With the much deserved sleeper success of King of Fighters XIII, it seems like any day now the irrepressible horse-throttlers at SNK Playmore will be unsheathing their Emphasis Cudgels and announcing the fourteenth installment of this storied series to the terrified whinnies of mares the globe over. Even with that many sequels and eighteen years of consistent popularity under its belt, KOF still feels like a cult phenomenon in some respects, an asterisked success story, a peerless third stringer, the 2-D fighting game equivalent of Jack-in-the-Box. It has its fans, but gamerdom-at-large has never seemed to know what to make of the franchise and its Shinjuku fashionista throwdowns.
Part of the issue may have been the installments themselves, the sheer bulk and breadth of them, and the speed at which they were released (one every year for the first nine years of its existence). In toto, it probably proved too technically and financially demanding to keep up with for most people. Keep in mind, KOF never approached sequelitis the same way Capcom did: tweaking a few things, adding a few things, and sending a 90% recycled game back out the door. No, SNK kept the basic skeleton each year, but always provided new backgrounds, new music, new story and bosses, at least one new mechanic if not an entire engine overhaul, and a ton more characters to choose from, more and more every year. These were full-fledged sequels, new games built off of a familiar formula, each with it's own quirks, issues, and highlights.
What it amounts to almost twenty years down the line is a massive backlog of characters, locations, and plot elements that have fallen by the wayside due to the immense volume of content. The only times the series ever had a chance to stop, catch a breath, and survey what it had accumulated was on the vaunted "Dream Match" titles (KOF '98, KOF 2002), where all the favorite characters from incongruous installments were mashed together in one giant, non-canonical free-for-all. These were an ideal way of surveying highlights that until then felt like speed bumps, and were spaced at the end of major story arcs to help give some stylistic cohesion to the jumble.
Having been a full decade since the last of these installments, and with an influx of new fans who probably aren't familiar with the game's immediate past, much less it's 90's heyday, the time has never been riper for another compilation brawl. And didn't the latest story arc just end in XIII? Hmm.
Here's but a few of the characters I hope make an appearance.
I feel sorry for Krizalid. Until KOF ’99, the series was mired in the Orochi mythos (wherein a long forgotten demon-god-snake-thing threatens to put a fiery end to humanity unless a dozen fashion conscious young men manage to beat each other up in the right order), with every installment adding more and more plot twists and double-crosses than was ever really necessary for a game ostensibly about three on three face-punching. By ‘98 they had killed off this world-ending super deity that had unified the franchise, and the impressive heap of canonical nonsense accumulated while doing it caused SNK to do what any master of the whack-ass serial narrative would’ve done: they made the next game a plotless clip show highlighting the best aspects of the series thus far, and left the unenviable task of rebooting the franchise for the following year.
Twelve months of ulcer-inducing panic later, the new arch-fiend Krizalid was ushered onto the grenade of lowered expectations. An all new story arc meant contriving another globe-imperiling antagonist, one that could somehow keep the stakes as high as they were at the end of the last plot, as well as live up to the storied pantheon of boss fights the series had delivered thus far. Krauser, Geese, Saisyu, original staple honcho Rugal, and of course the much heralded Orochi all brought a little prestige and tension to the closing battles of the series. And here comes Krizalid, dressed in a purple trench coat with feathered shoulder pads, looking for all the world like Darth Stardust, heading up a scheme so cockamamie it would’ve been laughed out of a Legion of Doom brainstorming powwow (something about cloning series poster boy Kyo a few thousand times, seeding the clones all over the globe, and then…I don’t know, seizing control of…something? Was he not aware that governments have tanks and jets and other weapons impervious to sweet karate moves?).
Okay, so maybe this is the warm up round, and the new guy is just getting settled in, right? Still needs to unpack his desk, train the new secretary, find his “My Other Mug is a Verb” coffee cup before tucking into the really nefarious villainy, right? Well, no, actually. Krizalid survives his first appearance, but with severe brain trauma, having been severely out-face-punched by your chosen squad of face-punchers, the genre’s standby plot twist then reared its ugly head -- the one where the all-powerful badass boss turns out to be the toadie of another, even aller-powerful badass who’s been pulling things from the shadows. Strings, presumably. The second worst thing one can pull from the shadows. After his near fatal dose of the critical beatdown, Krizalid’s mysterious benefactor decides he’s not worth the bus fare back to HQ and hands him a one-ton cement severance package, which he walks away from with nary a scratch but some middling amnesia. And I’d imagine a doozy of learning disability. It was a lot of cement.
I’d love to see this character in part because I don’t think he ever got a fair shake. Mechanically, he’s a unique character, combining a better than average reach on a lot of his normals, a short range projectile and standard anti-air uppercut ala much of the cast, with a few command grabs that round out his move set in some potentially devastating ways, giving you a lot of control over where your opponent is on the screen, like a half-grappler, half-shoto zoning nightmare with huge pokes. That the latest KOF’s engine lets you combo into grabs would make another appearance all the more exciting.
Secondly, I don’t just like that jacket, I believe in that jacket. Krizalid believes in it enough to incinerate it before every match, meaning somewhere in his lair [studio apartment] there’s a coat rack with a couple hundred of these plumed badboys ready to go. That takes a level of dedication that I think few ne’er-do-wells can lay claim to, and adds another dimension to the character: fiendish archvillain, incompetent lackey, resolute fashionista. Mostly, though, I think it would look exceedingly rad in HD.
You know an SNK character means business when they don’t have a ducking animation. Oh sure, they have a ducking state, along with a sweep and a crouching punch, but if you think for a second their sprite is going to prostrate itself to the raggedy likes of you, well, you have tragically overlooked the gross tonnage of ass-whomp therein beatified. Magaki Did Not Duck. Mr. Big Did Not Duck (Initially: He learned humility over the years). And yes, Mukai here Did Not Duck.
Of course, when you also consider that Mukai Did Not Jab, and Muka Did Not Have a Blocking Animation, one starts to suspect Mukai Did Not Receive an Adequate Development Schedule. Which is not nearly as badass sounding when over-emphatically capitalized. Nonetheless, for a seven-foot-five, glowing budget shortfall, he turned out pretty good.
Think of Mukai as the lovechild of Akuma, Achilles, and Tron. I don’t know what circumstances would lead to such a gruff, futurist orgy. Perhaps some lingering gazes, a few too many wine coolers, a breathy sandal compliment, and into the darker corners of Livejournal we go, but however that sundering dogpile started, this guy is most definitely how it ended.
The shadowy cult of antagonists in the most recent KOF story arc were Those from the Past (which we can only assume sounded cooler in Japanese), and Mukai here was the first member to be revealed in 2003 to wreck our collective shit in the climactic boss fight. He showed up only if certain conditions were met, pontificated on human life in the usual half-cocked pseudo-philosophical vill-liloquy, the type of speech that only makes me wonder if such villains are making it up as they go along or if they actually think about human existence in their spare time, pacing their trans-dimensional billiard room in a satin smoking jacket, twirling a snifter of brandy and muttering to themselves.
In the event you won, you were treated to one of the more dickish narrative fake-outs a fighting game can throw at you, watching as the boss you just spent three rounds beating the piss out of stands up, completely unscathed, and ends the fight because something more important has come up. WELL. Don’t let me hold you up there, chief. Hope I didn’t repeatedly upper-cut your Blackberry during our ambivalent tussle. If he’s in perfect health, what exactly did the life bar represent in this instance? Sardonic amusement? Space left on his TiVo? The shameful specter of urinary incontinence? What are we punching here?
After trotting off completely unharmed, several other members of Those Not From ‘Round Here made appearances in the games that followed, all of whom proved to be no slouches in the horrendously cheap boss department, either. In KOFXIII the whole shadowy cabal shows up to execute their oft mentioned, long delayed master plan.
