Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Film Review: GoldenEye


GoldenEye
  • Publisher: MGM / United Artists
  • Studio: Danjaq / EON Productions
  • Director: Martin Campbell
  • Producers: Michael G. Wilson, Barbara Broccoli
  • Writers: Michael France, Jeffrey Caine, Kevin Wade, Bruce Feirstein
  • Release: 17 November 1995 (USA) / 24 November 1995 (UK)


The Bond: Amid the legal wrangling that beseiged our franchise during the early 1990s, Timothy Dalton just up and quit in 1994.  Once the parties involved got their collective act together and began work on a new movie, they drafted Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire) to replace him.  (If you'll recall, he was considered for the role once before.)  For better or worse, Pierce makes for the perfect film Bond; he handles all the things that the general moviegoing public (and the producers) would expect from one portraying 007.  He portrays the high life with panache, can talk any woman he wants (except Moneypenny) under the covers with him, pull off action stunts (most of them by himself), and top them off with a one-liner, all with ease.  On the other hand, he does little to distinguish his character apart from that familiar image.  Compare that to interpretations from the likes of George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton, who never seemed as comfortable on the throne, so to speak, but delivered something unique to the role all the same.  Pierce Brosnan happens to be the first Bond actor I ever saw on screen, and as such he was the perfect actor to get my feet wet with.  3 out of 5.

The Girls: Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), a computer programmer.  Natalya is one of those rare Bond Girls who isn't played for sex appeal, for the most part; her dominant role is a shell-shocked survivor of the raid at Severnaya.  This leads to a rough relationship when she meets Bond, given that she has no one to trust at that point, even her best friend Boris, but of course she thaws out for him eventually.  4 out of 5.

Other Allies: Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker, The Living Daylights) Bond's CIA contact in St. Petersburg and Cuba.  Why they couldn't have just re-used Felix Leiter, I'll never know, but hey, at least he's not J.W. Pepper.  1 out of 5.  Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane, Harry Potter series), ex-KGB operative and current "legitimate businessman".  The one thing I take issue with here is his alleged backstory, where as a KGB agent, he matched wits with 007 and got shot in the leg as a result.  Having this mini-plot thrust upon us all of a sudden does little to establish his character apart from being yet another challenge for Bond to encounter, but his performance fills in some of the cracks.  3 out of 5.  M (Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), the new head of MI6 and 007's superior.  Although the relationship between M and Bond has always been of the love-hate variety, takes the emotions to the extreme on both ends of the scale, even taking his traditional image down a notch:


M: You don't like me, Bond. You don't like my methods. You think I'm an accountant, a bean counter more interested in my numbers than your instincts.
Bond: The thought had occurred to me.
M: Good. Because I think you're a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. A relic of the Cold War, whose boyish charms, though lost on me, obviously appealed to that young girl I sent out to evaluate you.
Bond: Point taken.
M: Not quite, 007. If you think I don't have the balls to send a man out to die, your instincts are dead wrong. I've no compunction about sending you to your death. But I won't do it on a whim. Even with your cavalier attitude towards life. [...] Bond... Come back alive.
Epic.  Win.  This passage here not only gives M a much-needed chance to air out her grievances, but deconstructs 007's politically-incorrect persona.  Yet at the end, her wish for Bond to complete his mission and come back alive underscores the friendship they have when all is said and done.  Ladies and gentlemen, the tsundere character type at its finest.  5 out of 5.  Fun Fact: The casting of a female M was inspired by Stella Rimington, who became the director-general of the real MI5 in 1992.  Second Fun Fact: According to the script, her real name is Barbara Maudsley.  Moneypenny has also been re-cast, played here by a stage actress named, ironically enough, Samantha Bond.  Much like Judi Dench's M, this new Moneypenny represents a shift in the position of women in Her Majesty's Secret Service.  She's no longer going to accept Bond making promises of dates and not following through with them.  In fact, in her first appearance, she's just come back from a theatre date with another man.  And feminism marches on... with her.  5 out of 5.

