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.

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Ocarina of Time – N64, Game Cube, 3DS

OoT Shiek

Link rockin’ out with his total platonic effeminate ninja friend. Pretty soon they’ll be good enough to take their band on tour. We’re talking Ren Faire groupies, y’all!

“Sweet, merciful lady of the tortilla,” you’re shouting as you look at the title of this week’s entry. “He’s ready to sully yet another beloved classic with his foul outlook!” As valuable as suspense is to a writer, and as much as I’d like to keep you on-edge and tense as a drug deal in a donut shop, I liked the game. So much for my attempt to finally elicit comments out of you by enraging you so much that Bruce Banner thinks you need anger management. No, Ocarina of Time succeeded when the move to 3D ruined a lot of other games—Mario 64 stripped out a lot of the charm of blazing through levels with the murderous glint of a colonial-era explorer, robbing the land of its power-ups, slaughtering native wildlife, toppling their existing governmental structure by sticking a flag in their castle, and then turning your back on it and never returning to your devastation, while the Metroid Prime games felt like leaping blindfolded from timber to timber on the rotted remains of a dock while trying to juggle chainsaws. Rather, the only way the first 3D Zelda game backfired was by making people completely forget about 2D Zelda games.

OoT Pedo Tree

Judging by the Deku Tree’s stache, this is the fantasy equivalent of “Free candy in the back of my windowless van.”

To recap for the newcomers, Ocarina of Time works as an origin story for the franchise, as opposed to Skyward Sword who draws a paycheck and has an official title as origin story, but who got the job because his uncle works for Nintendo and spends most of his day sleeping at his desk and playing minesweeper without actually getting any better at it. The game opens with the Deku Tree, all-powerful guardian deity of the forest, who has about the same temperament toward spiders as my ex-girlfriend; he sends his fairy servant, Navi, to wake up a ten-year-old boy to come kill the spider while he stands there unmoving, jaw agape in fear. Thus begins Link v1’s quest to go find a villain to slay to save Hyrule. And he finds one relatively early on in Gannondorf, who he finds bowing down and offering his service to the king, despite the only things on his resume being “Overbearing patriarch of criminal enterprise / harem” and “Murdered all-powerful guardian deity of the forest.” Fortunately, the king’s ten-year-old daughter isn’t as easily as fooled as the…man entrusted with the safety and prosperity of the realm…and she sends Link to retrieve some magical macguffins, which gives Gannondorf just enough times to murder the king and pull off a coup that would make Cersei Lannister sweat.

When Link accidentally leads Gannondorf to the ultimate macguffin, the Triforce, the powers that be decide, “This may not be the best time, Link,” and seal him away for seven years, forging the perfect hero: a seventeen-year-old adonis who wields the Master Sword, the Triforce of Courage, and the emotional and mental capabilities of a ten-year-old. As a bonus, Link can drop the Master Sword back into its pedestal and turn into his ten-year-old self again, setting up a defining feature of the game, which you use exactly twice (unless you want to go side-questing).

The game works because it retains everything fun about the 2D Zelda games, and it just changes the perspective. You still trek through underground labyrinths looking for buried junk, and each one offers more uses than a Swiss army knife, unlike later games where Link’s tools amount to nothing more than an exotic and unwieldy key chain to flip through every time you get stuck at a dead end. Nintendo decided to split adult Link’s and child Link’s inventories into two nearly separate collections, for no purpose that I can see other than teaching players the value of Venn diagrams. Once Link grows up, he no longer can throw a boomerang and finds the slingshot a bit childish…but that bottle of Lon-lon milk has at least reached a good vintage, looking awfully tasty after seven years in the fridge. At any rate, while this should add challenge and variety to the game play, it ultimately just gives adult Link a few weapons that have more-or-less the same use as the ones he used as a kid, so they feel almost like upgrades instead of new weapons. But bonus points to Nintendo for running out of ideas for items and making it look intentional.

OoT Fish

Because who wouldn’t want to virtually simulate sitting still for hours on end, doing nothing but staring at the water with wet socks?

You still explore an expansive world although there are some limitations. Hyrule doesn’t seem like an easily navigable country, considering anyone who wants to visit the desert has to first engage in some deep-sea spelunking in order to find the proper tool, or that anyone wishing to attend a Sunday mass at the Shadow Temple has to find an enchanted ocarina, play the proper melody to teleport to the graveyard, and then magically light about six dozen torches at once. The original Legend of Zelda and a Link to the Past had a good deal of replay value by giving the player a certain degree of freedom to roam wherever and tackle dungeons in a number of different orders. By cracking down on that freedom, forcing the player to take the standard tour to see what the game wants you to see when it wants you to see it, Hyrule feels less like a fairy tale kingdom and a little more like a dystopian communist police state.

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Shadow Link. Boss of the second game in the series. Still a bitch after all these years.

