Thanks for Playing!

Hello Internet!  I’ve got an announcement for you today.

I love writing about video games, and honestly I’m shocked that I’ve kept up this blog regularly for more than four years.  There’s enough material here to fill nearly two standard-length books!

And yet, I’ve been having more and more trouble recently keeping up with other demands in my life.  Most important among them, I need to focus on my other writing so I can get something published. Sadly, this blog just doesn’t get the traffic to do it even semi-professionally, so I need to concentrate on my novels.

That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, though!  I like to keep in practice for humor, even if sometimes I’m not as funny as I think I am.  But I need some time to restructure.

So I have to take a short hiatus, hopefully no longer than a few months.  Check back near the end of February or the beginning of March for updates.  In the mean time, drop a comment below to tell me your favorite game that I’ve written about, and which game you’d most like to see me write about in the future!

Thanks for reading, loyal viewers!

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Dune – Frank Herbert / Sega CD

dune1Way back in 11th grade, my friends and I watched in jaded horror as our English teacher posted the famous College Reading List, the one thing in existence that condemns more people’s culture and interests than Fox News, police who pull over black men, and your grandfather at Thanksgiving dinner combined. This was the list of the ONLY BOOKS WORTH READING if you didn’t want to wind up trading your sperm for heroine so you didn’t die of withdrawal in a federal prison cell some day. While I was fuming over the fact that the Sword of Shannara made it on the list due to an unused historical footnote about nuclear annihilation, which apparently gave the book a message and therefore far more value than the story it plagiarized, my friend Al noted another curiosity. “Dune?” he said. “Usually people just go watch the movie, but why don’t you just go play the video game?” I’ve decided to take Thanksgiving off, but to spice up your holiday, I thought I’d do a special double entry on Frank Herbert’s Dune and its Sega CD adaptation.

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Starring Kim Jung-un as Duncan Idaho, the legendary Scottish Highland potato farmer.

The novel tells a story of a spice mined on the desert planet, Arrakis. The Spice increases life span, expands consciousness, lets you fold time and space, and basically does every profound thing people tell you weed does before you smoke your first joint and spend two hours giggling over how profoundly funny it is to say the word “crayons” backwards. The folding-time-and-space qualities, though, being rather helpful for space travel, makes the spice rather important for imperial expansion, so Dune opens on a setting of space-colonialism, exploitation of resources, and cultural appropriation that I guess we’re all just supposed to be okay with. Paul Atreides, a fifteen-year-old nobleman (who Herbert keeps describing as though he were ten), comes to the planet with his father, the duke, to oversee the mining operations for the emperor, and as long as they’re there, to provide a white-skinned overlord for the Fremen, the vaguely Arabic natives of the planet. But, hey, it’s not racist because the old nobleman, Baron Harkonnen was downright genocidal, so in a way, the Atreides are doing them a favor, right? Plus, setting up Paul as the Fremen messiah saves them the trouble of whitewashing him like we did to Jesus.

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I’m dead sexy!

But whatever. Harkonnen is fat and ugly while Paul is young and beautiful, and as several of my ex girlfriends will tell you, anything that a pretty person does is morally pure just on virtue of being attractive and popular. But Paul, being a good sport, goes into hiding with the Fremen after Harkonnen goes all teen-slasher-flick on his family. There he must learn their ways and become accepted among them, like Jane Goodall among the apes. Through displays of hand-to-hand combat, he wins the Fremen’s respect (not to mention the wife of the man he kills and an adoring young fangirl), learns how to wrangle the vicious predatory sandworms, expands his mind through the casual use of drugs, and just happens to discover the secret connection between the worms and the spice (hint: I’m pretty sure it’s the active ingredient in Slurm).

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Melange…it’s highly addictive!

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Yeah, I fell asleep and my two-year-old found the hair clippers.

The book does have a definite 18th-century white supremacy vibe to it, just shy of packing the Fremen onto spaceships and sending them to Tatooine to work on Jabba’s moisture plantations, but beyond that it tells a pretty compelling story of Paul’s mythological transformation into messiah, along with a political savvy the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen since…uh…well, for lack of a better example, let’s say the last season of Game of Thrones. Such a complex, masterful tale is definitely worth the read. So what about the game? Can I save myself the time and effort and get the same effect out of a Sega CD?

