Pride, Prejudice, and Perversion: A Virtual Trip to Akiba

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My son wasn’t the only one who was blessed by the video game fairy this past holiday season. While the youngest Verboon was rolling in Wii U games and Disney Infinity statues, a Christmas angel delivered unto this grown up gamer a bizarre new PlayStation exclusive that is definitely not for kids by the name of Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed. Some games could be described as the most fun one could have with your clothes on. In this one the fun comes in taking them off. Not like that, though.

akiba's trip body pillow

Commencing waifu body pillow beatdown in 3…2…1…

It may be written as Akiba’s Trip, but one look at the game’s box cover/title screen sheds a little light on the game’s premise. After all, the Akiba in question isn’t a person so it couldn’t very well take a trip. It’s really Akiba Strip. But before I get to the good stuff explaining this twisted little premise, some backstory for the non-otaku among us. Tokyo’s Akihabara district (Akiba for short) is a worldwide Mecca of hardcore geek culture. It’s an area surrounding the Akihabara station that is densely packed with as much electronics, anime and manga culture, video games, maid cafés, and general Japanese pop culture insanity as anybody could ever want.

I remember a few years back when I saw a preview for a Kinect game where you could explore a virtual recreation of Disneyland and get fake hugs from Disney princesses. Being California born and raised, this struck me as really sad because where I come from, trips to Disneyland are an indispensable part of childhood. No way a video game replaces that. After playing Akiba’s Trip, in which you wander a digital recreation of what’s essentially Disneyland for anime geeks, I imagine this is how Japanese otaku feel about lower class loser gai-jin like myself who will most likely never see the Land of the Rising Sun with our own eyes and have to settle for a video game approximation of their nerd Nirvana.

But to be fair, I doubt you get to strip the clothes off of Goofy in Disneyland Adventures or smack Snow White down with cat paw mittens or a rolled up anime poster while cross-dressing. The opening crawl of Akiba’s Trip promises “a little something to offer even the most fetishistic of appetites” and while it may not be quite that perverse (no girls using cups as props, for instance), it’s well off the beaten path of repressed American popular culture, which is exactly why I had to play it. Anything this insane needs a look.

Okay, the game’s premise: Akihabara has been invaded by mysterious vampire-like humanoids feeding on the passion and greed of the nerds who populate it, rendering them listless and inert. The only way to defeat them is to expose their entire body to sunlight. That means if you’re going to fight back against them, their clothing has got to go. Ready, set, strip.

akiba strip

It’s all in the name of public defense, honest.

You play an Akiba resident lured to their doom with a shady job offer promising to pay in rare anime figurines and changed into one of these creatures, known as Synthisters. You’re saved by a typical anime girl in a frilly dress wielding a parasol as a weapon, meet up with your buddies at your hangout game bar, and then set about figuring out how to save your beloved town from the menace along with your whichever girl you play your cards right with.

In most cases, a game where the combat is based around tearing the clothes off of people in public would be the world’s worst idea. Actually, it probably still is. But Akiba’s Trip does a great job of placing its tongue as far into its cheek as possible, making the experience of shopping in virtual Akihabara genuinely fun, keeping away from the pornography that is suggested by the premise, and keeping things equal between genders.

There are at least as many male enemies as female, after your initial playthrough you are able to choose a female avatar if you like, and even the risqué screenshots of the major characters you strip (which you can use as wallpaper for your smartphone menu) are split between male and female characters. Virtual Akiba is populated both by random asshat “playboys” who can be seen being slapped while hitting on random girls and by fujoshi shipping male passersby and pontificating on the finer points of tops and bottoms. That is to say that the game is perverted, but it’s equally perverted, be you man or woman. My kind of progress. It’s worth pointing out that the romances are super tame too, akiba's trip boy love fangirlconsidering.

And I have to say that as a high school kid who used to wish I could hit bullies with a hadoken, I now think it would have been way cooler to strip them naked in public using drunken monkey kung fu or by thrusting my hips at them to make their clothing fly off with telekinesis. But even if you’ve never had fantasies of being Marv in Sin City and telling people “that there is one mighty fine coat you’re wearing” before beating them down and taking it for your own, the story, dialogue, and characters are funny enough to warrant giving the game a shot if you’re nerdy enough even without the awesomeness of free-roaming Akihabara. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to respond to a prissy lady with “well excuuuuuuse me, princess” or hit a villain with “your ideals are bad and you should feel bad” or suggest to a heroine “it’s dangerous to go alone. Take me”? Lame people. That’s who. Go back to your pep rallies and proms, noobs.

In addition to hilariously random pop culture quotes as dialogue options, how often do you see a game story where the whole cast sits down to binge watch an entire season of anime together in preparation for a cosplay contest? Even funnier is the post-binge discussion in which all praises heaped on the show are qualified with the suffix phrase “except for the last episode”. This kind of nerdbaiting always gives me the warm fuzzies.This is clearly a game built for geeks by geeks, and that’s something you see shockingly little of considering video games are our hobby of choice.

akiba's trip sister pose

I wish my kid sister wanted to practice anime poses with me.

The sequences where you converse with your character’s hikikimori sister (which are apparently some kind of minigame I haven’t figured out) are charming as various visions of geekiness dance around her head and the talks have unpredictable (and adorable) results. Never thought I’d be called “3DPD” by a video game character. Another nice feature is the social media app, Pitter, where you occasionally get to see exchanges between various internet users that are almost a little scary in how closely they match message board culture, right down to a character who compulsively identifies herself as a girl and other members calling her a “trap” (not a transphobic slur in that context, as some sites have reported, but a reference to the classic online bait-and-switch pranking that spawned the term).

Although Akiba’s Trip suffers from a low budget presentation spearheaded by the still-effective visual novel storytelling format in place of animated cutscenes, it’s still a fun open world game if you don’t go in expecting Grand Theft Auto: Japan production values. You have a relatively small area to wander and a short story, but that area is packed with awesome and the game thrives on customization and replayability, featuring dozens of stores to shop in and tons of rare items to hunt and optional quests to complete, some of which are hilarious. Plus there are more features added upon completing each difficulty and a ton of free DLC featuring content from popular video game and manga franchises and even more customization options if you get the upgraded PS4 version. But don’t buy the DLC character swimsuits. That’s just dumb.

akiba's trip rin pose

Japanese pride much, Rin-chan?

There’s a lot of respect shown for the bizarre subculture Akihabara represents woven into the diversity of the cast and the goofy story to counterbalancethe mocking ridiculousness of the whole setup. While the villains declare the otaku community wastes of energy and seek to harvest it for their own use at the cost of emptying the nerd race of the passion that gives their lives meaning, our heroes come from differing backgrounds ranging from successful businesswoman to pop idol to neckbeard loser to old timer but are brought together by a certain ownership of what Akiba represents as a place where you can let your freaky geek flag fly without fear of prejudice.

On top of all the insanity of geek culture satire and tongue-in-cheek perversity, Akiba’s Trip is first and foremost a celebration of otaku culture, good, bad, and ugly. There’s a genuine pride in what the community of Akihabara represents that comes through, even if the idea of a woman dressed as a maid calling you “master” makes you cringe (and in my case, it does) or you find Japan’s pop culture to be bizarre (as pretty much everybody does). After all, Akiba is maybe the one set place in the world where you can be a total weirdo without being judged for it. Just don’t go ripping people’s clothes off outside of the game, yeah?

Rant Time: Could BioWare’s Multiplayer Fail be a Sign of the Gaming Apocalypse?

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There comes a time when you have to admit that you’re fed up and a game should not have been released in its present state. Last week, I reached that breaking point with BioWare’s latest. After spending a hundred hours on a single playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition leaving behind plenty left to do, I was genuinely excited for some hardcore RPG co-operative multiplayer. After all, Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer was the bee’s knees. What could go wrong?

I should have expected a rough time when the single player campaign had me resetting my console every few hours due to full crashes, among a multitude of other glitches. Plus so much was spent making the game insanely massive, that a lot of the little details that made previous BioWare games such a treat were missing and the game didn’t perform as it should a lot of the time. Still, I had a great time.

