Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Tale of Two Sonics

The original Sonic the Hedgehog sped onto the small screen 25 years ago today, June 23, firing what many consider the first major shot of the 16-bit Wars. Until the blue blur hit the scene, Sega had been only a small thorn in the mighty Nintendo’s side. Sonic put Sega on the map, and the Genesis in the hands of millions of gamers.

But as the 16-bit Wars gave way the PlasyStation era, Sonic started to lose his luster. The last great Sonic game was Sonic and Knuckles, released in 1994, and the last tolerable Sonic game was made in 2001. Sonic '06 came out 10 years ago, and became what many consider the final nail in the series' coffin. A shell of his former self due to the increasingly criminal decisions of his parent company, Sonic has spiraled into irrelevance in the last decade.

Why does this always happen to child stars? Were he real, Sonic would likely have joined the ranks of Macaulay Culkin and have his own E! Hollywood True Story by now.

But let's not concentrate on Sonic in whatever alleyway he has chosen to become intoxicated in today, let's remember his greatness of years past.

Ah, but wait – there HAVE been good Sonic games in the last decade. Danny, a friend of mine, pointed that out to me today.

“I feel like people are a bit too hard on Sonic,” he wrote. “No doubt there are some serious misfires, but Sonic Colors was really great and Sonic Generations is easily the best Sonic since Sonic and Knuckles.” He added that he enjoyed Lost Word, and “only Sonic Boom since Sonic Colors is worthy of scorn.”

Ok, Ok. So sometimes I say mean things about Sonic that aren’t entirely deserved. (See implications of alcoholism and homelessness, above.)  But that’s because no one takes Sonic seriously anymore, even with decent games like Generations. Sonic needs three or more hits in a row now, triple A titles, to make some kind of a real comeback. Maybe Sega should give him to Kojima, or just do something radically different and fun, like Resident Evil 4 did.

I haven't cared about Sonic since Dreamcast and I know I’m not the only one. It's going to take more than Lost World and some other meh games here and there to change that.

But are Generations and Colors those games? For some, yes.

So where do you stand, reader? Did Sonic’s career slow to a crawl, or is there still some star power in those red shoes of his?  

In any event, Happy Birthday Sonic!

Monday, June 20, 2016

Unraveling the Allure of Deadly Premonition

Profiling Start

Deadly Premonition isn’t a great game, but it’s certainly a memorable one.

The bizarre cast, a surreal protagonist, and a Law and Order meets Scooby-Doo plot earned this game a cult following upon its release on Xbox 360 in 2010. Or maybe it was the fact that it debuted as a budget title and soccer moms are cheap. I don’t know.

In any event, I’m not sure how anyone played it long enough to enjoy it. This version of Deadly Premonition controlled like someone rubbed Jell-O in the player’s eyes and tied their fingers into their shoelaces. A younger Matt put up with it for about an hour before shelving the bastard.

Apparently other players were frustrated too, because a “director’s cut” was released in 2013 for PlayStation 3 and Windows. This version changes the controls to feel more like a video game and less like digital waterboarding.

I’d always wondered why people loved Deadly Premonition, so with the promise of manageable controls (and a sale that netted me the game for five bucks; guess I’m cheap too) I took the plunge.

Investigation Failure
The best way to describe Deadly Premonition is this: Silent Hill and Grand Theft Auto got drunk and had a threesome with the TV show Twin Peaks, while Sega Bass Fishing filmed it and Atari’s Hard Drivin’ uploaded it to a seedy website via Netscape Navigator. That is to say, it tries to be a lot of things, and isn’t very good at any of them.

The driving is awkward and the engine sounds like a cheap blender struggling to make an ice cream and lug nut smoothie. The one-note combat isn’t interesting until the player starts encountering bosses in the last quarter of the game, and even then, it’s still clunky and predictable. Odd music cues and bargain bin zombies make this game about as scary as the TV edit of Friday the 13th with the lights on, and the fishing scenes are much better at simulating bouts of depression than reeling in a whopper.

The fishing mini game made me question my life choices.

And despite what anyone tells you, the map still sucks.