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Such wonderful graphics! Do you know what we need in this game? Hours more of this image right here.

Let me put it this way: I’ve seen better adaptations from eighty-year-old men in computer labs. I’ve seen tumors with more respect for their source material. You’d find more literary value by reading a shredded condom wrapper on the floor of a public restroom. The Sega CD Dune adaptation is a fairly straightforward point-and-click adventure, likely coming to us by way of the 1984 movie, which I confess I have never seen. Frank Herbert gave us a philosophical examination of the role of religion and politics in the course of human history, and Cryo Interactive distilled the essence of the story down to long ornithopter rides through desert wasteland. And when I say long, I mean I’d set the game to fly to a new location, then go off to use the bathroom, have a conversation with Anne, pick up the dry cleaning, or partake in a vision quest deep in the woods for a week or two before coming back to check on the progress. I guess it’s sort of neat how they sync the video with the map, where dark spots on the map correspond to rocky sections of the desert, but I’d have to be dropping some hardcore spice before my brain wants to sit and watch that for ten minutes at a time.

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Paul Atreides, meet Paul Rubens

Dune works as a book because everyone can relate to a coming-of-age story, and when your other coming-of-age stories suggest that you might discover freedom among the antebellum American South, or that your papa will marry you off to a well-bred Victorian gentleman, Frank Herbert strokes our egos by suggesting the final step in growing up is apotheosis, that the truly special among us will become messiahs (which might be easier to swallow for those of you who don’t struggle just to get a handful of people to follow your blog). Cryo Interactive, however, dumped any insightful bildungsroman in order to double down on the white man’s burden, dropping it solidly in Paul’s lap. As Paul, you fly your giant metal mosquito to each of the Fremen settlements in order to command them to, “Work for me.” And, of course, the Fremen are more than happy to oblige, being underdeveloped minorities who will forever live as uncivilized barbarians lest they have some white boy Bon Jovi groupie show up to give them directions.

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…please don’t.

As I mentioned, the game is likely based on the 1984 movie, however its obvious from the inconsistent art style that not everyone signed off on their likeness rights. Jessica and Princess Irulean quite clearly were converted directly from the film, with Irulean’s opening narration still intact. Paul still looks photorealistic, but somewhere in development they decided to give Kyle MacLachlan hair like a Soul Glo model. Duke Leto Atreides is just someone’s drawing of a Star Wars villain, and someone in the art department is clearly pranking Patrick Stewart, making his character look like the hell spawn of Buffalo Bill and Pennywise the clown on his way to audition for the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter.

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Dad…why did you wink at me when you said that?

Theoretically, the game eventually shifts focus away from being a point-and-click mining management simulator, and you can begin to raise and equip troops to fight the Harkonnens, so I gather it turns into something like Age of Empires meets Microsoft flight simulator, minus all the fun parts of each. But let’s get right down to it…forget the politics, forget the character development, forget the mythology, even…the reason you play a Dune game is because of sand worms. And if I have to fly around the same boring desert landscape for fifteen hours before I even catch a glimpse of one, I’m going to go watch Beetlejuice instead.

Kuon – PS2

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Hey! Eyes up here, mister!

Any connoisseur of horror might get the impression that the Japanese have as much variety a a nun’s sex life. It seems like everything coming out of Japan involves young girls, hair flipped forward, emaciated and wet like a St. Bernard that just jumped into the bathtub. This is the genre that gives us the Ring, the Grudge, and Silent Hill. Does nothing scare these people save for thought’s of Cousin It’s prepubescent daughter? As it turns out, yes. There’s a sub-genre of Japanese horror called Kwaidan, which as best I can describe is two parts fairy tale, two parts urban legend, and one part Weird Al Yankovic album. Roughly translating to “strange story,” kwaidan deals with the tough subjects that the faint of heart don’t have the guts to tackle, like flying heads that detach from their bodies, monsters who have re-purposed their anuses as eye sockets, and in the case of Kuon, evil incarnations of mulberry trees who use silkworms to practice human sacrifices.

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Forget Cousin It’s daughter. I’ve always had a huge crush on Cthulu’s little sister.

