Sneak King – XBox, XBox 360

For those of you who don’t remember, back in the early 2000s, Burger King’s marketing department discovered the line between “cleverly funny” and “call-the-cops disturbing” and decided to straddle that line like a 600-pound man balancing on a bicycle seat. They released a series of commercials in which a chibi-headed king approached people in awkward scenarios or appeared in unusual hiding places, only to pull a Burger King menu item out of his robes, after which a voice-over would tell you about said item if not just to distract you from wondering about the amount of Rohypnol the King may have just slipped an innocent bystander. Shortly after this, however, the marketing department decided to double down on this method of selling hamburgers by associating them with a masked stalker, and released the game Sneak King (ah, sneaking! I see what you did there!) for the XBox and XBox 360.

Uhh...I don't know whether I should include a trigger warning in this caption or call the police on my game. Even the commercial campaign looks at this and says, "Dude...a little too far."

Uhh…I don’t know whether I should include a trigger warning in this caption or call the police on my game. Even the commercial campaign looks at this and says, “Dude…a little too far.”

Honestly, I don’t know how to describe this one. It feels like a casual game, except it obviously plays on a console (since mobile phones in 2006 had all the processing power of a ham sandwich). I could almost compare it to a licensed game, as it aims to re-enact the commercials, but I find something almost unclean about the thought of Burger King not only charging me for their advertisements, but also labeling it “some assembly required.” At its core, Sneak King relies on stealth, a bold move considering most games include stealth elements more to give the appearance of variety than as an option they actually expect people to use, much like McDonald’s including a salad on their menu to let them shout out to gainsayers, “look! We have healthy options!” Although considering Burger King’s extensive history of game development and the game’s mechanics themselves, I can only assume they made this decision out of sheer coincidence.

In Sneak King, you take on the role of the King, ostensibly sneaking up on people to deliver food, although the NPCs have almost as much visual prowess as a one-eyed hedgehog with its head stuck in a traffic cone, so as long as you don’t barge through a busy intersection, the game pretty much boils down to how fast you can locate hungry people and get to them before they double over in pain and pass out cold, an activity I generally engage in only after eating Burger King food. This does pose a reasonable challenge, however, as these characters only blip on your radar immediately after their first hunger pangs, and afterward must be located entirely by looking for the people with thought bubbles over their heads dangling burgers just out of reach. From beginning to end, the entire process can take less than thirty seconds, so unless the King includes a shot of insulin with their meal, I doubt that any food hiding in his royal tights can save these people from slipping into a diabetic coma.

They actually can see him...they just pretend they can't. If you avoid eye contact, you don't have to talk to him.

They actually can see him…they just pretend they can’t. If you avoid eye contact, you don’t have to talk to him.

The challenge of racking up higher and higher scores provides the primary appeal of the game. Certain factors can multiply your score, such as how often people have spotted you, how close you get to the target before giving them food, and how much flourish you use to bestow the royal meat unto your subjects. However, you can increase your score fivefold by crawling into a barrel, dumpster, toilet stall, or any other hiding place before your hungry victim strolls by. This, sadly, doesn’t work very well. Despite having plenty of hiding places in each level, the NPCs all move on a programmed circuit, and most of them don’t get close enough to the hiding places for this to work. Furthermore, the ones that do either don’t get hungry at the right times, or they’ll spot the King slowly easing himself into his hidey-hole like an old man into a hot bath, a swimmer into Lake Superior in June, or a Carolinian politician into the thought of taking down the Confederate flag. Each of the four levels has twenty different missions, and those that require you deliver from hiding places usually end up with me finding one well-trafficked dumpster, then squatting in it for upwards of fifteen minutes while I wait for enough people to come by to get their hot, delicious burger and its distinctive aftertaste of rotting vegetables and soiled diapers.

Hello yon construction worker. Care you to partake in mine portable toilet burger? Sadly, it possesseth not the used-condom bouquet of my trash burgers, but you'll find the accompanying buzzing of flies a synaesthetic delight of flavor!

Hello yon construction worker. Care you to partake in mine portable toilet burger? Sadly, it possesseth not the used-condom bouquet of my trash burgers, but you’ll find the accompanying buzzing of flies a synaesthetic delight of flavor!

The King can also increase his score by presenting food with flourish, which involves hitting a button at the right time to stop a meter. Again, given Burger King’s inexperience with games, I think we can understand how they’d include an option that makes the game look fancier without actually making it more fun. Not that we have to forgive them for it. The King has three levels of flourish (which vary from stage to stage), and no matter how many times you’ve seen it before, you still have to sit through every second of his stupid white-boy dance.

I imagine the Jaws theme playing here.

I imagine the Jaws theme playing here.

Adding even more unnecessary time onto the game, each of the four stages has twenty different missions. The developers tried their best to introduce variety into these challenges, but when playing a stealth game and getting the mission, “Let five people see you,” one tends to get the impression that the designers have checked out and just want to get paid their $3.99 (with the purchase of an extra value meal…later reduced to $0.99, for understandable reasons).

Sadly, the game really kept me amused for a few hours. Mostly, however, I attribute this to the novelty of the situation. It also felt somehow unique, and I liked the initial aspect of increasing scores, while it provided a rare example of a game without competitive aspects. (When researchers study violent games to “pro-social” games, I wonder if they use Sneak King as “pro-social.”) Still, about halfway through, the difficulty spiked by about a thousand times, which comes off more as poor design and testing than an intentional challenge curve, and by then the game had gotten repetitive enough, the flaws noticeable enough, and my constant battles with the camera obnoxious enough, that while I liked playing it for a little while, I would rather finish a large fries pulled from the King’s tights out of a garbage can than Sneak King.

But the creepy first-person mode, if nothing else, merits this game a spot in my WTF category.

