Saturday, July 31, 2010

(Earth)Bound and Gagged: Censorship in the Mother Series

If you ever find yourself strolling around in the world of Earthbound, walking up and down on the same patch of grass and saying the same two lines of dialogue all day, you’d better hope you don’t get hurt, because you’re going to have a tough time finding a hospital. They’re there, but you’d never know which building to go to in a state of panic: All the red crosses that designate which buildings are hospitals don’t exist in the English version of the game. And if you’re Christian, you’d better hope you never die, because you won’t be allowed to have a crucifix on your grave. Well, at least there won’t be much to clean up though, because in Earthbound, you’re not allowed to bleed.

But why? What strange force stands between the citizens of Earthbound and these three seemingly unrelated aspects of life? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not Giygas who’s doing it, and it’s certainly not Master Belch. Give up?

It’s Nintendo of America, of course.

Especially in the days of the NES and SNES, the Big N was infamous for their super strict content guidelines that governed what could and could not be placed in a Nintendo approved video game. These restrictions were only imposed on games released in America and Europe; Japan had no such guidelines. This led to a problem: Many things that are perfectly acceptable in Japan – cartoony nudity, a splash of blood here and there, or some mild foul language, for example – could be seen as lewd, violent or otherwise inappropriate by persons living in the United States. So what’s a game developer to do when localizing a potentially offensive product?

For anyone releasing games on a Nintendo console from 1988 to the late ‘90s, this conundrum was only made worse thanks to Nintendo of America’s Video Game Content Guidelines. Nintendo was, and still is to some extent, highly protective of their squeaky clean, family entertainment image. The company refused to approve any game that came their way if it didn’t rigorously adhere to their regulations. “Nintendo of America's priority is to deliver high quality video game entertainment for our customers,” the policy states. “Nintendo is concerned that our products do not contain material that society as a whole deems unacceptable.”

The ten guidelines that followed expressly prohibited sexually suggestive or explicit content, extreme violence and graphic depictions of death, religious symbols or ideologies, profanity, drug or alcohol use, and anything else the company might deem “indecent.” Back when the NES was the only game in town, Nintendo’s word was law. They enforced their rules with extreme prejudice, and forced programmers to remove or alter anything that the Big N found unacceptable, lest the developer’s game go unreleased.

Regardless of the merits of Nintendo’s guidelines, the company usually stuck to them – even in their own programs. But for every justifiable cut, tweak or act of censorship, it seems that there were two or three more that make no sense. Inconsistency was a hallmark of Nintendo’s rules, and the Earthbound series was not spared from the censor’s unfocused knife. For example, there’s an enemy in Earthbound Zero called “Gang Zombie” who wears a hat, tie and suit jacket, as if he were a member of a Mafia-like organized crime ring. But in the original Japanese game, Mother, the Gang Zombie bled from his chest, as if he had been shot several times. So according to Nintendo’s guidelines, rotting corpses shambling about and attempting to devour preteen heroes is fine, but a bit of blood on their torn clothes is completely out of the question.

In Earthbound on the SNES, similarly contradictive edits were made. At one point early in the game, a father brings his two boys upstairs to punish them, and a sound effect, as if the children were being spanked, is played. However, in the Japanese version of the game, the effect sounds more “painful” and less comical. Odd edits like these were peppered throughout the series, removing bars but keeping the drunken people inside, taking away blood but not violence, cutting out cigarettes but mentioning strip joints, and more.

We’ll probably never have an official translation of the final game in the series, Mother 3, but it begs the question: Would Nintendo have doled out the same kind of wacky edits, or would the more liberal gaming climate of the late 2000s have spared a lot of questionable material from the cutting room floor? We’ll likely never know, so all I can say is this: Good luck finding a hospital if you need one and don’t have too much “expresso” at Jackie’s Café – those caffeine hangovers are a real bummer

Friday, July 30, 2010

Streets of Rage II: Not Just Another Mindless Brawler

There’s something about the Genesis/Mega Drive game Streets of Rage II that, even after almost two decades, still gets my pulse pounding and my sweat glands pumping.

