Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Earthbound – SNES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…seems legit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Because FUCK KIDS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon – Nintendo DS

Fire Emblem Box

I have never played a Fire Emblem game before, which surprises me, considering how much I enjoy games that let me order people to run around a field while enemy soldiers patiently stand there to get slaughtered as they await their turn. As a guy who gets about as much exercise as it takes to find a charger for my DS and then subsequently lifting the DS, I often like to pretend that I could take charge of Medieval combat and not immediately find myself impaled on the tusk of an any elephant in lederhosen, and what better way to learn strategy than by moving units one at a time across a perfectly ordered grid while everyone else on the field waits patiently for you to calculate risks that you can easily erase by loading your last save file?

Fire 4Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon tells the story of Marth, a young prince forced from his kingdom when an evil sorcerer, known as the Shadow Dragon, murders his father to steal his throne and his magical sword, Falchion. Fortunately, his pursuers allow him to bring one thing with him into exile: a well-equipped army of highly trained soldiers willing to stop at nothing to restore him to the throne. So Marth launches his campaign which consists of a series of macguffins and convoluted excuses for tactical medieval combat. After a handful of victories, Marth is awarded the titular Fire Emblem, which I assumed must have been pretty important to lend its name to the series. What could this be? Is it a supreme magical macguffin like the Triforce? Perhaps it grants Marth hero powers, such as in Age of Empires? Nope. It lets our hero open up treasure chests, thus allowing a single unit on the battlefield the ability to do what any standard RPG protagonist can do automatically and free of consequence in any dragon’s cave, king’s castle or stranger’s living room.

Fire 3Bearing a strong Shining Force vibe, Fire Emblem presents a simple, no-frills strategy game with everything you’d expect to find and very little else. Noteworthy features include an insane difficulty and a perma-death system rivaled only by the real world. It is a video game, so it does include some healing magic after all, but there’s only one resurrection item. In the penultimate level. That can only be used by a single character. Once. (Which by the time this entry posts is likely to be the Republican healthcare policy) This is, I gather, supposed to make me more considerate of my actions, more mindful of the risks and more hesitant to throw away lives on crazy maneuvers like I was shooting craps with someone else’s money. However, in practice it only makes me frustrated that there’s no option to re-load save files from the battle menu. At least they had the consideration to give me two opportunities per battle to save progress, lest the dozen or so hours I wasted on resets blossom into two dozen.

The series is known for its difficulty, and Shadow Dragon sticks to that reputation like a tube of epoxy impaled on a porcupine. But the game is organically difficult. It doesn’t take cheap shots. Fire Emblem’s challenge level is being a frustrated parent trying to resolve a fight between toddlers, while other games I’ve played are more like being a bathroom attendant trying to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. Often times the challenge stems from trying to hold yourself back rather than charging in, mages a-blazing. Knights, which have the same offensive and defensive stats as a refrigerator, make good bait, luring enemies into your attack zone, then sweeping forward with all your characters in a slow, methodical, buffet-line style of combat.

Fire 2The problem with this, though, is that much like a buffet line, some characters tend to pull more weight than others, and they tend to get rather large, while your other combatants whither away by comparison. Early on, the units who dealt more damage began to gather more experience than the defensive units, and the gap between them grew until the endgame when I waged war with one seasoned soldier, a dozen accountants, and three nuclear bear robots with Ginsu claws and laser eyes. Later stages often became a handful of heroes pushing their way through a crowd of people milling about in the middle of a freeway. It got rather tiresome trying to stash characters in safe places, but the mages generally had the firepower of a toaster cranked up to 3, and as far as I could tell the archers were just lobbing plates of wet spaghetti at the enemies.

Fire 1While mostly just a serving of vanilla strategy game, Fire Emblem has an interesting sugar cone underneath. All chests must be opened during battle, and of course those who are easily distracted by shiny objects while under assault will necessarily need to change their strategy. Furthermore, most characters must be obtained by fulfilling certain conditions in battle, such as rescuing them from death, schmoozing with villagers, or simply not killing key enemies. Unfortunately, if you’re anything like me, approaching people for conversation tends to be far more difficult than setting them on fire from a safe distance and hoping they die before expecting you to make small talk, so my ranks tended to grow slowly. Of course, there were also the moments when the game took pity on me as I stood shoulder deep in the corpses of my loyal followers, when it conveniently sent a ragtag group of scrappy fighters to help fill out my ranks without the least bit of concern for why Marth never bothered to learn their names.

In all, I arrived at the end of the game with literally nothing that could harm one of the primary antagonists, and the wise old sage just stared at me like I should probably wear a safety helmet with my cape instead of a crown. Fortunately, my complete incompetence didn’t forever kill any hope of progress like every date I went on in high school. It just changed how I fought the last few battles. Considering, I think I’d have a lot to gain and a completely different experience if I played the game a second time, which I think is a mark of a good game. I’m still not going to play it again, but the point stands that I could if I wanted to.

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

Revenant

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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MAME Roulette #4

Dead Connection

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Not only that, but there’s a guy behind you too.

