‘00s Flashback: The Punisher

Have we all been good little geeks girls and boys and finished our Daredevil Season 2 binges? Good. Then you know that Matt Murdock is even more of a bit player this time around than last year. This season, it’s really all about the Punisher, which makes the current gaming climate ripe for a return visit from Marvel’s violent anti-hero.

Naturally, Frank Castle has graced the video game medium before. It’s an industry that was built on virtually shooting and killing stuff and that is what the Punisher does best. The NES and Game Boy each put us in control of the murderous vigilante in third person shooters and Capcom released an awesome beat-em-up into ‘90s arcades that sadly never made it to console form, but the best Punisher game -and one of the best Marvel games ever- came in 2005 for the Xbox and PlayStation 2.

It was a stunning game in a lot of ways and I seriously wonder how it would fare in today’s political environment. A decade doesn’t really seem like that much time, but in this industry, it’s an eternity and a lot had changed in the world of game criticism in that time. The Punisher was one of the most unabashedly brutal and sadistic games of its generation, and also one of the truest to its source material. Its title character is a divisive figure in the Marvel Universe and with his return to the pop culture mainstream now seems like a good time to take a look back at his defining gaming moment.punisher action montage

For the most part, The Punisher is what we’d consider today to be a pretty typical third person action title, complete with the now-cliche plot device of the gameplay taking place as flashbacks as the protagonist is interrogated after being captured by the authorities. But at the time, it was one of only a handful of games that combined bombastic combat with stealth and exploration. Think Splinter Cell meets Max Payne.

Basically, you went into a level and wrecked shop in any way you saw fit using a massive arsenal of tools and techniques. Basic video game stuff, really. But with the story written by psychotic comic book scribe Garth Ennis and voiceover from Thomas Jane (who played Frank in the underrated film a year previous) this was the best possible execution of the concept.

Speaking of executions, that’s what set this game apart from the competition and what would perhaps make it unpalatable in today’s political climate. Remember how everybody freaked out about the torture sequence in Grand Theft Auto V? Well that was downright cute in comparison to this one. The Punisher absolutely excelled in pure sadism as one of the major mechanics was an interrogation minigame where you tortured criminals for information.

Holding their face against a belt sander, strapping them into an electric chair, putting them under a table drill, shoving their face into an aquarium full of piranha fish, and my personal favorite of dangling them off of a dock while a shark circled and attempted to get a free dinner; this is a sparse sampling of the environmental horrors you could contextually inflict on any lone thug unfortunate enough to survive the firefight. And each gruesome death one had a snappy one-liner to go with it. Why tell you when I can show you, though?

To its credit, the player could decide whether to let the informant live if they successfully extracted the intel from them without killing them (and I’m pretty sure you got more points if you did), but I’ll be honest: I wanted to see a dude get his face eaten off by piranha. There was nothing left but his skull. It was disturbingly awesome.

Throw in the requisite Marvel cameos and boss fights and you had a recipe for a memorable comic book video game. The Punisher kind of fell off the pop culture map after that, with the movie sequel being a complete joke and all, but it’s good to have him back in action on Netflix. I imagine it won’t be too long before we get word of him popping up in a new video game.

punisher executionTaking this concept into an open world environment with a more mature storytelling approach that focuses on the internal struggles of Frank Castle and the inherent wrongness of how he goes about what he does would make for an amazing experience and his appearance in Daredevil sets the stage perfectly for near-future punishment.

It’s kind of funny because remembering back to when I was young the Punisher’s deeds were always deemed admirable. Who cares about judges and juries when you can hop straight to the good part? He was badass and that’s all that mattered back in the day. Like John Wayne slaughtering Native Americans or Clint Eastwood pointing a gun at a black man and telling him to make his day, human rights and exploitation entertainment didn’t really mix. The Punisher game came at just the right time and place to slip under the radar and be maybe the last game to celebrate that kind of gleeful, consequence-free violence to such an extent without much being made of it.

Rest assured that when and if Frank Castle returns to the gaming world, it’ll most likely be as a more nuanced, morally complicated character questioning his own actions and not as the wanton murderer of criminals sawing people in half with tablesaws after he’s broken them just because he can. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I’ll leave up to you to decide for yourself. But regardless of modern social aesthetics, The Punisher was a hell of a game that exceeded expectations and has proven itself to be be of the most memorable comic book games ever made.

Ten of Life is Strange’s Surprising Easter Eggs and References

Easter is almost upon us, fellow gamers, and you know what that means. Time to hunt for Easter eggs. This year, we’re doing it in style by celebrating the Easter eggiest game of 2015, Dontnod Entertainment’s episodic interactive coming of age indie film Life is Strange. Arcadia Bay is jam-packed with references both blatant and hidden, ranging from obscure grindhouse films to classic literature, internet culture, classic sci-fi, 90’s cartoons, and everything in between waiting to fill your (sub)consciousness with Donnie Darko homages, funny graffiti, fedora-tipping t-shirts, and TV show titles coded onto license plates.

The list is massive so I’ve narrowed it down some of my personal favorites. Some are here because they were so unexpected, some because they were so clever, some because of artistic relevance, and some just because. Max Caulfield’s journey through time and space, butterflies and hurricanes, love and friendship is a spectacular nerd’s life and dreams personified, and as such it is filled with the things we love. These are ten of the best slices of nerdery hidden in Life is Strange.  

Dark passenger

A near constant presence on the college campus of blackwell Academy where Max spends most of her time, Samuel the janitor is an odd man who communes with the local wildlife, speaks in a stunted and vaguely incoherent manner, and possibly enjoys keeping photographs of female students. He’s what you might call quirky….or creepy.

At one point during the story, Max enters the boys’ dorm and can find a map that has been heavily defaced by the residents. Among the requisite bragging about penis size and assertions about sexual orientation, you can see somebody wrote “Samuel = Dexter” at the bottom. The reference to America’s favorite serial killer isn’t entirely unfounded (although I’d argue Dex actually appears to be more socially adjusted), making for a funny little homage in an unlikely place that illustrates that to enjoy Life is Strange to the fullest, you must explore every nook and cranny of the game.

Bathroom serenitylife is strange firefly misbehave serenity

The bathrooms of Life is Strange are another unexpected treasure trove of in-game graffiti. One of my personal favorite references is to the canceled but airing eternally in our hearts sci-fi series Firefly, or more specifically, the film Serenity that served as the belated finale.

One of the movie’s more memorable quotes is written on the inside wall of a bathroom stall in Arcadia Bay’s diner in a particularly unexpected bit of nerd-baiting and as with almost everything in this game, it references or at least supports the theme of the story. Oh yes, Max, you do indeed aim to misbehave.  

The real ‘Caust

This one is less of an Easter egg and more of a jarring horror geek moment. Early in the story, Max’s wannabe boyfriend, Warren, has loaned her a flash drive filled with various wonders of the nerd world. Prominently mentioned is the original found-footage torture porn fest, Cannibal Holocaust, which famously asks the viewer “who the real cannibals are” in a comical attempt at pretension after subjecting them to what I’d hope are the nastiest, most vile images that will ever grace their eyes and pretty much nothing else of artistic value.

I was a little baffled by this inclusion and probably spent a little too much time trying to find some hidden meaning in subjecting fans of this charming, emotional, feminine coming of age story littered with an appreciation of all things art to one of the most wantonly disturbing and soulless murder and rapefests ever committed to film. Then I wondered if the writers lost sleep at night worrying about the Life is Strange devotees who will undoubtedly seek “The ‘Caust” out due its being referenced in this beloved tale and finding a film full of real animal cruelty. I guess it’ll have to remain a mystery.

life is strange coffy greerMaxsploitation

A little more along the lines of what most would look for in an exploitation film reference, there’s a nice tribute to the history of awesome heroines in Chloe’s room in the form of a magazine titled The Bad Grrl’s Guide to Gunz written by one Coffy Greer.

This is a pretty unmistakable homage to the queen of blaxpoitation cinema, Pam Grier, whose signature film, Jack Hill’s Coffy, has been publicly lauded by one Quentin Tarantino pretty much every time he’s asked about his favorite films, and for good reason. While Max and Chloe may be far from the woman Pam Grier was and is (sorry, but they just can’t pull off the razor blade afro), it’s still a great homage to a true icon of women in entertainment.

Bradburying the lead

In yet another highly unexpected bit of classic nerd Easter eggery, Max and I took a brief break from saving lives during the hurricane to check out a newspaper article which compares the extreme inclement weather to a “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms being arguably the definitive American monster movie of the 1950’s, it was a pretty unexpected and awesome little reference to the film that inspired the creation of Godzilla.

This was not an isolated reference, either. More than once, Stephen King prototype Ray Bradbury was brought up in the story, with Max offering praise for his novel October Country and Brabury’s prose style in general. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was based on a Bradbury short story titled The Fog Horn in which a giant sea creature destroys a light house; a lot like the one that serves as a focal point of Arcadia Bay, in fact. Hmmmm….