Perhaps it’s the immortal technopop soundtrack that helped introduce me and countless other 11-year-olds to the world of electronic music. Most game tunes of the time were stuck in “bubblegum mode,” with light, airy melodies carrying you through yet another cutesy platformer. The music in Streets of Rage II, however, grabs the player by the neck and drags their face over the pavement, screaming “This is life or death!” Yuzo Koshiro’s work stands the test of time and even transcends its medium; if one didn’t know better and the instruments were slightly less video gamey, one might think that the tunes were produced for a new techno album.

Or maybe it’s the great controls and variety of attacks that keeps me hooked. A skilled player can come up with dozens of ways to dispatch the endless hoards of baddies, knocking down entire groups of them with one devastating reversal. Weapons are easy to pick up and use, or even to throw at unsuspecting thugs across the screen if you’d rather go it with your fists instead. Each of the four playable characters has weapons he or she is most skilled with, making replay games almost as thrilling as your first time though.

Possibly it's the large, colorful graphics that keep me enthralled. The characters look fantastic while they’re kicking butt, and despite the uninspired copy-and-paste punks that inhabit the majority of most levels, Streets of Rage II has some of the best sprite-based graphics I’ve ever seen the Genny pull off. Also, a couple of the dudes that the player battles look a little funny, like Big Ben, the 300 pound, flame spewing baseball fan, but that’s all part of the game’s ample charm.

Yeah, all of those things are wonderful, but I bet what really keeps me coming back is Axel’s flowing, prettyboy hair. But you can read all about that in my upcoming fanfic, “Streets of Passion.”

Er, anyway, go play Streets of Rage II. Not only was it the best in the SoR series, it’s one of the best games on the Genesis; I would even go as far as to call it one of the greatest games of all time. Not just another mindless brawler, this one will keep you entertained for years to come.

That is, if it hasn’t already.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ultraman: Redemption of a Forgotten Cart

I’m honestly not sure why Bandai’s first generation Super NES game, Ultraman: Towards the Future is so universally despised. The graphics are serviceable if not majestic like some of the early SNES offerings like ActRaiser, Super Castlevania IV and F-Zero. The music fared much better. It was based directly on the series that spawned the game, and some tracks still rock my socks nearly 20 years later.

The gameplay was hardly what I’d have called groundbreaking, but that doesn’t stop people from salivating over the newest Madden game every year. It’s up to the player to take control of Japanese juggernaut Ultraman and slug it out with nine of the toughest baddies Earth, or any other planet, has ever seen. One on one a la Street Fighter II, Ultraman tangles with the galactic giants until either he or they fall. After using a final shot of his Burning Plasma super move to finish off his adversary, Ultraman leaps into the sky towards his next challenge with a battle cry that sounds kind of like he’s sick to his stomach. Then again, maybe I would be sick too if I just blew up a 58,000 ton brain-creature named Gudis and had to clean his guts off my boots.

Nice graphics, awesome sound and passable gameplay all adds up to a decent game, right? So why does Ultraman: Towards the Future land sliver-face first onto every half-assed YouTube list of the worst games of all time? I think after playing masterpieces like Super Mario World, a lot of people were expecting more out of Nintendo’s classy gray box than what could have been an NES game with enhanced audiovisuals. Also, the Ultraman license has always been lukewarm in the United States, so a lot of gamers unfamiliar with the content probably dismissed Bandai’s SNES offering without a second thought.

It’s no Chrono Trigger, but Ultraman: Towards the Future deserves a hell of a lot more credit that it’s received in the last two decades. If you’re looking for a respectable way to kill 45 minutes or so, take Ultraman out for a spin.

PRO TIP: When the monster’s lifebar says “Finish,” shoot him with a level 4 special move to kill him off. That little bit of information, if it had been properly distributed, might have saved more than a few Ultraman carts from the trash heap.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PlayStation Home: All Investment, and NO RETURN…

I knew before I even loaded it up that the PS3 “social network” – PlayStation Home – is a colossal waste of time. But I’ve discovered over the last few weeks that if you’re not careful, Home will consume your every free moment like a bear eating a honey-drenched child, whether you like it or not.