When I finally decided to break in the multiplayer, I was at first impressed, than underwhelmed, then impressed again. The amount of content was rather small: a few characters to choose from, several more to unlock, a handful of maps and enemy sets, and a crapton of random loot. The overall setup was like Mass Effect 3, but it lacked the polish. There were good times to be had, but overall, it was never going to be Inquisition’s feature attraction.Dragon Age Inquisition multiplayer characters

Even with the tacked-on feeling, there was a lot to do in terms of leveling up your characters. As I progressed and unlocked cooler characters and more powerful weapons I started getting really excited about my builds and the tactics I could use to bring victory to my crew. After the hectic juggling of my party in the single player quest, it felt pretty good to focus on just one character at a time and work with other players towards the common goals of kicking ass and taking names. The skill trees for each class were well constructed, and since the game’s combat engine is happening, endless hours of grinding was a joy and not a chore. Fun was both afoot and at hand.

As it was, I was playing only a couple hours a night if at all. Maybe once a night I’d get dropped or the game would freeze or something, but it seemed like isolated incidents. Until I realized it was happening as often as it was, that is. Quest-breaking glitches were popping up, robbing me of my precious time, hard-earned virtual currency, and all-important experience points.

You see, to keep losers from bailing on you mid-quest Inquisition only gives you what you’re owed upon completion of the mission. It seems like a good idea, and it is…..so long as your game works like it’s supposed to. You can only get so many isolated sessions interrupted before you notice the pattern, and once I got some more time to really put my nose to the grindstone, I discovered the second most broken multiplayer experience I’ve ever had in all my years gaming.

Dragon Age Inquisition glitch comic

This actually happens pretty much every mission.

Batman: Arkham Origins had an extremely creative and fun multiplayer mode, but I was forced to quit because it was damn near impossible to make it through a match, and sometimes to even find a match. But that was from a first time developer. BioWare did a competent job on their last game’s multiplayer so you’d expect this one to be functional at the least.

But no. During one night of intense multiplayer madness, I finally decided that Dragon Age: Inquisition’s multiplayer is not something I need in my life. At least, not in its current form. In fact, it may be a herald of an incoming video game industry crash. That products of this size are being released at all in this state is something companies like EA should be ashamed of and it could be a matter of time before gamers lose interest if it keeps up.

So what kind of night makes a confirmed Biodrone turn against his favorite dev? Well, picture a multiplayer RPG where leveling up your characters and buying chests packed with random loot is where the fun and advancement come from. Now picture that you spend hours playing the game and the game keeps robbing you of those things after you’ve already put in the work. Even casting aside all of the other bizarre glitches and bugs, this is just unacceptable.

I started up a god-tier Elementalist three times, had great games filled with me being awesome and saving my weak partners (randoms in this game are freakin’ helpless for the most part, I’ve found), and got nothing at all for my troubles. Either the server crapped out, the game itself crashed and froze my console, or worst of all the game didn’t recognize that you’d killed every last enemy and refused to let you move on; almost always near or even after the final battle. That was just an hour and a half trying to get one character though his first mission.

Just prior to that I was playing my glass cannon of a Reaver, smashing through enemies with my two-handed axe like I was mowing lawns. It was awesome. Now I understand why people play as tanks. The power could drive one to madness! Die, weak fiends, DIE! Neither puny mage nor cowardly rogue shall have the glory of the kill whilst I roam the fields of battle! I got her to a pretty high level, but hit the same wall with the game not letting me advance due to its own shittiness. The Elementalist was just the last straw.

Dragon Age Inquisition skill tree

Sure would have been cool to be able to climb that skill tree.

So my last game as a Reaver we had to find a key to the door by defeating all of the enemies. We did the thing, but the door remained locked. We spent almost half an hour backtracking, breaking random objects, talking shit about the game, and eventually trying to kill ourselves. The conversation focused on how shitty a game has to be where it becomes your responsibility to look for ways to commit suicide just to get the experience, gold, and items you’d earned so far in the broken quest.

Standing in fire didn’t help, but I found that if you jumped down a stairwell just right, you could get a little fall damage. So here were the four of us climbing up a stairwell jumping back down over and over again while our characters repeated the same sayings over and over  (as they do every game) so we could get a game over screen and at least be awarded our due. Not really the kind of epic quest we signed up for.

The ultimate insult came when we were nearly dead after several minutes of this ridiculousness and found that we could damage ourselves no further. Seriously, BioWare? There is almost no way to get fall damage in this place and you’re so worried about it that you made dying from it impossible just to make goddamn fucking sure that when your shitty game broke we had no way to collect our earned gold and experience?

lipstick middle finger gif

So after thoroughly expressing our discontent while desperately seeking a way to salvage our adventure, the rest of my party determined to play some Far Cry 4 instead and I was hoping that by starting a new mage character I would feel a little better. We all know how that worked out. A couple hours later, I was done with Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s been over a week and I’m still butthurt. It was so much fun (when it worked)! So much potential (when it worked)! So many characters to build (when it worked)! It should have been great, and it would have been (had it worked).

So this whole experience has left me pondering what the hell is wrong with the state of the game industry that a respected developer like BioWare can get away with putting out something this broken as a finished product. This is a fairly new thing, releasing half-finished games. You didn’t run into this kind of crap in previous generations. This is all Xbox/PlayStation era. I thought the problem might have been me playing a next-gen game on a last gen console (PS3), but the next-gen message boards seem to bear out that this is a problem there too. The game was released while it was busted on a fundamental level.

I’d love to give it another shot when they patch it, but why should I? I preordered this game and had been awaiting it with baited breath for years. I even cheered when they delayed it because anything that makes the game better is fine by me. But now I have to wonder about what the game would have been like if they hadn’t delayed it. The multiplayer is almost unplayable as it is. I’m sure in the future they’ll have ironed it out and maybe even added in some free DLC, but the likelihood of me gathering myself up to go back to this mess on the chance that it’ll be fixed is unlikely. As a general rule, you get one shot with me before I move on and BioWare blew it. I was playing the game right here and now and it is broken right here and now and my last experience with my most anticipated game of the year by far left a bad taste in my mouth.

fuck you half baked gif

My message to the people who saw this game released too soon. The writers I’m cool with, though.

What the hell happened? Is it the new engine? And why are no sites pointing these things out? Is it because we’re filthy console peasants and nobody cares about us?  It’s EA’s fault, isn’t it? Fuck EA. Really, though, how is it that something like this can even be released in good faith? The faithful fans buy games as soon as they come out and they should be treated to the best that the product can offer them.

The smart gamers are having to wait for Game of the Year editions or sales a year or so down the line to scoop up the patched version and enjoy the game as it should have been enjoyed in the first place (see also: Red Dead Redemption/Fallout: New Vegas). This nonsense has got to stop. Release unfinished games is going to do nothing so much as lower consumer confidence and send us fleeing to Nintendo, piracy, indie developers, and used games.

Our time and our money is valuable and if big game companies are going to pretend that isn’t a fact, then they will eventually see their income dry up. Fair warning. A game industry apocalypse is the only way this ends if screwing your customers remains commonplace. If we can’t count on the companies with the most resources to release dependable finished quality products, they probably won’t be able to depend on us buying them much longer. Sooner or later, we’re going to get sick of it. I’ve just reached that point, and with one of my favorite games of the year, ironically.