Of course, not many police states will arrest your protagonist, then throw them in an easily escapable dungeon with all their tools and weapons, just for a forced stealth sequence. Even in Ocarina of Time, this doesn’t work very well, especially considering that after proving himself against the most vile abominations Hyrule has to offer, he just throws his hands up and goes along politely with the Gerudo guards every time they catch sight of him from a distance. I get he has to prove himself to them somehow in order for the story to work, but honestly, I think he’s had one too many swigs of fermented milk to be such a pushover. Also like its 2D predecessors, Ocarina of Time puts its secrets in plain view rather than sealing them away in concrete like nuclear waste and burying them so deep you need a walkthrough to even know they’re there. I generally enjoy seeing my goal and using my wits to attain it, rather than trying to look up answers in order to figure out the secret handshake.

I’ve played this game enough that I’d like to think that I can speak Chinese in an alternate reality where I’d never heard of Zelda, with almost every moment of that time spent on the N64 version. This time I opted for the 3DS. Personally, I find the graphical upgrade an oddly mixed blessing. They packed more detail into the textures and more stuff into houses and other locations to make Hyrule look like a well lived-in kingdom, and it really let me take my invasive need to snoop through other people’s homes to a new level. “Hey, listen! Go save Hyrule from evil!” “Can’t, Navi. There’s a banjo on this lady’s wall, and I want to see what’s in this box.” The great fairies’ breasts no longer look like someone carved them out of rock, with the indentation they left behind literally becoming the uncanny valley, but I’m still convinced they’ve probably had work done. On a similar note, Ruto no longer looks like she’s wandering around naked inside Jabu Jabu, but the fact that Nintendo successfully made me stare at fish tits for so long has left me feeling deeply confused…and oddly aroused…but definitely confused.

OoT Ruto

Still about as much fish as your average mermaid, but trading the tail for the head? Meh. I’m game. Let me dive into your water temple, o sage.

After beating the 3DS version, you unlock the master quest. I have never played this and will probably save it for another entry some day, but in short, this parallels the master quest of the original NES game, with new dungeon layouts and increased difficulty. One of the features, which I gather is unique to the 3DS, is that the overworld is, for whatever reason, completely mirrored, much like the Wii Twilight Princess. Since most Wii players are right-handed, this made sense for motion controls. However, since the only motion controls here involve a weird gyroscopic aiming option that just sends your arrows off into oblivion while inducing a mild sense of nausea, the only thing I can see is that this is to make the game more difficult. The concept of making a 20-year-old game harder is a good one, but there’s a difference between making enemies deal more damage and putting a virtual pair of beer goggles on the player.

Honestly, I liked what they did with the 3DS remake. More than the graphical update, they’ve also tweaked a few mechanics, such as making the boots usable items instead of demanding they be equipped and unequipped every few seconds—honestly, you’re supposed to be the Hero of Time, not an asthmatic knight gearing up for a joust. So worry not, readers, I still enjoy Ocarina of Time and will not malign it.

Even if Link to the Past was the better game.

OoT Zelda

Just tell me you didn’t love me when you thought I was a man and I’ll go.

Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

Clockwork.jpgGreetings, O my brothers! My appypolly loggy for this. I don’t mean to gavoreet about every book read, but this one is real horrorshow for the sarky, so I couldn’t resist the urge. Most of you likely slooshied about Clockwork Orange through the sinny, but it turns out it was a horrorshow book long before that Kubrik veck got his rookers on it. Problem is, as you might viddy by now, is that chelloveck, Anthony Burgess, used some bezoomny slovos, so that one viddy at the page and you feel like you’ve been tolchocked hard in the gulliver.

So really I don’t have much to say about Clockwork Orange, other than it sounds like it was written after Anthony Burgess had a stroke in his college Russian class. Oddly enough, by the end of chapter one I felt like I had remembered everything I forgot from my college Russian class. Having successfully finished the book, I think I can safely list Nadsat as a foreign language on my resume.

The story follows Alex, your average trendy, fashionable teenager with a group of close friends, a keen interest in music, the strength of a drunken gorilla and the charity and goodwill of a nest of wasps. Alex’s hobbies include Beethoven, nights out with his friends, milk bars (guess that means he’s a Zelda fan?) and sprees of motiveless violence that would make the most hardcore Neo-nazi, Khmer Rouge member, and GOP voter put down their guns and say, “Dude…you might want to cool down a bit.” After a few romps through the town, bullying and robbing random bystanders, raping anyone between the age of ten and ten thousand, and swimming in enough blood to negotiate with a pharaoh, Alex’s droogs (friends) challenge him for leadership of the gang and betray him to the millicents (police).

While not a fan of prison at first, Alex soon realizes that the state, in attempt to prevent him from committing anymore acts of ultra-violence on helpless victims, has thrown him into close quarters with people full of blood who are helpless to leave the cell. After he playfully stomps another prisoner’s head into mush underneath his boot, the state rethinks their rehabilitation techniques, and throws Alex into an experimental program that aims to create a Pavlovian sickness every time he witnesses acts of violence. It works, and they release him into the wild to go his merry way, find himself, and to get so violently ill that the only reason he doesn’t vomit out his stomach is that it’s roped to his anus by his intestines.

The story is simple and straightforward…you knnow…discounting the language barrier so steep that Trump wants to put it on our southern border. The “Clockwork Orange” of the title is Nadsat for “mechanically responsive man,” or Alex, and it asks some deep questions about the nature of choice and free will as an integral part of humanity, as well as showing how in spite of being the “good guys,” the government seems more interested in manipulating people for political gain rather than actually helping them.

