Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Powerful Rebirth

Nintendo Power #1
If you read the post that I made yesterday, you know that by the late ‘90s, I had grown disillusioned with the once great Nintendo Power – mostly due to the magazine’s gaming gurus going ape over the lackluster N64 – and allowed my subscription to fade away. If I’d posted today about X-Men vs. Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom or even Bart Simpson vs. the World, you’d probably think that me and the NP are splitsville and we spend our time avoiding each other at the parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs of mutual friends.

If I’d left it at yesterday’s rant, you’d never have known that things are different now. You’d never have known that Nintendo Power recaptured a glimmer of that passionate sunburst it once clutched to its metaphorical chest with the determination of 10,000 goombas.

Nintendo Power #100
If you were alive and more cognizant that a tomato in the ‘90s, you know that this particular decade did awful things to all of us. It’s the decade when Pauly Shore was able to become famous for headaches like Encino Man and Bio-Dome; when U2 started taking artistic advice from Bowser and Megatron and tried to light their own careers ablaze like a stack of dry straw and gasoline covered kittens (but to no avail); and when The Real Ghostbusters and Garfield and Friends were unceremoniously canceled to make room for news shows and Pokémon. It’s also the decade when the N64 almost singlehandedly killed my love of all things Nintendo and the industry giant fell behind a company that just three years earlier was releasing excrement like Last Action Hero for the Genesis and Cliffhanger for the Sega CD. I love the PlayStation line of products, don’t get me wrong – but sometimes I wondered if it was worth the price of losing my old friend, Pauly Shore. Err, Nintendo.

A funny thing happened after that: I grew up. I went to college, got a degree, got another, supposedly better degree and now I’ve joined my rightful place in the ranks of the underemployed masses. While all of this was going on, one day out of the blue, I received a phone call from my mother while she was at work.

NOT my mother
Not “How are you?” or “hello,” but instead my mother says, “Do you have a subscription to Nintendo Power?”

“No Mom,” I replied. “You know that by the late ‘90s, I had grown disillusioned with the once great Nintendo Power – mostly due to the magazine’s gaming gurus going ape over the – ”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said. “’When the N64 almost singlehandedly killed your love of all things Nintendo’ and all that. Well, I got you a new subscription because the girl at work was selling them as part of a cure for cancer benefit.”

And that was it: I was back in the loop. At first I was unexcited; after all, the Wii is my least favorite of the current crop of consoles. But when I opened my first new subscriber issue of Nintendo Power in more than 12 years, I found that something incredible had happened: No longer is the magazine run by people who only care about current gaming like it was in the late ‘90s. It’s now helmed by men and women who, like me, grew up with Nintendo controllers in our hands and spoonfuls of Cookie Crisp and Cap’n Crunch in our mouths. They are people who actually care about gaming as a whole; where we came from, where we are now, and where we’re going.

I’ve noticed that as humans, childhood is when we’re most passionate about the things we love, and our teenage years are sort of a lackadaisical, “cut it, print it and get it out the door” kind of existence. By the time the Nintendo 64 had hit the shelves, Nintendo Power had hit puberty and, it seemed to me, took much less care in crafting their product. It might have only been my skewed view of the world or an unwillingness to trade my NES Advantage and copy of Super Street Fighter II for the unfamiliar world of analogue control sticks and a punching, 3D Super Mario, but I’m pretty sure the drop in quality was real.

Nintendo Power #260
Something I’ve seen in my recent years is a return of that old passion for the things I love. The excitement and wonder aren't nearly as strong as they were when I was a child, but at least I can feel some of it again (all without the aid of prescription or illicit drugs, if that’s what you’re thinking). That’s what I see in the new Nintendo Power; it has hit its young adult phase too. The articles are worth reading and the magazine is worth subscribing to again. It’ll never be as awesome as it was in the early years, but the current NP staff knows that and is just trying to make a good product.

As I was berating that Star Fox 64 video yesterday, issue 260 of Nintendo Power arrived in my mailbox, adorned with no less that 35 iconic NES characters, all of which I knew. There was a 26 page article celebrating two and a half decades of the Nintendo Entertainment System and many, many people reminiscing about what their special games meant to them. A lot of their experiences were very similar to mine. It was almost like someone had ripped one more issue of old NP from the clutches of time. It even came with a two-sided poster of Super Mario, just like the old days. I felt my eyes get misty.

If anyone ever doubted that the new Nintendo Power is trying to be a quality publication, this issue should shut them up for a long time.

