Other Works

Before I started up the blog on this site, I had written several essays of various kinds that were published on other sites. This section, “Other Works,” is a collection of links (etc.) to those essays, some of which I’m quite proud of. Like my blog entries, these essays are mostly about film, but range across various other areas of popular culture, from books to music to videogames.

Film Essays

“Big Trouble on the Magic Mountain”

I’m pretty sure that the very first thing I ever published was this essay, hosted for almost a decade and a half now (!) by the venerable Wing Kong Exchange, which offers a comparison between John Carpenter’s 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China and Tsui Hark’s 1983 film Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. (These are two of my very favorite films.) The essay, as published, is a lightly edited version of a paper that I wrote in 1998 for, I believe, a class on comparative Asian cinemas.

The reason it was published at all is that, in researching Big Trouble in Little China, I needed to find some piece of information, now long since forgotten. I poked around online and found The Wing Kong Exchange, which, then as now, was one of the most comprehensive fansites I’ve seen. I emailed the webmaster to ask if he knew the answer to my question; in return, he asked me if he could publish the essay when it was finished. I agreed, and there you have it. Publishing in the modern age.

“The Treachery of Images”

The second essay I ever published came about in an identical way: in researching, for a class on documentary history, an also-now-forgotten. very small point about the film This Is Spinal Tap, I wrote to the webmaster of what is still the best Spinal Tap fanpage, SpinalTapFan.com. Once again, the webmaster offered to publish my essay when it was complete, and was as good as his word.

"Quite exciting, this computer magic."

Years later, I got an email from Ernest Mathijs, a film professor at a University of Wales and one of two co-editors of a then-new series of books called “Cultographies.” Ernest, who has since become a friend, had read “The Treachery of Images,” and offered me, quite out of the blue, a chance to write a whole book on This Is Spinal Tap. So this essay is actually pretty important to me in that it brought about my first book.

“Tashlinesquerie”

My first published piece on Frank Tashlin (and also the first of four essays that I’ve published so far in the Danish/English online film studies journal 16:9) is this essay, which, frankly (ha!), I wouldn’t mind reëditing a bit, as I’ve revised some of my arguments. But it is a solid introduction to my take on Tashlin, and to Tashlin in general.

Frank Tashlin next to a VistaVision movie camera

I have written a book on Tashlin, which you can purchase using the menu link above. I’ve also written a bunch of blog posts concerning Tashlin’s films, which are collected here.

“Gremlins in the Mix”

If you are interested in Frank Tashlin, then chances are you appreciate the films of Joe Dante, as well. This is certainly true of my tastes. I admire Dante’s films immensely, and once wrote an essay about one of his best and best-known movies, Gremlins. This essay, also for the journal 16:9, was extremely enjoyable to write, and not just because I had a legitimate opportunity to use the word “defenestration.”

Pretty sure I heard this guy give a talk on Zizek at a conference in Budapest...

“The Branding of an Author: William Castle and the Auteur Theory”

My third essay for 16:9 is about the ways in which film directors create “brands” for themselves, often in the guide of authorship. The exploitation filmmaker William Castle, whose films I adore, was very deliberate in marketing himself as THE CREATOR of his films, as if to compensate for a relatively weak directorial style. That said, Castle’s style is a little stronger and more coherent than perhaps even he realized.

I also wrote a blog entry that supplements the ideas in the published essay.

“With an Attitude”

I grew up listening to rap in its golden age, and have long been a fan of Ice Cube and N.W.A. Cube’s transition from hard-ass gangsta musician to smirky family man actor is completely fascinating to me. In an essay for 16:9, I write about the ways in which Cube, even in his most seemingly genial, easygoing roles, is nevertheless still “coded” as a gangsta — a conclusion I never expected to reach when I set out to write the essay.

I really can't resist including this image again.

I’ve blogged about Ice Cube, as well, in a post that complements the published essay.

“What’s Sarong with this Picture? The Development of the Star Image of Dorothy Lamour”

Of everything I’ve written, this essay has the best title, hands down. Quite proud of that little bit of wordplay.

Dorothy Lamour, in standard-issue sarong

My essay on Dorothy Lamour, written for Senses of Cinema and based on a longer research paper that I wrote in graduate school, is fairly similar in nature to my essay on Ice Cube (linked above), in that it is an investigation into how the public persona or “image” of a certain star has been created, varied, and given meaning. Even if the fundamental answer is always more or less the same (“stars’ images are altered, by a process of trial and error, so that they are the most appealing to the greatest number of people, and thus most profitable”), I nevertheless find the question endlessly interesting. Charting, over time, how a star’s persona is developed and altered, is quite a fascinating process.

“Great Directors: Frank Tashlin”

The first essay I ever published about Frank Tashlin was this one, for Senses of Cinema’s “Great Directors” series. Many if not most of its claims are ones that I no longer particularly agree with, and have since revised in further writing on Tashlin.

“Great Directors: Chang Cheh”

Chang Cheh looks better in sunglasses than you do

One of my favorite Hong Kong directors is Chang Cheh, who made many, many exciting martial-arts films. His name is not so well-known among English-speakers, which is too bad, as his films really are 100% entertaining. This essay, also for Senses of Cinema’s “Great Directors” series, is my small attempt to argue for his vital importance to film art.

I recently wrote a longer, more scholarly essay on the narrative structures of Chang’s films, and I’m happy to report that it will soon be published in the journal Asian Cinema.

Books

As I’ve already endlessly, shamelessly plugged, I have written two books: one on the film This Is Spinal Tap, and another on the films of the director Frank Tashlin. I have also written a number of essays that have been published in actual, dead-tree books.

1001 Movies You Must See before You Die

The first time I saw my film writing in a gen-yoo-wine book was in around 2002 or so, when the first edition of 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die was published. Since then, the book has become a mini industry unto itself — I swear that I’ve seen it with half a dozen different covers. Anyway, I wrote about 15 of the essays in that book. I haven’t checked any of the newer editions, so I honestly don’t know if all of my essays survive, but I hope that the editors, in their wisdom, preserved the one that I wrote about Cheech and Chong’s masterpiece Up in Smoke.

