Friday, September 27, 2013

Editorial: The Wind Rises

So, you guys love Studio Ghibli, right? Well, they've got another film which made the rounds in Japan and should soon be on its way abroad. It's called The Wind Rises, and it's a embellished biography of a mister Jiro Horikoshi, a 20th-century Japanese plane designer. The plot follows how he survived the 1923 Kanto Earthquake, and went on to develop such planes as the Mitsubishi A5M and (not seen in the movie) A6M, known in World War II as the "Zero". Said movie is being directed by none other than Hayao Miyazaki, who at the age of 72 has announced that this will be his final film. (For real this time.) So given its historical insight, technical pedigree, and the simple fact that it's an anime film to be shown in mainstream American cinemas, you can bet your bottom dollar (yen?) that this'll be on my must-see list.



See, The Wind Rises comes at an unfortunate point in Japan's real-world occurrences. The country is currently involved in numerous territorial disputes. China and Taiwan are making advances on the Senkaku Islands, whilst Japan is making its own claims on the Liancourt Rocks (owned by South Korea) and the Kuril Islands (owned by Russia; for the record, this particular argument is considerably more peaceable). Right-wing Japanese politicians, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, are considering changes to the country's constitution to cancel limitations on their armed forces, a result of World War II, have made public visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which both honours Japan's war dead and houses the ashes of war criminals convicted after WWII, and are shrugging off South Korean & Chinese demands for recognition and restitution for Japan's crimes committed before and during the war. (For their part, the Japanese claim the latter has already been resolved back when they established diplomatic relations with South Korea in 1965.)

With all this being the case, the implication would be that Miyazaki-sama is also in this boat. The movie depicts the creator of war machines that were used extensively by the Tojo war machine. You know, the same one that committed grave atrocities in China, Korea, and the Pacific? Ergo, this is the connection being trumpeted by groups such as South Korean netizens, who in all honesty have maintained a degree of anti-Japanese sentiment for a long time now. And by portraying a key component of said war machine without the negative consequences of its actions, not to mention neglecting the fact that Mitsubishi drafted 10,000 Koreans and/or Chinese as slave labour to build said planes, does the subject matter of The Wind Rises come across as insensitive at best?

Well... the truth isn't always that simple. Those of us who actually saw the darn film (or red its synopsis on Wikipedia) would know that when the film finally gets to depicting WWII, it's not exactly in a positive light. Apparently, the message the film portrays after all is said and done is that war is futile (understandably so; you'd say that too if you were on the losing side of a war). As a matter of fact, the right-wingers of Japan have themselves taken issue with Miyazaki-sama's own anti-war stance, exhibited both here and in earlier works like NausicaƤ and Grave of the Fireflies (the latter directed by Isao Takahata). More to the point, Miyazaki has made the following disapproving statements about the aformentioned attempts to rewrite the constitution, in a letter for Studio Ghibli's in-house magazine:
"It goes without saying that I am against constitutional reform. [...] I'm taken aback by the lack of knowledge among government and political party leaders on historical facts. People who don't think enough shouldn't meddle with the constitution."
Oh, and off the record, I for one am willing to accept these lessening of constitutional restrictions on Japan's military -- IF and ONLY IF the lawmakers start owning up to the mistakes of their ancestors. I mean, seriously guys, it's not like you committed the atrocities personally, that was ages ago! What've you got to lose!? And hey, it's not like we Americans are innocent of whitewashing our own history! Pocahontas says hi. Then again, I don't believe there are any talking animals involved in The Wind Rises, so I suppose the whitewashing will only go so far this time around.

So, with all that said, would I still be willing to endorse this movie by purchasing a ticket?


It's Studio [verb]ing Ghibli, of course I'll see it! Seriously, it would take a lot of wrongdoing for me to forgo something like this in favour of the latest animated Hollywood drivel. (Seriously, Free Birds, what is this, 2006?) And works like this and From Up On Poppy Hill (which, sadly, only got a limited release in America... RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGE) show that Studio Ghibli themselves are branching out into new concepts. Whilst the company is known for its more fantastical fare, their two latest films represent a shift towards more grounded, historical, and personal subject matter. Yet at the same time, the animation style maintains the company's traditional whimsy, contributing just the right amount of a softened edge so that maybe we can forget the fact the actions of Jiro Horikoshi were used by an unspeakably evil force, and just absorb ourselves in his personal dramas. Walt Disney Pictures has announced plans to dub The Wind Rises and show it in America some time in 2014, so when it arrives, you can bet your bottom dollar (yen?) that I'll be there.

