Friday, March 21, 2014

Operation: StarBlade

"Come in Starflighter Geo Sword!
This is King Raider, over."
One of the neat things about arcade games is the opportunity to experiment with a variety of different control layouts and operator configurations.  The most common design is to have the player (or players) stand in front of the machine using some buttons and a joystick.  However, a number of arcade machines had alternate systems of interface.  For example Paperboy had a pair of bicycle handlebars which could be tilted or pivoted to control direction and speed.   A button on each grip allowed the player to throw a newspaper as well.  Then you had games with tracking balls like Missile Command, games with steering wheels like Out Run, and even games with light guns for rail shooting style experiences.  The real standouts though were arcade games that had the player sit rather than stand.  Hang-On had a mock-up motorcycle for the player to ride on, and of course a large number of racing games featured seats complete with gas and brake peddles.  Mech combat games would sometimes feature a chair with a throttle on one side and a multi-button control stick in the other.  By far though my favorite type of these games was Operation: StarBlade.

Check out the text in the beginning
briefing video (below) for some
examples of "Engrish" at it's finest
What made this particular arcade machine stand out was its abnormally huge screen made possible by taking a 26" monitor display above the chair and reflecting the image across a wide concave mirror surface in front of the player's seat.  The effect was akin to being in a gunner cockpit complete with two handed targeting grips.  High end polygonal graphics (for the time) and six speaker sound also added quite a bit to the sense of immersion.  Gameplay amounts to a lot of rail shooting in deep space.  The story sets you up as a starfighter pilot code named "Geo Sword" about to sortie on a mission to neutralize the threat of mechanized planet "Red Eye" by attacking it's power source (a huge surface construct called the "Octopus").  After launching from a carrier in orbit over your mother planet you quickly find yourself entangled in a huge furball against enemy fighter craft.  This is followed by a warp sequence to an asteroid field and then an enemy vanguard fleet of capital ships.  The whole time you're battling toward Red Eye an enemy strike craft designated "Enemy Flagship Commander" continuously harasses you making this foe somewhat of a reoccurring nemesis throughout the game.  After blasting your way across the surface of Red Eye you eventually reach the Octopus power core and destroy it along with the entire mechanized planet.

At this point you'd think the game is over, but the arcade game pulls a kind of surprise 4th act on you by having Geo Sword intercepted by a colossal enemy ship during the return warp transit.  In the ensuing firefight players must destroy a second ship mounted power core and the "Enemy Flagship Commander" in a rather climactic one-on-one duel.  Only then does the game finally conclude with a victory barrel roll cut scene and return to base fanfare.  You can check out a complete recording of the game from beginning to end here:

The video clip doesn't really do the full game justice though.  Trust me when I say if you were actually sitting in the gunnery chair it would be a noticeably more enhanced experience.  Then again you're not out about $5 in quarters either.

"Located Enemy Flagship Commander."
I've heard people accuse Operation: StarBlade of ripping off Star Fox.  A rather silly criticism when you consider that this arcade game predates the SNES title by about two years.  Not to mention StarBlade is a first person rail shooter while Star Fox is a third person flight-sim with some freedom of movement.  After viewing some gameplay footage I'd expect someone to call out the obvious parallels between StarBlade and Star Wars.  After all Red Eye does have more than a passing resemblance to the Death Star.  But if I had to pick a movie that most resembles Operation: StarBlade it would be The Last Starfighter.  In other words I'm comparing an arcade game to a film featuring an arcade game that doesn't actually exist.

Actually, technically speaking a prototype of The Last Starfighter arcade game does exist thanks to the hard work of a dedicated fan.  Atari also had plans to mass produce arcade machines identical to the one seen in the movie, but gave up on the project when it became apparent that the amount of hardware needed (at the time) to produce graphics similar to those seem in the film would cost an impractically huge amount of money.  Not all that surprising considering that the CG used in The Last Starfighter was generated by way of a Cray Supercomputer.  Fast forward seven years to when StarBlade came out though and comparable graphics were more or less economically viable.

