Friday, April 4, 2014

A Primer on American Vampire Second Cycle



Oh my God, you guys, American Vampire, oh my God.
Ahem... so, American Vampire is a Vertigo comic series written by Scott Snyder and dawn by Rafael Albuquerque that was originally published in March 2010 and until recently had been on a hiatus.  To that end, I had originally intended to do a review of American Vampire: Second Cycle #1 but it quickly became apparent that I had way too much to discuss before I even got to talking about the newest issue. So while I intend to do a monthly analytical critique of each issue, I’ve decided to use this space as a primer to give some background on the series and explain why it’s so great.  Because it really is so great. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

What the Heck is this Noah Thing Anyway?




I’m going to go out on a limb and assume at least some of you watched the Super Bowl a while back.  The game itself was…boring for the best reason (go Hawks), but that’s neither here nor there. The thing that really keeps people in their seats these days is the Super Bowl commercials.  These ads, which are important because they are aired during the single most watched event of the television year, have become an institution in and of themselves and the occasional movie trailer is no exception.

This year, a lot of Hollywood’s big players played their hand with their Superbowl trailers.  We had a trailers for Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction and The Lego Movie among others.  Also, quick side bar: the aforementioned Lego Movie really is as good as you’ve heard.  You should go see it. Now.  I’ll wait.

Oh man...my shoes are going to get so wet.
Anyway, despite the big name trailers throughout the game, like me you may have been attracted to a short 30 second spot at the beginning of the game.  The movie in question looks like some sort of High Fantasy apocalypse.  It’s got Russell Crowe who is generally decent, Emma Watson who is generally hot, and it’s directed by Darrin Arronofsky who doesn’t really make bad movies.  It’s also got some cool shots in the trailer like celestial beings falling to Earth and a guy with a fire sword (which is a statement that I wish could be attributed to more movies in general).  But then the title appears and the film’s name is revealed: Noah. Okay, what?  Where was all of this stuff in Sunday school?  It certainly would’ve made things a whole lot interesting right?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Console Review: PlayStation 4


On Saturday, February 22nd, 2014, the PlayStation 4 finally came out in Japan, and I waited anxiously by the door for the delivery man to appear with my deceptively heavy package and extra fire-red controller so that I could begin setup of my new toy. But it didn’t come on Saturday. In fact, it only shipped on Saturday, it wouldn’t arrive until the next day at the earliest, and, assuming bad weather or Godzilla related turbulence, Tuesday at the latest. Luckily, it arrived on Sunday morning, because Japan does not believe in weekends for their UPS equivalent, much to my heartfelt joy.

THE SYSTEM

It’s tiny – much, much tinier than I initially thought it would be – and solid. It feels like a good piece of hardware and the strange-but-interesting parallelogram shape of the case looks nice, even though the shape is such that, unless you already have your standing systems on the left side of your TV/media center (which I do not), it will look rather awkward with the rest of them. After a few minutes deliberation, I decided to re-organize so that I could lie it down on its side.

I also discovered that one unfortunate aspect is that there are no rear USB ports, meaning that if you’re like me and bought a cradle for your two controllers, unless you have them hooked up to a different USB source, you’re going to have a cable coming out of the front of your PS4 at all times.

After making room for it and getting it hooked up, I turned it on and went through the initialization (choosing a language – which the Japanese Wii U absolutely does not allow – and internet connection, etc.) and got to the home screen before turning it off, unplugging it, and setting it on my work table to begin replacing the HDD.

And it was so easy. It was a breeze snapping off the case, unscrewing 5 screws, changing drives, re-screwing 5 screws, and re-snapping on the case. It took 5 minutes. Of course, with a new HDD, you have to have a thumbdrive with the latest firmware ready to re-install, but that’s no problem, either. From there, it took maybe 20 minutes to get through that, back through initialization, and to the home screen for the second time.