Hopefully, this doesn’t become standard procedure, but it kind of feels like it’s starting to. More and more games are being released with massive problems and the industry seems more obsessed with pushing itself further in than pulling itself out of this technical quagmire. BioWare is my favorite game developer and now I can’t even count on them so where does that leave my faith in the industry? Not in a good place. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

Blog Announcement: Good News and Bad News

Hi, all. I’ve used this blog as a place to dump my past columns writing for Unreality and Gamemoir to collect them all in one spot for convenience and give the fine people of WordPress another chance to discover them. I’ve been pretty happy that a lot of people have found them that way and been kind enough to read, like, and comment on them. Thanks for that. It’s why I still do this after over a decade of site-hopping, reviewing, and general commentating. But my relationship with Unreality concluded as of my last post due to several factors so if you’ve been coming for film, television, literary, and comics commentary I’m afraid there likely won’t be much more of that coming anytime soon. It’s been a really busy time and I’m not seeing the possibility of taking up any more writing assignments. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that I still write for Gamemoir so if the main reason you come here is video games, there will be much, much more of that coming. Due to me not wanting to fill everybody’s inbox with more than they could possibly want to read I’ve limited my posts to three every week or so and writing two new columns a week and having started this blog several months behind I haven’t had much luck catching up to current events. As a result, everything I’ve posted up to this point has been months old. Focusing on on my Gamemoir output means I’ll finally be able to catch up and eventually start posting articles about current events here instead of ancient history. So that’s something.

Hopefully you’re a gamer and just gave a little “yay” or something, and maybe at some point in the future I’ll find the time to write some original content or recommendations about other media that I enjoy. We’ll see. Either way, I appreciate you taking the time to read this and I’m always open to requests if anybody wants to encourage me to continue writing about non-video game related stuff in the future. After all, if you want to read it, I’d like to write it. It’s kind of the whole point of this thing.

Thanks,

Nick

 

 

 

The Five Best Short Films from The ABC’s of Death

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Last week saw the release of the The ABC’s of Death 2, and with the first streaming on Netflix I figured now might be the time to give this fascinating concept some love. For those not into underground horror, the premise of this series is that each feature consists of 26 short films assigned to different directors from around the world, each titled according to a letter of the alphabet. 

That’s two films which have bequeathed to us a total of 52 bite-size slices of horror in the last few years, so I thought it might be worth our while to take a look at some of the best offerings.With such a massive number of shorts, it’s safe to say that the results are mixed. Each director was given complete artistic freedom, which is to say that the films run the gamut from utterly nonsensical to terrifying and disturbing to absolutely hilarious to just gross.

There’s gore, irony, animation, wit, brutality, and bizarre sexuality on display in addition to just about anything else you can imagine. These are five of the most memorable and enjoyable segments for me from two of the most unique horror presentations of recent years. Naturally, they will be in alphabetical order. There are some pretty extreme visuals in some of these if you aren’t horror fanatics, so proceed with caution, 

E is for Exterminate

I’m a little biased with this pick because I’m intensely arachnophobic but seeing that there are ironically very, very few legitimately scary spider films out there, this one has got to be included. It was directed by horror sweetheart Angela Bettis, who starred in the excellent May and has remained a mainstay in Lucky McKee’s films since. Iterestingly, McKee starred in Bettis’ only other directing credit, Roman.

A lot of killer spider stories have a keen and basic misunderstanding of arachnophobia. They think that making spiders giant or having a million of them is what’s scary. Not even. What’s scary about spiders is the ease with which they can hide from us. A black widow only needs about an inch of shadow to be nearlyinvisible and their ability to get literally anywhere makes them a nightmare. I once walked face-first into one that was spinning a web in my hallway one night when the light had burnt out. I can’t even feel safe in my own goddamn home.

Anyways, E for Exterminate does a great job illustrating what we arachnophobes can’t stop thinking about: that if these small creatures ever gained intelligence, they could probably wipe us out. The protagonist in the film fails in his attempt to kill the offending spider, and it gets back at him by biting him nightly on the face as he sleeps. If that doesn’t send a shiver up your spine good for you, badass. But the kicker here comes when tiny spiderlings begin crawling from his ear where the arachnid has apparently been laying its eggs as well. Can…….can they really do that? [runs for q-tip]

F is for Fart

Now it’s time to get plain damn wierd. This segment was brought to us by modern Japanese grindhouse kingpin Noboru Iguchi, who specializes in pushing his country’s native brand of exploitationist absurdism to its utmost extreme. His other films include such insanity as The Machine Girl, Robo-Geisha, and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and it’s pretty safe to say they aren’t for everyone. They are, however, for me. People take themselves way too seriously. This is the one film out of all of the where I called the director before they were credited onscreen. Nobody else would ever make this film.

I’ve heard a lot of atheist philosophy, buy F is for Fart is the first one to use the femine social stigma against flatulence as its basis. The story of forbidden love between teacher and student is interrupted by an apocalyptic eruption of poisonous gas, which causes our heroine to decide that if she has to die in that way she wants to spend her last moments suffocating on the eruptions from her beloved sensei’s delicate derriere and pass beyond the boundaries of good taste together with her.

This is definiely a love it or hate it film, but you will have a strong opinion about it, whether it’s abject disgust, hilarity, or just complete and utter confusion. The classical music accompaniment really sets the tone here. Iguchi is contrasting the profound with the moronic -the sacred with the profane, if you like- and using this theme to make a personal statement about his own unusual approach to the film medium. And why shouldn’t we embrace the taboo, explore the cleverness of stupidity for its own sake, or find enjoyment in the disgusting? Yet somehow this isn’t even the most bizarre or obscene Japanese entry in the first ABC’s of Death. Not even close.

M is for Masticate

Probably more than any other segment in the films, this one shows how simple it can be to make an awesome short film. Great entertainment can be as simple as clever timing, presentation, and proper utilization of the almighty kicker. In a little over two minutes you get horror, gore, comedy, and then the overwhelming urge to yell “TOO SOON!” while laughing in response to the extremely unexpected reference to a real life event.

The choice of music is as excellent as it is unexpected too. It preps the viewer for the laugh to come by setting the tone in spite of the horrific imagery and the use of slow motion and sudden shift from slo-mo psychedelic surrealism to real time and real sound as the bullet makes contact is fantastic.

Anyone with a great idea and a little skill could make a film like this with minimal effort. The beauty is in the simplicity. M is for Masticate feels a lot longer than it is because it frankly packs more genuine style and entertainment value in its under two and a half minute running time than some two hour comediesI’ve seen in their entirety. It was directed by Robert Boocheck, a former intern of Sam Raimi’s with a few obscure titles to his name who won a contest with this entry to have it included in The ABC’s of Death 2.

U is for Utopia

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Sci-fi legend HG Wells wrote in his thoughtfully self-indulgent novel A Modern Utopia that “there is only one sane and logical thing to be done with a really inferior race, and that is to exterminate it”. I don’t have any explanation why this out of all the films isn’t available for viewing on the internet so I guess I’m giving the synopsis of this short film’s homage to the proposed ideal of an ideal society.

The film opens with shots of beautiful, elegant, impeccably dressed people shopping in a shiny, happy pristine world. We then are introduced to a neckbearded fellow awkwardly making his way through the population center, bumbling about as he goes. The pretty people stop, stare, and pull out their smartphones, which scan the disruptive intruder, setting off an alarm. The masses part as a mobile lawenforcement coffin makes it way to the site of the disruption, pops open, pulls the loser inside, and incinerates him on the spot to the applause of the masses. Perfect world: achieved.

Vincenzo Natali of Splice and Cube fame is responsible for this nice slice of dark social satire. The idea of a perfect society is something that has fascinated scholars and philosophers, but it’s obviously something that can’t be achieved if for no other reason than every single person has a different idea of what that entails. Making something perfect for one group of people requires ether enslavement or elimination of opposing groups of people, which hardly meets any sane moral definition of ideal.

What makes this entry so fascinating is the way it takes a giant sanctimonious dump on the ideals of those among us who think the world would be a better place if we were all held to their lofty standards. Everybody doesn’t meet somebody’s standards, but very few of them deserve extermination, which is the only practical way to remove them from the social equation. Sorry, idealists.

X is for XXL

This poignant and disturbing tale of modern body image is brilliant and probably hits extremely close to home for a lot of overweight people. It’s hard to watch, but part of that is because it rings so true. Even the internet’s ever-shouting “social justice” community has had a hard time coming down on the right side of what has become one of the last bastions of acceptable social abuse: body shaming.