The Villains: Arkady Ouromov (Gottfried John), colonel and later general in the Russian Army.  Shot by Bond.  His loyalties are... in doubt.  Either he's trying to become the next Stalin, and is visibly shocked at the reveal that Janus's parents were Cossacks (see below), or he's willing to secretly betray the Russian government in favour of a fat paycheck.  ...Or both, you never know.  4 out of 5Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean, Game of Thrones), former MI6 agent 006 and leader of the Janus crime syndicate. Dropped off an antenna cradle by Bond, and subsequently crushed by said cradle. That the chief enemy this time around is none other than 007's former equal provides a new relationship dynamic never before seen in the series. For example, note that he is the first villain to refer to our hero as simply "James" instead of "Mr. Bond" or "007".  5 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen, X-Men), a Georgian assassin who likes to kill victims by crushing with her thighs during sex.  Pinned to a tree and crushed by her harness, after the helicopter she was tied to was shot down by Bond.  Given the more mundane approach taken for the other leading lady, I'm sure some of you might appreciate the relative glamour provided by Onatopp.  4 out of 5.  Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming, Spy Kids), a computer programmer bought out by Janus.  Frozen alive by a liquid nitrogen explosion.  He may be played for comic relief, but you don't joke around with a guy who hacks into the FBI's mainframes in his spare time.  3 out of 5.

The Gadgets: A BMW Z3 with radar and (allegedly) Stinger missiles.  This marks the first time that James Bond is presented with a non-British car.  If you take offence to that, then you have the almighty pound to blame; this was nothing more than a simple product-placement deal.  Besides, the car gets very little use in the film, due to BMW only providing a prototype model which the film crew couldn't afford to damage in a real chase.  (But never mind that, we've got a tank chase!)  However, the classic Aston Martin DB5 is still in use as his personal car.  007 also uses a grappling-hook belt, a grenade pen, and with no explanation from Q, a laser-cutter watch.  2 out of 5.

The Locations: Russia (filmed in Switzerland, Russia, and England), Monaco, the United Kingdom (England), and Cuba (filmed in Puerto Rico).

The Theme Song: Performed by Tina Turner.  The lyrics, written from the point of view of a female stalker, have little to do with the movie's plot, but work as a gender-swapped version of "Thunderball".  The song is perhaps more famous for cheesy, Casio-grade synth horns and the over-the-top high notes Tina belts out at the end.  3 out of 5.  As badly-produced as that song is, it still has it better than the rest of the score, which was composed by Eric Serra (The Professional) and relies too much on cheap synth blasts and low-timbre kettle-drums.  1 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: With the passing of Maurice Binder, the opening credits for this film were designed by Daniel Kleinman, who put more of a focus on computer-generated graphics.  The credits revolve around the collapse of the Soviet Union, and feature images such as silhouette girls breaking apart Soviet statues.  5 out of 5.  Fun Fact: This last part did not amuse numerous communist parties, including the one in India, who advocated a boycott of the film.

The Novel: GoldenEye was the first Bond film not to use any story elements from the Ian Fleming novels.  The name, however, is shared with Fleming's vacation home in Jamaica, and a British contingency plan during World War II (to protect Gibraltar in case Spain allied with Nazi Germany), which Fleming himself developed.

Another item relevant to the plot is the Lienz Cossacks, a faction from the Soviet Union during World War II.  Thing is, they aided the Nazis during their attempted invasion of Russia.  Once the Germans were driven back and the war ended, the Cossacks surrendered to the British in the hopes of forgiveness and to ally against the Communists.  They didn't get that; on the contrary, the British returned them to Stalin, who executed the lot.  As Bond himself says, "Not exactly [the British's] finest hour".

The Plot: Our story starts in 1986, with 007 and Alec Trevelyan, agent 006, sneaking into a Soviet chemical weapons facility.  As they plant explosives on some gas tanks, a squad led by Colonel Ouromov intercepts them and executes 006.  His partner dead, 007 speeds up the bombs' timers (I call plot significance!) and escapes.  Cue opening credits.  We return nine years later to Monaco, where Bond notices a women on the roads and in the casino.  According to MI6 intel, her name is Xenia Onatopp and she is linked to the terror group Janus.  He investigates her the next morning, only for her to comandeer the Tiger, a helicopter immune to electromagnetic radiation, during a public demonstration.

