Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sega Saturn Chronicles #2: Creatures, Cops, and Kombatants

Two men. One unappreciated console. These are the Sega Saturn Chronicles.

MATT is 32 years old, and has owned a Saturn since December 1996. JAMES is 22 years old, and acquired his Saturn in February 2015.

Virtua Cop – Sega, 1995

MATT: I praised this game for its realism back in the ‘90s, but though an adult’s eyes, the inaccuracies become glaringly obvious. For example, in Virtua Cop, the police shoot everyone first and ask questions later, whereas in real life, this seems to only be true of unarmed minorities/kids brandishing Twinkies. Also, I love Sega’s responsive and accurate “Stunner” light gun peripheral, but it’s made of bright orange plastic. Of course in real life, cops use pink and blue guns, a la Time Crisis. (My brother once referred to the orange Stunner as a “Ronald McDonald gun,” a description that is both shockingly accurate and slightly erotic.)  In terms of gameplay, Virtua Cop delivers a more controlled experience than literally every other on-rails shooter I’ve ever played, rewarding players for accuracy and restraint over spraying bullets across the screen like some kind of over-caffeinated Rambo. Oddly, Virtua Cop offers similar bonuses for shooting a criminal in the hand so he can be rehabilitated (source: game manual) and shooting a criminal three times before he collapses, so it makes more holes for the justice to seep in. An excellent game with the Stunner, and a stunning failure with the gamepad, it’s a minor tragedy that you need a tube TV for the light gun to work properly. Great fun that doesn’t get stale with repeated playthroughs. 8/10.

The main characters from Virtua Cop.
JAMES: My father, a teacher, had many summer jobs when I was a young lad, and one was the manager of a local movie theater that had recently opened. Among the many perks were free movies – I saw The Rugrats Movie five times a day, every day; posters and film reels were "misplaced" into my Dad's office; and most importantly, Dad had the key that would open up the arcade cabinets. This was after arcades were more than half way through their slow, torturous death, so the selection was limited to say the least. However, this arcade did have one particularly kickass title: Time Crisis 2. Dad would pop it open, give me the credit equivalent of 67 billion quarters, and let me at it. In retrospect, keeping me around the theater all day was a lot cheaper than paying for actual child care. Good call, Dad. Anyway, I got really good at Time Crisis 2 for a child, to the point where I didn't need the eleventy billion credits to beat the game anymore. Seasons change and I never really played that game again after that summer. But man, Time Crisis 2 was amazing. Virtua Cop is the poorest man's version of it. Don't get me wrong, it’s pretty fun, but just not what my nostalgically enhanced perception of what on-rails shooters should be. The gun is a little heavy, the aiming is a little clunky (to be fair, this was played on a TV in 2015 and probably not optimized for light gun usage) and the difficulty is a bit steep. On the plus side, colors are bright and the presentation is sharp for the time, and polygonal/graphically speaking, it ALMOST looks like a beta of an early N64 game if you squint, which is a good thing in my book. Honestly, I had a blast for the first five minutes but eventually the fact that I wasn't playing TC2 seeped in, and my arm got hella tired. The experience sagged and I shut it off after beating the first stage. But as Matt pointed out, it’s the failiest game ever with the controller, so at least I wasn't confined to that version. Probably better with a friend and two guns, likely a lot better in 1995, and most certainly better to somebody who isn't spoiled by memories of boyhood glory in a theater arcade. My personal bias aside, 6.5/10.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 – Williams, 1996

MATT: The Saturn version of UMK3 a good-looking port of the arcade game and nothing more, meaning it’s missing the SNES/Genesis console-exclusive characters like Ermac and Rain, and enough other palette swapped ninjas to start some kind of murderous Dave Matthews tribute band. It’s also obviously based on the PS1 release of normal MK3, as it uses the same bizarre, cube-based menu system – the programmers didn’t even bother to add “Ultimate” to the existing MK3 logo! Another example is that features removed during the arcade transition from MK3 to UMK3 found their way into this version, such as a few backgrounds and Noob Saibot appearing as a shadow Kano instead of a shadow ninja, which I guess adds a bit of variety. Or something. Anyway, I’ve been playing this game for years, and I still haven’t bothered to learn all but a handful of the special moves, and nary a single fatality. Meh, it’s good for a few rounds against a friend. Or you could just play MK Trilogy. Whatever. 6/10.