So, Nintendo Power, we’ve had our good times and our bad, but we’re both over being snotty teenagers. I’m glad to have you as my friend again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bizzare Nintendo Power Star Fox 64 Preview Video Showcases Gameplay, Murder Attempts

In the late ‘90s, Nintendo Power, the one-time leader in gaming magazines, slid from its  sky high alter, just as its parent company began its mighty decent past the upstart newcomer to the console market, Sony. The early days of Nintendo Power were a love letter to the industry, sparkling with a childlike innocence and the love of the game. By 1997 however, NP had grown up a bit, and like a teenager, it was suddenly all about the attitude. “Play it Loud!” exclaimed Nintendo’s new marketing campaign as longhaired Nirvana groupies graced the grunged-out pages of NP. Nintendo had turned into everything they used to stand against – they had become just like early ‘90s Sega. But by then, the “extreme” shtick had already been done to death by a certain blue hedgehog.

Play it loud? “Played Out!” was more like it. The Silver Age of gaming had officially come to an end.

I quietly allowed my subscription to Nintendo Power to expire. It was a lot like euthanizing a terminally ill family pet: Even though it hurt, it was the right thing to do for everyone involved. It was finally over.

But not before this little gem found its way into my mailbox:


If you were a subscriber to Nintendo Power in 1997, you came home one day from school or work to find a curious VHS tape in the mail spotlighting the upcoming Star Fox 64 for the Nintendo 64 console. But this wasn't just any preview – the damage it caused to the viewer’s psyche was going to require hours of therapy to overcome.

The tape begins with a man in an orange flight suit parachuting into the parking lot of the Nintendo of America building in Redmond, Washington, so it was pretty much a normal day at Nintendo HQ. A creepy bald man who looks like he ought to be working at an adult video store instead of wearing a Sony sweatshirt watches intently from a “Diaper Service” truck across the street. He then radios to another man in a red Sega sweatshirt, informing him that “the eagle has landed.” As Sony distracts flight suit man, Sega comes up from behind and USES A CHLOROFORM RAG ON HIM.

Evil laughter ensued. Note the dead guy at the bottom.

While I was watching this for the first time, I wondered, “What does this have to do with Star F- HOLY CRAP HE JUST KILLED THAT GUY!”

Cut to the evil lair (read: abandoned warehouse) of the deadly Sega-Sony alliance! Flight suit man, whose name is apparently Peter, is tied up in a wooden kitchen chair obtained from the side of the road in a quiet Midwestern community. Sony is screaming at him though a bullhorn, demanding information about Star Fox 64 while Sega looks on devilishly. It’s a lot like my eighth birthday party, only it had less to do with Nintendo games and more to do with the money I owed to the Mob.

At first Peter’s iron will and sophomoric attitude seem to have Bulk and Skull, er, Sony and Sega on the ropes, but then the duo’s second captive is revealed: A Super Mario doll with its stupid plastic head in a vice grip! As Sony and Sega start SQUASHING MARIO’S HEAD, Peter spills the beans about Star Fox 64. Watching the gameplay footage, everyone knows it would have looked and sounded better on a PlayStation (as well as taking a scant 6 hours to load), but no one says anything about it.

Also, for some reason, Sega sounds like Sarah Palin. Apparently in the ‘90s, Sega of America was located in beautiful downtown Alaska and didn’t know much about foreign policy.

For a company that previously on X-Men wouldn’t allow a for so much as a sing drop of blood in its games, this is a pretty huge turnaround. Here’s where that attitude thing I was talking about earlier comes into play: Nintendo was trying so hard to be edgy and cool that they were seemingly willing to shed the family-friendly image they had worked so hard to achieve for the last 12 years.

Here's Peter, ratting his friends out.

When Peter stupidly reveals that Bob, Nintendo’s chief scientist (?), knows more about Star Fox 64 than he does, Sony and Sega dress up like mentally challenged pizza delivery guys, knock Bob out with a pizza box filled with death gas (??), and abduct him from what appears to be either Nintendo’s secret underground stronghold or Michael Jackson’s old bedroom at the Neverland Ranch (???). How these two know the location of either is beyond me.

Either Sega is really angry, or he has to use the men's room RIGHT NOW.

Back at the warehouse they’ve only got one chair, so while Peter chows down on the pizza that eight seconds before was revealed to be pink knockout gas, Sony and Sega grill Bob like an unfortunate shrimp at an Australian cookout. While an entirely mobile Peter does nothing to rescue his comrade, Bob reveals… The Rumble Pak!

OH CRAP! I just told you about the mighty Rumble Pak!

But Bob’s not going to leak any more sensitive information which at that point was common gaming knowledge, so Sony and Sega POUR THOUSANDS OF VOLTS OF ELECTRICITY THROUGH MARIO’S EARS VIA JUMPER CABLES AND A CAR BATTERY. The little Mario doll even convulses while they do it, just like in real life.

Mario, nooooooooooooo!

Okay Nintendo, that’s messed up. Remember how the cover of Nintendo Power issue #2 gave kids nightmares because it had Simon Belmont holding Dracula’s severed head? This is 100 times worse and it’s totally not what you should be teaching kids to do. Yet on the flipside, it’s kind of awesome. But I wonder what Nintendo of America’s Video Game Content Guidelines would have to say about all this.