The Tiger ends up at a Siberian satellite control bunker, where Onatopp and now-General Ouromov "borrow" the keys to the Goldeneye, two satellites armed with nuclear bombs.  When detonated in space, they release an electromagnetic pulse, disabling all electronic machines (more explosively than in the real world, apparently).  The set one off over the bunker to wipe out any trace of the crime, but leave behind a survivor: Natalya Simonova, a programmer.  Meanwhile, in London, Bond and the new M monitor the situation from the MI6 HQ; she assigns him to investigate the Goldeneye theft.

In St. Petersburg, 007 meets up with CIA contact Jack Wade and "legitimate businessman" Valentin Zukovsky, setting up a shady business deal for the latter in exchange for what he knows about Janus: namely, that his parents are Lienz Cossacks (see "The Novel").  That night he meets with Onatopp, who had previously re-captured Natalya, and she takes him to meet Janus, who reveals himself as... Alec Trevelyan.  He shares his reasons for betrayal, including his Cossack heritage and Bond short-setting the timers in Arkhangelsk, then leaves Bond and Natalya to die in the Tiger.  They break free, but are taken and interrogated by the Russian Defence Ministry over the theft of the Goldeneye.  Then Ouromov barges in, frames Bond for murder, and steals Natalya, but he gives chase in a tank across the streets of St. Petersburg.  They lead him to a train where Trevelyan is hiding.  He kills Ouromov and rescues Natalya again, but not before she learns that Janus is now operating out of Cuba.

Bond and Natalya fly over the Cuban jungle in search of a satellite dish, only to get shot down and face off against Onatopp.  As the dish in question reveals itself, they sneak into the base below.  They are captured, and Trevelyan reveals his plot: after electronically stealing money from the Bank of England, he intends to set off the other Goldeneye satellite, erasing any record of the crime and all other digital data stored about London.  But it turns out Natalya had, before getting caught, managed to lock the satellite to fall out of orbit and crash harmlessly over the Atlantic Ocean.  With the help of his pen grenade, Bond makes a break for the antenna cradle above, with Trevelyan giving chase.  During the fight, he jams the cradle's mechanism so it cannot correct the satellite's orbit.  The fight ends when Bond drops Trevelyan off a platform, the cradle explodes from its malfunction, and Bond gets outta there with the help of Natalya, Wade and the Marines.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

The decline of the Soviet Union turned out to be not a roadblock for 007's writers, but a boon.  That said, I do take issue with the odd plot hole here and there.  For example, how could 007 not tell that 006 was not executed at Arkhangelsk, even from what appeared to be a point-blank gunshot, and was this a spur-of-the-moment ploy on Ouromov's part, or did he and Trevelyan plan it ahead of time?  (Likely the latter, depending on when he was aware of his Cossack heritage, and thus, his desire to betray Her Majesty's government.)  And then, we still have to deal with the soundtrack, which as I may have implied is cheesy at best and awful at worst.  But these do little to overshadow the fact that this story gives audiences of all sorts what they crave whilst re-constructing James Bond's role for the 21st century.  4 out of 5.


Positives:
+ An honest attempt at adapting James Bond for 21st-century sensibilities.
+ The new M and Moneypenny.
Negatives:
- Pierce Brosnan's "generic" take on Bond.
- Where the heck is Felix Leiter?
- Eric Serra's score.

The Call: 90% (A-)


IchigoRyu will return in
Tomorrow Never Dies

Friday, August 17, 2012

Game Review: Target Terror

Target Terror
  • Publisher: Raw Thrills (Arcade), Konami (Wii)
  • Developer: Raw Thrills (Arcade), Leviathan (Wii)
  • Release:
    • Arcade, May 2004
    • Wii, 22 April 2008
  • Genre: Light-Gun Shooter
  • Players: 1-2
  • Rarity/Cost: Moderate, US$10-20