Heeeeere’s Chloe!life-is-strange-redrum-shining-217

Ah, the fabled room 217; real life supernatural hotbed found in Colorado’s Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King spent the night in 1973 and dreamed up the nightmare fuel that became his third novel, The Shining. Not coincidentally, Max happens across a room 217 in her dorm with the personalized dry erase board that accompanies’ each student’s domicile reading “REDRUM”. She wisely decides that she’s not going to go into there.

Interestingly, Room 217 correlates not with the iconic Kubrick film (which changes the number to 237 because Illuminati) but with the real life inspiration and original novel. I’m guessing the reference found its way in due to the story’s theme of a young person with special abilities about to face some horrible shit.

A splash of the titans

This is possibly the nerdiest, groaniest moment in the entire game, and it references one of the defining moments of my childhood so I’ve got to bring it up. While searching for a way to break into the principal’s office in the dead of night, Max grabs a can of soda out of the vending machine and commands the sugar dispensary to “release the cra-can!” in tribute to the old-school mythological fantasy masterpiece Clash of the Titans in which the command “Unleash the Kraken” precipitates the unleashing of a city-destroying monster. Yes, this is a theme.  

Okay, so Max reads Bradbury, enjoys grindhouse cinema and alternative folk, AND she’s a a Harryhausen fanatic clever enough to pull off the most unlikely of puns. Yeah, this girl is alright in my book. It takes a special kind of nerdy to say something that awesome and weird when you’re all by yourself. With pun skills like that, I wish she could hang out with Ellie from The Last of Us.

life is strange watchmen faceWho times the time masters?

Nobody else online seems to have noticed this one, but during the hurricane sequence in the streets of Arcadia Bay you can potentially find a reference to one of the greatest comics of all time, Watchmen, on the window of Frank’s RV.

At one point in the first chapter, you have the option to draw in the dust of a dirty RV, which ends up belonging to the town’s resident drug dealer. Max chooses her trademark minimalist straight face with the observation “I’m so dirty”, her own twist on the classic “wash me”.

The vehicle remains unwashed throughout the story and in the last chapter, as carnage sweeps across the town and the dead and injured litter the streets, you find the RV blown across the street, complete with the non-smiley face, now sporting a smear of blood bearing a strong resemblance to the iconic image of the Comedian’s bloody happy face button as found after his murder in the opening scene of Watchmen.

Madness takes its toll

One of the small joys afforded gamers in Life is Strange is exploring Max’ journal. It was not only a fantastic way for players who bought every chapter when they came out to catch up on the story after the several week wait between releases, but it’s also really cute, funny, and illustrated while offering even more insight into the protagonist’s thoughts.

In another clever moment of geek-tier pop culture savvy, Max’s first journal entry after returning from what one might call “the darkest timeline” -where she saw the present result of her changing the distant past- was “Let’s never do the Time Warp again.” Rocky Horror Picture Show, much?

The end is the beginninglife is strange chloe ouroboros

Chloe may not pass the sniff test for a legit punk rocker (I’ve seen what plays on your stereo, girl), but she’d make one hell of a hipster if the way she takes ironic t-shirts to the next level at the end of the game is any indication. Game ruining spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t played the game yet but plan to, thanks for reading and have a nice day. Only readers here out of idle curiosity and Blackwell veterans beyond this point, please.

Rather than a pop culture reference, this one is for the mythological history and art geeks. Chloe’s end-game shirt depicts a stylized version of the ouroboros, the mythological snake that eats its own tail. The potential symbolic applications of this are legion, but in Life is Strange it takes on a special significance given the theme of time travel and in particular this moment where Max has the option to go back to the very beginning and allow her best friend to perish after her repeated multiverse time travel escapades across Arcadia Bay it took to save her manifest themselves as a massive hurricane-sized tornado set to level the town in a literal portrayal of the fabled butterfly effect.

The final heart-rending decision was a rare occasion where I was left clueless as to what to do. I consider the life of each individual as philosophically equivalent to EVERY individual put together, but that doesn’t help me when pitting the weight of one character against the weight of an entire town that serves as a character unto itself. The ouroboros on Chloe’s shirt signifies an endless loop; a conundrum that devours itself to regenerate itself; going forward to the past to end at the beginning. And thus, I knew what I had to do.  

Five Timeless Games That Will Always Be Perfect

It’s often said that there are no perfect games, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, most games are beset by some combination of glitches, load screens, excessive cinematics, bad writing, lackluster voice acting, balancing issues, questionable gameplay mechanics, and other dodgy attributes, but not all of them. At least once in a generation there’s a game that is so well made that it will stand as a cultural beacon for generations to come with a timeless combination of fun accessible gameplay, memorable characters, a worthwhile challenge, and the kind of creativity that inspires the gamers of its day to go out and create their own art in hopes of some day reaching that pinnacle.

Are these games truly perfect? Pretty much, yes. Or at least as close as anything ever comes to being perfect. Some of them are irresistibly addictive in their simplicity and spawn decades of offspring, some of them are perfectly-crafted works of art, some represent the crystallization of the best attributes of their genre, and some are simply definitive gaming experiences that anybody with even a casual interest in the medium simply has to experience. Whichever form they take, these are the games that we will take with us to our graves. Here are five examples, from classic to modern, of games that are so well made they will never stop being fun.

Super Mario Bros.super mario bros

One of the most deceptively simple video games out there and yet so full of depth. This is the game that launched Nintendo on their world-conquering voyage to restore the game industry after Atari collapsed it. Super Mario Bros. was and is unquestionably the definitive game of the 8-bit era. It came packaged with the Nintendo Entertainment System and there were no gamers in the ‘80s that didn’t know it by heart. None.

In 2016, Nintendo still leans heavily on this franchise to keep itself afloat and when you pop in a New Super Mario Bros. game after all these years, it’s striking how little has changed. Plenty of new doo-dads and mechanics have been added along the way, but the core gameplay elements have changed so little it’s kind of amazing. Super Mario Bros. 3 may be the most impressive NES game, but all it did was build a little on the perfection that was already there.

The secret to the franchise’s success has always been its accessibility. Literally anybody can pick up a controller for the first time and have fun stomping goombas, breaking bricks, and kicking turtle shells around in minutes. But the definitive platforming series has always maintained a steep challenge to keep even the hardiest of gamers engaged and honing their skills. It all started here, and after nearly three and a half decades, Super Mario Bros.’ core experience is still intact.

legend of zelda link to the past triforceThe Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Mere months after the Super Nintendo launched with Super Mario World (another worthy candidate for this list) dominating the gaming landscape, the second major bomb was dropped. The Legend of Zelda series is every bit as iconic as Super Mario Bros., but after the original game and its major departure of a sequel, it never made its way back into our NES’ like Mario did with the third game. This made A Link to the Past feel absolutely earth-shattering when it released. The jump from 8-bit to 16-bit was a huge one and no game benefitted more than this one did. Like Super Mario Bros. nearly a decade previous, this was the definitive console gaming experience of its era.  

Although the original has a good argument for being here as well, the third felt so much more refined and added such a huge amount of depth and features that remain hallmarks of the series to this day that it deserves to be in a different category. The implementation of an alternate reality mirroring the primary in-game world was revolutionary at the time and the soundtrack is one of the most iconic in gaming.

When A Link to the Past came out it became that rare game that not only met the extreme expectations gamers placed on it, it blew them out of the water. Nothing could have prepared us for how incredible this game was in 1992. It’s a game that’s going to be rereleased over and over again down the line and it’s always going to be a blast to play.

Street Fighter IIstreet fighter 2 ken ryu

Around the time A Link to the Past redefined what a console adventure game could be, Capcom revolutionized the arcade scene with Street Fighter II. The impact this game has had on gaming culture is immeasurable and continues to resonate in the hardcore gaming community to this day. It was the first bonafide e-sport.

While the first Street Fighter game kind of blended in with the rest of the fledgling fighting genre in the ‘80s, the sequel perfected the formula by adding a diverse roster of playable characters -each with a massive number of possible attack- and became the standard by which all fighting games going forward have been measured by.

In addition to being arguably the most important arcade game of all time, Street Fighter II also became one of the first console ports to truly capture its arcade counterpart. Prior to this, console versions were nearly always mere shadows of their former cabineted glory, but while the SNES graphics may not have been as good, the brilliant gameplay that had gamers lining up after converting all available currency to quarter form while waiting their turn in malls across the world could be fully enjoyed at home. It’s astonishing how little has really changed in the twenty-five years between this game and Street Fighter V. Like Super Mario Bros., some things are so good that all you can do is tweak the formula, improve the graphics, and just give people more of the same.

final fantasy tactics quoteFinal Fantasy Tactics

The strategic role-playing genre has always been a niche genre, and it’s only become nichier as most RPGs migrate towards real time combat and streamlined character building. Nonetheless, Final Fantasy Tactics is a game that has been and will likely be ported forward endlessly to stand as a shining symbol of its generation. 1997 was a great time to be a gamer with the rise of the PlayStation pushing gaming to new storytelling heights while Nintendo ushered in the 3D age with the N64. Personally, I spent a few years replaying my favorite SNES games in college and occasionally glomming onto my friends’ newer consoles, but one game in particular eventually forced me to get my own.

