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.

Final Fantasy XII – Costume Analysis

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Curiosity has done to my free time what it did to the cat, that sadistic, felicidal bastard. After my last round of Final Fantasy XII, playing for the first time the International edition, I began to do what billions of people worldwide do on a daily basis—fantasize about the jobs I didn’t pick, wondering if they were any better than the career paths I had forced upon my characters like a militant tiger mom. Should any of you take interest in my research, leave a comment and we can discuss the best team choices. However, playing through the game twice in close succession has made me notice a few things more closely—namely, how little other work I get done around the house when playing 200 hours worth of one game. But also that the characters in this highly literary political drama on war and the nature of power possess sensibilities straight out of a Monty Python sketch.

See, the entire game takes place in a typical fantasy world. There are castles, remote villages, people who carry swords and bows while fighting monsters. You sneak through dungeons and traverse through temples and shrines. I can only assume, as I always have, that the typical trappings of a medieval world apply: the dysentery, the dirty water, the lack of indoor plumbing that makes the city river waft like a shit-scented candle, not to mention the complete absence of video games. When the typical medical practices involve treating combat wounds with a potion, you have to expect that plague and pestilence make more frequent door-to-door visits than the post office. Personally, as much as I love the fantasy genre, I don’t know if I want to live in a world where acupuncture and reflexology are considered cutting-edge medicine.

But as a player, I just sort of take that for granted. That’s how they things are. At least until I infiltrate the Archadian Empire and see the myriad horrors the land of the enemy has in store: well-maintained cities, tall buildings, and citizens so comfortable in their own physical securities that they spend vast amounts of leisure time chasing after luxuries, or trying to gain social status by being nice to people (Which, as an American, outrages me! The only proper way to raise one’s social status is by demeaning others, either through gossip or racial demoniztion!) Archadia has fucking flying cars! Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for those in real life? (I suppose, though, this is fantasy…) Archadia has strong government funding for the sciences, and an Emperor who truly values the advice of the senate. We don’t even have that in the U.S. anymore.

I get that the idea behind fantasy is that progress is a myth, and that technology shrivels our souls like fruit at the back of the refrigerator, but Ashe, you live in the desert, and there’s a diseased esper living in your water supply. You may just want to take one for the team here and fill out the Archadian membership paperwork. It’s got great benefits.

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Yet another problem I can no longer ignore is the costuming. The characters were designed either by an artist with a vendetta against cosplayers or a fashion designer who was fired for thinking that decorative pockets were too functional. Take stripper boy here. Vaan’s design comes from Square thinking Disney’s Aladdin just wasn’t white enough, and then trying to cross him with Chip ‘n Dale…wait, no sorry…I meant Chippendale. But it’s one thing to take a whiny orphan who compulsively wipes his nose with his finger and stick him in a pose like he should be sitting on top of a Ferrari during June. It’s another thing to dress him in steel-plated greaves and Crocs, the style for the warrior who wants to inspire fear in the hearts of his enemies, but still wants to give them a good laugh. After all, combat is a pretty dismal thing. Why not lighten the mood by showing up with big rubber shoes or at least a tacky tie. However, we can’t credit him with being too concerned about his own safety, as that vest of his couldn’t protect him from sunburn, much less the fangs of a vicious monster. I can only assume that the bands of fabric constantly draped over his shoulders are naught but spare laces, should those that strap his pants and cummerbund together ever snap.

Penelo.pngMoving down the line, we have Penelo, sporting what appears to be a rubber onesie with built in panties—on the outside, in true superhero fashion. Naturally, everyone in the desert wears dark, form-fitting bodysuits because heat stroke is pretty much the only entertainment they have. Her suit is of the high-waisted variety, as it buckles around her collar bone. That might explain the fabric stretching down to her garters. As Mitch Hedberg famously said, “My belt holds my pants up, but the belt loops hold the belt up, so who’s the real hero?” However, it seems she may not need the extra support in light of the sea horses she murdered hollowed out to use as knee socks like an adolescent female Buffalo Bill.

