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.

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Lunar: The Silver Star – Sega CD

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Quark gets the same look in his eyes when his grandkids remember to visit.

Lunar: The Silver Star Story Complete is an awesome game. The first time I finished it, I asked myself what game I’d most like to play next and decided, “I want to play this one again! Because 50-plus hours alone in a basement doing repetitive tasks isn’t the least bit indicative of Asperger’s!” I didn’t know much about the game at the time other than it was a remake of a Sega CD game, which didn’t interest me much. After all, the Sega CD add-on was about as common in the early 90s as blacksmith shops, and game remakes, even to this day, tend to undergo a process akin to dying your average Easter eggs. However, since the developer Working Designs chose a name for themselves that literally means, “Meh. We’re not quite there yet,” it probably shouldn’t have shocked me to realize that Lunar: Complete underwent a massive remodel for its transition to the Playstation. Yet this always raised the question, how good was Lunar: The Silver Star to begin with? As it turns out…it’s a game that feels rather incomplete. That’s two points to Working Designs for apropos naming.

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Copyright DC Comics 1958

The story begins with Alex, your average teenager living in a sleepy, boring, podunk, inbred mountain town, who dreams of packing his things and setting out in the world to make it big as the Dragonmaster (although through fierce competition for the job, most teens get a few auditions for commercials before going broke and falling back on porn before moving home to live with their parents). Lucky for Alex, though, his friend drags him along on an adventure to plunder some shit (literally) from a nearby dragon’s cave, and the dragon thinks he might have potential. So the bright-eyed boy sets off on an adventure full of people who lost their stuff and need him to get it for them, because what better item could a potential master of dragons and protector of the goddess have on his resume than “helper monkey”? I guess, though, even fantasy worlds need unpaid interns. So the fetch quests commence until a villain finally surfaces and Alex decides to finally get serious and track down the three remaining dragons.

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I’m, laike, totally a traveler! Totally!

Although I enjoyed the game, the hardest part about playing it is the realization that I write prolifically, publish a free, weekly blog read by about ten people, all while Working Designs made millions by pawning their rough drafts off on Sega owners. The game is so threadbare that I’m surprised they edited out the popsicle sticks and sock puppets used for character sprites. While I can make allowances for 16-bit graphic design, Jessica, the feisty beast-girl priestess, looks like someone draped a Statue of Liberty robe over her shoulders and topped it off with a molding George Washington wig. They try to build up Alex as a silent protagonist, but his taciturn disregard for anything happening in his immediate vicinity just rubs off on the other characters. Their complete and utter lack of passion left me with less emotional investment in the story than I have digging a spoon into a bowl of Fiber One. And yet, if one feature of the game let me understand what the quest to become Dragonmaster feels like, it’s the realization that slaying monster after monster for hours on end isn’t exactly a lucrative practice, be you fantasy hero or Sega owner, and I only had slightly more money in the game than I do in real life. Generally the point of “fantasy” is for real people to vicariously experience impossible scenarios. Sorry, but I spend enough time window shopping at Savers to want to do it in a digital reality, too.

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Yeah, this is something a hero would say that no one should be suspicious of in the least.

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Too bad the only practical use for this spell is pissing off rednecks in diners and republican politicians.

The game comes with its own cloud of early-RPG locusts. Using magic from the menu dishes out one healing spell at a time before telling you to get to the back of the line for seconds. Diverse items and spells pile up like mismatched tupperware, but have no in-game descriptions. My first inclination is to compare that to soup cans without labels, but since the only way to find out what an item or spell does is to use it and hope you notice some difference, the soup analogy only works if you shove entire cans into your mouth, chew, and swallow all at once. Spell menus reorganize themselves based on the most recent spell you cast and don’t even list MP costs, giving you literally no way to gauge how powerful any attack might be or what effect a spell might have. All in all, I can’t recommend this game for anyone with OCD.

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There are like six different kinds of nightmares happening right now.

About halfway through the game, fetch quests give way to another pleasure: spending more time wandering around the same areas than the cast of Gilligan’s Island. Rather than make enticing, explorable maps filled with hidden treasures more valuable than your average rutabaga, Lunar: the Silver Star provides you with maze after maze of identical corridors with no discernible landmarks to guide your way. Add to to that an enemy encounter rate high enough that Alex should have concerns about his buoyancy in Lunar predators, and the game begins to work against itself, naturally leveling your characters to the point that they play keep-away with the final boss’s helmet.

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These are the stories creationists tell around a campfire to scare their children.

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Alex saves the world, rescues the girl, and cures his erectile dysfunction all in the same day.

My suggestion: play the complete version. The Sega CD edition is like the raw food diet—yeah, there are some interesting ideas behind (such as Laike squaring off against Xenobia or the back story about Dyne and Ghaleon fighting for who gets to be dragonmaster0, but in the end they’re not good enough to justify the fact that you’re dining on something that isn’t done yet. But if you’re curious like me, go ahead and play the Sega version. I can say at least with near certainty that it probably did not give me salmonella.

