MAME Roulette #4

Dead Connection

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Not only that, but there’s a guy behind you too.

A film noir inspired action shooter, Dead Connection has the distinction of being the first arcade game written by running the scripts to The Godfather and The Untouchables through Google Translate (No one remembers babelfish anymore…I can’t make good babelfish jokes). Despite trying to encapsulate the “noir” genre, the game opens with a spastic acid trip that would incite seizures in a hardcore Pink Floyd fan. After picking up on the story basics, which as far as I can tell are “sadness and revenge” and “making a stand against a gigantic crime,” you have all the knowledge you need to move the plot forward. The game is actually pretty good, though. Each level consists of a single, carefully designed environment, fully interactive, detailed, and ready for you to grind it into rubble by blasting wave after wave of gangster who comes your way. It’s like Kill Bill with shotgun upgrades; one (through four) valiant, revenge-driven heroes plowing through dozens, even hundreds of goons with nothing to protect you but your wit, the weapons you collect on the way, and immortality purchased with a stack of quarters that even the Dragonballs couldn’t provide.

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In the future, you can just ring the bell on the desk.

Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat

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Not exactly pushing boundaries.

Danny Sullivan is a prick. This racing game is an early instance of microtransactions, where the player can stuff the coin slot like he’s only got five minutes left with a prostitute in order to beef up the stats for his engine. Not that any of that matters when you drive like I did—which is to say I sputtered down the track as though my pit crew had watered down my gas, struggling with the controls until I ended up driving backwards. Fortunately the collision physics work fine, and if I was going to look like a stoned chimp was driving my car, I was going to take everyone else down with me. My biggest accomplishment was turning the game into Danny Sullivan’s Late For Work On A Backed Up Freeway Simulator. I came in fifth. But I was only two places behind Jesus. The arcade cabinet likely used steering wheels as controls, which didn’t emulate very well on MAME, especially in the game menu. Fortunately, there are very few major life decisions made via steering wheel, and it’s usually limited to scenic vs direct routes, whether or not you’ll turn onto the abandoned wilderness road where inbred murderers have likely laid a trap for you, ACT exam scores, and whether or not you’ll be confirmed into the Christian faith or move to Mexico to buy your own brothel.

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This is Danny Sullivan. In heat.

Great 1000 Miles Rally Evolution Model

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This is pretty much the whole game.

Another racing game. Hooray. Let me crack open a nice, yeasty, disgusting beer to celebrate getting two in a row. That’s like tripping on the stairs and falling through the floor when you hit it. At least Great 1000 Miles Rally Evolution Model, a game assembled from a bunch of spare nouns the developers found in a dumpster, got my number from Danny Sullivan. Any time you peel out, spin around, or even burst into flames like someone lit up a pack of sparklers at a rehab clinic, the game gives you a gentle, motherly nudge that sets you back in the right direction. Each of the three tracks you can choose warns you well in advance when you’ll need to turn by flashing a bright yellow, contorted arrow telling you exactly how the road bends. You don’t seem to have any opponents, and the game usually lasts around 70 seconds—which means the enterprising game could potentially make $12.80 an hour. Anyone who makes that much will almost certainly find themselves on Fox News as an example of an overpaid bum, and this was 25 years ago! That’s a pretty enterprising machine.

Nemo

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This is what you get when you mix acid and weed.

Back in the Late 80s, I remember seeing advertisements for this movie about a little kid who flies around on a bed. Personally, as far as the flying-bed-adventure genre goes, I had always felt that Bedknobs and Broomsticks sufficed, and I never built up the curiosity necessary to actually watch the damn movie. But if the arcade game is any indication, the film is about whacking dirigibles out of the air while being pursued by a nightmarish Mickey Rooney as a sidekick. The game is an action platformer, which isn’t surprising. It’s been the default design for games since Mario. “Action platforming” is to video games what “bulldog” is to school mascot: it’s what you’re stuck with if you can’t think of anything interesting by the deadline. If you can manage to fight your way past the anti-zeppelin-violence picket lines to get to the machine, it’s actually pretty good at vicariously fulfilling all your fantasies of fighting an epic battle while wearing a pajama onesie, armed with a bedpost.

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings – NDS

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Penelo seems to have gained some fashion sense in discarding her rubber onesie.