Eliciting Every Reaction But Terror Since 2003
That, or just stand around for one still image during a cutscene, it’s not entirely clear. Unless that [i]is[/i[ the diabolical master plan, in which case three games over the course of eight years seems a tad excessive to organize a flash mob. Regardless, the ringleader to this pantheon of...robed persons is finally unveiled, and what visage of destruction incarnate would an imposing demon monster like Mukai call master? A city-leveling ogre? A towering beast of legend? Perhaps some trans-dimensional monstrosity beyond our comprehension? Well, since this is a Japanese game, that invincible god of death would be Saiki, who is an unusually curvaceous man. *sigh*
And since SNKP is doing everything in their power to avoid drawing more expensive looking character sprites, this elusive and apparently curvy mastermind you’ve waited nearly a decade to see is also going to be a palette swap of Ash Crimson, the most widely reviled character in KOF history. *SIGH*
Behold the fruits of inexhaustible creativity!
And best of all, in a flagrantly over-compensatory gesture, this sallow new fiend decides to prove his hips don’t lie by murdering a flunkie, and –being his right hand man – Mukai is unfortunately closest to his right hand at the time. See, we the audience already knew Saiki was an all-powerful badass, because the basic algorithm for an anime villain is Fighting Ability equals Bored to the fourth power, times the sum of Effeminate plus Taciturn, divided by Melanin Count, minus Showing Interest In Anything. Therefore Saiki, being churlish, girlish, haughty, pale, and pissy, is indeed a deadly beast. He-ish proceeds to suck the life out of poor Mukai before he would necessitate one of those aforementioned expensive sprites and tosses the raisiny corpse off-screen before they had to draw it any longer than was absolutely necessary. And this is how Mukai’s financially turbulent existence comes to a close. When it came to budget short falls, He Did Not Duck…but he really, really should have.
On the mechanical side Mukai had some shtick about controlling stones and rocks, depicted mostly through sound effects and masonry-themed special moves. While there is something eminently boss-like about getting attacked by Roman columns shooting up from the ground -- like The Patriarchy itself has returned, backed by his homeboy the Golden Ratio, ready to Dominus all over your middle class, post-industrial cream puff of a face -- there was something a tad undercooked about his move set. Ideally, a character’s mechanics should be flexible enough to accommodate different play styles, acting as a kind of template with wiggle room to allow for enough ingenuity to turn a staid metagame on its ear.
With his fast, far-reaching, high-priority normals, projectile-killing projectiles, and a full screen, near-instant DM that deals whacky monster damage, Mukai can only be played two ways – cheaply or poorly – either of which usually ends in a win. He was the boss of the only game where he was playable, so it makes sense, but if he ever rejoins the fray it’s my hope he’ll be brought more in line with the rest of the cast.
“Whhaaaattt.” I hear many of you groaning as you look over that sprite. “He’s an Akuma clone. That’s lame. You’re lame. Why did you do this? What are you on? Why do you exist? All that you love should be burned.” And okay, yes, he is, but regarding him as just an Akuma clone would be depriving yourself of a unique thought experiment. Rather, think of him as an important rebuttal to all the murderous glowering that’s garnered Akuma such a sizable fanbase over the years.
I think we can all understand the appeal: everyone loves a good villain, and where the rest of Street Fighter’s rogue’s gallery represent more terrestrial kinds of evil -- Seth the run-amok science project, Birdie the heartless gutter thug, Urien the envious brother, Adon the envious student, M. Bison: Fire-Hitler, Vega the narcissist, Balrog the bully, Rampaging Sports Weeaboo Sodom, Rolento the dog-and-pony Napoleon, and Sagat, who is basically a large jerk – Akuma by comparison is evil of a far more primordial stripe, divested of all earthly concerns, augured with the conviction of a holy man, his sole purpose in life to master the art of punching someone so hard their soul dies. That’s villainy a cut above, say, a lasciviously smirking character portrait, which Capcom seems convinced to be the definitive measure of weak moral fiber.
He also serves as the twisted, perhaps more plausible double for series’ sunshine boy Ryu, who, despite leading a Spartan existence of wandering fist fights, manages to be elementally boring -- unflappably noble, clad in virginal white, entirely too upstanding a dude for someone who seeks self-improvement through beating the shit out of strangers. Call me domesticated, I have no doubt that martial arts can help better one’s self, but when your only pair of clothes is a tattered gi and your forwarding address is “The Path to Victory”, you’ve perhaps gravely overestimated the intrinsic value of punching people in the face. Akuma winds up being the more believable of the two simply because really, ask yourself, who is the person so single-mindedly devoted to face-punching going to be: a quaking, demonic lunatic who lives in a cave, or some benign fight-Jesus, always ready with a few chipper words of encouragement?
So now that we’ve explored his stature in the series a bit, let’s really look at how problematic Akuma is, shall we? Chiefly, that Akuma poses a far greater danger to himself than anyone else. Figure the guy’s entire life philosophy boils down to maintaining a nice, frothy hatred for all living things, all the time, with frequent interludes of screaming, flexing, and violence. Now, medical professionals insist that regular levels of stress are bad for you. Like, the stress you accumulate from going to work and buying groceries and maintaining relationships. This guy’s whole day is just one prolonged stubbed toe of indignation and incoherent fury. Why, there’s not a single win quote in memory where he does not sound terminally pissed, and it should go without saying that Akuma doesn’t have any way of blowing off his considerable amounts of steam, as one can’t imagine him building a ship in a bottle or learning to salsa dance or writing poetry without that intense, murderous aura of his bungling everything up.
“Pathetic sail rigging! Your existence is but a nuisance to the might of my firm gluing-hand!”
“Foolish wriggler! You are not a dance partner but an ant to be ground in twain by my ever-gyrating nethers!”
“Another quatrain falls before the candid earthiness of my clear-eyed verse! Behold my pregnant caesura, like a thousand cross-folded hells!”
His life innately contrary to the act of relaxing, is what I’m driving at. And where tacit, pensive negativity might strain your health, relentless, explosive rage-farming is like a bullet train to an early grave. To say that Akuma is at high risk for a vascular event would be a grievous understatement. He’s forcing so much blood into his head during those twitching win stances it’s a wonder it doesn’t come spraying out of his ears. One to one odds say motherfucker would not make it to thirty without having a stroke so powerful it damn near rips him in half.
“Shun Goku SatsuuUUUUGGGHHKKkkkk”
And so that’s where Silber enters the picture. He’s an immense sprite, a head taller and several times thicker than just about any other character in KOF XI. He’s lumbering, moving so slowly and stiffly it’s faster to perform a command normal to get him across the screen than it is to jump; so slow most of his special moves are reactive counters because you can’t reliably connect any of his attacks without getting smacked out of the animation. His left arm just hangs there dangling during his stance and walking frames.
He’s not an Akuma clone so much as Akuma’s mid-life Fat Elvis phase, having porked up and gone to seed in the years following an explosive embolism. “I still got what it takes! I’m still full of murderous intent!” He bellows at his forlorn Street Fighter rivals. They can only respond with doleful looks and tightlipped nods. “You sure are, buddy. You sure are.” They say, turning aside and biting their fists. Never one to be made the object of pity, he drags his ragged bulk away, blubbering quietly once around the corner, swearing he’d show ‘em *sniffle* he’d show ‘em all! And he would, for while the Street Fighters may have qualms about wailing on the physically disabled, the folks entering the King of Fighters tournaments have nosuchcompunction.