Star Wars: Episode II: Revenge of the Sith – PS2, XBox

episode3_043005_ps2_orgThe Duluth/Superior region has a Facebook group dedicated to letting people sell their old junk. I like to keep tabs on this, theoretically, because people occasionally post video games or even consoles. Unfortunately, the people who tend to sell these things generally have no understanding of the difference between good and bad games. If they paid $50 for it, then damn it, everyone will claw each others eyes out to get to the $49 used Madden game that they so generously offered to take a financial hit on. Oh, how will you ever feed your starving children otherwise? Word of advice, people, no one wants your shitty sports games. Not even people who buy shitty sports games. Used game stores might charge a token 50 cents for them, but honestly if you needed to assign a realistic value to them, don’t forget to include the negative sign! Also, your 25-year-old front-loading NES won’t fetch the $300 you think it will. Look these things up on eBay before demanding people stop not-buying your shit. Anyway, these people generally mix in a few licensed games based on movies or TV shows, which brings me to this week’s topic.

Despite my unfeeling metal body and legion of droids with heavy artillery, I will fight you with your weapon of choice, because having only two sith lords reduces the opportunity for lightsaber combat.

Despite my unfeeling metal body and legion of droids with heavy artillery, I will fight you with your weapon of choice, because having only two sith lords reduces the opportunity for lightsaber combat.

My regular readers will know by now that I’d rather crawl through a tunnel of razor wire towards a cliff dropping into the Dead Sea than play a licensed game. However, in the past I’ve admitted that Star Wars games fall into the golden territory of, and I quote myself here, “Meh. Not so bad.” And with that philosophy and a masochistic spirit worthy of homosexuals, women, and racial minorities who vote republican, I picked up Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at Savers, expecting a mediocre gameplay at best–and the game wowed me…with how much it still managed to disappoint me with bland, uninspired and glitchy gameplay, and some identity confusion as to whether or not it wanted to fulfill its duty to its father and join the run-and-gun action genre, or whether or not it wanted to hang out with its rebel friends in more of a fighting game format.

I’ve definitely played worse, though. In fact, two minutes into the game, it almost felt just like watching the movie…mostly because they had actually inserted footage from the film as a cut scene, albeit with noticeably lower quality. And since anyone with a laptop less than ten years old can easily rip DVD footage and convert it to a format the PS2 can read, I can only assume the developer–some obscure company called “LucasArts”–had trouble getting their hands on a high quality copy of the game, perhaps developing the game as a bootleg edition. Either that or something went horribly wrong in the middle of George Lucas’ attempt to digitally replace all the lightsabers with walkie talkies, resulting in an explosion that gave him abnormal powers and turned him into a galactic super villain. Also, except for a brief quip in the middle of the final battle, they cut out any mention of Natalie Portman. Assholes. I swear, if you turned her into a walkie talkie, you’ll rue the day you ever….

Tell me 'friend,' when did Anakin the wise abandon reason for madness?

Tell me ‘friend,’ when did Anakin the wise abandon reason for madness?

…sorry. I don’t usually develop crushes on celebrities, but as a nerd, I hold Star Wars near and dear to my heart, and Carrie Fisher predates my time by just a little too much.  Anyway, much like I do with soft porn, the game skips over absolutely everything part of the plot without any action. It begins with the assault on General Grievous’ fleet, the duel with Count Dooku, and the Chancellor’s rescue, and then except for a short mission with Obi-Wan, I immediately found myself battling Mace Windu and bowing before the Emperor. But even though the plot seems to have taken a lightsaber to the head, even the Super Star Wars series took gratuitous license to shove violence and action into every orifice not already occupied by a lightsaber battle, light-speed space chase, or baby Ewok.

...damn it, Ben. I swear to god, if you say that one more time, I will telepathically call Jar Jar and tell him how much you miss him.

…damn it, Ben. I swear to god, if you say that one more time, I will telepathically call Jar Jar and tell him how much you miss him.

As a nameless run-and-gun, it provides a few hours of mild amusement. However, it doesn’t take long before the signs of a quick cash grab start popping up like a whack-a-womprat game. Characters glitch out occasionally, performing cirque du soleil Jedi contortions, enemies tend to get stuck off screen where you can’t kill them, and occasionally cut scenes will just forget to play, forcing you to restart the game to make any progress. Furthermore, for all their supposed strength with the Force, Anakin and Obi-Wan show as much intuition as a gay vegan publicly coming out of the closet at an NRA convention. The game’s targeting system seems to deliberately point me either at the farthest enemy from me or the one holding cattle prod while a nearby spaceship wants to make me a million pieces with the Force. I may have found it in my heart to forgive all this, but the developers also felt the urge to subject me to battle quips that might have worked better as a mild laxative, but even at the end of the game Obi-Wan feels so smugly witty about turning murdered droids into “another one for the scrap pile” that I miss the 3rd-grade joke book humor of James Bond.

8413187107675176The films tried to capitalize on Boba Fett’s cult following by literally cloning him a few hundred thousand times and setting up the elaborate back story of the clones as the Republic’s army, so in the context of the story it makes sense that they’d fight side-by-side with the Jedi. However, you can’t give me a lifetime full of Star Wars games that declare open season on anything wearing a white mask and then expect me not to spend half of every battle trying to slice off their heads. Sorry, but if they look like stormtroopers, my Jedi intuition will assess them as a threat, and meanwhile the inept droid will sneak up behind me and sodomize me with my lightsaber.

While switching play between Anakin and Obi-Wan may have sounded cool on paper, the developers seemed to overlook the fact that the two characters had a pretty epic throw down at the end of the film, as in, Obi-Wan threw down Anakin’s legs into a fiery pit of molten metal. To rectify this, players have the option of playing through the final duel with either character. By playing as Obi-Wan, you can unlock the regular ending of the film. Otherwise, you can play as Anakin and watch a scenario pulled off the dregs of the worst fan fiction the internet has to offer, while simultaneously unlocking a bonus mission from Episode IV that would make no sense considering the new ending.  Either way, you get an extended duel demonstrating that while lightsaber parries make awesome noises and flashes in the movies, they just drag out the games, dealing no damage to anything except your free time before bed.