Film and Television Stardom

In the above-linked, incredibly obscure, highly overprice, shabbily designed compendium of essays, I have a piece about Jerry Lewis’s performance style. It’s a solid essay, but no one is ever going to read it, at least not by buying that insanely overpriced book. (I think you might be able to find it on Google Books.) If you would really like to read it, let me know and I will email you a copy.

Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood

An essay of mine that concerns Frank Tashlin, comedy, and animation appears in the 2011 volume Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood, whose title pretty straightforwardly tells you what the book is about. I’m proud of the essay, and the book as a whole is very strong, I think. I’ve blogged about it here.

Music

I am an ardent, life-long music lover, but haven’t written much about it, save for on my blog.

I did, however, recently write for a friend’s website a review of an interview with and brief performance by Emmylou Harris that took place in the headquarters of The New York Times in April of 2011. It’s a short, pretty lightweight piece, but it was fun to write, especially since I have been a fan of Emmylou’s music for 25 years or so. Two of the most transcendent concerts I’ve ever attended were one at the beginning and one at the end of the Wrecking Ball tour in 1996 or so.

I've always wondered if "Big John's been drinkin' since the river took Emmylou," a line from Neil Young's brilliant 1979 song "Powderfinger," was some sort of weird, backhanded reference to Emmylou Harris. Anyone?

Videogames

My good friend Dan is a serious videogame enthusiast, and for a while has written reviews of various games for various platforms on the various websites run by a friend of his. That same friend, on Dan’s recommendation, extended the same offer to me, even though I hadn’t regularly played videogames since college. Still, I do like playing games, video or not, and jumped at the chance to have someone purchase for me a PSP and a regular stream of games, all in exchange for me writing reviews, which I like to do, anyway.  (Those PSP games came in damn handy on my long and annoying train commutes.)

The site that Dan’s friend supervised is now no longer updated, which is too bad, since that means I no longer have a steady stream of PSP games to play. But that site is still online, and I recently reread some of my reviews, and actually found myself enjoying them, which is not a feeling that I usually experience when reading my own writing. So, since these are kind of funny, and since they have virtually no currency anymore, I’ve decided to republish them here, on my own site. There are a little more than a dozen of these reviews, and, all told, they run pretty long, so, at least for the moment, I’ll keep them here, at the end of this “other works” section, where they’ll be minimally obstructive.

Review of Secret Agent Clank, originally published here

Since this is the first video game I’d played regularly in some years, I was more than a little daunted when I leafed through the manual for Secret Agent Clank. I mean, the manual for, say, Duck Hunt said little more than “Shoot the ducks, not the irritating dog.” I would be playing as more than one character? I would drive vehicles? I would have to memorize button combinations? Apparently, it’s not just the manuals that have changed since the Duck Hunt era.

But I should take a step back: before embarking on Secret Agent Clank‘s fun / silly / challenging missions, I had held a Sony PlayStation Portable (that’s a PSP, folks) in my hands approximately once. It seemed nice, but it seemed to have too many buttons. I’m happy to report not only that I now know my Square from my Circle, but that Secret Agent Clank is a game well-suited to someone who wants to orient him- or herself to the particulars of PSP operation: the game is a good match for this system, by which I mean that the controls and combinations are neither too complex for rapidly flying thumbs, nor are they too simplistic. To succeed at this game, one needs good, solid dexterity, but nothing, really, beyond that

Secret Agent Clank cleverly farms out its diverse array of skill-tests to its four main characters. The titular hero handles the main gaming action, advancing the story and participating in a varied array of activities: puzzle-solving, bad-guy-smashing, and the like. My favorite part of playing as Clank was the game’s “Stealth Bonus” feature, which awards points based on how subtly you take out the badsters. While there’s plenty of shooting and blowing things up, the emphasis on less bruiserish skills lends the game a welcome extra dimension.

The game’s narrative has Ratchet, Clank’s pal, wrongly arrested for some sort of space-jewel heist. Ratchet is in jail for a large part of the story, and the game designers have opted to use this character as a means for the player to work on his or her fightin’ skills. Clad in jailbird stripes, Ratchet’s part in the game consists mainly of getting into fights with an array of prisoners, in all of whose incarcerations he apparently played some part.

When playing as the Gadgebots, one operates three identical droidlike fellas whose limited array of actions (stand on each other’s shoulders, wait, follow, or bite things) force the player to do more with less. Some of the Gadgebot missions were perhaps too challenging, but the intention behind their characters is to be praised.

The primary highlight of playing as boastful, would-be superhero Qwark is getting to kick the bejabbers out of both giant flying Godzilla things and gigantic explosive robot ninjas. One can hardly ask for more.

I found most of the “missions,” in which you hone various skills (shooting, puzzle-solving, jumping, etc.) that you’ll use in the game’s main narrative, to be enjoyable and duly designed to reward practice. I’ll credit the designers, rather than any learning curve I may have climbed, for devising these missions so that you truly do gain skills by repeated attempts. This seems praiseworthy to me: you don’t want a game to be either too easy or too hard, and Secret Agent Clank maintains an apt balance.

And I may be the only game-player (I haven’t earned the sobriquet “gamer” yet) who doesn’t much care for the Guitar Hero-style puzzle in which one must hit specified buttons at specified times, but games of this kind are just not that interesting to me. They’re just raw mechanics and timing, it seems to me; I’d rather employ skills like those in a denser game. Secret Agent Clank, by incorporating such elements here and there, dates itself as having been produced in the Guitar Hero era. The missions which employ these skills fall a little bit flat, but they’re generally tempered with enough gentle, oddball humor that it’s not much of a problem.