Knicked this from the fledgling game site me and my buddy Graey recently started, Citizen Game. It's pretty scant at the moment but if you like either/both of our stuff, pop by every now and then, let us know what you think, shamelessly promote your own boonie web projects. You know, the usual.
So I went ahead and bought KOFXIII, even though I have no idea how SNK plans to distribute any follow-up content. Mostly because I want there to be follow-up content. And as seemingly straightforward as paying full retail for a game to support a franchise should be, it was something I did against my better judgment. In an age where online console play has supplanted the traditional arcade scene, not knowing how a publisher distributes a fighting game’s inevitable tweaks, expansions, and pseudo-sequels can mean the difference between enjoying a continually updated version of your initial purchase for years to come, and buying a game that will be shunted into obsolescence in a few months by a newer, better retail version.
Fightings games have always had a reputation for disposable sequels, making every new release feel like a volatile and temporary tweak, another fine-tuned permutation that will just as soon be body-snatched by another. The practice, in and of itself, is not necessarily exploitation. It’s craven and nakedly commercial, but fans always want more content, and a company should support and supply a product in demand. Having originated in the arcade and still very steeped in its culture and economics, it makes sense for the genre to have this very high-speed/low-yield development process. And while this practice is at least as old as the genre itself, it’s only on the current generation of consoles that it’s started to feel antiquated and exploitative.
Before now, technology necessitated that any change to your game, be it paltry adjustments to frame data or a whole new set of characters, required putting another physical release on store shelves. This isn’t necessary in the age of DLC, nor is it appropriate, nor is it advisable. Annual, and even bi-annual, non-compatible retail re-releases of existing titles is an archaic distribution model leftover from the 16-bit era, and even then it was shortsighted: each “new” full-priced iteration garnered fewer sales, diluted the respective brands, and caused many console gamers to walk away from the genre exasperated.
Nowadays these problems are even more pronounced because there are more strings attached to each new release than just a self-contained game you will play in a vacuum. Where the Skyrims and Mass Effects of the world afford you the luxury of indefinite solo campaigns, fighting games are not an isolationist genre. A game lives or dies on whether it can garner a large online community, and the ability to access it is a make or break selling point for most gamers. So you aren’t just buying the latest mechanics, new characters, new levels, etc. You’re buying connectivity and the publisher’s assurance that they will facilitate that connection.
And this dependency gives them a massive amount of leverage over their players, allowing them to set the time table for a game's viability and eventual replacement. Unlike a sequel to a single player game, a new retail fighting release literally subtracts functionality from its predecessor by divvying the online community, if not outright killing the original’s player base (as anyone who has ever fired up a copy of Vanilla Street Fighter IV, post-Super, can attest). Fans are forced to decide whether they want to quit playing a series entirely or buy the latest version because one of the key functions of their old copy has been rendered moot. The community exacerbates this to some extent, because in this genre the latest release is the default for anyone serious about playing -- that volatile and temporary new version also happens to be the definitive one. The dyed-in-the-wool fighting audience plays competitively -- if not literally then aspirationally -- and the latest game will (almost) always be the one played in tournaments. Even if the majority of a game’s players never enter a high level competition, they’ll still buy the latest update if only to follow the migration of talent. Further, the latest game is the only one that holds the often illusory promise of substantive DLC, which companies can milk for sales even when they have nothing to add to a game before the next retail installment.
So this constant stream of revamped, incompatible retail iterations is balkanizing any established player base, has created a serious breach of trust between the publisher and the community, and essentially makes buying a fighting game into a blatantly bad investment, with the most loyal early-adopters usually getting it the worst. Yeah, the industry pretends to throw them a bone when the shiny new follow-up is “discounted” at $40, but in reality that means the diehards spend $100 over the course of two purchases to reliably play one damn game.
People are getting fed up with this, and a mistrustful hardcore community with a chip on its shoulder can’t be good for business. I know more than a few who automatically assume any new IP will have a less than twelve-month retail turnover. They wind up never supporting games they actually can and want to buy because any minute now a better version will come down the pipe. And really, who can blame them? There’s a certain level of sour grapes about it, sure, but also an underlying pragmatism that publishers have helped foster, where fans have been treated like unthinking cash machines, feel exploited, and thus adapt at the expense of the game companies, the community they could be contributing to, and their own fun. This evidence is anecdotal at best, but my own circle of PSN fight-friends has been decimated by crap like this. One friend has Vanilla while another has AE. One has Calamity Trigger while I have Continuum Shift. One washed his hands of the whole genre after getting slagged off by Marvel vs. Capcom 3, while another won’t buy in because he’s convinced Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Here-Is-Mega-Man-You-Goddamn-Whiners Edition is right around the corner. Now I’ve got my copy of KOFXIII and none of my circle to play it with because in a buyer beware atmosphere, no one wants to get burned by another fighting game.
Some may read this as a thinly-veiled swipe at Capcom, and while yes, the bulk of the scene -- and therefore the bulk of the blame - falls on their shoulders, many other companies are just as guilty (When I say that I’m looking at Arksys’ upcoming Blazblue rerelease and it’s whopping one new character, MSRP $39.99), and I do think for all the shady shit they continue to pull, Capcom has provided the gold standard of how to expand a fighting game in the digital age when they released SSFIV: Arcade Edition. A non-compulsory, reasonably priced, substantial addition to a game that can still be played without, released as both a downloadable update and a retail disc for newcomers? That is exactly how it should be done. Build on top of the player base you created with the original game and leave no one behind in the process. Far smarter than the Super Street Fighter IV/UMvC3 model, with diminishing returns of an increasingly pissed audience.
Hell, even if this retail cycle is applied in exactly same way but over a longer period of time, it goes from being egregious to perfectly reasonable. As great as a game may be, fighters have a life cycle, and once it’s been played to death, additional content dries up, and interest starts to dwindle, there’s nothing wrong with a big new release coming out to put a series back in the limelight. But this should happen when interest in an IP starts to flounder, not when it’s at the height of its popularity. That’s when you should be making new content available through DLC to spark more attention, not resetting the franchise’s established audience (which, if you’re lucky, will only shrink by a third each "sequel"). A retail release should be centered on delivering a lot of high quality new content, separated by a few years of optional DLC to keep it a hot property, not a few tiny additions spread over many releases in a very small time frame. Quality over the long term rather than quantity immediately.
Having played these things for (…good lord…) twenty years now, it’s extremely exciting to see how this genre has developed into a thriving subculture where people from all over the planet can throw down, swap techniques, talk shop and generally nerd out over great games. At the same time, it is frustrating to watch publishers squander the boon of the fighting community, chipping away at their own sizable fan base just like they did in the nineties by insistently valuing the short-sighted cash grab over the long term investment. Again and again like they can’t fucking help themselves. I’m not saying they’re going to kill the genre or anything so hyperbolic. But in the long-run they will shrink their audience until they can simply no longer afford sticking it to the people that have carried their company.
Recently, I was blessed with a glimpse through that middle-class wormhole into semi-luxury known as the Starz Free Weekend. For three magical days, even the most deprived basic cable peasant can enjoy all the low-hanging fruit premium channels have to offer: the entire Tom Green and Seth Green film oeuvre! A hodgepodge of random cult movies last seen together in the five dollar bin at your local gas station! A seemingly inexhaustible supply of Freddie Prinze Jr. and his distinctive brand of non-threatening metrosexual hunking! Low end softcore pornography, featuring a dazzling assortment of fake tits, hairplugs, and spray-on tans, all politely dry-humping their way through some profoundly un-erotic human sadness! Not that I would know! And no less than seven showings of Jurassic Park 3 -- the Freddie Prinze Jr. of the Jurassic Park franchise, in that both are crushing disappointments compared to their awesome namesake, and have no reason to exist other than to sell plastic dinosaur toys, which I can only assume is what Freddie Prinze Jr. is doing now, at roadside flea markets throughout Southern California, for bus fare and gin money.