The book is short, and the language is quite honestly presented in a way that you figure it out soon enough, so I can give this my seal of approval. And now I want to sink my zoobies into some groodies, and have a go at the old in-and-out, so I have to go find my zheena.

MAME Roulette #5

Here we go again…time crunches, painting the house, obligatory get-togethers with racist family members, and expending any leftover effort into not beating the shit out of the army of overweight women with lousy knees who want to be certified in CPR as long as everyone has the courtesy to die on a table top, I’m running out of time and coming fairly close to catching up with my entries. So here we go: MAME Roulette #5

Berlin Wall

The Chibi Vegetables imposed on the background of casual alcoholics really provides a striking commentary on the economic disparities of post WWII Germany.

The Berlin Wall

Today’s MAME Roulette starts off strong with a title that evokes merciless strength and fear into the hearts of those who hear it. The Berlin Wall, emblematic of the terror and strife of the cold war, would no doubt make a thrilling interactive noir stealth game with the potential to become a classic. And now that I’ve praised the title, let me tell you about the game itself, which combines elements of Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Burger Time, and I think I even saw a bit of Bubble Bobble. You play as the most adorable Chibi Nato spy, running back and forth along the iron curtain, setting traps for the vile communist pumpkins, peppers, and other borscht-like agents of the Soviet Bloc. After digging a hole in the wall and trapping economically adversarial produce, you can smash them under the heel of your boot, sending them plummeting to their deaths and the deaths of their comrades below. Except sometimes you’ll encounter monsters that never chase you to a section of the wall you can trap. So on occasion, I’ve had a slew of enemies onstage milling about like a support group for clog-dancing oni, and I just have to wait until their meeting ends and they dance off to Perkins for their after party. There are also enemies that, as far as I can tell, know how to climb out of your traps and are thus unkillable, much like the true iron fist of communism. Hail comrades!

Double Dragon

After defeating Billy, the game decides Jimmy will now fight a fire. Hey, I don’t see Mortal Kombat coming up with anything new.

Double Dragon (Neo Geo)

Next up we have a true classic game…..’s spin-off. It make sense, right? Take a well-known beat-em-up and turn it into a fighting game. After all, the only real difference between the two genres is the length of the street. Unfortunately, that’s the limit of inspiration for this game. At least they were ambitious enough to add in a jazzy animation over not-Ken and not-Ryu’s signature moves so as not to get sued by Capcom. I’m pretty sure the game is narrated by the love-child of Futurama’s Inez Wong and every racist stereotype that ever appeared as an extra on M*A*S*H.

Golden Tee

This isn’t a screenshot. This is an actual video of someone golfing.

Golden Tee

I never understood why the world of sports penetrated so deep into video game culture, other than perhaps as a result of bullies trying to emasculate nerds. Sports games are so notoriously bad that they’re cheaper than toilet paper and less likely to sell when they’re used. That being said, Golden Tee is so bad that when I first searched for screenshots of the game, all I got was a bunch of generic pictures of arcade cabinets. The entire controls of Golden Tee consist of hitting the back button, then hitting forward. Sounds boring, but that’s pretty much all there is to actual golf, too. I’d say most of the challenge involves club selection, but even so I can’t figure out how to get the ball to go any farther—again, much like real golf. This game wouldn’t be interesting on a full-blown LSD trip. So…points for capturing the experience more realistically than any video game I have ever played. Next!

Circus Charlie

Let’s make it interesting, Charles. Most of these monkeys are harmless. One of them is the monkey from the movie Outbreak. Your move, clown.

Circus Charlie

There was a time in the mid 2000s when everyone with an inclination for programming put together their own flash game. By nature, these things were simple, and the simplicity often led to an addictive nature. In a way, it was a renaissance of the classic arcade era, where technical limitations just happened to force the ideal recipe for game play. That being said, there was something to be said for concept. The idea of shooting kittens from cannons for sport or stalking naked predatory rapists through the jungle. (my high score is 24,510. Leave a comment if you can top that). That being said, I can’t really envision anyone ditching school to blow off steam by playing Circus Charlie at the arcade. When the very first level has you literally jumping through hoops—an act we use to describe following tedious instructions to achieve a basic end—I really can’t see the entertainment value. You play as a clown performing a series of circus tricks, including jumping hoops while riding a lion, dodging kamikaze monkeys on a tightrope, and trampolining through a minor gang war of flaming bottles and knives. It isn’t terribly difficult, and occasionally a bird will come crap coins on your head. Big whoop. It has the simplistic, addictive game play of the aforementioned flash games, without giving me any content worth getting excited about. It’s like serving alfredo ravioli stuffed with packing peanuts.

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…ugh. No caption. Honestly I couldn’t care less.