Most of the weapons had clear, obvious benefits, but there were some which I either couldn’t get to work quite right, or which didn’t wind up performing especially distinctive functions. (Probably the former.) Neither did I care for the weapon-switching interface, which took a long while to get right. One nifty weapon which merits mention is the Bee Mine Glove, which releases upon thine enemies a swarm of robotic apian chaos. Awesome.

Secret Agent Clank is an enjoyable, pleasingly daffy game whose strength lies in its testing of multiple types and levels of players’ skill. It also happens to be, I’ve found, ideally suited for novice PSPers. Any faults are pretty minor, and the game’s universe is large, richly detailed, and fun to explore. Clank is no clunker; it clicks.

Review of God of War: Chains of Olympus, originally published here

First, let’s get this out of the way: the graphics in God of War: Chains of Olympus are truly top-notch stuff. The level of detail is highly impressive, and so is the shading. As well, the animation is quite fine: figures and objects respond pretty naturally to physical forces. Whatever visual pleasures the game offers, though, are offset by stilted gameplay and a pervasive, overall sense of turgidity.

So far as I can tell, God of War is largely about opening doors. Kratos, our snarly, white-and-red-painted, muscle- a-ripplin’ hero, grunts and struggles to lift, burst, or pry open all manner of portal, gate, door, egress, portcullis, and any other passageway-blocking apparatus you can imagine. It is one of the most tedious elements of the game. Not only do these doors show up in nearly every one of the game’s settings, but a good deal of game time must be spent opening the damn things. For no reason at all, it generally takes Kratos a good ten seconds to huff and puff and yank open a heavy door, the result of which is … he gets to enter another room. That is, the endless array of doors and passageways bring nothing to bear on gameplay – they’re just run-of-the-mill obstacles which take up lots of game time and offer no reward.

The game’s designers are seemingly obsessed not only with doors but with stairs. Kratos must run up and down a huge number of staircases, often winding around spiral staircases for what seems like minutes before doing anything productive. Oh, and opening crates. Kratos loves to open crates. You can tell by how much time he spends doing it, especially when he’s underwater.

In short, there’s an imbalance in this game. Nearly all of the designers’ skills seem to have gone into creating the backgrounds, which are, truly, extraordinary. Not that I’ve seen many PSP games, but God of War‘s graphics are better than them all. But even this fine achievement is undercut by the fact that the same graphical fastidiousness apparently went into the design of several pairs of naked goddess boobs. Athena’s (or whoever’s) twin scoops of ambrosia are so carefully, lovingly crafted that it made me laugh aloud. Are game designers so lonely and unloved that they need to spend six weeks creating the round, firm Globes of the Goddesses? Oh, this makes me sad. But not as sad as contemplating anyone who might be titillated by these highly out-of-place digital mammaries. C’mon, kids. The internet has lots of boobs on it. You can do better than this.

Far more problematic than the boobies is God of War‘s tedious symmetry, which infects it on every level. If there’s a enemy / smashable object / architectural feature on the left side of the room, you can bet your loincloth there’ll be one on the right, as well. Missions, too, are dully symmetrical: you gotta go up (usually by stairway), and then you gotta go back down again (by a second, symmetrically located stairway). You will also have to open a lot of doors.

As well, there’s a kind of roteness to many of the missions and tasks. If you need a certain object or piece of magic to get past an obstacle, you will find that object or piece of magic immediately before it must be deployed. There’s no figuring out when or how to use the thing; as soon as you get it, you know you must use it. God of War‘s narrative feels like it has been structured by a flowchart that had to be approved by six middle-managers before it got to the coding stage.

As Kratos progresses, he acquires new skills and moves. Many of these must be summoned by button combinations which are so needlessly arcane and complex as to be laughable. The result is that the game becomes a button-masher, for in the heat of battle, who can remember whether it’s square-square-left-circle or square-square-left-X? Most enemies, seemingly, can be defeated by this mashing of buttons, but it’s a dubious achievement, as it depends less on skill than on luck and flexible thumbs.

Clearly, this is not my kind of game. I realize it’s a popular series, but I assure you that I have no interest in upsetting the applecart just for the sake of it. I found God of War dull.

Not only is God of War stodgy and needlessly complex, but it’s a highly portentous game – there’s not a whit of levity in the whole thing, and everything is all gloomy-and-doomy and smoke-filled and dire. This rigorous consistency of tone gets really tedious after a while, even though I know this is an accepted feature of games of this genre. But this is the kind of game in which every character speaks in Serious Pronouncements and uses “poetic” language that would make Homer’s sightless eyes issue forth a torrent of tears. Kratos wears a sneer all throughout; he moves as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders (which I guess, in the universe of the game, it is); even his grapefruity muscles seem sullen. The poor guy never cracks a smile. Which is why one of the few moments of pleasure in this game occurred when I would hit “Jump” repeatedly: it sends sour old Kratos hopping around like a muscle-bound, Spartan jackrabbit, thereby adding a bit of life to the proceedings. Hippity hoppity, you red-stripèd warrior, you.

Review of Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow, originally published here

Well, hello, there, kids. I see you’re playing Sony Computer Entertainment’s Syphon Filter®: Logan’s Shadow on your PSP machine. Fine-lookin’ game, that.

You know, I have a little story that may just pertain to that game. Would you like to hear it? Allrighty. Well, then, gather ‘round, children, and let me tell you a tale from waaay back in the olden days. Yep, I’m talkin’ about the 1980s: a time when a bunch o’ boys from Illinois, callin’ themselves “REO Speedwagon,” made music that found its way many a Walkman; when no schoolkid’s lunch was complete without one o’ them newfangled “juice boxes,” and when a man named Clancy captured America’s imagination with tales of spies, guns, and politics.

No, dagnabit, I am NOT talking about actor Clancy Brown, who has appeared in such films as Blue Steel, Starship Troopers, and the little-seen made-for-TV effort Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation! An underrated performer, I agree, but not the Clancy to which I refer. Now shut yer trap, boy, and listen.