Here we go again... it's time once again to bring up Raw Thrills.  In the way I see the world, these guys take me back to the mid-90s, a time when two distinct art styles were fighting for control of the arcade game world: 3D-style polygons, pioneered by companies including Sega (Virtua Fighter, Virtua Cop) and Namco (Tekken, Time Crisis), and 2D digitised-actor art pioneered by Midway (Mortal Kombat, Area 51).  I gravitated towards the former, if only because at the time I was too young for the blood and gore coincidentally trumpeted by the latter camp, but before long my preferences sticked.  Now, fast-forward a decade, and combine that with how Raw Thrills' inferior racing title more or less overtook Sega's Initial D Arcade Stage series, and my opinion on the company soured pretty quickly.  And the moral of this story is...?  I will not buy American if I don't want to, whether the subject is video games, animation, cars, or pornography.  Or all four at once.  ...Which would be a fan-game based on Transformers: Kiss Players, so forget about it.

The graphics style is years behind the times,
but maybe that's just me.
But I brought up Raw Thrills again not just to make that joke, but to review their other claim to fame: the light-gun shooter Target Terror.  Also known in more sensitive settings by its Japanese title Target Force, it first released for arcades in 2004, and in 2008 got a port for the Wii courtesy of Konami.  This title serves as a spiritual successor to the nigh-identical Area 51 and Maximum Force by Midway, in that the graphics engine utilises chroma-keyed footage of actors as characters, put on top of a pre-rendered CG background.  I'll try to leave this aesthetic approach to personal taste, but it just doesn't work for me, even on a gameplay level - that's right, I'm going so far as to blame it for my difficulty in hitting targets correctly.  And yet this low-tech approach still doesn't save the game from occasional slow-down, if only on the Wii port.  But given that these backgrounds are on the technical level of those lame FMVs from PSone-era games, I was pleasantly surprised that there are breakable objects here and there, mostly in the form of windows.  Regarding the "actors", if I may be permitted to put on my film-critic hat for the moment...  You know what, I won't even bother, because their acting sucks no matter how you look at it, especially in the case of the blonde news anchor who kicks off each level.  Furthermore, the Wii version also lets you adjust the level of graphic violence, with the lowest setting replacing the blood with green paint, the characters' death animations getting cut off, and even explosive fuel barrels get replaced with equally explosive paint barrels.  Taking that with the rest of the game's presentation, it's almost the game is going for self-parody (knowing what they did with The Fast and The Furious, that wouldn't be out of the question), but that doesn't make it any less painful to sit through.  I'm a pragmatist, peoples.

As for how it is played, it's got many of your light-gun game cliches: shooting outside the screen to reload, shooting hostages takes away one life, yada yada.  And it can't even do that well: the enemies are arranged with little to no regard to logic or the flow of motion, and there is no indication as to when they will land a direct hit on you either.  Woe betide you when someone hits you with a melee attack after leaving you no time to react, which is an inevitability, trust me.  Alternate weapons are available to pick up as well, but of these, only the machine gun, shotgun, and explosive weapons are what I'd call useful.  The shocker and freeze ray are, in practise, nothing more than pistols with slower firing rates, and the flamethrower's fire takes a little while to hit the target; unfortunately, you don't always have "a little while".

Yet despite it all, it does do at least a few things I like.  You are able to reload your guns not only by pressing B while pointing off-screen, but also by shaking the Wii Remote. I will admit it is a nice touch, since it helps keep your focus on the action.  Also, there is the Justice Mode, wherein the player can use two guns/Wii Remotes at once.  Assuming you can get over the coordination issues inherent with throwing your non-dominant hand into the mix, it's generally a big help.  Come to think of it, this came out for the arcades right around the time Halo 2 came and made dual-wielding cool.  Considering that, plus the game's title and setting apparently designed to tap into post-9/11 paranoia...  Yup, they're trendwhores.
"Justice Mode" supports two controllers in a one-player game.
Further to its credit, Target Terror is longer than most light-gun games, something which the genre has always struggled with., but that's beside the point.  In total, there are ten levels, each broken up into two sections, for an running time of about one hour.  That's not long in the grand scheme of things, but considering I can clear the arcade modes of the Time Crisis games in about 20 minutes each, I have no choice but to call that improvement.  Now that I mention Time Crisis (a far better series, might I add), the Wii port shares the same continue system: you have a set number of continues to finish the game with (30 in this case, and even on the easy level, you'll need 'em all), but running out will give you more continues the next time you start a new game.