To stop the torture, Bob whips out a Rumble Pak, which he just happens to have in his lab coat which Sony and Sega neglected to search.

“Hook it up. I want to feel this myself,” says Sony creepily. While a cheap “Teen Spirit” rip-off song plays in the background, they leave Bob tied up and Sega, Sony and Peter play some Star Fox 64. Then Sony is way, way too happy about the rumble feature for way, way too long.

“Whoa! I actually felt it!” says Sony. “This is incredible!”

We’ve got four guys in an abandoned warehouse with ropes, a couch and something that vibrates wildly when Peter asks, “Well what do you say, guys? You into a little multiplayer action?”

I... are you coming on to me? Even Sega is scared!

That’s where I stopped the video in 1997, because even at 15 years old, I could guess where a setup like that was going. Up until then, I had respected the Big N and thought of the company as a sort of paragon of video virtue, but after the kidnappings and murder attempts featured in this movie, I figured there was only way to top it. But recently, I screwed up my courage and decided to watch the rest of the video in the name of gaming knowledge, this blog post, and a strange new interest in hanging out with lots of men at once. However, my fears were allayed when Bob exclaimed, “Gentleman, welcome to versus mode!”


After seeing Star Fox 64’s four player capabilities and getting an eyeful of Nintendo’s line up for the future, including games like Golden Eye and Zelda 64, Sega says, “We just can’t beat you guys!” A more accurate statement would have been, “We just can’t beat you guys, unless you count the entire 1993 fiscal year when Sega products outsold and outperformed everything you came up with.” Then Sony should have chimed in with, “We’re beating the pants off of you RIGHT NOW with our CD format and will continue to do so through approximately 2007, and a single game about flying furries can’t do a thing to stop it.”

With Sony and Sega “defeated,” Peter and Bob jump up and, gloating, say some of the greatest lines in video game commercial history:

“Thanks for the pizza, GUYS!” Bob yells.

“See you later, BOYS!” Peter adds flamboyantly.

Hmm, where have I heard something like that before…

Hey Nintendo! I used to have a promo video like this...
Until my father got a job!

Oh yeah!

To Recap – Things I learned about Star Fox 64 from the 1997 Nintendo Power preview video:

1. It’s okay to knock someone out with chloroform and abduct them if you need information about a video game.
2. Kidnapping, restraints and torture are acceptable (and preferable) forms of persuasion.
3. All pizza men work for Sony and/or Sega.
4. Connecting one’s ears to a car battery is a fun and inventive new passtime.
5. The Rumble Pak is more fun than an adult toy.
6. “Thanks for the pizza, GUYS!”
7. Star Fox 64 is not nearly as entertaining as this preview video.

If you would like to subject yourself to this movie, here it is. I’ll understand if you don’t feel like watching it, but please, do yourself a favor and fast forward to the last minute. That pizza line is priceless.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Top Secret Passwords: A Nintendo Power Player's Guide

Top secret? Not any more.
It was 1992, and 10-year-old Matt was punching his way past the pugilists of Street Fighter II: The World Warrior on a daily basis. After slogging through eight hours at whatever you call that place that teaches you math while you should be playing Mortal Kombat, a package arrived for our young protagonist from Nintendo Power. Tossing down the controller, Matt tears open the package. Well, let's see here... There was a Top Secret Passwords Player's Guide inside the box!

To this day I'm not sure why I received such a wonderful gift - perhaps my mother renewed my subscription to Nintendo Power when I wasn't looking, or maybe she pummeled the ugly neighbor boy with Marioesque fireballs and stole it for me - but the fact remains that NP was awesome enough to send Top Secret Passwords my way. As you can see from the included picture, my copy is a battle worn veteran of the video wars, and for good reason: In the days before Al Gore's amazing  internetz, this was one of the few and best resources for both lazy gamers who didn't feel like writing down passwords and those of us who had a tendency to lose that little scrap of paper that contained our Metroid progress every damn time. And speaking of Metroid:

Remember the old JUSTIN BAILEY trick for Metroid? It's in this guide and I'm totally naming my first son after it. (The code, not the player's guide.)

Top Secret Passwords was printed in the early days of the Super Nintnedo, which means that there wasn't too much coverage for SNES games. And even though it was the heyday the pea-soup green Gameboy, there weren't too many portable paks out there that utilized a password feature. However, this guide had a field day with Nintendo Entertainment System; about a hundred NES games took the spotlight. For a kid who had plenty of unfinished Nintendo games, the Top Secret Passwords Player's Guide was a Godsend. It brought a brand new life to plenty of my old games, not through actually using the included passwords, but by showing me the later stages and inspiring me to take another crack at it.

And another. And another.

Not that Mega Man II was really difficult or anything, but this guide had your back regardless. Plenty of games got a one or two page treatment like this, with a variety of passwords for your cheating pleasure.