I’ve spoken before on how video game sequencing looks less like a chronological order and more like a dyslexic sudoku written over a calculus textbook at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Final Fantasy certainly commits more numbering atrocities than any other series I can name. With at least 100 games among its main series, sequels both direct and indirect, ports, remakes, revamps, spoofs, spin-offs, spunk, special editions, not to mention animated features, Advent Children, that one with Alec Baldwin and Donald Southerland, and possibly the entire Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) series (if you count that in the way that bonobos count as spin-offs of the human species), then…wait, where was I going with this sentence? Eh. Who cares? As long as a big, long, rambling list keeps me from getting to Final Fantasy XIII, a game which could have only been the result of a seizure in the middle of a hand job, all the better for it! If we can call games like FFVI, VII or X “strokes of genius,” then XIII shows us what a regular stroke looks like. Sadly, if Square had gotten to the hospital in time, they may not have gotten stuck in the brain-loop that made them produce two sequels. But today we’re talking about Square-Enix’s last-ditch attempt at dieting and exercise before they sank back into their couch, downed a gallon of whiskey, and puffed up a big fat cigar.

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Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings serves as a direct sequel to Barney and Friends. Seriously, what do you think it serves as the direct sequel to? For once, Square did a remarkably good job (re: coincidence) of taking all the criticisms from the original (er…XII, rather) and building a game that addressed them all. The result just happened to be a game that resembled its predecessor as much as Gene Simmons resembles Richard Simmons, but unlike either Gene or Richard, it ended up being entertaining and well worth the time.

The game centers, more or less, around Vaan, who’s been given a total character overhaul as people tend not to enjoy protagonists with the personality of a teenage barnacle. Once again teamed up with Penelo—who’s been given a costume overhaul so as not to spend another game dressed in a rubber onesie—the pair go gallivanting around Ivalice, leading their younger friends Filo and Kytes into a life of plunder and piracy, a life which tends to lose its luster when one ends up murdered by colleagues. To be fair, Vaan spends the entire game insisting that he’s’ one of the good and moral pirates, and that all those other pirates who are in it for the looting, plundering, pillaging and—we can only assume—raping and whoring—have it all wrong and probably just need to watch an after school special or two on the true meaning of sky pirating. Generally, this attitude is a moral luxury one can afford only if they happen to be close friends with the reigning monarchs of two world superpowers (and at least acquainted with a third). Since Ashe clearly has no intention of executing the people who personally handed her throne to her, this sets up Vaan as sort of an entitled 1-percenter among criminals, making him more of a stock broker with a heart of gold.

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But to be fair, he does spend the game doing the right thing. After stealing a self-driving airship that takes them to a previously undiscovered sky continent—which is now full of pirates who are discovering the living daylights out of it—Vaan befriends one of the locals and spends a good chunk of the game trying to kick out the occupying forces. So he’s kind of like the Gandhi of medieval fantasy combat. (I think Gandhi always played as a barbarian, if I’m correct.) But what kind of epic would this be if none of the villains were supernatural? So Vaan and Company eventually stumbles across a god doing some douchebag thing or another, and pull a Taken-style vendetta against him to steal back the emotions of people on the sky continent.

About a year and a half ago, I played Heroes of Mana, which I noted played like Revenant Wings with only mild brain damage. Well guess what? If you guessed that political tensions between North and South Korea will likely come to a head within the next decade, you’re probably right! But if you guessed that Revenant Wings plays like a more developed Heroes of Mana, you’re both right AND relevant to the conversation. The game is a fairly simple and straightforward RTS. The rock-paper-scissors relationship from Heroes of Mana has been stripped down so as not to throw in a lizard or a Spock to muck up the works. Units are grouped into melee, ranged and flying, where melee is weak to flying, ranged is weak to melee, and flying is weak to ranged. Most battles require you to use all three. In addition, you can assign monsters to fight alongside you, turning the game into a battle royale in Michael Vick’s back yard.

Monsters come in three tiers, and you can take five monsters into battle with you: one at tier three or less, two at tier two or less, and two at tier one. Tier three tend to be the espers from FFXII or the mainstay Final Fantasy summons who have seniority or tenure or something and therefore have to be part of every game. Fortunately, these tier three monsters no longer come into the world like a mad scientist’s first attempt at creating life from the emaciated corpse of a heroine addict with a heart condition. The bad news is that using one takes up the tier three slot, meaning either your melee, ranged, or flying units will have to rely mostly on a tier one monster. But honestly, you could still intimidate foes if you charge into battle with an army of mages, a seasoned cavalry, Godzilla, and a troop of boy scouts on unicycles, right?