There are bonus games which you can access by completing certain tasks in-level, mainly of the destroying-objects sort. (NB: I cannot confirm their existence in the arcade version.) Oddly, these minigames start immediately after you clear the special objective, rather than waiting for the end of the stage.  I suppose that would dodge the problem of the game ending before the level end could be reached, but as it is, it still unsettlingly breaks the flow of the game, for what that's worth.  And the games themselves heap on the cheese even more than the rest of the game, should that even be possible.  There's one where you shoot terrorists as they try to push tied-up bikini girls into a vat of glowing green acid, and another where you take aim at terrorists in golf carts, an homage to another arcade mainstay, the Golden Tee golf series.  You get extra points from these minigames, but that's it.  In fact, that serves as a metaphor for the game as a whole - when you consider the presence of other, better shooters, they render Target Terror silly and pointless.

Control: 1 terrorist out of 5
Design: 2 terrorist out of 5

Graphics: 1 terrorist out of 5
Audio: 1 terrorist out of 5
The Call: 35% (F)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Film Review: Licence to Kill


Licence to Kill
  • Publisher: MGM / United Artists
  • Studio: Danjaq / EON Productions
  • Director: John Glen
  • Producers: Albert R. Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson
  • Writers: Michael G. Wilson, Richard Maibaum
  • Release: 14 July 1989 (USA), 4 August 1989 (UK)


The Girls: Pam Bouvier / Kennedy (Carey Lowell), a CIA informant working on the Sanchez case.  Her chemistry with Bond is much rockier than most Bond Girls, since he's always brushing off her attempts to stay and help him.  And I don't usually take this side in these situations, but I have to say... she's right.  3 out of 5.  Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto), Sanchez's girlfriend.  In the beginning of the movie, she is beaten by Sanchez for cheating on her.  Even though she willingly committed the infidelity (as far as we know), this scene, along with her subsequent aid for Bond in fighting against Sanchez, left my heart rooting for her.  5 out of 5.

Other Allies: Felix Leiter (David Hedison), 007's ally, now working for the DEA (US Drug Enforcement Agency).  Note that this was the same guy who played the role in Live and Let Die.  Sharkey (Frank McRae), a boat-pilot and friend of Leiter's.  Killed offscreen by some of Krest's henchmen.  Essentially a copy of Quarrel Jnr from Live and Let Die, so why couldn't they have recycled him instead of creating a new character?  2 out of 5.

The Villains: Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), a fugitive, highly-connected drug lord.  Set on fire by Bond.  Far-removed from the take-over-the-world types of Bond villains, Sanchez is quite versatile in his personality, able to establish a good friendship with anybody who, to his knowledge, is not out to cross him.  But if you are, then you really need to run like heck.  Notice how Bond uses this temperment against him.  5 out of 5.

Other Henchmen: Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Sanchez's partner in crime.  Blown up in a decompression chamber by Sanchez.  He shows up drunk in one scene, yet for some reason feels that way for the entire movie.  2 out of 5.  Dario (Benicio del Toro, Sin City), a young bodyguard of Sanchez's.  Dropped in a cocaine grinder.  Such a dangerously awesome man who was not given nearly enough screen time, given his potential and backstory with Pam.  4 out of 5.  Truman-Lodge (Anthony Starke), Sanchez's financial advisor.  Shot by Sanchez after one too many annoying comment on his losses - thank you, amigo.  1 out of 5.  Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton); a comic-relief character, he heads the religious charity which serves as the cover for Sanchez's operations.  The fact that he uses his catch phrase "Bless your heart!" instead of profanities should tell you all you need to know.  3 out of 5.

The Gadgets: A sniper rifle with a handprint-scanner lock disguised as a video camera, plastic explosives hidden in a tube of toothpaste, and a detonator in a pack of cigarettes.  Fun Fact: The latter necessitated an anti-smoking warning during the end credits, and from then on, Bond was very seldom seen smoking.  Pam accidentally demos an X-ray Polaroid camera with a laser gun, and Q uses a communicator broom in the field.