This short film features a day in the life of an overweight woman surrounded by media featuring female perfection in bikinis smiling and encouraging her to do as she does while strangers in public loudly mock and discuss her appearance. Now, anyone who even knows the meaning of the word “psychology” has got to be aware that certain people deal with stress and depression by attempting to balancing the negative emotions with the physical pleasure they receive from food. This makes the abuse part of the self-fulfilling cycle of obesity for many people.

In X is for XXL, the protagonist finally reaches her breaking point and begins attacking her own body, hacking off parts of herself with the image of the slim, sexy, smiling model on TV flashing before her eyes. It seems extreme, but in abusing or judging a person for their current size, are we not encouraging the concept? We are literally asking another human being to reduce themselves to meet our personal preference whether by surgery or by diet and exercise. Self-mutilation is not as far off from that conceptually as we might like to think.

French director Xavier Gens has made a name for himself in the horror community with Frontier(s) and The Divide, and he’s broken into mainstream Hollywood with his film adaptation of the Hitman video game series, but this short film is my favorite thing he’s done so far. Combining effective horror with such savage, literal, and spot-on social commentary is pretty rare, and doing it in so short a run time is exceptional.

There’s obviously plenty more where that came from, but those are my favorites from the first two ABC’s of Death collections. It wasn’t a very easy narrowing-down process. Feel free to let me know which ones you think I should have included.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Fictional Character Death

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Death is something that’s ever-present in our lives, but nobody likes to talk about it in real life. That’s why we have fiction. It’s kind of ironic that so many of us spend our finite lives watching unreal characters live and die, but we love it. Some of the most memorable moments in pop culture revolve around the deaths of beloved characters, deaths of minor characters are used to set plots in motion, body counts are racked up for our amusement; any way you look at it, death is big business in the entertainment industry.

But as with most things, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it. Barring black comedies or big dumb action flicks, death is usually meant to be taken extremely seriously in a story. Nobody wants their favorite hero or their adorable love interest to bite the dust, but sometimes sacrifices have to be made to make a tale truly memorable. Here are some right and wrong ways to bring that about. I’m going to use a lot of specific examples here so beware of spoilers.

Do: Make it Count

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Noble sacrifices and tragic losses have always been staples of storytelling drama. Nothing galvanizes an audience like a protagonist who has his or her happiness ripped from them by some villainous piece of crap who killed their loved ones and left them with nothing but a thirst for vengeance. And nothing gets the feels going like a noble character giving their life for their comrades or a character in the depths of despair taking their own life. It’s all very cliché, but it’s still damn effective.

Death should always have a purpose in a story. If you don’t feel it, it’s just filler. I still remember watching Godzilla: King of Monsters as a child and seeing the scientist that created the deadly weapon used to take the apocalyptic monster down choose to die with the beast rather than risk the possibility that his knowledge could be used in warfare. And watching the original Gojira decades later as an adult, that same gesture still gets me, even more so because in the Japanese version there are so many added character wrinkles.

Likewise in war films, killing shouldn’t just something you do because you can. It’s a horrific and ugly thing that scars and taints every soul it touches. We can watch Rambo mow down the dirty commies or whatever all day without blinking, but watching a scared recruit go crazy in boot camp and kill his sergeant and then himself, or the intense suffering of Nazi concentration camps; that’s memorable. Remember that red dress in Schindler’s List? Yeah, you do.

And I don’t think I’ll ever get over Tara’s fate in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show. So shocking and so senseless, but absolute dramatic gold. A wonderful character dying purely from the stupidity of a desperate wannabe villain utterly changed the dynamic of that story in drastic ways, and sometimes that can be a really great thing.

Don’t: Take it Back

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Look at that smug, punchable bastard.

While death in a story is often used for drama and tension, a lot of folks use it as a cheap trick. They want to have their cake and eat it too so they feed you the drama and then go “PSYCH!” This is just plain bullshit. The worst recent offender I can think of is The Dark Knight Rises in which they make a huge to-do about the titular hero sacrificing himself to save his city complete with corny-as-hell statue to commemorate and then have his butler spot him alive and well hiding out in Italy. It was so awful, out of character, and just plain lame that fans of the film had to put forth the theory that it was really a dream, like an Inception crossover I guess. Christian Bale had other ideas. Sorry, folks, it really was that bad.

Another story that pulled this to maddening effect was in the video game Uncharted: Drake’s Deception. In that one, you’re exploring the fabled lost city Ubar pursuing your bad guy and suddenly a sniper bullet takes out your beloved companion of three games, Sully. This was genuinely shocking. After tearing after the dicks who shot him in a rage, you run into your recently lost pal; lol/jk, it was just a hallucination. Oh, so you were just dicking me around, Uncharted 3? Screw you too.

Do: Use it to Ratchet Up the Tension

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Leaf on the wind, spike through the chest.

The old rules were that heroes have to survive because good triumphs over evil and everything is gonna be alright. The problem with that is rules are boring and predictable. Can Batman and Robin escape King Tut’s elaborate unsupervised deathtrap? Tune in next week same Bat-time, same Bat-channel! Bitch, please. Nobody is dying. Except in the comics, where the Joker famously beat Robin with a crowbar and blew his flamboyant ass to hell. If you always know that everyone is getting out of the danger in one piece, there’s no legitimate tension. Somebody has got to go. And now every time Joker shows up in a Batman comic, you subconsciously expect horrible things.

Joss Whedon has a talent for this. In Serenity he offed multiple characters from the beloved Firefly crew and when death was closing in around the balance and our heroes prepared for their last stand, I really believed it. Better, I felt it. William Faulkner decreed that “in writing, you must kill your darlings” and that’s true, and not only in the metaphorical sense it was intended. If you take something or someone you love and sacrifice it for the good of the story, you get drama and audience investment.

Don’t: Trivialize It

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Sorry, everyone. You totally missed it.

Obviously, death should mean something; it’s the most universally feared aspect of life. If you overuse it, you kill the drama; repetition equals comedy. Take a look at slasher films. Not exactly the most respected genre of cinema, but a successful one. How many college kids have cheered and laughed as Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers stalked and massacred copulating teens? Or how about your Stallones or Schwarzeneggers mowing down generic baddies and offering glib one-liners? Good times to be sure, but it’s not the stuff high art is made of. It makes for stories you forget by the time the popcorn is done.

The final season of True Blood killed a primary character off-screen and I spent most the rest of the season trying to figure out what the hell they were thinking. I figured Tara’s mother may have done it and lied and they were saving the revelation for later, but nope. And this after they already killed her and brought her back to life as a vampire. They just didn’t care enough about the character or the audience at that point to bother showing Sookie’s best friend’s final moments. And if they don’t care, how am I supposed to?

Comic books are notorious for making death trivial in addition to constant character resurrections, and are even worse because they usually broadcast the deaths of major characters months in advance so there’s not even any shock value in it. It’s just a blatant cynical attempt to manufacture a sales spike. Then, usually in time for the next movie featuring the character comes out, they’re back just like that and carry on like nothing happened. The Simpsons has done this as well, making a game out of letting the audience guess which minor character will meet their end. The show is satirical, but the way they handle the deaths is often sad, making for an uncomfortable mix of tragedy and comedy.

Do: Make the Audience Feel the Loss

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Remember when this was amazing graphics?

When a character dies, it should be a sad thing, assuming that character isn’t a serial murderer or rapist or a Justin Beiber stand-in or something. If you don’t care about a character’s fate, how are you even invested? Everyone who played Final Fantasy VII back in the day remembers it as the first video game to make grown men cry. When your party’s healer and protagonist’s love interest gets shish-kabobed by the villain, you felt that shit. It was so shocking, it almost didn’t even seem real because video games just did not do that. Players spent years insisting there was some secret way to bring her back. The game rubbed it in by giving you items that were meant to be equipped by that character. But nope. That time, dead was dead, but we never stopped looking. That’s how you do it.