It was amidst this parade of C minus comfort food that I saw The Last Starfighter for the first time in probably fifteen years. It was a childhood favorite, and out of curiosity, nostalgia, or maybe Pavlovian reflex, I decided to sit through it and see how it measured up in the cold light of adulthood. The result has forced me to reevaluate my entire gaming habit from beginning to end, and I would like to encourage those of you who were exposed to the film at an early age to do the same, for we may all have been living with a deep-seated fear of getting -- and please pardon the technical jargon -- Last Starfighter-ed, a fear that could very well be governing our gaming decisions and performance to this very day.
For those of you not in the know, The Last Starfighter was a 1984 summer kiddie flick about frustrated man-boy Alex Rogan, who feels stifled by his sleepy trailer park existence and pines for bigger and better things, but can't quite summon the wherewithal to do much besides engage in the occasional PG make-out session with his powerfully 80s girlfriend Maggie, and sink quarters into Starfighter, the arcade cabinet outside the corner shop constantly badgering passersby to help defeat Xur (whoever he is) and the Ko-Dan armada (whatever they are) in a full 3D rail shooter sporting some mighty rad graphics for the mid-eighties. Imagine Starfox with better texture mapping and no goddamn worthless androgynous frog co-pilots and you're on the right track. On one particularly fruitful gaming binge, Alex manages to beat the standing high score, an occasion that draws the entire trailer park out to cheer him on in what is still the most hilariously ludicrous sequence in a movie full of spaceships and aliens. None of sci-fi trimmings will challenge your suspension of disbelief quite like the lady in the floppy sunhat yelling "CommaaAAaand Ship!" with a look of fevered ecstasy on her face.
Apparently, Mabel has suffered one too many thrashing at the hands of the Ko-Dan to conduct herself with the poise and dignity such a large hat would suggest.
Regardless, Alex beats the game, or the high score, the movie doesn't seem to understand the difference, but whatever, hurray for our hero! Immediately after that flighty high he receives a rejection letter from the University of Anywhere But Here. Aww, boo for our hero. But never fear, friends, for he won't be languishing in white trash torpor much longer. Rather, the fucking Music Man himself rolls into town in a space mini-van, proclaims he is the creator of the recently bitch-slapped Starfighter, and wants Alex to get in his angular candy van under the auspices of a vague business deal. Uh-huh. Displaying an alarming disinterest in self-preservation, our canny hero hops into the back seat, and where nine times out of ten this would serve as the jumping off point for a low-rent version of Cruising, here, our would-be Huckster-Rapist really is a space alien sent from a distant world, and isn't just saying that to spice up the otherwise humdrum task of sexing a naive hill-stranger in the face. To the Stars!
As it turns out, Starfighter was manufactured as a covert recruiting tool for the Rylan Star League, an entire species of prematurely balding aliens and their bullpen of foam-rubber ringers, who are locked in an intergalactic grudge match with a very real, apparently unpleasant Ko-Dan armada. See, the ships that the Star League built are so difficult to fly that only a select few spread out across the galaxy are even capable of operating them. I would hope that to most advanced, space-faring civilizations, this would be a wake up call that they need to go back to the drawing board and design something more than six people in existence can fly, but I guess manufacturing a simulation, localizing it correctly for each region on each planet throughout the galaxy, conducting this research and discretely dropping off the game without anyone noticing you're a space alien, and then kidnapping anyone with enough free time to beat it, all for the sake of assembling a pantheon of the half-dozen biggest virgins in the galaxy, yeah, thats a perfectly good plan, too.
There's a catch, though: they are not allowed to recruit from planets that are not part of the Star League, a rule our incorrigible Lyle Langley figure has zealously ignored. Whether this was actually a rule, or the only polite way to diffuse the situation when the purported savior of the universe turned out to be a carpet-pate with no concept of stranger danger, we may never know, but for his part, Alex doesn't seem terribly enthused about any of this now that the possibility of a degrading sexual encounter seems remote at best. Thus the runtime gets padded out a bit, Alex is taken back to Earth, and then back to space, plus there's a robot that assumes his identity, and shape-shifting alien police officers, and a freaking Robert Preston laser gun battle. It's all rather complicated stuff, people, but what's important is that Alex eventually does hop in a space-ship and commence with the whiz-bang (with an androgynous frog co-pilot, no less), saves the universe from the scourge of the whoever-the-fuck-they-weres, and goes on to live amongst the balding star people as their furry-scalped messiah.
By no means a great film. At best, it's an unusually well put together diversion (though it does contain a moment of staggering dedication to the craft of thespianism, when the leader of the striation-faced villains. having botched the final battle so badly that telltale sparks are shooting out of the set, serves up a pithy line right before exploding to death, which the actor delivers -- with all the thunder and gravitas of a brave man's final words -- while getting slapped in the cornea by a piece of plastic. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an effin' professional). On the surface it promotes a very pro-game message (that even apparently useless hobbies can make you Space Jesus if you just have the courage to get in the stranger's van), but to the unguarded mind of a young video game enthusiast, there is an insidious subtext in there, a tiny seed of doubt and wariness that lodges itself deep in the subconscious, and forces us to question every game we encounter thereafter, whether we're aware of doing so or not. It suggests the possibility -- no matter how remote, absurd, and improbable -- that each game you play could really be a test put forth by unknown forces, out there in the ethers, who will come acquire you the moment you show signs of potential.
Now this sounds great on the surface because sure, who doesn't want to be Space Jesus? If anyone tells you they'd rather not be whisked off to another galaxy for all the green poon and Robert Preston laser battles they can handle, they are either a coward or playing a very long con, and either way not worth striding abreast to and from life's many watercoolers. The problem is that a surprising percentage of games aren't about becoming the star christ, and in such situations you have to weigh failure against earning a destiny you never wanted. How does one navigate all the stresses of Tetris while grappling with the unarticulated fear that if that long block ever decides to show the fuck up and wipe another four lines, in a few days a burly Soviet man will arrive at your doorstep, speak briefly to your parents in hushed tones, and then whisk you off to the Moscow Airport where you'll spend the rest of your life quickly and efficiently packing luggage?
Alternately: say after hours of grinding you finally hit the level cap in Dragon Warrior, and before you get a chance to test drive you're newly minted chibi-demigod, the village elder strolls into your room and stands directly in front of the television. Do people still live in villages? Don't we have a mayor? No time for that, he assures you, ancient evil stirs, forces of darkness draw nigh, prophecies speak of a legendary chosen one, etc, etc. All a roundabout way of saying somebody's got to carry this satchel full of bullshit to a guy two towns over. And upon bequeathing you with the bullshit in question, along with a gallon of styling gel and your only change of clothes for the next ever (hope you like ornate gypsy blouses, by the way), he explains that while you won't get "paid" paid, once outside city limits you're going to want to stab everyone you encounter. Basically, if it's out of town and you can interact with it at all, it probably means you harm, but whatever you take off the bodies, yours to keep, no questions asked. It's around this time you begin to think it odd that the elder is a heavy-set Italian man in a track suit, but it's time to get hoofin', that plot contrivance ain't gonna kill two hours and a half dozen drifters by itself.