Any chances of me staying in the Nintendo camp were obliterated the first time I laid hands on Final Fantasy Tactics. It was the very first game I got when I got my PlayStation and it remained my most played game; that rare title I started over and over and over again because of the endless possibilities presented by each and every character. If there’s ever been SRPG of comparable quality, I have not played it.

A lot of smaller franchises have tried to recapture the magic of this game, but they’ve all failed. Even the portable FFT sequels have not lived up to the sheer perfection that was presented in this almost twenty year old game. It was the flawless combination of a well-executed story, simple but effective visuals, detail-oriented strategic challenges, and most of all the unparalleled depth and options afforded to the player that other SRPGs have failed to capture ever since. While the previous entries have spawned massive franchises and genres in their wake, this game sadly remains one of a kind.  

Portalportal chell

Ironically, as video games have become more advanced, it seems harder and harder to capture the elegant perfection of those old school classics. Too many factors at play in-game, too much emphasis on graphics, corporate interests rushing games out before they’re ready; it’s hard to find a game without flaws these days. Even the mighty Half Life 2 has aged less than gracefully with its loading times and dodgy collision physics. But its humble 2007 spin-off, Portal? That one will be as fun two decades from now as it was the day it came out.

Portal was placed in Valve’s Orange Box collection as an incentive for gamers buying the collection of the Half Life 2 saga and Team Fortress 2, games that already sell themselves as perhaps the most fan-beloved single and multi-player shooters of all time, respectively. I don’t think anybody thought that it would end up stealing the show and setting the standard for efficient video game storytelling for the next decade, but it did.

As a puzzle game, as a story of adversity and perseverance, as a charming satire, and as a work of art, Portal and its sequel were simply the games to play last gen. The combination of silky smooth gameplay, mind-bending physics puzzles, and hilarious dialogue set in the Half Life universe made for one of the most memorable and quotable games of all time. It’s a small game, and maybe that’s part of what made it so special; a limited scope lends itself better to a more balanced, personal, and dense experience. Where other games tie your time up with endless grinding, wandering, fetch quests, and cutscenes, every puzzle and every sequence in Portal feels important and relevant, making it a perfect slice of gaming heaven that will go down as an all-time classic.

Four Things That the Sword Art Online Games are Getting Totally Wrong

If there’s any television show that should be a snap to make into an epic JRPG it’s the popular anime Sword Art Online. The entire is premise about being trapped in a video game, right? The story, characters, themes, and everything else about it is steeped in gamer culture. Being a fanboy of the series who has written extensively about it, when it was announced that the games were going to be coming to a PlayStation 4 near me, I knew that I’d be playing them at my earliest convenience.

That convenience didn’t come as soon as I’d hoped, but maybe that was for the better, as I’d nearly preordered Sword Art Online: Lost Song, but decided against it due to a little thing called Fallout 4 coming out at the same time. I’d have to say I made a good call because having finally stepped into the world of one of my favorite anime series for myself, I wasn’t exactly greeted with the level of quality I’d hoped for.

While the source material rewrote the book on modern cyberpunk and fantasy, the games seem happy to phone it in while avoiding giving the gamer the things they would almost invariably want from a video game based on Sword Art Online. With two games released in the West so far and a third coming this year, maybe it’s time to look at what’s working and -more importantly- what isn’t and dream that someday fans will get the game they deserve. Here are the four biggest problems keeping us from Nerve Gear Nirvana.

sword art online hollow fragment character create

Why even bother?

The Player Character

Right off the bat in Sword Art Online: Re: Hollow Fragment, the game invites the player to create their own character. This is a video game based on a fictional MMORPG, so character creation should obviously be the very first order of business, right? No surprise there. Well… maybe one. You see, once gameplay begins it becomes abundantly clear that you are not your character. You are Kirito, SAO’s earnestly bland protagonist.

So why bother? Your short, chubby, dark-skinned, heterochromatic, long-haired redhead warrior heroine appears in Kirito’s place in-game, but is replaced with the tall, lanky, short brunette-haired, brown-eyed, fair-skinned male protagonist in all story aspects, which is just weird and pulls you right out of any sense of immersion or investment concerning your character. I actually went to my room early on, found a desk where you can change your character’s appearance, and returned my avatar to the default. It was just too irritating and distracting to have such a massive discrepancy between cutscenes and gameplay. The sequel, Lost Song, failed to change this nonsense, and it looks like the next game won’t either.

When anybody watches the anime or reads the manga and imagined a video game based on them, I’m fairly certain they are all dreaming of creating their own character from the ground up and exploring the world of SAO on their own terms, having their own adventures. Such a potentially massive world and with great concepts shouldn’t be chained to one character’s experiences. It not only limits the story, but it makes me as a fan much less likely to make use of the variety of weapons available because Kirito always uses his trademark swords. It’d feel weird to give him a spear or sword and shield combo or a bow, as much as I kind of want to try them out as a gamer.

Add in the fact that the writing in the games is worlds below the source material and the story starts to feel like bad fan fiction involving great characters that had so much more depth in their original forms. The decision to focus on vapid versions of established characters helps create a mediocre experience that’s hamstrung by writers doing a crap job trying to write characters they clearly don’t get. Why not let just let players create their own character and make a new cast of supporting characters stuck inside of SAO and let the primary cast make a few special appearances instead?

SWORD ART ONLINE Re: Hollow Fragment romance dialogue

Oh, Kirito, you sweet talker you.

Romance

This is where it goes from odd to plain damn weird. Kirito is married to Asuna. So why put harem dating simulation elements in the game when they are forcing you to play as a monogamous hero? And why is his sister one of the romance options? The content in Hollow Fragment was kept fairly vague in terms of actual sex  (sorry, no glopping), but the fact that you are clearly dating the other girls and can hold their hands in front of Asuna and carry them into your bedroom for a snuggle time cutscene among other things is strange to say the least.

The mechanics themselves are irritating, bordering on moronic. I love the idea of hanging out with the other characters while contextually conversing with them and building relationships as you take in the sights around town together, but the conversations are literally gibberish and your options to respond to each remark are “Keep it up!” and “That’s it!” represented by “Nice!” and “…”, respectively, with one being right and one wrong. As lame as it is confusing. And I’m not even going to get into the bizarre and random  flow of the inane dialogue you’re responding to.

But it’s still a great idea, even if the execution was truly horrible and out of place in Kirito’s story. But rather than improve on this germ of a good idea, they scrapped the whole thing for Lost Song. Maybe it’s for the better considering the juvenile nature of the writing and dedication to the established characters, but I think if they thought it through a little better and let players create their own character, a robust romance system would make a great addition to a future game.

Sword Art Online Lost Song combat

Oh, look. More things to kil…[snore]

Combat

So how best to do combat in a game based on an action-packed anime based around a fictional MMORPG? The first two games use a hybrid real-time turn-based system favored by classic games like World of Warcraft and Knights of the Old Republic, which sounds perfect, but is surprisingly dull in execution.

First off, the enemies are extremely plentiful and weak, weak, weak so you can button mash or auto-attack your way through most any encounter, at least for a good chunk of the game. Being Kirito means being OP as hell, which equals boring combat. At its most complicated, you just cycle through activating your sword skills (which are sorely lacking in variety) and waiting for the cooldown to finish to activate them each again. The most exciting thing offered by fighting in Hollow Fragment was the ability to compliment your partner’s performance, making them more likely to favor the actions you praise them for. Lost Song offered airborne combat, which is cool, but hardly a world-beating innovation. Beyond these little gimmicks, fighting is pretty much just grinding as a means to an end when it should be the funnest part of the game.

In addition to more of a challenge and better realized and defined combat techniques, what these games need more than anything else is larger scale. Hollow Fragment had parties of two, the sequel only increased this by one, and the next game appears to have four member parties and fully real time combat. Boss battles gather larger parties, but it’s mostly just for show. Even with each game slowly increasing the party size, with the actual combat being so bland the key to making future games awesome will be stronger challenges and a strategy component.

Hollow Fragment hinted at guild management, but the player never got to do any of it. But what if you could? Recruiting NPC’s and building multiple parties to assign to gather materials and intel across the virtual world while choosing, training, and equipping your own party members en route to less plentiful but more challenging enemy encounters would go a long way to adding a sense of intrigue and satisfaction to the combat. Watching your party execute your strategies as you direct them and chip in with your own abilities would be way more fun than just watching your cooldown meters as you effortlessly mow down hordes of enemies that respawn almost instantly and can’t even threaten you to complete endless arbitrary “kill x number of y enemies” quests.

The Central Theme

sword art online asuna reflection

More genuine artistry in one image than in an entire game…

What sets Sword Art Online as a series apart from most anime featuring invincible sword-swinging heroes is its dedication to its themes and social messages. It’s one of the only works out there that treats geek lifestyles as something other than a joke to be snickered at and presents literally living in a video game as a possible legitimate alternative to the real world for some people. I mean, life isn’t ever fair, but what if it could be?

In video games there are rules that must be obeyed and conscious balancing so that everybody has a fair shot. And with virtual reality right around the corner, how long until we get a game like SAO where you could potentially live, love, and even sleep inside of a video game world you understand with like-minded people rather than deal with the unpredictable horrors of socializing in the real world?