THE CONTROLLER

All the while, I was admiring the new DualShock 4. I’ve been a fan of all of the DualShocks (even though the original controller was a little too small, if still comfortable, and the SixAxis was too light, if similarly shaped), but this one is by far my favorite. It might even be my favorite controller, ever. I don’t have particularly big or small hands, and had no problems whatsoever with the DualShock 3, but this one feels good. The buttons are crisp and springy, the triggers are improved, and the reintroduction of the dimpled analog sticks make this the best incarnation thus far. The handles are more rounded than the previous versions which do make it look a lot bigger, but, in fact, it has the exact same footprint as the DualShock 3. At least, eyeballing it, they do.

I will say, among all that, it is jarring not to have a Start button, anymore. This is my first controller ever without one. That’s 25 years, or more, of gaming with a Start button in, generally, the same place (the original XBOX and XBOX S controllers notwithstanding). I keep wanting to reach over to pause Resogun or Outlast and accidentally brush the new little touchpad, instead. But, really, that’s okay. I’ll get used to it. The functions of the Start button have simply been moved to the new Options button in the shortstop position between the Triangle and Square buttons.

One other interesting thing is the big bright light on the back of the controller. It is there to show whose controller is whose, assuming you have a bunch of same-color controllers, and to work with the PlayStation Eye, but, mainly, it's there to be bright. While playing Outlast with the lights off near 11 pm, every now and then I'd notice a little light toward the bottom-left of the TV that I initially thought was in the game, a collectible item or something, that I finally discovered was that light. It's so bright that it reflects off the screen in the dark, unfortunately distractingly so. It's not a huge problem, but being able to turn it down or off is something that will hopefully be addressed in a future update. The controller also has, like the original Wii Remotes, a surprisingly clear speaker in it that sometimes shouts instructions at you or adds ambient noises at odd times. I'm withholding judgment as to whether it's necessary or not, but I'm willing to give it the opportunity to wow me.

PS VITA CONNECTIVITY

I’m including this because the Vita is essentially my 3rd controller now. Of course, I’d never choose the Vita over the classic DualShock as a plain controller, but the Remote Play and 2nd Screen functionality are so… awesome, that I have to seriously consider it. Remote Play is flawless, quick, and I was able to fail spectacularly at Resogun on a high difficulty just as I would have with the DualShock on the TV screen (although the L2/R2 really need physical buttons to be perfect). I haven’t been able to test the 2nd screen, yet, but it’s on my list of things I want to try.

The Vita is finally going to become useful for more than my PS One classics, and for that I’m very excited.

OTHER

I’m not going to cover any games in this, but I will say of the ones I’ve played (Resogun, Knack, Outlast, Contrast, and Don’t Starve) that they are gorgeous. But, I have to say that I don’t believe these are experiences I couldn’t have had on the PS3, with the exception of KnackKnack is quite technically impressive.

The automatic shut-off also appears to actually work on the PS4, as having fallen asleep with it on last night and waking up to find it in standby mode will attest. Too many times, I would leave the PS3 on, hoping that it would finish its download, install, and then turn itself off only to find that it’s been on all day or all weekend, wasting my expensive Japanese electricity (and believe me, that’s no pittance).

The PSN looks good, even though it’s currently bare, and it’s drastically quicker to get to the store from the home screen, which is amazing. I used to have to wait up to 2 or 3 minutes for the store to open on the PS3, but now it’s practically instantaneous. I even accidentally went into the store once or twice and didn’t realize I’d done it, but it was so quick it was of no consequence.

However, that is one thing that is both good and bad: the PS4 home screen and the PSN are identical. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish exactly where you are because, even outside of the store, some of the advertised games have price tags. For example, I got a free copy of the Japanese Knack with my PS4 and, after going into the Japanese PSN to get it downloading, logged into my other American account to look around and saw Knack’s download progress on the screen, but it also had a BUY NOW $59.99 underneath it, which, at first, was rather confusing. But as soon as the game finished downloading (35 GBs, good lord), the price tag, even in the American account, disappeared.