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The game balances out quite well, actually, even if the good monsters get put away in the cabinet with your mom’s china. Battles play out nicely, yet provide realistic challenge that takes thought to overcome, and they have a number of win conditions from your standard “kill the leader” and “complete monster genocide” to more unique ones like “steal all the treasure before the enemies squash the bangaa out of you” and even a capture-the-flag type scenario. The one thing, if any, that I don’t like about the game is the characters. Although given ten playable characters, one ditches your party permanently the first chance he gets, which leaves you with one healing unit, two melee units, two flying units and four ranged units. Since flying enemies are neither more powerful nor more abundant than anything else, I can only feel there’s some racial discrimination going on, and in FFXII-3 we’re going to be dealing with “winged lives matter” movements to protest the excessive force used against anything with two feet off the ground. Really, though, while Fran, Balthier, and Ashe are interesting characters, there’s rarely any reason to use them, as Kytes is the only ranged unit that can use black magic attacks.

Revenant Wings is well worth the play through, especially if you enjoyed tactics games. I really appreciated such novel concepts as “using a plot that isn’t as confused over its identity as a gay transgender child of a Southern Baptist preacher.” Plus, clocking in at under 30 hours—if you play all of the side quests—it almost feels like it’s apologizing for FFXII devouring months of your life.

Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

51E+7V-PDyLUtah. America’s El Dorado. Not, of course, in the sense that there’s anything valuable there. It’s more of a matter of no one really knows if it exists or not, and no one ever goes there. Tis a barren, inhospitable landscape with few resources save for dirt, salt, wives, fake moon landing studios, and jokes about Utah. Oh, and Brandon Sanderson novels. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Sanderson made his fame by taking over the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan made everyone worry about George R.R. Martin’s health. Since then, his name has appeared on top-100 fantasy lists with such a high frequency that he violates FCC regulations. So I thought I’d read Mistborn: The Final Empire to see what all the fuss is about. In short, the book was good enough that I had to resort to jokes about Utah to fill out this review.

The Mistborn series tells the story about magical assassins with pica. By swallowing bits of metal like a desperate pill popper, the mistborn—also known as allomancers—gain special psychic abilities. However, like most things in life, these powers are inherited from the rich people who see no moral conflict in murdering countless poor people rather than let them possess anything nicer than secondhand clothes, tuberculosis, and a house where all the walls have charred around the electrical outlets. Fortunately, a few of the riffraff have rich uncles who didn’t want to be woken from their naps for the daily peasant hunt, so a few lower-class allomancers slipped through the cracks. Bring those elements to a boil, simmer, and season with some light fantasy tropes: kingdoms good, empires bad, government bureaucrats really bad (and are depicted as such by dressing as teenage metal fans who want to stick it to their parents by gaging their ears—and eyes and spine—with comically large railroad spikes). Naturally, the plot aims to scour the empire of oppressors, a story element that authors will continue to force-feed us as long as humans can feel persecuted for either being systemically disadvantaged and even murdered by authority figures based on race, or for having to see a menorah while shopping for Christmas ornaments. Ultimately, Mistborn: The Final Empire follows a group of rabble-rousers as they depose a tyrannical god-emperor the only way they know how—by using the tactics of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Jane Austin.

That’s right. Mistborn follows Vin, a young mistborn thief recruited from the streets of Luthadel, as she impersonates a noblewoman to gather information by attending lots and lots of fancy parties. Say what you will about this unusual twist on the classic epic fantasy format, I really enjoyed how Sanderson conflicted his protagonist by putting her in a position that highlighted the social inequity of the Empire while necessarily coming to see the nobility as human beings similar to herself. Plus, I’ve always thought Charlotte Bronte really let down her readers by not addressing the obvious question, “What if the mad woman in the attic were also a ninja sorceress?” Vin meets a boy, of course, who moved to Luthadel after leaving his previous home in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Yet while Hugo’s college students wanted to revolt and change the world by overthrowing the French government, Sanderson’s aristocratic youths more closely resemble actual college students in the fact that they talk about changing the world before deciding to raise awareness and then abandoning their quest in favor of a drunken 2 am visit to the Waffle House.

The world Sanderson creates is as concise as it is expansive. And I know that sounds like saying “women are as enamored of me as they are repulsed by me,” or “those nine boxes of Oreos were as delicious as they were healthy,” but for all the detail he gives us in Final Empire, none of it is wasted. Everything falls together perfectly in a way that makes me want to chuck my computer into Lake Superior and go live on a Tibetian mountaintop because I’ll never be as talented at devising fiction as Sanderson. He uses every piece of information he gives us, working toward an ending that feels important, and not just in a way that you’ll have to remember for the final exam. The characters are brilliant, and not in the way that Ender is brilliant because Orson Scott Card tells us that sadistic tendencies in a toddler are signs of the next Stephen Hawking. No, Vin and company learn, incorporate information around them, and act in ways that could genuinely outsmart your average two-year old, reality TV viewer, or president of the United States.