The Locations: The United States (Florida), and the fictional nation of Isthmus.  Given the sensitive nature of the War on Drugs that was flaring up at the time, I'm sure the decision to use the second fictional nation in the film series was intentional.  But for what it's worth, the name implies a location like Panama's, while the scenes here were filmed in Mexico and the flag is similar to, if not that of Guatemala.

The Theme Song: Performed by Gladys Knight.  Unlike the last two theme songs, they chose a legacy artist this time around - Knight hadn't put out a studio album for ten years - and she gave us a prime example of late-80s R&B.  That line "I've got a license to kill / anyone who tries to tear us apart" is kinda creepy when you think about it, so... don't think about it.  The end credits song is "If You Asked Me To" by Patti LaBelle.  4 out of 5.

The Opening Credits: Camera and casino motifs, with a lot of green and brown colours.  Notably, the only opening sequence with product placement - for Olympus cameras, which aren't even used in the film itself.  1 out of 5.

The Novel: Licence to Kill uses an original screenplay, but two aspects were borrowed from different books.  The scene where Leiter is fed to sharks comes from 1954's Live and Let Die, and the character of Milton Krest comes from "The Hildebrant Rarity", part of 1960's For Your Eyes Only.

The Plot: Our story starts with Felix Leiter en route to his wedding, escorted by his best man James Bond, when some DEA agents intercept him, regarding a lead on the drugs kingpin Franz Sanchez.  With 007's help, they capture him in mid-flight, with enough time to drop into the wedding.  Cue opening credits.  We return to Sanchez, who offers a US$2 million reward for whomever can free him.  Ed Killifer, the federal agent guarding him, takes the offer and has him sprung out in transit.  That night, some goons raid Leiter's home, killing his wife and taking him to be partially eaten by sharks.

007 scouts around the Florida Keys for places that deal in sharks, ending up at a marine laboratory run by a mister Milton Krest.  That night he sneaks into the place, discovers some cocaine, and throws Killifer into the same shark tank that claimed Leiter's arm.  Once the police discover his actions, Bond debriefs with M at the Hemingway House (of all places), where he resigns, officially abandoning his 00 status and licence to kill, but makes a break for it instead of going quietly.  His next stop is the Wavekrest, a yacht owned by Krest, where he intercepts a drugs trade between Krest and Sanchez's camp, and flies off with US$5 million that was supposed to go to Sanchez.  That done, he tracks down Pam Bouvier, Leiter's only living contact on the Sanchez case, at a bar in the Bimini Islands.  After rescuing her from the henchman Dario, she agrees to fly him into the nation of Isthmus so he can go after Sanchez.

In Isthmus City, Bond spends some of the money at Sanchez's casino, attracting the attention of his girlfriend Lupe Lamora, and eventually the man himself.  After scouting his office and gaining his trust, 007 sets up an assassination attempt on Sanchez.  He catches Pam making some sort of deal, and tries to make the shot nonetheless, but is stopped by some ninja agents (!) from the Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau.  They try to interrogate him, but he is rescued by the (Sanchez-bribed) police, and wakes up in Sanchez's villa.  He suggests that Krest paid the assassin from the night before, and Lupa helps him escape.  When Bond confronts Pam on what she was doing that night, she replies that she was trying to negotiate the return of some Stinger missiles Sanchez had bought, but the attack scared off the other party.  That night, Krest arrives, 007 plants the drugs money in his yacht, and thinking he paid to have him killed, Sanchez kills Krest in a decompression chamber.

But 007's not out of the woods yet: he is escorted on a tour of Sanchez's drugs plant, along wih some Asian cartel leaders whom the man made a deal with.  They are shown their product: a new type of crack cocaine that can be dissolved into gasoline for smuggling, and later be re-formed.  Bond torches the place but is caught, and Dario leaves him to die in a grinder, only for Pam to come and kill him in turn.  The two give chase, taking down the tankers one by one, until Bond is confronted by a petrol-soaked Sanchez.  He sets him on fire with a lighter given to him by Felix Leiter at their wedding - EPIC.  WIN.  We end with a party at the ex-Sanchez villa, where Bond sets Lupe up with the Isthmus president and hangs with Pam.  You are now free to turn off your TV.