However, the PS4 is a classy, high quality addition to any media center. Now we need some console-defining game experiences to arrive. I can’t wait.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Super Smash Bros: Nintendo's Undercover PR Machine

You love Super Smash Bros. I love Super Smash Bros. Even people who don't like video games love Super Smash Bros! Everyone loves seeing their favorite Italian plumber and pointy-eared adventurer duke it out. But it's not just the big names like Mario and Link in SSB. The first time many of us played the game, we had no idea who Ness or Captain Falcon were. Heck, some first-time SSB players back when the original was released in 1999 didn't even know Samus was a chick. But those characters have earned a place in our hearts, and their games have gone on to become popular in their own right.


When EarthBound was finally released on the Wii U Virtual Console last year, it was a huge deal. Some of it was due to the game's cult status, but most people rejoicing had never touched the game before. Most players' familiarity with the game and its characters comes from Super Smash Bros. Nintendo, master of nostalgia, has this sneaky way of using Super Smash Bros. to make us nostalgic for games we never even played.

Super Smash Bros. hooks us in with its big-name characters, but it uses the game to introduce the company's more obscure and dormant series. Fire Emblem had never seen a Western release before Marth and Roy showed up in Super Smash Bros. Melee, but once the characters found a devoted fanbase in Melee, suddenly we got a whole slew of Fire Emblem titles released outside Japan. There hadn't been a new Kid Icarus game in over two decades, but once its protagonist Pit appeared in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, his popularity prompted Nintendo to create Kid Icarus: Uprising for the 3DS in 2012.


Super Smash Bros. is, along with Mario Kart, by far the most commercially successful crossover Nintendo franchise. It appeals to both hardcore gamers and the casual crowd. It's a love letter to Nintendo games, with its trophies and extras effectively serving as a Nintendo encyclopedia. But in many ways, Super Smash Bros. is simply a marketing vehicle for Nintendo's B- and C-list franchises. That's not a bad thing. Tons of creative new games have come to fruition due to characters' popularity garnered in SSB.

We're all dying to learn which characters will join the lineup of the upcoming Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U. I'm excited for the game itself, but I'm even more excited about what the new SSB lineup means for Nintendo's lesser-known series. Little Mac from Punch-Out!! has already been revealed; what other characters from less famous series would you like to see in the new Super Smash Bros?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Collapse of Civilization

Jimmy Carr may or may not be your cup of tea, but on an episode of QI he once told a joke about wondering why Germans were so fastidious, so he googled “German anal.” And when he finally emerged, no doubt caked in a crusty filth, it had been a week. He’d lost a week! And that’s how I feel about Civilization V.

This is going to take so. Much. TIME.
Recently available via the glorious Sid Meier Humble Bundle, I went ahead and paid my $15 (I always go between $15 and $25 on the Humbles) and added Civilization V (and its subsequent DLCs, as well as Civilization IV) to the purgatory of my Steam account, not expecting to get around to it any time especially soon. However, due to unforeseen severe boredom and the fresh memory of having just purchased it, I installed it and gave it a try. That was at noon last Wednesday, and from then to the same time the next day, I’d logged 15 hours of play.

Oh, baby, you know I ain't goin' nowhere.
Now, there were times as a teenager where I literally didn’t leave my bedroom but for bathroom breaks or to make a bowl of cereal because I was engrossed in something - in those days (and for that long) I was probably playing Xenogears or Final Fantasy Tactics, or even possibly one of those ludicrous 12-hour Gran Turismo races that forever soured me on realistic car racing (I fell asleep somewhere near the last 5 to 10 laps of one of those races and was much too discouraged to bother trying, again) - but that was a time of life where I actually had that much free time to spend as worthlessly. Since then, possibly with the exception of a few group, all-night, alcohol-fueled gaming sessions of Guitar Hero/Rockband, either in one sitting or one general period of time, I simply haven’t sat and played a single game for so long. Until now.