I have yet to see or hear of any of these elements presented meaningfully in the games. Although for the continuation of the Aincrad arc in Hollow Fragment it might not make sense, I feel like the ideal SAO game would have an Assassin’s Creed element where the player is able to log in and out of the game to accomplish things irl as well as in-game too, similar to the second season. Seeing the real lives of the characters and contrasting their struggles and real life personalities with their in-game avatars would be a fantastic device for exploring the concepts of the source material using the very medium it represents.  

Let’s go back to the whole “romancing your own sister” thing for a second. In the first season, Kirito joins up with Leafa to rescue Asuna and there’s clear romantic tension between the two of them, but it isn’t until later that he realizes that Leafa is actually his own sister Sugu’s avatar. In the show, this was another interesting commentary on the nature and possible pitfalls of virtual life, but in Hollow Fragment, it was just lame and icky. Kirito and Leafa recognize each other are instantly in that story, but it didn’t stop the writers from deciding a cliche “whoops, I fell and landed on your boobs” groping scene was the best way to handle that situation. Every story aspect of a great SAO game should point back at the main theme of comparing and contrasting people’s real and virtual lives. Anything else comes off as just a pile of juvenile harem tropes.  

This year will see the release of Sword Art Online: Hollow Realization, which will take gamers back to a rebuilt version of Aincrad. It’s hard to say how that’s going to turn out, but hopefully future games with the property can expand the experience a bit beyond hack and slashing and really dig into what make SAO such a special and unique property instead of making it just like every halfass shonen anime property out there.

Still OP After All These Years: A History of the Dragon Punch

With the release of Street Fighter V coming on the heels of the twenty-five year anniversary of Street Fighter II: The World Warriors revolutionizing the game industry and just a few months shy of the thirty year anniversary of its less successful predecessor, it seems like a good time for a retrospective on perhaps the series’ most storied contribution to the world of virtual combat: the infamous Dragon Punch.

Among old-schoolers, everyone remembers their first Dragon Punch. In the original Street Fighter, it was somewhat of a secret weapon. It was the first game to use flowing joystick motions combined with timed button presses to execute special moves, but with that game never smashing the mainstream it fell into the realm of esoteric gamer knowledge. The sequel had a handy (but somewhat confusing at the time) special move guide on its arcade cabinets using arrows to indicate the control input, and I remember trying to do them by jerking the stick in the indicated directions one at a time with no success. People must have thought I was having a seizure.dragon punch input

Then I accidentally discovered how to properly throw a fireball when I came out of a crouch and moved the joystick forward to attack in a quarter circle motion and a whole new world opened up to me. The more complicated Dragon Punch input took some practice to master, but the first time I got it too work on cue was one of the most empowering moments I remember from my long life of gaming. Twenty five years, countless rounds won and lost, and some serious thumb calluses from the Super Nintendo’s D-Pad later and it’s still the best option for dealing with any fighting game situation I find myself in. It was and still is the attack to crush all other attacks.

Shoryuken is a conglomeration of the Japanese words for “rising”, “dragon”, and “fist”, but the name was simplified to Dragon Punch for American audiences less appreciative of the Kung-Fu Theater-esque name. The language gap and Western localizations would lead to a lot of overseas discrepancies in the series over the years, not the least of which was the great Sheng Long hoax.

This happened when Ryu’s post-victory quote declaring that you must defeat his Rising Dragon Fist to stand a chance was bastardized into English with “Shoryuken” mistranslated as “Sheng Long”. Who the hell was Sheng Long? According to Electronic Gaming Monthly’s 1992 April Fools’ edition, he was Ken and Ryu’s teacher who could be challenged by clearing the game without ever getting hit and without hitting the last boss either.

The rumor spread like wildfire through arcades. I feel genuine pity for any gamers who dedicated themselves to accomplishing this theoretical feat. I feel like somewhere out there somebody actually must have succeeded in this and found big fat nothing as a reward for their dedication. You suck, EGM. You should never, ever take the Shoryuken’s name in vain.

alien vs predator dragon punch

Ryu and Ken’s signature flying uppercut was and is the most perfect attack ever unleashed upon the gaming populace, and the rest of the gaming world has duplicated it in every way possible. At one point, it was so frequently used in arcade games that it became a habit of mine to attempt dragon punches with every character I played. Imagine my surprise when I got a Predator from Capcom’s awesome Alien vs. Predator beat-em-up to perform one. It wasn’t even the right genre!

Within the Street Fighter Universe, other more and more characters began perfecting their own versions. Originally, Sagat developed his Tiger Uppercut for Street Fighter II to defeat Ryu after a Dragon Punch during the first game left that massive scar across his chest, but the appropriation continued well beyond that. More characters took on Ryu and Ken’s fictionalized Shotokan karate style while others developed comparable moves like Cammy’s Cannon Spike kick just to keep up.  

Popular culture at large hasn’t overlooked the awesomeness of the Shoryuken either. Dr. Dre’s protege, the Lady of Rage couldn’t resist slipping an “AWYOUKEN!” (what it sounded like they were saying in the older games) into her 90’s rap hit “Afro Puffs” while Deadpool immortalized the it in Marvel Comics by infamously Dragon Punching Kitty Pryde when she dared dismiss the importance of basic Street Fighter knowledge. Nobody (expect Ryu) was surprised when he showed up in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with the move in his arsenal. Sadly, no deadpool kitty dragon punchplayable Kitty.

Elsewhere in the gaming sphere, gaming legends like Mega Man, Cloud Strife, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Dante have all adopted the technique for their own use at one time or another and it’s used for zombie slaying purposes in Dead Rising 3. In fact, pretty much any action game featuring real time combat is likely to have either a direct reference to the Shoryuken, or a move that very closely resembles it.

Popular cartoons have seen the likes of Peter Griffin from Family Guy go full Street Fighter, (complete with old-school “AWYOUKEN!”), while the title character from The Amazing World of Gumball and Rumble McSkirmish from Gravity Falls have each used the Dragon Punch as well. It’s a Shoryuken world we live in.

And now it’s 2016 and Street Fighter V is here and incomplete and maybe a little broken with the only fix being the Dragon Punch. Broken how? Well the only real single player challenge shipping with the game is Survival mode, and it is not a friendly way to play. Last week, I offered up some tips for non-pros to help succeed in getting through Normal difficulty with their fighter of choice, but Hard and Hell have been too much for me. In fact, they seem to be too much for just about everyone.

But there is a catch. You can beat the hardest difficulty if you choose Ken and then Dragon Punch everything for one hundred matches straight. No thank you. I can already see the lawsuits rolling through Capcom’s doors from hundreds of gamers who developed carpal tunnel trying to beat their stupid game. So far, it appears that if you choose any other tactic, you’re screwed. If the only way to pass the only single player challenges offered in a retail game release is to pick a specific character with a specific move and then spam that move for an hour and a half straight, your game is broken.

And when even a computer programmed to counter any attack is unable to find a way to counter a particular move, you can imagine what competitive play looks like. Like a basic special attack that costs nothing but a flick of the wrist slicing through meter-consuming EX attacks like butter and capable of doing so before the character’s feet even hit the ground after a jump. That’s what it looks like.

flaming dragon punch Ken Street Fighter vBut if there’s going to be one technique to rule them all in a fighting game, I can’t think of a better one than the Dragon Punch; the unstoppable, all-purpose, anti-everything, now flaming, now electrified, combo-finishing, noob-destroying, pro-enraging, often imitated, never duplicated original Rising Dragon Fist. It’s awesome, it’s invincible, it’s iconic.

A quarter century ago, a misunderstood Japanese man in a karate gi declared that you must defeat his Shoryuken to stand a chance. Today, that statement is truer than ever. Combat flowcharts have been built around it, it’s been adapted to film, television, music, comic books, and dozens of other video games; it’s core gamer knowledge. And in fighting games today, you use the Dragon Punch, or you get used by the Dragon Punch.

But rather than rage about how something so overpowered remains so for this long after this many iterations, let’s turn our thoughts from questionable game design and instead celebrate the enduring ubiquitousness of a gaming icon and think that maybe somebody somewhere right this minute is performing his or her very first Dragon Punch and that another twenty five years down the road, they’ll hear somebody shout “SHORYUKEN!” in a movie, TV show, or even out in public and it’ll bring a smile to their face remembering that moment when they mastered the coolest fighting move ever. And that, my friends, is why the Dragon Punch is still OP after all these years.

Street Fighter V: Four Steps to Surviving Survival Mode

Alright, so Capcom’s latest entry in their legendary fighting game franchise launched with some severe online hiccups and half the game missing. No big. We’re all having fun now that game at least works. But there’s still that little issue that many of us are ill-suited to battle the shameless tier-whoring army of Ryus and Kens online. And here’s Street Fighter V with almost nothing for you to do besides getting your sanity and pride destroyed in PVP. What to do?

Well, there’s the Story Mode, which you can beat in five minutes each with two or three AI opponents who barely fight back, infinite Training Mode with nothing to achieve, and Survival Mode; these are the choices offered up by the biggest fighting game in the world and it’s a very poor selection for solitary gamers with only one way to fight legit AI opponents. Survival it is, then.