The first time I used PlayStation Home, I fashioned my avatar after my real life appearance: an obese, four foot tall vampire child with an impeccable mullet. I found my way to the Central Plaza where hundreds of tweens just like me were talking about lol, wtf, and of course, stfu. No one understood what I was saying because I occasionally spoke in full sentences, so I signed off after about three minutes. Add that to the time it takes the software to load, and my first Home experience only lasted about 45 minutes.

But one dark day several months later, while I was waiting for my girlfriend to finish eating her dinner, I fired up PlayStation Home on her PS3. She had made the same mistake I did by modeling her avatar after her real life appearance. Not six seconds after materializing in the Central Plaza, a man with a bucket on his head, trousers of gray steel and horrifying lobster claws barreled up to me and informed me that he wanted to “lick [my] pepperoni nipples."

That’s when I knew it was time for a virtual sex change.

Back on my own PS3, I did my best to create a respectable woman to represent me online. After witnessing a cavalcade of scantily clad women populating the PlayStation Home world, it was my attempt counteract thousands of years of chauvinism and female repression. Then I spent the first 20 minutes trying to look up my own skirt.

Sure enough, as a woman I met all manner of wierdos, with a good 20 percent of them trying to get into my virtual pantaloons. I’m really not sure what the point is of hitting on people via a crappy, sometimes creepy PS3 application, but then again, I’m not a freaky eyeball man with a grass skirt and a drinking problem.

But even with Playstation Home’s violently dressed child molester avatars like these, talking to people online hasn’t been fun since the novelty wore off around 1998. I realized that the only real way to have fun with PlayStation Home is to become a good ol’ fashioned troll. For example, think of all the fun you’d have in the following scenario:

“Hello,” you say to a random male avatar. You make your video vixen stand as sexfully as possible by using the “coy” expression.

“hay baby,” they reply, very slowly.

“Anus,” you say. While he’s dumbfounded and searching for a response, you run away while yelling “Goodbye.” It’s a bit sophomoric, but it’s still funnier than anything Larry the Cable Guy has come up with.

Another of my favorites is to tell people I’m “magic” and ask them if they want to see a trick. When they inevitably say yes, I change from a pretty young redhead to a fat old man. Then I begin grinding on their avatars via the woefully abusable “casual dance” option.

Despite acting like a crack-addled seven-year-old virtually every chance I get, I still receive random friend requests and, even better, messages touting the sturdiness of another user’s wang. For example: “i have a cam if you want to see my cock.”

I typed up the following reply: “I have a cam too if you want to see MINE.” Then I thought better of sending it for obvious reasons.

The more time you spend using PlayStation Home, the more you’ll wonder if it was coded by a group of Midwestern third graders as some sort of class project. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you could go play a quick game of Monopoly while waiting for it to load, but there’s also a host of weird bugs, especially in the content offered by third party companies. Consider Red Bull Beach, where levitation isn’t just a way of life, but also a great way to look up terrible slug women’s dresses.

There’s also a bunch of clipping problems that children love to take advantage of at when mom and dad aren’t looking.

Not even InFAMOUS guy knows what to do with this one.

The entire PlayStation Home experience can be summed up by an interaction I had once with someone Sony hired to help new users get into the game. I walked up to her, getting ready to turn into a fat old man while yelling “anus,” but then she asked me if I needed any help. I asked her if there were some way to set PlayStation Home to “fun” on the options screen.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” she replied. “What options screen?” Then she told me to buy a keyboard so I could get the most out of PlayStation Home.

The second I read that, I realized my odd infatuation had finally been drained dry.