007 Everything or Nothing – PS2, Game Cube, XBox

Jaws had some awkward first dates, much like I, myself, did.

Jaws had some awkward first dates, much like I, myself, did.

99? You don't look a day over 86!

99? You don’t look a day over 86!

While growing up, I never really cared much for super heroes. Something about the black-and-white morality of Superman made me think hero worship would send me down the path of joining the boy scouts or becoming an altar boy, and I had this policy of actively avoiding people who wanted to molest me. So barring a slight interest in Batman (fueled by more than a passing interest in my own mental stability), I had to look elsewhere for impressive super-humans. As much as I’d like to say my interest in spies came from picking up Goldeneye 007 for the N64, but honestly, ever since 4th grade I’ve held Get Smart as the pinnacle of television programming. To this day, 99% of the women I’ve fallen for have held more than a passing resemblance to Barbara Feldon. But since this blog focuses on video games….Goldeneye 007, N64, yada yada, cute story about my past, segue into James Bond games.

I love James Bond, from his Batman-like gadgets to his Laffy-Taffy-style wit, his flashy theme songs and cadre of beautiful women. I even bought the July 1973 issue of Playboy on eBay, hoping to see a different side of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Bond Girl (Come on, Barbara, you still have time to make an appearance!) So the fact that they only make new movies once every two or three (sometimes up to six) years, really gets under my skin. Damn it! I need regular doses of Cold War inspired action thrillers! Fortunately, I managed to find a copy of Nightfire….somewhere; I forget where…and I realized that original electronic Bond stories didn’t all have to end up as disappointing as Agent Under Fire. So let me tell you about Everything or Nothing instead.

Curse you, Spider-man!

Curse you, Spider-man!

Everything or Nothing marks Pierce Brosnan’s final and from what I can tell only video game appearance as James Bond. The story follows our super-spy tracking down a load of nano-macguffins from the Green Goblin. If Willem Defoe–whose name literally means “of the enemy”–didn’t particularly look like his entire raison d’etre amounted to playing a Bond villain, they named his character after Satan and gave him a chip on his shoulder because Bond killed Christopher Walken–the only human on earth voted “Most Likely to Play a Bond Villain” by his high school graduating class”–in A View to a Kill. Some girls show up. Bond travels the world. Richard Kiel reprises his role as Jaws, lending his voice to the infamously mute character. Things explode. Bond makes puns that would make Gallagher turn in his grave.

This mission employs Bond's talent for plummeting.

This mission employs Bond’s talent for plummeting.

The back of the box tries to sell the game on the merits of having “an unprecedented variety of missions,” which raises some interesting questions. For one, what precedents on mission variety have we already established? Will Everything or Nothing contain action shooter levels, a quick round of Tetris in Moscow, three levels of Bubble Bobble, followed by ten minutes of Goat Simulator? Unfortunately for those of us who always felt James Bond needed a goat sidekick, the purported variety means that in addition to the regular third-person shooter levels, you get to play levels where you drive along a road, drive around a map, drive around a track, drive a tank around a map, and drive along a road in your choice of vehicles.  Of course, since I had just finished playing–sorry, attempting to play–Grand Theft Auto III, I couldn’t help but notice some strong similarities, especially on one map where the game literally asked me to steal a car and use it to break into a factory. Naturally, the GTA driving controls in place, this mission–along with several timed segments–turned into a game of Ted Kennedy bumper cars, with Bond’s Aston Martin flopping around the road as though someone had entered a live tuna in the Indy 500.

Take that, old bean! Yes, very good. Indeed.

Take that, old bean! Yes, very good. Indeed.

The character combat…works? I guess. I did rather appreciate the full body view of the character, rather than floating through the game as a disembodied gun with severely impaired peripheral vision. The camera controls work with all the finesse and grace of Ted Kennedy’s Bumper Cars, and I didn’t find any option for auto tracking or even a Z-targeting method like in Zelda. Since no one seems to have told the aiming feature they scrapped the first-person perspective, it will only lock on to enemies if Bond faces the same direction of the camera and the enemy falls within a zone of sight that doesn’t include his immediate peripheral vision; after all, nothing says “international super spy” like unloading six rounds into a house plant because it looks more threatening than the man holding a glass bottle, eying up your head like a recycling bin. Granted, taking control of Bond gives players the chance to immerse themselves in the world of espionage, but can’t we give the character just a little credit for intuition? I mean, Bond may excel at hand-to-hand combat, but when someone shoves the barrel of an AK-47 in your face, you just might have a few more effective tricks up your sleeve than pistol whipping him with your very much loaded shotgun.

How many games did it take you to figure out how to not stand out in the open, trying to stop bullets with your lungs?

How many games did it take you to figure out how to not stand out in the open, trying to stop bullets with your lungs?

Rather than a traditional menu, Everything or Nothing gives you “Bond Senses,” which I guess attempts to make up for the otherwise oblivious senses he displays in combat. By pressing left on the d-pad (Gamecube version), time will slow down, you can cycle through your weapons, and anything in the environment you can interact with will radiate small red rings that you can target to tell you exactly how to interact with them. I found this a refreshing alternative to the standard flipping-through-google-for-a-walkthrough method, and rarely got stuck. I say rarely because I did spend the better part of a half an hour running through an abandoned hotel looking for a fuse box, only to find out later that I had to target a non-accessible area of the map to find it. Also notice I said “slow time down” rather than “stop time.” Note: bullets travel fast. Best to stay on your guard even in Bond Sense Mode if you don’t have a pressing need to aerate your spleen. I found that one out the hard way.