A film noir inspired action shooter, Dead Connection has the distinction of being the first arcade game written by running the scripts to The Godfather and The Untouchables through Google Translate (No one remembers babelfish anymore…I can’t make good babelfish jokes). Despite trying to encapsulate the “noir” genre, the game opens with a spastic acid trip that would incite seizures in a hardcore Pink Floyd fan. After picking up on the story basics, which as far as I can tell are “sadness and revenge” and “making a stand against a gigantic crime,” you have all the knowledge you need to move the plot forward. The game is actually pretty good, though. Each level consists of a single, carefully designed environment, fully interactive, detailed, and ready for you to grind it into rubble by blasting wave after wave of gangster who comes your way. It’s like Kill Bill with shotgun upgrades; one (through four) valiant, revenge-driven heroes plowing through dozens, even hundreds of goons with nothing to protect you but your wit, the weapons you collect on the way, and immortality purchased with a stack of quarters that even the Dragonballs couldn’t provide.

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In the future, you can just ring the bell on the desk.

Danny Sullivan’s Indy Heat

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Not exactly pushing boundaries.

Danny Sullivan is a prick. This racing game is an early instance of microtransactions, where the player can stuff the coin slot like he’s only got five minutes left with a prostitute in order to beef up the stats for his engine. Not that any of that matters when you drive like I did—which is to say I sputtered down the track as though my pit crew had watered down my gas, struggling with the controls until I ended up driving backwards. Fortunately the collision physics work fine, and if I was going to look like a stoned chimp was driving my car, I was going to take everyone else down with me. My biggest accomplishment was turning the game into Danny Sullivan’s Late For Work On A Backed Up Freeway Simulator. I came in fifth. But I was only two places behind Jesus. The arcade cabinet likely used steering wheels as controls, which didn’t emulate very well on MAME, especially in the game menu. Fortunately, there are very few major life decisions made via steering wheel, and it’s usually limited to scenic vs direct routes, whether or not you’ll turn onto the abandoned wilderness road where inbred murderers have likely laid a trap for you, ACT exam scores, and whether or not you’ll be confirmed into the Christian faith or move to Mexico to buy your own brothel.

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This is Danny Sullivan. In heat.

Great 1000 Miles Rally Evolution Model

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This is pretty much the whole game.

Another racing game. Hooray. Let me crack open a nice, yeasty, disgusting beer to celebrate getting two in a row. That’s like tripping on the stairs and falling through the floor when you hit it. At least Great 1000 Miles Rally Evolution Model, a game assembled from a bunch of spare nouns the developers found in a dumpster, got my number from Danny Sullivan. Any time you peel out, spin around, or even burst into flames like someone lit up a pack of sparklers at a rehab clinic, the game gives you a gentle, motherly nudge that sets you back in the right direction. Each of the three tracks you can choose warns you well in advance when you’ll need to turn by flashing a bright yellow, contorted arrow telling you exactly how the road bends. You don’t seem to have any opponents, and the game usually lasts around 70 seconds—which means the enterprising game could potentially make $12.80 an hour. Anyone who makes that much will almost certainly find themselves on Fox News as an example of an overpaid bum, and this was 25 years ago! That’s a pretty enterprising machine.

Nemo

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This is what you get when you mix acid and weed.

Back in the Late 80s, I remember seeing advertisements for this movie about a little kid who flies around on a bed. Personally, as far as the flying-bed-adventure genre goes, I had always felt that Bedknobs and Broomsticks sufficed, and I never built up the curiosity necessary to actually watch the damn movie. But if the arcade game is any indication, the film is about whacking dirigibles out of the air while being pursued by a nightmarish Mickey Rooney as a sidekick. The game is an action platformer, which isn’t surprising. It’s been the default design for games since Mario. “Action platforming” is to video games what “bulldog” is to school mascot: it’s what you’re stuck with if you can’t think of anything interesting by the deadline. If you can manage to fight your way past the anti-zeppelin-violence picket lines to get to the machine, it’s actually pretty good at vicariously fulfilling all your fantasies of fighting an epic battle while wearing a pajama onesie, armed with a bedpost.

Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings – NDS

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Penelo seems to have gained some fashion sense in discarding her rubber onesie.

I’ve spoken before on how video game sequencing looks less like a chronological order and more like a dyslexic sudoku written over a calculus textbook at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Final Fantasy certainly commits more numbering atrocities than any other series I can name. With at least 100 games among its main series, sequels both direct and indirect, ports, remakes, revamps, spoofs, spin-offs, spunk, special editions, not to mention animated features, Advent Children, that one with Alec Baldwin and Donald Southerland, and possibly the entire Seiken Densetsu (Secret of Mana) series (if you count that in the way that bonobos count as spin-offs of the human species), then…wait, where was I going with this sentence? Eh. Who cares? As long as a big, long, rambling list keeps me from getting to Final Fantasy XIII, a game which could have only been the result of a seizure in the middle of a hand job, all the better for it! If we can call games like FFVI, VII or X “strokes of genius,” then XIII shows us what a regular stroke looks like. Sadly, if Square had gotten to the hospital in time, they may not have gotten stuck in the brain-loop that made them produce two sequels. But today we’re talking about Square-Enix’s last-ditch attempt at dieting and exercise before they sank back into their couch, downed a gallon of whiskey, and puffed up a big fat cigar.