The Clancy fellow I’m talkin’ about was a writer. Wrote these big ol’ novels with hundreds and hundreds of pages – so thick you couldn’t fit ‘em in a ‘frigerator, let alone yer pocket. We’re talkin’ BIG books here, kids. You know how they got so big? I’ll tell you: jargon. That’s right: Mr. Clancy didn’t care much for story, or character development, or any o’ those other things that more highfalutin writers like to use. That stuff didn’t take Mr. Clancy very far – that kind of stuff was for sissies, that’s what Mr. Clancy said. No sir, he knew how to write a book: pack that sucker with military, pseudoscientific, political, espionage, and technical jargon of all kinds. That way, the stuff Mr. Clancy was writing about – mostly top-secret military operatives so tough that they made the Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and Air Force Pararescuemen look like petticoat-wearing third-graders; and who toiled in the employ of government divisions so highly classified that even the President himself had plausible deniability of their existences – would, according to Mr. Clancy, seem all the more real. And he’s got somethin’ there: if you present a whole lot of really minute details, right down to the serial numbers on an Armenian-made rifle, then, well, the story surroundin’ those details don’t seem so important, do it? So what if the books read like technical manuals? There was no arguing the details.

Hush up! I’m getting’ to the part about the videogame! Kids today. No patience at all.

Well, Mr. Clancy, it seems, had found a successful formula. So successful that some o’ them big Hollywood moneybags decided to make a coupla movies outta his books. Had some big-time actors in ‘em, too. Not bad movies, if you ask me, but they packed too much dang story into ‘em.

That didn’t faze Mr. Clancy none, and he found that his way of tellin’ stories worked pretty good for comic books, too, and, yes, for your videogames. Soon, lots of people were writin’ stories like the kind that Mr. Clancy wrote. One of these fellows is a gentleman by name of Greg Rucka, who seems like a decent sort, and who wrote the story that your Logan’s Shadow is based on. Yes, you heard me right – these videogames don’t just come out of nowhere; they come from stories sometimes. And some of those stories are just like the ones Mr. Clancy tells: full of tiny little details and maybe not so concerned with narrative – or with its videogame equivalent, gameplay.

You may not know too much about politics now, so you certainly don’t know anything about politics during the 1980s, but lemme tell you, we sure had a lot of enemies then. Most of ‘em had some kinda brownish skin, and they did things like hijack military boats and grunt brusquely. Like I tell you, videogames don’t come outta nowhere – they come from real life; or, if you like, real life as filtered (Syphon-filtered! Get it?) through the ideas of Mr. Clancy and all those people who copied him. You play this Logan’s Shadow game, and you might not know there was a difference between the 1980s politics and today’s politics. And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Like I said, it’s all about the details.

As I’m sure you noticed, Syphon Filter is rich on the little details. You got yer machine guns and their precise ammo capacities; you got your several different types of grenades and the exact parabolic arcs which they describe when hurled by your main character, Logan; you got your four different types of night-vision, or infrared, or what-have-you-type of goggles, so that you can pick out all kinds of different – yep – details in your computer-generated environments. You noticed that, right?

I bet you also noticed how that focus on detail translates into the moment-by-moment operation of the game, didn’t you? How you have to hit about seven buttons anytime you want Mr. Logan to do something like crouch or run or, heaven help us, select an item from his personal arsenal? Did you also notice how Logan always wears a scowl on that mug of his? That’s what you call accuracy, my young friends. You try bein’ a top-secret operative and see if you don’t scowl all the darn time.

What’s that you say? You find this game boring? You little whippersnappers don’t even know what boring means! You think the limited color palette of steel-blue and steel-gray is boring? You think the endlessly repeated one-man-against-a-brown-skinned-army scenario is predictable? You think that the constant switching between weapons, accessories, and armor slows down gameplay? You think that the fact that the music cues appear to borrow heavily from the rumbling, would-be ominous themes used in interstitial advertising for the “Spike” and “Speed” channels is mind-numbing? Just because the only path through a given narrative space happens to coincide with the one and only path that Logan must take to complete a given “mission” – you think that’s dull, noncreative story plotting that doesn’t give the gamer much to do besides near-blindly follow the blinking yellow arrow in the interactive map which resides in the screen’s lower left corner – a feature which, by the way, has become such a staple of these types of games that, just once, you’d like to see the designers challenge themselves by electing to leave it out, thereby granting the gamer a higher degree of autonomy? You think that the cut scenes, with their jargon-riddled, scrolling-print messages from secretive and potentially two-faced high-ranking government bureaucrats are all-too-familiar narrative scenarios that represent a kind of “gameplay by numbers” that dedramatize any sort of emotional involvement you may have felt from playing this rather monotonous game?

Well, I’ll be hog-tied and dunked in buttermilk! You kids have no respect! I don’t care if you happen to be correct – that’s no reason to disrespect your elders, or, for that matter, that ain’t no reason to disrespect Sony Computer Entertainment, the venerable Syphon Filter gaming franchise, Mr. Greg Rucka, and even the honorable Mr. Thomas Clancy himself, whose legacy you are bespoiling with your accursed griping!

I ain’t even gonna finish my story for you young ‘uns! Now, excuse me while I go read the operator’s manual for the FV4034 Challenger 2 main battle tank.
Harumph.

Review of Star Ocean: First Departure, originally published here

Star Ocean is a curious little game with, alas, a fatal flaw that prohibits me from recommending it.

This is one of those combo game/anime deals, in which the cut scenes look as if they come straight out of a mid-grade anime series, and the gameplay bits are peopled with characters who bear a striking resemblance to the Little Twin Stars, if the Little Twin Stars had carried medieval weaponry instead of magical interstellar … cloud-bunnies, or whatever the hell they had. Your characters are cute and big-headed, and they often speak in word balloons that bear ellipses, exclamation points, or, puzzlingly, large drops of water (and not in “crying” scenes, either). They widemouthedly crack up at “jokes” that would, at best, summon a polite, obligatory titter from your aged, proper aunt; they get bizarrely nervous when, for instance, buying clothing for a member of the opposite sex. In other words, in the porting of Star Ocean from a Japanese milieu to an American/western milieu, a sufficient number of the details have been lost, mangled, inverted, or misunderstood in the translation as to make gameplay rather amusing at times – or, potentially, frustrating, if you’d prefer everything to make sense. Everything does not make sense in Star Ocean, however, and I’d suggest you just kind of go with it.