EA retained the idea of Bond moves from previous games. Any time you do something especially clever, witty, or otherwise on the lines of what James Bond would have done himself, the game awards you bonus points. These can include useful tricks like jumping a fence on your motorcycle, or shooting a ceiling connection to drop a catwalk onto a group of enemies. However, I think EA may have run out of creative mojo (crikey!) to think up new Bond moves, as occasionally they awarded me points for things like “hitting the badguy with your rocket launcher” or “touch the girl.” And while, yes, this might fall under the umbrella of “in-character,” it generally doesn’t take super intelligence to go massage the girl when she asks you to.

Look....I, uh, hope I wasn't out of line with the crack about the big ape.

Look….I, uh, hope I wasn’t out of line with the crack about the big ape.

Generally, I liked the game. The lame accent Willem Defoe adopted made me think he didn’t exactly put his heart into this performance, and while I thought the game challenged me just enough to keep me interested without chucking my controller across the room, the final stage spiked horribly, so that I probably spent a good 10% of my total play time dying over and over again until giving up and dropping the game to easy mode–at which point it still took me three attempts. Everything or Nothing feels a little light in the story department, and even the girls only seem to make appearance out of perfunctory need to follow a formula, but as a game it held together without seeming like the usual movie-licensed cash grab that these games often degrade into. Plus, the game also features Judi Dench and John Cleese (or as I call him, Funny Q), and who doesn’t love to take mission suggestions from Monty Python?

Grand Theft Auto III – PS2, XBox, PC

GTA3boxcoverBack in my undergraduate days, I worked at a Sam Goody. Never heard of it? Well, that just goes to show that charging $5 more per CD than anyone else selling music doesn’t constitute a particularly solid business strategy. But in trying to make up for dropping sales in overpriced music, they tried selling video games. Shortly after remodeling the store, adding the demo consoles, and gussying up the place all nice and pretty, I began to notice trending video games, two of which pop into mind as phenomenally stronger than anything else I sold to unsuspecting customers. One of these, Madden games, tricked people into buying the same shitty game year after year, only to disregard it as soon as the next installment came out. But even more popular than games doomed to life as a second-rate coaster, Grand Theft Auto III simply would not stay on our shelves.

Of course I took note. “Why does everyone want this game?” I asked. “Should I play it to find out?” Well, I didn’t. But I did hear about it. Open-world. Free-ranging. And prostitutes. Lots of prostitutes. Also, controversy. Controversy always makes for a good game, right? Well, I’d like to pose a question to any readers who may have played the game in the early 2000s–did you actually like Grand Theft Auto? Can you still pop in the disk and relive the good times? Or, like Goldeneye, do you look at it and puzzle over what the hell you ever saw in it?

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Naturally, in a game revolving around car theft, you can never find one when you need it. I spent about 25% of my time running after cars like a dog.

Reading reviews, wikipedia articles, and the like make GTA III sound like the messiah of sandbox games. Freedom! Non-linear gameplay! Wide-open world! You can do anything you want! To a certain extent, I see how they can make those claims. GTA III gives the player complete freedom to steal any car and drive around any street and hit anyone you want! Some examples of the variety of things you can do here include: Steal a taxi and get paid to drive people to their destinations, steal an ambulance and get paid to drive people to the hospital, steal a police car and get paid to drive around looking for criminals, or steal a fire truck and get paid to drive around looking for fires. I don’t want to describe this game as stupid, but what it lacks in imagination, variety, and any enjoyment whatsoever, it more than makes up for in tedium, repetition, and boredom.

I know this looks bad...but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I know this looks bad…but this still turned out better than a lot of dates I went on in high school.

I went in expecting a crime spree game. Something like Scarface pointing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the Godfather while Mr. Pink runs off with the diamonds, some L.A. Confidential, Pulp Fiction type stuff. Instead I get Cars, without the cute CGI or Pixar wit. GTA III basically reinvents the driving/racing genre. Imagine Mario Kart, if every so often Mario pulled Toad out of his car and stomped on his face. The game also uses the exact same driving physics and controls as every driving game ever. The challenge in driving under this system lies somewhere between “playing a 3D platformer while blindfolded” and “trying to steer a hockey puck with a leaf blower during a hurricane.” Despite the amount of time the game puts you in the driver’s seat, it does occasionally let you get out of the car and engage in a rudimentary form of good, old-fashioned gang violence, but the awkward interface makes aiming feel like target shooting during a grand mal seizure. Despite the contract you took out to assassinate…apparently a ramen vendor…the game’s target selection program generally assumes that the innocent bystanders pose a greater threat than the thugs charging at you with automatic rifles.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Cars, in this game, like this one, only slightly improve on the quality of car I can afford to drive in real life.

Odd as this may sound, GTA III feels less like a video game and more like a board game. I didn’t see much of a story line going on, other than the main character robbing a bank, his girlfriend shooting him, and then his friends busting him out of prison. From there, you look for work, and you visit certain bosses over and over, taking missions in a pre-determined, very non-non-linear fashion, until that boss has no work for you anymore. You can lose these missions in a number of ways, such as running out of time, getting shot, your car exploding, or getting caught by the police. These don’t really pose a threat so much as a minor inconvenience. Getting killed just makes you start over at the hospital, and despite your recent jailbreak, the police seem to have more of a catch-and-release program going on, and a string of murder, reckless driving and grand theft auto merit no more punishment than having to go slightly out of your way while running errands.

Yep...get used to this.

Yep…get used to this.