Top Secret Passwords, true to its name, had passwords and stage select codes for almost 150 games. But more importantly, it also had a bizarre spy theme in the form of chapter introduction illustrations featuring a clumsy twit in a yellow trench coat. This 35-year-old Dick Tracy wannabe apparently spent his days doing nothing but gathering passwords and stage select codes for a passtime that was generally considered "kids' stuff" at the time. Worse, the people around him encouraged his strange behavior. Check out this old lady's reaction when, at "NIN" Airport, the lock breaks on Fake Tracy's crappy suitcase, sending his Gameboy, "secret documents" and disembodied Super NES controllers spilling out on the floor:

She thinks she's doing him a favor by playing along, like when your dad buys five glasses of lemonade from your stand because you set it up at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday so no one shows up and the sugar is starting to migrate the the bottom of the pitcher, but she's just making it worse. Thinking his insatiable quest for passwords was actually having an important impact on society, Cheap Tracy took things too a little too far:

Breaking and entering into the government's secret Branch of Nintendo Codes and Affairs? Hiding from unobservant and underpaid night watchmen? Stealing unmarked and possibly empty manila envelopes and scattering random papers on the floor?

Wearing his sunglasses at night!?

Weird Tracy's actions were getting out of hand. It seems our garish gumshoe has an addiction to game-breaking cheats and techniques. As you can plainly see, back in the early '90s while he was compiling  information for the Top Secret Passwords guide, he wasn't just playing with power or even SUPER power; he was just playing with FIRE. And not like Super Mario does. You know what I mean.

I'm sorry to say that it only got worse from there.

Jiminy Christmas! How much sugar is in the coffee? ...hey, wait a minute! Is that a f***ing gun on his desk?! How many people have you killed in your quest for powerful passwords, you monster?!

Cheap Tracy, you've become a power animal!

Yeah, like this guy! Only less '80s! And Fake Tracy at least knows which end of the controller is "up."

It would take months before the true damage incurred by Weird Tracy's attempts to "radicalize his game" could be calculated, but in early 1993 - coinciding with the release of Star Fox on the SNES - the reports started pouring in to the national papers and 5 p.m. news shows: Tracy's terror caused $800,000 in destroyed suitcases and busted file cabinets, 6.99 for new manila envelopes, and countless billions spent by the hottest gaming companies of the '90s undoing the damage caused by the massive leak of such sensitive NES information. The media had dubbed Fake Tracy the "Video Vigilante," and he was charged with breaking and entering, unlawful possession of a weapon, willful destruction of property and six counts of first degree murder. After a lengthy trial, he was sentenced to 94 years in a maximum security penitentiary. Cheap Tracy, or as his mother called him, Nester H. Phillips, died in prison in 2006 from an overdose of the powerful narcotic Starman, so named because it gets the user high enough to "see the stars an feel invincible." He was 49 when he ran out of continues.

In related news, the Power Animal remains at large, but it is believed that during his search for "the key to unlimited power," he may have choked to death on a copy of Battletoads in a blind rage after losing all of his lives to the jet scooter stage.

But yeah, the Top Secret Passwords Player's Guide is still awesome despite all the scandal that surrounded it, kind of like Micheal Jackson's Thriller album. It's an inspired collection of codes that still captivates the 10-year-old inside me. It will always have a special, secret place in my heart.

*   *   *

And now for my very own Top Secret Password, revealed here for first time ever: Grab a copy of Metroid on the NES and a Game Genie. Now enter the six character code KAGNAS. You'll find that the properties of the Freeze Ray have been bestowed to every available weapon, including the Wave Beam and even missiles! No more picking between power and functionality!

Take THAT, Mother Brain!

Monday, September 27, 2010

That Earthbound Smell

With massive, screen shaking explosions, emotional, CD-quality music at every turn and controllers that rumble as our on-screen counterparts dish out and receive punishment, there’s no denying that video games do their best to dazzle our senses of sight, hearing and even touch. With audio-visual feasts like Resident Evil 5 and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots currently on the market and the likes of Final Fantasy XIV and Fable III on the way, today’s games might seem like they have it all. However, even though 1995’s Earthbound didn’t have stellar, life-like graphics and cutting edge orchestrated music, it did do something that hadn’t been done before and has yet to be tried since: Earthbound choose to appeal not only to the player’s eyes and ears, but to the player’s nose as well.

The player knew that he or she was in for a unique gaming experience upon seeing the bizarre ads for Earthbound, which usually consisted of one or more wacky enemies, a massive green cloud of what can only be described as “fart gas,” and some sort of quip about the game’s wicked stench. For example, imagine Mondo Mole standing in a green stink cloud with the following text floating above his head: Holy Moley! Earthbound smells like unclean nocturnal creatures who live underground and play in the dirt! BUY IT NOW.

Borrowed from Earthbound Central. Excellent site!