Survival is the dreaded fighting game mode where you, the gamer, must defeat rapid fire opponents in single round fights without the benefit of a full recovery between battles. Usually, it’s just a score thing we play a few times for our own vanity and then abandon, but this time it’s about the only game in town if you want to take a breather from the sharks, noobs, and spammers online and just fight the computer for a while to gain some snazzy unlockable costume colors.

It’s time to make friends with this usually avoided mode. It’s likely going to be a hell of a challenge for new and intermediate players, and maybe even more than a lot of pros are going to want to bother with. Easy difficulty lives up to its name with a meager ten fights to unlock your first alternate colour in five minutes or so, but after that you’re going to need skill, savvy, and a little bit of luck to claim your prizes.

I spent days running at Normal and sputtering out at the finish line of the thirty match gauntlet only to start all over to try again before I triumphed, and in that time I searched online for some tips and tricks and found nothing useful beyond obvious suggestions about maximizing my score. This wasn’t about score. This about my pride as a gamer. I’m a twenty-five year veteran of the series -albeit coming back from a very long break. Still, if I can’t beat the only legitimate single-player challenge in the game on Normal, what kind of loser am I? And no, I was not going to just pick Ken and dragon punch everything for an hour straight. I came to play, not to spam.  

I’m still working on Hard difficulty while cursing Capcom for failing to put the most basic fighting game modes (no Arcade or AI Versus? What the hell, man?!) into a full-priced AAA product, but I love me some Street Fighter so I’ve got to work with what I’ve got on hand. So for those still struggling to unlock those Normal alts, I’m using my slot this week to offer up a few tips I learned the hard way to deal with the grind of Street Fighter V’s unforgiving Survival Mode.

Step 1: Pace yourself.street fighter v ready

I think my first mistake was taking Survival too seriously. After breezing through Easy and finding the first twenty or so fights on Normal a snap before suddenly being bushwhacked by a nasty difficulty spike, I put too much pressure on myself. At about the twenty-fifth fight, the AI steps up its game big time, but the game itself remains the same, which is to say kind of unfair and random. More on that later. The irony was that when I was beating my head against that virtual brick wall, I was psyching myself out. Relax; the game isn’t going anywhere, and neither should you.

By desperately trying to maximize my score and sweating making it to the end with muh points intact, I had been mentally exhausting myself for no good reason. I mean, what’s a score? Just numbers. It’s not like we get to write our initials for the whole arcade to see anymore. Rather than worrying about achievement, I found success by using Survival as a practice mode while I waited for online matches. Since most of the first twenty opponents on Normal were pushovers, I used them like live training dummies to work on my skills with my main character while the persistent matchmaking did its thing finding me real opponents.

Fighting games are really intense by nature and playing match after match for a prolonged period can see you getting worse instead of better as you go. Don’t be afraid to take a break if you get stressed. When I treated Survival casually as a vehicle to practice for online matches and only began focusing on winning when I got to the last five fights, I found myself more relaxed and clear-headed with less frustration and a better attitude when crunch time came.

street fighter v battle supplementsStep 2:Use supplements wisely.

In terms of maximizing score, careful use of between-round Battle Supplements is a gamble best taken in the early going while the AI is incompetent. Halfing your precious health bar, doubling your opponent’s power, or maximizing your stun gauge with Double Down could mean an ignoble defeat or an expensive recovery, but it’s a fairly safe bet in the first ten or so fights. You should have no problem amassing more than enough points in Normal to keep your health at a decent level, so this it’s completely unnecessary unless you just want the satisfaction of the highest possible score (see above). Deep into Hard or (god forbid) Hell difficulties it will be a different story, though, so keep in mind that a full health bar costs about two solid victories’ worth of points and stock up early if you dare attempt the higher challenges.

Filling up your V Gauge or Critical Gauge and upping your stun defense is a waste of points and should be avoided unless you get some kind of psychological kick out of it. Increasing defense now could save you points on buying expensive Health Recovery later so it’s usually a good idea to invest in that if you’ve got health to spare. Ounce of prevention/pound of cure and all that. And since you never really know if the next AI is going to decide to up its game and suddenly start punishing you, it could potentially save you a premature loss. Use Low and Medium Health Recoveries to top off when needed because High and Full will cost you big time.  

Beyond that, you pretty much have to pray to the Street Fighter gods that the randomized post-battle Supplements give you as much health as you need for those critical final battles. It’s frustrating as hell when you beat a challenging opponent by the skin of your teeth and have your only option to recover for the next match be a pitiful Low Health Recovery that will be wiped out instantly if you slip up even once, but it’s going to happen. But at the end of the day, the Supplements are just that: supplements. You can only really depend on your skills and strategy (or perhaps an endless loop of dragon punches) to get this thing beaten .

Step 3: Use matchmaking to your advantage.street fighter v another fight cammy

Capcom’s persistent matchmaking system means that the game will search for online opponents while you play single player modes or go through the menus. It beats the holy hell out of staring at the “searching…” screen through their direct multiplayer interfaces. But do yourself a favor while you are running at Survival and set the Battle Confirmation option to “ask” instead of “automatic”.

It’s really aggravating that the approximate time to find an online opponent tends to match the amount of time it takes to beat the AI so usually, just as I’m about to land the last hit or am watching the finishing Critical Art animation, a match is found. On default settings, this interrupts your AI battle, takes you to the online fight, and then restarts the previous fight you’d just pretty much won. Annoying as hell. By setting the option to “ask,” you’ll get an audio cue when a match has been found and you’ll have a little over ten seconds to pause and accept if you want.

Beyond the annoyance of re-fighting an opponent you already had beaten flawlessly any number of times, there is another practical use for this in Survival mode. Since you don’t get free health refills after each match, you need to pay attention. If you take too many hits from your current opponent, you may not get the opportunity to substantially refill your health, depending on what Battle Supplements the game randomizes for you, so being able to choose to accept an online match depending on how your current AI fight is going to be helpful, especially when the difficulty spikes.

When I finally conquered Normal, I was getting clobbered by M. Bison in the final stage and escaped a likely KO by accepting an online fight. After the match, I came back and beat Bison’s smug, evil ass like it was Tuesday. Like I said before, you’ll likely need a little bit of luck, so it couldn’t hurt to leave that door open.     

street fighter v chun li bisonStep 4: Know when to change gears

A big part of the challenge of Survival is the inconsistency of the AI. You could smash four opponents who barely even defend themselves and then run into a sudden combo fiend who blocks and punishes everything you do. Then the next six opponents may return to languid incompetence. This can sometimes lull you into a sense of complacency as you grind away, but with single round matches, you can lose in a hurry and end up back at the starting line if the computer suddenly decides to wake up and go on the offensive.

While I still suggest a casual attitude for the long haul of advancing round to round, if you want to get this thing beat, it’s also important to quickly recognize a threat to your progress and react appropriately. The last five fights of Normal are always going to offer a challenge to non-advanced players, but every once in awhile an earlier opponent will forget their place and get bad with you so be prepared to switch from that practice mindset to game time when your enemy ups its aggro. And once you get to those final rounds, be ready to entirely change your approach.

The thing about Capcom’s AI is that its programming is lazy as hell. Ideally, fighting the computer would simulate fighting a live opponent without all of the scrubby spamming and corner-trapping. But at the higher levels of Street Fighter, the game reads your control inputs and your opponent instantly counters whatever you do with superhuman reflexes. The higher the difficulty, the higher percentage of this bullshit you endure. This can make any attempt at offense an exercise in frustration that will likely end with a broken controller, a headache, and/or low self-esteem. After twenty-nine consecutive fights (not counting online matches) this is not how you want it to end. But how do you win against a computer who cheats?

The key to dealing with Capcom’s cheap AI in my experience is patient defense. The first twenty or so matches the opponent mostly just moves around and you have to aggressively pound on them to keep the game going forward. Do not get stuck in this mindset. When shit gets real and every attack you try is getting you eaten up by dragon punches and spinning piledrivers, it’s time to stop pursuing opponents and let them come to you.street fighter v survival congratulations ryu

After you’ve spent enough time in Survival Mode, you will notice that each character has certain attack patterns they tend to adhere to. Keep these in mind because a predictable opponent often presents simple solutions. But for aggressive, combo-happy opponents in general, defense really is the best offense. Wait for them to attack, block high if they are jumping, block low if they aren’t, wait for the opening, and then blast them with the nastiest thing you’ve got while they’re recovering. Then repeat the process until victory is yours. This should not only help newer players beat the odds and overcome the toughest AI opponents to clear Survival on Normal difficulty, but it’s also an indispensable skill for online matches.

Hopefully, my experiences will help some gamers cope with the present bare-bones release of Street Fighter V and earn those precious unlockables to parade in front of your shamefully basic online opponents as a badge of honour and perseverance. So with Normal difficulty down and out now it’s time to turn our attention to Hard and Hell. Hey, we beat thirty increasingly trying AI opponents in a row, what’s fifty or a hundred, right? RIIIIGHT?! Actually, I think I’m pretty happy with the colors I’ve got. Good luck.  

Is Releasing Unfinished Games Becoming the New Industry Standard?