Kuon’s main storyline follows two characters. First, Utsuki is the disappointment child of Doman, a priest so cheerful and approachable that he looks on altar boy rape as being too kind-hearted. Doman gives Utsuki one job: take care of her sister Kureha, who hasn’t been feeling well on account of having died and begun to decompose. But Kureha runs off and, as luck would have it, darts straight into a haunted house like a bomb-sniffing dog navigating a field of land mines to get to a plate of snausages. Meanwhile, Doman sends the second character, Sukuya, into the manor with a team of paranormal investigators, most of whom meet the end we all hope for any time we see a team of paranormal investigators. Sukuya, however, keeps her wits about her and begins to piece together that Doman has taken a page from Albert Wesker’s playbook and sent them in as an unwitting buffet. Both Utsuki and Sukuya periodically run into the Japanese Shining Twins, inexplicably following the commands of these creepy little girls whose hands say, “Go investigate that room,” but whose eyes say, “We’re going to strip the flesh from your bones like a piranha with a tape worm.”

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Jinkies!

Kuon is neither a long game nor a difficult one. However, since each characters’ phase can be played in either order, they feel the need to run me through the tutorial twice. Sukuya’s tutorial was even delivered by one of the other investigators, a 13-year-old Buddhist monk who sounds like he studied in a remote mountaintop temple just outside of Houston. This boy has all the grace and poise we would expect from Feudal Japanese clergy, right down to his comment, “Can’t you just stick it in any old way?” when it comes to solving a puzzle. I presume. But the repetition doesn’t stop at the tutorial. The first have of both scenarios require the player to open the same locked doors, solve the same puzzles, and fight the same monsters. It’s as if taking priority over unique and thrilling game play, Kuon really wanted you to learn something, so it’s like an episode of Dora the Explorer. But with human sacrifice. (“House…underground…ritual chamber. House…underground…ritual chamber!”)

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Gakis be pimpin’

But that isn’t to say it’s a bad game. It does follow the pages of the survival horror playbook rather well, right up to scattering those pages halfway across the bloody country for you to find and assemble. Instead of zombies, you fight gaki. Instead of guns and bullets, you get cards that cast magic spells. And instead of keys you…wipe bloody rags on doors you want to open? I gotta be honest—that seems a little unsanitary. Not a lot of survival horror games culminate in an epic battle against hepatitis. It makes it all the worse by the seals on the doors being named after planets. I’m sorry, but nobody wants to carry around a bloody rag from Uranus, especially considering no one had yet discovered the planet during the story’s era, so the seal has to be either a butt joke or a reference to sailor scouts (none of which had been discovered yet either).

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Just casually wandering through the aftermath of a lynching.

Unfortunately, for all that Kuon gets right about the genre, it also suffers from the same tropes as every other survival horror game. “Oh no! There’s a corpse blocking my path? If only I could lift my feet up higher than ten centimeters! Between this and the paper screen in the other hallway, how will I ever progress?” Or even, “A silk web stretches across the tunnel? If only I had a tool to get rid of it, but all I have is a magic dagger and a collection of magical fireballs! I guess I have to go back and search!” It almost feels like the developers got lazy and skimped on certain key details. Characters don’t move their mouths to talk, but they still hear each other just fine, apparently communicating like animals in a Garfield strip. That and the inexplicable repetition of certain events but not others pulled me out of the story a bit. They obviously wanted some sort of Resident Evil 2 scenario mash-up, but pulled it off like a sixth grader giving a report on a book he hasn’t read, so he just copies the plot of another book and hope his teacher won’t notice.

The game certainly isn’t winning any awards, except maybe “rarest” and “most overpriced” PS2 game, but it’s worth playing. It’s short enough that the repetition isn’t tedious, the atmosphere perfectly captures the feeling of a kwaidan tale, and the story is unique and eerie. I’ll even give the game bonus points for voicing Doman with the same actor who played Mojo Jojo. I guess that makes you the Feudal Japanese Power Puff Girls.

Evil Dead: Fistful of Boomstick – PS2, XBox

FFB1I have quit my job at the Red Cross, tired of explaining to aging, overweight women with creaky knees that no one will have the courtesy to try to die on a table so they don’t have to attempt CPR on the floor. Naturally, I won’t rest until my resume makes me look like a hard-core Looney Toon character, so I went and signed up something far more psychotic: substitute teaching. Today’s adventure: first grade. And by “adventure,” I mean I’m going to take a break from grotesque, high-strung demon-spawn that will devour your soul to talk about something relaxing: Evil Dead. And before you ask, let me point out that sometimes the only thing that held your substitute teachers back from a nice, therapeutic dismembering was that chainsaws are forbidden on school grounds. Likely, I’ll wager, for just that very reason.

