. As I said earlier, when you switch BACK to ship mode, any katana hovering around your ninja will shoot forward (or wherever you aimed them). Anything they strike, will be destroyed and emit clouds of the biggest form of gold item. They blossom all over the screen and then get immediately sucked into your ship. Opportunities to do this come frequently in the game. And if you amass enough swords before unloading, any enemy apart from end bosses will go down with one glorious, slowdown-inducing barrage.

If I had any criticism about the game itself, it would be that all this orb-gathering and gold-fountaining frequently obscures the awesome artwork on display in the game’s graphics. Akai Katana’s art style is reminiscent of the stodgy ironworks machines found in titles like Metal Slug or In The Hunt. But you’d have to play through seriously reducing your scoring attempts in order to see a lot of it! The way it all works is so awesome however, that the complaint is kind of pathetic and hollow really.

The above explanation does not encompass many of the subtleties in the game and its scoring but it gives the gist. Essentially what you have here is a game with such cool and layered weaponry, that the time-honored, screen-clearing bomb is almost unnecessary. Through some strategic timing, you almost always have overwhelming force on tap. It is seriously boner-inducing when you get a full complement of swords lined up on a huge midboss, let some popcorn enemies gather around him, and then wait for scads of enemy fire to blanket the screen and almost reach you… then trigger twelve katana right into the heart of the shitstorm, flying your plane behind that steel wall of consuming death so that you can vacuum up all the gold that much quicker.

Practically a video game orgasm. Ooh! That’s what the appeal actually is! Cave has distilled human sexual response into a shooting game! YES!

Seriously, I could go on and on about the other things the game does so right. I think Cave soundtracks are generally ‘okay’. Usually I think they are appropriate for whatever game and usually there’s one or two standout tunes (ie, the TLB theme from Ketsui), but not the sort of thing I’d spend a ton of time listening to on my iPod. The music from Akai Katana Shin isn’t going to make my favorites list, but it is a damn sight better and more memorable than most of their previous music. I’ve already mentioned the visuals, but additionally, this is the first Cave game in a while where ‘lolis’ in some form were NOT front and center. Instead the game has a sort of old-fashioned industrial feel with clunky little tanks and turrets, and prop planes. All the player characters, teen girls included, are dressed in a military manner, and pretty lacking in fan service opportunities. That isn’t to say the character art is particularly manly. It is still pretty swishy, as seems to be the style these days. But the armies and weapons are glorious. Rendered in HD-friendly resolution, and with plenty of screen adjustment options. Also, it’s horizontally-oriented, so no tate required.

I don’t think this game will necessarily make a gamer a fan of the bullet hell style. And it may actually vary from the Cave formula, with its multiple uber-weapon system, too much for a lot of Cave diehards. Also, since it’s a hori like Progear and Deathsmiles. So vert-only players might shun this too. But to me this game just does everything so right. It is absolutely spectacular, and brings enough new things to the table that it doesn’t play like any other Cave game… or any other shooter that I can think of.

There was one massive oversight, though, and I’m kind of baffled that Cave, at the time of this writing, has not issued a patch to fix: you cannot enter your initials on the high score tables. If you post your score to an Xbox Live leaderboard it DOES use your gamertag, so proper credit is attributed. But in ‘local’ terms you can’t ID the scores played on YOUR console. Pretty glaring considering high score tables, and their three initial entries, are pretty much rock-standard in shooters since Space Invaders.

That error aside, I can’t recommend Akai Katana Shin highly enough. I haven’t even really scratched the surface on Arcade and Zetsu modes. Arcade is essentially a recreation of the original game, complete with the faults that got it kind of a lukewarm reception in Japanese arcades. But it is the mode that allows two players at once. Zetsu is a sort of ‘fixed’ version of Arcade and would be the de facto standard now for basic Akai Katana (without the Shin part of the title). Unless some super surprise entry blindsides me between now and Christmas, Akai Katana Shin will probably end of Game Of The Year for me in 2011.
(screenshot ripped from Andriasang)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Absolute Favorite...

File:Captain America The First Avenger poster.jpg

...superhero of all time.

I collected every comic I could and watched reruns of the old black and white serial shows. I've stomached more recent, but terrible color TV movies, and his criminal underuse in the otherwise excellent new Avengers cartoon show on the Disney channel. I threw up my hands in despair at his apparent assassination after Marvel's Civil War (which I enjoyed on its own).

But this could make up for the misfires and mistakes. I may just crap myself waiting for July 22nd.