I'll admit it: this is among my favourite James Bond films of all time, definitely within the top five at least.  As I grew more experienced in exploring the franchise, my interest shifted towards the more plot-driven films, generally from the 80s and 90s.  And what a plot we have here.  Experienced film buffs will draw parallels to, for example, Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, in that the hero sows the seeds of distrust within the villain's organisation.  And then you have side plots such as the one with the Stingers, which forces Bond to realise he can't just go down his narrow path of revenge without affecting the goals of other people.  Of course, killing Sanchez fixes some of their problems, too.  But the end results aren't pretty: among the more gruesome deaths, the stronger profanities, and the drugs references, this was the first James Bond to be rated a PG-13 in America and a 15 in Britain - and they still had to make a few cuts to avoid the next level up.  But if it helped the writers take their job seriously, it paid off.

The Call: 90% (A-)

But the aftermath wasn't all good.  After the release of Licence to Kill, the franchise suffered its longest hiatus to date, with six years separating this and the next Bond film.  The primary reason was a lawsuit, where MGM/UA was bought out by Qintex with an intent to merge it with Pathe, but Danjaq (parent company of EON Productions) fought back to keep control of the franchise.  I know, that's a lot of companies to remember.  Not helping matters was LtK's relatively poor performance in America, having come after numerous summer blockbusters including Batman, Back to the Future Part II, Ghostbusters II, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, to name a few.  When the series did bounce back, it would never again premiere in the summer season for that reason.  For what it's worth, the franchise also had to deal with the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had contributed to so many of the plotlines, and the deaths of numerous high-profile crew members, including screenwriter Richard Maibaum and titles designer Maurice Binder.  But six years and one change of star later, James Bond came back better than ever, which we will learn about when...

IchigoRyu will return in
Goldeneye

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dance Dance Retrospective: The Competition

It has been said by Nintendo's Satoru Iwata that "[...] the history of entertainment is also the history of imitation", and this certainly rings true for the Dance Dance Revolution.  Considering how it and its Bemani brethren have all but crafted their own genre, it was inevitable that other companies would try and take a bite of Konami's apple.  Some of these even had lasting effects on the Bemani franchise, so it was also inevitable that I'd have to talk about it at some point.

One thing I should point out before we start is that a lot of these imitators, particularly during DDR's earlier days, originated from the Republic of (South) Korea.  They have an excuse:  For decades after World War II, the two Koreas banned Japanese products in response to what the former empire did during its earlier colonisation of the peninsula.  (Not their finest hour, I'm willing to admit.)  Of course, this included video game hardware and software (although some Nintendo and Sega products were re-branded and sold by South Korean companies).  South Korea's ban expired in 1998, but the damage was done: Personal computers, not consoles, stuck as the Koreans' platform of choice for playing computer games.  And, as we will see below, they saw themselves as having some free reign to adopt Japan-originating gaming concepts as their own.

Pump It Up! (1999-Present, Andamiro (South Korea), 18 games)
Pump It Up! (PIU), by Andamiro, is not only the most prolific of the games to copy Dance Dance Revolution, but is the most direct clone.  The game uses a dance pad of five panels arranged in an "X" shape, essentially, the inverse of DDR's controller.  The soundtrack has primarily composed of contemporary Korean pop licences and original songs by "Banya", their counterpart to Naoki Maeda of DDR.  But ever since the mid-2000s, once Andamiro noticed how their games were taking off in Central and South America, they started throwing Latino songs into the mix as well.  The end result is that there's virtually nothing recogniseable to North American ears, so you'll pretty much have to explore the tracklists blindly to find something you'll like.  But PIU also innovates in its own ways, like the nonstop megamixes, the quest modes (think Dance Master Mode from Extreme 2, but you can save your progress with a USB memory stick), and much harder high-level charts.  These advancements in difficulty have inadvertently (?) resulted in an uneven difficulty curve among the three difficulty levels (think Normal = Light, Hard = Standard, and Crazy = hard than Heavy).

