Monday, November 25, 2013

Dance Dance Retrospective: Class of 2009

It's almost as if Konami was afraid to make the jump into the seventh console generation as far as Dance Dance Revolution was concerned. Sure, there was the Universe series on XBox 360 and Hottest Party on Wii, but the core series remained solely in the domain of the PlayStation 2, even after its successor console came onto the market. That was all set to change in 2009, when they released a trailer trumpeting a new DDR entry for all the consoles that mattered at the time. With features such as Balance Board support for the Wii, and eight-panel modes for PlayStation 3 and 360, it was set to inject some much-needed fresh blood into our franchise.

Except... it never happened.

Sort of.

2009 did indeed see new DDR titles, namely DanceDanceRevolution X2 for the PS2 and DanceDanceRevolution Hottest Party 3 for the Wii, both released in North America on 27 October 2009. But its PS3 and 360 counterparts took their sweet time until eventually they were unofficially declared as cancelled. Well actually, they did come out in some form later on, but that's another story. But at the time, the games we did get felt like the opening act for a main event which never showed up. So now that time has passed, let's analyse the games on their own merits.

We shall start with DDR X2. Not to be confused with the future arcade edition of the same name (again, another story), the 2009 X2 is essentially a direct sequel to DDR X, inasmuch as a rhythm game with no plot can have a direct sequel. Its interface is a re-skinned version of X's, focusing on violet and gold colours and funky city motifs. The new single-player modes are Dice Master Mode, a pseudo-board-game interface for playing missions and unlocking new content, and Request Mode, a simpler affair more like the Mission Mode in Extreme. I couldn't tell you more about these modes because I never bothered to play this game -- I know, shocking. Maybe it's the music setlist: with a total of 62 songs split between licences, new Konami originals, leftover Konami originals from X, and a smattering of revival songs which no one cared about. Seriously, "Tierra Buena"!? Oh, and the Groove Radar Specials from SuperNOVA2.

Meanwhile, Hottest Party 3 made significant changes in both design and gameplay, compared to its own predecessor. HP3 is the first DDR game to use a "Cover Flow" layout (popularised by iTunes) in its music select screen, displaying album artwork in a 3D-ish line. And in addition to the traditional dance-pad gameplay, there's a separate mode where you use the Wii Balance Board, swinging your centre of balance to hit notes. I've never owned a Balance Board, so again I couldn't be bothered to try this game. The song list is also 62 large and shares many of the tracks from X2, but instead of pre-existing Konami originals, they threw in new licenced songs not found in X2, thus trapping fans (myself excluded) in a proverbial rock-and-a-hard-place quandary. And a (not so) Fun Fact: the Japanese version of HP3, Dance Dance Revolution Music Fit, is as of this post the last home DDR game made for Japan.

I know what you're thinking (and if I'm wrong, allow me to put words in your mouth): "Kevin not buying the new Dance Dance Revolution game? What has this world come to?" Well, I've grown a lot more cynical for one thing, especially since SuperNOVA came about and Konami decided to stop innovating. (As a matter of fact, SuperNOVA2 was the first game in a while which I didn't pick up within the first few days of its release, if you want to split hairs.) But it's not just the unchanging experience which turned me off. Content is nine-tenths of the law when it comes to music game sequels, and neither did I feel a connection in this area. Whereas the licenced songs in X were in short supply and generally the products of lesser-known artists, X2 and HP3 reversed this trend by shifting the focus onto top-40 hits from the past year or two. Acts like Ne-Yo, Pitbull, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna are represented in both games. However, this approach sometimes lends itself to picking less-than-danceable selections. Seriously Konami, I like Coldplay's "Viva La Vida", but it doesn't have the kind of energy that I could step to.

Also, I'd like to discuss a certain trend which really became noticeable around this time: the edited versions of licenced songs appearing in DDR games, mostly the American and European home versions, are generally bollocks. As you might know by now, most songs in DDR run for about a minute and a half, less than half of their original runtimes. A good editor would excise verses and choruses to get to the target length, and leave no indication that anything was cut unless you were familiar with the full version. However, the approach Konami has taken as of late is to just run the song from the beginning and just fade out whenever it felt "right", usually in the middle of the second verse. Does the song have any profanities, even mild ones? Just skip over the offending verse and use the next one, they would say, no need to track down the clean version. And then there's Vanilla Ice's sarcastic-quotes magnum-opus end-sarcastic-quotes "Ice Ice Baby", which possibly has the worst edit out of all licenced songs in DDR. For some reason they used only the first verse, avoided the chorus whenever possible, and ended with thirty seconds of a lyricless outro. See for yourself:

And it gets even worse: X2 and HP3 also introduce* remakes of some classic Konami originals, such as "Brilliant 2U", "Keep On Movin'", and "Dynamite Rave". And by "remakes", I mean they cheapened up the production, wrote new lyrics, and got their in-house singers du jour to give a half-hearted performance. Now, I'm not equating the original versions with the best records out right now, but they did have their own nostalgic charm because that '90s-flavoured camp is what I grew up with as a DDR player. And being offered something that's presented as one of those old favourites but turns out to be something completely different is disappointing, like when you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca cherry cola. And even worse worse (didn't know how to phrase that), they had the ballsy temerity to make new stepcharts for them as well. Again, charts like "Dynamite Rave" expert had a familiar hardness to them, and when they get replaced with something easier and more generic, well, allow me to redirect you to my previous comparison. Yeah, they might've had to remake these songs because of rights issues involving the original recordings... somehow... but knowing that doesn't lessen the hurt for us consumers.