Mexican Boy Done Good

I’m really digging the film work of Guillermo Del Toro lately. He works in the dark fantasy and horror sort of area, doing Spanish-language films and then bouncing over to English films for Hollywood. Even in low(er) budget films he manages to provide intricate, believable visuals and work his settings and situations into incredibly atmospheric and forbidding viewing.

Most people in this country are probably most familiar with the two Hellboy films, which were so much better than 90% of movies based on comic book properties. But NetFlix has some of the other stuff; the early Cronos, and his two period dark fantasies set in Franco’s Spain, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro has described himself as fascinated by clockwork and insects. You can see this fascination all through his films, where even a creature as innocuous as a faun becomes horribly fascinating and frightening. Even though he's from Mexico, I get more of an Old World vibe from his stuff. Peeling paintings and corroded brass more than adobe and red brick, if that makes sense.

I’m still working away at catching everything he’s done. There’s a new film in the near future, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. The previews make it look like every other haunted house movie with a child as the central victim/avatar. But it ALSO looks like it could mine the same veins as Pan’s Labyrinth or The Orphanage, and that would cut the film well above the typical bullshit.

Del Toro was going to be the director on the two Hobbit films, but that fell through. Nothing against Peter Jackson, but holy hell! I would’ve loved to see an earlier Middle Earth through Del Toro’s eyes.

In other Spanish-language news I’ve also been catching up on the much more limited back catalog of Pedro Almodovar, but I’m not sure I can even comment on that weirdness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Times of Excess

Video game players who've been around a long time, like old-timers in any culture, frequently pine for the good old days... frequently its those never-to-be-equaled times when 2D was the order of the day and your-choice-of-dead-system ruled the kingdom.

But honestly we've never had it so good. I've done my share of cranky old bitching with the rest of 'em, but we are living in a golden age game-wise. When I was a kid, I'd have let a pack of grimy gnomes pull half of my teeth out if I could've had access to all the amazing shit players have today. There are times like, uh NOW, when I think gamers, journalists and players both, are almost assholes for complaining.

Some things were the same then as they are now. There are still cheesy or cheating players. The companies ARE out to make a buck and sometimes they do things or make decisions that suck. Some design choices could've been implemented a lot better. Games with frustrating difficulty.

But we are such absolute spoiled little shits. I mean I look around at what I have... what my kids have. Maybe not everyone has the gaming setup my family does... some have more, some have less obviously. Currently I have a large plasma screen with multiple consoles hooked up (through nothing less sharp than s-video) to two switch boxes, including a Neo Geo AES which was an untouchably expensive system when it came out. My kids each have an LED flatscreen in their rooms with my daughter having a Wii attached to hers, and my son having an Xbox 360 and PS2 on his. Both of them also have DSi handhelds, and a box with most generations of Nintendo portables ready to hand. Currently they are enamored with iOS games because they've each gotten an iTouch this summer. All the games... and these number in the hundreds by now... are all readily available, neatly arranged on shelves organised by system and whether it has been 'beaten' or not. Compared to most 'civilian' households this is a bit deranged, but compared to many homes where video games are a big part of the landscape this is nothing. We don't even have any video game merch apart from some Sonic shirts my son owns.

But what the fuck, yeah? I mean 'the good old days'? What is that really supposed to mean? If there's some old system you want, you just go buy it on ebay or emulate it on your laptop or play downloaded versions of that system's games on a newer console. Lamenting the passing of good old 2D gaming? Through these means you can relive all the old shit OR just take a look at the dowload or portable spaces and see where 2D platforming and fighting and shooting lives again.

It's endless. I can't even keep up with it anymore. If you want to talk about games, gamers, or gaming, communities small and large are never futher away than your mouse opening up a browser. I can have an online conversation with a buddy in Australia and then go see what he's playing on his Xbox 360 right then, live. My son frequently puts on his headset to chat with one friend who's playing Fallout, while he himself is fighting seven other guys in a Halo retread!

Recently my kids have taken to the so-called social gaming scene. These are retardedly casual games that require little more than patience and the ability to resist spending real money on virtual objects. Tap Zoo, Bakery Story, etc etc ad nauseum. It looks like most of the 'fun' is in making friends and looking in on what other people are doing with their versions of the game. Not my cup of tea. But the point is that it is a whole new form and venue that doesn't even have an analog in the 'old days' of video games.