The Last Starfighter cabinet logo
While I'm on the topic of The Last Starfighter...does anyone else out there think this movie really needs a sequel?  Granted the story is incredibly cheesy; a kid who's so good at a particular arcade machine he's recruited by an alien alliance to help fight off an invading force using his incredible gaming skills.  Sounds pretty corny, right?  Well, it the best possible way.  The original script writer specifically mentioned in an interview that he got the idea from observing a boy playing arcade games while reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  Quite literally the screenplay writer though of the arcade game as being a kind of Excalibur and the boy a young King Arthur.  Not a bad source of inspiration if I do say so myself.  Honestly though, I'd be just as happy to see a sequel to the movie in the form of a video game.  The main villain in the film, Xur, escapes in the end and the Ko-dan Empire, while down one armada, probably still has a sizable military force at their disposal.   There's even an easy point to introduce newcomers to the franchise in the form of the protagonists little brother, Louis, who also shows an affinity toward gaming, but at the time of the events in the film was too young to join the Star League.

You might think it weird to continue the story of a movie via a video game, but think of it this way.  The film was trying to show how similar video games are to reality.  In the case of a sequel, how about showing how similar reality is to video games?  It could work really well if the concept of a video game about a movie about a video game is handled carefully.  At the very least I think it would be a lot of fun to play another game like Operation: StarBlade, just swap out the Geo Sword for a Gunstar.

"Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-dan Armada."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Circle of Life

"Out with the old. In with the new," is a saying that definitely needs to be applied to some of the game development studios out there.  While it always sucks to see people lose their jobs, I'd like to think that those with talent will move onto something better.  In truth, the concept of huge teams working on triple AAA titles has become a bit antiquated of late.  That's not to say we shouldn't have any big budget games, it's just that time and again smaller studios have demonstrated far more flexibility, creativity and artistic merit than the industry giants that live off old IPs without bringing anything innovate or beneficial to the industry as a whole.  To demonstrate my point allow me to highlight two companies (one Japanese and one Western) that have outlived their usefulness.  Then after that, I'd like to show off two up-and-coming studios which have done a lot for the industry.

Electronic Arts has been voted worst company in America twice, and while I have no doubt there are good people struggling to produce quality products (despite the short sided greed of their corporate overlords) EA has become a kind of body-snatching parasite over the years.  Absorb a respected studio, dispose of anyone who isn't a yes-man, then milk whatever well liked franchises that studio made in an attempt to make some quick cash.  Origin, Bullfrog, Maxis, Westwood, and Pandemic are some high profile victims, but the most egregious example has to be Bioware.  Simply put, Bioware made a lot of the best RPGs in the business until EA acquired them at which point the quality took a sudden downturn.  I could go on about yearly sports franchises, abusive DRM and a variety of online shenanigans (like season passes), but I think the toxicity of the company has been well documented by others.  On a side note, before you think to bring up Titanfall let me say this; Respawn Entertainment deserves the credit and it's only a matter of time before EA ruins future installments.

Square-Enix was great back when it was just Square, this developer produced some of the best games in Japan.  After the merger with Enix though there was a large outflux of talent leaving the company with a lot of artist and coders, but very little in the way of imagination.  Look no further than the pathetic excuse for storytelling in the last couple Final Fantasy titles.  It doesn't help that Square-Enix is waging war against every Youtuber who's a genuine fan of their IPs.  My guess is the people running this company were old before the internet even existed, and as such are pretty much clueless when it comes to gaming in the 21st century.  I'm actually finding it difficult to name one truly good game put out by Square-Enix during the last console generation.  Not that there wasn't a lot of hot garbage turned out thanks to creative bankruptcy at the top and a lot of hard work by the people in the trenches.  Anyway...enough about parasites.  Lets talk about a pair of studios worthy of gamer attention.