Konami, I am disappoint. Oh well, looks like it's up to the arcade series to karmically balance out this franchise. Find out if they make it happen, next time on Dance Dance Retrospective!

*NB: These remakes first appeared in the Japanese version of Hottest Party 2. That is except for "Dynamite Rave", which was used in the arcade version of DDR X , but with the old stepcharts untouched.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Editorial: Hand-Drawn vs. Computer Animation

Longtime fans of mine, assuming I have any longtime fans, may recall my vendetta against the Shrek series of films. I believe my review of Shrek the Third made that quite clear. After the release of the first entry in 2001, an unfortunate trend grew in the animation market. It seemed as though in order for an animated film to sell in America, it had to appeal exclusively to the lowest common denominator. Concurrently, on an aesthetic level, traditional hand-drawn animation was being phased out by the Hollywood machine in favour of computer-generated imagery. This being the case, I eventually associated CG animation with the evils that the Shrek franchise appeared to have brought upon the market, and the force that was subduing 2-dimensional, or quote-good-unquote animation.

Of course, my objections to Shrek, and everything that would claim inspiration from it, aren't just their contributions to the dumbening of our collective culture. Nope, it's also personal. I can't stand to look at even a still image from any of said movies lest I reserve a ticket for some night terrors. Personally, I chalk it up to the Uncanny Valley. You know the one. As we add human characteristics to a thing, we like it more and more, up to a point where we don't like it. (Refer to the graph below, replacing "zombie" with "Shrek" and "humanoid robot" with "any non-Gonk anime character".) It is my belief that characters like Shrek, Donkey, and most other non-humans from the films are smack-dab in the nadir of the Valley. This has nothing to do the technical qualities with which Dreamworks Animation renders its image; it's how they chose to stylise their characters which came off as creepy to my warped set of tastes. (Also I had discovered anime a few years before then and was slowly starting to identify with its animation style, but that's just coincidence! ...Right?)

The Uncanny Valley graph.
But not too long ago, I did some soul-searching on the matter. And I discovered: what is 3D animation but an extension of 2D animation? However you stylise a 2-dimensional drawing, its essence can still shine through when you use it as the basis for a 3-dimensional model. For example, I believe at an early stage of development, the first Shrek film was to be done in a traditional 2-dimensional animation style, but I can't guarantee I would've found the results less creepy. As such, let me state for the record: there is CG animation I like, for example the cutscene movies for Final Fantasy and other video games. Not to mention, nowadays I'm seeing characters in works like Disney's Tangled and their upcoming Frozen, and Dreamworks' own How To Train Your Dragon, of all things, which are stylised in such a way that I can bear to look at them for more than a fleeting glimpse out the corner of my eye -- quite more, in fact. On the flip side, there is also hand-drawn animation I don't like, for example The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power, and pretty much everything ever made by Klasky-Csupo which doesn't involve the Rugrats. My enjoyment of a piece of animation thus has more to do with the end result and less with how they got to that result.

So with that excuse knocked out of the picture, you might assume that I favour foreign (read: Japanese) works over the Hollywood movie machine. And for a moment, I'd be tempted to agree with you. After all, I have expressed bouts of cultural cringe regarding what the Red, White, and Blue have collectively become. But it's not as simple as that, either. The West has produced works I'd be proud of, make no mistake about that. A good part of the Disney and Pixar ouvres, obviously. Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are not only some of my favourite animated TV shows of all time, but critically some of the best series I've ever seen (like, Dragon Award-worthy), although to be fair, they did use their Asian counterparts for inspiration. Heck, even the nefarious Dreamworks Animation has put out a movie I personally like, every once in a while. I liked Kung Fu Panda, and whilst I was less than impressed with the story of How To Train Your Dragon (mayhap the sequel will fix this?), I liked its art style and character designs, as mentioned before.

Of course, I still maintain that the vast majority of anime programming can trump the weakest (and therefore most commonplace) of its American counterparts. Maybe it's the fact that they don't feel the connection that cartoons have to be made only for children, as seems to be the case around here. This is a phenomenon known as the "Animation Age Ghetto", and I will be miserable about this to the end of my days. But the content of anime, on the other hand, is about on the level with our live-action primetime TV. In fact, the reason (as I'm aware of) why animated subject matter is so wide-ranging in Japan is that over there, it's apparently more expensive to film live-action programming than it is to make animated features. [citation needed] So I'm like, why not just run anime programming on the Big Four networks? I suppose it could be a conflict of interest with our studios in Hollywood, what do I know. Also I really should stop answering my own rhetorical questions.

But, as always, it's not as simple as "non-American = good". Look, when anime, good, it's *really* good, I'm not trying to deny all the Hayao Miyazakis and Cowboy Bebops they've given us over the years. But more so in recent years, it seems as if the anime market is falling back on fanservice and concepts like "moe". You know, stuff that makes it harder to be taken seriously. Believe me, I've got another rant in me to commiserate the directions in which anime is heading, but that rant's for another day. So in the end, I guess the only way to go is to call them like I see them, support anything which I see as good, and leave the rest hanging.

Why am I writing about all this? Perhaps I'll review one or more of the other Shrek movies someday. Or perhaps I'll just dunk my head in a bucket of frying oil instead, it would be less painful. (It would be more painful, don't do it.) After all, you could say my fury at the Shrek franchise is merely scapegoating. And you know who else is guilty of scapegoating? Hitler.


Oh my God, I just compared myself to Hitler. I immediately take that back. No one deserves to be compared to Adolf Frickin' Hitler. (Besides, Stalin was worse.) At any rate, it's my blog, and anything's in the cards. Until then...

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.