Funny Mouse

I’m starting to notice a trend with arcade games, an epiphany delayed only by the fact that you have to have obvious differences before you can spot similarities. Let’s see…I’ll call this one a blend of Pac Man, Donkey Kong and Burger Time. I don’t know. You’re a mouse trying to raid the pantry, being chased by cats. Except unlike Pac Man where the ghosts have patterns and the maze has plenty of escape routes, the cats tend to corner you with the deadly efficiency of a police force coming down on a black man driving with a broken tail light. I’ve seen end-stage colon cancer patients with better chances and longer lives than this mouse. Chances are he’s less “Robin Williams funny” and more “I’m not sure the milk has turned yet funny,” since that’s the only way to explain why people keep shoveling quarters into this guy.

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Failure teaches success…I don’t know if that’s profound, or a subliminal message urging me to feed more money into the machine.

Mikie

What high school student wouldn’t want to dump quarter after quarter into a machine to play as a teenage version of Wayne Rogers, TV’s Trapper John from M*A*S*H? In Mikie (High School Graffiti), the player tries to knock other students out of their seats the way any mature 16-year-old boy would—by thrusting his ass in their face in the middle of class. He does this because apparently his girlfriend has written letters (no, not love letters. Actual letters, like a box of alphabets is the epitome of romantic expression) and hid them underneath other students. And since Mikie has a heart of gold and doesn’t mind that she extends the definition of “high functioning” autism so far that it’s collecting fucking moon rocks, he needs to gather these letters to figure out what to do next. Unfortunately, once he collects enough letters to spell out “OPEN!” he still has a way to go as he can’t figure out how to get through the classroom door. Meanwhile, your teacher chases you through the class as though wielding your sphincter as a class-A weapon can only be resolved through questionable physical contact. Actually, this proved a surprisingly good game, even though using A Hard Day’s Night on the soundtrack makes me wonder what they could have accomplished if they hadn’t shoveled their entire budget over to the Beatles’ estates.

MikieTrapper

Am I imagining the similarities? The big blue eyes, the curly blond hair…that Mikie is one smooth, wisecracking operator!

Last Fortress

I’d do her…but only after a rousing bastardization of a classic Chinese game of chance.

The Last Fortress

In continuance of the trend of describing games as remixes of other things, The Last Fortress gives us a pretty straightforward description. Rather than stealing ideas from famous arcade games, this game plays like a combination of Mahjong an a faded Playboy that you found in the woods behind the school. Rather than pulling out matched sets of tiles, you can form a hand of up to six that you can match with available pieces on the board. It’s almost like playing go fish. Except you’re fishing for nipples. This game teachings good morals. For instance, a second player can (I assume) help you clear the board faster, just going to prove that cooperation is the best way to get laid. Seriously though, if I were really dropping quarters into this thing every time I tried to get closer to one of the badly pixelated 8-bit nudes, I could have just as easily bought a dirty magazine and had ten times as many girls to look at without any of the work. And I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that Redtube wasn’t available back then.

Final Fantasy Adventure – Game Boy

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Light

I’m pretty sure we’re looking at Skynet in his punk adolescent years.

Nineteen Eighty-Nine, bitches! Now you’re playing with power! Portable power! Nintendo successfully shoved all eight bits of their classic system into the ridiculously oversized pockets of your soon-to-be outdated parachute pants. This was so awesome, that virtually nobody cared that the green-on-green color scheme looked like someone had puked on a jungle commando in Vietnam, and that you could only see it under the noonday sun in death valley, if the batteries lasted longer than the drive to Radio Shack to buy new batteries. This was portable fuckin’ power! By which I assume they mean either the power to strengthen your wrist to Popeye proportions as you held up the game with the required lighting attachments, or the power to turn your anti-video game mom into a hardened criminal who swipes your copy of Tetris for long plane rides.

Hillary_Rodham_Clinton_playing_a_Nintendo_Game_Boy_video_game_on_the_flight_from_Austin_en_route_to_Washington,_DC

“If you put it just really simply, these violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children…” Which is why I have to steal my daughter’s Game Boy to play Tetris. Forget Benghazzi. This is the real crime. Lock her up!

Nintendo has a long history of innovation which usually lead the world into the realm of science-fiction ten or fifteen years down the road, but in the mean time they usually just induce stress fractures to your neck while staring at a rage-inducing red screen, require importing the cool stuff from Japan, or make you waggle a stick until the game enjoys itself more than you do. And even though we tend to remember the Game Boy more fondly than our first hand-job, I have to be honest to say that, like aforementioned hand-job, the fun was a little rough around the edges. Cartridges were a fraction of the size that NES games were, and with all that games had to be cut down, mangled and stuffed into cramped spaces, the offices at Nintendo probably resembled the aftermath of a game of Truth or Dare played by serial killers.

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She doesn’t like it when you come into her mouth without telling her.

Enter Final Fantasy Adventure, which as best I can tell is Final Fantasy’s sixth installment in its own series while simultaneously the first game in their second spinoff which ended up being either the first Seiken Densetsu game or the prequel to the Mana series, depending on how you want to look at it. (However you look at it, this game is striking evidence in my theory that Japan numbers their sequels using a dyslexic idiot savant in the throes of a grand mal seizure induced by a cocaine overdose). This game provides an interesting example of how a Game Boy game can be both amazingly good and simultaneously more gaunt and emaciated than an anorexic greyhound with a heroine addiction.

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Dr. Bowwow reveals his cyborg chocobo. This game isn’t weird at all.