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To Do: Clear street of deadites so Doc and Marty can travel back to 1955 and prevent Old Biff from giving the Necronomicon to himself, thus preventing Evil 1985 from ever happening.

The Evil Dead films tell the story of Ash, who from an ill-fated camping trip with his college friends, must constantly fight back legions of demons who possess the corpses of those around him. And much like its subject material, it comes back to life every time the filmmakers try to kill it, each time just a little campier, a little more bloated, a little more disgusting and unrecognizable than the time before. After people stopped funding the films, there’s been talk of an Evil Dead 4, with director Sam Raimi telling fans they’ll just have to satisfy themselves with the three films. And two video games. And the musical. And the Ash vs the Evil Dead tv series. And let’s not forget 2007’s My Name is Bruce. So despite the fact that there’s never going to be an Evil Dead 4, there’s no shortage of cocky, swaggering, gore-themed, dad-joke one-liners recorded by Bruce Campbell himself. And to prove it, you can hear one every time you hit the triangle button in Fistful of Boomstick.

2003’s Fistful of Boomstick pretty much set up Ash’s backstory, which has become more consistent and dependable as giant perky tits in Game of Thrones. Everyone perceives him a schizophrenic, alcoholic loser, until someone unleashes the evil dead and he rescues the world, earning everyone’s gratitude just shy of actually treating him like he’s not an alcoholic loser. In this instance, a reporter interviews a colleague of the late professor Knowby, and plays a recording of an incantation over live TV. This immediately fills Dearborn, Michigan with hoards of evil demons who possess everyone in their path, thus paving the way for the 2016 election outcome. Ash immediately sets upon his quest to slaughter his way through the deadites with nothing but a chainsaw, shotgun, and the complete wares of a combined gun shop and hardware store strapped to his back.

FFB2Evil Dead has always been rather loose with the bounds of the horror genre. So too has it treated survival horror like the woman willing to take him home ten minutes after the bar closes down. Fistful of Boomstick technically bears the telltale features of survival horror, in that it limits the number of saves, controls the amount of ammunition and healing items, becomes progressively darker as though the player is suffering a minor stroke, and scatters a small junkyard around the game while demanding you clean it up. However, as with the PS One game, Hail to the King, the game feels remiss if it doesn’t hurl enemies at you with the frightening urgency of your grandma trying to stuff every last serving of tater tot casserole down your throat lest she think you waste away and starve like a Somalian orphan. Ammunition is only rare compared to the monsters, but the plethora of melee weapons negates that effect (Ash with a sword. Enough said) Save tokens likewise have the scarcity of AOL disks in the late 90s.

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Coincidentally, this is also Sean Hannity’s to-do list.

In fact, the one survival horror target they hit more accurately than Bill Cosby playing beer pong with a handful of roofies is the black-on-black color palette. The game opens on a dark and murky Dearborn, and gets progressively darker, what I refer to as the “untreated diabetes” aesthetic. Praising complete and utter lack of any visual cues as a horror game staple always felt like praising rusty barbed wire and 10W-40 as a dietary staple. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this trend led to a game like Perception,, and it surprises me even less that players

Hidden in each level are permanent power-ups. Some raise Ash’s maximum mana, enabling the player to cast spells more often. Others increase his maximum health, enabling the player to stare longingly at one more permanently empty blip on the life gauge. It isn’t just the unbridled manliness, easy access to firearms, and the denizens of hell-spawn risen in legions that make Dearborn a Republican paradise. There’s also a dearth of healthcare, thus ensuring that if you want to refill your life, you have to work harder than a Mexican laborer for those elusive health drops and just hope that the work itself doesn’t eviscerate your bowels and swallow your soul in the meantime. Fuck that. I play video games to escape real life. This is worse than playing as the merchant in Dragon Quest.

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That poor car can’t even get a break in a video game.