Civ V is ridiculous. I’m not much of a board gamer – this kind, anyway – and I think that’s where this caught me off guard. If this were a normal board game, everyone would quickly lose interest: it moves too slowly, it would require an insane amount of attention to keep track of all of the moves (not to mention attention span), and any war would be fought likely both on the board and in real life. But in Civ Vit’s always your turn.

And that’s seductive.

You should have accepted my trade proposal, baby.
Oh, I can just get a few more roads built! I can wait two more turns for that Seaport to finish! I just want to conquer France before I go to bed! And before you know it, it’s 4 am. I can’t think of another game off the top of my head that is as much of a time sink that isn’t an MMORPG (I never played World of Warcraft in any of its iterations, but I know that one falls into the same category). I began my civilization on Wednesday afternoon, and I completed my first game on Sunday evening, and I did practically nothing else (besides work and eat) in the time between. It’s easily the quickest I’ve ever put 40 hours into a game and while I had a great amount of fun with it, I’m glad the game’s over. Having been an adult these last ten years or so, playing these long-ass games is fun, but taxing.


I’m going to go read 1Q84 for a while. Or go buy a bookshelf to put together. Or take a drive. I just need to get off the computer. 

Hmm, actually, maybe just one more turn...

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I want to love Blade Runner, but the rape scene ruins it for me.

Trigger warning. And spoiler warning, since this is the internet and people will get upset about spoiling the plot of a 32-year-old movie.


I've watched Ridley Scott's landmark sci-fi dystopian noir Blade Runner a handful of times over the years. I watched it in high school and didn't really "get it." I watched it for two different classes in college, where I finally gained an appreciation for it. And I've watched the movie two or three times since then. I've considered Blade Runner one of the best films ever made, and up there with 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the all-time most important works of science fiction.

But the past couple times I watched, one scene in particular stood out like a sore thumb. The sex scene between the main character, Deckard, and the female lead, Rachael, that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film. Take a look for yourself (don't worry, there's no actual nudity):



The real questionable stuff starts around the 3:15 mark of the video. Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) and Rachael (played by Sean Young) share a tender moment, but Rachael becomes flustered and tries to leave the apartment. Deckard slams the door shut to prevent her from getting away, then throws her against a wall, corners her, commands her to tell him to kiss her, and has her way with her. She's crying as it happens.

Maybe I'm interpreting this all incorrectly. A quick google search for "blade runner sex scene" shows that most people on the internet are as confused and conflicted as I am.

Some people defend the scene by saying "Rachael is a replicant, so it's not rape." Considering the entire plot of Blade Runner revolves around replicants having the same emotions that humans do, I don't buy this excuse at all.

Others say it just goes to show that Deckard is an imperfect character. I think that's probably what Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford were going for. Everyone appreciates a flawed protagonist; it humanizes them. But there's a difference between "protagonist is kind of a jerk who just wants to do the right thing" and "protagonist is a rapist who just wants to do the right thing."

It reminds me of all the controversy surrounding Woody Allen right now. He might be a child molester, but he's such a witty guy! People want to ignore sexual abuse charges because he's made so many good movies. Does Blade Runner get the same pass? He might've raped the female lead, but the movie is such a cultural touchstone that everyone sort of forgets about it.

Apparently Harrison Ford and Sean Young never clicked during production of the film, and the scene was incredibly rough to shoot. Sean Young said she had to take a few weeks off after shooting the scene because she had so many bruises.

But in a recent interview about sex in movies, Young seems to have a more positive view on Blade Runner. She says a sex scene in a movie is good when the woman looks happy, and that's why it worked for her in No Way Out and in Blade Runner. Huh? I've re-watched the sex scene a few times now, and her character seems to be closer to sobbing than to smiling.

If the actress who was actually involved in the scene in question has no problem with it now, are my complaints unwarranted? I still want to fast-forward through it every time I watch Blade Runner. What do you think?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Debating the definition of Metroidvania


"What is a Metroidvania? A miserable little pile of secrets."