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Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings serves as a direct sequel to Barney and Friends. Seriously, what do you think it serves as the direct sequel to? For once, Square did a remarkably good job (re: coincidence) of taking all the criticisms from the original (er…XII, rather) and building a game that addressed them all. The result just happened to be a game that resembled its predecessor as much as Gene Simmons resembles Richard Simmons, but unlike either Gene or Richard, it ended up being entertaining and well worth the time.

The game centers, more or less, around Vaan, who’s been given a total character overhaul as people tend not to enjoy protagonists with the personality of a teenage barnacle. Once again teamed up with Penelo—who’s been given a costume overhaul so as not to spend another game dressed in a rubber onesie—the pair go gallivanting around Ivalice, leading their younger friends Filo and Kytes into a life of plunder and piracy, a life which tends to lose its luster when one ends up murdered by colleagues. To be fair, Vaan spends the entire game insisting that he’s’ one of the good and moral pirates, and that all those other pirates who are in it for the looting, plundering, pillaging and—we can only assume—raping and whoring—have it all wrong and probably just need to watch an after school special or two on the true meaning of sky pirating. Generally, this attitude is a moral luxury one can afford only if they happen to be close friends with the reigning monarchs of two world superpowers (and at least acquainted with a third). Since Ashe clearly has no intention of executing the people who personally handed her throne to her, this sets up Vaan as sort of an entitled 1-percenter among criminals, making him more of a stock broker with a heart of gold.

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But to be fair, he does spend the game doing the right thing. After stealing a self-driving airship that takes them to a previously undiscovered sky continent—which is now full of pirates who are discovering the living daylights out of it—Vaan befriends one of the locals and spends a good chunk of the game trying to kick out the occupying forces. So he’s kind of like the Gandhi of medieval fantasy combat. (I think Gandhi always played as a barbarian, if I’m correct.) But what kind of epic would this be if none of the villains were supernatural? So Vaan and Company eventually stumbles across a god doing some douchebag thing or another, and pull a Taken-style vendetta against him to steal back the emotions of people on the sky continent.

About a year and a half ago, I played Heroes of Mana, which I noted played like Revenant Wings with only mild brain damage. Well guess what? If you guessed that political tensions between North and South Korea will likely come to a head within the next decade, you’re probably right! But if you guessed that Revenant Wings plays like a more developed Heroes of Mana, you’re both right AND relevant to the conversation. The game is a fairly simple and straightforward RTS. The rock-paper-scissors relationship from Heroes of Mana has been stripped down so as not to throw in a lizard or a Spock to muck up the works. Units are grouped into melee, ranged and flying, where melee is weak to flying, ranged is weak to melee, and flying is weak to ranged. Most battles require you to use all three. In addition, you can assign monsters to fight alongside you, turning the game into a battle royale in Michael Vick’s back yard.

Monsters come in three tiers, and you can take five monsters into battle with you: one at tier three or less, two at tier two or less, and two at tier one. Tier three tend to be the espers from FFXII or the mainstay Final Fantasy summons who have seniority or tenure or something and therefore have to be part of every game. Fortunately, these tier three monsters no longer come into the world like a mad scientist’s first attempt at creating life from the emaciated corpse of a heroine addict with a heart condition. The bad news is that using one takes up the tier three slot, meaning either your melee, ranged, or flying units will have to rely mostly on a tier one monster. But honestly, you could still intimidate foes if you charge into battle with an army of mages, a seasoned cavalry, Godzilla, and a troop of boy scouts on unicycles, right?

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The game balances out quite well, actually, even if the good monsters get put away in the cabinet with your mom’s china. Battles play out nicely, yet provide realistic challenge that takes thought to overcome, and they have a number of win conditions from your standard “kill the leader” and “complete monster genocide” to more unique ones like “steal all the treasure before the enemies squash the bangaa out of you” and even a capture-the-flag type scenario. The one thing, if any, that I don’t like about the game is the characters. Although given ten playable characters, one ditches your party permanently the first chance he gets, which leaves you with one healing unit, two melee units, two flying units and four ranged units. Since flying enemies are neither more powerful nor more abundant than anything else, I can only feel there’s some racial discrimination going on, and in FFXII-3 we’re going to be dealing with “winged lives matter” movements to protest the excessive force used against anything with two feet off the ground. Really, though, while Fran, Balthier, and Ashe are interesting characters, there’s rarely any reason to use them, as Kytes is the only ranged unit that can use black magic attacks.

Revenant Wings is well worth the play through, especially if you enjoyed tactics games. I really appreciated such novel concepts as “using a plot that isn’t as confused over its identity as a gay transgender child of a Southern Baptist preacher.” Plus, clocking in at under 30 hours—if you play all of the side quests—it almost feels like it’s apologizing for FFXII devouring months of your life.