Tuesday, April 14, 2015

New 'Mortal Kombat X' makes man feel old, gelatinous

After months of anticipation, Mortal Kombat X is finally upon us. Before you snag a copy, tell your friends to “get over here!” and make with the decapitations, take a minute to consider this: The original Mortal Kombat came out in 1992.

Do you remember Mortal Monday, when MK1 came out on home systems and also not Sega CD until months later? I sure do.

And you know what that means? I’m a very old man and I don’t have much time left to live. I pray I can breathe long enough to finish MKX, but with bones these old, I fear my body will melt into jelly on the way to Best Buy tonight. (That would make a super cool fatality, now that I think about it.)

Ah, to be young again.

Fifth grade. Matt’s class is walking to the middle school for an orientation. Some of the dumber students have expressed concern that a rotating class schedule might somehow confuse or kill them, so we all have to miss art and gym to have disinterested guidance counselors comfort us by revealing the secrets of walking to a different classroom every 42 minutes.

Some current middle school students – the ones who have mastered the art of switching classrooms flawlessly on the pit stage without using block – notice Matt’s group approaching, and look out their foolishly open windows.

Matt raises his arms and exclaims at them, "MORTAL KOMBAT!"

From that day forth, the middle schoolers knew not to mess with the incoming class, for they are versed in the art of kombat and aren’t afraid to die at the hands of Outworld’s most chilling opponent: rotating class schedules. Liu Kang smiled on us all that day.

So by all means, let the kombat komence! I’ll just be here in the corner, adjusting to my life as an elderly, boneless blob.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sega Saturn Chronicles #6: Marvel Madness – A Retrospective of Capcom’s ‘Vs.’ series

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.

X-Men: Children of the Atom – Capcom, ported by Rutubo, published by Acclaim, 1996

MATT: Awesome animation, a great IP, sweet music, and responsive controls. What’s not to love about X-Men: Children of the Atom? The soul-crushing difficulty, that’s what. I’m convinced Rutubo/Acclaim somehow messed this one up, because I can’t see Capcom saying, “Hey, this game is fun and all, but let’s make every fight after the first the approximate difficulty of Kintaro from Mortal Kombat II.” Admittedly my fighting game skills aren’t as polished when it comes to Capcom’s Marvel titles. But this isn’t exactly my first mutant rodeo and I’ve only ever finished the game once, by the grace of Hugh Jackman. I guess if you’ve ever wanted to fight M. Bison, Gill, Seth, and every SNK boss ever right in a row, X-Men might appeal to you, because this is the closest you’ll ever come to it this side of MUGEN. Of course that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you’ll swear it’s true as Magneto hands you your mutant hiney over and over again. I’d suggest the PlayStation version, but that one is just as difficult and unfun. Maybe skip this and start with Marvel Super Heroes, because not even Wolverine’s mutant healing abilities are enough to fix it. 5/10, but only because it’s the genesis of the Vs. series. Otherwise it’s a Frisbee.

JAMES: Playing this game was a lot like finding what appears to be a delectable chocolate truffle, biting into it, and finding it’s filled with toothpaste. It looks, sounds and feels like it should be great, but then something in the mixture goes horribly wrong. I won the first fight easy enough and balked at Matt's claims that this game is super difficult. Ego, as it so often does, had gotten the better of me. The second fight kicked me in the groin, repeatedly and repeatedly. I pretty much gave in and tried to think about other, better Marvel fighting games at this point. However, one thing I noticed was the interesting level design. Many stagers are multi-tiered and have different platforms to ascend/descend which added some nice layers to the fight in terms of playing the distance game. If you don't mind getting your socks rocked, this game IS worth playing because of its art style, and the quality of the IP. But beyond that, this game was a disappointment. In every way you can think of, it looks and plays like it should kick ass. But like an evil twin, it hides a dark secret beneath its familiar exterior. 6/10 because I have a Marvel bias.