JOHN: Hey, Jake, I was thinking for our next blog post that we should do a “Best of” for Metroidvania games where we give each other a list of games the other hasn’t played, do our best to play them, and then do an overall ranking. I’d be interested to see how different our lists end up being. I don't think Super Metroid would be in my top 5, but Castlevania: Symphony of the Night probably would be. What do you think?

JAKE: That would be a pretty limited list, wouldn't it? Aside from the Metroid and Castlevania games, there'd only be a handful of others. Guacamelee! and Shadow Complex. Maybe Cave Story. But none of those come anywhere close to making my personal top 5. Also: Super Metroid doesn't even crack a Metroidvania top 5 for you? The game that defined the entire genre?! Are you insane?

JOHN: Limited list? Are you nuts? I can think of three classic (one modern classic) series right now that fit into the Metroidvania mold. Mega Man Legends 1 and 2 (and incidentally Mega Man 64), Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and Resident Evil (well, 1, anyway). Those are exactly Metroidvania-type games and are all much better than all of the rest of the proper Metroid or Castlevania games, except perhaps the aforementioned Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. 

JAKE: The exploration elements of the games you mentioned are similar to the genre, but it's not enough for me to call Demon's Souls or Resident Evil a Metroidvania. The original Metroid was envisioned by Nintendo as a cross between the exploration of The Legend of Zelda and the platforming of Super Mario Bros. The games you mentioned have the exploration part, but platforming is just as integral to the Metroidvania formula. Every single mainline Metroid and Castlevania game emphasizes platforming. Without the platforming, Metroidvania is almost just Zelda. Demon's Souls has much more in common with Zelda than it does with Metroid.

JOHN: But it's more than jumping that makes Metroidvania games what they are, though. In every "classic" Metroidvania, there is a fixed map to explore and items to collect that make new areas of said map newly accessible, and lots of enemies to fight. "Jumping" makes the 2D Metroidvania possible, but it doesn't change a 3D one into The Legend of Zelda if you remove it. It doesn't need literal platforming to be the same type of game. Dark Souls is exactly this: it's a fixed (though much larger) map that you explore and open up as you progress with lots of enemies to fight and weapons to collect and upgrade. But there's no jumping. There's a limited amount of dropping, though, I suppose.

Resident Evil is exactly the same. It's a fixed map (hell, it's even a haunted house, just like Dracula's castle or Zebes) that opens up with the more keys you collect, with lots of zombies to fight and upgradeable weapons (well, gun > shotgun > grenade launcher > magnum > rocket launcher, anyway). The exterior is different, but it comes from the same stock as any Metroidvania. Much more so than Zelda.

JAKE: So then what's the difference between Zelda and Metroidvania to you? Does that make Zelda a Metroidvania? That would be pretty strange, considering Zelda predates both Metroid and Castlevania. But Zelda also has a world you explore by yourself, acquiring new items to access new areas, full of creepy dungeons just like Metroid's creepy alien caverns. Zelda's lack of platforming is the biggest thing that sets it apart from Metroidvania.

JOHN: The biggest difference to me is the world, itself. In the 3D Zeldas, Hyrule is an entire (teeny) country with separate, distinct areas to explore, joined by a common area, i.e. the field or, in The Wind Waker, the sea. Just like Demon's Souls... Hmm. Okay, maybe I'll concede that one to you. It doesn't use a single map: it's several distinct areas joined together by the central Nexus. And it has levels! 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, and 1-4 in the first area, alone. In that sense, it's actually more like the classic Castlevania than Zelda. But not like Metroid.

But the "haunted house" aspect of Dark SoulsResident Evil, Super Metroid, and Symphony of the Night is the biggest difference. Are you really saying that, without jumping, Metroid is Zelda? I can't agree with that. Zelda's too light-hearted, too inconsequential. Opening up new doors (and, thus, new areas) in the big 4 are important events while in Zelda, outside of dungeons, it largely doesn't matter. Now, if an entire Zelda took place in a dungeon, say a massive Hyrule Castle, then I might agree with you.