Also, veteran players may have noticed odd claims by now, so in full disclosure, I didn’t actually beat this game. In fact, I didn’t get very far in it at all, for a combination of two very good reasons. First of all, I didn’t find myself enjoying the game very much. Driving sims just don’t do it for me. I can barely stomach the thought of real driving. But I’ve finished boring games before. However, ramping up the difficulty to “harder than Charlie Sheen on a Viagra overdose” may not have endeared me to completion. After three days and roughly ten hours of gameplay, I had completed maybe seven or eight missions total. Maybe I just needed more practice, or more experience with driving games. Or maybe the damn game shouldn’t make you repeat absolutely everything every time something bad happens. Oh no! Ran out of time! Looks like I have to visit the boss again, watch the cut scene, go steal a car, look for the gun store, find a gun, look for the ramen stand, aim for the bad guys, shoot a few pedestrians by mistake, then get shot to death while the ramen noodle man hops in his car for a car chase that won’t happen. The sheer amount of time required for each individual mission, combined with the fact that I didn’t really enjoy the missions to begin with and the rage-inducing effect of the game’s shitty soundtrack of radio stations, indicated certain health benefits in walking away from this one.

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention...

And not even the good kind of wasted. Although both often require medical attention…

Grand Theft Auto III which wins my coveted “Sarah Palin Award for Intelligence in Game Design,” cost me $2.99 at Savers. I think I paid too much. However, I also picked up a $2.99 copy of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. So…I at least have to make a perfunctory attempt at that one in order to clear off my shelf full of games I bought and haven’t yet played. Joy.

Mega Man 3 – NES / PS2, XBox and Game Cube (as Mega Man Anniversary Collection)

The series employs many rooms shaped like this because you damn well better start from the far left side of the screen!

The series employs many rooms shaped like this because you damn well better start from the far left side of the screen!

So I’ve gone roughly twenty months on this project, but I’ve only written about one of my favorite franchises–Mega Man–once. But do you honestly need any more than that? Capcom released six main titles, each with a Game Boy spin-off, then moved on to the Mega Man X series, changing at most a handful of tools and the line-up of characters. If any series epitomized the “If it ain’t broke” philosophy more than any other…well, Madden, FIFA and all those sports games pretty much nailed it. But Capcom did it first. And as an added bonus, Mega Man has the advantage over Madden in that you can’t easily turn the game off and go fight a legion of evil robots, taking their weapons as trophies like an Assimovian serial killer. But as the first rule of robotics doesn’t preclude the murder of other robots, our favorite blue Dexterbot has free reign–even permission and justification–to slaughter all the bad people-bots in order to save humanity. And he does, but much like his human counterpart, Mega Man faces the challenge of killing over and over again without going stale. To that end, we get Dr. Albert Wily, mad scientist extraordinaire, modeled after Albert Einstein and inspiration for Albert Wesker. As a human, Mega Man can’t harm him, which gives him license to keep throwing robotic Batman-villain rejects our way until contentment dawns on our 8-bit faces or Capcom gets bored and suddenly stops producing the games in favor of Resident Evil.

Yep. You totally beat the final boss by dropping snakes into the cockpit with Dr. Wily.

Yep. You totally beat the final boss by dropping snakes into the cockpit with Dr. Wily.

The story behind Mega Man 3 tries to preemptively answer the question of why Dr. Light keeps pumping out deadly robots if Dr. Wily will only steal them and reprogram them for evil. Well, fortunately Dr. Wily has “found his sanity,” to quote the instruction book, and has teamed up with Dr. Light to work for world peace the only way they know how: by constructing the largest, deadliest, most powerful robot the world has ever seen. That’ll keep everyone safe. However, a new batch of robots has appeared on mining worlds, holding the 8 macguffins required to get the new peace keeper up and running.  Light believes some anonymous “lunatic guy” has ordered these robots to steal the energy crystals required to activate the peace keeping robot, Gamma. Jeez, Dr. Wily, didn’t you just find your sanity? Maybe you could lend to this situation your expert advice which we obviously know contains no trace of mental instability whatsoever.

As if the kooky concept of themed villains didn't scream "Batman" enough, Dr. Wily built a giant penguin.

As if the kooky concept of themed villains didn’t scream “Batman” enough, Dr. Wily built a giant penguin.

Fans have long considered Mega Man 2 the pinnacle of the series, and I really have to agree. The game introduced a number of features that fans had never seen before, but apparently would never reach the same quality again. Except Mega Man 3 improved upon everything. How does that work? Good question! Let’s start with the original Mega Man. For those of you who haven’t had the luxury of living in Asia, I should explain that Rock-Scissors-Paper games constitute an iron clad and legally binding contract between anyone under the age of 20. Drawing on this, the first Mega Man introduced this principle in the form of a guy who chucks scissors at you from his forehead, who goes down pretty easily if you’ve already beaten the guy who gives you the power to hurl rocks back at him. But since “Paper Man” sounded lame even on his own medium of attack, and a three-level game didn’t quite justify the $50 price tag, they had to beef it up a bit. So you might imagine Capcom designed themes for their robots, carefully crafted around well-balanced and clever real-world principles…just kidding! They went for the cliched trifecta of video game alchemy; lighting, fire and ice.

So in Mega Man 2, they went all-out with the alchemy, what with water dousing fire, fire burning wood (actually the combination of Earth and Water, but hey, who actually follows alchemy these days?), wood…I don’t know…filtering air? And then the other four robots. Except that metal guy looks like he’d do a number on wood man. And bubble lead somehow damages the time-stopping robot. So that game turned out a mess in the rock-scissors-paper department. Mega Man 3 tried to restore the feeling of one weakness per enemy. Except to keep it interesting, they made two separate circuits of weaknesses, ensuring you’d have to fight at least two bosses with just your mega buster.

Capcom won an award for the design of Snake Man's stage. Then blew it by making the boss look like a green sperm with legs.

Capcom won an award for the design of Snake Man’s stage. Then blew it by making the boss look like a green sperm with legs.