Gameplay resembles something Koichi Ishii scribbled out on a cocktail napkin after downing three bottles of sake before sobering up to make Secret of Mana. The player wanders through an expansive world that stretches as far as the eye can see (or until they run out of unique ID numbers represented by an eight-digit binary code. Whichever comes first). The map is split into grids, with each of the 256 areas being roughly the size of an airplane bathroom. As per usual, the goal is to traverse through hidden dungeons and towers clearly designed by a single bored architect who knew he had a monopoly on the construction market, so he drew a square room with doors exactly in the center of the wall, pumped out about 256 photocopies, sold the designs, and took all his GP and skedaddled to some colorful, tropical island likely on the Game Gear.

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…I’m not sure that’s how that works.

Also present in nascent form are most Secret of Mana enemies, system of casting spells—albeit without adorable elemental sidekicks—and the concept of switching weapons to progress. As in the Seiken Densetsu series proper, the hero wields not just a sword, but axes, spears, whips, chains (and various assorted leathers and novelty condoms), sickles, turkey basters, weed wackers, enema bags, croûtons, medical malpractice attorneys, cocker spaniels and…you get the picture. Long list of irrelevant objects. Haha. Moving on. Your axe can cut down trees while the sickle can cut grass, and whips let you swing like Pitfall Harry over chasms and rivers. You know there’s a problem coming, right? See, the weapons don’t level up with you, and I’ve seen blind guys operate touch screens on drive-through ATMs with more fluid ease than Final Fantasy Adventure’s menu system, so occasionally the game all but forces you to fight with whatever weapon you need to cross barriers. You could look like Fabio and Arnold Schwarzenegger joined together Voltron style, but the instant the batteries fall out of your plastic Sword of Omens, even the cute little duck with bowl-cut hair is going to laugh at you. You get stronger and stronger weapons right up to the final boss fight, but once you get the morning star, that lets you harm magical enemies as well as break through walls that would otherwise require a special item, any stronger weapons you find only serve to mock you with their muscle-bound impotence.

Final Fantasy Adventure-170621-093725The game is unfortunately obtuse when it comes to objectives, directions, or puzzles. For a game that traps you in an area of no more than 8 squares at a time, methods to progress are harder to find than the Ark of the Covenant…and no one thought for an instant that Indy would blow that thing up. Here, I think I did drop key items by accident at least once or twice. Some doors can only be opened if you backtrack halfway across Antarctica to find one merchant who sells a specific item that you didn’t know you need. Some switches activate when you step on them, when you stand on them, or occasionally only when you turn an enemy into a snowman and push them onto the switch, as though your lean 80kg of muscle is no match for their 160kg of Mackinac Island Fudge. In the final dungeon I passed the point of no return and realized I hadn’t brought any keys with me. Far from being stuck, FF Adventure just expected me to find the one low-level enemy wandering the tower that dropped the keys, and that if I just left one of them alive before leaving the room, they wouldn’t vanish into oblivion like a dead parrot. Easy. I long for the days when I could just get lost in a labyrinth of rooms that all looked identical.

Final Fantasy Adventure-170621-110021And yet I made it through, though being holed up in the woods of Northern Michigan on vacation, I really tested my data plan’s limits in digging up walkthroughs and maps. Somehow I survived the repetition and the unintuitive puzzles and the inventory system that lets you keep fewer items on your person than Joliet Prison. The game did throw some fairly interesting boss fights my way, but wandering around aimlessly does tend to pack on a few extra levels, and with a side character who heals you whenever you ask, Final Fantasy Adventure tends to lean toward the easy side.

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As opposed to other plants that crave electrolytes.

Spoiler alert: the hero is the ghost from the beginning of Secret of Mana, and his girlfriend is the Mana Tree. Which means somewhere behind the scenes, these two stripped off their green-on-green armor and tuned up their mana weapons to level up their 8-bits into the hero from the SNES game. I’m tempted to say, “At least Squaresoft had the good taste not to show that,” but since Custer’s Revenge still has more views than any other article on my blog, I think I’m obligated to express disappointment in the lack of pixel porn in the game.

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

63210Having read one of the most amazing novels of my life, I naturally couldn’t wait to jump on to write about it and spread the glory of Ernest Cline’s paean to 1980s pop culture, Ready Player One. However, over the past two weeks of delays and distractions, I’ve come to the realization that God is most likely a triumvirate of Vlad the Impaler, H.H. Holmes, and the Mark Hamil Joker, because there’s no other way I can explain the series of sadistic practical jokes that the universe seems to take such joy in throwing at my daily goals and aspirations. To be specific, I’d like to tell you about a fascinating future where people escape from a socio-political dystopia by burying themselves in the most awesome virtual reality world anyone could possibly dream up, but I couldn’t because the SD card I use as a portable hard drive somehow was switched to read-only, and although there are plenty of commands in place for changing drive permissions, I can’t use any of them because the disk is read-only. Honestly, I consider myself a pacifist, but whoever set up read-write permissions this way is really making a good argument in favor of burning people at the stake.