Child of Eden is the first game I've seen that makes me think about buying a Kinect. Standing in your room and moving your body about to play a game is something out of Tron, kids. We could only imagine it. You can join a MMORPG and thousands of fellow adventurers are pushing around in the same sandbox as you are... at the same time. The closest thing to that in the really old days were MUD dungeons. Those almost aren't even recognisable as games by today's standards.

There ARE things that have gone away, and not for the better. Shit that I miss. As connected as we all are, none of it replaces the thrill and immediacy of arcade gaming. All the lights and sounds (particularly in GOOD arcades). The competition, particularly in fighting games. Even in shooting or platforming, getting your initials up on the high score screen, knowing the next person to come along might knock you off, that was something. Civilians frequently picture gamers as solitary loners, sweatily pawing their keyboards to slog through onscreen dungeons between visits to porn sites, but video gaming has always had hugely social aspects to it. The whole world is the arcade now, but fighting teabaglulz99 from Novia Scotia doesn't have quite the thrill, to me, of sending little Billy packing after he's beaten four previous players spamming Genan's spin move in Samurai Shodown.

A lot of the creativity SEEMS to have left. Favorite franchises get mired down in their same old mechanics. But then the fans shit noisy geese if the devs try to change anything. These are more contentious times. Everyone thinks they should have a say. Access to other gamers is so easy, the noise can be overwhelming. Print isn't really dead, but in terms of game magazines, the information mainstay of the old days, it might as well be. Getting all your gaming news, reviews, and opinions from the internet seems so very soulless. And how much work is it to separate out all the fucksticks at Kotaku, Destructoid or wherever, from worthy information. Developers often seem to operate like movie studios and their summer blockbusters. Big budget titles pandering to the lowest common denominator. Committees deciding what gamers want, and the creator/auteur aspect squeezed completely out of the equation.

Games these days are too easy. Or too hard. Or too short. Too long. Too expensive. Really?

I'm dabbling with Mushimesama Bug Panic on my kids iTouch. It is five 'worlds' long, with each world having five stages and a boss stage. It has hidden items and areas if you wish to look for them, and rewards you with pieces to a jigsaw puzzle mini game for each item you find. Each stage probably takes about five to ten minutes if you try to search out all the hidden items and manage not to die. Bosses take only a few minutes but you are not likely to get them on the first go. I'm currently stuck myself on one of the stages in the middle of the last world. So adding togther thirty stages at say ten minutes apiece, you could say you get three hours of game assuming you play perfectly AND don't replay anything for a better score or fiddle with the jigsaw puzzle bonus game. On an iTouch, it is a pretty small screen, but the graphics are colorful sprite-based objects typical of Cave. And of course loads of bullets on screen and a bazillion point items all being vacuumed up by your avatar, Reco. This would probably be the cat's ass on an iPad.

I paid five bucks for it. That's only one dollar an hour assuming I get ONLY five hours total out of it. Here's a game that answers all the complaints. It isn't too short, it is a few hours for a five dollar game. There's more with the replay value. It isn't too long, it is perfect pick up and play gaming, you can leave off wherever and get right back to it whenever. It isn't difficult to get pretty far in the game, but it isn't so easy that there's no challenge. As I said, I'm currently rather stuck near the end. Just as it should be.

Also? Five bucks. My biggest complaint is the controls, but I'm a big fat baby when it comes to touchscreens so my complaint about that should be taken with a grain.

In a world where video games are so common and available there IS a fuck-ton of dreck out there, no doubt. But a little looking around and a willingness to read up on shit and mess around with demo versions will do wonders. My kids will download and play with any piece of crap on their iTouches, but that's part of the fun too.

I guess this rant is a bit of a call for perspective. There are reasons to bitch. It's fun to bitch and vent. But to go back to the good old days? Time and memory paint those days rather rosy. It WAS more exciting to get a new game back in the Genesis days. Games weren't just falling around us like they are now. Every purchase or gift was an event. But the actual PLAYING... there's so much more to it now. AND you can have the games from the old days if you want to. I can jump and dash Sonic through his contest with Metal Sonic just as I did then. But I can also play a game where a single controller handles dodging, flying, slashing, and pointing into the screen to shoot (like a lightgun game) ALL AT THE SAME TIME. See Sin & Punishment: Star Successor for the Wii.

I'm grateful my kids get something good out of video games just like I did (and still do). They also have an appreciation for the older stuff, as I've gone on about before in this blog. I've been around, and playing, from the early early days of video gaming, and I need to appreciate the NOW. Games are still really fun. a player just might have more sifting to do now then I did back then. That seems like a small price to pay for all the choices.