The story is the main thing that makes no sense. You’re shuttled around between so many places and times (see below), and given so many micro- and macro-scale objectives to accomplish, that it’s surpassingly hard to keep in mind which particular mission or goal you may be striving for at any given moment. I suppose this is neither good nor bad; it’s just the way things work in Star Ocean-land.

The game certainly does not lack for ambition. The story takes us through hundreds of years of time (by passing through a Time Gate, of course), a great number of fictional countries with semi-pronounceable names, and from planet to planet (most of which also have semi-pronounceable names) via a Star Trek-style beaming apparatus.

Not only that, but the game allows and encourages you to build up your character in a host of fairly complex ways: you can exchange acquired currency (“Fol”) for instantaneous lessons in such disciplines in combat, “knowledge,” and “technical,” all of which have ramifications for your character’s ability to maneuver through the game’s many battles. (I almost added “and challenges” to the end of that sentence, but challenging-ness is not one of Star Ocean’s strong suits.) You can even learn such skills as cooking and painting, all of which come in handy here and there. Or you can choose to use the money you’d spend on those lessons on armor, weaponry, or various provisions and remedies that restore, to different extents, the health points that are so eager to leave your possession. I swear that this game actually has you lose health points for resting, so quickly do they flee from the status bar. (You can also rename your characters – I called mine “Asspant” – even though the other characters will still refer to them by their game-given monikers. I found this disparity sort of amusing.)

As well, you can vary your posse’s attack strategy and distribute skills and devices amongst them in such a way as to reap the greatest benefit. This fairly supple, micro-level tweaking of the characters’ capacities is certainly one of Star Ocean’s strong points, as it makes for rich, customizable gameplay.

The missions are fairly standard: deliver this object to this village, find a boat that’ll take you to this far-off land, rescue your fallen comrade, and so forth. And most of this is interspersed pretty regularly with little battle scenes, in which you can literally wander off the beaten path and find more enemies to slay (if that’s your thing), thereby acquiring more Fol, more experience points, and so forth. My favorite enemies are the fluffy bunnies that, between hops, shoot weird, sharp orange-yellow arrows from their mouths. I don’t mean “arrows” as in the objects you fire from a bow; these are arrows like you find in the “special characters” menu of your word processing program. It’s odd. Star Ocean is an odd game.

Two things – which are interdependent – though, really, severely cripple Star Ocean. The first is the frickin’ interminable amount of uninteresting, rarely informative dialogue that, for some reason, intervenes between the scenes in which you are actually able to do things. Man, these are some chatty characters – and yet 97% of their dialogue is redundant with information you already know, or consists of “…” or “Hm.” And since you cannot skip this stuff altogether (at least, I couldn’t), you’ll find that a solid 30% of the time spent playing Star Ocean is spent gritting teeth during these expository scenes.

Far more troubling than this, though, is the game’s serious lack of save points – this is that fatal flaw I referred to above. No one likes to replay the same levels over and over, especially when the majority constituent of those levels is those godforsaken dialogue scenes. The severe dearth of save points means that you will be retrodding familiar territory again and again. To me, this is pretty unforgivably bad game design.

Compounding this rather serious problem is that, more than once in my playing of the game, I found myself rehashing familiar territory. For you, good readers, this was a punishment I endured bravely. But, then, once my character had reached the point to which I’d advanced earlier, he was slain instantly by the same type of enemy that had earlier been dispatched by a single sword-flick. At times, and for no reason whatsoever, the game just turns on you. These softie bad guys somehow develop Deadly Death Powers or whatever, and you are Twin Star Toast. Aaaaaand then you have to go back to the last save point, which was about 30 minutes of gameplay ago. The frustration at such events is colossal. Arbitrary game-toughening coupled with the lack of save points make Star Ocean a not-very-well-designed-at-all kind of game, even if some of the weirdness and micro-missions are diverting. No, thank you, I’ll be removing the game from the PSP right about now, having played probably less than 20% of it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Little Twin Stars and I are due at a tea party at Tuxedo Sam’s igloo. I’ve made stardust-crumpets.

Review of Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone, originally published here

Many, many things about Yggdra Union: We’ll Never Fight Alone, puzzle me. I did not, cannot, and will not attempt to unravel its weirdnesses, but, conveniently, I do have a forum for expressing my befuddlement about them.

Let us begin with the game’s title. Yggdra Union. It is a strange combination of words. This is why: “Yggdra,” presumably, refers, for some entirely arcane reason, to Yggdrasil, which in Norse mythology is the name for the “world tree,” the legendary earth-and-heavens-spanning arboreal behemoth under whose branches the gods would convene to discuss matters deific. I do not know what Yggdra Union has to do with Norse mythology, or with Yggdrasil, or, really, with anything. It is apparent that the game’s designers do not know anything about these relationships, either. I understand, in fact, that it is common practice in Japan to employ English (and Norse?) words simply for their euphoniousness, or for their appearance on the printed page. I am torn between whether this is a reasonable thing to do or a highly puzzling thing to do. I’m leaning toward the latter.

Next, we have “Union.” In the game, this word could not be more thoroughly misused. In gameworld, “union” means “battle,” so far as I can tell. I would like to suggest that battles, in which armed forces slay one another, are hardly unifying events. When you move your little cursor thingy over a character and the screen-text asks if you’d like to “form a union,” such wrongheaded antonymery is downright puzzling. I kept thinking that I was being asked if my blue-tinted, big-headed characters would like to make friends with the red-tinted, big-headed character. But no – I was being asked if I’d like to kick some red-tinted ass. Took me a while, that.