Next was a picture of Master Blech, a piece of pizza  nowhere to be found in-game, a semi-accurate description of the game’s plot and a coupon that said, “Cut this coupon not the cheese.” Yes, it all sounds like a generic video game ad from the mid ‘90s (Interplay's Boogerman comes to mind), until you notice a curious circle of, uh, something on one of the screenshots.

Also borrowed from EB Central 'cause I used mine.

“What is that odd circle thing doing on my ad?” the reader would ask predictably, and try to scratch it off. Then he or she would notice that the ad was daring them smell the little circle they just scratched. So, not wanting the ad to think they were a sissy, most people rammed their noses into it was reckless abandon. And that’s when you’d get a nosefull of stink. “Earthbound. It's like living inside your gym shoes,” the ad proudly proclaimed, as readers bolted to the window for some fresh air.

Bravo, Nintendo! You know, looking at it on paper, it all seems rather ingenious. I really have no idea why an ad campaign that literally smelled like old socks and puke was so ineffective. Perhaps there just weren’t enough references to disgusting bodily functions?

The first three cards all dipict bosses. Also stenches.

I never sent this one in.
So the “smell the ad” gimmick was just that – a gimmick. The game has nothing to do with “stinking,” with the possible exception of Master Belch’s factory. But wait a minute! Luckily for Nintendo’s legal department, it’s not false advertising quite yet! Turn to the back of the player’s guide and what do you see? No, not the warrantee information, before that! The “rancid smell” theme actually wafted into the player's guide too. Inside were six scratch-n-sniff cards, similar to the ads, each with a different, somewhat pungent odor. If players could figure out the mystery scent on the last trading card, Nintendo would send them a free Mach Pizza air “freshener.” Participants probably needed it after all those atrocious odors, assuming it didn’t smell like sweaty monkey feet or something. I, unfortunately, never got my hands on one.

The scented cards were a fun diversion while waiting at Master Belch’s waterfall for three long minutes before someone answered the door, and maybe you’d sniff them if you brought the guide to the bathroom or when you showed it to your friends at school, but that was about it. However, it’s not until you take a snort of one of the cards after a few years of ignoring them that you realize how much of the Earthbound experience those odors encompass. Remember that crazy burning smell on the Ness card? If that came drifting towards you while walking down the street, what would be the first thing to pop into your head? “Hey! It smells like Earthbound out here!” That’s right, kids. Those aromas are forever ingrained in the player’s head. They ARE Earthbound. Nintendo has trained us well.

The bottom three cards featured Ness, the Bubble Monkey, and I guess they forgot to make a third one.

As I discovered when I first played the game almost 15 years ago, Earthbound defiantly does not “stink” as Nintendo’s ill-fated ad campaign would have customers believe. In fact, it smells pretty good to me… literally. The real “Earthbound smell” wasn’t printed on a scratch-n-sniff card, and if you’re lucky, you can see (smell?) what I mean. First, grab your player’s guide and open it to a random page. Now stick your nose in a take a big whiff. If the fragrance of the trading cards hasn’t taken over every page in the book yet, you should have just experienced one of the best aromas in the world – that of a new SNES game. This is most difficult to come by nowadays. If only one of the scratch-n-sniff cards had smelled like that! Oh well; I guess it’s more entertaining to barricade myself in the laundry room with my nose stuck in between the pages of NES/SNES manuals, sniffing the pages like a cocaine addict, in search of that ever-elusive scent of my childhood. Maybe it’s the thrill of being caught that makes me do it. I guess I just like living dangerously.

Maybe it’s better that more video games don't try to appeal to our sense of smell. After all, I'm not too keen on the idea of taking in the “fine” aromas of the blood and rust world of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories or the dirty, drunken sailors of Dragon Quest IX: Sentinel of the Starry Skies. I must commend Nintendo for trying something unique with Earthbound’s marketing, though. The Big N knew what an off-beat product Earthbound was, and they took a gamble on a different kind of ad campaign. In the end, the smell angle wasn’t a bad idea, it was just executed poorly. While it might not have helped sell the game as well as it should have, Nintendo’s innovative approach certainly made a lasting impact; the “Earthbound stinks” campaign really did add to the Earthbound experience more than we could have ever known at the time.

Too bad it didn’t do the same for sales.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Silent Hill Sunday #8: "Silent Hill Fan Art...?"

When a creative person enjoys a video game - take the Silent Hill series for example - sometimes he or she will compose a well-designed and emotionally fulfilling work to express his or her genuine love and appreciation. This is called "fan art."

When an uncreative person with no talent enjoys a video game, he or she will sometimes scribble a crude doodle in crayon on the back of a place mat at Friendly's while waiting for his or her Oreo Blender Blast to be served. This is fan art as well, but it could also be something called Rule 34; it's complicated and both are frowned upon by the other fans of the series.

Of those two categories, which one do you think my style fits into? See if you guessed right and take a gander at Matt's awesome Silent Hill fan art!