Long have I awaited a fantasy novel of this caliber. Prophetically, I knew one must arise. I foretold this as I have foretold that my last several job applications would fall silent into the void, or that a 500 pound woman with creaky knees would sign up for my CPR class, but after a string of failures, Mistborn: The Final Empire came as a breath of fresh air after being trapped on an elevator with a bunch of fat guys eating Taco Bell. Sanderson’s work deserves attention, and I only hope that the next thing I review can live up to such quality; pay attention in weeks to come for my review of Google Cardboard’s Raccoon Simulator!

Golden Axe III – Sega Genesis

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Note: The snails are the fastest thing about this game.

Every so often I come across a game that I just can’t wait to write about, something that rubs me in just such a way that my humor genie shoots out of his lamp like Robin Williams, giving me all the comic gold in the universe to use at my disposal. Golden Axe III is not one of those games. It is, however, a rather useful game for its immense blandness, in that tasking myself to write a full review on it has roused my interest in organizing my computer’s desktop, cleaning the house, getting some paperwork notarized, and literally everything else that doesn’t involve mentally replaying a beat-em-up game with controls coded after submerging the programmer in a vat of molasses and corn syrup.

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My cat sleeps like this too.

I came across Golden Axe III during my last MAME Roulette. Frustrated with a long string of ROMs that seemed to object to my intention of reducing them to a single paragraph—or so I assume, since they refused to run at all—I decided to shop around for some other quick game I could play to avoid being a productive member of society. Enter Golden Axe, a series for the Sega Genesis that exists on my Retropie for no reason other than the recommendation of someone who obviously must have meant “Golden Sun” or “Goldeneye 007” or “Golden Delicious” because if he did not mean one of those, he obviously must have meant, “Don’t ever take recommendations from me.”

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…well then. Giddyup.

The story begins with Damud Hellstrike, a villain with a fondness for chopping down trees using inefficient tools made from soft metal that weigh as much as a small car. Hellstrike steals the Golden Axe, then puts a curse over our characters, Proud Cragger, Kain Grinder, Ax Battler, Sahra Burn, and also Gilius Thunderhead, a character I can only imagine got lost looking for the set of Harry Potter and found a bunch of cheap, fantasy-themed porn stars. Anyway, while laying the curse, Hellstrike gets bored and leaves one character, let’s say their cat, Chronos, uncursed, and buggers off to let the heroes come after him at their leisure.

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Chronos, eyeing up the map as a good place to sit.

Ironically, running from a bunch of lousy, non-working arcade games, I came across a game that felt like a lousy, barely-working arcade port. Arcade cabinets all get hardware tailored to the game, and if the game is any good, it’ll look and play amazing. Meanwhile, ports for the Atari 2600 or the NES look like a magic eye picture viewed in close-up while recovering from LASIK, and move at the frightful speed of U.S. social progress. Sixteen-bit systems more or less resolved these issues, which makes it all the more amazing that Golden Axe III uses about four colors per screen and vague, undefined lines that hint at a background much in the way that the burn marks in a grilled cheese sandwich will hint at being the face of the virgin Mary.

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There’s someone just above the screen dangling these things in front of him for their own amusement.

And remember, this isn’t Golden Axe. This is Golden Axe three. Generally, you can accomplish a lot by the third installment. If Golden Axe were a tootsie pop, they’d already be at the center by now. Mega Man 3 won awards. Zelda 3 was considered one of the best in the series. Onimusha 3 started introducing A-list actors from French films (so, like, D-list actors in the U.S…but you’d recognize him if you saw him). Half-Life 3…hasn’t quite gotten to the center of that tootsie pop, but you get the point. Golden Axe III, however, doesn’t really offer much besides the opportunity to spend a half an hour swiping and growling at armored villains with your cat claws, and at that point, a real cat is more exciting.

MAME Roulette #3

GORF2It’s been rather crazy over here, what with making my novel sound more fantasy-ish by revising every “I don’t know” into “I know not,” reading 50 pages into Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn to finally have my kindle tell me I’m 2% finished with it, and tweaking my resume to describe my duties as a CPR instructor as “Bring people back from the dead, as necessary.” Since my list of readers is already shorter than the guest registry at Disneyland: North Korea, I’ll have to do some MAME Roulette’s to avoid spacing out my posts.