McCurry, Justin. "Japanese animator under fire for film tribute to warplane designer." The Guardian, 22 August 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Editorial: Nintendo 2DS and PlayStation Vita TV

The face of portable video games is changing. And I'm not just talking about the rising popularity and viability of smartphones and other smartphone-based hardware. (Darn you, iPad, for making this stuff harder to classify.)  I'm talking about the stuff put out by the establishment. We all know about Nintendo's 3DS and Sony's PlayStation Vita platforms, both put out earlier in the decade. But over the past week or two, they've both announced new models of these products, whilst scaled-down from their respective flagship products in their own ways, have the potential to open up new sections of the gaming market. Ladies and gentlemen, enter the Nintendo 2DS and PlayStation Vita TV.

The Nintendo 2DS.
We'll start with the 2DS. You know how the top screen on the 3DS can display images in stereoscopic 3D? Yeah, that was a neat feat of engineering, especially considering that you don't even need 3D glasses to see the effects. Welp, the 2DS is chucking that out of the window. The top screen will now only be able to display the simulated kind of 3D graphics, not the illusion-of-depth kind. Also, unlike the DS and 3DS families before them, the 2DS unit cannot be folded in half. The L and R triggers are located on the top corners of the unit, so as such the buttons are also located closer to the top screen. From a functional standpoint, this should draw the player's attention towards the top screen, unlike on the foldable DS/3DS units. How this works out for the player I have yet to see, although the reports I've read seem to reflect positively on its ergonomics. Of course, the Internet being what it is, such positive pre-release buzz has been drowned out by the masses condeming it because... reasons, I don't know. So is it an uninteresting, unnecessary piece of junk, as the netizens would have you believe?

Not so fast: it still runs the entire existing library of 3DS game cards, DS game cards, and downlodable titles from the Nintendo eShop. (In other news, Shantae is now available on the eShop for a paltry US$5. Get on that, peoples.) And even with the conspicuous absence of Mega Man Legends 3, the 3DS library alone already has a number of killer apps. Just off the top of my head I can think of Kid Icarus: Uprising, Super Mario 3D Land, and upcoming titles such as Pokemon X & Y and the new Super Smash Bros. Throw in the multitudes of DS and downloadable titles already available, and the 3DS is a fun platform, no matter how many dimensions are involved. The 2DS is expected to go on sale worldwide on 12 October 2013 (the same day Pokemon X & Y come out, whoda thunk?), at a price somewhere around US$130, $40 less than the base 3DS. So the best I can summarise it is that the 2DS is a cheap option to experience the many titles exclusive to the DS and 3DS's libraries, and shouldn't affect its bigger brothers in any way.

The PS Vita TV unit (left) and PS3 DualShock 3 controller (right).
On the other hand, we have the PlayStation Vita TV (Edit: later sold in North America as the PlayStation TV). Whilst able to run most of the same software as the original PlayStation Vita, the Vita TV model is a different animal entierly. Rather than being a stand-alone unit with its own screen and buttons, it plugs into a TV set (only HDMI hookups are supported) and uses existing PlayStation 3 and, in the future, PlayStation 4 controllers. Sorta defeats the purpose of owning a portable system, wouldn't you say? Not necessarily. I've tried the original Vita at game-store demos, and you can colour me unimpressed, mainly because the buttons and sticks are too small for my comfort. Even if you, the reader, have never had that problem,

The Vita TV is expected to run most existing Vita games on either card or download form, and by "most" I mean, don't expect games that are heavily dependent on the Vita's touchscreens, microphone, or camera to be supported. In addition, it should also be able to support PSP, PSone, and (presumably for Japan only) TurboGrafx-16 games that are available for download from the PlayStation Store. But here's the catch: right now, the Vita TV has only been anounced for a Japanese release in November 2013, with a retail price of around JPY10,000 (US$100). No plans have yet been made for an international release, but personally, I've got faith in that taking place. It's not like the PSX, that hybrid PlayStation 2 and DVR that Sony put out in the mid-2000s. Whereas the PSX crumpled under the weight of its own price before it could make it out of the country, the Vita TV ocupies a lower price level than the regular Vita. So if you've been enticed by the odd Vita or PSP game but haven't found enough incentive to buy one or the other, perhaps the Vita TV will give you a cheaper (and more hand-friendly) route of experiencing them... which is pretty much what I said about the 2DS. Great minds think alike, I guess.