The Walking Dead has proven adept in every medium. The comics have always revolved around nasty demises for its characters, and you feel every one. The image of Glenn’s head being smashed into mush with a baseball bat isn’t leaving me anytime soon. The television show mixes it up with the characters and one of its defining moments was after half a season spent searching for Sophia, the lost little girl shows up as part of a zombie horde that was stuck in a barn right under their noses the whole time. And Telltale Games’ video game series is possibly the best of all. Between choosing which character has to die to a sudden, unavoidable bloody end for a love interest just as things were getting interesting to the heart-rending finale of the first season, there are just way too many gut-wrenching moments to recount here.

Don’t: Tack on a Happy/Dark Ending that Ruins the Story’s Integrity

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Oh look, everybody important to the hero is alive….how boring.

In Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, there’s a scene where the protagonist’s shithead of a son runs off to be stupid or something right into a nuclear explosion. It was probably best for everyone. The hero got his dramatic loss, the audience didn’t have to listen to the kid bitch anymore. Win-win. Now I find it hard to believe that the same guy that made the aforementioned Schindler’s List decided to end a classic story about murderous aliens by miraculously resurrecting a character that nobody missed even a little bit in the last scene for an unearned happy ending to a genocide story. Lose-lose.

On the other end of the spectrum is The Mist, in which a father spends literally the entire movie defending his son from all sorts of danger to escape into the titular mysterious monster-infested fog only to drive off into the middle of nowhere and kill him and the other survivors. Is this the same character? How? It’s probably the biggest “f*** you, audience” ending in the history of cinema and so out of whack with everything that came before it that it pretty much refused to allow me to take the film seriously, although I had been enjoying it very much right up to that point. Night of the Living Dead and I Am Legend (the book, not the movie); now that’s how you earn a dark ending. You can’t just tack one on for shock value.

Do: Shock Us

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Euphy-chaaaaan!

Some of the most memorable moments from fiction have come from killing off lead characters or from having those characters do unspeakable things. Stories like Hex, which killed the star early in the second season without warning or A Game of Thrones, which set up Ned Stark as the hero only to have him become a victim of his own magnanimity and lose his head for the trouble, create tragedy gold this way by utterly defying audience expectations.

When we don’t see something coming, the impact is so much more memorable. The depths that Walter White sank to over the course of Breaking Bad, Frank Underwood’s spontaneous act of murder in House of Cards, and the hero of the popular anime Code Geass gunning down the angelic princess that was his childhood friend are the kinds of moments that make for unforgettable fiction. Unexpected brutality that makes us question the people we were rooting for is an increasingly effective tool for making an audience think beyond good and evil, and how we get true art.

Don’t: Overdo It

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Yes, that is a marker for each death.

But like I said before, repetition equals comedy. While the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire and the respective opening season of Game of Thrones were an instant hit partly by the willingness to go there, after a while the constant death and then occasional resurrections and fake-outs became a running joke. It’s one thing to slowly kill off your cast, but when you bring in characters who bring the dead back to life and the like, it starts to become eye-rolling because the author is tempted to kill everyone (or pretend to) just to bring them back and again we’re having our cake and eating it too. Death is meaningless if it can be undone on a whim.

Kill ‘em all, but don’t let God sort ‘em out. You’re the author; that’s your job. Dealing with death is an important part of drama and as a plot device it’s not going anywhere. Just do us a favor and do it right, ‘kay?

That Feeling When Your Child Goes Next-Gen Before You

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So it’s been over a year now since next-gen became current gen and I’m still waiting for an excuse to embrace it. PS4, Xbone. Xbone, PS4. PS4 has better specs and Xbone has that Orwellian Kinect spycam that you have to pay $100 extra for. PS4! But Xbone has Halo, Dead Rising, and then they ditched the Kinect. Xbone! But the same games on PS4 are better….but what if Xbone gets the zombie game of my dreams? Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter right now, as all the best games are still coming out for the last gen and I’m still getting caught up on my PS3 exclusives, having been a Xbox warrior most of the last decade. I can wait for Sony and Microsoft’s latests to justify my love before I huck most of a paycheck their way for new hardware.

But hark! ‘Twas Christmastime a mere fortnight ago! And on that blessed morning what before my wondering eyes did appear, but a Nintendo Wii U (but no tiny reindeer). Lest we forget, the current gen technically started over TWO years ago when everybody’s favorite old school game company dropped their “last gen technology for this gen!” console waaaaay back in November of 2012 and we pretty much forgot about it (at least until the latest Smash Brothers came out). But the fact is that the Wii kicked the crap out of its competitors the previous gen in spite of its comparably low horsepower so Nintendo was clearly doing something right. And they’re still more or less doing it.

Sure, the Wii U is a glorified tablet that comes with a console, but tell me what current system has more quality exclusives? There you go. I may be warming up to this idea of going with the baby console for babies for a while. Yeah, old Nick’s gonna play up some Nintendo just like old times. Oh, wait. The gift was for my son. I’m stuck here with my broke ass playing old last gen games while writing a weekly video game column on the internet (I’m SOMEBODY dammit!) and my spoiled brat of a child who’d rather watch Stampy Longnose make YouTube videos of The Hunger Games on Minecraft than actually play with any of the dozen odd Disney Infinity figurines he’s collected or many games he’s accumulated has gone next-gen before me.

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Eff. Em. Ell.

Well, I didn’t want to play video games on a stupid iPad thingy anyways. Wait, he also got a GameStop gift card and bought a sweet light-up Xbox-style controller too? And there’s a Marvel game involved? Well, I do love my superheroes, and that little plumber fellow always knows how to have a good time. Wanna co-op, kid? I shall teach thee of the ways of the great Mario, his verdant brother Luigi, the noble Toad, and the Princess of Peach. A fine tale indeed. Also, I’m going to rub it in when I get the high score. You see that, boy? I’M wearing the crown! ME! In your third grade FACE! I’m such a good dad.

But on the plus side, Lego Marvel Superheroes is more complex than you’d think and I’m happy to help him figure out the puzzles. Right before I blast his ass dead with repulsors, that is. Builds character, you see. Family time is all well and good, but now that little red dude on my shoulder is telling me I’ve got to figure out how to get Mini-Me out of the picture and rock some real deal shit. I want some Monster Hunter 3 and Bayonetta 2. Is it bad parenting if you look for excuses to ground a child just so you can send him to his room and play his video game console? Nah. When in doubt, just say it builds character.

It’s an interesting time in technology. One with a lot of unforeseen headaches like when everything uses a HDMI cord now and your television only has one port, two at the most. Or when you try and bring up Netflix and you can’t because the kid has made such a mess out his Nintendo ID’s that you just keep spinning in circles trying to match the right email and password and the right Mii. Damn it, kid!

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I swear, all of this awesomeness is wasted on the young. Or maybe it’s just time for me to grow the hell up and let the next generation of gamers do their thing without me standing over their shoulder shouting about how gaming is MY generation’s thing and mocking their Let’s Play internet celebrity heroes’ Spongebobian speech mannerisms. Nope. Saddle up the hate train. Or horse. Shut up.

In all seriousness, I’m pretty pleased to be the father of a future gamer. I can almost hear him questioning other players’ sexualities through his headset now. Wow, that “all seriousness” thing never lasts long with me, does it? But hey, any time with my son is quality time and it’s actually pretty cool to break in a new generation of consoles with my son sitting next to me.

Sure, I’d rather be doing adult stuff like decapitating virtual noobs and whatnot, but I’ve still got my PlayStation for that and stomping Goombas in a Tanuki Suit isn’t really something that ever gets old, you know? Plus, there’s like a million unlockable Marvel characters in that Lego game and who wouldn’t want them all? Ooh, Black Widow has stealth mode! Growing up is way overrated. Part of the joy of parenting is reliving the things you loved in your youth through sharing them with your offspring. Let’s play some more Super Mario 3D World, little man. We’re in this together now. Sony and Microsoft can wait.

Six Nintendo Sequels that were Radical Departures from the Originals

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Back in the day when the Nintendo Entertainment System almost single-handedly rebuilt the video game industry after Atari shovelware nearly buried it, carbon copy sequels were not the norm. In fact, very few games ever got sequels at all and many of the ones that did saw the follow-up completely break away from most of the factors that made the original such a sensation.