Big Karnak

Not to be confused with Little Karnak, which I presume is a commercial district of suburban Los Angeles that specializes in auto insurance agents, Big Karnak is a colorful delight of a story about a solemn, grim and stone-faced pharaoh who declares war on the gods of

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Um…excuse me…I think you have something that belongs to me.

Ancient Egypt after a bird-man swoops up his girlfriend like a ravenous sea gull descending on an abandoned chicken nugget. This hack-and-slash adventure turned out to be surprisingly good, much in the way that my bagel this morning was surprisingly good for not being reduced to a hunk of carbon by the toaster or fossilized from sitting in the fridge for three years. Granted, it’s a pretty low bar when the standard for greatness is, “didn’t screw it up,” but apparently that’s enough to get you elected president these days. Big Karnak is one of those games where the skin becomes the selling point. There are hundreds of games that simulate the experience of walking from left to right amongst a social environment of those who feel you ought to be walking right to left, but this is the only one that lets you fight beetles the size of Volkswagens. It’s kind of like how if you want to watch a movie about a horrible, undead evil returning from the grave to slaughter the living and hook up with his old flame, now reincarnated as a beautiful western girl, you may occasionally shove a stake in Dracula and watch The Mummy instead.

Chopper 1

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Synchronized chopping

Oh great! A space shooter! (And yes, I know that it isn’t set in space, but what else would you call the genre?) As long as we’re on the subject of games that move in one direction, here’s one where the bad guys always live in the north. Granted, this held true for 1941, as the U.S. took Japan from southern islands. Similar conflict occurred in Korea, Vietnam, and I’m pretty sure there’s hostile feelings between the Dakotas. Ancient China had a similar issue with Mongolia, but they opted for a wall, which makes for a far less successful video game. Still, before we Americans start feeling holier than Canada, we may want to reconsider the strategy of sending one lone fighter into enemy territory. Notice how the planes you don’t shoot down don’t seem to come back? Chances are you’re leaving behind you a trail of corpses, bombed out cities, and earth scorched so bad that even dust storms won’t grow there. I get it! You’re not trying to take down the enemy air force! You’re trying to fight your way in because they won’t grant you a visa! Which reminds me, I have to send some documents to New Zealand immigration…

Chopper 1, getting to the game, is hard. I get it. Build a game that gives you about 5 seconds worth of play time for one quarter, and your game earns about $180 an hour. That way, if being completely inept at the game doesn’t spiral you into a quandary of self-doubt, you can ignite a lifelong depression by realizing that an 8-bit computer built in 1988 can make more money in an hour than you can in a week. Bonus points for it’s guilt inspiring game over message, “If you quit now, it’ll cause more bloodshed,” a tactic that’ll earn respect from animal shelter ads, war propaganda, and Catholic and Jewish moms worldwide.

Elevator Action

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My favorite strategy is getting in the elevator and hitting the “1” button.

Elevators. Gotta get me some of that action. The problem with developing a game that would primarily appeal to four-year-olds who like pushing buttons is that chances are they’ll be just as happy in a real elevator. You play as a man who has lost his car in the parking garage of a 30-story building and decides that not only would the best place to look be the roof, but that the easiest access comes via zip line from some nearby-yet-unseen Spider-man web access point. On the way down, you shoot murderous Blues Brothers who try to kill you. If you get tired of elevator action, feel free to have an illicit affair with the building’s escalators along the way, before hopping back into an orgy of elevators apparently built for the Winchester House.

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I don’t know who’s lazier, the guy who takes the elevator to the second floor, or the guy who decides that building an elevator that goes to the third floor is too much work.

The wikipedia page says you’re a spy trying to collect secret documents and drive away in your escape car. That clears up a few things for me—namely, the objective for the game. I always wondered what would happen if I got to the bottom. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to know badly enough to play that far.

Gorf

GORFI swear my Retro Pie likes to mess with me, because it gave me another space shooter. This one actually takes place in space and pits the Starship Enterprise against an evil gumdrop monster, the apparent love child of McDonald’s Grimace and Groucho Marx. While the first level appears nothing more than a Space Invaders clone, subsequent levels evolve, fighting with different weapons, attack patterns, and strategies, marking the last time in video game history that such thought was put into a cloned game to make it fun to play. Apparently, Gorf was supposed to be a tie in with Star Trek, the Motion Picture, until the developers read the film’s script and decided it wouldn’t work as a game concept. And thus passed the last bit of integrity concerning licensed games.