I want to think of Ready Player One’s Oasis—essentially the Internet turned into a fully traversable VR world—as an ideal utopia, making a reality of every nerdgasm I’ve had since watching Back to the Future, figuring out my age in 2015 and deciding there’s nothing wrong with riding a hoverboard at 31 years old. Unfortunately if the process of filling a few pages in a word processor can send me into a berserk frenzy and send my computer through a few layers of drywall, I can’t help but worry that a virtual reality red ring of death might drain my cache of GP as I go in to the VR Hospital and have to answer a slew of questions like, “What is your history with redtube,” “Do you get at least an hour of EXP per day,” or “Are you currently plugged in and turned on?” (which may go back to the redtube question…)

Anyway, the plot begins about twenty years into the future. The Internet has been converted into a virtual reality universe by James Halliday, sort of an asthmatic Genghis Kahn who reigned supreme (with his buddy Ogden Morrow) as God of the digital world. It turns out he’s not completely all-powerful, though, which becomes very clear as chapter one gives us Halliday’s video will. Stepping down from his role as chief programmer and creator of the Oasis, Halliday takes on more of a zombie Willy Wonka role, revealing the existence of a hidden Easter Egg somewhere in the Oasis (and since the Minecraft world alone is currently about 7 times the size of the Earth, I’m sure it couldn’t be too much more difficult than locating Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, El Dorado or Bigfoot). Oh, and the first person to find it gets complete control over the Oasis. He does offer a few cryptic clues, but as they require obscure knowledge of the 1980s, Halliday effectively does to modern pop culture what the U.S. did to the Narragansets.

After years and years of hunting, interest in Halliday’s golden tickets dies down until our hero, Parzival, stumbles upon the first clue in the path to the Easter Egg, relying on the oldest and most virtuous of hero skills, pure fucking chance. The book is wonderful, even if sometimes it does sing like a paean to obscure 1980s culture and technology, but it does raise just a few eyebrows that Parzival both lives on the game planet with the first key and has all the skills to decipher the first code in time to meet the sexy blogger who has deciphered it at the same time, then has just happened to have mastered all the skills required to solve the puzzles. Not to mention he lives 25 years in the future and managed to pick a screenname that doesn’t require l33t followed by a random string of numbers and symbols in various different alphabets. I swear if this kid opened a box of Lucky Charms, the leprechaun would leap out of the box straight into a bear trap that no one knew was there.

Furthermore, Cline builds Parzival as a dedicated Halliday fan who was spent more time in the 1980s than people who have lived in it. Like Parzival, I too live in a dystopian America where employment is considered a privilege of the super-rich and the only thing I have to call my own is copious amounts of free time and a handful of things downloaded from the Internet. I’ve played a great deal of video games, seen plenty of movies, and may have heard the most infectious songs of the day once or twice. But my knowledge of the 80s pales in comparison to Parzival’s, an impressive feat on his part since I, you know…lived through them. But if you even breathe wistfully while thinking about Bea Arthur, Parzival would immediately know which Golden Girls episode is on your mind, the date it first aired, and which frame to pause it in order to catch a glimpse of Betty White’s tattoo of a naked Sean Connery riding a dolphin. If a TV series ran in the 80s, he’s seen every episode three or four times at least. If a game came out, he’s developed a strategy to get a perfect score. If a movie was released at any time during the decade, he knows the script so well that someone wants to sue him for copyright infringement. Rest assured, the only way to become such an expert on a decade is to have lived through it three or four times. And the kid still has time to learn Latin. And just considering how often I subconsciously flip over to Facebook while writing this thing, the fact that he does all this with a fully immersive VR world at his fingertips means this kid is the guru of time management and should be narrating a self-help book instead, or he’s adapted the flux capacitor to run on water from the Fountain of Youth.

And yet, for all that Ready Player One relies on luck and chance more than a blind poker player, and while I still cringe at the Japanese character who’s entire personality consists of 1) Who has honor, 2) Who doesn’t have honor and 3) How cool was Zuko in season one of Avatar, the book is absolutely amazing, a combination of Star Wars, the Matrix, that guy in my high school math class who couldn’t stop quoting Monty Python and The Simpsons, and Willy Wonka (albeit without the assumption that everyone, right up to the queen of England who controls the entire British commonwealth wants nothing more to do with their lives than to see where some high-functioning autistic makes sticky sugar water). The story follows a textbook example of the archetypal hero’s journey, complete with themes of reality versus illusion, and which world sucks more (my money’s on reality, despite the warning given to Parzival that there are downsides to living in a world where you have free reign over imagination and godlike powers). For those of you less interested in the apotheosis of modern technology as represented in literature, the book reads like Ernest Cline dropped every Wikipedia article on pop culture into a blender and then pasted it over his manuscript. But even if you’re not into reading through someone’s autistic loops, he does branch out into pop culture from other decades, going so far as to name Parzival’s Firefly class spaceship after Kurt Vonnegut.