Furthermore, this game marks Capcom’s foray away from the usual fire- and ice-themed levels. Instead, we get the dark, starry world of Gemini Man or the ninja-bot, Shadow Man.  One might question why anyone built robots around these ideas. The original six robot masters all had some constructive purpose to society. I can even think of some useful, productive ways to employ Mega Man 2 robot masters. But Gemini and Shadow Man don’t seem very helpful, and then…well…Top Man. Yes, this game introduces the Slippy Toad of Dr. Wily’s minions, Top Man. Who spins. And throws tops. After defeating him, you get the top spin, a weapon so difficult to use that I often deal more damage to myself than the enemy I hope to target. Seriously…I hate this guy so much I just want to punch him in the face! Wait, what? You defeat him by punching him in the face? Excellent! Who do I get that weapon from? …Hard Man? Did anyone at Capcom think these names through all the way? Seeing as how he appears in the same game as Snake Man, I’d say someone on the development team had just a little too much inspiration from bad porn.

Doc Robot gets wood. Really, did no one think this through?

Doc Robot gets wood. Really, did no one think this through?

The game also rectifies the too-awesome-to-use trope among games where you collect items. None of the weapons has a limited number of uses–you can always replenish them by camping out in front of a giant penguin or something. However, these weapons usually take too much effort, and simply blasting through levels with your arm cannon provides the quickest and easiest way to the end. In Mega Man 3, rather than going straight to Dr. Wily’s castle after fighting the robot masters, an enemy called Doc Robot appears. With as much bearing on the plot as Arwen in the Lord of the Rings films, Doc Robot merely gives you a chance to use your weapons more. He inhabits four previously conquered stages, although he alters them drastically. Facing you twice in each stage, he adopts the attack patterns of all the Mega Man 2 bosses. Because Mega Man hasn’t, apparently, proved that he can mop the floor with all of them. Meh.

Proto Man: Dick to friend and foe alike.

Proto Man: Dick to friend and foe alike.

Having a little more relevance to the story, Mega Man also faces off against the supposedly mysterious Proto Man. Of course, if you’ve ever heard the term “Proto” before, the figuring out his identity has all the challenge of pouring a glass of water. He appears in several stages, usually to fight a few rounds with Mega Man. Ostensibly, he does this as a test, but while certain things–such as practicing for the SAT–might help you out just before going in for the real thing, you may not want a practice bout against Mohammad Ali ten minutes before the fight. Unless, of course, you can move faster without all that cumbersome blood. And really, doesn’t having perfect vision only dull your other senses? Proto Man couldn’t come off as more of a dick if he had actually sided with Dr. Wily.

Man's best friend when lava pours into bottomless pits.

Man’s best friend when lava pours into bottomless pits.

Also noteworthy, Mega Man 3 introduces a new series staple, Rush. Taking the place of the items from the previous game, Dr. Light built Mega Man a dog that can morph into vehicles to increase your mobility. Rush makes a good companion; he does whatever you ask him to, never gets in the way, and he doesn’t poop so you never have to worry about where you step. Each of his three functions–two of which you obtain after beating certain bosses and the other you have from the get-go–increases your mobility, allowing you to spring to new heights, soar over dangerous ground, or swim through that one patch of water in Gemini Man’s level. So maybe the implementation could have used some more thought, but did I mention he doesn’t poop? That puts him ahead of a real dog in my book.

Otherwise, if you’ve played any game in the series, you should know what to expect. Run, jump. Enemy robots. Pew pew pew. Pretty standard stuff.

Onimusha Warlords / Genma Onimusha – PS2, Xbox, PC

Onimusha_-_Warlords_CoverartWhen I lived in Korea, I earned black belts in Haedong Kumdo (Korean Kendo) and Hapkido (Korean Aikido). They issued me licenses for each one; when someone makes some crack about registering their hands as deadly weapons, know that I actually did. The Kumdo license entitled me to legally buy a battle-ready katana, which ended up costing me half a month’s pay. I don’t mean to brag. In fact, rid yourself of the American notions of paranoia that the rebellion will begin any day now, the south will rise again, or that bad guys with guns exist in every store and restaurant, just waiting for a good guy with a gun to mow them down; Koreans practice martial arts mostly just to keep in good health. As such, any mugger who crossed paths with me in a dark alley would probably meet with the law-enforcement recommended protocol of me granting him easy and painless access to my debit card, naturally giving me the last laugh when he tries to find any money in the account. The Haedong Kumdo skill, unfortunately, has even less practical value in real life, as roving bands of samurai no longer wander the streets of Duluth, and have even refrained from menacing Korea for a good seventy or eighty years. Even so, the art claims to adapt the one-on-one sword fighting method for use on a battlefield full of guys with swords. It amounts to forms, really. Dancing with a sword. And honestly, I enjoyed it. Even more than polka. But it has limited uses, even on a field full of samurai. In fact, I can only think of one hoard of enemy it might fight effectively: zombies.

The kumdo license lists my birthday as September 9, 198. They obviously misprinted it. It should read "September 8."

The kumdo license lists my birthday as September 9, 198. They obviously misprinted it. It should read “September 8.”

Fortunately, the idea of fighting monsters with a samurai sword doesn’t merely belong to Max Brooks and other brilliant authors; in 2001, Keiji Inafune of Mega Man fame released Onimusha Warlords for the PS2 (Genma Onimusha for the Xbox), which took the Resident Evil engine, set the story in feudal Japan, and replaced the zombies with the Genma tribe of demons. Although a horror game at heart, the concern over conserving ammo tends lose its emotional impact when armed with a sword, so the game strays from the survival horror design into more of an action genre. Which, I guess, makes it exactly like Resident Evil.  The game surrounds itself with real-life historical characters, much in the same way as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It has a profound respect for history in the same way that God of War has a respect for mythology and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has for classic literature, going even so far as to explain the fates of the surviving characters at the end of the game–Animal House style. The story follows the ronin samurai, Akechi Samanosuke, a character based on his supposed in-game uncle, Akechi Mitsuhide, who led a rebellion against the famous Shogun, Oda Nobunaga, a historical point rendered unnecessary when the game lodges an arrow in Nobunaga’s neck within three minutes. The need for rebellion neatly eliminated, Samanosuke turns his attention to his childhood friend, Saito Yuki-hime, and her concerns about the Genma demons stuffing her into a bento box with a dash of wasabi. Samanosuke arrives at the Saito castle to find Yuki missing and most of the Saito clan either dead or desperately trying to avoid becoming soylent sushi. The Oni clan whisks him away long enough to grant him a magical gauntlet that will inhale demon souls like a hoover, and let him inject them into his weapons to power them up.