Lady Bug

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Built by a guy who doesn’t want to keep pests out of his garden completely, but wants to be sure they’ve learned something on their way in.

When I said that Gorf was the last time anyone made a cloned game innovative and fun, I lied. Here, you play as a lady bug trying to wreak havoc on someone’s garden. The game plays like Pac Man, but parts of the maze wall serve as doors that rotate when you walk through them. As a way to keep pests out of your garden, the idea needs work, but changing the layout of the maze puts an element of strategy in avoiding enemies.

Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

CasinoBetween my recent attempt to finish FFXII fast enough to merit a felony-level speeding ticket and late night news coverage and my exploits as a CPR instructor, breathing into plastic dummies and explaining to people that, “No, these people won’t have the decency to crawl up on a table before the pass out just to accommodate the fact that you weigh six hundred pounds and your knees hurt on the ground,” I’ve gotten a bit behind on my entries. To add to that, living in 1938 Nazi Germany with a leader who is constantly both on the brink of war and looking at his own people like he’s trying to decide how much zyklon b he’ll need to get has somewhat dulled my capacity for humor. So I might as well try to distract myself from the next two and a half minutes by talking about an iconic Cold War hero responsible for fighting communism, killing foreigners, and causing enough collateral damage to be blacklisted by every insurance agency on the planet.

I imagine quite a few of you will disagree with what I intend to say about Casino Royale based on a fundamental quality of popular culture. Since superhero movies* have been popping up like genital warts—hideous, self-replicating spectacles that only exist because most of the population lacks the capacity to make intelligent decisions—I can only assume that most people like them. Superheroes, that is. Not genital warts. However, while these people might possess the vicarious narcissism to view lack of meaningful conflict or character development as a virtue or the cognitive dissonance to treat someone who tempts every psychopathic cosplayer into battle with no regard for collateral damage as a “good guy,” I find that as a use of my time, it ranks somewhere between standing in line at the grocery store and ignore my cat when he smacks me in the head at 4:00 am to tell me he’s hungry.

*And, I can’t believe I have to include this, the Spider-man Broadway musical.

Enter James Bond. Not the James Bond whose liver burns alcohol like a sterno can, who can cause more damage to a BMW than I could afford to pay for in my life and still convince his boss to give him an Aston Martin a year later, and for whom the genital warts analogy is a strikingly apt comparison, but a James Bond who never got over his childhood fear of falling asleep and traded in his teddy bear for a loaded Beretta. This broken, high-strung Bond draws from Ian Fleming’s real-life experience as a naval intelligence officer, where he developed a network of spies in Spain, planted false documents to lure Nazi U-boats into mine fields, and based on the plot of his novel, I assume, used the English treasury to feed a nasty gambling addiction. While I appreciate the realistic, vulnerable Bond, I have to wonder about the veracity of the novel’s content when he served primarily an administrative role during the war and his biographer literally says he had, “no obvious qualifications” for the job.

The novel’s plot begins with a scheme to bankrupt the villain, Le Chiffre, the treasurer for the Russian organization, Smersh an organization so paranoid and xenophobic that it makes American politics look like someone told a racist joke and gave away the punchline halfway through. Le Chiffre fills Smersh’s coffers by gambling, making him only slightly less dangerous than Wall Street. Bond is sent to the Casino as the best card player in the English Secret Service, an organization that apparently feels the best way to protect the country is to pick the employees who they owe money to and send them out on dangerous missions. While I’ll refrain from the finer details of the plot, suffice to say that the Secret Service botches the mission—as we might expect from people who keep tabs on spies with great talent in games of chance—and Bond ends up at the mercy of Le Chiffre.

Normally I wouldn’t give away quite so much about the story, but this is a special case—at the villain’s defeat, the reader is only two-thirds of the way through the book. Now, I’ve remained proverbially hungry after a few meals, but if I followed Fleming’s guidelines on when to stop, I’d finish off a plate of shrimp, the plate itself, a tray of silverware, the hostess and the front door of the restaurant before I went home. Casino Royale is the perfect book for the spy-thriller fan who loves to sit in the movie theatre for an hour after the credits. I can’t even express my confusion over how the creator of the most sexually active character in history can’t figure out that if you keep going for too long after the climax, it’ll just rub us down until we’re irritated and bored. So while the more realistic, vulnerable Bond makes the outcome a little less certain than your average Man vs Turkey Sandwich conflict, I don’t think an audience who appreciates a politically high-stakes game of baccarat will necessarily stay tuned in for the story of a man’s challenging road to physical recovery.