Apparently, Deadly Premonition’s roots are as a PlayStation 2 game originally titled “Rainy Woods,” started way back in 2004. It’s pretty obvious, too, with trees that look like poorly disguised cellphone towers, Papier-mâché bushes, and a slew of murky colors. (See image below.)

Fun Fact: Either an homage or an oversight, the real estate office in the game still bears the "Rainy Woods" moniker.

“Now THAT is a good biscuit!”
Despite its many, many flaws, the more you play Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut, the more it grows on you. What starts as a ho-hum romp through a backwater town to solve a boring murder case evolves into a life or death struggle for the wellbeing of mankind.

Getting to know the main character, York, and his “imaginary friend,” Zach, is one of the game’s most rewarding elements. Long car rides across town are punctuated with York talking about b-movies, punk music, and his inability to understand women to the ever-silent Zach.

Likewise, characters that initially got on your nerves become endearing somewhere along the line. You don’t even realize it until their face is impaled on a giant hook, leaving their cross-dressed body swinging from the clock tower, which is how I imagine Jason Voorhees decorates for the holidays.

Things really pick up in the game’s often touching, often stupid, always explosive finale. Plot twist after plot twist reveal who killer is, then who the REAL killer is, then the REAL REAL killer is. It culminates with an annoyingly quicktimey final boss. The last few cutscenes suggest a bittersweet conclusion, but the more you think about it, the more you start to question what it all really means.

Therein lies the crux of Deadly Premonition, the secret to its cult following. On my way to work today, I found myself reevaluating those last few hours of gameplay. I’d like to think that it ended well for York and Zach. And there’s plenty of evidence that it did. But there’s also subtle hints that they’re much worse off than even the guy you left swinging from the clock tower.

It’s been a few days since I finished – I got the platinum trophy for kicks – but Deadly Premonition is still on my mind. Somehow, I willingly spent 50 hours with the title’s poor gameplay. For some reason, I just kept coming back until I solved the case.

Charming the player into enjoying a bad game… I think that’s Deadly Premonition’s best plot twist of all. It’s that right, Zach? 

It really is, Old Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4. It really is. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

“Hang-On,” Then Let Go

Apparently my late Uncle Richard owned a motorcycle, but I don’t recall actually ever seeing it. It’s just as well: I’ve always viewed motorbikes less as badass beasts of streets, and more as potential harbingers of injury to my frail skull, my tiny, crunchy bones, and my squishy genitals. And you can’t even put a baseball card in the spokes. 

That’s one of the reasons I was never interested in Super Hang-On, one of the earliest offerings of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive library. The cover, featuring a biker leaning off his sweet, high-powered hog to make a hairpin turn, was plastered all over Sega promo materials. Even for a guy who had never played the game, the iconic image screamed “Sega!” before the actual Sega Scream ads were even a glimmer in Sonic’s over-caffeinated eyes.

Nearly a decade after its 1989 release, I finally got my hands on Super Hang-On as part of the “6-Pak,” a Genesis cartridge crammed to the brim with SHO and five of Sega’s other early hits. Super Hang-On had motorcycles and passwords and I had a new copy of Tekken and not a whole lot of patience, so I wound up playing Streets of Rage for an hour before going back to the rugged, dangerously sharp polygons of the 32-bit era.

Earlier this month, I picked up the Sega Vintage Collection on PlayStation 3 for a fiver. For the second time in my life, I had gotten a copy of Super Hang-On as part of a package deal. And, for the second time, it was the gaming equivalent of licorice jellybeans, sinking to the bottom of the metaphorical bag as I stabbed my way through Revenge of Shinobi and punched many a hapless octopi to death in that Master System classic, Alex Kidd in Miracle World.

But when I loaded up Super Hang-On, this time the arcade version from 1987, and went poking around in the options menu, I found something mind-blowing.

You could play in 3D. Delicious, old-school, red ‘n’ blue, three-freaking-dee. Images of Rad Racer on NES flooded my mind. That game was in 3D too. And it was the most child-abusing, soul-rending “3D” I’ve ever seen, staining many a youthful afternoon in salty, salty tears. 

Still, I figured I’d give it a try, and dug out the only pair of 3D glasses I owned. At least if Super Hang-On looked less like a game and more like someone spilled a bucket of red and blue paint on a burn victim, I’d be appropriately viewing it though Nightmare on Elm Street glasses.