Marvel Super Heroes – Capcom, 1997

MATT: Great graphics and deliciously old-skool Capcom action are the hallmarks of Marvel Super Heroes. I’m not much a comic book guy, so aside from the FOX cartoons featuring Spider-Man and the X-Men, this game was my first real exposure to heroes like Captain America and a bunch of other jerks no one cares about. Like Night Warriors: Darkstalkers Revenge, I used to breeze through Marvel Super Heroes at the hardest difficulty, but now I find even the medium skill level challenging. Still, the game retains a lot of its charm with its simple chain combos, its awesome Darkstalkers-esque sound font, and the fact that it introduced the world to everybody’s favorite super move, Maximum Spider. Curiously, the North American version of Marvel Super Heroes supports the Japanese-only Saturn RAM enhancement cartridge, which allows for faster and more complex gameplay. And also curiously, it seems to have no effect. Marvel Super Heroes begins Capcom’s policy of removing “joke” characters for their North American releases. Anita of Darkstalkers fame, who appears as an unlockable in the Japanese MSH, is nowhere to be seen in our port. Capcom would follow suit with Norimaro from MSH vs. Street Fighter. Strange content cuts aside, MSH provides players with a great starting point on their “vs. Capcom” journey. 7/10.

JAMES:  Now THIS is a fighter I can get excited about. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh James, you’re such a mainstream weenie to only really like fighting games with super recognizable IPs attached to them!” And to that I say, HOLY SHIT YOU CAN PLAY AS WOLVERINE! But seriously, this family of Marvel driven Capcom games rarely disappoints. Bright sharp graphics, awesome level design, strong cast, and a cool power up system revolving around collecting “Infinity Gems” make this a high speed, fun experience. The cast all looks and plays in ways appropriate to the source material. As somebody who is a big fan of the Marvel universe, these games are always a treat for the cool references and fan service, as well as the gameplay.  I love the controls of these games. Fast, frantic and easy to string combos together and control the pace if you know what you’re doing. It’s equally fun to just jerk around and play crazily. This game’s greatest strength is that versatility. Like any fighter worth its salt, it’s equally fun to n00bz and skilled players alike. If you’re familiar with this era of Capcom it’s pretty much just like all the others control-wise, but what’s cool is that through all the iterations of X-Men, Marvel Super Heroes, and Marvel vs., games, all your favorites FEEL the same. Unlike, say, the Mortal Kombat franchise where characters’ play style or even abilities vary wildly from game to game, these titles always retain the genuine feel and look you crave in each of your favorites. Characters may be added or subtracted, and new bosses or power-ups may get thrown in the mix, but the soul of the game remains the same. And if you’re like me and you just love how these play, then give this mofo a whirl.  9/10

X-Men vs. Street Fighter – Capcom, 1997 (Japan Only)

MATT: This is the first of the famed Marvel vs. Capcom series, which took arcades and consoles by storm (no pun intended) in the late ‘90s. The Saturn version, released only in Japan because life sucks and then “welcome to die,” is the definitive home version of the eclectic brawler. Featuring the hot-swapping, dual character action that made the coin-op a hit, this Saturn port puts the PlayStation 1 game to shame. Why? Here’s where the Saturn RAM cart really earns its keep: Thanks to the PS1’s infamous lack of RAM, that version played more like Street Fighter, with one on one battles. I love the cast – it truly feels like a who’s who of both universes. The music is vintage Capcom and once again, the graphics and animation are damn good. One negative is that sometimes, the action is a little too frantic and button-mashy. My favorite fighting games take a more methodical approach to combat, where every attack is calculated, each jump is deliberate, and you’re always thinking two moves ahead. Capcom’s Vs. series is none of these things, but as James has pointed out, you can play as Wolverine! That being said, I’ve also never found a game with Ryu and Chun-Li in it that I didn’t like. This title comes highly recommended. 8/10.

James: Hot damn. Folks, this is probably the second best game in the entire Marvel/Capcom series. You have the character swapping, the amazing stages, sweet music, balls-to-the-wall speed-oriented fighting, and a cast that was never equaled in the series. I had a hard time putting this one down. The pace is brilliant, the controls are flawless, it’s just so FUN. It’s not intellectual and deliberate like Street Fighter, but its gosh darned fun. I love the chain combo system, being able to juggle somebody in a corner right into my super move, and the game doesn't nerf you that all. It’s like, "Hey dude, if you can keep hitting the combos, more power to ya." It's not getting between me and a good super-spamming time. I personally use the team of Wolverine and Ryu. To me, they’re the best representations of their respective brands, and they jive well. You have your solid ground game with Logan, and aerial/projectile attack covered by Ryu. I dare anybody to come at my squad. We will take you out. ALLLLLL the way out, brother! This wasn't one I grew up with, but it’s one I can grow old with.  Good golly Miss Molly this game is great. 9/10.

Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter – Capcom, 1998 (Japan Only)

MATT: Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter is less a sequel and more the lazy cut ‘n’ paste brother of X-Men vs. Street Fighter, reusing many of the sprites and stages. This is the second time we’ve seen Apocalypse as a final boss, the third time we’ve seen Wolverine stalk across the screen in the same angry fashion, and at least the fifth time we’ve seen the Alpha version of Ryu chucking plasma and taking names. It’s a classic Capcom move and I should be furious. I’m not. This game is awesome. It’s lacking a special mode from the PS1 version which is a bummer, but it makes up for it by including Dan, Ryu’s only true equal. And how can you go wrong with Spider-Man? All of the other problems and successes of X-Men vs. Street Fighter carry over, but the unique cast makes this my personal favorite of the Capcom Marvel titles on Saturn. 9/10.

JAMES: When I was a kid, I lived at Crestview Lake. It was this municipal facility that had a huge lake, playground, arcade, snack bar, and more, and Dad was the guy who ran it and lived on grounds as the caretaker. I was lucky enough to live there with him. Among the many, many perks of living there was access to a well-stocked arcade in 1998. We had Mortal Kombat, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, and Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter all at once. I don't think there were enough quarters in the world to satisfy my lust for Kombat and Street Fighting. I stole so many coins out of my Dad's car that he had to start carrying his change with him around the facility. A junkie will do anything for a fix I suppose, even steal from his father. I was in love with Marvel Super Heroes vs. Street Fighter above the rest though. I had never enjoyed a game as much as I was enjoying this one. I hogged the machine, I would sit there and pump so much money into it, and just flatly refuse to let other kids play. I would say, "My Dad runs this place, and he would kick you out if you put your quarter in!" A bluff, but an effective one. No kid wanted to risk the revelry in the sun (or the potential spanking they might incur) just to play a coin-op machine. The cabinet was mine. And in those moments where I had a coin in the machine, a hot hand and a full bladder... well, you know how a swimsuit is wet and drippy? I took full advantage of that. I always swam before the arcade, and that way if I had to relieve myself, I could do so with impunity into my pre-moistened swim trunks.  No one was the wiser, I assume. That's dedication, mofos. After a few months, I got good enough to beat the game on a single play through. For a 6-year-old, that's pretty freaking hard. Especially when the final boss, Cyber-Akuma, is basically the biggest, nastiest bastard this side of Street Fighter III's Gill. I would show off, invite kids to watch me beat it, and even my Dad would watch me beat it! Right there in the arcade! Uh, anyway, my team of Wolverine and Ryu (sometimes I'd mix in Spidey) was too much for this world. One day the arcade machine vanished and for years I mourned. I played the PlayStation home port, but without the ability to swap characters, it was a piss poor imitation. Then Matt and I put this beauty into my Saturn. And folks, it was 1998. I was 6 years old. And I was dominant once more. The only difference between then and now? I got up to use the men's room. Thank God for pause buttons. 10/10.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Final Moments of PlayStation Home (4-1-15)

Sony’s virtual world experiment on PS3, called PlayStation Home, hit the gaming scene on December 11, 2008. And after six-plus years, the game finally closed its doors on March 31, 2015 (April 1 in EST).

These are the final moments of PlayStation Home.

I was FROZEN today!

The closure of PlayStation Home leaves many unanswered questions. Why did they call Home players Homesters? Why not Homebodies, Homers, or Home-os? What do the lyrics to "Chain Swing" mean? Why were there so many ghosts haunting in the PS Home landscape?

The world will never know.

March 31, 2015, 3 a.m. – 24 hours until the end

My eyes shoot open in the middle of the night. I’m sick as a dog and can’t sleep. Stumbling out into the living room, I pour a glass of diet Pepsi and boot up PlayStation Home, because part of me is afraid they already shut it down.

What I see brings a smile to my face.

Conga lines like this were common in the early days of PlayStation Home. It’s a nice bit of nostalgia.

My game freezes and I have to reset. When I come back, the conga line is gone. In fact, Home freezes three more times in the next hour and a half. I wonder if it’s the servers dying already.

The freezes aren’t limited to me, as someone I was speaking with reports getting frozen at the exact same time.

6:30 p.m. – nine hours until the end

After work, I come back to PlayStation Home and find a guy saying goodbye to the water fountain in Central Plaza. Another is just sitting there with a sign that says “The end of the world is nigh.” Rather apropos.