And for those of you who insist you could watch linoleum peel as long as it had a well-developed character, you’re both A) clear for takeoff on Ready Player One and B) extremely irritating to the people around you. Parzival transitions from a level one wimp with no social skills to a level 99 hero who infiltrates the villains’ stronghold for data and eventually wins over the girl. Of course there’s a transitory phase where he’s just a level 50 shut-in living in a studio apartment with a sex doll, but that’s what makes his character progress organic. (After I wrote this, word came to me that Spielberg has rights for the movie adaptation…just a warning, Steve, if you sterilize this story to make it family-friendly, you’re going to have a swarm of mythology scholars, quadragenarian nerds, and sex dolls knocking at your door with pitchforks and torches.)

Personally, while I feel I’ve done the book at least a modicum of justice, I have to sacrifice some of my normal humor to do so. Also I really need to clean the house, as there’s not yet a VR program that can just insert me into a clean one. To that end, I’m going to recommend one of the best literary analysts on youtube to take it from here:

Earthbound – SNES

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Police block off the roads…but apparently not because of the radioactive space rock. Hey kids, after you touch it, be sure to see what it tastes like!

Strap in tight, RPG fans, and grease up your frying pans to retaliate as I malign yet another classic game even though I honestly didn’t find it all that bad. I simply can’t help myself. Nowadays, as the indie game community struggles to understand that “off the wall,” while it may be profitable, only has a few degrees of superlative. I mean, when it comes to walls, there’s really only “on,” “off,” and maybe “leaning against.” (I guess there’s a few more if you consider “Now my watch has ended,” “Just another brick,” and “Dear God, Donnie, get off this wall idea!”) Yet developers constantly belch out attempt after attempt at one-upping everyone else’s off-the-wall-manship, until every game is so uniquely different that they’re all as homogeneous as every Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Madden title put out there. That makes it kind of difficult to go back and play a quirky game that was, in the 90s, a truly unique gem of quirkiness. And it was also kinda bad.

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The game has a twenty-year-old reputation for charming its players.

Earthbound is an urban RPG that doesn’t so much have a plot as a Rube Goldberg machine of events that leads our suspiciously unquestioning protagonist through a world of oddities that would make any sane person wonder if that mushroom we fought just outside the first town didn’t have its own special brand of magic. The game starts like plenty of other games, with some poor unfortunate protagonist getting roused out of a sound sleep. In this case, Ness is woken up by a knock at the door, only to find it’s his neighbor, Pokey, whose adjectival name describes something painful and penetrative on account of him being both a fucking prick and a pain in the ass. The two take off in the middle of the night to investigate a fallen meteor nearby, which as you can imagine naturally leads to an epic hero’s journey wherein Ness dismantles an organized religion, gets lured into an ambush by a prostitute, bails out the excessive debt mysteriously racked up by the blues brothers, and performs a surprisingly gruesome abortion of an evil alien fetus (possibly), all while rampaging through the local towns smashing everyone and everything with a baseball bat like the delinquent gang members in Stand By Me.

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Halfway through, Ness just starts flipping him off, hoping he’ll get the picture and stop following him.

A lot of people harp on Pokemon for that whole adolescent vagrancy thing. While mom does seem awfully quick to kick Ness out onto the streets to give herself some private time with her soap operas while lying to school officials about his whereabouts, at least Dad routinely deposits money into your bank account so you can afford food and hotel rooms—although by the end of the game, his nonchalance about the fact that his son has half a million dollars on his ATM card makes me suspect some money laundering scheme. No, Earthbound raises bigger concerns. Like the truly old school NES games, characters for the most part have to be resurrected at set locations, specifically hospitals. Personally, if the same kid kept showing up as many times as I needed to revive my characters, someone ought to call Child Protective Services. At the very least, the hospital probably shouldn’t keep releasing their patients to the kid carrying the bloodied baseball bat. Even more concerning, every so often some bearded weirdo flies down from the sky to photograph the party (for the end credits). I might even be willing to overlook the fact that this old guy is following around a thirteen-year-old boy taking pictures if he’d just stop interrupting the game so damn often to do it. Come on, dude! Snap your shots subtly from the bushes like a regular pedophile.

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I lay down a fat wad of bills to bail these guys out of debt, but i still have to pay to see their show?

So I already said that stacking this game up next to modern, quirky RPGs is about as fair as hiring a mechanical engineer based on his skill with an abacus, so let’s put Earthbound into chronological context. Gameplay seems pretty standard, with a top-down world exploration alternating with first-person, turn-based battles. Character customization, for the most part, is stat-based and not within the player’s control, and while fights often do wind up reverting to mashing the A button whilst using your other hand to search for search nudeography.com for the Pink Power Ranger, characters include a small, but nice selection of magic and special attack items to keep things interesting. Furthermore, the main menu still operates about as well as a credit card machine in the self-check-out aisle, but it’s slightly quicker and easier to navigate than in other old school RPGs. All-in-all, this game has streamlined all the features we might expect from the original Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star, or Final Fantasy.

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…seems legit.

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The moment Ness realizes that All Lives Matter won’t come and save him.

Unfortunately, that’s not the proper chronological context. Earthbound was released in 1994, half a year AFTER Final Fantasy VI. Squaresoft had for three years already incorporated elemental attacks and equipment, active time battles, summoning spells and unique, useful character specific skills. Yep. While Square was developing solar-powered, mag-lev bullet trains, Nintendo was unveiling their perfected design for the horse-drawn carriage.