"Some fear death... others pray for it. Silent Hill 2"
Here's a lovely piece featuring Pyramid Head stabbing Silent Hill 2's protagonist, James Sunderland, in the head with a comically oversized spear. For some reason, PH is wearing a vest and James' pistol is approximately the length of a pool cue, but that's what I call "artistic licence." Other people call it "badly drawn," but I challenge them to do better.

"Who has time for tears? Silent Hill 3"

After some backlash from the local art critics who said that my previous works were too "avant guard," and "blood soaked," I decided to take a different route and create something that featured Silent Hill 3's Robbie the Rabbit. Dissatisfied with the piece thanks to a lack of a pink crayon at Friendly's, I decided to add a little crimson to the drawing for contrast. The freakishly massive tree-like structures on the right represent the feet of Silent Hill 3's main character, Heather Morris (or was it Heather Mason? Or Cheryl Morris? Or Cheryl Mason?). She's looking down at the dead Robbie the Rabbit she just found, though judging by the perspective, the (wo)man in the Robbie costume is approximately 11 inches tall. If you're more comfortable thinking of it as a Robbie doll, like in Silent Hill 4: The Room, that might actually be for the best.

Remember the UFO ending from the original Silent Hill on the PlayStation? Although this next piece was inspired by that infamous ending, I think it looks fairly close to the scene depicted in the game. Here, take a look:

"Roswell was REAL! You will be the first to go..."

It's kind of hard to see, but the alien is shooting a yellow Hyper Blaster beam at his unfortunate victim, presumably "the first to go." Perhaps it was for the best, because with such huge feet and sharp fingers (sans thumbs), it appears that the victim was some kind of freak of nature, no doubt doomed to be relentlessly mocked by the neighborhood children well into his 40s. What you can't see in the picture is the zapping noise I make each time I show this piece to another person.

Here's the scene that inspired it:

See? It's basically the same thing, only mine is drawn in crayon using four colors and the original is superior in every conceivable way. Except in the exploding head department; mine's got the original beat there. Take THAT Konami!

Did you know that the first UFO ending was inspired by this trading card from the 1950s series Mars Attacks!? Note the similarities. Also note that this makes my fan art inspired by something that was inspired by something else, so basically my picture is the fan art equivalent of sloppy thirds.

I hope you've enjoyed this guided tour though some of the greatest Silent Hill fan art ever conceived and I look forward to dazzling you all again next week on Silent Hill Sunday!

Friday, September 24, 2010

If You Give a Gamer a Camera...

...he'll ask to make gamer movies.

As an undergraduate I had a duel major. The first was English, which may or may not be surprising. The second was Communications: Media Studies. Basically, the college gave me a high quality, near professional grade camera and told me that as long as I wrote hundreds of essays about Tennessee Williams, Henry James and R.L. Stine for my first major, I could use the camera to film whatever I wanted. All I had to do was adhere to some odd criteria like "video must use rack focus at least twice," "video must depict a jump cut" or "video must incorporate embarrassing photograph of Richard Nixon."

While everyone else was filming criminally acted how-to videos and their cat asleep on the washing machine for 25 minutes straight - all with Intellivision quality sound - I was filming stuff with street fights, guns and allusions to video games - all with Intellivision quality sound. Fresh from the archives, here's a few short films that are sure to inspire a mighty sense of Mario madness! Or the madness might come from the fact that you wasted your time.

Probably the second one.

Outer Heaven

A Metal Gear Solid parody circa 2002. Note that the gun featured at the end of the video is based on Konami's Hyper Blaster design.

Anti Drunk Driving PSA, Nintendo Style

Filmed to compliment a presentation by Sarah Shepherd. She also came up with the "drinking isn't a game" concept, which is why she advertises for a big company now.

Ultra Omnisphere 3000

This is basically my finest accomplishment, meaning that I peaked at the age of 19. And I love this video enough to be okay with that. Featuring my entire family doing silly things and a boatload of references to Silent Hill, Super Mario and more, Ultra Omnisphere 3000 proves that even if you take the player away from the games, you can't take the games away from of the player. Fun fact: The main male character was inspired by the late "As Seen on TV" spokesman, Billy Mays.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sink Your Teeth into Castlevania, Part III: Aria of Sorrow

Even the grittiest, most weathered of Castlevania fans has at some point asked him- or herself, “How many whip-toting vampire killers can I play as before I lose interest in the series I love?” Also, “If a bug crawls up my nose, could it bite my brain?” Though it might seem like Konami is willing to churn out the same product over and over again with a different set of clothes, it looks like they were wondering the same thing: Yes, you need to protect your nostrils while you sleep if you value your plump, delicious brain. Also, playing as a whip wielding character 100 times over might wear thin after a while, just like Family Guy’s irreverent brand of “humor.”