I want you to go grab your 3D glasses. C’mon, I know you have a pair of them. Go dig ‘em out and put ‘em on. Seriously, I’ll wait.

You ready?

Take a look at this.

Click on it for full screen!

This photo is nice, but doesn’t do the game justice. SHO’s 3D mode is awesome! The road has some serious depth, the background objects pop and bob with the action, and playing for more than 10 minutes gives me a headache like I was just punched in the jaw by the Mighty Thor. It’s just as 3D was meant to be!

At its core, Super Hang-On is just Outrun on two wheels. But SHO has something Outrun doesn’t: a turbo button! Well, unless you’re playing Turbo Outrun, which also has a turbo button, as the name would imply. But SHO has a turbo button IN 3D.

Super Hang-On immediately reminded me why I used to play racing games, before Gran Tourismo made everything SUPER REALISTIC down the thread count of the driver’s underpants; before “drifting” – applying the breaks to make the car slide around corners – took the fun out of all 200-plus horses. SHO adheres to a simple concept that’s been lost in modern gaming: just go fast.

I shredded the streets of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the good ol’ US of A to the sound of 10,000 rockin’ angels with Casio keyboards. Just listen to this! It’s like a Sega Genesis is making sweet, electric love to your earholes.

I made a CD with this song looping for like 10 minutes and it’s in my car’s radio AS I TYPE THIS. I’m not even a little embarrassed.

Super Hang-On is a blast, but like most old school racing games, it wasn’t long before I’d seen everything it had to offer. I nabbed the game’s dozen trophies in under 45 minutes and could do half the courses with my eyes closed. But as I went to shut off the game, I noticed a “trials” option tucked away in the main menu. It’s really more of a time attack mode, with players completing one of the four courses as fast as they could.

But there was a fifth course available, one you can’t even play in the main game: “World.” It was all 48 stages stitched together into one long race.

I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve wanted to drive to Europe, but that pesky Atlantic Ocean always gets in my way. Let me tell you, that ocean is cold in more ways than one.

“OK,” I thought, “I’ll play until I run out of time.”

But then something happened that was straight out of my younger self’s idea of a dramatic sports movie, potentially starring Pee Wee Herman and Don Knots, as they were the only two actors I knew by name in 1987: I wasn’t losing. I was blasting through epic bends, shooting past rivals, weaving between rows of 300 identical signs of Marilyn Monroe. Fourteen minutes and 23 stages in, I wasn’t fooling around anymore.

Those last few stages had me scared. Before hitting up the World course, I had made several unsuccessful bids at the 18-stage Europe level. Could I handle it?

By stage 47, my mantra had changed from “go fast” to “just don’t hit anything.” The last few stages had given me barely enough time to complete them. And going into the final stage, I didn’t have much room for error.

A familiar feeling washed over me, from an era without save states or second chances. In about 40 seconds, I was either going to finish Super Hang-On’s toughest trial by the skin of my teeth or watch helplessly, agonizingly, as the clock wound down to zero with the finish line in eyeshot.

I only had one choice: I had to go fast AND not hit anything. For a few seconds, I was back in tune with my twitch reflexes from two dozen years ago.

Finally I saw the finish line with ten seconds left, an eternity in Super Hang-On. But thankfully, I only need four of them. The journey of 32-plus minutes came to an end with my victory and six seconds to spare.

That was a week ago and I haven’t played Super Hang-On since. For a guy like me, most of my great video game memories have a flipside – the day the fun died. An unbeatable level, a bugged trophy that just wouldn’t pop, the final 20 percent of a game slogged through out of duty, not desire. I had unknowingly crafted the perfect swan song for Super Hang-On and I’m not willing to mess that up. So to quote the song “Mr. Blue” by Electric Light Orchestra, “Never mind. I’ll remember you/I’ll remember you this way.”

Uncle Richard would be proud. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Still steam in Sanders' Valve?

Although Hillary Clinton might want Bernie Sanders to wake up and smell the ashes of his campaign for U.S. president, I don't think he's ready to give up yet,

But remember, the right man in the wrong place might make all the difference in the world for Trump.