So those are my thoughts on the 2DS and Vita TV, but before I go, allow me to apply them to what I expect for the future of console gaming. (And for the record, I'm building off of something I heard mused about on Brawl in the Family's podcast.) You know Nintendo's developing nearly identical titles for both the 3DS and Wii/Wii U? For example, Super Mario 3D Land/World, Mario Kart 7/8, and the new Super Smash Bros. This essentially means that they're making similar products twice in quick succession. All those extra resources, and any given customer is probably going to buy only one of them. I'd imagine Sony's developers are in the same boat with the PS3 and PSP, or PS3 and PS Vita, or PS4 and Vita, or however you want to mix it up.
The Sega Nomad, from 1995.
So here's my concept for the next video game console: a stand-alone portable system, with its own screen and inputs, but it can also plug into a TV and use that as the display, along with separate controllers. In other words, think a hybrid of the Vita TV and the Gamepad controller for Wii U. In fact, we kinda already had something like that. Anyone remember the Sega Nomad, a portable version of their famous Genesis console? Yeah, it was a huge flop, due to its poor battery life and the lateness with which it was released, but perhaps now the time and technology are ready for this dream to take form. But in the end, it all comes down to making memorable or desirable games, so get on that, developers. Work together and bring your A-game, and the future will be a very bright one indeed. Until then...

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

Edit 24 Jan 2018: You know that concept I proposed for a new console, which could be used both as a TV-based console and a handheld?  Yeah, that pretty much describes the Nintendo Switch, which was unveiled in late 2016 and released in the following March.  Granted, I hadn't imagined its other feature of controllers that snap in and out of the unit's sides, but other than that?  I called it.  I FRICKIN' CALLED IT!!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Game Review: Wave Race 64

Wave Race 64 
  • Publisher: Nintendo 
  • Developer: Nintendo 
  • Release: 
    • Nintendo 64, 1 November 1996 
    • Wii (DLC), 6 August 2007 
  • Genre: Racing 
  • Players: 1-2 
  • Save: Built-in 
  • Rarity/Cost: 
    • N64: Common (US$5-20) 
    • Wii: N/A (US$10) 
Remember back at the start of the summer, when I rather ironically reviewed two snowboarding games at once? Well allow me to make it up to you by reviewing a more summery sports game before the equinox hits. And what better way to follow up 1080 Snowboarding than with Nintendo's other extreme-sports title, Wave Race 64? The sequel to a 1992 Game Boy title called simply Wave Race, its N64 sibling is, as the title suggests, a racing game on waves. Specifically, you and three other competitors are tasked with doing laps around one of eight waterlogged tracks, on stand-up, Kawasaki-model personal watercraft. (Fun Fact: Due to an expired licence, the Wii version replaces the Kawasaki billboards, seen in the picture below, with ads for the Nintendo DS and Wii. In a game originally from 1996. Go figs.)

Most of your time may be spent in the Championship mode, a series of races which lasts for, depending on the difficulty selected, six to eight events. In these events, the position each racer finishes in determines the points they get at the end of each race, and the winner of the series is determined from who has the most points. But at the same time, there's a target score which increases with each round, and if you don't meet or exceed this score, you're kicked out of the series and will have to try again. This lingering threat of failure could discourage some gamers from giving it that other try, but who am I to complain about a game punishing you for your mistakes? And besides it's not as if you'll necessarily fail out just for finishing a race in fourth, not if you've built up a wide enough margin, so what've you got to complain about?
You have to follow slalom buoys, or else get powered down.
But certainly a simple race off of some beach could grow boring quickly, especially if a total of only four racers are involved? Well, that's not all: you have to follow a series of buoys as well, indicating you to pass them on the left or the right, like a slalom course. If you miss enough of these buoys (the default is 5), you lose the race automatically. But there's positive reinforcement for following them, as well: for each buoy you pass, your top speed is increased, up to a maximum of five levels. And then they throw in obstacles, ramps, and of course, the waves themselves, so one thing's for certain: in terms of gameplay, Wave Race 64 is not lacking in variety.