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Okay, so the insane dragon skeleton is actually a pretty cool element that didn’t make it into the remake.

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That’s funny, I have the same policy for traveler’s insurance, roadkill and Microsoft products.

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I want to say something I’m sure is inappropriate, but I’m not sure if it’s because they’re underage or because they’re cartoons.

Mickey Mania – SNES, Sega Genesis, Sega CD

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Mickey Mania is described in the DSMV as the compulsive need to encourage Disney to make crap by handing them your money. Or in George Lucas’ case, Star Wars.

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…This is so disturbing, even Mickey’s life meter is trying to hitch a ride out of town.

My job here isn’t an easy one. As I don’t expect you all rush to ebay (as much as one can “rush” to a website) to find copies of these games, and that you’re not seriously mulling over whether or not to play these and need an expert’s opinion to tip you over the edge one way or the other, the only  possible reason you’d read this blog is that I make the posts mildly entertaining. Even considering I’ve dropped the challenge where I don’t use any form of the verb “to be” (go back and check entries from my first two years of posting), I have to find just the right games to make fun of. If a game is too good, it may be hard to find flaws in it, but if it’s too bad, I have to worry about properly expressing the comedic aspects, which aren’t as easy as just showing where a game misses the point worse than Burger King’s attempt at green ketchup (not to mention my concern with too many manatee jokes). But then I find those Goldilocks games, the “just right” combination  of playable and pointless that makes them stringently bland…and I have to find a way to make them at least interesting enough to talk about.  Enter Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse, a perfect blend of half-assed and carefully-developed, released to commemorate a birthday that no one cared about by revisiting short films that no one had seen.

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…I don’t think Disney has ever done anything as disturbing as this.

People love celebrating milestones, but when they do, they usually choose nice round numbers: 10 years, 25 years, 50, 75 and 100 all make the cut. But for whatever reason, Disney thought Mickey’s 65th birthday was a big deal. I wonder if most beloved cartoon characters fade into obscurity around their 63rd or 64th year (Poor Jeoffrey, the Peccary). When Disney came up with the idea of commemorating their contribution to the order of rodentia with a video game, they only had six months to hit their deadline. Fortunately, they decided to take a little more time to make the game playable, but not enough to actually give it anything unique or innovative. They thought the game would be carried by having actual Disney animators! work on the design, missing the point of a game in that special way that my mother misses the point when she asks why I still play Super Nintendo games when technology has improved so far over the last twenty years, then goes to the closet to pull out Scrabble and Monopoly.

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Mickey Kong

So Mickey’s 66th birthday present plays as an okay platformer, if not a consistent one. In general, Mickey jumps through levels avoiding enemies, most of which he can defeat by jumping on their heads. He also collects marbles, which he can throw at enemies. Beyond that, each stage seems to have been put together by designers taken from different parts of the Small World, selected in the manner of 18th century slave ships, where they are chained to their work with no common language to talk to the designer next to them. Three of the levels have bosses–although apparently in non-North American releases, more stages have these. Most stages allow use of marbles, but Mickey loses them every so often (much like the designers). Almost all the stages scroll from the side, but one rotates around a tower while another features Mickey charging straight at the player like an angry moose (as he is, in turn, chased by an angry moose). Mickey apparently is looking for various avatars of himself in some weird, meta-identity crisis, but a few of these avatars make no appearance within the stages themselves.

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Why does this look obscene?

Probably the worst oversight of the design, though, is that they based each of the six stages (seven for non-SNES releases) on classic Mickey cartoons except for one on classic Mickey cartoons that pre-date 1950. Only The Prince and the Pauper stage was based off a cartoon in players’ living memories; the rest are even older than my father. This wouldn’t be such an issue today, but they weren’t commonly played cartoons, and Disney had the audacity to release this game almost a decade before the invention of youtube, so none of these levels had any meaning for me.

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Rather than walking on the ground, you can walk on a barrel.

But they were designed beautifully. The game is nice to look at and puts in key details that–unbeknownst to players–come straight out the games. The Steamboat Willie stage even includes a gradual shift from monochrome to color (A curious choice, to say the least, since only the final stage is based off a cartoon animated in color. Perhaps they just wanted to show up The Wizard of Oz. Take that, filmmakers from 60 years ago!). The game is pleasant to look at and not too difficult, so you can get through most of it in a single sitting, even if it has all the replay value of a chicken sandwich. And the inconsistencies actually make it interesting, as you’re not stuck simply jumping on heads for two hours like a cute, child-friendly sadistic serial killer.

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Congratulations on giving us money for this game you finished in an hour! Now give us more money!