Believe it or not, I have faint memories of playing one of the PIU games even before I heard of DDR.  (I bombed. ^.^;)  Since I discovered DDR, I have had a love-hate relationship with this series.  Initially I was opposed to it in a manner similar to how I regard Shrek to this very day - which is bad.  But after only a couple of years I got over myself, and recognised that both series have things they could learn from one another.  Andamiro could learn to licence more songs Americans would be familiar with (we're 300 million strong, don't count us out), smooth out the difficulty curve from the Hard to Crazy levels, and put some honest-to-blog trance songs in the mix.  And Konami could learn to get creative with their high-level charts, especially since jumps with 3 or more simultaneous arrows are commonplace in PIU yet unheard of in DDR, and start letting us use USB devices to save profiles instead of forcing their eAmuse system upon us (as covered here).

For the reasons I detailed at the beginning of this article, PIU has had much less success on the home console scene compared to DDR.  Only one console release was sold in either Korea or North America: Pump It Up Exceed (PlayStation 2 / XBox, 2005).  Apart from that, they also released PlayStation Portable versions of PIU Exceed and Zero within Korea, but bear in mind the PSP has no region restrictions, so if you're inticed enough, feel free to get importing.  The most recent game, Pump It Up: 2011 Fiesta EX was released worldwide in 2011.

EZ2Dancer (2000-2004, Amuseworld (South Korea), 5 games)
EZ2Dancer can best be described as a hybrid between Dance Dance Revolution and DanceManiaX (refresher).  The control setup utilises three floor panels to step on and two hand sensors to wave over.  The last game, EZ2Dancer Super China, was released in China in 2004.

TechnoMotion (2000, F2 Systems (South Korea), 2 games)
TechnoMotion branded itself as a fusion of Pump It Up and Dance Dance Revolution, in that it utilised the gameplay styles of both franchises.  The two dance pads each boasted nine panels, allowing for modes supporting four (DDR), five (PIU), or eight panels (all except the centre panel).  As awesome as it would be to play songs from both series on one machine, we were sadly not granted that luxury; the soundtrack was almost exclusively K-Pop licences.  The last game, TechnoMotion: The 2nd Dance Floor, was released worldwide in 2000.

In The Groove (2004-2005, Roxor (United States), 2 games)
In The Groove comes to us courtesy of Roxor Games, made up of programmers for StepMania, an open-source DDR clone for computers.  The control setup is identical to DDR's 4-panel layout, but so many more tricks: three- and four-panel jumps, Mines (pressing the panel will deal damage), and Rolls (like Freeze Arrows, but the panel must be tapped repeatedly).  Sadly, it was too similar to DDR for its own good; in 2006, Konami sued Roxor, and bought the rights as a settlement, preventing a third game and a home port of the second game from being produced.  But the news isn't all bad; the team members later jumped ship and developed the Pump It Up! Pro games, blending the music and concepts from both PIU and ITG.  The last game, In The Groove 2, was released worldwide in 2005.

Guitar Hero (2005-2010, Activision (United States), 11 games)
Don't laugh.  I'm lumping the Guitar Hero series in here not because it involves dancing - it doesn't - but because it represented a shift in music gamers' mentality.  In focusing on rock & roll music, Guitar Hero was, from what I've inferred, more in tune (no pun intended) to most Americans' taste in music, allowing it to take off in ways DDR could never hope to out of its native Japan.  And take off it did, a little too well in fact - with so many of its spinoffs and competitors crowding the market, on top of the traditional once-a-year installments, Activision put the series on an indefinite hiatus after 2010.  The last game, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock was released worldwide in 2010.

Just Dance (2009-Present, Ubisoft (France), 15 games)
With Just Dance, dancing games have finally come back into vogue - but not as you remember them.  This new paradigm involves mimicking dance steps and poses with your whole body, either by using the Wii Remote, or with the PS3 or XBox 360 motion cameras.  As usual, many competitors have emerged, the most prominent being Dance Central and Konami's own Dance Masters, and even DDR tried to incorporate this kind of gameplay at some point (the Choreography Mode in DDR 2010).  The most recent game, Just Dance Wii 2, was released in Japan on 26 July 2012, with Just Dance: Disney Party currently in development.

But enough about these pretenders.  On the next episode of Dance Dance Retrospective, our main event is making its long-awaited return to the arcades!  But... does anybody care anymore?