To contrast, we’ve see nearly 15 variations of Call of Duty in the past decade and eight Assassin’s Creed games in seven years, almost all of which are variations on the same basic gameplay. But it was Nintendo that really perfected the art of the sequel, and sometimes they were just plain unwilling to stick with the winning formula. The results were some really classic NES sequels that some people didn’t appreciate until their respective franchises were forced to revert to same ol’ same ol’ and one sorely underrated DS RPG, which I’ve compiled for you here. Let’s take a look.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

No matter what generation gamer you are, you can hum the theme to The Legend of Zelda. Youzelda 2 know why “it’s dangerous to go alone! Take this.” And you know what “this” is. The original game was a sensation and represents a lot of gamers’ fondest childhood memories. You’d think a sequel would do its best to recapture that amazing feat of digital entertainment.

You’d be wrong. The classic top-down view was relegated only to a map where you chose which level to travel to, similar to old-school RPGs. When you encountered an enemy or entered a town or dungeon, the game went sideways. Literally. The Adventure of Link was a side scroller. A side-scroller that featured a really excellent combat, experience, upgrades, and magic. It may actually be the only game I’ve ever played where you could control your shield (blocking high and low) and duel enemies with similar capabilities. In addition to the new action-based approach and RPG leveling, the game featured NPC’s to converse with as well.

While a lot of gamers expressed disappointment at the abandonment of the previous game’s style, Zelda II sold massively and maintains a cult following to this day as there have been few game that are anything like it. I didn’t complain when A Link to the Past returned the series back to its roots as that was one of the best games ever made, but I’m still a little disappointed that Nintendo hasn’t chosen to bring back Zelda II’s style.

Godzilla 2: War of the Monsters

godzilla 2 nesGodzilla’s first foray into video games, Godzilla: Monster of Monsters, was a side-scrolling action game where you played as the titular radioactive dinosaur and Mothra on a mission to destroy alien bad guys and their stable of monsters. Being a massive kaiju nerd, I played this game longer than any other NES title I can think of. What kid could ask for more than to control Godzilla?

The sequel was a different story. Not only did you now play as the military tasked with defending the world from the titular kaiju menace, his gargantuan buddies, and alien invaders but it was a turn-based strategy game to boot. This marked my introduction to that particular genre (which I still favor to this day) and it was a memorable one.

Each level was an increasingly large map where you had to locate resources and defend your cities from the encroaching monsters who would appear at different times and places. Mothra was an important part of your defenses, but you had to scour the map to find her egg before she’d appear, and your most powerful weapon, the Super X, is split into different components which must be transported and assembled. That’s just poor military planning.

The strategy game concept was an extremely creative and rewarding one, but it didn’t exactly pay off. I never saw the game on store shelves and had to settle for rentals in order to play it. I’’d venture to say most people didn’t even know it existed, which is a shame because I’d love to see something like it again.

Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume

The original Valkyrie Profile was instantly one of my favorite role playing games of all time when I played it on the valkyrie profile covenant plumeoriginal PlayStation. Maybe someday I’ll expand on that little factoid because God knows it deserves its own article, but today we focus on its DS sequel. The first sequel, Silmeria, remains mournfully unplayed by me (help me, PSN, you’re my only hope…) but I eagerly snapped up the portable sequel and what I found was nothing like the original, but was actually a pretty amazing game in its own right.

You may notice that this is the only game on this list from beyond the 8-bit era. Pretty crazy, right? If nothing else, it shows that in the post-NES world, game developers have almost never deviated radically from their successes without making a full spin-off series ala Dead or Alive Xtreme. There are exceptions in the Final Fantasy series, but for the most part, this is the only modern game I could find. It’s also the only third game. The other games on this list will surely pick on it.

Valkyrie Profile was so original it’s hard to describe in this space so I’ll just say that the combat in Covenant of the Plume was more top-down tactics-style whereas the original was the classic side-view, both with a real-time combo twist. In the original game, you play as Lenneth, the titular Valkyrie who searches for valiant deceased souls to add to Asgard’s army. In the DS sequel, you play as a boy consumed with vengeance and Lenneth is the target of that bloodlust. Your mission is to murder the title character.

While the original story focused on the stories of the dead warriors you search for and recruit, your protagonist in Plume gathers allies to hunt Lenneth down and the choices you make in-game influence the route you take, the people you meet, the faction you join, and the battles you face. This varied, branching, morose storyline about vengeance from a reversed point of view is what really sets it apart. I wish more games would take these kinds of chances.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest

castlevania 2 simons questWhile not as big a departure as Zelda II was, Simon’s Quest was an immensely different animal from its classic predecessor in spite of sharing the same basic gameplay style. Castlevania was another defining game of the era, although a simpler one than Zelda. You side-scrolled, platformed, picked up the power-ups, and killed the beasties what need killin’. But for Castlevania II, Nintendo stalwarts Konami decided to try their hand at some real world-building, adding towns, shops, day and night cycles, and other RPG elements. Having bought it blind, it took me quite a while to figure out what the hell I was even doing since the original game was just linear levels and this one was about exploration.

What I really loved was the day/night feature. When you walked through a town during the day there were people to talk to and shops open, but at night villagers shut themselves away and ghouls roamed the streets. Very atmospheric. Also, in another bit of trope reversal, Simon’s actual quest is not to take Dracula down, but to bring him back. Sure, you’re bringing him back to take him down due to some curse on your line, but I liked that you were searching for parts of your foes body to bring him back to life. It was an interesting twist.

Simon’s Quest baffled gamers at the time, not only because it was way different from the first title, but because it was crazy hard. Not in the Mega Man 2/Battletoads sense, but because the game made it pretty tough just to figure out where the hell to go or what the hell to do next. In theory, you were supposed to get clues from villagers, but they weren’t always very helpful. “Hit Deborah Cliff with your head to make a hole”, anyone? Yeah, in the 1980’s Japanese to English translations weren’t exactly awesome. What it wanted you to do was take a red crystal and duck in a specific spot for several seconds until a tornado took you away. I can’t for the life of me remember how I ever figured this out. I should probably thank Nintendo Power.

Plus I recall a villager telling me that the ferryman who gave you a life across a lake loves garlic (which function like awesome land mines for monsters in the game). I spent waaaaay too long throwing garlic cloves at him and waiting for him to do something. What the hell, bro? It’s not a surprise that by the third game, the old Castlevania format was back, but like Zelda II, this one is remembered very fondly as being way ahead of its time.

Double Dragon II: The Revenge

This one is actually very similar to its predecessor in premise. Bad guys commit violent act double dragon 2against woman. Good guys beat the shit out of every last one of them. Even the women. In the arcade version, what threw me for a loop was the radical change in the control scheme. The original Double Dragon had a button to punch, a button to kick, and a button to jump. Simple. Classic. But for The Revenge, they switched it up so that you still had a jump button, but you now had front and back attack buttons. This threw me for a loop because you could only kick backwards and this was at odds with every video game ever. Muh combos!

For the NES versions, the divide was much bigger, but that’s because the original Double Dragon was a shameful shadow of the arcade classic that spawned it. It was single-player (although there was a pretty cool versus mode tacked on) and required the player to earn experience to unlock new moves. The sequel brought co-op play to the table along with 2D platforming elements. It was easy for me to forgive the weird control scheme when I got to finally play Double Dragon at home with a friend.

Double Dragon II was probably one of my most-played NES games due to the co-op feature, but fans kind of cooled towards the series afterwards. Maybe it was the massive glut of beat ‘em ups that followed that saw the series’ star fade, or maybe people were really that salty about the control scheme change. Who knows.

Super Mario Bros. 2

super mario 2And here we are at the franchise that put Nintendo on the map as the one gaming company to rule them all, and is credited with saving the industry. The original Super Mario Bros. set the standard for platformers that continues on to this day. It was fun, simple, loaded with secrets, and featured one of the most iconic scores in entertainment history. It was a very rare instance of a video game that was literally perfect. Why mess with perfection? Because you can.