You probably think I am nitpicking. Maybe I am nitpicking. But let me tell you, these little oddnesses accrete rapidly.

My major source of puzzlement has to do with the fact that gameplay revolves around the playing of cards – not like poker, but like Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon. I don’t know anything about Magic: The Gathering or Pokemon (except that one of the creatures is called Bulbasaur, a word I like to utter for its euphoniousness), and no amount of manual-reading nor gameplay could relieve the big brick wall of puzzlement engendered by this central concept. If you understand such card games as Magic, you may have little trouble parsing the card-playing aspects of Yggdra Union. Then again, maybe you’ll have a lot of trouble.

You have to choose a card to play before embarking on any sort of strategic move, so there’s a highly puzzling card-selecting screen. It’s highly puzzling because it makes you go through the motions of selecting certain cards, but won’t let you advance past the screen without selecting each and every one of them.

More puzzling than this, though, is the fact that all this cardplay does not appear to be – what is the word? – fun. To me, this is like playing a game based on actuarial tables. To succeed at Yggdra Union, one must balance a card’s power value with the time of day during which it can be played with its puzzling gender-, location-, and size-based restrictions with about six other factors. On the one hand, this creates complex gameplay, I suppose, but, on the other, it means that you need a spreadsheet to play the game. Any life experience that requires one to open Microsoft Excel is an experience which is, by definition, devoid of fun. But if you are an actuary, you might set a high score or something.

Here’s something else puzzling: during the battle scenes, you, the gamer, don’t actually do anything. You just sit there and watch as your big-headed characters – who are separated from the other big-headed characters by a big jagged line – swing their battle axes at each other. Yes, OK, you can hold down one or another button to make them fight more “passively” or “aggressively,” but, so far as I can tell, all this does is slow down or speed up the fights. Since I had nothing else to do, I usually sped them up.

The story itself is pretty standard: you and your band of heroic bigheads have to defeat the forces of the Imperial army; to do this, you use weaponry and potions and cunning and horses and all that stuff. You also use the cards themselves. Interestingly, the cards exist in both the story-world and in the gamer-world. That is, the characters themselves refer to the playing of certain cards against other characters. This has no particular effect one way or t’other on gameplay, but I found the story-world’s imperfect barriers to be unusual.

Yggdra Union’s designers must have known that gameplay is puzzling, so they included little in-game tutorials. These are useful – to an extent. They do give you some pointers on how to move your little cursor thingy, and on which weapons are likely to defeat other weapons, and so forth. (Incidentally, the weapon power ratings are entirely nonsensical. Swords are more powerful than axes, which are more powerful than spears … which are more powerful than swords. This illogic never ceased to bother me.) But, by and large, the tutorials don’t explain enough. And, frankly, I take it as the mark of subpar design if you have to include something like this at all. Why not just make the game, you know, comprehensible?

Gameplay in Yggdra Union rarely held my interest. Playing cards is uninteresting and baffling to me, and the action scenes are devoid of action. There ain’t much left, I’m afraid. Or maybe there is – I didn’t play this one for very long. The combination of “boring” and “meaninglessly complex” does not, for me, make for exciting gaming. Yggdra Union is a solid “Meh.”

One last puzzling detail: All of the characters have “heroic”- or “fantastic”- or “medieval”-sounding names, like Milanor and Zilva and Aegina and ol’ Yggdra herself. Except for one guy. His name is Russell.

Review of Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters, originally published here

This latest installment in the Ratchet & Clank series is as enjoyable, well-designed, and well-humored as its recent predecessor, Secret Agent Clank. It’s a pleasure to play; I was a bit sad when I finished it.

Size Matters’s story presents the player with an array of diverse challenges, which range in difficulty from Quite Easy to Damnably Difficult. (I lied in the above paragraph: I’m actually still stuck on the game’s final boss.) The characters – you play most of the game as Ratchet, and a series of isolated challenges as Clank – develop their skills organically: a host of creatively designed tasks allow you to familiarize yourself with the wide array of weapons and gadgets, so that you may synthesize your skills as the game progresses. (The devices themselves merit a tangent. Some, like the Bee Mine glove, are massively useful: I get the sense that I used it more often than the designers intended me to, but the game is supple enough to allow for such “unconventional” usage. Others, like the Acid Bomb Glove and the Concussion Gun, don’t really distinguish themselves. I tried many many times to use them effectively, but they didn’t really seem to do very much. Among the gadgets, the PDA, which allows you to reload all weapons from any location – not just from ammo-vendors – is indispensable. But I still don’t like the clunky weapons-selection interface.) Perhaps “astounded” is too strong a word, but I was highly impressed at the range of missions and obstacles. They are so diverse as to genuinely prepare the player for the game’s steadily mounting difficulty.

To me, this is good game design. Great care has been taken to allow the player to hone, combine, and refine the essential skills of gameplay.

Another standout element of Size Matters is its goofy sense of humor. Many games are either needlessly portentous or limply unsuccessful in their attempts at humor, so it’s nice to see one hit the mark. I mean, you probably won’t laugh your head off, or anything, but the game maintains a pleasantly goofy, lighthearted tone that complements nicely its many scenes of ass-kicking. The pop-culture-savvy are rewarded with occasional movie references, including a lovely citation of North by Northwest.

I’d like to give some props to the game’s composer, as well. The score for Size Matters is catchy without being irritating, and as diverse as the game’s array of obstacles and enemies. I detected a few nods to the work of Jerry Goldsmith, one of the great Hollywood composers, specifically to his score for Gremlins.

Oddly, I find myself without a great deal more to say about Size Matters, though this is not for want of a positive response to the game. Honestly, it’s everything a game ought to be: very fun, challenging, diverse, creative, humorous, colorful; the game is well-designed, and offers an array, both broad and deep, of tasks, subgames, and missions that should engage gamers of all levels. It’s a fine franchise, and I hope they keep ‘em coming.

Review of Star Ocean: Second Evolution, originally published here

Because I am so committed to original, penetrating research, I looked up Star Ocean: Second Evolution on the Wikipedia. There, I found a number of surprises.