If I had to salvage some cohesive glue keeping the pages of the book from dropping out like narcoleptic readers, I’d say Fleming intended the book to be less about international espionage and more about the pseudo-romance between Vesper Lynd and James Bond. This does come off as almost a parody of a Disney princess, developing a life-long and fulfilling love based on as much personal information as can be obtained by exchanging business cards. Naturally, the relationship ends abruptly—and I say that confidently as the only people who think that’s a spoiler are currently waiting for the coyote to catch the road runner, or they’re positive that the professor’s plan is sure to get Gilligan and company off the island this time. Read for the character development or even the romance, I kind of like it. The sheer and abject depression that Bond sinks into at the realization that his job holds him in the lifetime stranglehold of a gang, poisoning all other aspects of his life with danger and paranoia, really goes a long way to explain why James Bond is the way he is. Because otherwise, I’m afraid I just wouldn’t understand why any man would want to travel to the most interesting places on earth and have anonymous, consequence-free sex with countless beautiful women and experience rejection less often than a customer in a McDonald’s drive-through. Completely baffling.

Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

It’s times like this that I have an entire novel to revise and just enough free time to glance at my work schedule that I think, “You know what I should do now? Play a 100+ hour game and then write about it. So I played Final Fantasy XII instead of doing anything useful or productive. I haven’t quite made it to the end, yet, but before you point out that judging something before you try it is only useful when hiring prostitutes and getting out of jury duty, I have played the game before. As such, I know that my characters are currently strong enough that if any of them have so much as an exceptionally strong bowel movement, the final boss will drop dead from the shock wave.

The point of playing through the game, though is to try the International Zodiac Job System, which is “international” in the same way that Dr. Pepper is medically qualified to treat your diabetes. Noting problems with the original release, such as the fact that each character can learn every skill in the game and still have enough skill points left over that they’d have to bury them in a hole somewhere in the desert just to be rid of them, the game underwent a few revisions. Then, presumably seeing how George Lucas went from God of Nerds to Discount Pauly Shore for doing just that, they hid their new Zodiac Job System from the rest of the world with an irony that would make a climate change denier’s head spin. Naming a Japan-exclusive release International is like naming a girl “Brandie Delight” and then shipping her off to a convent three states away from the nearest strip club.

Since Final Fantasy acts like the bastard love child of Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings, the story opens with the age-old “Empire-bad-kingdom-good scenario.” The Archadian Empire has been conquering the kingdoms like a 5-year-old diving into a pile of Christmas presents, and murdered the king of Dalmasca in a plot to seize power forcefully by interrupting a treaty signing that would give them that power peacefully, and then framing a Dalmascan captain by using his Archadian twin brother to do the actual killing. Then they blow the whole place up with the fantasy equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. Princess Ashe, who was announced dead but then got better, now leads a small resistance movement against the Empire who is now camped out in Dalmasca like the creepy college roommate who won’t ever leave the house.

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Final Fantasy’s bad-ass, revenge-seeking bride. I made her a samurai so she could kick Uma Thurman’s ass.

The story runs with a fascinating concept—a twist on the man-who-would-be-king archetype wherein the Empire freely offers Ashe her throne in exchange for her full cooperation. But it reads as though writers’ prescriptions of Adderall ran out the morning they started work. Early on, the game cycles through three potential protagonists, one supporting character who constantly calls himself the leading man, and a trusty hero who bravely faces the tutorial level only die as soon as he’s learned everything. Once the story finally settles on Ashe, a steep difficulty curve demands the story be broken up for more or less mandatory side-questing. But now that I’ve played through the game for the fourth or fifth time, I can appreciate Ashe’s dilemma, whether or not she’ll let herself be manipulated by the Empire or the Gods; serve her own Trumpish Id, throw a tantrum, and nuke the entire Empire because she’s mad; or throw out all ideas of revenge like a copy of Moby Dick, essentially un-invent the atomic bomb, and rescue her kingdom from the token villain who had to murder his own father (who was on his way out the door anyway) just so we’d know he was supposed to be evil.

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“And also, no wedding cakes for the gays!”