Wave Race 64 is, on the other hand, somewhat lacking in content, with only eight tracks available for play (plus Dolphin Park, which is available only as a practise level or in Stunt mode). But just because the levels are limited in number doesn't mean they lack their own personalities. For example, on Southern Coast, the last level on all difficulties, the tide falls in the middle of the race, forcing you to dodge new obstacles you could run over on the first lap. Apart from this, a number of courses have shortcuts, some of which don't open until the second lap, and some of which are completely blocked off on certain difficulties. Even the tracks that are laid out in a simple oval are spiced up simply by the presence of those slalom buoys I mentioned earlier. Apart from the Championship mode, the game also features 2-player races, a Time Trial mode, and the Stunt mode, where you score points for driving through rings and perform rolls, flips, and other manoeuvers off of ramps. The array of available tricks is not wide, certainly not to the level of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater games, and I wish the Stunt Mode runs lasted more than one lap, but it's a fun experience to mess around in.

Speaking of lacking content, the selection of characters consists of only four riders. All of them have different performance statistics; although they are not displayed, which would have been a great help, it's a pretty obvious guess that the one girl (default name A. Stewart) boasts sharper turning and slower speeds than the big guy (D. Mariner). But if you're looking to conquer the Expert (and Reverse) series, you won't need to bother with anybody but the third rider (M.Jeter). He and his watercraft have the cornering acumen of the lady I mentioned earlier, but without the sacrifice in speed. In fact, their steering is a bit too sharp. And this isn't like a 1080 Snowboarding level of uncontrollability, but make too sharp a turn and you'll lose valuable speed fast. Well fret not: that's where the engine customisation feature comes in! No matter which rider you choose to play as, you can adjust his/her machine's handling, grip, and acceleration/top-speed balance. Apart from the last of those criteria I mentioned, the game gives little direction as to what altering these specs will have on your performance, so let me help you a bit. Just stick to M.Jeter and set the Handling spec halfway to the left, to fix some of his understeer.
Considering the time this game was made, the wave physics are impressive.
Before going any further, let me state the fact that Wave Race 64 was released within the first months of the Nintendo 64's life cycle,  well before the console's full potential had been tapped. That said, this game has some really good graphics for its time, especially in the look and feel of the water. The waves in particular, whilst they might be script-generated, are handled rather realistically and are an excellent showcase of the game's water physics. Again, consider the primitive state of 3D graphics at the time, and this becomes an even more amazing feat in hindsight. The soundtrack is primarily light-rock fare that would sound more at home in 1986 than '96, but the title screen does use a nice, somewhat catchy guitar-driven theme which is incorporated into a number of the stages' background music. And of course there's the announcer, prone to stating the obvious and sometimes falling behind in his vocal updates.

All in all, there's not too much content to be found in Wave Race 64, not like today's triple-A title... sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence with a straight face. At any rate, the slalom system, Stunt Mode, and of course the wave physics make this game stand out among its contemporaries in the racing genre. In fact, given that this series only received one additional sequel, Wave Race: Blue Storm (GCN, 2001), that only serves to highlight the special place Wave Race 64 (and presumably, the other two games) holds in the gaming macrocosm. If you can find it for cheap, preferably less than the $10 it goes for on the Wii Shop, then by all means, give it a spin! Or... whatever they say in that regard for personal watercraft.

+ Impressive wave effects and physics.
+ Courses that change in the middle of a race.
+ The buoy slalom system (arguably a negative).

- Disagreeable controls, if you're used to land-based driving games.
- The buoy slalom system (arguably a positive).

Control: 3 buoys out of 5
Design: 4 buoys out of 5
Graphics: 5 buoys out of 5
Audio: 3 buoys out of 5
Value: 3 buoys out of 5
The Call: 75% (B-)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Editorial: Mighty No.9

Edit 24 Jan 2018: This article reflects Mighty No. 9 as it was presented in its Kickstarter campaign, from 2013.  If you want my review of the game we actually got, three frickin' years later, you may read it here.  This was also written  way before Capcom announced Mega Man 11, to be released later in 2018, but that's another story.