Dig deep, friends. Ask yourself, honestly, how many games you may have inadvertently bungled on the off chance, the niggling uncertainty, that you're one high score away from getting impaled by a man on an ostrich, just as the gypsy woman foretold. How many games? Are you really going to beat Star Tropics when your subconscious thinks there's a possibility you'll have to thwart an alien invasion with nothing but an extremely modest vertical jump and a fucking yo-yo? Are you really going to give your all to a game of Paperboy when every negligent driver and errant big wheel you avoid is waiting a few blocks from your house, sitting in darkened garages, frozen in unblinking stares over the tops of steering wheels, whispering pep talks to themselves as they pull on their fingerless gloves, balling their fists until the knuckles pop, waiting and swearing and never, ever blinking? And why was it again that so many guys never played as Chun Li?
That's not a conversation your average World Warrior wants to have. Not even a little. And I daresay most of you wouldn't survive the magical seven-part franchise that would follow that bombshell, because any two-bit tramp can hold down for two seconds, tap up and a kick button, but you need your shit indisputably together if you want to become the Tiger Mother. You going to Kikouken your son into an Ivy League medical school? No. No you're not. Priorities, he-ladies. Priorities
So now what? Now that you've been made aware of your self-induced finger incontinence, what's to be done about it? Are you doomed to become the human game over screen, drifting through a morbid succession of shoto-beatdowns, ostrich lancings, tonberry knifings, wallmaster gropings, flying medusa headbutts, and disobedient children who attend a liberal arts college and date filthy gwailo just to shame you? No, friends, I wouldn't stretch a premise this thin and leave you hanging. You must not let these fears run your extra lives. Rather, you must embrace them, meet them with open arms. Each game, each potential destiny, is like a bow-tied stranger inside a futuristic van, beckoning you to get in. Sure, you can play it safe, walk away, alert the authorities. Or maybe halfheartedly stick your head in the door, try to suss out the fate that's hiding in the shadowy recesses of that all-leather interior. But if you don't get in, you will never know for sure, never experience the thrill of the high score, the rescued princess, the umpteenth pristine row of blocks, the perfectly timed Spinning Bird Kick. You may wind up on a marquee or a milk carton, but the only headlines you'll net by playing it safe is a banner headline in the Who-Gives-A-Shit Tribune, which, I'm compelled to add, is not a widely circulated daily.
So, fellow eighties gamers, I say to you: get in that stranger's van. It might lead to the stars. More likely, a fetch quest, a few QTE's, and a middling sense of manufactured accomplishment, but by god, you'll have thrown your chips in, and for that you'll always be a Space Jesus to me.
The Golden Avenger was far and away my favorite superhero back in my comic-reading youth. By day: a hard-drinking millionaire playboy; by the-rest-of-the-time: a garishly-colored, nigh-invulnerable, still hard-drinking robot man who took on many of his foes while three sheets to the wind and pantsed them all the same, thanks to the almost un-sportsmanly degree of technological superiority between Iron Man and whoever Iron Man was horribly reaming that month. After so many years of this, I began to sympathize with the villains instead, like they’re the friend you’re trying to talk out of a losing fight with the brick shithouse in a polo shirt at the end of the bar. “Just walk away, Crimson Dynamo.” you say, “He’s not worth it. Be the bigger man.” you plead, but they never do listen, do they?
That said, on those rare occasions where Iron Man encountered a villain he couldn’t just steamroll in two pages, when things looked grim and the situation called for some honest to god heroism, he did always rise to the occasion. By which I mean he had his black friend do all the work, after which he would grace everyone with his presence in the last few panels, half in the bag, to deliver the photogenic coup de grace. As an added bonus, Jim Rhodes, the black friend in question, also served as a handy barometer for what white comic book writers throughout the decades imagined black people sounded like. From the stilted jive-talking seventies to the awkward gangsta platitudes of the nineties, he’s a veritable dictionary of dated clichés with that added zest of borderline racism to keep things from getting too staid and dignified.
As you can probably tell from that heavily skewed rundown, Iron Manning is a really sweet gig. Saving the world doesn’t require all that “responsibility” nonsense Spiderman is always harping about; all you need is a vast corporate empire, an extensive history of self-destructive behavior, and a man-shaped, adamantine super weapon that murders accountability right along with everything else.
With all this going for him it may be surprising that for most of his nigh-on five decade existence, Iron Man has been something of a second-stringer, a sad fact borne out in much of his game-ography. Like any career b-lister he has a long history of bridesmaid syndrome, turning up in other people’s games, or as additional window-dressing in a large Marvel ensemble, but almost never in his own dedicated title. Sometimes these rampant cameos landed him in great games, like the cracked-out visual barrage of the Marvel vs. Capcom series, starting with MvC2, where he was among the better characters outside of the Storm/Magneto/Sentinel triumvirate of unfortunate balance decisions. While not in the god tier, he was still ROCKET PUNCH a viable choice for ROCKET PUNCH aggressive players who ROCKET PUNCH wanted ranged opROCKET PUNCHnd a solid assisROCKET PUNCH ROCKET PUNCHinfinite comROCKET PUNCH ROCKET PUNCH ROCKET PUNCH.
Other times, he’d turn up in crap like Avengers in Galactic Storm, in which herky 3D renditions of Marvel’s premier superhero team (alphabetically speaking) wailed all over a pack of cosmic villains so obscure that they had to read the name under their own life bar to remember who the fuck they were. All due respect to the nascent commercial potential of would-be comic legends like Supremor and Shatterax, but I can’t help but feel like they’re only present because Data East ran out of Avengers they could plausibly throw bomber jackets on. It was the nineties, you see, and puffy jackets with rolled up sleeves were considered the panacea by which all dated superheroes could appeal to the youth of the day. Black Knight – who is a literal goddamn knight in chain mail and plate armor – was made instantly more hip and relatable with the addition of that functionally moot jacket. The Vision, who at the time just looked like a paste-colored bald man in matching cape and jockies, was ineligible for a rad jacket for bullshit comic book reasons despite a dire lack of flair. Along with many other favorite Avengers shafted by continuity, he was doomed to an existence of pocketless monochromaticity, and Data East had no choice but to fill out the roster with villains no one had ever heard of, for a) only heroes may wield the jacket, and b) fans of well-liked villains may have become soured on them for lack of jacket.
His one weakness! Medieval Japanese farming implements!
This gimmick of pitting a pantheon of Marvel’s most beloved characters against a gaggle of anonymous twats reached its apotheosis with another one of Iron Man’s choice bombs, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. While basically a craven business venture between two entertainment giants trying to conjure a new superhero franchise out of thin air, the core game elements of Nemesis aren’t bad on paper: a pared-down, Smash Bros. style 3D fighter with exaggerated physics, destructible/interactive environments, starring a host of comic characters all of whose powers are faithfully reproduced. It’s just that standing between that concept and the game we got was a host of very poor decisions, chief among them being these rise-prone Imperfects, the Electronic Arts-owned characters invented specifically for the game. EA’s plans for the Imperfects were clearly ambitious, as each character got their own elaborate backstory, a comic book mini-series that integrated them into Marvel canon, and Jae Lee-drawn portraits and covers to lend them a little cred in certain circles. What scuttled the Benjamin-hewn future of action figure lines and cartoon spin-offs envisioned by the boys in marketing was that the Imperfects are to superheroics what Jim Belushi is to humor – they’ve got a lot of brand recognition backing them up, but they can’t help but remind you of other, better characters. With such luminaries as LINKS Witchblade-with-a-Scooter-Helmet, Jax-Only-Taller, Shirtless-Southern-Electro, and the big bad himself, Lex-Luthor-Only-Not-Somehow, the Imperfects were never poised to set the world on fire, and surveying them in the character select screen only makes you pine for the likes of Shatterax and Supremor.