Samanosuke's patrons, the Oni, pictured with legendary monkey king, Son Wukong.

Samanosuke’s patrons, the Oni, pictured with legendary monkey king, Son Wukong.

From there, anyone who has played one of the early Resident Evil games can pretty much predict what happens. Samanosuke fights his way through a haunted house…er, castle…filled with hungry monsters, convoluted locking mechanisms that would only piss off any normal person who lived there, and random encounters with a small cast of characters wandering aimlessly around with no regard for the onslaught of things that want them dead. Onimusha de-emphasizes puzzle solving, which I appreciate even though I can’t think of anything more horrifying than slowing down the pacing of a good story in order to solve a riddle about which order to push a series of buttons. Like Resident Evil, play occasionally shifts to Kaede, Samanosuke’s kunoichi assistant who, again like Resident Evil, has less strength and health, but moves faster. Since she can’t seal souls, Kaede doesn’t have a lot of motivation for hanging around to stab things, so the player has to change tactics to more of a gauntlet run. Except she still has a knife and a belt full of kunai, so her sections of the game didn’t annoy me the way that playing as Ashley Graham did.

I bet you say that a lot while wearing that suit.

I bet you say that a lot while wearing that suit.

The game paces itself very well. Better than most modern games. While many games, RPGs especially, like to throw a challenge at you ten or twenty times to make sure you didn’t succeed those previous nineteen times on a fluke, Onimusha throws a challenge at you, then gives you something new to fight when you finish. Cut scenes and other story elements happen close enough together that you don’t need a libretto just to remind yourself why Samanosuke would rather let pig monsters bludgeon him to death rather than high-tailing it to Okinawa where he could kick back and enjoy the sunny, monster-free weather with a nice bowl of sake in one hand and a nice kunoichi or two in the other. In fact, even with side-questing and leveling up, I can finish the game in about three and a half hours. Because of its length, I can finish with the desire to actually play through it a second time to take advantage of all the unlockable items, and unlike Leon Kennedy and his tommy gun rampaging through Spain with infinite bullets and not enough monsters to put them into, I don’t get bored before the novelty of invincibility wears off. Plus…well…two words: panda costume. Who wouldn’t want to fight demons while wearing something both cute and vaguely unsettling?

Not quite what Tom Stoppard had in mind.

Not quite what Tom Stoppard had in mind.

Onimusha really shines in the cultural department. I come from America, the culture that gave us Charlie Chan movies. If you don’t recognize the name, he came from a series of mystery novels and movies about a Chinese-born detective in Hawaii. When adapting the novels for film, they tried a few different actors, and the American viewing public watched the movies and said, “Yeah…we think the white guy made a more convincing Charlie Chan.” With racism like that, I understand why anything Japan wants to market in the U.S. has racially-neutral characters, that could belong to either Asian or Caucasian heritage, depending on how hard you squint and what you really want to see. Onimusha, however, delivers a cast entirely of unapologetically Japanese characters in a marvelously Japanese setting using traditional Japanese folklore. Er…mostly traditional. For some reason, all the demons bear names out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, often referred to as “The greatest story ever written.” Hamlet represents the peak of Western literary culture. I’ll let you come up with your own interpretation for that. I, for one, appreciate the distinct cultural flavor of the game (much like visiting Kyoto tourist destinations…but with monsters). For added difficulty, set the game to Japanese audio with English subtitles. The voices sound a lot cooler, and the trick treasure box puzzles have a new twist when you don’t get Arabic numerals.

I hear the Castlevania production team let Onimusha use their set at night (but they had to share with Spanish Castlevania)

I hear the Castlevania production team let Onimusha use their set at night (but they had to share with Spanish Castlevania)

Once more like Resident Evil, the game gives you a report card at the end, one final smack in the face for anyone who thought they did well. Depending on your grade and how many useless rocks you found, the game will either reward you with unlockable goodies and a bonus mini-game (obviously designed with enough difficulty and repetition so as to wean you off of Onimusha and on to your next game), or it will send you to bed with no dinner and take away all video game privileges until your grade improves. Later games don’t quite live up to the quality of the first, which probably explains why the series effectively came to an end in 2006, but I give this first installment an A…even if it thinks I deserve a B.

Oh yeah. Magic. You can use magic. I guess I didn't find anything funny to say about that in the main entry.

Oh yeah. Magic. You can use magic. I guess I didn’t find anything funny to say about that in the main entry.

Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly – PS2, XBox


I have to confess that this week’s entry has put me in a situation not unlike walking in on a room full of beautiful, lonely lesbians; I may have just discovered the best thing in existence, but I can’t praise it because of a single catch in the logic that renders it of absolutely no use to me. To give you an idea of how confused this game makes me, that previous sentence took approximately fifteen minutes to write.  Have you ever played a game so brilliantly designed that you wanted to erect a statue of it and place it at the top of the highest mountain so that everyone could see your rather weird graven image, but one thing about it just kept driving you insane until you decided you’d rather construct an effigy of the game and hang it, set it on fire, then pee on the ashes? Well, if not, I recommend Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly.