On that line, the game seems just a little too hard, and sadly, not in a way that the developers likely intended. Imagine, if you will, two high school history teachers. The first teacher runs a challenging class because he expects you to understand the past, but also the cause and effect of various historical events. That teacher, let’s say, is Final Fantasy Tactics; difficult, but rewarding when you figure it out. The second teacher is also difficult because after giving you an assignment, he jets off to the local titty bar leaving nothing but a Magic 8-Ball for you to check your answers. That teacher is difficult because his priorities are more in line with machismo than balancing the class properly. But hey, repetition is the key to education, right? Thanks to several conveniently placed unskippable cut scenes, you’ll never have any doubt about the plot in those moments right before a difficult boss fight! Now if you’ll excuse me, the school day is almost over and I have a stack of singles burning a hole in my pocket.

Dracula – Bram Stoker

DraculaWell this is quickly becoming the year of the vampire. Having torn through a streak of Castlevania games like a box of Oreos the day after abandoning a diet, I thought it best to remind myself that actual horror aims to be frightening. Since fear necessarily requires some degree of permanency in death, anything truly horrifying about these games tends to be mitigated by chronic resurrection and the power to murder hoards of tiny monsters to do a few extra points of damage against Dracula. Other than possibly explaining Renfield’s behavior, these video game conventions don’t so much hit the spirit of vampire horror as they do an episode of American Ninja Warriors where all the competitors are professional dominatrixes. So since October somehow became my month to call up all things Halloweenish, I thought I’d go back and read the original Dracula, by Bram Stoker.

Dracula is best described in several parts, the first part being “Jonathan Harker Becomes the Victim of History’s Most Passive-Aggressive Serial Killer.” Don’t get me wrong; the first four chapters of the novel on their own make a story terrifying enough to sell adult diapers to anyone who isn’t Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter. But if we had any doubt if the Count was dead, his neurons definitely need a fresh set of spark plugs. After imprisoning Jonathan Harker, haunting him, threatening him, climbing up the wall like a lizard, and murdering children plainly and openly, Harker asks to leave, saying he’ll walk if necessary, and the Count feels it necessary to give him his blessing, open the front door and kindly wishing him a safe trip as they both stare down a ravenous pack of wolves. I’ve never understood why some people insist on keeping up pretenses like this when their sadistic evil shines out for the world to see, but I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out why my grandmother does.

Part two, I call, “Everyone is Sad When the Hot Chick is Dying.” Here, Dracula has packed up and moved from the whithering, dwindling Transylvanian countryside to the bustling, overpopulated London, which for the Count must be like a starving Somalian kid renting an apartment in the produce aisle of a Cub Foods. Yet somehow, despite being surrounded by an afterlifetime supply of giant walking Twinkies, Dracula decides to pick one girl—coincidentally and inexplicably a friend of his tormented house guest—and slowly drain her over the course of several months. He must have been a real fun guy to take to Old Country Buffet. Spend twenty bucks to get in and he spends the entire time nibbling on half a pack of oyster crackers. The vampire himself more or less drops out of the story at this point and turns into the creepy roommate who never leaves his room; there’s a smell like something died, but you know it’s not him because stuff keeps disappearing from the fridge. However unlike the creepy roommate, I was disappointed when he disappeared. He’s the main antagonist of the book–which is named after him–and has become one of the most iconic villains of all time. So why the fuck did Stoker decide to give the titular character less screen time than Waiting for Godot?

The other side of the equation, of course, is the legendary vampire hunter himself, Abraham Van Helsing, everyone’s favorite badass, grizzled, genius, super-hero slayer. At least, that’s how pop culture envisions him. In the novel, he’s just grandpa in a tinfoil hat who finally has the proof that he was right all along. Actually, I treat him unfairly. Stoker wrote him as an impressive man, but then I’m almost positive that Stoker wrote him as a self-insertion (Note: “Bram” is short for “Abraham.”). Reading Mina’s descriptive paean of Van Helsing—right down to his “sensitive nostrils”–I wondered why she didn’t just ditch Jonathan and mount the geezer right there.