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Here I am fighting something that looks like it was sneezed out of a wildebeest with ebola.

I do appreciate the quirky sense of humor Earthbound displays, and as I do enjoy old games, I didn’t so much care that the interface had been long outdated in 1994. But Nintendo could have taken some care to keep their content fresh, rather than try to sell us a bucket of milk from the “past expiration” shelf (and then boosting the price to $250 on the grounds that it’s “rare”) The game flouted just enough conventions to confuse me; being dead is usual a little more final than your average status ailment, so I didn’t figure out until the final dungeon that the highest level heal spell could also cure the common corpse. Magic spells get no explanation, and while items do provide descriptions that range in clarity from “horoscope” to “girl who really doesn’t want to go out with you but won’t outright say no,” there are so many items in the game for the sake of quirkiness that the player can get a certain type of fatigue for digging through the menu to check each one—AFTER they buy them.

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Nothing suspicious about a bunch of people shoved into test tubes.

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Wait…how much? Is there something you’re not telling me?

Limiting your inventory to the amount of items that can fit into a taxidermy musk rat can be frustrating, but probably the most infuriating thing about playing Earthbound is using the phone. Periodically, Ness gets homesick and will ignore the brutal melee in favor of plopping down and daydreaming about cake or kimchee or mushroom and roadkill sandwiches or whatever you told the game your favorite food was. The only way to get him riled up into a skull-bashing frenzy again is—and this one I can totally sympathize with—calling your mom. Honestly, what is it with video games that way to simulate things that I hate doing in real life? Worse than the constant tether to you mom’s macaroni (no, that’s not a euphemism) is the need to call your dad. The only way to save your game is to call your dad at his mysterious, undisclosed location and tell him everything you’ve done. He’ll then ask if you want him to write it down. Then he’ll rattle off the exp needed for each character to level up, and launch into a schpiel about your family’s work ethic. Every. Single. Goddam. Time.

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Because FUCK KIDS!

Earthbound doesn’t get by entirely without creativity, though. The game has one interesting mechanic in which damage dealt by enemies does not take effect at once. Rather, the character’s HP counter starts rolling down toward zero, giving those with the highest levels ample time to tell their wives goodbye, pass on their watch to their son, choke out the secret location of the hidden treasure, grail, or Skywalker, set their affairs in order and make peace with their god before they ring down the curtain and join the choir invisible. Mostly, though, I used it to wreak furious vengeance upon he who wronged me, and occasionally fumble through Ness’ magic menu with a Scooby-Doo-like grace, hoping I can hit the healing spell with my clumsy fingers, target my dying character instead of a dead one, the enemy, or a nearby rock, and cycle through the text narrating the battle like a combination sports commentator and a court stenographer fast enough to take effect before the victim’s final breath rolls over to zero.

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What can he say except “You’re welcome?”

While I’ve been writing all day and would usually think of some exhausted, half-witted method to draw my entry to a conclusion that I can pretend works, I can’t drop this game into my annals without mentioning Giygas, the boss of the game. I get that Mother, Earthbound’s predecessor released only in Japan, set up Giygas and whatever back story, plot, and motivation he might have. However, if you’re like me—re: only released in the United States—you don’t have that to fall back on, and even so, I expect my games to recap any important points from previous installments (when done correctly, that is the reason I could play through Shadow Hearts 2 like a fully functional human being, rather than navigate the plot like George of the Jungle). Giygas gets none of that. We are told he’s evil and needs to be stopped for reasons I assume are good but not quirky enough to make the cut into the game. But he gets no screen time, no build up, seemingly no effect on the plot, and no interaction whatsoever with the heroes. Even the final battle fizzles out until I feel like I’m just wailing on Helen Keller with a Louisville Slugger. About twenty minutes into an unnecessarily long, yet impotent battle, I felt like I should just stop fighting and start making him feel inadequate by telling him about the bosses I beat from other games. “Did I ever tell you about Lavos? Now there was a boss! Sephiroth and Kefka were both pretty impressive. Oh yeah, and one time, I killed God!”

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Dear God! Pokey’s mom looks like the Joker’s failed first run with Smilex. Was this intentional? Was she their first run at sprite design and they have a strict no-revision policy?

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Oddly enough, I feel like this one actually merits a bat upside the head.

Now, do you remember how I said the battle was unnecessarily long? The game pulls kind of a dirty trick here. All the damage you deal in phase three? If it’s applied to Giygas at all, it has all the effect of slapping Exxon Mobil with a $100 fine. You can wail on him all day—and he can wail on you—until the power company shuts off your electricity because you never went to work to earn the money to pay your bills. They don’t tell you that, though. Instead, you have to figure out on your own that one character’s “pray” command, a useless little quirk that I ignored all but the first time I tried it out, is the only way to kill the boss. You pray, watch a cut scene wherein all your friends offer you their power (at least Nintendo took something from Squaresoft), and then have to repeat the process eight more times. Then he just dies.

Thanks. Useful. That makes an exciting showdown with the ultimate evil. Let’s just take all the humor and quirkiness right out of the game and make players figure out that the only way to dispel the essence of evil is to kneel down and pray for a giant aborted fetus. Way to make a fun game, Nintendo!