STREET FIGHTER V_20160216015056

A few years ago the notion that people would pay full price for an incomplete game that might theoretically be finished via updates around the time that it cost half as much would be laughable. Usually I am on the laughing side when angry gamers take to Metacritic to give great games 0/10 scores because they found a single glitch, one feature they liked from the previous game that’s missing, day one DLC, or online hiccups upon release. “I feel like I just paid $60 for an alpha build” they said. “DON’T PREORDER EVER” they said. In my experience, the games were not so much unfinished as unpolished at worst. They were still playable and fun. Relax and enjoy, alarmists.

But you know what? Maybe they were right on some level. Not necessarily about any given game, but the cries that video game developers are trending towards releasing unfinished products and taking advantage of customers by charging them full price for alpha and beta builds have officially been vindicated in my eyes. After delivering my article about how Street Fighter brought fighting games back from the brink of obscurity, I literally counted down the seconds on my console until I could play my pre-downloaded digital copy of Street Fighter V. What greeted me on night one was literally an unplayable mess. Shame, Capcom. Shame.

street fighter v alpha tweet kaz hirai

Burn.

Maybe if I was a PC gamer I’d have paid more attention to the Diablo 3 and Sim City debacles. Destiny had some online connection issues on release, but nothing like this. Let me break this down for those lucky readers who passed on Capcom’s latest. The game doesn’t even have the single player basics of the genre; no Arcade or single player Versus modes. It has a story mode that takes literally five minutes per character to beat, and a survival mode that takes far too long past easy difficulty, but in order to earn your rewards and currency for completing even those modes you have to be logged into the server. And the server often didn’t let you in and kicked you out every few minutes when you did get in, making it nearly impossible to play unless you were happy playing with infinite health bars in training mode. I was not.

I know that with every gamer in the world trying to play the newest and hottest game at the same time, there are bound to be issues, but knowing that why do developers insist on tying even the single-player content into the servers? I mean, they’ve told us that we’ll be able to earn future DLC using in-game currency. It’s a big part of the reason I preordered. But if I can’t earn it because doing so is entirely dependent on being online, how do you justify it? I feel a rant coming on so cover the children’s eyes. This might get ugly.

If I play the game offline will I get my rewards for my accomplishments when I connect later, will I need to do it again, or will it just be my loss? They’ve estimated that if we grind every mode with every character for a month and/or win online daily we might be able to get enough “fight money” to purchase a new character. I am not about to risk missing out on my precious finite rewards and I should be able to just play the goddamn game offline without worrying about this shit in the first place.

Multiple main menu options are blacked out inform you that they will be coming in March. Really? HOW ABOUT YOU PUT THE FUCKING GAME OUT IN MARCH, THEN!? I’d have waited. We all would have waited. And no, I don’t want to hear about fiscal quarters. I’d just like to play the game I bought. How is it this game has had three online beta tests and the servers were still utterly unprepared for the online aspect that the entire experience is tied into?

A couple weeks before the game came out I had this weird feeling like I needed to cancel my physical preorder. I actually did. No real reason, I just wasn’t really feeling right about it. Intuition, I guess. The second beta wasn’t that impressive, but the third one was really fun and I ended up intellectualizing myself into preordering a digital copy to get that killer PS4 theme and awesome Chun Li outfit. Sadly, those two things weren’t worth $60, and that’s about all I had to show for my purchase in the first twenty-four hours of Street Fighter V.

street fighter v nash zangief

“Tell the gamers you’re sorry for Capcom’s bullshit, comrade Nash. SAY IT!”

Two matches, a headache, and a sinking sense of shame is all I got for the five hours I spent with the game on release night. You know what would have been a better use of my time and money? Literally anything else. A consumer should never feel that way about a product with this much behind it. It reminds me of the online launch of Grand Theft Auto V except when you couldn’t get on to play multiplayer, there was still the insane amount of single player content to fall back on. Increasing the dependency on online servers while decreasing everything else is a recipe for disaster.

I applauded Capcom heartily when they announced they were making future DLC free or purchasable with in-game currency. It beats the hell out releasing a new version of the same game every year, yeah? But having had hands on the (un)finished product, it occurs to me that they announced this knowing damn well that the game was not going to make its deadline in order to put a positive spin on releasing what is (literally this time) a beta build of the game at retail price. This sort of thing has been sneaking into our lives more and more, but to my knowledge it has never been done so blatantly.

So is this what we can expect now from AAA releases? It was bad enough when games are released with save-wiping glitches, crashes, and day one DLC that was clearly built into the game and then locked out, but this is on a different level. This is one of gamings’ most revered and storied franchises making its current-gen debut. This is a game with immensely shallow stories told in static drawings with voiceover. A bigger story is supposedly coming out in the summer, although it sounds like it’s going to be very small as well for such a delay.

street fighter v another fight cammy

Consumers vs. Dodgy Corporate Ethics. Round 2: Fight!

BlazBlue is a comparatively tiny fighting franchise, but Chronophantasma’s story mode bordered on a full season’s worth of television upon release and there were tons of features. Plus you earn the in-game currency whether you’re online or not and there’s plenty to spend it on. Why is it they can deliver so much more with what one assumes is a much smaller budget? Street Fighter V’s in-game store won’t be available until next month so you can’t even unlock the outfits you see in the game.

Given the franchise’s worldwide success and the years of development, Street Fighter fans would be well within theirrights to expect premium full motion cutscenes and a wealth of game modes from any new release. But as gamers we will always settle for just a quality game. Scratch that: a PLAYABLE quality game. Thankfully, within twenty-four hours these online issues were ironed out and I was joyfully unleashing nasty critical arts upon the faces of my foes, but that doesn’t excuse this growing trend.

A preorder is a statement of trust in a developer or property and the more companies break that trust, the more unsatisfied and weary consumers are going to get,and the closer the game industry is going to bring itself to full collapse. You never get a second chance to make a first impression and next time Capcom comes out with a major release, I’m going to be extremely skeptical. I’ve had many wonderful launch night gaming memories over the years with massive multiplayer franchises over the years. It stinks that there’s this black mark now and it really seems like these sorts of experiences are steadily increasing. Be afraid, fellow gamers.

And there you have it: the happy-go-lucky rational gaming advocate turned into the very sort of raging alarmist he used to mock complete with visions of old white men (even though they’re probably Japanese) smoking cigars and laughing while plotting to exploit our love of gaming dancing in my head. I’d like to think this is going to get better, but I’ve been thinking that and it is clearly getting worse. Will release night for our favorite games soon become a source of trepidation and stress instead of pure gamer joy? Stay tuned.

    

The Fighting Game Resurgence and What it Means for Gaming Culture

fighting

One of my most treasured gaming memories came in the summer of 1991. I was on the cusp of entering high school and spending nearly every day either biking to the video store (remember those?) to rent Super Nintendo games to play until the sun came up or going to the local mall to convert all of my currency into quarters and play the best quality experiences that gaming had to offer at the time in the arcade.

I was familiar with every machine in the arcade, and before playing my first game I always walked the entire length of the room to inspect every choice. One day -stuck way in the back of my arcade- I saw something unlike anything else I’d ever seen before. I’d played Karate Champ, Yie Ar Kung Fu, and a few other like-minded fighting titles before, but this was something on a whole new level. The diversity of characters, the special attacks, the music, the feel; from the first time I laid hands on it, I knew this was something truly special. The game, of course, was Street Fighter II: The World Warriors.

fighting game character montage

Literally a crowded field.

Needless to say, the machine didn’t say in the back for long. By the time school started that lonely machine I felt like I had discovered and nurtured dominated the arcade and gathered lines and crowds of spectators. It was the first game I ever saw that had multiple machines in the same arcade, kids at school printed up lists of all of the special attacks and sold them in the halls (this was before the internet, obviously), and by the end of the next year Mortal Kombat had joined Street Fighter in what would soon become a crowded pantheon that was the ‘90s fighting game scene.

King of Fighters, Fatal Fury, Samurai Showdown, World Heroes, Tekken, Virtua Fighter; the hits just kept coming and coming in the early ‘90s. Street Fighter II was rereleased again and again and then made into a horrifying bad movie, which spawned another rerelease of the game based on the movie that was based on the game. That happened and we all let it happen. This is what the beginning of the end looked like. When Mortal Kombat 3 came out the next year and cost three quarters a play, I knew my beloved arcade scene wasn’t going to last much longer.   

By 1995, Electronic Gaming Monthly was calling the fighting genre’s gluttony the “Most Appalling Trend” of the year, the Neo-Geo console (which was built around a library of fighting games) was foundering, and console games were approaching arcade quality for the first time. Soon, arcades were closing and the only fighting game anyone was talking about anymore was Tekken on the PlayStation aside from critics panning the endless King of Fighters series (which released some fifteen core games between 1994 and 2006 plus several spin-offs).

That’s not to say that the genre died altogether. Personally, I still stopped into arcades in larger cities to be delighted by the crossover titles like X-Men vs. Street Fighter (which would evolve into the awesome Marvel vs. Capcom series) and the like as franchises huddled together to keep themselves alive, but I always played them alone. There were no more lines; no more of the human opponents that had made every trip to the arcade feel like an event. The American arcade scene was gone.

mugen fighting character select

I’m a new gamer and what is this?