Anyway, Van Helsing really shines in part three, “Revenge for Killing the Hot Chick.” It is here that he swoops in to slay the vampire with the frightful speed of medical research. Fitting, as he is a doctor, and moves at the pace you’d expect from modern medicine. (Call to make an appointment for a staking and his earliest opening will be about three months from now.) I mean, the care he puts into Lucy, both as she’s dying and then after she turns, is complete and thorough and slightly less exciting to watch than someone’s battle with leukemia. If Stoker wrote a sequel, the most horrifying thing in it would likely be Van Helsing’s bill, followed by Dr. Seward learning that his insurance considers “unholy purification” elective surgery. You don’t often see Buffy staking out tombs, watching individual vampires, learning their patterns and stalking them for months like some crazed serial killer. The only reason she wouldn’t stake a vampire immediately is that she isn’t strong enough (or, I guess, that she’d prefer the vampire stake her instead). Van Helsing, though, does just this, cautiously scoping out the grounds and seemingly passing up dozens of chances to shave the heads off some vampires, as well as about 150 pages off the book.

I may have given away a few more spoilers than I normally do in my reviews, but I’m calling in the statute of limitations—the book is a hundred twenty fucking years old. Here’s another spoiler: the vampire dies. But we don’t get the epic boss fight with Simon Belmont, or even the showdown between Sirius Black and the guy from Princess Bride. In fact, our Great Evil sleeps through the whole thing. The most fascinating thing about stories like this come down to the interactions between the heroes and the villains. I can’t remember more than a single line of dialogue that the Count has from chapter five onward. At the end, they catch up to his box of dirt, rip it open, and knife it, making the hero-villain interaction akin to the DEA seizing a shipment of cocaine.

Let’s face the truth, World, Dracula is an awesome, classic, and enduring novel; however, except for Van Helsing somehow reaching Boba Fett levels of popularity, the book’s reputation today rests entirely on the first four chapters. Read those chapters and save yourself sometime—Nosferatu is free on Youtube. The film with Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins is another good choice. Personally, if you want a recommendation, though, you can’t go wrong with Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Castlevania: Bloodlines – Sega Genesis

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Two Castlevania reviews in a row? I can’t help it. Like any other medium of storytelling, video games have the capacity to be profound, to speak to human nature, to discuss questions that have plagued us throughout history. But how many games can actually answer the important questions like, “What do we face after death?” As it turns out…it’s usually a vampire that shoots fireballs and turns into a gargoyle. However, it does raise some questions of its own, most notably, “Why are we so concerned with stomping out the evil of someone who comes to life once a century, tries to set the drapes on fire, and then gets killed three minutes later by the bastard progeny of Indiana Jones and Devo? Shouldn’t we focus on something more truly horrifying, like religious extremism, unfettered capitalism, or people who wear leggings that look like a toddler glued shreds of magazines to a pair of magnum condoms?” As it turns out, Castlevania: Bloodlines does manage to connect a vampire with the life expectancy of a hemophiliac sword swallower to a greater social evil, namely, World War I, orchestrated in part to resurrect Dracula with the souls of those who died in battle. Kind of like American Gods, but with disembodied heads dive-bombing you like brain-damaged horseflies.

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Don’t you remember one of the most frightening horror monsters of all time, the pile of gears? Seeing as how this is in Germany, I can only infer that this is the ultimate evolution of the Klink pokemon.

If I might interject my own logic, brain-damaged by one too many snaps of the whip, who the hell wants to resurrect Dracula? Forget that summoning a vampire has the survival rate of crawling into a den of hungry wolves wearing a Lady Gaga meat suit. Dracula’s time on earth is more limited than a man who hands a roll of quarters to a hooker, and is likewise ended by an angry man standing over him with a whip and a stopwatch. Stillborn fetuses have more of an effect on the world than this douchebag, yet for some reason people will orchestrate global warfare just to see this guy’s head knocked off by a lion tamer? And remember, Dracula can transform into a cloud of bats and fly away, yet his first and only reaction upon being granted sentience is to pounce on the legendary vampire slayer like a chemo patient taking on the North Korean army.

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Looks like the dog got into the Buffalo Wild Wings leftovers last night.

The game itself, though, opens with your choice of John Morris, son of Quincy Morris of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s fame, or his friend Eric Lecard, who previously made a name for himself in…the opening cut scene that loops if you turn the game on and fall asleep before you hit start. Anyway, Morris and Lecard finally nudge their way to the gates of Dracula’s castle, which with forty games in the series probably has a longer line than the teacup ride at Disney World. They battle through fierce monsters and gruesome traps to reach the pinnacle of Dracula’s throne, only to remember that Quincy Morris already killed the vampire lord about twenty years ago. Not to be hampered by such a minor setback as not having a demonic nemesis to slay, the two of them decide they’ve fulfilled the obligatory “vania” and decide to see how much mileage (kilometerage?) they can get out of “castle.” From here, this post-Victorian Harold and Kumar visit all the dank, Black Castles that Europe has to offer, such as the palace at Versailles, Dracula’s summer home at the fictional Proserpina Castle in England, and…a German munitions factory. What, did the hundreds of castles across the continent not develop the right atmosphere of dark, cold, ominous and bloody over the centuries of standing as powerhouses of brutal medieval warfare and disease?