And here's another thing about Zelda - the 3D ones, anyway - as soon as you get the hookshot, it effectively allows Link to platform. He's not "jumping," but he's ascending from level to level to kick ass and take names. Just like Samus. But I still wouldn't say that Zelda is Metroid, would you?

JAKE: "Enclosed gameworld" isn't a requirement of the genre. All the Metroid games span entire (small) planets, with Samus entering various caverns connected by many open areas--the original Metroid and Metroid II are the only ones to take place entirely underground. And many Castlevania titles, including all the more recent entries, feature areas to explore outside the castle.

The dark tone is an integral part of the individual Metroid and Castlevania series, but I don't think it's necessary to the Metroidvania formula. Guacamelee! has a lighthearted comedic tone, yet neither of us question its Metroidvania credentials. You know a big part of what keeps it true to the genre? PLATFORMING!

JOHN: You're talking "requirements" and I'm talking "aspects" of what makes a Metroidvania a Metroidvania. I'm essentially saying this: if it looks, feels, and sounds like a Metroidvania, then it's a duck. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that Mega Man Legends, Dark Souls, and Resident Evil, proper platforming present or not, offer experiences much closer to classic Metroidvanias than they do to Zelda. I can understand if you don't want to classify them as pure Metroidvanias, though, so maybe a new sub-category should be created for them, like "Bubblevania" or "Semi-troid," where they're maybe not quite Metroidvania, but not close enough to the Princess, either. But in terms of game-type, they should absolutely be considered alongside Metroidvanias in any list ranking them.

JAKE: I can get on board with Mega Man Legends being called Metroidvania since the Mega Man series is partially based on, ya know... platforming. Not so much the others. Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but we'll have to agree to disagree on the definition of the genre. If I were to make a top 10 list of Metroidvania games, it would pretty much all be Metroid and Castlevania games. With your slightly more liberal definition of the genre, what games would you put on the list?

JOHN: I'll be honest: I wanted to open up the definition in the first place because, outside of the few obvious classics, I wasn't sure I could come up with a top 10. I'm not the Metroid fanatic you are, but I do love Metroidvanias. After some consideration, here's my list, in no particular order:

  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS)
  • Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (DS)
  • Mega Man Legends (PS)
  • Mega Man Legends 2 (PS)
  • Dark Souls (PS3)
  • Shadow Complex (XBL)
  • Resident Evil (GC)
  • Super Metroid (SNES)
  • Guacamelee! (PSN/PC)
  • Metroid Prime (GC)
I just barely made it to 10, and I couldn't come up with any other titles that I'd played for more than 10 or 15 minutes (such as Metroid Prime 3: Corruption), for various reasons. Perhaps you can enlighten me to a treasure trove of hitherto unknown (to me) Metroidvania treasures. Or perhaps just one: if you had to recommend a single Metroidvania not already on my list, any platform, what would it be?

JAKE: I touched on this in my ranking of Metroid games last year, but Metroid Prime 2: Echoes is by far the most underrated Metroidvania. In that article, I described it as "a Metroid connoisseur's Metroid." People are turned off by Echoes' dark color palette and its extreme difficulty. The first Prime is more easily enjoyable, but Echoes builds on its predecessor's ideas and features even deeper and more cerebral puzzles and worlds to explore.

Devious Spider Ball puzzles in Sanctuary Fortress

While the first Prime stuck to a more traditional approach and standard videogame "fire world/ice world/forest area/etc" tropes, Echoes explores more unique places like the futuristic Sanctuary Fortress, perhaps my favorite location in any Metroid game. Echoes was so tough that when it was re-released as part of Metroid Prime Trilogy on Wii, they dialed back the difficulty. But it's the Crime and Punishment of Metroid: dense and hard to get through, but super meaty when you put in the effort.