The few early games that were based soley on Iron Man didn’t fair much better, given that both were no-frills 2-D platformers that could just as soon have been about a severely jaundiced man in a bright red onesie. 2002’s The Invincible Iron Man for Game Boy Advance was serviceable, but so familiar in its tropes and mechanics that it brought nothing to the genre or the character. It is the same C average sidescroller that developers have been churning out since Mario first started his long journey to the right; a game from 2002 that just as easily could’ve been from 1992. Iron Man and X-O Manowar in Heavy Metal is more noteworthy in that a) it was yet another high-profile corporate crossover featuring Iron Man and a somewhat less storied hero of indeterminate popularity, and that b) it failed so vigorously and so extensively at every single element of design and execution that it didn’t simply waste the intellectual properties at hand (manasteel88 has a great write-up about it here), it doomed both franchises to a cultural torpor that only a surprisingly good, inexplicably successful summer blockbuster years down the line could’ve hoped to release them from. James Spader’s X-O Manowar vehicle has yet to materialize, sadly.
But thankfully for Iron Man, the preposterously charismatic Robert Downey Jr. decided after years of critical acclaim but modest box office success (not to mention an impressive chain of drug arrests) that having lots of money, incredibly angular facial hair, and being balls-out super-famous was indeed for him. And thus Iron Man achieved a level of pop saturation the character had never come close to approaching, suddenly on par with the likes of Batman and Spiderman in terms of fame and recognition amongst the normals. Almost overnight he went from being a dependable face in the crowd to one of Marvel’s flagship characters, and with all that money and attention coming in, surely a decent game was just around the corner?
Two dedicated games, another MvC title (followed by the same MvC title done properly for forty more dollars), and three years after the fact, we’re still rounding that particular corner. Both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were movie games, and carried all the baggage therein. They were clunky, slapdash affairs, designed firstly to look dazzling in trailers and previews, with fun gameplay and functional controls being a distant afterthought. It’s not even that they were that horrible, either (though don’t get me wrong, still bad enough to have spurred the publisher, Sega, to restructure, then close, the studio responsible for them). Mostly, they were a huge letdown. After the movie turned out to be such a pleasant surprise, with so many fledgling fans eager to take that armor for a spin, it’s a shame Marvel would squander that good will on something just another cheap, quickie movie game. Yes: a licensed game, no matter how crapped out, is going to make money. A good licensed game? That’s going to make a lot more money over a much longer period of time, or so my limited research and wide-eyed naiveté tells me. People are still buying Wolverine: Origins, are still fondly talking up Spiderman 2. Hell, a lot of us have bought Goldeneye twice now. I suppose I just don’t understand how the shovelware business model is still a viable one when it makes you less money in the long term and actively hurts your brand. Perhaps someone will set me straight in the comments.
Even though it hasn’t materialized yet, I’m still optimistic that a decent Iron Man game will come together somewhere down the line. With so much attention on the character, they’ll have to get it right eventually. It only took Spiderman ten some odd years of terrible, terrible games before he got a decent one, right? Besides, Iron Man is prime material for a current generation game, with his city-leveling fights, his huge selection of alternate outfits, a weirdly diverse rogue’s gallery that ranges from rival businessmen to nefarious Chinese sorcerers to a whole rainbow brigade of ray gun toting doofuses shooting every variety of concentrated energy a shaky grasp of science can conceive. What’s not to love? And while it’s a understandably tricky to integrate shooting mechanics with superhuman melee combat, tack flight on top of those and somehow cook up something that doesn’t control like the haphazard messes the license has already put forth, perhaps the HD remake of Zone of the Enders, of which I have publicly aired grievances, will give them a few pointers?
Note: It has come to my attention that my “Intellectual Properties that Deserve Better Games” segment bears a striking resemblance to SephirothX’s “Characters Who Need a Good Game” series. I suggest you read them over, and then choose sides for the inevitable West Side Story-esque jazzy knife-fight dance battle. I’m with him, because a Jack Burton video game would be ridiculously awesome.
While normally I love it when a storied game series gets the next-gen anthology treatment, Konami’s upcoming slew of HD compilations has yet to give me the months-long case of consumer blue balls that a gussied up ZoE or Silent Hill really ought to induce. Seriously: extra shiny, uber-definitive versions of some of my favorite games should be triggering at least a smidge of maladjusted fanboy behavior. By all rights, I should be over on Amazon right now, belting out a falsetto rendition of “Snake Eater” in-between ecstatic sobs, compulsively hitting refresh every thirty seconds in case Konami decides on a larf to bump up the release dates by six or so months -- not on Destructoid, whining to you guys as though you’ll read this, start slow-clapping at your computer, and a few small steps from there, ¡Revolucion!
My main gripe is that for a bunch of compilations, the respective Silent Hill, Zone of the Enders, and Metal Gear sets do a really shit job of compiling. A good compilation can either be comprehensive, and include everything in the series, or it can be cohesive, and have some internal logic by which yon handful of games make sense as a single volume. But rather than designing each compilation around the needs of each individual series, Konami seems to be cramming fuck-all onto a blu-ray disc and asking upwards of $40 for it.
Let’s address this game by game…
…Starting with the most egregious offender, the Silent Hill comp. Now clearly, any collection that leaves out half the series isn’t trying to be the definitive franchise retrospective, and that’s fine, it’s just that the games they left in don’t really make for a definitive anything. Say you’re one of those Johnny-come-way-way-latelies who’ve decided after twelve years that Silent Hill is suddenly relevant to your interests, and Silent Hill HD precisely the caboodle with which you will Experience The Majesty.
The compilation contains SH2 and SH3, which means, as a newbie, that you’ll be introduced to the series with one standalone narrative and one direct sequel to a game that isn’t included. The most accomplished narrative and design the series ever achieved, followed by a game very, very similar to it -- albeit with a hearty dose of diminishing returns -- with a story that will probably play out like the 10-year reunion episode of a TV show you never watched. Hell, from a story perspective, packaging SH1, SH3, and Origins together would’ve made more sense. It would’ve been a crappier compilation, but again, it would have some semblance of cohesion.
But whatever, so your first impressions will be a tad disjointed. The series has never been real big on that whole “making literal sense” thing, so chances are you won’t notice this little hiccup. The important thing is you’re getting the best they have to offer, right? SH2 and SH3 are often said to be the series’ peak, and surely that’s the rationale behind this collection: an HD victory lap highlighting Team Silent’s very finest? Well, if Metacritic is the final word, then sure, these are the highest percentile quasi-metaphorical Japanese mindfuckings you can buy outside of some very obscure, very dark mail-order catalogs. But before dipping into the ol’ mercurial nightmare fund, you may want to ask around. Very few Silent Hill lifers I know would call SH3 the second best game in the series, and if they do, it’s usually by default. SH3 is the most staid, least memorable, by-the-numbers SH, and though it doesn’t get much wrong, it certainly doesn’t distinguish itself outside of Heather’s very happenin’ hoodie-vest. Similarly, you’ll never hear anyone say SH4 is the best in the series, but the token compliments usually conceded to this black sheep are quite telling. “It’s the most disturbing,” “it’s the creepiest,” “it has the best story,” etc. There is something genuinely unnerving about SH4, something belied by its so-so metascore. It’s a warts-and-all experiment that gets a lot wrong, but will likely stick with you for months all the same. One of those odd titles that manages to be a great game even though it’s not a very good game. That to me is still more worthwhile than a competently executed ten-hour shrug that features an awesome hoodie-vest.
Functional, comfortable, and fashionable? Now there's a garment I would barf up the Messiah for!
So are you actually getting the best of Team Silent in this comp? Sure, but with the emphasis on only, and only in the broadest definition of “best”.
Now if this comp doesn’t make sense as a story primer, or as a legacy-fluffing prestige title, what exactly is it trying to do?