The combat system deviates from Final Fantasy’s traditional turn-based battles and instead plays like an introduction to computer programming course. After twenty years of publishing RPGs, someone at Square must have pointed out, “You know, all anyone ever does is use the basic attack.” So they finally programmed an AI that would pretty much just keep attacking unless you told it to stop. Each character has a programmable list of actions and conditions called gambits. From top to bottom, the game runs down each list of conditions until it finds one it can meet, then the character performs that specific action. This is a brilliant way to reshape the way we think about battle, save time inputting menu commands (not to mention there are no more random encounters), and to ensure that at some point you will cure an enemy, burn through all your MP by casting your highest spells on monsters with 10 HP, and beating the tar out of your allies until you learn exactly how to set up your gambits properly.

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Ashe and Co gang up on a defenseless tomato-monster.

This leads to the first glorious difference between the American release and the International version—the gambits are smarter. Somewhat. I always liked to set my characters to resurrect anyone who died, thus insuring the number one priority in battle was to prevent rigor mortis. However, with the necessity of setting everyone with the same gambit came the inevitable result that everyone else would immediately drop what they were doing and chuck every feather within eyesight at the fresh corpse as if someone had just declared a sorority slumber party pillow fight. Now I can equip the same gambits on everyone and my characters won’t set upon each other like medical zombies every time one of them stubs their toe. Not all gambits are smart, though. I found that I don’t need to set “Character Status: Blind – Esuna,” “Character Status: Petrify – Esuna” and “Character Status: Parkinson’s Syndrome – Esuna,” as “Any Ally – Esuna” will simply wait until the spell is needed before casting it. However, if I set a gambit for “Any Foe – Steal,” I’ll end up picking the enemy’s pocket, steal their pocket, take the rest of their clothes and a few layers of skin and my character will still try to pick through their bones trying to find one more potion.

The selling point for the international version, however, is as the title might suggest, the Zodiac Jobs System. All skills in the game, as well as the ability to equip weapons and armor, come from a license board, much like FFX’s sphere grid, except more rectangular and a little more free-flowing. However, it was rather small, and after building up license points for the first 30% of the game, after which, license points would just stack up uselessly–like Arby’s coupons, but without the impending threat of dysentery. By that point, each your characters have as much diversity as a box of Peeps, each one possessing both a trove of knowledge that would make Stephen Hawking obsolete and the physical prowess to win gold medals in the Olympic decathalon. When a fifteen-year-old girl can smash skulls with a war hammer and cause as much damage as the 30-year-old seasoned war veteran, the game tends to lose the element of strategy. All six characters equip an entire iron ore freighter, cast all the buffs on themselves, and simultaneously pulverize the monsters as though they were auditioning to be machinery at the Ocean Spray factory.

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This one’s shaped like a bow and arrow. Obviously, this is the Insurance Adjuster job class.

The Zodiac Jobs System fixes that by introducing a complex bureaucracy to the game, delaying some licenses until much of the game has passed and denying many licenses altogether based on eligibility requirements. Unlike real bureaucracy, though, this surprisingly makes the game easier. Originally, any time a character developed a mild cough, the entire party would forget completely about the enemies to cure it, thus allowing the monsters free reign to beat them down, causing yet more memory loss. Now, it’s likely that at least one character will lack restorative powers altogether and continue to stab enemies if for no other reason than to fend off sheer boredom. I also noticed that mixing and matching different characters tended to produce different battle strategies, so beating a particularly difficult boss only required a small change to my starting lineup rather than half a week of punching bats in a mine.

Espers are…well, espers are still pretty fucking useless. The original release of the game gave you summoned monsters that died so quickly after summoning that they may as well have developed a DVT on the flight to the battlefield. Calling an esper never served as anything but a momentary diversion for people who feel the “menu” button takes all the challenge out of pausing a game. In IZJS, espers still enter the battlefield with all the vim and vigor of an asthmatic guinea pig, but now you get to control them in their few seconds of life on this plane of existence. Basically, that amounts to permission to pull off their major attack once, realizing it doesn’t have the strength to dent your car, and barely missing the opportunity to say goodbye to your esper, who takes off for the ICU as soon as he’s done.

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Looks almost dead, right? Guess again. See those dots below the health bar? Those are extra health bars. Or as I like to think of them, 1% of your total play time.

At the risk of running too long, the game is worth playing. More so than the original. In fact, not only do I feel like forever discarding the original release like last year’s iPhone, but I’m tempted to play through it a second time to use the six jobs I couldn’t use this time. Fortunately, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Despite the fact that writing a weekly blog often rushes me through games, they’ve introduced what I call yakkety sax mode, which doubles the speed of traveling and battling. I managed to shave over thirty hours off the game. Round two, here I come!