Actually, the original Japanese sequel was apparently pretty similar to the original. Too similar, if you ask the North American branch. And too hard as well. So they reworked an entirely different game named Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic into the Western sequel with pretty great results.

Super Mario Bros. 2’s best feature was four playable characters with differing skillsets. Mario was your all around guy, Luigi had a crazy vertical leap, Princess Toadstool could float for long distances, and Toad was really fast. Instead of jumping on enemies and bashing bricks, the main combat mechanic was picking up and throwing objects, including enemies. The levels were lush and varied and there were no recurring enemies from the first game. There was, however, a minus world equivalent known as sub-space. But otherwise, this was pretty much an entirely different game with Mario skins on the playable characters.

The original is obviously a timeless classic that set the standard for 8-bit gaming, but the sequel has aa special place in a lot of Western gamers hearts too and I can’t help but notice that Super Mario 3D World has the same four playable characters with the same skillsets. So although most aspects of Super Mario 2 have not been carried over as others have, it’s still left its mark on the series.

BioWare Should Totally Spin-off Dragon Age: Inquisition

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We’ve probably all spent way too much time allowing the most massive RPG in memory to devour our lives by now. Game of the year? Maybe. I put nearly a hundred hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition before finishing the story and am still not anywhere near clearing all of the side-quests. I haven’t even unlocked all of the areas yet. This game is BIG in every possible sense. Consequently, it’s also full of the variety of lore and memorable characters that we come to expect from this developer. BioWare could easily take some of the less-explored concepts they put in this game as minor diversions and expand them into something really amazing. Let’s look at a couple possibilities.

It’s a little insane that I’m already snowed under by the incredible amount of content in this game and I’m already crying “moar” but I kind of am. Some of the cooler and more creative aspects have left me wanting to fill in the blanks and further immerse myself into the world of Thedas. Following Dragon Age II, we got the animated Dawn of the Seeker film which kindly filled in the back-story of Cassandra Pentaghast, and Felicia Day’s Redemption web series about her DLC character, Tallis. Both were pretty cool. I definitely think the latest story opens up some very interesting avenues that are screaming for a continuation.

The first thing that came to mind when considering a spin-off was a prequel chronicling the rise of the Bull’s Chargers. While hanging out with the Qunari spy/mercenary Iron Bull, he introduces you to his crew of misfit badasses headed up by the snarky Krem and including an aloof Dalish elf dragon age inquisition chargers(creatively named Dalish) and a dwarf sapper, among others. While the meeting is a brief character moment in an epic story, it combines with Krem’s tavern tales of past Charger glories to outline a really interesting picture. One that could use some expanding on.

A game where you could play as Iron Bull and the Chargers in their formative years could function almost like a playable medieval Guardians of the Galaxy. The diversity of the crew and charisma of their leader alone make it a sure win, but what form should it take?

Stand-alone or episodic DLC would be easiest route since they already have the game engine built. Throw in some new locations, flesh out some of Bull and Krem’s stories, and it would be a great addition to the Dragon Age universe. A television or web series would be great too. It feels like there’s too much there to cover in a single film.

One of the best missions in Inquisition was “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts”, where the player finally gets a chance to play The Game that Leliana is always on about. Basically, the Game in question is politics and espionage, so you have to keep up appearances at the Empress’s masquerade ball and say all the right things while attempting to bend other players to your will by gathering incriminating information and manipulating them through any means necessary.

The mission was a really great break from the usual “go there, find/kill that” missions (although there was plenty of finding and killing) that are the bread and butter of RPG’s and it forces you to think before you speak. I actually had to reload a save because I went through my usual routine of exhausting every conversation option and then realized that I had told everything I knew to the people I was supposed to outwit, which was moronic. I really love the idea of challenging RPG tropes this way and making the player think before they act in order to succeed instead of simply doing everything that’s put in front of them. I think making a full game out of this concept would be amazing.

dragon age inquisition celeneA role-playing game that’s about more than running around killing stuff for a hundred hours? OUTRAGEOUS! But Inquisition really put the idea in my head that this could be a really great thing. To do away with the focus on combat and massive worlds and instead really focus on subtle characterization, decision-making, setting, and even fashion would be a brave new world I’d like to explore. Deciding who to dance with, who to blackmail, and who to kill and how would be great, as would building a network of informants and spies to help do the dirty work. Leveling up your social skills for new dialogue options, gaining different boosts from your fashion choices, people reacting to your reputation and past deeds; these are all things that have been done in games before to some extent, but never combined into a primary focus.

Not only would this be a breath of fresh air for the genre, but I think it could be something that appeals more to female gamers more as well. The game could work as a prequel starring Leliana in her days as a bard of the Orlesian court, but the best option might be an all-new character during that same time period in order to leave the option for endings more wide open. “Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts” has several possible endings depending on the player’s choices and the thoroughness of their investigating, so a blank slate for the player to impose their will on the social scene in any way they see fit would be good so as to not step on the toes of canon.

So there’s two options for BioWare to expand on the immensity that is Dragon Age: Inquisition that I’d love to see happen. There’s so much left to explore in the universe of Thedas; the societies of the Qunari and the Dalish, for instance. We’ve seen a lot of glimpses, but Dragon Age is a bottomless pit of lore that constantly begs for more expansion. What aspect do you think warrants its own spin-off game/film/series?

Great Moments in Comic History: The Walking Dead in Color!

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This is the fifth and final entry in my limited edition miniseries covering some of my favorite landmark stories from modern classic comic books. For those of you who don’t want to wait for the trade paperback collection, the back issues are here, here, here, and here.

At first I was looking at the 80’s and 90’s, but then it occurred to me that if anything we’ve probably got more comics than ever with better art and writing, and more diversity in those titles. Great moments are still happening on a monthly basis so why wait a couple decades to acknowledge them?

I’m breaking form for this final entry in a few ways. Previous titles were the big dogs at Marvel and DC; this one is from the always up-and-coming and increasingly impressive Image Comics. Also, I defined “great moments” as stories that represented game changers in their respective worlds, set a benchmark for quality, or stood out as a defining moment for a classic character. But some things you just can’t categorize, so today I’m remembering The Walking Dead #75, in which Robert Kirkman trolled his entire readership, gave me one of the most memorable and unexpected issues I’ve ever received in the mail, and created possibly the only genuine “you had to be there” moment I’ve ever been privy to in the medium. I don’t think this counts as spoilers.

There’s a fan backstory leading up to this issue and what made it so special, but we’ll get to that later. The issue begins as a typical continuation of the ongoing arc in which Rick’s motley crew is settling in a new community named Alexandria. Rick himself has resumed the sheriff duties of his previous life and the story features The Walking Dead in classic form as Rick struggles with balancing justice against the common good. In this case, his feral nature from the hardships of his previous experiences gets the better of him and he becomes the threat he’s supposed to be protecting the Alexandria from. That’s when Michonne clobbers him from behind with a rock and the issue ends.

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….or does it?

After the traditional Letter Hacks section in the original print of the comic, the story picks up on the other side with Rick waking up and finding himself in a strange new world in full color, which was an absolute first for the black and white comic. From there, it’s nine pages of complete WTF.

Rick is inside of an alien spaceship, where they have replaced the hand he lost at Woodbury with a cybernetic one. After suiting up in a superhero costume, he falls out of the ship into the middle of a warzone filled with zombies, aliens, and deceased comrades come back to life as superheroes. Michonne shows up wielding a lightsaber and explains that this was the plan all along. The zombies were just the beginning of an alien race’s nefarious plan to harvest the Earth’s water supply.

And then BAM! A robotic arm reaches out and crushes her skull. It’s the Governor’s head mounted on a robot body with Rick’s dead wife Lori clinging desperately to his leg demanding that Rick join the alien overlords or die! Now, at this point I genuinely feel sorry for people who thought this was all canon, but they were out there.