JAMES: I love UMK3. I know it’s not ACTUALLY good but I don't care. I think about it much in the same way I do the film Commando: I appreciate the cheese and embrace the bloodshed with glee! This is probably the best home port in my opinion, and it looks quite good. It’s your standard MK stuff, nothing more or less than you'd expect. Multiplayer is the strongest offering this game has, unless you really adore Shao Kahn so much you want to fight him as the final boss for the THIRD GAME IN A ROW. My guess is Ed Boon was too focused on teasing out his massive eyebrows to design a new end baddie. If you like ninjas, play the Genesis version. If you like Sheeva (who was removed from other home ports) then this is for you. Matt is also pretty crap at this game and I'm decent at it so I love it EVEN MORE.  Pro-tip: if you wanna beat Matt, just let him jump in and then uppercut his ass. It’s worked for years and even after publicly telling him this strategy, it will continue to work. 8.5/10 with friends, 6/10 solo.

MATT: I’m well aware of the uppercut strategy, but I can’t stop jumping in. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Like a moth to the flame, a child to candy, or James to sweet, sweet pornography.

Night Warriors: Darkstakers’ Revenge – Capcom, 1996

MATT: Capcom fighting games were like crack to young Matt. I had to have every super turbo alpha omega version of Street Fighter; Rival Schools was less of a game and more of a religion to me; and the Capcom Vs. games gave me a whole new appreciation for characters like Spider-Man, Captain Commando, and the metal-clad, fire spewing variation of Zangief that I guess was supposed to mimic Colossus. The Darkstalkers series was no different, and I played the living hell out of Night Warriors on the Saturn. Fluid graphics, a deep-but-simple combo system, and plenty of classic horror icons make this the closest we’ll ever get to a Universal Monsters fighting game. Unfortunately, replaying Night Warriors reminded me of its worst flaw: Only about four of the 14 characters are any fun to use. (But what’s the point of playing as anyone but Felicia anyway?) It’s not exactly the easiest fighting game to pick up and play, but if you stick with it for a few hours, you’ll be rewarded. Thumbs way up. 9/10.

James: I'm sure in Japan the mixing of "cheesecake" with please-don't-sue-us-Universal Monster rip-offs makes sense. In my world though, it’s just perplexing. But like peanut butter and jelly, this combination is a big hit. The theme as it were actually makes for a fresh and interesting looking game with some detailed and colorful sprites and backgrounds. The Capcom style is felt strongly in the combo system and movement, and the fact that nobody is throwing hadoukens is actually a nice change of pace. I wouldn't say this is among my top 10 fighting games out there, but i could see myself firing this up over a lot of other titles. Any game where a Dracula dude fights a Mexican Robot (note to self, make movie called Dracula Dude fights a Mexican Robot) is worth a looksie. If you can get past the unrelenting sexuality and general weirdness, this a title worth your time. If ever there was a Capcom game I found it easy to pleasure myself to, this would be it... which I suppose is a good thing? 7.5/10

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Sega Saturn Chronicles #1

Two men. One unappreciated console. These are the Sega Saturn Chronicles.

MATT is 32 years old, and has owned a Saturn since December 1996. JAMES is 22 years old, and acquired his Saturn in February 2015.

Virtua Fighter 2 – Sega, 1996

MATT: I got this game as part of the “3 Free Games” promotion Sega held around Christmas ‘96. At the time, Virtua Fighter 2 was considered by many to be the pinnacle of 3D fighting games, but it hasn’t held up as well as I would have hoped. The graphics, a huge jump up from the original title, still look decent, and the music still gets me sufficiently pumped. But the fighting just isn’t as fun as I remember. Computer opponents at the default difficulty can drain 75 percent of your life bar in a single combo, and even with the time-tested combos and strategies of my youth, James was still able to beat me about half the time with random jump kicks and cheap ring-outs. Setting the difficulty down and breezing through arcade mode can still be a fun experience, but I can’t recommend VF2 in any kind a serious competitive capacity. Thumbs up overall, but there are better Saturn games. 6/10.

JAMES: As a relative newcomer to fighting games not ending in "Kombat," I was excited to get acquainted with a granddaddy of the 3D fighting genre. Unfortunately this granddad was the kind who touches his Jamaican nurses inappropriately.  I know this was the mid ‘90s, but I was under the impression that fun had been invented by that point. Moon jumps that never should have left the beta stage, ring-outs which are so stupid and unsatisfying I just wish they could have at least put a banana peel at the edge of the stage or something, the dull pace of each fight makes me wish I was playing a more refined fighter like Tekken or Soul Calibur, and the difficulty is so high it doesn't make me want to get better to beat the next foe, it just makes me want to stand up and walk away leaving my Saturn running till it inevitably dies. Which pretty much sums up how this game makes me feel, like impending death is closing in on us all. 2/10

Fighting Vipers – Sega, 1996

MATT: A tough-as-nails, hard-hitting, grandma-slapping, face-humping slugfest! With the same control scheme as Virtua Fighter 2 (and possibly even the same game engine), Fighting Vipers is nearly identical to its predecessor, but with the action sped up and cages preventing the lame ring-outs VF2 is known for. Each ridiculous fighter is clad in some kind of armor that takes damage as the round progresses. Specific moves can shatter weakened armor, making the recipient more vulnerable. Using an armor buster to end a round sends your opponent sailing through the arena’s cage, and in the case of one stage, off the side of 10,000 foot tall elevator. Nothing like slapping 14-year-old skateboarder Picky with a guitar and watching him fall to his doom, only to return unscathed for the next round. Thumbs up! 8/10.