To me, it feels like someone at Konami saw that the God of War Collection sold well, gleaned that gamers would buy two PS2 games for $40 as long as they had spit-shined graphics and trophies, and thus an entirely half-assed, superfluous compilation was born. Perhaps this is an overly cynical assessment, and one based on nothing but my own hateful grousing, but I really cannot fathom why they wouldn’t include SH4. And not even because of my personal druthers, but because the product they’re left with is barely deserving of the word “collection”. It would be like Sucker Punch announcing that their upcoming Sly Cooper HD Trilogy is leaving out the second one because the prevailing taste consensus has deemed it merely “okay”. It's seems like a ludicrous thing to do, it seems like a cheap thing to do, and it makes for a Silent Hill compilation so scant, so perfunctory, so loveless, that it offers nothing besides nicer graphics to those who already own the games (like me) and is an overly expensive, overly abridged place to start for those who don’t (hypothetical-you).
The Metal Gear Solid Collection has a different problem, stemming from having just had a compilation released a few years ago that’s still widely available. A miniscule bump in graphic fidelity probably won’t win over a customer who already ponied up for Solid in toto, so Konami needed to sweeten the deal on this one. Shake things up. Keep things fresh. Then charge $50 for all the extra shaking and freshness.
The end result: along with MGS2 and 3, gamers will get an HD version of the PSP title Peace Walker. Now, I can understand not including the original Metal Gear Solid, as seeing PS1 graphics in high definition is probably like finding a photo of Jim Henson wrist-deep in Kermit the Frog for the first time -- sometimes a more revealing picture diminishes the magic. And I can understand why they didn’t replace MGS with its Gamecube alter-ego, Twin Snakes, on account of it being one of the most haltingly stupid things to ever come out of the series -- a series whose last installment, mind you, featured sexy boss fight photo shoots.
This should not be giving you an erection.
What I can’t understand is how they decided on Peace Walker. Just Peace Walker. There are four Metal Gear PSP games out there, two of which fit into the series’ increasingly whack-ass canon, and none of which have ever been collected or ported to consoles. And here, in the first attempt to do so, we get a single, stray PSP game, slapped onto two other games that aren’t chronologically or numerically adjacent to it.
The fuck is this? I mean, I do realize this whole article is born out of my own raging nerd OCD, dwelling over shit that most well-adjusted folk will rightfully not notice or care about, but can no one at Konami count? Are they the victims of a novelty abacus prank that has spun horribly out of control? Nobody buys a DVD boxset that contains episodes 2, 3, half of 4, 9, and the Christmas episode from two seasons later, so why is Konami running their business like an eighties anime bootlegger?
Maybe I’m just pissed that MGS2 and 3 got trophies before MGS4. There’s something borderline spiteful about that. Team Mustache Dad gets no respect.
And finally we come to the Zone of the Enders comp, which should be exempt from my bitching because it actually does contain all the games in the series (with the exception of a GBA title that, if you miss your opportunity to play it, likely won’t be showing up on your death-bed regret list. On the off chance you do use your dying breath to cry out “The Fist of Mars!”, your assembled loved ones will probably just make rash assumptions about grandpa’s private life and that will be that). Unfortunately, it’s still not a good compilation, because only half (that is, one) of the ZoE games are even worth all the HD hullabaloo and monies therein forked over. Second Runner is one of my favorite games ever, my go-to example for everything a sequel should be, one of the prettiest games of the last or any generation, and the best giant robot game that doesn’t require a massive cockpit/controller apparatus so expensive and so nerdy that having one sitting in your living room automatically reinstates your virginity. Second Runner is a great game that I would happily purchase again.
ZoE1? ZoE1 is best remembered as the box the MGS2 demo came packaged in. It was a passable game, mechanically sound and technically impressive for its time, but with severely undercooked gameplay that slumps into an endless string of monotonous battles, saddled with a story that didn’t end as much as it stopped. There were a lot of good ideas in there -- an exemplary control scheme, incredible mechanical design, a haunting score and melancholic atmosphere, a typical-but-appealing sci-fi world, gratuitous amounts of Freudian cockpit placement -- but so much of that promise wasn’t delivered until the sequel.
Jehuty did not heed my last caption.
The first game was the rough draft, the blueprint, little Bambi’s first awkward steps before growing into the king of the forest. The giant robot forest. As the second most prominent selling point in a $40 compilation, ZoE1 just isn’t going to pull its weight. The God of War Collection had two terrifically dumb, grandly entertaining action games to its name. The upcoming Ico/Shadow of the Colossus comp brings together Fumito Ueda’s twin masterpieces of atmosphere and understatement. ZoE HD feels a game short of justifying the same price tag these other collections are swinging, which is especially a shame if said game’s existence hinges on how well this comp performs.
And there you have it. How Konami has talked me out of buying spiffed up versions of some of my favorite games. I should probably emphasize that this isn’t a call to arms or a boycott or anything approaching a principled stand, unless my own sense of entitlement can now be considered a principle (pleasepleaseplease). Each of these releases just struck me as being off in various ways, and I wanted to see if you guys were similarly vexed, or if I’ve finally hatched into the kind of gamer so impossible to please that nothing short of a solid gold copy of Chrono Trigger 2 -- one that does your taxes, cuts your hair, vents housebroken puppies from its exhaust ports, can turn you into a bodhisattva depending on which ending you get, and dispenses hand jobs if you talk to it about comic books for long enough, MSRP $14.99 -- will ever be deemed worthy of attention, at least until it’s revealed that Marle’s hair color is different and there’s no trophy support for players who’ve attained enlightenment, because “desire for the trophies would inevitably lead to attachment and suffering, denying the true transient nature of existence and thus prolonging the karmic cycle of death and rebirth”, yadda yadda, freaking ripoff. And no one wants to be that guy.
We all know the drill: intellectual properties typically make the jump to video games only as the geek-beseeching arm of a vast marketing strategy, cross-promoting some other product on the verge of release. Usually, it’s a movie. And such games, tossed onto shelves after ridiculously rushed development cycles, have earned a reputation among gamers. To wit: they blow.
Some intellectual properties deserve better than this, though. Whether they’re culturally significant, aesthetically unique, or just stoke my personal nerd druthers, some properties deserve more than the dregs. Here’s one such property, imo.
(Note: This post started life as a list, but this entry metastasized into…this. The rest of the entries will probably make an appearance later, but for now, I hope you really like Akira, or someone dorking out over it at unreasonable length.)
Our man Tetsuo, the King of the High Five.
Akira may be an unpleasant blurt of a movie, and the comic may have sprawling plot holes big enough to drive a 60 foot tall mound of mutating techno-scrot through, but undeniably, Akira would make a tremendous video game. The movie alone features a wealth of memorable action sequences that an army of fabulously well-adjusted outdoorsy go-getters like myself would surrender a testicle (or ovary) for a chance to experience as a well-made, current generation game. If said game was based on the manga? You’d have enough content for the game, the DLC, the sequel, and the Obsidian quickie release (HIYO!).
But for all this potential, and for such a landmark moment in anime, science fiction, and unrelenting bad vibes, Akira has had a pitiful track record when it comes to video games. How pitiful, you ask? The Domino’s Noid has a game that’s both more fun and a better use of its source material than anything based on one of the greatest cyberpunk epics of all time. Those who know what the hell a Noid is, let that sink in a moment (mostly so we can lock eyes and gape at how fucking old we are).
In lieu of a game befitting its iconic stature and seismic influence, we’ve had a trio of shitty cash-ins that other shitty cash-ins won’t even invite to their monthly support group (Shovel-Aware: it’s not about being the better game, it’s about being the better you!). A few of these titles can hardly be considered “games” at all, more like maddening strings of terrible design decisions wadded into a mass of Akira-shaped kluge that repeatedly begs for death in a disjointed visual language we all mistook for level design.