Something wonderful happened over the Labor Day weekend. Oh, and I'm spelling it "Labor" instead of "Labour" since I'm referring to an American holiday. But since this news mostly involves Japan, it doesn't matter anyway. So anyway, a project recently launched on the site Kickstarter to fund an independent game for PCs entitled Mighty No.9. Amazingly, the project met its base goal of US$900,000 in just about 24 hours. But that's not the best part: the project is led by a mister Keiji Inafune. You know, the creator of Mega Man who had a falling-out with Capcom and quit only to found his own company, named Comcept. That's right: Mighty No.9 is nothing less than a trademark-safe spiritual successor to Mega Man. So it should be no surprise that I fully endorse this project.


OR DO I? Read on.

As described on its page and pledge video on Kickstarter, Mighty No.9 is a 2-dimensional, jump-and-shoot platformer game starring a robot boy named Beck. His (and the game's) title apparently refers to him being the 9th in a series of robots, and his eight predecessors should serve as the game's bosses, akin to the Robot Masters from the 2-D Mega Man series. As in Mega Man, Beck can earn special weapons by defeating bosses, but he can also transform his own body to overcome obstacles. For example, he might be able to grow tank treads in order to safely cross a pit of spikes. If you're already a fan of classic Mega Man, I'll bet that prospect alone has already got you foaming at the mouth. ^_^

But what about the rest of us? I don't know about you, but I'm starting to get a little tired of the traditional 2-D style of Mega Man. Over the past five years or so, among the few Mega Man games Capcom has put out themselves, as well as any notable fan-games (or both, in the case of Street Fighter X Mega Man), nearly all releases have followed this format. They have also emulated the 8-bit graphical style of the NES era (Mighty No.9 will not, by the way). When throwing this into the equation, bear in mind that back in the day (let's say, ah... Mega Man IV on wards), Mega Man was the butt of many jokes for the same reason: slavish adherance to a formula without much -- if anything -- in the way of new mechanics to spice things up.

And that's why the Mega Man Legends series has garnered such great respect as a cult classic: it carried over the most basic of concepts, but in all other ways was unique. Whilst the two PlayStation games were rough around the edges technically, this had more to do with hardware limitations than anything else. It was the designs of the worlds and the personalities of the characters that contributed the most to make the games memorable in the minds of many players. Present company excluded, frankly, but I had more fun playing these games than most of the other Mega Man entries. Don't believe me? I reviewed 'em both. And not to spoil anything, but the ending of the second game also left us with more questions than answers -- not to mention the worst cliff-hanger ending since The Italian Job. It's all these reasons combined that made Capcom's decision to cancel pre-production of Mega Man Legends 3 such an unforgivable act. Even to this very day, it feels like something's been missing from my life ever since -- and I wasn't even following the project until that fateful day.

So with that being my mindset, let me ask the question: Will supporting or buying Mighty No.9 bring back Legends 3, even in the long term? I mean, on the surface, this could be interpreted as supporting Inafune-sama and Comcept to make more 2-D games that are not at all like the Legends series (minus the licence). But that's looking at the issue purely from a marketing perspective, and ignoring the human element. In his pledge video, Inafune describes Mighty No.9 as the realisation of a lifelong dream. But didn't he already say that about Legends 3? Well, who knows. Maybe this and/or subsequent projects may give Comcept enough clout that Capcom will give them the rights to develop Legends 3.

...And maybe monkeys will fly out of my butt.

Yeah, it's not that easy. Consider the fact that Inafune has in the past been a little... worrisome about the state of Japan's video game industry. In fact, some have speculated that such outbursts are the reason he quit Capcom and, subsequently, why his former bosses cancelled Legends 3 later on. For what it's worth, Capcom has denied this reason, but until they actually give us a reason themselves, I'm inclined to believe it. Assuming all this bad blood between the two parties is a real thing, I don't think Inafune has this kind of clout anymore, even as a third-party contractor. I'm not saying this idea is impossible, just improbable in the current climate.

With that said, it's up to us to politicise this development. Contribute to the game's Kickstarter fund. Remember that there an array of rewards available based on your pledge. (US$10,000 gives you, of all things, a dinner with Inafune-sama. I don't know why, but that concept just seems so amusing.) Then when it comes out for the general public, buy a copy (unless your pledge already guaranteed you one). And when you do, let Capcom know about it. They have Facebook pages, including a Japanese one. Make them understand that there is a place in the video game market for the simple charms of a robot boy, be him Mega or Mighty. And remember...

Legends Never Die.

This is IchigoRyu. You are the resistance.