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Why does Morris look like he’s about to be sexually gratified by garroting Lecard?

Intricate design, an atmosphere of horror, and a rich color palette straight out of a box of evil crayons has always made this series stand out, and while Bloodlines continues the tradition admirably, setting stages in Atlantis or the Leaning Tower of Pisa somehow detracts from the doom and gloom vibe that attracts me to the game. It’s like dressing up for a Renaissance Fair and finding out that half the people attending wore greasy wife-beaters with bright orange Crocs.

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Nothing like a serene ocean sunset to make our hearts bubble with fear and terror.

That’s not to say, though, that Bloodlines is a bad game. Like other Castlevania games, it gives you plenty of opportunities to hop from platform to platform whipping monsters like a kangaroo dominatrix. Or if penetration is more your style, Lecarde makes a great addition to the team, a dashing Spaniard who combines the fighting style of Oberyn Martell and Scrooge McDuck. He can’t swing across chasms like Morris can (although admittedly, using a spear instead of a whip puts one at a severe disadvantage when playing Indiana Jones), but he has a longer reach, a pogo-stick vault of invincibility that can thwart death itself, and a special attack that rips through enemies across the entire screen and slows down time itself–yet I suspect the latter effect is less reminiscent of the stopwatch sub-weapon from the NES games and more a limitation of whatever Sega means by “blast processing.”

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Remember, game developers, just because you *can* doesn’t mean you *should*

While on the subject of what Sega does that Nintendon’t, let’s add to the list “cutting the classic sub-weapons from the NES games.” Only the holy water and the axe survived the purge, and the cross seems to have been castrated down to a regular boomerang. Each one has a both basic attack pattern as per usual and a special attack that might cost a bit extra, but makes up for it with a super-flashy execution that hits enemies with all the force of a bowl of spaghetti. Minus the bowl itself. And just to clarify, there’s no sauce or meatballs either. Technically, each character has a fourth sub-weapon, a special attack that actually does make a difference, but since it vanishes at the first hint of damage, it’s usually gone faster than my self-respect at an anime convention.

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Lecard tempting Lady Liberty to drop her toga for all the world to see. There’s an angel on the other side acting as her conscience.

Other than the sub-weapons being more limited than a nun’s options for sexual gratification, all the problems with the game relate to the story. And one of the benefits of games from this era was the instruction manual—they wrote the story in the booklet, and if it turned out a disappointment you could keep the book shut, never speak of it in open company, and pray it never embarrassed you when respectable guests came to visit.

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance – GBA

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I’d take more pleasure in riding Death like a bitch if he wasn’t wearing his mom’s high heels on his hands.

Might as well kick off this year’s Halloween season with Castlevania game, everyone’s favorite horror series from the classic days of the NES, which has progressively become about as scary as some leftover beans thrown on a compost pile. Rather than focusing on iconic horror, pitting your character against beast after beast from cinematic enemas, the terror-induced colon cleansing films that gave people nightmares before they realized that Hollywood didn’t actually hire a vampire to murder their actors on film, the series has now become a practice in running Symphony of the Night through Xerox machine over and over until the games still play like the original, but the only monstrous quality left is the low resolution, which they have to hide by putting the game on the GBA. But much like the aforementioned beans, Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance still has value, albeit not for its original purpose.

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Charles Schultz had a short-lived career writing horror before authoring Charlie Brown.