Fatal Frame 2 tells the story of twin girls Mio and Mayu, who after a shaky-cam montage that the player can only pray to the game to explain, find themselves in an abandoned traditional village after nightfall. After a bit of exploration, the girls start hearing noises and seeing glimpses of movement here and there.  Doors begin to unlock by themselves, and items appear in rooms when Mio and Mayu leave to search other rooms. Soon, they come across a camera with a note explaining, in terms only slightly more scientific than the average paranormal investigator uses to describe their own equipment, that it has the power to exorcise ghosts. And then Mayu displays the most astounding lack of survival skills in the history of horror, running off into the village full of angry spirits without her sister, who now holds the only means of defense against the supernatural menace.

Most people believe they don't look good in pictures. Some people truly don't.

Most people believe they don’t look good in pictures. Some people truly don’t.

Fatal Frame 2 combines all the best aspects of successful survival horror games.  Like Resident Evil, the noises Mio makes as she traipses through the environment sometimes sound enough like ghost noises to keep you panicking.  Like Silent Hill, it creates an atmosphere of total isolation, garnished with introspection and the slight hint of a dark past.  The horror builds off of Japanese culture, especially the significance of twins and the mythology of butterflies, which many Western players will find unfamiliar enough to spook them (but relax; if you’ve seen “The Ring,” the game offers one scene of a ghost girl climbing out of a well). Furthermore, they took away the standard issue gun and replaced it with a camera, making the player feel completely helpless in the face of adversity–it even requires letting ghosts get close and attack in order to do any meaningful damage to them. Imagine a donut made out of birthday cake, filled with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, frosted with Oreo cream and topped with M&Ms; this game feels like that. (I’ve recently cut back on sweets…can you tell?)

Now picture this without the edges of the screen, the girl following you, most of the girl leading, the house, the road, the trees and...well, see that lightly glowing spot at the center? I didn't see much more than that.

Now picture this without the edges of the screen, the girl following you, most of the girl leading, the house, the road, the trees and…well, see that lightly glowing spot at the center? I didn’t see much more than that.

However, Fatal Frame’s Fatal Flaw might just negate all of that.  Have you ever played a survival horror game that asked you at the beginning to “adjust the brightness until you can just barely see the gray line”? Well, this game doesn’t do that. It just assumes you like it dark. In fact, not only do you not want to see the gray line, but you don’t really care to see the text asking you the question, either.  What? You can’t see Mio? Well, you shouldn’t look at her anyway, given her young age. If you need to know what your environment looks like, you have a map. Use it! (I honestly spent less time following my GPS through downtown Minneapolis than I did checking the map screen for Fatal Frame).

If you manage to find a bright enough TV screen, you get to see an excellent rendering of a run-down, abandoned town.

If you manage to find a bright enough TV screen, you get to see an excellent rendering of a run-down, abandoned town.

While I understand what Tecmo intended by making the game darker than a chain smoker’s lung, and while I have to begrudgingly admit that certain scenes would not come across as terrifying in a lighter environment, I often needed to check the map to see what direction Mio faced, and due to the adoption of Resident Evil’s shifting camera angles, even that didn’t guarantee that I knew how to get her to move forward instead of back, slightly to the left, or directly into the nearby wall. Horror relies on senses, and the deprivation of one heightens the unknown, forcing you to interpret information more heavily with your other senses.  Good horror can overload those senses. However, video games lack texture.  You can drop a character into a pitch black room, but the player doesn’t entirely come along for the ride. A vibrating controller simply doesn’t substitute for placing your hand on something warm and gooey that you can’t see. One might as well climb into a sensory deprivation chamber and then have a friend dump a bucket of spiders on the outside. Yeah, it might scare you if you think about it hard enough, but you have a good layer of insulation protecting you.

It turns out that other people have had this problem as well, but no one could offer an infallible solution. Despite the game having the option to increase brightness, you can only increase it enough by finding a TV that naturally has a more vivid contrast. For the record, none of mine could do it. They both interpret an increase of brightness as watering down the picture with more white pixels. All in all, not very helpful.

See! This girl creeps me out more than any of the ghosts in the game

See! This girl creeps me out more than any of the ghosts in the game

I wish I could get past that because I did enjoy the game (at least what I could see of it). I can only describe the initial ghost encounters as “pants dampeningly scary,” and by the time the shock wears off, it feels as if some sort of character growth happened…somewhere. (I don’t know. They don’t really talk much.) Despite occasionally pairing up with Mayu, it doesn’t turn into a babysitting mission. Still, they managed to make her creepy enough that I started to feel safer without her around. True to the genre, the player learns Mio’s story as Mio in turn learns the story of the village. Also true to the genre, she does this by picking up scattered notebooks, letters, and other writings left around the village because apocalyptic horrors always result from a breakdown in private filing systems. If you ever notice disembodied pages from diaries lying around town, get out while you can; those places collect monsters like Gamestop collects used Madden games.

Because black and white scares people, reminding themof the dark days before Kodachrome and Technicolor

Because black and white scares people, reminding themof the dark days before Kodachrome and Technicolor

Unfortunately, not only did the lack of  vision and direction ruin the experience, but a plot full of dangling details never fully explained make the ending not quite satisfying (I played the PS2 version, but I heard they added endings for the XBox and Wii). Plus, while having doors unlock on their own adds to the creepy factor, it doesn’t give you that solid line on where to go next, like Resident Evil does when it hands you a specifically marked key.  And while the four houses in the village don’t really qualify it as sprawling, I’ve never enjoyed the “just walk around until something happens” mentality, which only pisses me off and sends me rifling through the internet for a walkthrough, a cardinal no-no in my book of game design flaws. Still, I have to give them credit for minimizing puzzles.

So I should probably lay out all the information to see my ultimate opinion of the game: creepy as hell, great atmosphere, nice departure from guns-n-ammo approach to horror, no stupid puzzle solving. On the con side: walking from room to room feels like solving a puzzle, shifting camera angles in the dark causes Mio to dance in little circles, and the ending falls just shy of explaining anything.  I can honestly say I have never played a better survival horror game, nor have I played a worse one.