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow – the last game in the GBA “Metroidvania” trilogy – inserts a metal pole in the spokes of the established Castlevania cannon, taking place three decades in the future and focusing on swords and blunt weaponry instead of the immortal Vampire Killer whip. Like 1994’s Castlevania: Bloodlines and several other key games in the franchise, Aria takes a decidedly different path than its whip crazy comrades and provides yet another excellent action-adventure romp though Dracula’s horrible home.

If you’ve been taking my advice, you’re already whipping your way through Circle of the Moon and Harmony of Dissonance. Good for you, but know that your greatest transportable triumphs await you in the final CV title for the GameBoy Advance.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is the most recent Castlevania on GBA and is very similar to the PlayStation classic Symphony of the Night. The year is 2035. Effeminate high school student Soma Cruz and his childhood friend are knocked unconscious during a solar eclipse and awaken in Dracula’s castle, and it is up to Soma to get them out. Along the way, the player comes face to face with the largest, most screwed up CV cast the ol’ GameBoy Advance has to offer; anyone with a background in classic gaming will immediately recognize that Yoko is a descendant of Castlevania III’s slick sorceress Sypha Belnades and Mr. Arikado is the poorly-disguised hero of a few other CV games. Just say “Arikado” out loud. Now, pretend you’re a native of Japan and do it again. Get the picture?

As I mentioned before, the biggest shock to fans of previous Castlevania titles is that the main character does not wield the Vampire Killer whip. This time around – just like Symphony – the player can equip many different types of weaponry, ranging from small daggers and a mammoth sword that takes up half the screen to a thoroughly un-Castlevania pistol. Castlevania purists will be glad to hear that when one finishes Aria of Sorrow, he or she is given the chance to play through again as the whip-weilding Julius Belmont, or they can start the game over with all the weapons and items acquired in the previous file.

My bones, your bones, OH CRAP bones!

Aria of Sorrow’s plot borders on clever and is the best of the GBA trilogy. There are multiple endings to this game, similar to Harmony of Dissonance. The only problem is that they are obtained in seemingly random ways, just like Silent Hill 2. I suggest looking online for the methods.

The graphics are even better than Harmony, with super detailed backgrounds and big, scary monsters. However, your character remains small in comparison with everything else. Oh well; I guess you can’t have it all. Also, Konami has learned not to mess with a good thing, as evidenced by the familiar controls. The only change is that the R button does special attacks and the L button activates special abilities. And much to the distain of old-schoolers, the soundtrack has returned to the high quality music found in Circle of the Moon, though most of the tracks aren’t very memorable. In addition, the sound effects are a slightly better than the previous titles.

There’s doubt about it: Aria of Sorrow is the best of the GBA Castlevania trilogy and it stands up to the test of time. While we’re waiting for Lords of Shadow to blow our minds and the Nintendo 3DS to bite what’s left of our brains with a fantastic new Castlevania title, do yourself a favor and take a gander at the GBA Castlevania legacy. Remember: Whether you do it on an NES, GBA or a PS3, beating the heck out of Dracula simply never gets old.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sink Your Teeth into Castlevaina, Part II: Harmony of Dissonance

Sometimes waiting around is hard work. Like a father in a delivery room, a wife trying to stay calm during her husband’s critical heart surgery, or a FPS superfan trying to contain his excitement for Duke Nukem Forever over the past 13 years, the last two weeks before the release of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on the Xbox 360 and PS3 is excruciating for many of the Castlevania faithful. But instead of getting your fangs in a twist, why not play some of the older CV titles you already have, starting with the good ol’ GameBoy Advance trilogy?

Yesterday we examined Castlevania: Circle of the Moon and I spewed forth my love and admiration for it like a mighty fire hose. So all of you went out, found a copy and are playing it now, right? Well PUT IT DOWN and take a gander at the next of the GBA ‘Vanias here on Wordsmith VG. Now distract your elderly neighbor with a festive Autumnal Equinox dance while you steal her Social Security check, “borrow” a cement mixer from the construction crew down the street, and make a b-line though an elementary school to the nearest used games shop so you can complete your portable CV package today!

In Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance, the second Castlevania game for GameBoy Advance, the unfortunately dressed vampire hunter Juste Belmont learns from his childhood buddy, Maxim, that one of their mutual friends was kidnapped… by demons or something! Gasp! Predictably, the duo dashes into Dracula’s newly resurrected castle to rescue their princess.

Harmony retains the intriguing backgrounds of Circle and slightly increases the size of the main character and the other enemies. The bosses are still huge and detailed, but with his snazzy red leisure suit jacket, poor Juste looks more like a circus master than a vampire hunter. It seems that’s par for the course, however, given the fact that Circle of the Moon’s main character looked like a shmoe compared to his rival Hugh.

Run! Run! Or you'll be well done!