JAMES: If you took Virtua Fighter and made it suck considerably less, you would get this game. If I'm honest, I really can’t tell what the motif of this game is. I played as a special needs skateboarder and fought other knee pad-clad skating enthusiasts, and also for some reason the front man to a Poison tribute band. But in fairness, the armor system is actually really innovative and I'm surprised it didn't catch on with a bigger name franchise. Ring-outs are way more awesome here, combos are easier and more intuitive, and the characters are reasonably detailed for the time. That being said, the cast is mostly forgettable, stages are all bland aside from the high rise elevator, music wasn't impressive, the multiplayer was super shallow, and can we talk about the final boss for a second? He's a man named BM. Matt has told me it stands for "Battle Master." I am of the opinion it stands for "Bland Man" (worst megaman boss ever). He's as muscle bound as he is generic! He kinda has a Mayan High Priest thing going on with his head piece and matching paw gloves which had promise, but he doesn't really own it to its potential and THAT is disappointing. Go big or go home BM! Also, he can be beat in 2 rounds straight by spamming kick.  Overall kinda fun but I will literally forget about this game the second I stop typing this review. 6/10.

NiGHTS into Dreams – Sega, 1996

MATT: NiGHTS had a whimsical mystique surrounding it, mostly becuase it came bundled with a “3D controller” that was the predecessor to the Dreamcast’s strange circle design. Honestly, the analog stick doesn’t add much to the experience. You’re just a well off with a standard D-pad. That being said, I’m not sure why everyone loved his game. At its core, it’s an on-rails 2D flying game in a 3D package, and flying through rings for points is too close to the oft-maligned Superman on Nintendo 64 for comfort. There’s some entertainment value to be had with this title, but I never bothered to finish it. If I’m gonna play NiGHTS, it’s going to be Christmas NiGHTS. (I’m sure we’ll get to that one eventually.) Thumbs down. 5/10.

JAMES: Have you ever dreamed of playing as a cross dressing Sonic the Hedgehog, listening to some child shout at you in manic Japanese, having no idea what the f**k is going on or what your objective is, all while attempting to navigate with a butchered perspective and flight simulator controls? Well, your dreams (and my nightmares) have inexplicably been made reality in this unbelievably stupid game which somehow warranted a sequel on the Wii like 15 years later. Its times like this that I'm glad you died, Sega. 1/10.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Dark Side of the Moon…side

Something is very wrong with Earthbound’s City of Fourside.

It’s not so much the bar that admits unattended children, or the “accidents” involving two-bit hooligans, or even the crooked businessman who has a vice grip on the police force. If those were the only questionable goings-on, Fourside would be no worse than any other American city. No, what’s going on in Fourside, behind the scenes, is far more terrifying than the typical corrupt politician or neighborhood drug dealer. What’s going on is Moonside, where the sun never rises and everything is out to kill you.

And there’s no real escape – even sleep is just a set amount of unconsciousness, with no morning. Moonside is a sort of a living hell, kind of like Silent Hill.

I know what you’re thinking: Moonside is a fabrication of the evil Mani Mani statue, right?

Let’s look at the way Mani Mani has functioned in the past. It takes something that’s already there and perverts it. Look at Monotoli – he’s a kindly old man, yes, but he’s also built an empire in Fourside. He must have at least some desire to earn lots of cold, hard cash. All Mani Mani had to do was multiply that urge to the point where Monotoli would do anything.

It seems to me that as an evil entity, Mani Mani is pretty lazy. And as we have seen it do in Earthbound, it would be much easier to simply open a gateway to something that already exists. Think about it: The mouse tells you that you’ve been wondering around the warehouse with a vacant look in your eyes, and yet, the items you obtain in Moonside are just as real as anything else in your inventory.

So maybe we’re missing the big picture here. Mani Mani, in addition to its ability to corrupt, might be a device that can open a gate to another dimension. In this case, another Fourside that mirrors the city we all know, with terrifying changes.