With the fall of arcades and the rise of single-player story-based console gaming, fighting games were no longer where it was at. While Japan never lost its competitive arcade culture and the fighting scene that depended on it, America went into a deep depression where fighting games were concerned. By the new millennium, it was niche genre loved by a dedicated cult of hardcore gamers and nostalgia buffs, some of whom began using the MUGEN engine to create and combine their own fighting game franchises.

About this time the next generation of fighting games was lining up while the classic 2D sprite-based titles we all knew and loved became increasingly complicated, shutting out potential newcomers. Dead or Alive was hitting its stride, perfecting the 3D combat that Virtua Fighter  pioneered, the anime-influenced Guilty Gear was becoming the 2D series of choice overseas, and Nintendo saw what Capcom had been doing with its crossover fighters and came up with a little thing called Super Smash Bros.

Street Fighter 3 was beloved by hardcore fans, but failed to catch on, partly due to an almost entirely new and unfamiliar roster, but in 2009, Capcom almost single-handedly brought the fighting genre back to the public eye with Street Fighter IV, which retained the series’ classic gameplay and recognizable characters while featuring snazzy new 3D models. Around the same time, Guilty Gear’s spiritual successor Blazblue came around and caught my eye with its fresh mechanics, presentation, and narrative (a fighting game with a complex story. Whaaaa?). Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…

persona arena yukiko mitsuru

Because why the hell not?

And now we’ve had reboots of Mortal Kombat and Killer Instinct and more Marvel vs. Capcom and Tekken Tag Tournaments. There are even fighting games based on role-playing games like Dissidia Final Fantasy. Yeah. That happened. And Persona hasn’t had a proper title since the PS2, but we’ve had two fighting game sequels to Persona 4 in the last few years. I know for some of us, this genre never left, but nevertheless, it’s making a comeback. Big time.

To what do we owe the rise, fall, and resurgence of fighting games? Well, the appeal of taking on somebody else in a one-on-one test of skills and strategy is as ingrained in us as propagating our species. Street Fighter II was arguably the first video game to become a competitive public spectacle. But on the heels of a thousand imitations and the advent of higher quality console gaming killing American arcades while the mechanics of the games themselves became increasingly complex and unwelcoming to new players, the genre fell out of favor for awhile. But it came back. It was always coming back.

With online gaming becoming increasingly social and the spectatorship of professional gaming tournaments on the rise, it’s entirely natural for fighting games to be stepping back into the spotlight. And what that means for gaming culture is simple: it’s a new generation. The 1990s was all about face-to-face interaction and getting out in the world. In the 2010s, it’s all about connecting to that world through the internet.

If you want to experience any game this very second, you can pull up a Let’s Play video on Youtube. If you want to see two skilled players go head-to-head, you can stream tournaments. If you want to test yourself against other players, well, that’s pretty much a standard feature for console titles these days. There’s just less body odor involved now and if somebody complains endlessly about throws being cheap, you can mute them. And there won’t be any more hours spent trying to beat the game without getting hit trying to unlock hoax characters inspired by bad translations either (Sheng Long, my ASS!) thanks to the internet. It’s a wonderful world we live in, folks.   

street fighter v ryu bison

Lookin’ good, boys.

And you know that whole old school/inaccessible to casuals thing that kept so many people away from most fighting games in the aughts? Well it just so happens that sort of thing has become fashionable in and of itself again. Turn, turn, turn. Capcom has done a hell of a job adding depth to newer Street Fighter games while keeping it relatively inviting to new players. It’s not a hyper speed tag-team chaos-fest like Marvel vs. Capcom nor is it anime insanity like BlazBlue. It’s not trying to be edgy and violent like Mortal Kombat while piling on fatalities to make gamers feel like failures when they flub the potential post-fight victory gorefest. It’s just a straightforward normal speed 2D one-on-one fighting game.

If you want to hone your fighting game skills to the absolute limit with mid-combo V-triggers leading into your Critical Art finisher in Street Fighter V, then get on with your bad self. But it’s quite possible to be successful and have a good time without training like an olympian, which is something that wasn’t always true of fighting games. Most characters have better ways to deal with fireball throwers than jumping into a dragon punch and a lot of other lame go-to tactics that have dominated competitive play and chased gamers away in the past have been weakened or eliminated as well.

Street Fighter IV ushered in a new era for the fighting genre, SFV is refining it further and I think we should all be really excited about what’s coming next. The current trends towards hardcore mechanics, customization, and immersive stories could spawn a whole new generation of fighting games inspired and emboldened by the resurgence of the classic franchises. Wait for it. In the meantime, though, a whole bunch of Street Fighter noobs are waiting online for me to show them how we used to do it back in the day. I’d hate to disappoint.  

Godzilla: Why One of 2015’s Worst Received Games Deserves a Sequel

2015godzilla

Among all the major game releases and indie sleeper hits of the glorious year that was 2015, there were some games that were less beloved. There was your Afro Samurai: Revenge of Kuma coming out nearly ten years too late for anyone to care in the first place and your Tony Hawk Pro Skater 5 faceplanting onto the concrete to the surprise of nobody; and then there was the return of the King of Monsters himself, Godzilla, who has a history of games that fail to live up to his legacy.

godzilla atomic breath

[Imagining city is Metacritic]

Reading the reviews and ratings for this game, you’d think that if you put it into your console a gigantic beast would rise from the sea and demolish your city. I mean, for a game release, anything less than an 80 Metacritic rating is seen as mediocre to unplayable. Godzilla got a 38 with critics, and an even more soul-crushing 31 average among user ratings. Folks were not feeling this game. But to be fair, a quick sampling of the user reviews reveals a lot of verbatim reposts, flatly untrue statements, and an obsession with the graphics (which aren’t bad); so basically that aspect is par for the course on Metacritic.   

Can all of those critics and random interneters be wrong? Yes. Yes, they indubitably can. Was last year’s giant movie monster smash-fest a great game? Not in the traditional sense, no. Was it the best kaiju simulator ever made? I believe it was, but admittedly that’s a low, low bar. Godzilla was not made for mainstream audiences to enjoy, it was made for Godzilla nerds -as it should be- and with that in mind, the game is an absolute success.

Not all of us grew up scanning Saturday afternoon programming desperately searching for our favorite atomic dinosaur or saving up pocket change earned from chores to buy any kaiju VHS we could find at our local retailers and watch it over and over again until it wore out, and that’s okay. It makes you a fake nerd who knows nothing, but that’s no big deal. And yes, I am kidding (sort of).

The objective truth of Godzilla’s failures and successes is that it is not a game for everyone and it shouldn’t be treated as one. We’re a rare breed these days, people who get inexplicable joy from watching goofy lumbering monsters who are clearly dudes in suits occasionally suspended on wires trashing cities and pro wrestling one another. It’s always been a niche genre beloved only by the hardiest of geeks and should be judged primarily by those who understand its appeal. You wouldn’t gauge the next Call of Duty game based on the observations of a gamer who can’t stand shooting games or Undertale as analyzed by somebody whose only standards involve HD pixel counts and the like. The target audience has to be kept in mind.

godzilla mothra king ghidorah

Giant Monsters All-out Attack! Online multiplayer is a thing, but why no offline?

On Amazon, the import version of the game averaged about 4 ½ stars out of 5 from thirty reviews, which is to say that the people who love the big G enough to go out of their way to get it from a foreign country loved it. But how could people love such a universally despised game? Well, maybe the game isn’t that bad? Maybe the mainstream was judging it based on The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 standards instead of kaiju game standards? Or perhaps if there were constant technical glitches, game-breaking bugs, and full system crashes Godzilla would have felt more up to today’s critical gaming standards. Just saying.

A simple and deliberate fan-service game with no story to speak of doesn’t compare to the gigantic, epic, sweeping, fast-paced open-world action RPG’s that are taking over our lives, but that’s fine. The truth of the matter is that this game did what it did -which is something nobody else is currently doing- and it did it pretty damn well. It captured the essence of playing as a gigantic lumbering kaiju smashing a city to bits and battling for supremacy better than any game before it. It could have used a larger scope, but as we’ve seen with modern AAA titles, the bigger the scope, the bigger and more frequent the glitches and crashes. It felt good to play a non-indie game that performed as it was meant to for a change.

That said, the game had its problems. Only a few small areas to play in, frequently clumsy combat, balancing issues (as in the game frequently has a gigantic version of an enemy kaiju come steam roll you just for the maddening hell of it), a needlessly ponderous leveling system that quickly turns itself into a desperate farming and grinding fest, and slow, slow movement. The common critical observation that it didn’t feel like a AAA title so much as an indie game was not off base.

But these problems that helped make the game so unpalatable, they are very easily fixed. And that is the biggest reason why Godzilla deserves and NEEDS a sequel. What Natsume Atari created here is easily the most faithful representation of Toho’s legendary kaiju verse and while it’s far from perfect, it’s closer than you’d think.

godzilla evolution chart

Mmmmmm….RPGish.

Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee is still the most fun kaiju game, but did it feel like a monster movie? Not so much. It felt like an arcade game. The 2015 game was all about capturing the feel of those classic junk food films that fueled so many childhoods complete with classic soundtrack cues (including the infamous Jet Jaguar theme song) and a roar command for each monster (which is both cool as hell and practical as it enables better attacks). It’s somehow the first game ever (at least in the West) to do these things, and that’s awesome.