In order to cram so much into the graphics, Konami apparently wrote the soundtrack to this game with the same software they used for 1985’s Yie Ar Kung-Fu; Harmony of Dissonance sounds more like Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest than it does Circle of the Moon. Tinny, mono midi music fills my dark heart with joy because I grew up with NES games taking precedence over things like friends, school and eating. Fools who started gaming in the PlayStation era or later think I’m crazy and prefer the symphonic sound of Circle of the Moon, but they also suck at hardcore platformers and go crying to mommy when there’s no save function. So there’s that.

The controls are basically the same as Circle, which is a good thing. The only difference is that the run function was replaced with a dash that’s performed with either of the shoulder buttons, saving a little wear-and-tear on your thumb.

Take that!
The excellent gameplay continues to revolve around exploring Dracula’s abode, only this time, there are two castles instead of one. Thankfully there are a few shops scattered throughout the castles, meaning that if you can’t find any decent armor or items, at least you can buy something before getting your head handed to you in a decisive battle. The only problem is that this game is a wee bit easy: I was able to plow through it in 8 hours, and if you weren’t concerned with being thorough, you could definitely do in Dracula in 5 hours or less. Oh well; at least you get to play through the game again as Maxim after you finish it once.

Despite all of its similarities to Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance has a different feel and a style all its own and I ever-so-slightly prefer it over Circle. It’s a little hard to find, but if you do come across it, pick it up. And if you’re really lucky, you might find the CV double pack that features both Harmony and the next game, Aria of Sorrow, in one convent cartridge.

So what could possibly top a renegade ringmaster whipping the undead out of that nefarious nosferatu, Dracula? …Would you believe some emo teen from 25 years in the future? Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of the GBA Castlevania trilogy here on Wordsmith VG!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sink Your Teeth into Castlevania, Part I: Circle of the Moon

If we’re to believe typical Castlevania lore, Dracula is resurrected every hundred years or so. Sometimes, a foolish villager, a long lost relative, a dark priest, or an angry countess brings him back to life before the hundred years have passed, and one time, Dracula just got sick of waiting and resurrected himself. Whatever the case, when Drac is back on the prowl, it’s usually up to a descendent or friend of the legendary Belmont clan of vampire hunters to rise up and kick Dracula’s undead rear end using the mythical Vampire Killer whip.

Over the last decade, Konami gave the Gameboy Advance some love with three CV titles, each done in the “Metroidvania” style made popular by everybody’s favorite Castlevania classic of the late ‘90s, Symphony of the Night. With Castlevania’s latest outing, Lords of Shadow, mere days away, and before we all start playing games in 16 dimensions with Nintendo’s 3DS (which will almost inevitably give birth to a next-gen reimagining of the classic whip-toting series), and let’s take a bloody gander back at these portable ‘Vanias of the past.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was one of the first GameBoy Advance games and it remains one of the best. After being cut off from Master Baldwin though the trickery of that darn Dracula, young Nathan Graves is left alone in the D-man’s castle with nothing but the legendary Vampire Killer whip, a few acrobatic tricks and nerves of steel. That’s basically the whole story; there are a few ho-hum conversations between Nathan and Master Baldwin’s son, Hugh, but that’s about it. Also, Hugh gets a cool trench coat and your character doesn’t. Darn you to heck, Konami!

The backgrounds are detailed and interesting, but your character is rather small onscreen and normal enemies suffer the same problem. Bosses, however, are huge and intimidating, taking up an entire screen or more. In the same vein, the sound is phenomenal for a handheld game from the early 2000s. The music uses high quality samples and many tracks are remixes of old Castlevania themes; if you’ve been playing CV titles since the president was kidnapped by ninjas and subsequently saved by two bad dudes, the tunes will make the whip-crackin’ memories come flooding back to you. The sound effects are standard whipping and jumping noises; nothing special, but they get the job done.

Ol’ fangface is in trouble, because the controls are responsive and easy to master. There’s a jump button, an attack button, a magic button and a special attack button. The only problem is that you have to double-tap a direction to run, which quickly leads to a sore thumb.

Like many other games in the series, Dracula’s castle is huge, and as the player gains more abilities, you can see more and more of it. Gaining experience points allows your character to gradually grow stronger, and sometimes when you defeat certain enemies, you’ll receive a piece of armor, a special restorative item, or a magic card. Nearly a decade later, however, players are used to forgiving battle systems and in this game, it’s random: Sometimes the outcome of a fight will be determined by a piece of armor you may or may not have grabbed from some ugly skeleton.

Similarly, by combining two magic cards, you can cast a spell. If you’re unlucky, you might not have the cards you need to cast a critical spell. A shop somewhere within the walls of Dracula’s castle would have probably led to a few more people playing this one to completion. Also if the game sprayed vodka from the GBA speaker, but that would have dulled the experience ever so slightly.

Despite its flaws, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a great game. If you’ve still got a GBA or compatible DS lying around and you crave some bloody action on a budget, this is the title for you.

But wait! There’s two more Castlevanias for your portable pleasure! How do they stack up against Circle of the Moon? Find out next time on Dragon Ball Z! …er, Wordsmith VG!