The party is raging in Central Plaza, so that’s where I decide to spend the final moments when they come.

10 p.m. – five hours until the end

A friend from real life dusts off his Home account and hangs out with me for a while. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone I know in real life on PSH. And he’s also the last. He has a sweet hover board. I’d be jealous if PlayStation Home wasn’t going to die in a few short hours.

11 p.m. – 12:30 a.m. – two and a half hours until the end

In Home Square – still festively decorated for Christmas – I meet a player about twice as old as me. I have more in common with him than the 20-year-old walking eyeballs and snake women dry humping each other, so we talk for quite a while. It’s the most significant conversation I’ve ever had on PS Home, and in the end, he tells me that I’ll be a “great mom.” Oops, forgot I was playing as a woman. I didn’t correct him.

April 1, 1:30 a.m. – an hour and a half until the end

I discover “Quest for Greatness 2,” a long, drawn out card hunting game. My personal quest for greatness is abandoned 90 seconds later. Gonna guess I don’t have enough time.

I spend the next hour and a half dancing in the Central Plaza as planned.

April 1, 2:59 am. – the end

Like Tears in the Rain

Now that PlayStation Home has officially retired, I’m left to reflect on it one more time.

An avid collector, I own about 1,500 games spanning more than 30 years. But as a predominantly console gamer, online play was something I rarely encountered until the PlayStation 3 era.

PlayStation Home is the first online-only game I ever put a significant amount of time into, and now it’s gone. Up until now, my favorite games of yore have remained at my fingertips. But not Home. I can’t take it with me. I can’t put it back on the shelf and whip it out in ten years later when I’m feeling nostalgic. (I can’t even copy it to a thumb drive.)

That’s one of the reasons I preserved my experiences through photos and blogging: It’s the only way I’ll be able to remember it. Otherwise, to quote Blade Runner, “all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.”

PlayStation Home brings to mind another uncomfortable question: when will ALL PS3 titles will be stripped of their online capabilities?

PS3 fatality?

Home’s closure is just the beginning of the end for my beloved PlayStation 3. I’ve made the jump to PlayStation 4 and of course it’s great, but I doubt the online landscape will have the same Wild West-style appeal that the PS3 did.

Also, I don’t think we’ll see anything like Home again for quite a while. And maybe that’s not so good for more than just nostalgia’s sake.

Pretty Woman

Logging in after a long absence about a year ago, I discovered that my two male avatars had vanished. Inexplicably, the lone survivor was a woman I refer to as “Red.” In the early days, I used her to toll random dudes. You know, for the lulz.

But maybe the joke's on me.

As Red, I’ve gotten catcalled, told I have a nice ass, and asked repeatedly to be someone’s “girlfriend.” Generally I ignored it. But every once in a while, I responded.

To anyone reading this who is looking for a date: If a potential mate responds to your advances with “You have a tiny p3nis,” do not reply “do you want to see it?”

Seriously, some dudes are dense as hell. Also, a video game is probably a bad place to look for love.

Some PSN dudes. Mask guy in the foreground hit on me.

On the other hand, male players would often send me gifts or treat me with a respect that they never afforded to Lenny, my African American man avatar, or to my rough interpretation of my real-life appearance.

PlayStation Home, it seems, was a microcosm of society.

Who would ever have thought I’d learn the ups and downs of being a woman through a video game?

There’s No Place like (PlayStation) Home

I took a lot of photos for this series of articles (see the first one here, and the second here if you missed them). I also took a bunch for my first PlayStation Home article way back in 2010. That one is much more lighthearted, BTW.

They’re not doing me any good just hanging out on my hard drive, so I thought it might be nice to share my photos. Here’s two galleries to see off all you Homesters. Or Homebodies. Home-os?


PlayStation Home was a lot of things, and even if it wasn’t functional, or well-programed, or even fun, sometimes it could be really pretty.

Here’s one last shot I took from my Harbour Studio apartment, which for a lot of people, represents their first moments with Sony’s strange cyber society.

I’ve always found it satisfying end things the same way they started.

Goodbye, PlayStation Home, you confusing, lovable waste of time.

UPDATE: 3:40 a.m. April 1, 2015

Sony released a mandatory 19 megabyte update to Home less than an hour after it shut down "for maintenance." Trying to open Home after the update produces this photo: