Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year In Review 2011: Winning?

For the past few years, I've themed my year-in-review features after a certain quote from a movie or something.  This year's theme comes from an unlikely source you've probably forgotten about.  Charlie Sheen, who bragged about himself in interviews after getting fired from the show Two And A Half Men, threw around lines like "winning", "tiger blood", and "Adonis DNA".  Truly, this a man who has no idea when he's beat, and man is he beat.  So let's examine who and what really does or doesn't deserve these accolades.

Middle East: Winning. Almost the entire year saw the Arab Spring, a wave of protests encompassing almost the entirety of the Middle East and North Africa.  Thousands of lives have been lost in the protests, but they resulted in the removal of long-standing leaderships in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and soon Yemen.  That said, I am concerned about the moderate Islamist parties that have won elections in Tunisia (Renaissance) and Egypt (Freedom and Justice), although those parties have at least stated some intent to separate mosque and state.

Syria: Weak.  Somehow, Syria was the one exception to the successes of the Arab Spring. Civilians protesting the regime of president Bashar al-Assad have found themselves fired upon by the army.  Depending on the estimates, anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000 have died - which could be more than the number of Americans killed from the Iraq war, all in less than one year.  Oh, and we're done with Iraq now.

Dictators: Weak.  "Celebrity" deaths in 2011 included Osama bin Laden, leader of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda (killed by US forces on 1 may); Muammar Gaddafi, leader of Libya (killed by Libyan rebel forces on 20 October); and Kim Jongil (heart attack on 17 December).  Add that to the Arab presidents who had finally left after 30+ years in office, and 2011 was not a good year to rule with an iron fist.

The 99%: Winning.  Never one to be left out of international affairs, Americans kicked off the Occupy Wall Street protests, which spread across the nation and world, including one here in Philly.  You would think protesting against the financial robber barons would be out of date by now, and unlike the Arab Spring it hasn't really gotten any results yet, but dang if "We are the 99%" was a powerful slogan.

Japan: Weak.  Going into 2011, some of us were fearful of the "anti-Otaku" bill Tokyo Youth Development Ordinance passed by Shintaro Ishihara, governor of Tokyo Prefecture, which went into effect in June and honestly didn't have much of an impact.  But a different kind of "impact" made us forget about all that: the combination earthquake/tsunami/nuclear plant meltdown that struck northern Honshu on 11 March.  Witnessing a disaster that would eventually overshadow Chernobyl - on its 25th anniversary, no less - unfold was one of the most powerful and sombering scenes I remember from this year.  Oh, and Mega Man Legends 3 was cancelled.

3-D: Winning.  Like it or not (and for the record, I like it in moderation), 3-D movies and media showed no sign of slowing down in 2011.  The technology has improved as well; in March, Nintendo released the 3DS handheld, which can display 3-D images without the need for glasses.  I still think it's too early to pass judgement on the thing itself, although a US$80 price drop (three months into its lifespan, no less) seems to have helped.

Tablets: Winning.  Last year, my view on the Apple iPad was one of skepticism, but it seems to have carved out a successful market niche for itself and all its competitors.  It must be nice to run all those wonderful apps on a larger screen.  Still, wake me when you can run an honest-to-blog Windows or Mac OS.

Pop Music: Winning.  Whereas the hits from 2010 were consistently so-bad-it's-good fare, in 2011 the bad got worse and the good got better and more plentiful. The bad news: about half of the stuff on the pop charts is club bangers espousing a world of free-flowing sex, alcohol, and bad pick-up lines.  But the other half hosted far more innovative fare, with seemingly out-there acts like Adele, Foster the People, and Cee-Lo Green having hits.

My Life: Winning.  After almost a year of searching, I finally found a job.  And little did I know how much it would transform my life.  In some ways it was a drag; more than once I've gone long stretches without any work and anywhere to go.  But to be in charge of my own money and transportation makes the metamorphosis into adulthood that much sweeter.  Oh, and I was able to keep up my output on the SDP during my lunch breaks, so it's not all bad.

2012 will see the introduction of the year-end James Bond 50th anniversary celebration, plus the long-awaited(?) video spinoff!

This is IchigoRyu.

God bless America.  And everyone else.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Game Review: Ethnic Cleansing

Ethnic Cleansing
  • Publisher: Resistance Records
  • Developer: Resistance Records
  • Release: PC, 21 January 2002
  • Genre: Action, First-Person
  • Players: 1
  • Rarity/Cost: Direct order / US$15 and your immortal soul

DISCLAIMER:  The following review contains discussions of race and racism.  The Strawberry Dragon Project does not advocate racial or any other form of discrimination, and as such does not share nor advocate the views of any and all persons involved in the creation of the product being reviewed, including but not limited to Resistance Records and the National Alliance.

With a disclaimer like that, you know you're in for some serious shizzle.

One thing that strikes me as odd when comparing other nations' video game ratings systems to the North American ESRB is that, unlike the ESRB, some systems have concept descriptors for portrayals of discrimination or racism in video games.  Ironically, you would think this would be of greater concern in America, where we've been struggling with the issue of civil rights over at least the past century, but then again, the Holocaust is probably still fresh in Europeans' minds as well.  Which brings me to my next point: neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.  They exist.  For people from this generation, who may be living a sheltered life in this respect, there are people who, for whatever self-professed "justification", believe in hatred of Africans, the Jewish, what-have-you.  And wouldn't you know it, someone made a computer game for these kinds of people.

Enter Resistance Records, a music label specialising in white supremacy and neo-Nazi themed punk and such, who developed and self-published the PC game Ethnic Cleansing in 2002.  Just that sentence alone should raise a red flag immediately: namely, we don't let companies that deal in music make their own video games.  What is this, 1981?  Now, I know what you're thinking, but as a journalist, I am "legally" obligated to state that everyone is entitled to have and express their own opinions, as provided by the First Amendment and all that jazz.  After all, I am sensitive about infrigements on this personal right, so I'd be a hypocrite if I denied others from doing the same, amirite?  Moving on.

The plot for this first-person shooter is thin and silly, although those select few who share the developers' *ahem* beliefs probably won't care.  Basically, you start out fighting an African-American gang in some ghetto neighbourhood somewhere, then break into the subway and encounter an alleged Jewish plot to take over the world in eight years' time - in other words, 2010.  ...Yeah, who's got the last laugh now, bub?  Note that all this is done in the span of only two levels.  And they're not long, either; if you know what you're doing, you can count the number of minutes it takes to finish this game on your fingers.  The boss of the first level, the gang leader whose name... rhymes with "Big Digz", is ridiculously easy to beat, given that he can't shoot past the two-foot table in front of him, whereas the final boss, former Israeli president Ariel Sharon, takes a frustratingly large amount of bulltes to bring down.  Plus, not only does this make the whole game seem like a bad fanfic come to life, but just a few years after the game's release, Sharon would seek more peacable relations with Palestine and his nation's other rivals.  Again, last laugh: not you.

The enemies you face can be divvied up into three categories: 1) Africans, who sometimes wear shirts with the N-word on them (Yeah, I doubt even real gang-bangers would throw around that word so casually) and make monkey noises when shot.  2) Hispanics, decked out in poncho/sombrero ensembles, who revive themselves a couple of minutes after going down because they were "only taking a siesta".  3) Jews, wearing full Hasidic regalia and saying "oy vey" upon death.  ...Now that I think about it, this game doesn't have any portrayals, insulting or otherwise, of Asians, homosexuals, Arabs... I could go on.  So not only is the content horribly debasing racism, it's not even complete racism!  ...I'm just saying.  Not that you'll hear their clips anyway, since the sound is so unbalanced that your gunshots will drown out everything else coming from your speakers.  Oh, and I hope you like that white-power-punk in all its hate-filled glory, since the volume control in the game's options doesn't work, nor does the ability to re-map the controls.  (Just for kicks, I replaced the music with the worst song I could think of - "Anime" by Soulja Boy Tell'Em.)

Eventually, the icky subject matter will get shoved to the back of your mind once you register how horribly this game runs and plays.  For one, the collision detection is simply atrocious.  You'll get snagged on walls at the slightest brush, which becomes a problem in the second level with its narrow passages.  You only get to use one gun throughout the entire game, but it hardly ever runs out of ammo (if the unintuitive HUD gauges are to be believed).  The draw distance only lets you see a few meters in front of you - despite the fact that all the character models are low-polygon toys with racist features, and have little to no animation.  And the enemies' AI only consists of "walk in a straight line towards your position and shoot", completely unable to find their way around obstacles - even the final boss.  One could look at this at one of the game's more subtle jabs at the minority groups portrayed within, in that they're too dumb to survive.  Well, that idea backfires when you consider the WASP player characters' love affairs with walls.

My dear friends, I'd like you to recall Quake.  Developed by id Software (as you know, the same team who made Wolfenstein 3D and Doom) and released in 1996, this was the first game in the first-person-shooter genre to use fully 3D-polygonal characters and environments.  And even its graphics totally outclass those of Ethnic Cleansing, released five and a half years later.  Or look at it this way: if video games like N64 Superman and Atari E.T. are like The Room in that they're so bad they're good, then Ethnic Cleansing is shockingly horrible, like A Serbian Film.  ...No, this is not like A Serbian Film, because at least that had a worthwhile message in between all the... you know.  (Newborn porn!)  Plus, as a film it's, what's the word, competent - which I certainly can't say about this game!  Maybe a more apt comparison would be something like Trash Humpers - look it up.

By now, even though America may have achieved the establishment of civil rights as a nation, racism still exists on an individual level, so there's not much we can do about that.  (Doesn't mean we shouldn't try.)  So despite how ridiculously over-the-top it is to outsiders, I'm sure the makers of Ethnic Cleansing believed in what they were creating.  Now, officially, I'm not going to condemn them for expressing said beliefs in the manner they did (or maybe that's just my lawyer talking).  One thing not subject to personal morals, however, is how much this game sucks.  Even if you replaced the enemies and settings with the most morally worthy thing you could think of, the game is still an affront to all five of your other senses (yeah, it stinks that badly).  It should come as no surprise at this point that I'm going to slap this game with a score of 0%.  No, not zero out of five, I said zero precent.  Trust me, you've really got to work to get that low.  Oh, and by the way, even the game is physically sold from Resistance Records' website (no link provided, for obvious reasons), I'm not afraid to say that I downloaded it elsewhere for free in order to review it.  That's right - I just admitted to piracy in order to avoid giving these purveyors of hatred one cent, and I am [verb]ing proud to admit it.  So if you still believe in what Ethnic Cleansing preaches, I'm not going to stop you.  I'll just be over here playing some fun games instead.

Graphics: 0 stars out of 5
Sound: 0 stars out of 5
Control: 0 stars out of 5
Design: 0 stars out of 5
The Call: 0% (What you’ve just made is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever played.  At no point in your rambling, incoherent product were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.  Everyone in this room is now dumber for having played it.  I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.)

Next Episode: I'm gonna take it easy until the new year starts.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Manga Review: Spy Goddess vol. 2

Spy Goddess #2: The Quest for the Lance
  • Publisher: Harper Collins / Tokyopop
  • Writer: Michael P. Spradlin / Johanna Stokes
  • Artist: Yifang Ling
  • Release: 2009
One of the first reviews I ever posted on this site, and the first I'm actually satisfied with, was for the first volume of the Spy Goddess manga.  And it sucked.  Among its main problems were unlikeable main characters, choppy action flow, and plot holes you could drive the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann through.  (And for the record, that's not just the (Japanese only!) title of that show, but also the ultimate final form of the heroic mecha.)  Even crazier, it was a continuation of a novel series - which only lasted two books.  Welp, when I snarked at the end of that review that the villain only escaped so they could make a sequel, I was right: I hold in my hands (in between unexpected bouts of typing) the sequel, The Quest for the Lance.  One thing I should point out before diving in is that the co-writer, Rachel Manjia Brown, was swapped out for a miss Johanna Stokes, who has a considerably thicker resume of comics and TV works including SyFy's Eureka, so we might get a decent plot out of this mother for once.  ...Why do I delude myself so.

I'll assume you're familiar with our cast of heroes (protagonist Rachel Buchanan, esper Pilar Jordan, tsundere Alex Scott, gadget guy Brent Christian, and boss Johnathan Kim), so if you're not, I'll wait a moment for you to read my review of the first book.  Moment over.  So the book starts off with Rachel cornering her arch-nemesis, Simon Blankenship, who believes himself to be the incarnation of Mithras, an evil Roman bull god.  Fittingly, Rachel is in turn imbued with the powers of the rival goddess Etherea, no matter how much she tries to deny it.  Rachel holds her own in what turns out to be a training session, except for the part about it being a stealth mission.

Mr. Kim calls the gang for a briefing session, where he reminds everyone of the plot... as in Simon's evil plot.  Apparently he needs seven artifacts for a resurrection ritual or something.  Pilar tells everyone that she has been doing some off-page research which points to one of the objects being hidden somewhere in Brazil.  Now, despite Brazil being the largest nation in South America, the team decides to start searching on Rio de Janeiro, because we all know that's the only city in Brazil!  False, it's not even the capital city, nor even the biggest.  And don't get me started on Buenos Aires...  Rachel's on board with the idea too, but as a vacation, not a mission.  Alex is shocked at her treating their momentous quest so lightly, so she snaps back at him and everyone else, justifying with the fact that she's risked life and limb directly fighting the Mithras faction multiple times before.  This could make a thought-provoking arguement; after all, in pretty much any other story you can think of, how much should the hero work before he or she loses it, physically or mentally?  But the arguement falls apart in this case, because she's only been in three incidents so far, and if the manga's poor action scenes are anything to go by, she's had a rather easy time of it.  Sorry, babe, wake me when you've had one of your limbs hacked off or your nether region of choice beaten for torture.  Besides, I don't know about you, readers, but Rachel comes across as more of a spoiled brat.

Rachel does her best to patch things up with her allies on the plane to Brazil and at their hotel, but rather than R&R at the beaches or markets, the team heads straight for a library to research leads on the Mithras artifacts.  Tensions flare up again as Rachel grows immaturely bored, and Pilar begrudgingly lets her leave.  She gets lost in the Carnaval looking for someone who speaks English, because as we all know, Carnaval goes on all the time in Rio!  False, it only lasts a week or two before Lent in February/March.  Then again, they do have a tendency to party it up every day of the year.  Also, I am thankful that the writers chose not to touch on the fact that Brazil doesn't speak Spanish, because it's been done.  Besides, what we did get instead (Rachel can't even speak English good well) was just as funny.  So, back on track, Rachel runs into this piece of eye candy named Renard (I call plot significance!).  They share a date at a burger restaurant, but get interrupted by Alex, who for once is not so much annoyed at Rachel dating (Alex is already going out with Pilar), but Rachel dating when she could be working.

Under the stress, Rachel breaks up her date with Renard, but not before he informs her of a ceremony taking place at a mountain called "Grito do Touro", Portugese for "Cry of the Bull".  The scene cuts to Pilar and the others struggling at the library, almost quitting over their lack of progress, until Rachel barges in and says she knows where the artifact do jour is located.  Umm... okay?  Since she doesn't tell her team where she's talking about on-panel, I have to say this knocked me for a loop.  Let's rewind: Mithras, both the god and the organisation, have a bull motif (ridiculously so, if you remember the fight scene at the end of the last book).  So, apparently she makes a connection with the first thing she hears with the word "bull" in it.  I mean, couldn't there possibly be more mountains in Brazil named after bulls, to say nothing of other types of landmarks?

So the squad goes on a little hiking trip to Grito do Touro, and sure enough they find a cave.  Cliches abound, including being faced with a branching path and Rachel falling down a hole.  But it's worth it; she encounters an ancient lance behind a barrier of light.  As she goes to take it, she suffers a brief flashback wherein the lance was first laid to rest by the Romans (I didn't know King Leonidas was Roman!) and the goddess Etherea set up the magical ward which, being her reincarnation, Rachel is more or less immune to.  As she walks out with the lance, Simon Blankenship rears his un-ugly head, shows that he has the rest of her team taken hostage and - surprise, surprise, I said in sarcasm mode - he used Renard to bait the trap.

After a bit of negotiations, Simon convinces Rachel to give him the lance in exchange for not putting a knife through Pilar's throat, but he just has his men shoot the gang with arrows anyway.  Just then, Rachel blocks the arrows with a wall of energy as she transforms into Etherea.  Now her destiny, eternally fighting with her immortal enemy Mithras will be fulfilled... with one energy blast.  Simon is down for the count, and for no reason Rachel has de-morphed and fainted.  With the villain brought into custody, the team departs Brazil and Rachel patches things up with her friends once and for all.  You are now free to close your book.

This second volume of the Spy Goddess manga is, I must admit, a marked improvement over its predecessor.  The plot holes are far less frequent, and I like their attempts at character development, even if I still didn't walk away necessarily rooting for our heroine.  The art direction is still a sore spot for this series; fight and action scenes lack decent flow, leading us to wonder if we had skipped a panel here and there.  (Let me answer that for you: you didn't.)  Even in non-action scenes, the artist relies too much on blank or pattern backgrounds, cheating us out of detail whenever possible.  Further props to the writers for not focusing on the more touristy aspects of Brazil, but I'd much rather take a vacation of my own to fill in the blanks.

Artwork: 1 lance out of 5
Plot: 2 lances out of 5
Characters: 1 lance out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)

Next Episode: It's almost the end of the year, so I thought it would be a good time to break out one of my most shocking reviews ever!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Game Review: Mercenaries 2

Mercenaries 2: World In Flames
  • Publisher: EA
  • Developer: Pandemic
  • Release: PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC, PlayStation 2: August 2008
  • Genre: Action (3rd-person shooter)
  • Players: 1 local, 2 online
  • Rarity/Cost:
The original Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (2005, PS2 / XBox) was a rather underexposed title which nonetheless grew on me as one of my favorite games of its console generation.  Basically, it went down like this: picture a wide-open sandbox game like Grand Theft Auto III, only set in a war-torn North Korea.  You play as one of three mercenary soldiers working for a private military company, and your goal is to bring the nuclear-armed Korean generalissimo to justice.  All the while you'll have to gain intel and profits from multiple factions who have nothing in common except their desire to see the regime disappear.  And beyond the ordinary cars and guns you'd expect from its contemporaries, tanks, helicopters, explosives and airstrikes are in frequent supply.  Playground of Desctruction deserves a separate review somewhere down the line, but here's my short take on it.  It may not be as polished as the output of Rockstar North (the house that built GTAIII), but when it comes to straight-out fun, I prefer my open-world games set in a legally-defined war rather than a civilian-time life of crime.  And it's Teen-rated; I don't know about you, but that's a bonus in my book.

Fortunately, they found fit to maks a sequel: 2008's Mercenaries 2: World In Flames for PlayStation 3, XBox 360, and PC.  A port for PlayStation 2 was also released at the same time, but it departs substantially from its bigger brother and, again, merits its own review.  The plot this time around pits your PMC against Ramon Solano, an IT billionaire in Venezuela.  In the game's tutorial mission, he hires you to free a friend, General Carmona, from prison, but instead of paying you, he tries to have you killed.  In the meantime, he installs himself as the country's president with the general's help, but his days are numbered when your mercenary of choice decides to launch a campaign against the double-crosser.

If a soldier finishes reporting to HQ, your standing
with his faction will suffer.  (PS3 version shown.)
Obviously, you're not gonna do it alone.  Along the way you'll recruit a helicopter pilot, a mechanic, and a jet pilot who each provide you with valuable services, but you'll never get much done without taking on some work.  The factions you'll be making deals with include an American oil company (Universal Petroleum), a ragtag band of communist guerillas (People's Liberation Army of Venezuela), a group of Jamaican pirates, and returning from the first game, the United Allied Nations and Chinese armies.  You'll have to balance your relationships with each of the five factions.  If you destroy assets (soldiers, vehicles, etc.) from one faction, you'll improve standing with its rival (UP vs. PLAV, Allies vs. China), but if someone successfully reports you, your standing with the target faction will go down.  Or if all else fails, bring out the big bucks and just bribe 'em.  There are many side-quest activities to pursue (destroying target buildings, capturing HVTs, collecting spare parts), but if you ignore them, you'll doom yourself to a far shorter campaign than in the first game.

It wouldn't be a Mercenaries game without the ability to call in airstrikes and support whenever you need them, and World in Flames does not disappoint.  The problem lies in how you acquire them.  Unlike in the first game, where you could place orders from your PDA no matter where you were, this time around, you have to buy them directly from one of a faction's shops, and add the goods to your stockpile.  Then, you have to collect oil and spend it in order to call in your new toys.  Wait a minute...  Venezuela, oil, America against China... any more political and they'd have to use real world leaders!  (And wouldn't you know it, the "Blow It Up Again" DLC expansion does something like that.)  On the plus side, your helicopter pilot has the ability to pick up any of the frequently-found oil tankers and even airstrike ammo you find lying around, as well as airlift you directly to any outposts you've unlocked (provided you're in good standing with their owners).

Fuel tanks like these can be stolen, adding to your stockpile, or just make a big boom. (PS3 version shown.)
In a game where so many things go boom, you'd expect the physics engine to be up to snuff, and it pretty much is.  You know how you could destroy almost everything in the first game?  Well, now you can take the "almost" out of the statement.  Out of all the video games I've played in my life, it's so nice to have one where you can knock down trees instead of them staying firmly rooted in the ground!  The AI, on the other hand, has made no improvement.  In one mission where I had to call in a strike team in order to capture a building, I threw the smoke grenade on the ground only for - twice in a row - the helicopter to land on the roof of a nearby building and the soldiers to fall to their deaths.

If you've read all this and wish you could have a friend share in the fun, you're in luck... sort of.  Mercenaries 2 supports online co-op on both the PS3 and 360.  It's drop-in-drop-out, meaning that anyone can jump into your single-player game at any time and quit whenever they (or you) wish.  Unfortunately, there's no in-game support for voice or even text chat of any kind, so it gets all the more frustrating when your partner starts destroying things they're not supposed to or just stands around doing nothing forever.  "But wait," you say, "I can't get the game to run when I'm signed in, so does that mean EA shut down the game's servers?"  No, but the truth is more complicated than that, which is why I present to you an...

Important Notice:  The PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 versions may not run if you try to play whilst logged into PSN/XBox Live, because the game gets stuck at the "Connecting to server" message, and doesn't even error out over time.  Contrary to popular belief, the cause of this has something to do with the Terms and Conditions; EA must have updated them somewhere along the line, but never patched their new location into Mercenaries 2.  Fortunately, there is a way around this.  What you need to do is buy, rent, or borrow any EA-produced game released before Mercenaries 2 (August 2008) that still has online features up and running.  Compatible games as of the time of this writing (December 2011) include Need For Speed Carbon, The Orange Box, and Battlefield Bad Company.  All you need to do is accept the Terms and Conditions from one of these games, and you're all set to go back to Mercenaries 2.  Oh, and the PC version's servers have officially been shut down, and the PlayStation 2 version never had any online features to begin with.

Edit 20/Jul/2012: Rumours exist that as of earlier this year, this bug has been fixed.  I for one am not in the mood to test this for myself, at least not until I get the remaining online Trophies, but that's great to hear all the same.  Lord knows I need some good news for once.

Seeing as how I've spent exponentially more time with Mercenaries 2 than any other game on my new PS3, I'll let you guess how much I like it.  But critically, is it better than the original Mercenaries?  There's not much World in Flames adds to the formula that makes it more exciting than Playground of Destruction, and what changes have (or haven't) been made tend to fall on the side of annoyance.  At the end of the day I'd prefer more mechanics to have carried over from the first game, but what we've got is still perfectly satisfying for anyone with a hunger for open-world gameplay.  Grand Theft Auto IV may be a more well-oiled machine, but I'll be darned if Mercenaries 2 isn't more fun to drive.

Graphics: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Sound: 4 airstrikes out of 5
Control: 3 airstrikes out of 5
Design: 4 airstrikes out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Next Episode:  You know the worst manga I've ever read and reviewed?  They made a sequel!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Film Review: Airplane II The Sequel

Airplane II: The Sequel
  • Publisher: Paramount
  • Production Studio: Paramount
  • Release: 10 December 1982
  • Director: Ken Finkleman
  • Producer: Howard J. Koch
  • Writer: Ken Winkleman
The 1980 movie Airplane! proved itself to be a landmark in the history of comedy. And yet, it's tough to pinpoint what makes it all work, other than the fact that you'll be laughing every step of the way. This x-factor has become even tougher to define given all those who have tried to emulate it and failed. Anyone who's familiar with the names Seltzer and Friedberg know what I'm talking about. But in case you didn't know... they made a sequel, with the very meta title Airplane II: The Sequel. Is this a worthy successor to the comedy crown, or does it deserve instead to be tossed into the ever-expanding peanut gallery?

Despite the rapid-fire comedy assaulting you at all times, there is a plot to be had, although since it's spelled out in bits and pieces throughout, I might as well give it to you straight now. Ted Striker (Robert Hays) has received great fame after his daring, life-saving landing in the first film. Eventually, he was hired to test-pilot a space shuttle called the Mayflower, only to have it crash. While the damage was supposedly caused by a hardware failure, the company used Ted as a fall guy and, after a trial, he was ruled as mentally insane. He is committed in an asylum until he learns that the Mayflower is about to embark on its maiden voyage to a moon colony, and breaks out to warn the passengers and crew, including his now-ex-girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty).

The Mayflower takes off, with no incidents until ROC, the on-board computer, suffers a short-circuit and locks the shuttle on course to the sun. In their attempts to manually disable ROC's systems, co-pilot Unger and navigator Dunn are forced out of the airlock, and the pilot, returning Captain Oveur (Peter Graves), is nerve-gassed. So once again, Striker is drafted to take over for the pilots, with McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) providing radio support, but this time he can't do much for himself until ROC is disabled. Then things get complicated when passenger Joe Seluchi (Sonny Bono) intends to detonate a suicide bomb in order to give his family (what he thinks is) life insurance money, but Striker confiscates it and uses (part of?) the explosives to "blow ROC" (their words, not mine) and high-tail it to the moon.

Waiting for him on the radio is the Captain of the lunar base, Buck Murdock (William Shatner), who unfortunately for Striker was involved in a bungled mission from "the war" (apparently not the same mission referred to in the first movie). But Striker is able to get over his past, and manages a safe crash-landing on the moon's surface, where somehow there is gravity and breathable air. Ladies and gentlemen, they just didn't care. So Ted and Elaine get married, and Seluchi asks for his briefcase back. You are now free to turn off your TV. So as you can see, the plot is very much a clone of the original movie's -- IN SPAAACE!! Even though the original's directors (Jim Abrams, David & Jerry Zucker) were not involved in the project, the powers that were at least were nice enough to bring back the original cast.

So does the humour set this sequel apart? It's true that some of the gags were recycled from the original. For example, in the trial flashback alone, passengers from the first movie (the Jive-as-a-second-language talker and the hysterical woman who needs sense literally beaten into her) provide testimony and replay their famous schticks. On the pop-culture side of things, while this is (thankfully) neither of the Airplane movies' strong suits, there are thinly-veiled allusions to sci-fi fare this time around, some more recent (Star Wars) than others (2001: A Space Oddysey). At the very least, I can't blame the writers for having a memory span no longer than a couple of years, unlike some guys I know.

If I could pick one point that the original Airplane! did best, it would be its ability to look at everyday occurrences, portray them in an absurdist manner, and I can't help feeling I've discussed this before. Welp, you'll be pleased to hear that Airplane II: The Sequel also has this in spades. If it takes a lot of creativity to invent gags like the spaceport's information desk which gives out increasingly non-spaceport-related information, the barrels of flammable material reading "Explosive / Dynamite / Brilliant / A Must-See", or the machine in Murdock's moon base which does nothing other than send lights back and forth across a series of tubes, then I'll certainly applaud the effort, given the alternatives. (Although given the one where visibly heavily-armed raider-types pass through a metal detector and are ignored, in retrospect this isn't always a good thing.) Too bad this sort of humour was already pioneered by the first movie.

Come to think of it, Airplane II is a retread of the original in many other ways. The characters - whether the same people or just similar roles - are recycled, and numerous events follow the same structure. (At least they made a joke about this sort of thing: at one point McCroskey poses next a portrait depicting him doing the same thing next to another portrait of him doing the same thing, muttering, "Things sure haven't changed.") It gets to the point where it's almost the same exact movie, only set in space - and they couldn't even get that part right. It's true the content of the jokes is different, and if that's enough to get you to like this, then more power to ya. But like the Airport series it set out to parody, Airplane! sadly is not immune to a formula-induced sequel slump.

Acting: 4 space shuttles out of 5
Writing: 3 space shuttles out of 5
Special Effects: 3 space shuttles out of 5
The Call: 70% (C+)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Game Review: Initial D Special Stage

Initial D: Special Stage
  • Publisher: Sega
  • Developer: Sega Rosso
  • Release: PlayStation 2, 26 June 2003 (Japan)
  • Genre: Racing
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Memory Card, 230 KB
  • Rarity/Cost: Uncommon, US$20-40

(This review was updated on 14 August 2013.)

With home console video games gaining so much relevance over the past decade, the only way for arcades to catch up was to employ gimmicks of all sorts. One such gimmick was employed by Sega's Initial D Arcade Stage series from the early-to-mid 2000s. These racing games let you purchase a "memory card" of sorts, a thin, cardboardy-type dealie which would save your stats and upgrades to your car. This proved to be a big draw for me once I got into it. Being a good licenced game (based on a manga and anime franchise) was only icing on the cake.  Sadly, by the time I did get into the Arcade Stage games, its popularity in America was supplanted by the The Fast and the Furious series by Raw Thrills, a spiritual successor to Crusin' USA.  While it had a similar game-save mechanic, and despite my resignations I still pumped in numerous credits to the games, I found it to be a basic, unpolished, unfulfilling alternative to Initial D once arcades started replacing it with this Americanised tripe.  The good news is that Sega saw fit to make a home version of the games, in the form of Initial D Special Stage for the PlayStation 2. The bad news... it was only released in Japan. ...Pfft, like that's gonna stop me!

Initial D started life in 1996 as a manga series written and drawn by Shuichi Shigeno. The universe of Initial D centers around Takumi Fujiwara, a teenager who develops spectacular driving skills from working for his father's tofu shop, and reluctantly enters the world of touge racing, one-on-one duels on Japan's winding mountain roads.  Through his years of driving experience, he transforms his car, a sleeper Toyota, into the stuff of legends among his friends and rivals.  In fact, the popularity of this franchise has given renewed fame to drift racing, and Takumi’s car in particular, the Sprinter-Trueno, also known by its chassis code "AE-86" or just "86", or as the Corolla in the US.

Special Stage lets you live the action in three ways. The "Legend of the Streets" mode is identical to the arcade experience. There's also the "Story Mode", a series of thirty or so scenarios which re-create scenes from the manga, and “Time Attack”, where you can run through courses without opponents or even a time limit. The other choices available from the main menu are the Replay Theatre, Koichiro’s Car Museum, which plays demos of the game’s various cars with a Japanese narration about the car, Save and Load controls, and other Options. Also, unlike in most Japanese PlayStation games, you can move forward in menus by pressing the X button as well as Circle, whereas Triangle and Square take you backwards.

I’ll start with the Arcade mode. On the first menu, you have a choice of setting up a new profile, or loading an existing profile from the garage. You get to pick your car from brands like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi, and others, and change body colours by pressing Up or Down. Then you get to choose an upgrade course. Playing races, win or lose, earns you upgrade points, which are used to add modifications to your car at certain milestones. These mods are mainly of the decorative variety, but it helps create a sort of bond between you and your virtual car. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I grew addicted to the arcade version, but on a home console where you're not charged a dollar a game, I have to say the impact isn't quite as profound. Once that’s done, you have to set up your name, which uses katakana symbols by default but also supports Latin letters.

Now, you get to take on challengers at your leisure. Only six courses are available in Arcade mode, and of them, only two are circuit tracks where you have to do laps. All the others are one-way courses, driven either uphill or downhill. And let me tell ya, there’s a huge difference between driving the same course up- or downhill. Not only will the turns come at you in reverse order, but your car will accelerate differently depending on whether it’s going up or down, so the limited track selection becomes less of an issue.

Not all Story missions involve straight racing.
In Story Mode, you are given a series of 30-odd missions which roughly replicate events from the manga. The missions are book-ended panels from the manga and Japanese voicovers, which you can thankfully skip over. Not all these missions require you to finish ahead of the other guy, so a little experience reading Japanese would be useful after all.  Or you could just find an FAQ online or, when all else fails, do it trial-and-error.  For example, the first mission puts you on a solo run where you have to drift in order to avoid spilling water from a cup, as depicted by an on-screen meter. And this being the first mission, of course it’s easier than it’s depicted in the comics, or in real life for that matter.

Finally, there’s Time Attack. You use the same car profiles and courses as in the Arcade mode, but you have control over what direction you want to run in, the time of day, the weather, and finally you can load a ghost of a previous run from your Memory Card. Since the events in the Arcade and Story modes utilise night and/or rain versions of the tracks, Time Attack mode is a stress-free way to practice anything that’s been giving you trouble. Sadly, there are no multiplayer offerings in this game. Unless you wanna take turns in Time Attack or something, and compete for the best time.

The controls are simple enough; X is Throttle, Square is Brake, yada-yada.  The buttons can also be manually assigned, although I’m bamboozled as to why there’s no rear-view button but there is a button to turn the headlights on and off. The racing discipline exhibited in the likes of Initial D is commonly misattributed as drift racing, but to be honest, that's not too far off the mark.  Special Stage's physics engine allows you to break into a drift rather easily. Most high-speed turns are enough to generate some smoke from the tyres, but in order to truly take on the corners without dropping precious revs, you’ll have to develop your own technique.  One method I developed is to rapidly shift down and back up, so in order to master the more technical maneuvers, get used to playing with manual transmission enabled.  Of course, you still have to brake ahead of sharper turns, so it’s better off to start out playing Gran-Turismo style and developing your skills from there. All things considered, the handling in Special Stage straddles the line between simulation and true arcade-style control.

It's easy to break into drifts.
The assortment of playable cars, predominantly composed of Japanese mid-90s models, doesn't offer a lot of variety in practice. The only statistic that has any major effect on a car's handling is whether it runs on a front-wheel, rear-wheel, or 4-wheel drive platform. On the bright side, you're not likely to screw yourself over by picking an inferior car, but anyone who's familiar with Gran Turismo should find it odd that in this game, it's entirely possible for a lowly Suzuki Cappuchino to defeat a mighty Nissan Skyline, despite a four-to-one disparity in horsepower alone.
The graphics in Special Stage pretty much reach the bar set by high-end PS2 titles from a few years prior.  It does run smoothly in 60 frames per second, but doesn't do much else of note, not that it needs to anyway. Shigeno-san's illustrations are featured in character portraits and on the loading screens; regardless of whether you like his art style, it’s nice that they worked it in, to give the game some personality. The collision model is a potential point of contention, however; depending on how you hit the other car, you may be able to slingshot past it, or him past you. Staying true to the spirit of the anime (and presumably, touge culture in general), the soundtrack is composed of licenced Eurobeat songs. As a critic I'm not supposed to account for taste, so I'll instead warn you that this high-tempo, poppy material may not be for everyone (even if it is, contrary to popular belief, sung in English).

In fact, you could make a similar argument for the game itself. It’s not just that the language barrier is a little steep; at the least, knowing the katakana letters will be a big help. Given the unique techniques one needs to learn in order to perform best in this game, and no training mode to speak of, the learning curve will come across as sharper if your racing game experience leans more toward Mario Kart than Gran Turismo. But make no mistake - Initial D Special Stage is great at what it does, and is worth putting on your list especially if you're a racing pro, or if you're looking to get your feet wet in the waters of import gaming.

Japanese: 4 kanji out of 5
Graphics: 4 stars out of 5
Sound: 4 stars out of 5
Control: 4 stars out of 5
Design: 5 stars out of 5
The Call: 85% (B+)

Monday, November 7, 2011

Film Review: The Master Of Disguise

The Master of Disguise
  • Publisher: Columbia
  • Studio: Revolution / Happy Gilmore
  • Release: 2 August 2002
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Director: Perry Andelin Blake
  • Producers: Barry Bernardi, Sid Ganis,  Todd Garner, Adam Sandler, Alex Siskin
  • Writers: Dana Carvey, Harris Goldberg
Dana Carvey is a genius. Whilst writing the script for his 2002 "family" film The Master of Disguise, he must have realised that the main character he was playing had become so annoying, that he decided to have him take on all manner of other personae, so as to distract the audience from its initial displeasure. At least, that's what I'd like to think happened. But even if this was true, in practice it didn't work out so well. On the contrary -- every new character that Dana Carvey portrays only serves to bug his viewers even more.

So what character could draw out so much ire? Well, it starts out with the Disguisey (pronounced dis-guy-see) family, a Sicilian-based clan whose members fought crime since the Renaissance by impersonating various people and objects with great talent. One such Disguisey, Fabbrizio (James Brolin), was responsible for the previous arrest of our villain, Devlin Bowman (Brent Spiner) by disguising himself as... Bo Derek. Let that set the tone for the rest of the film. So even though Bowman does 20 years, Fabbrizio fears for the safety of his family, and decides to settle in America and run an Italian restaurant. A word to the wise: this film hosts some of the worst Italian stereotypes this side of Jersey Shore. (I know it's a dead horse to beat on, but at least it's a more acceptable target than Hetalia, amirite?)

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and we are introduced to our ostensible hero: Pistachio Disguisey (Carvey). In literally the first shot we see him in, he's wearing underpants on his head and a shaving-cream beard. Let that also set the tone for this film. Working as a waiter in his father's restaurant, he is a well-meaning worker, but is clumsy and has an out-of-control habit of mimicking other people's voices. I call plot significance! And his voice, oh Sabrina help me! Take the worst stereotypical Italian accent you've heard, spoken from the mouth of a meth-charged five-year-old. Yeah, I just broke you. So the newly-freed Bowman has Pistachio's parents kidnapped, and the one man who comes to help him is his grandfather (Harold Gould), who teaches him the Disguisey legacy and begins his training. And I'm sorry to say that Bowman has a running "gag" of... letting his bowels play the trumpet during his multiple evil laughs. Because... funny?

Meanwhile, Fabbrizio is blackmailed by Bowman into coming out of retirement and using his disguise powers to "borrow" all matter of national treasures. He takes the Declaration of Independence as Olympic runner Michael Johnson, the Liberty Bell as then-governor of Minnesota Jesse Ventura, and the Apollo 11 lunar lander as Jessica Simpson (all played as themselves). ...Sensing a pattern here? For those playing at home, these pop-culture references date this film horribly. Anyone who's familiar with Usain Bolt or Arnold Schwarzenegger knows what I'm talking about. On the plus side, they did add some homages to "classic" material like 10 (the aforementioned Bo Derek cameo), The Exorcist, and Jaws. You know, for the parents -- who are the only ones who would get them in the first place. Oh, and if National Treasure is to be believed, these items are being held in completely fake buildings, but I digress.

Sadly, back to Pistachio. Turns out costuming is only part of the game; a Disguisey can only attain a perfect disguise by copying their voice personality, thanks to the magical force known as "Energico". (I can has creativity plz?) Seriously, while I can admire them addressing the finer needs of disguise-acting, the name "Energico" is too silly to make me care. His training also involves the Disguisey method of self-defence which, in a transparent effort to soften any potential violence, involves open-hand slapping instead of punching, in conjunction with copious (mis)use of the phrase "who's your daddy". Oh, and he needs an assistant, too: enter Jennifer Baker (Jennifer Esposito), a single mother who was introduced to Pistachio by her son. She follows a long list of appilcants whom Grandfather Disguisey dismisses for no apparent reason, but is given the job despite his and Pistachio's mutual desire for a mate with a well-stocked caboose, which she happens to lack. But she does prove a refreshing serious foil to her new co-worker; with her help, Pistachio follows Bowman's trail to the "Turtle Club" the not-Antiques Roadshow, and finally Bowman's villa.

Oh, but I skipped over the worst part: the disguises used in these places. Pistachio apparently mis-understood what the name "Turtle Club" entailed, because he dresses up in a giant turtle shell. Because... funny? When they finally meet Bowman at the antiques convention, Pistachio starts hitting on him as the pepperpot-like Gammy Num Nums, but for no reason s/he waffles and starts insulting him, leading to this line: "Well, guess what, Backstreet Boy! This is one Girl Scout who doesn't want to be the Malcolm in your Middle!" That... Impossibly, that was dated from the moment s/he said it. By 2002, the Backstreet Boys had (temporarily) broken up, and whether or not you think Malcolm in the Middle was culturally relevant, it getting cancelled a few years after the fact didn't help matters! And it fails as a sexual entendre, too... just think about that. Or not.

Despite Pistachio's best efforts, he and Jennifer get invited to Bowman's place for a party. Jennifer does some snooping in his house, whilst Pistachio distracts Bowman with such disguises as not-Tony Montana from Scarface, not-Captain Quint from Jaws, and... a grass suit with a cow pie on top. Because... funny? Never mind how, but Pistachio loses Bowman's henchmen in a brief foot chase which takes them back to the city's Italian district (which is how far away, might I ask?), only to go back and retrieve Jennifer from Bowman's custody. Oh, and there's some sub-plot involving Jennifer's ex-boyfriend. In theory, Pistachio having to deal with him would have given some character development in helping him become a man. But I can't get one thought out of my head: were they still dating? If so, then the other guy might be a jerk, but I'd still root for him. Anything to get rid of that tool Pistachio.

And yet despite this alleged character development, Pistachio has run out of leads on Bowman and Jennifer was re-captured, so he contacts his grandfather via Energico, who encourages him to run one last raid on Bowman's estate. A few tepid action sequences are interspersed with Bowman outlining his evil plan to some anonymous suits: sell the treasures acquired by Fabbrizio on a website called - prepare yourself - "BlackMarkEBay". I tell ya, the stupid coming out of the movie is just tangible. And not even a cameo from Kenan Thompson can save it. To top it off, Bowman has permanently affixed a mask of himself onto Fabbrizio, locked him into his own persona by somehow applying the dark side of Energico (exactly like Star Wars - and those are Pistachio's words, not mine), and sics him on his own son. I admit this is a pleasantly dark turn, I mean, if this were to succeed, how could Fabbrizio live with the pain of killing his own son? But of course that doesn't happen. Pistachio snaps his father out of his evil mode by evoking the underwear-on-head gag from the beginning of the movie. *sigh* Pretty flimsy conclusion to a flimsy movie...


Bowman is still at large, and the reunited Disguiseys track him to a resort in Costa Rica (filmed in the Bahamas). Point man Pistachio confronts him as - get this -- George W. Bush. To give you one last idea of how dated this movie is, if it were done just a couple of years later, everyone in Hollywood would've hated Dubya too much to pull off a scene like this. So Pistachio knocks Bowman into the pool, and he doesn't get up. Wait a minute, did he drown? All we get is one last, loud... um, "bubble", you tell me. Does this man have super drowning skills or something? Welp, no sense dwelling on those tribbles -- the movie's over, technically. Should some indescribable force compel you to stay in your seat of choice, the entire credits sequence is loaded with all manner of outtakes and deleted scenes. Thank you, Columbia Pictures, for giving us an excuse not to buy the DVD.

Please allow me to retract my opening statement: Dana Carvey is an idiot, albeit a thoughtful, well-meaning idiot. His man-child performance somehow manages to shine through no matter what character he plays. The plot? Sure, there could be potential in a serious screenplay with a similar premise, but the juvenile execution takes you out of it. And for a family comedy, whatever humour isn't off-colour (which sadly makes up a good chunk of the material) just falls flat. Pistachio Disguisey, your art had better be up to snuff, because you deserve to be hunted down for this travesty.

Acting: 1 disguise out of 5
Writing: 1 disguise out of 5
Special Effects: 2 disguises out of 5
The Call: 25% (F)

Next Episode: I admit I'm running low on things to review, but I do have one for another import game lined up next. Also, since this blog is edging close to two thousand pageviews, I am pleased to report that a video version of the Strawberry Dragon Project is in production. Look for the pilot episode sometime before the end of 2011.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dance Dance Retrospective: Bemani Franchise

I know I specified DDR Extreme as the next episode for Dance Dance Retrospective, but before we can go into that, we have to get something else out of the way first.  Extreme features song crossovers from every series from the Bemani franchise, the catch-all trademark for Konami's music games, up to that point.  Therefore we should take a moment to examine and understand all these games, and what kind of music (if any) they specialise in.  NB: Very few Bemani games outside of Dance Dance Revolution have had official releases outside of Japan, so expect disappointment if you should become inspired enough to look for one of them at your local arcades.  Furthermore, all game counts refer to arcade releases unless otherwise noted.

Beatmania (1997-2002, 13 games)
The first Bemani series was a DJ simulation game, utilising a 5 button keyboard and a turntable.  While earlier games did have more of a focus on hip-hop, hence the turntable, the range of genres present throughout the Beatmania games is extremely eclectic; so much that genres are listed along with song titles.  The last game, beatmania The Final, was released in Japan in July 2002.

Beatmania IIDX (1999-Present, 19 games)
Pronounced "2-D-X", this spinoff of Beatmania added two keys to the control setup, and for some reason overtook the original series in popularity.  The latest game, beatmania IIDX 19: Lincle, was released in Japan in September 2011.  It also got an American release, simply titled beatmania (PlayStation 2, March 2006) (read my review here), which sadly failed to gain much attention in the post-Guitar Hero market.

Beatmania III (2000-2002, 5 games)
A short-lived offshoot of Beatmania which used the 5-key-and-turntable controller from the original series, plus a bass pedal (think Rock Band's drum set).  The last game, beatmania III The Final, was released in Japan in July 2002.

Dance Dance Revolution (1998-Present, 14 games)
If you don't know what this is, you need to start over.  The latest arcade game, DanceDanceRevolution X2, was released worldwide in June 2010, with DanceDanceRevolution X3 vs. 2ndMIX currently in development.  The latest home game, DanceDanceRevolution II, was released for Wii in North America in October 2011.

Dance Dance Revolution Solo (1999-2000, 3 games)
Sometimes counted as its own series.  Read more here.  The latest game, Dance Dance Revolution Solo 4thMIX Plus, was released in Japan in December 2000.

Guitar Freaks & DrumMania (1998-Present, 19 games)
A sort of precursor to the Guitar Hero/Rock Band dynasties.  Guitar Freaks uses a guitar controller with 3 fret buttons, and DrumMania uses a drum kit with 5 pads and a bass pedal.  Both Guitar Freaks and DrumMania arcade games run on separate cabinets, but can be linked to play together.  The latest game in the core series, Guitar Freaks & DrumMania V8, was released in Japan in March 2011.

Guitar Freaks & DrumMania XG (2010-Present, 2 games)
Basically the original GF & DM on steroids.  The GF guitar now has 5 fret buttons, and the DM drum kit has 7 pads and 2 bass pedals.  The latest game, Guitar Freaks & DrumMania XG2: Groove To Live was released in Japan in March 2011.

KeyboardMania (2000-2001, 3 games)
The KeyboardMania series uses a 2-octave piano keyboard, similar to the one we got with Rock Band 3.  KeyboardMania machines can also link up and play simultaneously with some versions of Guitar Freaks & DrumMania.  The last game, KeyboardMania 3rdMIX, was released in Japan in Winter 2001.

Pop'n Music (1998-Present, 19 games)
Pop'n Music has been described by some as a cuter beatmania.  This description, while an oversimplication, is surprisingly apt.  Like in IIDX, when Pop'n Music goes hard, it gets really intense.  The controller uses 9 large, coloured buttons (an "easier" 5-button mode is also available).  The latest game, Pop'n Music 19: Tune Street was released in Japan in December 2010, with Pop'n Music 20: Fantasia currently in development.

Dance ManiaX (1999-2001, 3 games)
A different type of dance game, to play Dance ManiaX (spelled differently from Dancemania), you wave your hands over or under a set of four motion sensors.  This is one of the few Bemani series (to date) that has never had any home console releases.  The last game, Dance ManiaX 2ndMIX Append JPARADISE, was released in Japan in 2001.

ParaPara Paradise (2000, 2 games)
This is similar to Dance ManiaX, in that you wave your hands over five floor-mounted motion sensors arranged in a semi-circle in front of you.  It was designed to tie into the para-para dance craze (think "Hare Hare Yukai"), and indeed some of the charts mimic the actual dance routines for their respective songs.  The last game, ParaPara Paradise 2ndMIX, was released in Japan in 2000.

Mambo a Go Go (1 game)
While Mambo a Go Go was not technically released under the Bemani brand, it did have a few songs used in DDR Extreme.  It uses 3 conga drums which can be hit in 3 different zones each, so it plays somewhat like Namco's Taiko Drum Master series, but with Latin music.

From here on out, the Bemani series you're about to read... about did not exist prior to DDR Extreme, but hey, I strive for completion.

Jubeat (2008-Present, 4 games)
Pronounced "you-beat", with a German 'J'.  Unlike most other Bemani games, Jubeat doesn't try to invoke playing a particular instrument; you tap a grid of 16 buttons, each with a mini-screen behind them, and you must press buttons when a marker grows to a certain point, in time with the music.  The latest game, jubeat Copious, was released in Japan in September 2011.  The latest home game, jubeat Plus (Japan, 2010) / jukebeat (USA, 2011), is also available for the iPad.

Reflec Beat (2010-Present, 1 game)
Reflec Beat uses a large touchscreen, on which you must hit moving notes when they cross a line, and is (a bit too) similar to the rival DJMAX Technica series.  The latest game, Reflec Beat, was released in Japan in September 2010, with Reflec Beat LIMELIGHT currently in development.

Dance Masters (2010-Present, 1 game)
Unlike all the other Bemani series, the first Dance Masters (known as Dance Evolution outside North America) game was released for the XBox 360, and uses the Kinect camera system.  It is a full-body dancing game much like its rival series, EA/Harmonix's Dance Central, but eschews Euro-American pop for Konami original songs used in DDR and other series.  An arcade port for Japan is currently in development.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dance Dance Retrospective: DDRMAX2

If you've been paying attention throughout my Dance Dance Retrospective series (and since the last entry was over three months ago, I'll understand if you haven't), you'll remember me having referred to DDRMAX rather nostalgically.  Although it holds a special place in my heart as the first arcade mix I truly grew up on, I'll admit it didn't have a lot of staying power.  While new gimmicks like the Freeze Arrows were well-integrated, if not well-executed, the game's biggest drawback was that it only had around 45 songs, cutting out anything and everything from all the entries that preceded it.  Fortunately its sequel, DDRMAX2: Dance Dance Revolution 7thMIX (Arcade, 22 March 2002) proved to be a perfect junction between old and new.

The new, edgy colour scheme.
MAX2's colour scheme is an edgy departure from the last few games, dominated by dark reds, oranges, and greys.  The menus are built identically to those from MAX; you go through the style and difficulty selections in the same fashion.  Should you keep pressing right on the difficulty menu, you'll access the Nonstop Challenge mode, which we'll get to later.  The music selection menu is also carried over from MAX, however in addition to the Groove Radar carrying over, the traditional "feet" rating counter makes its triumphant return, this time expanded to a maximum level of 10 to accomodate the boss songs.  One new modifier has been added to everything we got in MAX: It's called "Dark", and it turns the step zone invisible, making it harder to play by sight alone (not that you're supposed to anyway).

The song list has been expanded to a grand total of 116 tracks, broken down into three segments: new songs, MAX revivals, and other revivals.  This means we get all but two of the songs from DDRMAX making a return (with proper difficulty ratings), and 30 of the most popular classic Konami originals, as voted on by a Japanese online poll.  Obviously not everything's been revived, but we do get hits like "Brilliant 2U", "Dynamite Rave", "B4U", and five versions of "PARANOiA".

Some of the songs get new background FMV clips.
Should you have noticed that there were no course modes of any kind in 5thMIX and MAX, have I got something for you: the Nonstop Challenge mode.  The courses here string anywhere from 5 to 10 songs in a row, each centered around a particular theme.  The catch is that whilst playing a Challenge course, your Groove Gauge is replaced by a battery with four lives.  Getting any mark Good or lower, or an NG on a Freeze Arrow, docks a life, and when you run out, you're booted out of the course immediately.  Suffice it to say, this is meant to be a challenge for seasoned DDR veterans, and the fact that many of the songs on these courses use Heavy-level charts only makes it worse in this regard.  In addition, many of the returning Konami originals have remixes which are only playable in Challenge courses.

Notable new songs include:
  • "Break Down!!" by BeForU.  A fast J-rock song with lots of crossovers on Heavy.
  • "Burning Heat (3-option Mix)" by Mr. T feat. Mototaki F (no, not that Mr. T).  A tie-in with beatmania IIDX 7th Style, this is a song based on Konami's own Gradius video games.  This is one of the few songs with a 12-beat structure, meaning that the "chaos steps" are 12th notes rather than the usual 8ths or 16ths.  ...If that went over your head just now, take some music lessons.
  • "D2R" by Naoki.  Since apparently there were no songs by Naoki in MAX, we get two.  The first is a speed rave song following the bloodline of "B4U", and the second...
  • "Destiny" by Naoki feat. Paula Terry, is a hyper eurobeat song which, again, follows its own tradition.
  • "Little Boy (Boy On Boy Mix)" by Captain Jack.  To be honest, there's nothing much notable about this song, except for the subtitle.  It was originally "Boy Oh Boy Mix", but the innuendo-infused rename came from a website which misspelled it whilst reporting on MAX2's location test, and apparently it stuck.
  • "Long Train Runnin'" by Bus Stop, adapted from the hit by The Doobie Brothers.  I don't know about you, but from my experiences it became a frequent pick from casual gamers when it got included on the American PlayStation 2 port.
  • "Tsugaru" by RevenG vs. De-Sire.  Composed by Naoki Maeda, who for some reason used two of his own aliases.  A feudal-Japan-inspired song which may evoke a samurai battle, except for the electro bridge near the end.
  • The Extra Stage system also returns, using these two songs:
    • The Extra Stage is "MaxX Unlimited" by Z (Naoki Maeda).  A remix of "MAX 300", but with far more jumps, Freeze Arrows, and tempo changes.
    • The Encore Extra Stage is "Kakumei" by DJ Taka vs. Naoki.  A trance remix of a piece by classical composer Frederic Chopin.  Appropriately enough, "kakumei" is Japanese for "revolution".  When played as an Encore Extra Stage, the new Dark modifier is used on top of everything from MAX.  It also appears in a Challenge mode course, with an exclusive Challenge-level chart, which is ironically a tad easier than Heavy.
Japan got a faithful port of MAX2 for the PlayStation 2 on 24 April 2003, with a few added songs from games released since the arcade original.  It also inspired a couple of "ports" worldwide; North America got DDRMAX2: Dance Dance Revolution (PlayStation 2, 23 September 2003) and the Eurozone got Dancing Stage Euromix 2 (Arcade, 7 August 2002).  While their visual interfaces match the Japanese MAX2, the songlists don't match up apart from a few Konami originals (even if they are awesome in their own rights).  These two games also replaced the Challenge mode with a Nonstop mode which uses a regular lifebar, and brought back the Beginner difficulty level, not seen since the 3rdMIX era.  The American MAX2 also used real music videos for the background videos on some licenced songs, and re-introduced the pre-MAX characters as an unlockable option.

On the next Dance Dance Retrospective, we will showcase what many assumed to be the last mix for arcades: Dance Dance Revolution Extreme.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Music Review: Regulate

  • Artist: Warren G & Nate Dogg
  • Album: Regulate: G-Funk Era
  • Release: 1994
  • Label:
  • Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap
Ninety-nine percent of the time, celebrity deaths catch me by surprise.  Even Amy Winehouse's passing counts, even though everyone saw her as a drug-fueled time bomb bound to go off soon.  (Helps that she was out of the public eye for some time.)  But there was one other, far lower-key death which happened to catch my interest: Nate Dogg.  Born as Nathaniel Dwayne Hale, this rap-singer died on 15 March 2011 due to a series of strokes.  Guess someone didn't beware...


...the Ides of March.  *shot*  ...May I never do that again.  Back on topic, Nate Dogg was best known for his low-register singing voice and his collaborations with numerous famous rappers.  But the one I'm focusing on today would prove instead to be a one-hit wonder for his opposite number: "Regulate" by Warren G.

Now, I only heard out about this song because it samples its backbeat from "I Keep Forgettin'", a hit from Michael McDonald which is one of my favourite songs of the 80s.  As far as I'm concerened, that's as good a reason as any to attract me to some new music.  And if it's a choice between sampling an old hit and just using some original, barely-there loop you whipped up in half an hour on FL Studio, I'd gravitate towards the former.  (Unless J. R. Rotem is involved.)

NB: For clarity (and to avoid having to keep writing artist tags), Warren G's lines will be coloured red, and Nate Dogg's will be written in blue.

We regulate any stealing of his property
And we da~amn good too
But you can't be any geek off the street,
Gotta be handy with the steel if you know what I mean, earn your keep!
Regulators! Mount up!

With a description like that, "Regulators" would be a cool name for a superhero team.

It was a clear black night, a clear white moon

Thank you for avoiding the "dark and stormy night" setting.  ...Would you believe I'm not tired of that line yet.

Warren G. was on the streets, trying to consume
Some skirts for the eve, so I can get some funk

Recall the four themes of hip-hop from my last review.  Warren G is acting on the "girls" mode for the time being...

Just hit the East side of the LBC
On a mission trying to find Mr. Warren G.
Seen a car full of girls ain't no need to tweak
All you skirts know what's up with 213

...As is Nate Dogg.

NB: LBC is short for Long Beach, California, part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.  213 is an area code in the LA area... which Long Beach is not a part of anymore (split since 1997).

So I hooks a left on 2-1 and Lewis
Some brothas shootin dice so I said "Let's do this"
I jumped out the ride, and said "What's up?"
Some brothas pulled some gats so I said "I'm stuck."

Some idiot you are.  Why would he go and strike up a conversation out of nowhere?  What with gang relations being what they are in (your version of) Los Angeles, wouldn't you recognise their colours and stay away from them?  Oh, and while I can appreciate the self-censorship, I very much doubt that you really would have said "I'm stuck".  Something that rhymes, maybe...  I got nothing.

Since these girls peepin me I'ma glide and swerve
These hookers lookin so hard they straight hit the curb

It's easy to miss, but based on the music video, this scene describes Nate getting distracted by some girls and running his car off the road.  For the longest time I didn't even know what this passage meant.  But it's not all bad...

I see my homey and some suckers all in his mix

...He's just in time to rescue Warren!

They got guns to my head, I think I'm going down
I can't believe this happenin' in my own town
If I had wings I would fly, let me contemplate
I glanced in the cut and I see my homey Nate

Well, this scene is scripted just like a movie - and not a very original one at that.

Now they droppin and yellin', it's a tad bit late
Nate Dogg and Warren G. had to regulate

At this point we have our first chorus, which... has no lyrics.  Disappointing, but with the verses carrying so much of the narrative, how would the chorus compete?

I laid all them busters down, I let my gat explode
Now I'm switching my mind back into freak mode

Going back to our four themes of rap, it's nice of Nate to let us know when he's flipping the switch!

If you want skirts sit back and observe
I just left a gang of hos over there on the curb

But wait, do you mean the girls who distracted you and unintentionally made you run off the road?  Because you didn't say anything about them stopping as well.

Just like I thought, they were in the same spot
In need of some desperate help
The Nate Dogg and the G-child
Were in need of something else

I don't know, this passage seems a little...

One of them dames was sexy as hell, I said "Ooh, I like your size"
She said "My car's broke down and you sing real nice,
Would ya let me ride?"
I got a car full of girls and it's going real swell
The next stop is the Eastside Motel


Now, some edits of this song end the track at this point, cutting off the third and final verse.  So what could be beyond this point that made them take it out?  They're not about to describe what Warren, Nate, and the girls did at the motel, by any chance?

I'm tweaking into a whole new era
G-Funk, step to this, I dare ya
Funk on a whole new level

Of course not.  It's some tripped-out ramble on what this "G-Funk" thing is.  I blame the marijuana.
The rhythm is the bass and the bass is the treble

This is a mindbender.  Does this mean that there's no melody anymore?  The sad devolution of popular music people.  Or, with the ambiguous phrasing, you could look at it the opposite way, that the drumline's been taken out.  ...Whatever makes you happy, I guess...?

Chords, strings, we brings, melody
G-Funk, where rhythm is life and life is rhythm

This... is how... Shatner... does... rap.

If you know like I know
You don't wanna step to this

Wait, so now this isn't supposed to be a dance track?

If you smoke like I smoke

Then you too can make poor decisions like striking up social interaction with dangerous strangers!

Then you're high like everyday

Oh.  Besides, that was Warren fouling up anyway.  So, the moral of the story?

And if your ass is a buster
2-1-3 will regulate

Oh, right, they're promoting killing again.  As long as you're a "busta", vaguely-defined as it is.  But all in all, this is a rather good song, being a ballad in the traditional sense (as in a narrative).  The parallel storylines of Warren and Nate, especially in the beginning, resonated well with me.  Given that most "traditional" rap songs only serve to vacillate among the four themes I keep mentioning, having an actual story is one way to rise above the usual fare.

Lyrics: 4 stars out of 5
Music: 4 stars out of 5
Production: 4 stars out of 5
The Call: 4 stars out of 5 (B)

Next Episode: Well... I haven't done History of DDR for a while now? How about that for a change!