Could it be that there’s something sinister lurking right where you stand, only it’s just outside of your “reality?” Consider this: When you lose a pencil or a sock or a memory card, it’s got to go someplace. It’s probably behind your desk, under your bed, or buried in a closet somewhere. But there are some things that disappear for good, and no matter how hard you search for them, you never find them. What if that missing flashlight of yours somehow broke through the fabric of time, space or even sanity, and is now floating around in an alternate universe?

And if there’s an “elsewhere” out there that objects can leak into, I doubt it’s full just of a bunch of lost rulers and combs. What if something bigger could pass between realities; something like a human being? Take a moment to think about all those TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries that recount strange tales of missing persons. Seemingly average people, the unassuming local guys of the world, disappear without so much as note saying goodbye. There’s a logical explanation for most of them, but there will always be a few people who vanish without a trace. What if some of these missing people just happened to take a wrong step and suddenly found themselves lost in a world of endless night, a sunless, seasonless existence, surrounded by horrific alien life forms? Seems like it could happen to anybody. What if that unlucky someone ever turns out to be you?

Welcome to Moonside.

But that’s impossible, right? Maybe not. According to Ted Bunn, an assistant professor in the Physics Department at the University of Richmond in Virginia, a black hole, in a nutshell, is “a region of space that has so much mass concentrated in it that there is no way for a nearby object to escape its gravitational pull.” Therefore, get close enough, and you’re like an ant next to a vacuum cleaner – you’re going to get sucked in no matter what. Bunn adds that the theoretical opposite of a black hole, the aptly-named white hole, spits matter out instead of sucking it in. Now, put a black hole and a white hole together and you get a “tube” known as a wormhole.

“A conveniently-located wormhole would therefore provide a convenient and rapid way to travel very large distances, or even to travel to another universe. Maybe the exit to the wormhole would lie in the past, so that you could travel back in time by going through. All in all, they sound pretty cool,” wrote Bunn in his “Black Holes FAQ.”

That’s it. Just hello and… goodbye!

Watch my wormhole show on Discovery. You have to. I'm God AND the president.

Something that, when approached, sucks you in and throws you out someplace else. Now, where have you seen that before? The warpmen, of course. Those Moonsidian strangers who teleport you to different places, like mini rips in the fabric of time and space.

So maybe a real life warpman got a hold of that pencil you lost in second grade and sent it to another dimension. And maybe a real life warpman got a hold of Amelia Earhart’s plane.

Think about the nearest window. If you leave it closed, nothing can get in, and nothing can get out. Now what happens if you open it? If it’s a nice spring day, you might get a refreshing breeze. If it’s a dead winter night, you might have left your home open to all sorts of creatures. For example, in July 2003, Stan Romanek of Denver, Colo. thought he had a problem with a Peeping Tom. After setting up a video camera one night near his window, he discovered the culprit. And he realized that it wasn’t human. (Go ahead, look it up…)

Romanek’s window had been closed. What if it hadn’t been?

Now imagine you can’t close that nearest window of yours. Whatever and whoever wants to get in can… and will.

A wormhole is like an open window, an open invitation for anyone or anything. In the case of Earthbound’s Moonside, the transporter effects of wormholes are represented by getting sucked into Moonside, and Moonside itself is explained away as an “evil” force.

In real life however, wormholes and other realities just might exist. If that’s a little too much to swallow for you, think about this: Have you ever felt uneasy when you’re alone? Like you’re being watched? Like someone is behind you?

It’s probably nothing…

Friday, February 6, 2015

Taken with Tekken 2

The original Tekken came out swinging in 1995, and marked the beginning of the end for rival series Battle Arena Toshinden. Tekken showed PlayStation gamers how a 3D fighter should play, and as a first generation PS1 title, it helped put Sony’s new CD system on the map.

Fast forward to about a year later. Tekken 2 – and liberal amounts of Duke Nukem 3D on the PC – wrapped up another great summer of gaming in 1996. The upbeat soundtrack of Michelle’s stage is bittersweet, blending the joy of a great new game with the sorrow of returning to the stuffy halls of middle school life. Nearly two decades later, the tune still elicits a feeling of finality, excitement, and a hint of woe.

That last day before classes began, I rented Namco’s newest fighter, and was blown away by the jump in graphics quality, the variety of fighters, and a myriad of tiny tweaks that made a great game even better. I played for as long as I could before the last of the summer sun sunk over the horizon.

Freedom faded.

My only regret is that I didn’t have more time for Tekken 2 before an onslaught of assignments designed to prepare me for high school and drain my free time all at once.

The game still holds up to this day, and for me, it was the last great Tekken game until the sixth installment of the series about a dozen years later.

And if I want to go back in time, all I have to do is listen.