The very first crack at the franchise was in 1988, six months after the release of the film. It was a text adventure for the NES. And not a text-heavy point and click, mind you, something Shadowgate-esque would’ve been disappointing given the kinetic style of the film, but that wouldn’t have precluded it from being good. What we got, though. Damn. Basically, it’s a scene for scene retelling of the movie that occasionally asks for your two cents, as in “Should Kaneda: Run, Look, Ask, Grab, Hide?” Answer correctly, and you’re treated to the next frame of the monolithic MS Paint slideshow that qualifies as progress (or the game’s savage mockery thereof). Outside of moving the cursor over your options, there’s no player input, just walls of text and eight whole bits of still life. It marks the least possible amount of work a game developer can do and still produce something that may be mistaken for a game (but will more likely be mistaken for a very troubled eighth grader’s Power Point presentation).
It was another six years before anyone touched the franchise, and by then the movie had been licensed to Western game developers. One of these games, developed by THQ, died on the table for apocryphal reasons. The other, from British developer Black Pearl Software, was Akira ’94 for the Amiga.
On the plus side, it’s not an interactive picture book. They went with a side-scrolling platformer to take advantage of the movie’s many great action setpieces, per what everyone wanted in the first place. On the downside, everything else. Despite showing up six years late to the party, Akira ’94 plays like a slapped together Quaalude nightmare version of everything you’d want an Akira game to be -- bike chases! Hover carts! Drugged-out Tetsuo! That swank rechargeable laser cannon! Only now it’s all horrendously ugly, and the controls are busted, and it sounds like a sine wave being run through a cheese grater, and it’s on the Amiga, and it’s sssoooo fffuucckkiiinngg sssslllooowww. This is a game with a first level so notoriously bad, I’ve never even heard of someone beating it short of cheating their way past it. Not because it’s hard -- because it’s tedious. The frenetic bike chase from the beginning of the movie, featuring the greatest two-wheeled phallic symbol of our time, has been reduced to an arduous chore where you memorize the location of each fuel canister, speed boost, and ramp, because if you miss a single one, guess what you get to do again? If you answered “NOT relive the visceral thrill of the film,” expect your high five in the mail, because you are tragically, maddeningly, horrifically correct.
Akira Psycho Ball
It was another eight years before another game would arrive, and with it came incontrovertible proof that whoever owns the rights to Akira has probably never seen it. I was flipping through the 2001 E3 coverage in whatever extinct magazine I was subscribed to at the time, and there, in a small blurb in the margins, was an announcement that a new Akira game was coming to the PS2. “Holy shit!” Young Zugzwang exclaimed. In a paroxysm of nerd-glee -- visions of open-world psychic mayhem and freeway motorcycle battles dancing through my head like so many blood-drenched sugar plums -- I read on. Developed by Bandai! Out first quarter next year! Made to coincide with the remastered DVD release! A pinball simulator! “…” I then said, and for those a little rusty on their punctuation, an ellipsis should not make an audible noise. I read that blurb probably a dozen times trying to wrench from it some sort of explanation, or hint, or veiled apology. Nothing against pinball, mind you. It’s an innocuous waste of a quarter if you’re down at the malt shop, getting an egg cream with your best gal, waiting for your fucking time machine to warm up. But how do you look at a beloved high-octane action epic, crammed with material enough for six games (That’s right. Suck it, Tron), and come to the conclusion that pinball would be the best way to make it relevant to today’s audiences? How does that happen? Was there a gas leak in the boardroom that day? Did the lolling albatross of senility swoop down and wrap its lustrous, pee-scented wings around someone too important to fire? Or are most Japanese entertainment ventures deep in the drooping pockets of Big Ballbearing? You want answers? Forget it, Jake. It’s Pachinkotown.
So that’s the three Akira games so far. I want you to take a look at this poster by artist Tyler Stout.
Note how much awesome-per-square-inch we’re dealing with here. We got tanks, explosions, gasmask-clad sturm troopen, a crying blue child, a biker with an empty universal no on his t-shirt -- as if to say he ain’t even believe in no ghost! -- and of course, front row center, the Milton Berle of dick-by-proxy motocycles. Take it all in. Look at how much space this franchise handily covers in a thick glaze of hellyeah. Three games based on this goddamn movie, and all of them somehow missed everything that’s exploding out of everywhere on this poster.
The Bastard Offspring On the bright side, there have been some terrific games. not based on Akira, but clearly influenced by it. Here are a few of the more obvious consolation prizes that come to mind:
The recently mentionedSecond Sight and Psi-Ops are both distinctly Western interpretations of The Vengeful Psychic Rampage. Second Sight leaned towards stealth mechanics, though, with your powers acting more as a slight edge to level the playing field against the most imposing army of Wallace and Gromit-looking badasses the game’s adorable art direction could muster. Psi-Ops, on the other hand, was a meat-and-potatoes third-person shooter spotlighting a physics engine designed purely for sadism. “Enemies missing a head will not yield mental energy” its Wikipedia page helpfully states, and that should tell you everything you need to know about Psi-Ops in a nutshell.
There was Galerians, an unsettling, arduous, but weirdly intriguing series that owed a lot to Akira, in its own archly-90s way. Between the pre-rendered backgrounds, load screens between each door, and CGI cutscenes animated so stiffly that everyone looks like they’re in a Dire Straits music video, the experience is downright retro.
Centered around (extremely fashion conscious) teenage guinea pigs in a (extremely fashion conscious) secret hospital, players had to imbibe various types of drugs to access latent psychic powers. Taking too much, though, caused you to “short”, rendering you a shuffling telekinetic bomb until either you popped one of the incredibly scarce chill pills, or your brain decided to blow the popsicle stand that was inconveniently also your head. Mechanically, this amped up the usual survival-horror preoccupation with conservation to tedious new heights, since every shot was both a valuable offensive resource and a considerable health risk, and caused situations where you’d spend huge chunks of the game (especially the sequel) running away from the doofiest of bad guys because you simply could not spare the resources to kill them. The line between monstrous difficulty and flat out bad design was constantly being traipsed across in this series, but it warrants a playthrough for the adventurous dumpster diver.
Then of course there’s Psychonauts, which carried the torch for horribly misshapen psychic children proudly into the new millennium. It also warrants praise for being the only game of the four I’ve just mentioned that doesn’t use amnesia as a central plot device. We, know, developers, that amnesia conveniently sidesteps the whole in media res dilemma that nearly every game narrative has to address, but Jesus Christ, if I have to play as one more character that wakes up on an operating table and the first words out of their mouth are “Where am I…Who am I?!” I am going to beat my console to pieces with a Shakespeare anthology, screaming about other mediums having this shit down before Western civilization figured out how to wipe its ass properly. But Psychonauts is terrific, a warm, funny charmer with memorable characters, a great plot that makes you eager to see whose brain you’re raiding next, and level design ranging from the dang clever to the mutha-fuckin’ sublime. While it’s not a perfect game (the actual gameplay is just okay, feeling more like a serviceable conduit by which you explore the game’s better ideas), it is a unique little snowflake.
None of these games fill the Akira-shaped hole in fan's libraries, though. These titles are all rightfully doing their own thing, but offer just tantalizing suggestions of what could be.
The impossible dream may become nightmarish reality soon enough, though. An American adaptation of Akira is currently working its way through the lower intestine of the Hollywood bilge machine, with the setting being rejiggered to “Neo-Manhattan” and all the Japanese juvenile delinquents now twenty-something white boys. Needless to say, if the brain trust behind that idea has any say in the inevitable tie-in game, I’ll have to make this blog even longer to accommodate its place of shame. *sigh*