And the slow pace? Well, Godzilla and King Ghidorah shouldn’t really do battle like they’re Dead or Alive characters, should they? Still, a sprint command is a must if another game gets made. Sloooooowwwwwllllyyyyy lumbering across the map searching for that last scrap of building to level to get 100% destruction felt lame and took up way too much smashing time. A faster movement option movement for when you’ve got a lot of empty space to cover could only improve the experience.

The combat could use some defensive options that don’t require waiting for a full meter as well. Most monsters have no way to get out of the way of an attacking enemy and the computer is often fond of endlessly comboing and putting the player in a constant state of reeling, unable to respond. This is frustrating at times and needs to be addressed.

Godzilla may have earned its criticism as a full price retail game that felt like a bargain bin title, but the fact of the matter is that for gamers looking for a proper kaiju experience, it’s the best and only game in town and to that end, it’s pretty damn fun. Encountering, unlocking, and upgrading the large roster of your favorite monsters feels rewarding (if overwhelming at times), and even this aspect has plenty of room for more of everything. And I do feel like I should point out that all things are unlockable in-game with no charging for DLC like so many games do, which helps make up the perceived budget/price differential.

godzilla mechagodzilla

When there’s no place in gaming for this, there’ll be no place for me.

It all feels like an experience that could be perfect if given a proper budget and a little more polish. I don’t know how well it sold, but I can only hope it did well in Japan at least, where the game got a decent review score in Famitsu. There’s so much potential there and it’d be a shame for starving kaiju-enthusiast gamers like myself to endure another drought when the concept of playing as a rampaging monster is so perfectly suited to video games.

Godzilla is making his return to Japanese cinema (under the directorship of Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideki Anno, no less) later this year after over a decade of hiatus, which hopefully bodes well for the likelihood of a sequel to the 2015 game that crashed and burned with Western critics, but has still managed to gain a small cult following among fans with a giant rubber-suited itch to scratch.

To want more of a game that was scored just north of prostate cancer on critic’s approval ratings scale is either a sign of a broken critical system or mental illness on my part. I won’t deny the second possibility, but since it doesn’t look like I’m alone, maybe more people will stop listening to people who HAVE to play games they don’t like to get paid and start listening to people who WANT to play games for their own sake instead and decide for themselves. Yeah, no; that won’t happen. But I still hope Godzilla 2 gets made and released in America. The world needs more kaiju games. 

Three Fourths Home and the Rise of Post-Millennial Interactive Storytelling

millennial

“Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away

Bells chime, I know I gotta get away

And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind

Better leave her behind with the kids, they’re alright

The kids are alright”

-The Who

I’m a generation one gamer, which is to say that I‘m closing in on an impending mid-life crisis and often finding myself dissatisfied with this mythic “younger generation” that has perpetually plagued the aged, jaded, and socially obsolete throughout modern human history. All of the little things that mark the Millennial generation: the lives ruled by social media and celebrity gossip, the narcissism, and most of all the resultant attitude that suggests an earnest belief that every single thought that enters their heads is the most important thought anybody has ever thought (even if they didn’t so much think it themselves as read it on the internet); these eat the brains of their Gen X progenitors.

millennial perception infographic

There may be some sort of generational discrepancy here…

But lest we become like our own reckless Baby Boomer parents and forget where we came from ourselves while lashing out at our offspring over superficial differences, we old-school gamers owe it both to ourselves and the incoming generation to put aside petty differences and objectively analyze the most relevant, enduring, and telling aspect of any generation’s cultural legacy: their art. And as the children of the ‘90s grow to become productive members of society in a new millennium, I think we as elder gamers have to admit it: the kids are alright. And the very same youth trends that are driving us crazy? They may turn out to be their greatest strength.

Appearances aside, Millennials do have something relevant to say and they are changing media as we know it and proving themselves as bold and innovative artists by twisting their perceived narcissism into universal expressions of human emotion and honesty like we’ve never seen before. And it’s good. Really good. I don’t even feel like shaking my stick at them and yelling to get off my lawn anymore.

The other day I was watching director Kevin Smith interview geek goddess Felicia Day and he told her that her generation were the “true independents”; accountable only to themselves as they have made cyberspace their own and filled it with creativity with no governing body to exploit or impede them. And he’s right. It’s a new world. This is possibly most evident in the rise of the indie game scene, and the way it has taken low-budget minimalist storytelling to heights absolutely unheard of in previous decades.

Games like The Cat Lady, Cibelle, and even Depression Quest have garnered attention and acclaim in telling stories that feel intensely and unflinchingly personal and evoke powerful feelings with very little to work with. The real life issues that cause us chronic anxiety like mental illness, sex and relationships, and the general unfairness of life is something that Boomers have long pretended to ignore and Gen X have skirted with cynical apathy, but Millennials are breaking down those walls head on and integrating them into the very medium we’ve used to escape from those things. And you know what? We’re all the better for it.

Repression is an indisputably damaging psychological force, and while the youngsters’ willingness to (over)share may cause an initial kneejerk of discomfort in the more conservative among us, you’ve got to hand it to them: they know how to tell a good story. As an interactive and growing entertainment medium, gaming has infinite potential and looking at the rise of indie storytelling, it’s truly impressive are using the same tech used to create games in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras to craft creative and artistic stories that would have been absolutely unheard of in that time.     

three fourths home car

Nebraska simulator: engage.

Case and point: 2015’s Three Fourths Home; a game I feel like I should have played sooner but somehow never got around to before now. It’s billed as an “interactive short story”, and including its bonus content is closer to the length of a feature film. As a video game, it doesn’t have much to recommend it since it’s not exactly what we’d call “fun”. Plus, it’s composed almost entirely of silhouettes and text and would not have looked out of place on an early ‘80’s computer. But the economics of storytelling and immersion that make it such a worthwhile gaming experience are as post-millennial as it gets.   

The main game takes place on one two-dimensional stretch of road and you, the player, are expected to do two things: press the gas and talk to the main character’s family on the phone as the car moves through the Midwestern countryside. As an apparent casual phone conversation continues to take turns towards unveiling the various traumas this family unit has undergone in the recent past, the weather gets progressively worse…

Lots of little touches and personal details as well as visual and audio cues pepper Three Fourths Home’s rural journey into the heart of American anxiety in the 21st century, but at the end of the day it is a story comprised of text and lo-fi silhouettes and sounds that convey a wealth of human emotion and a personal experience with nearly universal scope. That is amazing.

In the game’s extended edition, the story is expanded into even deeper artistic territory including an epilogue that takes place inside the protagonist’s memory that offers a way of creating an alternate past for the character and her family, even if only in her own mind. This stays with the theme that was detailed in the base game via her socially impaired younger brother reciting a story he wrote to her about a terrifying monster who looms over a village without destroying it, just slowly poisoning it with its mere presence. Like what the bad feelings, unexpressed anxiety, depression, regret, and general stress of living life these days will do to your general well-being if you don’t find an outlet for them. And still, one day, after slowly rotting your existence indirectly over years as you ignore it, that beast may still wake up and lay waste when you least expect it, leaving nothing behind. Ain’t life granmillennial3d?

This is bleak even by Generation X standards, but it’s a valuable lesson that the young Millennials have to impart. And maybe that’s the core of what we perceive to be a generation of chronic oversharers: a desire to exchange these honest and personal stories of dysfunction as a form of catharsis. We had punk and grunge and heavy metal and gangsta rap and horror movies that didn’t suck and violent video games speaking to us, but in the face of saccharine corporate cookie-cutter garbage taking over modern cinemas and radio, teens and twenty-somethings have taken to the internet and independent gaming to share the horrors of coming of age in a world that may already be broken beyond repair.

They’ve been left to suffer the consequences of previous generations’ irresponsibility and these personal horror stories of a harsh and unforgiving world and the way it amplifies their personal failings are becoming a form of art unto themselves. And for once gaming is right in there from the start, not playing catch up to film, literature, and television, but blazing the trail right alongside them with the new wave of independent artists. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

The power of this new form of interactive entertainment is that a brief stint spent driving a virtual car in a straight line by depressing a single button on a controller and making dialogue choices in a text conversation with a video game character’s unseen relatives can take a jaded aging gamer’s negative opinions about a generation obsessed with vapid reality shows, arguing about nonsense online with inappropriate zeal, and posting endless pictures of everything they eat and drink (or just their own damn faces) and help give him a whole new perspective just by telling him a story in a way he’s never seen before.

That’s a pretty solid testimonial of the advent of post-millennial storytelling and it feels good to know gaming is only going to get better and more personal from here on out. I’ve murdered tons of Nazis and aliens and monsters and whatnot and traveled to every possible kind of realistic and imaginary landscape in video games. Maybe the future of gaming isn’t about literally battling external threats and traveling places you’ll never get to go in real life anymore. Maybe it’s about going inside of our own heads and figuratively battling the universal human anxieties that are holding us back in life instead. Sounds good to me. Lead on, whippersnappers. Just give the selfies a rest, ‘kay?