Capybara Games has worked their way up from very humble beginnings to produce some of the best pixel art to date.  Their single most famous title is probably Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (nope, no typos here), which has some interesting concepts when it comes to setting and gameplay.  For me though, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes really stands out as one of the best puzzle games I've played since Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine on the Sega Genesis.  I even went so far as to write a review of Clash of Heroes, something I've never done before or since, just because I thought the game really deserved more attention than it was getting.  The future looks bright for Capybara Games too with titles like Super Time Force and Below in the works.  I just hope they don't feel the need to cling to Xbox exclusivity given the amount of floundering Microsoft has been doing in the game industry lately.

From Software hardly needs my praise given the amount of buzz Dark Souls 2 has been getting recently.  That said, I'd like to stress that this company has turned out to be the most influential Japanese video game studio since Capcom's golden era with the survival horror genre.  From Software has not only re-invented the notion of challenging gameplay, but has also demonstrated that Japanese game studios can still be quite successful in American and European markets without having to kowtow to Western sensibilities.  Now if only Koei, Level-5 and Konami would get with the program and stop wallowing in bland, nostalgia driven experiences.

You'd think that given all the bad media surrounding companies like EA and Square-Enix they would have run out of dedicated fans a long time ago.  In part it has to do with maintaining monopolies.  Regardless, it's a real shame to see so many hardcore fans doggedly follow them out of a misguided sense of brand loyalty when there are small, oftentimes struggling studios far more deserving of hard-earned gamer dollars.  I guess the best suggestion I can make is don't be afraid to try stuff outside of your preferred genre(s).  There's a lot of new and exciting experiences to be had when it comes to video games provided you're willing to explore outside a long established comfort zone.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Major Bummers

Bad video games are a dime a dozen, but every once and a while there's a sequel released that is a true let down (particularly in the shadow of its fore bearers).  Which game depends largely on the person in question.  Generally speaking, there seems to be a lot of lists at the end of the year that fall into the category of "most disappointing."  For me though three games that really standout.  One from my childhood, one when I was a teenager, and now one recently in my adult life.  Here they are in that order:

I've played all the Space Quest games from beginning to end except for the sixth and final installment.  It's that bad.  Bugs aside, the creators of the series (those Two Guys From Andromeda) were gone at this point along with their noteworthy brand of humor.  Instead, Space Quest 6 relies on a lot of poorly applied puns and tired jokes for laughs.  Rather than employing drop-down or pop-up menus like previous games, Space Quest 6 has a fixed UI hogging up valuable screen real estate on a permanent basis.  The worst offense though has to be the story line which completely ignores or outright nullifies significant events in previous titles (seriously...where's Beatrice, and what's this crap about having to be a janitor yet again?).  Also unlike previous entries, Space Quest 6 starts off by simply dumping series protagonist Roger Wilco in a generic sci-fi city on "shore leave" without any real direction or goal.  What a crappy end to such a great franchise...then again I supposed that could be said about most of Sierra's IPs.

The original Vandal Hearts is not particularly well known.  It's basically one of those early fantasy-themed tactical RPGs on the PSX.  What made Vandal Hearts special though was its (for lack of a better term) "mature Saturday morning cartoon vibe."  Oftentimes while playing it, I was reminded of children's TV programs like "Exo Squad" or "Pirates of Dark Water."  The graphics are crude, even by PSX standards, but they have a lot of spirit.  The camera zooms in for attacks, showing characters dramatically readying their weapons, then follows up with a satisfying *thwack* when a hit lands.  Slain sprites vanish in over-the-top geysers of pixelated blood or debris.  Overall, gameplay is similar to chess (if it were on steroids) with each side taking turns one after the other.  The sequel really drops the ball though.  Character sprites and portraits are awful, and the fundamental gameplay was changed to a clunky simultaneous movement system.  Attacks are dull to watch and defeated targets simply wink out of existence.  The original Vandal Hearts begins with a team of player controlled patrolmen luring a bunch of ruthless bandits into a counter-ambush.  The sequel, on the other hand, starts off with the player controlling children fighting giant slugs with salt sticks.  I got this game at release as a present and to this day I still feel bad about asking for it.

I really enjoyed Thief: The Dark Project, and thought Thief II: The Metal Age was pretty good too.  Thief: Deadly Shadows was kind of hit and miss for me, but exploring environments like an abandoned orphanage and storm-wracked manor house were a lot of fun.  Oddly, this new Thief reboot feels like a concerted effort to remove all the best aspects of previous entries while trying to retain the worst.  No Pagans, Hammerites, or Keepers...seasoned voice actors from all the previous games have been replaced with a generic voice cast spewing modern sounding English peppered with four letter expletives.  I guess words like "taffer" and "manfool" fell out of fashion in the city where Garrett lives.  For some reason he has a false eye still even though there are no Mechanists.  Oh wait, it's magical now...right.  Well, what happened to his sword and dagger?  Why hasn't the AI or audio improved at all from past installments?  Where does Garret keep all this stuff he's stealing?  Oh yeah, and rope arrows still don't work as well as they did in Thief I and II.  An amnesia plot?  Really?  I guess it's to be expected given that the publisher is Square-Enix.  The only genuinely good thing I've seen or heard about about Thief is the robust options menu on the PC.

Unlike Space Quest 6 or Vandal Hearts 2, I was able to steer clear of Thief for the most part thanks to all the quick looks, LPs, and reviews on the internet.  My gratitude to all those guys and girls for saving me significant amounts of time and money.  Sadly, nothing can save me from feelings of disappointment though.  Especially when I think about what could have been...and then there was this other game called Golden Axe: Beast Rider...nawh, just kidding, I'm done for now.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Waiting for The Last Guardian

The English translation
I want too take this opportunity to talk about a book I finished reading just recently.  It's called Ico: Castle in the Mist, and it's an adaptation of the 2001 PS2 game Ico.  If you've never heard of this video game I suggest you look it up.  It's one of the best 3D puzzle platformers ever created.

As far as novelizations of video games go Ico: Castle in the Myst is one of the better ones out there.  The author, Miyuki Miyabe, is an acclaimed Japanese writer, penning books on a variety of genres.  Her prose are oftentimes poetic, which is saying a lot when you consider that this is a translated work.  What sounds good in Japanese can very easily turn into something obscured or bizarre in English, but thanks to the capable translator Alexander O. Smith the text flows very naturally.

In terms of story Ms. Miyabe takes some creative liberties with the source material.  Fair warning; there will be minor spoilers ahead.  The novel is divided into five parts.  The first act is a prologue to events in the game.  Readers get to learn about the horned-boy protagonist, Ico, his foster parents, best friend and the village they all live in, as well as a few details about the surrounding lands.  The second and forth sections roughly correspond to the events shown in the game while the third part serves as a lengthy flashback by Yorda (the girl in white).  Here it's relieved what life was like in the castle before it became a haunted ruin.  This peak into the past has a very Arthurian vibe to it, but ends unresolved.  Only in fifth and final chapter do prior events become clear.

The new Japanese cover
Overall, the storytelling on display here feels like an organic growth of themes and ideas established in the game.  Most of the changes fans might notice are necessitated by the shift in medium.  Video games are great for interactive experiences, films work well for visual ones, radio dramas excel at dialogue, and novels have their own strengths which need to be played to in order to succeed.  That said, there is a kind of simplistic beauty to the original game (a boy and a girl trapped together in a vast unsympathetic environment) which is lost to a degree in the book.  This might be the reason why the development team gave the author their blessings to write the story she wanted to tell while at the same time declining to canonize her version of events.

In concision, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Ico: Castle in the Mist to anyone who's a fan of Ico the game, or its spiritual sequel Shadow of the Colossus (since there are a few subtle nods to that game as well).  Technically speaking I guess you could call this novel a fanfic, but in its defense the quality of writing is on par with other well regarded examples of genre fiction.  Plus, it gives gamers like me a chance to revisit long cherished world while waiting for news on the ever delayed ending to this trilogy, The Last Guardian.