“No thanks,” I said. “I think I’ve had enough.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010

F-Zero GX: Broke Down in the Fast Lane

When I first saw it in action at an Electronics Boutique demo booth in 2003, F-Zero GX for the GameCube was the first game in years to make me smile. Warm memories of hours spent with the 1991 SNES classic washed over me as I gladly plunked down 50 bucks for the just-released sequel. With the immortal theme of the Mute City level buzzing in my head, I popped that sucker into my ‘Cube expecting greatness, but as it turns out, my $50 would have been better spent on 10 bottles of aspirin: F-Zero GX is enough to make even the hardiest gamer’s head throb with aggravation.

In this unholy collaboration between Nintendo and Sega, the player assumes the role of one of more than 30 pilots, each vying for a chance to win the F-Zero grand prix. Your other main option is the story mode, which focuses on Mr. Falcon Punch himself, Captain Falcon. Either way, you’ll be popping those pain pills and cursing your GameCube in no time!

On the plus side, the visuals are very good for their time, with crisp backgrounds and some decent looking vehicles. The player races in a futuristic, Blade Runner meets Star Wars sort of environment. The tracks are suspended high in the air, and the “cars,” for lack of a better term, hover a few inches above them. Some cars are a pleasure to watch in action, like James McCloud’s Little Wyvern, and others make you want to close your eyes and never open them again, like Michael Chain’s Wild Boar, the only vehicle in the universe to sport a mohawk. The scenery is bright and flashy, and the backgrounds range from cities to deserts. The graphics take a hit during the cut scenes in story mode, however: Captain Falcon and his intellectually challenged rival, Black Shadow, look like a cross between Power Rangers and Michael Jackson circa his “Thriller” video. Pico looks like he’s on speed, because he’s constantly jittering, and Draq, well… let’s just say it required hours of therapy for me to finally be able to sleep again.

I hope you like random techno and rock songs with nauseating lyrics, because that’s about all F-Zero GX’s audio has to offer. Most songs lack the intense, feverish vibe found in the original F-Zero’s soundtrack, and the ones that don’t are still forgettable. The sound effects are decent, but it looks like Nintendo tried to save a little cash by recycling the voice cast of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The same psycho nine-year-old who designed the characters apparently wrote the script for the story mode, because it’s entirely incoherent. One minute, Captain Falcon is flying along collecting coins or something, and the next, he’s racing Samurai Goroh in the desert, and then he’s being attacked by an old man in a bar, while some reptile dude gets drunk in the background. Come to think of it, that all sounds like great fun, but so does becoming a crash test dummy until you actually do it. At least decent controls allow you to navigate through all of this craziness without too much frustration.

But everything – even ol' Draq – could have been forgiven if the game were entertaining. And the first few races are, until the nostalgia high wears off; then you have the awful realization that you just blew your cash on yet another substandard racer. The inconsistent AI is sometimes vicious, blasting ahead of you or running you off the road, only to seconds later become as threatening as Betty White in a bunny costume. But no matter what, winning almost always comes down to using your turbo boost as much as you can in the last ten seconds of the race. Who needs skill when you’ve got turbo?

I think Nintendo and Sega just stopped programming levels in the story mode after a certain point because they knew that no one would ever reach them. You might as well ram your face into a rock repeatedly than play the super-impossible story mode, because at least then you’d be able to enjoy some sort of progress based on how much vision you lose. Difficult, frustrating and just plain boring, story mode is not worth your time.

At least in a normal grad prix race, the player is allowed to use a pilot other than Captain Falcon. However, only four pilots are available at the start; the rest must be unlocked. The game uses a ticket system for this: When one finishes a grand prix or a level in story mode, he or she earns tickets, which can be used to purchase a variety of content such as another level in story mode or a new car. However, the player is given a miniscule amount of tickets for each win, and pilots and story mode chapters cost so much, you’ll be lucky if you ever see even half the new vehicles.

Painful character designs, craptastic music, frustrating tracks, and schizophrenic AI all lead to a gaming experience I’d rather skip. To quote a friend, “The more I play F-Zero GX, the more I hate it.” Unfortunately for fans of the original and newcomers alike, this poor iteration of the classic racing game runs out of gas long before crossing the finish line.

Rating: 5/10