While Vaan’s look in Revenant Wings has changed only enough that he no longer looks like a lumbering eight-year-old with inexplicably well-toned abs, Penelo has shed the body suit for something a little more easy access. Swinging to the opposite extreme from skin-tight body suit that shows more camel toe than an Arabian veterinarian pedicurist (yeah, even I think that one’s a bit of a stretch), she now has wrapped the curtain from a theatre around her legs in vague imitation of parachute pants, however leaving well enough revealed around the waist to earn her a free day from school for grievous dress code violation. Much like the bracers in her original design, her pants seem suspended upon her body with no visible means of support, leading me to the conclusion that if they haven’t been surgically attached to her skin, then every time the camera pans away she has to hike them back up like a disobedient tube top.

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Fran.pngOf all the characters in the game, Fran is likely the most ready for action, as evident by her countless straps, high heels, and corset that if fully tightened would make her look like a botched attempt at a balloon rabbit. Sadly, I think only Balthier might see the kind of action she’s dressed for. I especially love the loin cloth, draping down with all the opaqueness of a freshly Windexed camera lens. That garment is what even lingerie looks at and calls, “skank,” under their breath.

Basch.pngBasch is one of my favorites. The stoic knight, honorable even in disgrace, who speaks with poise and propriety, looks as though he literally ripped his shirt off of the drum major of a marching band. Together with his hair, which looks like he stepped out into a Minnesota winter after a long shower, Basch appears as though he ended up in Final Fantasy XII after getting lost on his way to a Billy Idol concert. While traditionally, knights would ride into tournaments wearing the favor of their courtly loves (like a girlfriend who won’t take her clothes off), this hero seems to be wearing his lady’s entire slip, belted tight around his waist lest it fall to the ground and reveal his knightly nethers. And yet, what’s more, he appears to be wearing his grandma’s favor as well, in the form of a miniature patchwork quilt tucked ever so carefully beside his heart—unless, of course, I am mistaken and he is actually a member of the Ivalice Rubik’s Cube Guild.

Ashe_Alt_RenderAs I breeze by Balthier, who doesn’t merit a picture on account of wearing very little of any note save for an unwound spool of embroidery thread wrapped around him like a shirt, I’ll slide on in to Ashe, an action no doubt made easier by the pink napkin she’s trying to pass off as hot pants. Because, honestly, could we ever take a stern, iron-willed warrior hellbent on power and revenge seriously if we couldn’t also imagine her as a demure sex-kitten ready to fulfill our every desire? Personally, while penetration is definitely on her mind, more likely you’ll wind up impaled upon her blade rather than the other way around, but I guess that’s why they call it final fantasy. Still, the princess here looks as though she assembled her clothing from scraps she salvaged from the floor of the costume shop. Case-in-point: her top appears to be little more than a bikini with a veil and tuxedo tails. Perfect for lounging on the beach with a 120-piece orchestra at your beck-and-call. But one can’t blame a girl rendered completely from computer graphics for being beautiful (despite the fact we can blame the artists for giving her legs so long it looks like she mugged a giraffe for its prosthesis). A real girl might have to worry about her weight and the problems associated with wearing a spare tire around the gut. Ashe, on the other hand, appears to be wearing a literal spare tire around her gut, presumably one she found shredded on the side of the road. That’ll keep you cool in the hot, Dalmascan desert!

And before we close, let’s give a shout out to the judges, who spend about as much time in the court room as Dr. Dre spent in medical school. One can forgive them for that, though, since who would expect anyone to find the courtroom wearing more metal over their eyes than a Jeep Grand Cherokee? I shouldn’t jest too much, though, as Judge Drace looks rather proud of his Armored Admiral Ackbar cosplay. Much more pleased with himself than Bergan, who seems rather upset that he got stuck with the bin where you store the toilet brush as a helmet. Still, he looks more pleased than Zargabaath, who might have longer spikes than Gabranth, but assured the photographer just before the shoot that, “This has never happened before.” I wouldn’t worry too much, were I in his place. His long, flaccid helmet spikes would likely ground him like a lightning rod should the weather take a turn for the worse. Perhaps the fear of storms could explain why Ghis shunned the fashion of his peers in favor of strapping a rug around his waist.

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Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

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

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

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

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

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

Golden Axe III – Sega Genesis

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

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

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My cat sleeps like this too.

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

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…well then. Giddyup.

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

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

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

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

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

MAME Roulette #3

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

Big Karnak

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

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

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

Chopper 1

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Synchronized chopping

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

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

Elevator Action

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

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

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

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

Gorf

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

Lady Bug

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

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

Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Fantasy XII – International Zodiac Job System – PS2

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Cactoid dance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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