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If nothing else the “not to be continued” on the last page should have clued everyone in, but humor is lost on the humorless. To be fair, this was a doozy of an in-joke, though. Since the beginning of The Walking Dead, the letters section had been inundated with demands to reveal the source of the zombie infection. Kirkman glibly claimed that aliens did it which was satire on several levels, not the least of which was the fact that Image threatened to pass on the comic when he pitched it unless there was more to it than a zombie apocalypse. He pulled the alien concept out of his ass to get the publisher to green light it. After the comic was an instant smash hit he didn’t really have much fear of cancelation and it was pretty obvious to readers from the tone of the book that no, there would be no goddamn aliens.

Still, Kirkman joked repeatedly that maybe aliens would arrive in issue 75. It was clearly a joke. Clearly. But that wasn’t all. Foreshadowing the gag even further was the variant cover for issue 50, which was a joke cover portraying the characters as superheroes like so:

That’s two years in advance, kids. Rest assured no readers thought this shit was really going to happen. So when issue 75 rolled around and it was just another issue, it was quite a shock to finish the letters and then find complete insanity on the other side. People who’d been reading the comic complete with fan mail from the start would probably be the only ones to fully appreciate the hilarity of the bonus story that closed the issue, but those of us who did laughed until we died and rose again, still laughing.

As a bonus on top of the bonus, The Walking Dead #75 closed with the first official look at the primary cast of the then-upcoming television show, but what made this one the most memorable issue for me was the complete audacity and years-long build-up that led to the creation of the bizarre alternate universe story that also marked the first time the biggest black and white comic in the industry appeared in color.

Sadly, this little slice of weirdness has been expunged from collected editions of the comic since trade paperback collectors probably wouldn’t really appreciate what went into it and would see is as a pointless affront to their super-serious “graphic novel” series. The only way to read it is online or in the original issue. Nonetheless, for those who were there and got the joke, this was a one of a kind experience for a comic that was only known before and since for dark and gritty tales of horror. And in my book, that makes it a great moment in comic history.

Great Moments in Comic History: Pryde of the X-Men

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The history of modern comics has been an interesting one for sure, and it’s only getting better. So far during my ongoing limited-edition miniseries about unforgettable and influential stories from comicdom’s past I’ve focused on past decades, but the medium continues to grow and evolve and comic history is still being made today. So for my last two entries are going to focus on more recent events that will likely be looked upon fondly by the connoisseurs of sequential art narrative for decades to come.

A great moment in comic history is made up of storytelling landmarks of resounding significance, definitive moments for classic characters, or of sheer artistic quality. This week, I’m going back a mere 6 years to Giant Size Astonishing X-Men #1, which served as the grand finale for Joss Whedon’s brillliant run writing Marvel’s premiere mutant superteam. If nothing else, John Cassaday’s artwork assured its place in the hearts of comic fans, and the story also debuted Marvel’s SWORD organization (Sentient World Observation and Response Department – kind of like an intergalactic SHIELD) but the reason I’m choosing this issue in particular is to highlight one of the most underrated characters in Marvel’s stable. Because what Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men did more than any of the other awesome things it did was show that Katherine “Kitty” Pryde is the coolest member of Marvel’s coolest team. There will be spoilers, as always.

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As with most any good comic story, the groundwork for the big splash was laid out well in advance. Absolutely anybody looking for a great comic series to test Marvel’s waters would do well to start with Astonishing X-Men: Gifted and carry on all the way through the 25 issues ending with the Unstoppable arc, which we’ll be dealing with today. Knowledge of the X-Men definitely helps one appreciate the story more for sure, but the run is pretty much designed to welcome relative newcomers as well. It’s hard to do that since the X-Men represent possibly the most convoluted mess in all comicdom, but I’d say this pulls it off as much as could be expected.

Writing the X-Men was a dream job for Joss Whedon, who (before The Avengers) was best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Seeing that he’s on record as saying Kitty Pryde was a primary influence for that character, it was no surprise that she ended up on his 2004 rebranding of the team after a long absence. The storyline picks up after Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run that saw former Hellfire Club White Queen Emma Frost join her former enemies and the mutant island of Genosha completely destroyed, among other things. The run started small and slowly built up to cosmic world-ending proportions before the big finale which put the fate of Earth entirely in the hands of arguably the X-Men’s weakest member from a power perspective.

Kitty’s abilities are limited to phasing through solid objects, and she can only do that for as long as she can hold her breath. The misconception here is that she’s just a girl who can walk through walls, and with a lesser character that might have been true. But Wolverine used to be just a dude with claws too. She went through a lot of phases and codenames before settling on plain old Kitty Pryde, has been the new girl, been dragon punched by Deadpool for laughs while playing as Wolvie’s sidekick, had her role in the classic 90’s cartoon handed to Jubilee, was recently wasted in the film adaptation of Days of Future Past in spite of Ellen Page being perfect for the role, and has just too often been discounted as a character.

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….aaaaand now you’ve pretty much seen her entire role in the last film. Even Ratner did better by her.

The theme of Whedon’s run was ultimately Kitty becoming a true independent badass of a woman by resolving her outstanding issues on the team, including her romance with Colossus and bitter past with Frost. Becoming intangible may seem like a novelty when you’re amongst titans who can control the weather, level buildings with eyebeams or your fists, enter minds from across the globe, or whatever, but Kitty shows that it’s not about the size of your powers, it’s how you use them. Her resilience and intelligence made her a force to be reckoned with when the Hellfire Club took out the rest of her team in their own mansion and it was up to her to rescue them alone. And when all of the world’s greatest heroes combined were rendered useless against an unstoppable world-destroying threat, it was left to Kitty to stop the Earth from destruction.

The grand finale had the X-Men on a planet called Breakworld, which was planning on destroying Earth by firing a massive bullet called the Retaliator through space because of a prophecy where Colossus is destined to destroy their planet. Oblivion loves company, I guess. Unable to stop the launch of the world-shattering projectile from outside, Kitty Pryde phased herself inside of it before it launched and found herself trapped hurtling towards the destruction of her home planet, leaving her team facing a genocidal madman bent on using Colossus to destroy his own planet.

Meanwhile, back on Earth the other X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Earth’s other heavy hitters are made aware of the threat and gather themselves to save the planet, but they are stopped by a signal being sent out from the missile that targets their minds and leaves them stuck in their own world-saving fantasies, unable to act in real life. The Sentinel that destroyed Genosha –which has since become sentient and is experiencing great regret at its past actions- attempts to make amends by placing itself in the path of the bullet, but nothing can stop it.   

Kitty’s exhausted, and the unique properties of the intergalactic projectile seem to have fused to her when she phased through its mass. She feels like she’s got nothing left. She shares a touching personal moment with her former enemy Emma Frost via telepathic link and says a little prayer just before the bullet hits New York City…..

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….and goes straight through it without leaving a dent as she phases the whole goddamn thing through the entire planet. That’s what you call a show-stopping moment.

The tragedy is that with her sacrifice, Kitty is lost to the X-Men, still hurtling through space to god knows where, but that’s a hell of a way to go out. On the plus side, the X-Men saved two world from obliteration, Logan has a new protégé in Armor, and Beast is invited to join Lockheed and Agent Brand in SWORD (who would get their own spin-off), and Scott and Emma are still happy together after a major test. After the long, hard, crazy road Astonishing X-Men wound through, it was a fantastic and memorable way for Whedon and Cassaday to ruin the comic for the poor suckers who had to take over the title by being too freakin’ good an act to follow.

The initial run of this series was an instant classic recalling the glory days of Dark Phoenix Sagas and other stories that have stood the test of time. It was technically four arcs with great stories and character journeys and moments for the entire cast, but at the end of the day it’s paced as one story about Kitty Pryde evolving from the X-Men’s kid sister to a true heroine of epic proportions in her own right. And rarely does a superhero comic so truly live up to the adjective in its title.

It’s a fond wish of mine to see the whole thing on the big screen someday. If only there was a major film writer/director who was a proven hitmaker and had experience making blockbusters about Marvel superhero teams who could do this title justice…