Harmony of Dissonance opens with the same now-standard explanation that, in a series with over 40 games, the earliest of which is set in 1094, Dracula’s castle appears once every century. I’m just going to assume they mean “at least once” so as to move on with this review without introducing some pointless, confusing, Zeldafied time line. The story begins with the only macguffin ever used in a video game—the kidnapped girl. Personally, I take offense to this idea, and no, it’s not because I need to get my kum-ba-yas on with my feminine side and rail against violence toward women in a medium where violence happens toward everyone regardless of age, gender or the size of their katamari. I just don’t think we really need a reason to go charging into a vampire’s castle with a super soaker full of holy water. Is “compulsive serial murder via oral exsanguination” not enough of a crime? Name one movie where a character says, “Hannibal Lecter might lull his patients into a false sense of security, murder them with his teeth and then eat their liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti, but no judge in the world will prosecute that. Now if he kidnaps a girl, then we have a case.” Part of what it means to be a “monster” is that people don’t have to feel bad about killing it. The NES games used almost no text and still told a compelling story. Symphony of the Night was great…err….let’s say decent…but that was because the protagonist was a monster as well. But trying to introduce a story to each Castlevania game just opens them up to questions like, “Why would the vampire who is constantly foiled by the Belmonts need or want to lure the vampire hunter into his private residence?” That would be like if I left a tray of sugar water near an open window, hoping that a swarm of wasps build a nest in my living room.

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Shortly after this, Pazuzu was called away to pull Professor Farnsworth out of the Fountain of Aging

Okay, so the story has so many plot holes that it’s only good for shredding cheese. But how does the game itself stand up? I would assume with much help from a physical therapist. Harmony of Dissonance plays like a cheap Asian knockoff of Symphony of the Night. It has the same Metroidvania combination of exploration, item collecting, and RPG stats, but it seems tired and worn out in its old age. Sure you find a bunch of items that increase your abilities, but you find a bunch of them up front and then spend a good chunk of the game wandering back and forth through the castle like you’re struggling with early onset Alzheimer’s. To make that worse, the game gives you two parallel, nearly identical castles to explore, with a few common areas between them. Speaking as someone who has grown accustomed to driving with a GPS in my constant line of vision, I felt like I had to check the map way too often to get through this game.

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Jesus fucking christ, the feminists are going to be pissed over this one.

Somehow, even though Harmony of Dissonance closely replicated a great game, it turned out to be a disappointing experience, like marijuana laced with ether—it could be the most awesome trip ever, but what does it matter if you sleep through the whole thing? It could be the protagonists. Alucard picked up dozens of useless abilities, like transforming into a dog, something you only ever do by accident while looking for the mist button. But at least they made him more and more vampiric. Juste “Juicy” Belmont—a discount Alucard rip-off who looks like he’s wearing bad Orochimaru cosplay—just becomes more like Mario. “You can jump? Well, now you can DOUBLE-JUMP! And now you can ROCKET JUMP! And now you can break bricks by jumping!” What’s more, Alucard explored a castle. Not a real castle, but at least the regions were named after things you might expect to see in an eccentric Medieval aristocrat’s dwelling, like the clock tower, outer wall, catacombs and coliseum. Justes explores the skeleton cave, the sky walkway and the luminous cavern, which feel about as authentic to a castle as the man cave, the produce aisle and the ball pit. Symphony of the Night had a clever, story-related method to obtaining not just a better ending, but a second half to the game. Harmony of Dissonance requires you to loot the castle for useless crap and shove it into a single room like you’re opening up an Ikea to compete with that lousy merchant who never sells anything worthwhile. (“What’re ya buyin’?” “Potions. Like before. Because your merchandise is crap, I might as well stock up on healing items that break the game.”)

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And yeah…this is pretty much how you beat every boss in the game.

As usual, Juicy has full access to (most of) the same sub-weapons that the Belmonts have passed down for hundreds of years. Naturally they’re a bit dated, but in the one seed of originality Konami planted in this compost heap is the magic system. By combining the sub-weapons with spell tomes found throughout the game, Juicy can cast some impressive spells. Of course, the cross is just a little bit stronger than all the others, so once you find one and mix it with the Wind tome, you’ll spend the rest of the game avoiding power-ups with more care than you use to avoid enemies.

Castlevania - Harmony of Dissonance-170603-023425So other than the bland environments, the dated weaponry, the discount protagonist, the plot holes so big it couldn’t catch a tuna, the difficulty broken by an excess of healing items, the lame and undiversified abilities, the bosses more from mythology than horror, the excruciating focus on feng shui and…where was I going with this? Who cares? If you need a portable Symphony of the Night, go play Aria of Sorrow instead.