The first of these is that, by the end of November of 2008, this game had sold over 140,000 copies in Japan. This is a surprise because I always thought that Japanese gamers were among the most discerning in the world.

Another surprise is that there is a whole – ahem – ocean of English-speaking voice actors who make careers out of dubbing Japanese-language video games. I guess I knew about this already, actually, but, on those few occasions when I happen to contemplate the existence of this tattered twenty-seventh tier of the acting profession, I am encouraged to ponder the vast, far-flung outer reaches of the entertainment industry, and consider, “What are their cast parties like?” and “Do they all sleep with one another? If they don’t, how does ‘I’m an English-language voice-actor for semi-obscure Japanese videogames’ go over as a pickup line?” But I digress.

To return to that first point: I’m surprised – nay, astonished – at the fairly robust sales of the second PSP installment of the quasi-venerable Star Ocean franchise because, frankly, this game totally sucks.

To return to that second point, a two-year-old article about the voice talent for Second Evolution, about how the characters in this game surely will be a chatty bunch. “Extensive vocal work,” in the argot of the article. It turns out that they were not kidding around. The characters in Second Evolution will not shut the hell up. Ever. I would liken playing Star Ocean: Second Evolution to being stuck in a skyscraper’s slow-moving elevator with a bunch of childish, stuttering teens who not only use a disproportionate number of lengthy verbal, nonverbal, and silent pauses, but who have an unerring penchant for speaking only in direct, declarative statements whose content recapitulates that of their friends’ direct, declarative statements. They also whimper a lot.
It is a remarkably frustrating to try to suffer this inane blather, especially because (and here’s one way in which this sequel is far worse even than its crummy predecessor) there is no way for you, the gamer, to speed it up or skip over it. You just have to sit there and read the fatuous, sub-Saturday-morning-cartoon dialogue. (For the love of all that is good and holy, please turn off the sound; these voice actors occupy the twenty-seventh tier of the acting pantheon for some very good reasons.) It would try the patience of frickin’ Gandhi.
Here are my accomplishments for the first 63 minutes of gameplay in Second Evolution:

• went into some buildings;
• bought some blueberries;
• met some other guys;
• engaged in and/or listened to conversation;
• got killed.

And this was not for lack of trying, believe me. I wanted this game to be fun. I was even, in a weird way, rooting for it: I’d besmirched its older brother’s reputation, so I was due some payback, it seemed. I would have been only too glad to have been humbled by this curious game franchise. But, as it is, I played this game for an hour before I even stumbled across anything that could remotely be considered gameplay. Until that point, all I did was wander around and wait for other characters to do things. And then, finally, we were off to battle! Said battle lasted approximately eleven seconds: I was instantly squared off against a far superior foe, and, since I’d been given zero opportunities to acquire weapons, skills, or knowledge of my enemies, the enemy – some kind of squat, toothéd wormlike beastie – killed me instantly. Game over.

In my review of Star Ocean: First Departure, I lament the fact that the silly game has no save points, a fact that requires one to replay some very boring bits of gameplay should one chance to get killed by a squat, wormlike beastie. Clearly, my reviews wield vast international influence, because the designers of Second Evolution have included a greater number of save points. This is pretty cold comfort, though, since there isn’t a single moment in this game that I took pleasure in playing, much less replaying. My character’s death at the hands (setae?) of the worm-beast came as a blessed relief. I stopped playing the game after this point, having to that point endured nothing but annoyance.

Perhaps the biggest surprise that I uncovered in my extensive, globe-encircling research program was the fact that this game seems to be highly regarded. Here (metacritic.com), for instance, is a site which aggregates reviews of the game; its ratings hover around 8 out of 10. 8 out of 10! This is utterly befuddling. Let me repeat: this game sucks. Don’t play it.

Review of Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?, originally published here

I will freely admit to being amused by Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?. And this is part of the game’s intent – to amuse. It’s a curious little game, this Prinny. You play as a slang-slingin’, peglegged quasi-penguin – or, rather, as one of 1000 such quasi-penguins. The innovation with Prinny (so far as I know, it’s an innovation) is that you have a finite number of lives – 1000 – with which to complete the game. Which is another way of saying that you have 1000 chances to finish the game; within each chance/life, your quasi-penguin can take three or four hits before exploding in a tragicomic fireball. Sometimes I let Prinny die just so I could see the fireball and hear him (her? it? I’m just going to coin a new, Prinny-specific pronoun: “prit”) exclaim, with prits expiring breath, “I’m finished, d00d!”

That’s the other thing – I hesitate to call it an innovation – about Prinny: the main character speaks in a weird version of l33tsp34k. In all seriousness, Prinny may be of greater interest to linguists than to gamers; if you know a linguist, buy him or her a copy of this game. Prinny traffics in a bizarro, humorous hybrid of hacker-talk, surfer slang (incidentally, did you know that few subcultures have contributed more to American slang than that of surfing? It’s true, and here’s a nice surf lingo lexicon for you: http://www.riptionary.com/), general teenage argot, and self-reflexive gamer jargon, all presumably filtered through both English and Japanese intelligences. It’s a weird olio of linguistic nuttiness, and I have to admit it’s pretty funny. I thought it would be grating – and, here and there, it is – but, for the most part, it’s one of the more engaging elements of gameplay. Prinny has a number of stock phrases, such as “Gotta have muscle, d00d!” and “Eat it, d00d!” (the latter said whilst attacking enemies; all of Prinny’s sentences, spoken or printed on the screen, end in “d00d’; several of them begin that way, too), and they really do help establish a consistent character. Which is, I suppose, ironic, given that you play not as one Prinny but as one of 1000 interchangeable Prinnies; but, then, that’s part of the joke. The game makes many quips about the expendability and general dronelike nature of the Prinnies, and it’s kind of fun to play as a hero who is aware of prits own fallibility, if not incompetence. I think that, as a cultural meme, this whole “superhero” thing is pretty played out, anyway.

Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? is mostly pretty fun, even if, while I played it, the 1974 pop chestnut “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” played in my brain incessantly. But my own overexposure to 1970s AM radio is not the fault of this game. However, the Bad Things about the game are legitimately annoying, or worse. One thousand Prinnies or not, this game is difficult. I played it on “normal” difficulty, and still found myself exploding many a Prinny on every level. (I think I gave up with about 700 Prinnies left, and most stages still unconquered.) The stages within each level are fairly short, but this doesn’t mean they’re not tricky. But the trickiness does not come in the form of having to figure out a difficult sequence of moves, or of unlocking a challenging puzzle. Rather, the difficulty has everything to do with the fact that success in the game demands highly precise moves, but the game’s physics engine is frustratingly imprecise. To immobilize enemies, Prinny’s principal weapon is the (highly humorous) hip drop, in which prit double-jumps and then paralyzes said enemy with a fat slab of penguinish hindquarter. Understandably, this leaves enemies motionless, with little stars flitting about their heads. But Prinny then bounces up again, losing a couple of seconds that are precious to repositioning pritself and further incapacitating the enemy. This quirk of physics renders the battles with the bosses particularly difficult; I gave up on a couple of them. Jumping, as well, requires a terrific degree of precision, especially when Prinny encounters the soon-to-be-ubiquitous flying carpets. But precise jumping is damnably difficult with Prinny. Given that your character is a peglegged quasi-penguin, I suppose there’s some diegetic logic to this trickiness, but, still, it’s really hard to land or jump exactly where one needs to jump.

This requirement for precision in the face of great imprecision is what makes Prinny a less than-fully-enjoyable game. It’s just too damn hard. Granted, I’m not the most dextrous PSPer in the world, but 30 or 40 failed attempts to simply jump across a gap or defeat a weird bunny – this was more than enough to try my patience, and I set the game down in frustration more than once. That said, on those regrettably rather rare moments in which I got a good gaming “flow” going, Prinny is pretty damn fun – and weird. Though Prinny’s arsenal is pretty limited, a mastery of the aforementioned hip-drop is, though difficult, the key to succeeding at this game. I’d say that I acquired about 40% competency with this move, and therefore reached a middling level of satisfaction with this game.

Don’t let the apparent, self-celebrated quirkiness of Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? fool you into thinking that you’ll be playing a lightweight, oddball, unchallenging game. It’s weird, yes, and sometimes pleasantly so; but that weirdness is more than fully offset by formidably tricky, and often frustrating, gameplay. Go for it if you have a good sense of humor, and are up for a challenge. d00d.

Will I play it more?: A solid maybe. I find gameplay fun, but the level of frustration is fairly high.

Review of Scrabble, originally published here

You all know this game. Its PSP incarnation is very like its myriad other incarnations (even the TV one with Chuck Woolery) in that it features no mutant zombies, no cosmic rayguns, no slime cannons, or any of the other trappings of a great many videogames. It’s Scrabble. You place letters on a board to make words.

Do you like to play Scrabble? If you do, you will like Scrabble for the PSP. If you do not like Scrabble, there is a slim chance that playing it on the PSP will increase your fondness (and/or aptitude) for the game, but probably not. If you are like me in enjoying anagrams, obscure vocabulary, and wordplay in general, you will enjoy this game equally well on the PSP.

This version of the game – the first computer-based version of it that I’ve ever played, I believe – does offer a few useful little features that improve the game. In addition to functions you’d expect (shuffling tiles, swapping out letters, etc.), you can hone your game skills by playing timed minigames in which you must discover all of the anagrams of a given set of letters. This is the videogame equivalent of memorizing all the two- and three-letter words that are the secret to getting high Scrabble scores, but (at least to my dorky mind) much more fun. The game also includes handy lists of all the words that, for instance, contain a Q but no U. These features are nifty, easily accessible, and have great potential to improve your Scrabble game.

Gameplay itself is fairly straightforward. I rejected the option to play as both players, as it seemed uncomfortably schizophrenic. So I played against the computer, which turned out to be a good idea. The game’s programmers have given its digital player the mindset of a tournament Scrabble player: it uses all kinds of obscure two- and three-letter words like AI (some kind of sloth) and KYE (a Korean social organization [!!]). I am a pretty good Scrabble player, but I’ve never bothered to learn all these words. Here, however, you can learn them by paying attention to the words your computerized opponent uses. Moreover, the computer will often play these (and other) words in a highly defensive manner – that is, placing the tiles in such a way as to limit the number of viable options left for you to play. My Scrabble game has most assuredly improved since I started playing this on the PSP. I can now play WAW and UT with confidence!

I have a few small quibbles. Each time you or your opponent play a word, its definition appears on the screen. Many of these definitions were pretty scanty; as well, if you play your tiles so that they form two or more words (one of the keys to Scrabble success, by the way), you only ever see the definition for one of the words. Also, the particular button sequence required to switch letters in midword remained, for some reason, obscure to me, but this barely affects gameplay.

I honestly don’t even know how to assign a proper rating to this game. You already know whether you like or dislike the game of Scrabble, so the audience for this title is largely predetermined. It does bear repeating, though, that this version of Scrabble really can improve your game. Heads up, future competitive Scrabblers of the world!

This is one of the few PSP titles that I’ve reviewed that I intend to play again and again. I could play Scrabble more or less endlessly, as I find it challenging and rewarding. And, really, that’s one of the best things about this game, and one of the reasons why it’s become a classic: it has no end. You don’t get bored with it and chuck it aside once you’ve slain the final boss. In that sense, Scrabble truly is timeless, and will flourish in any format, foreseeable or otherwise.

Review of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, originally published here

For the weekend of September 18-20, 2009, Sony Pictures Animation’s feature film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs topped the box office, pulling in just over $30 million. Indeed, according to boxofficemojo.com, the film not only trumped the overhyped Megan Fox “vehicle” Jennifer’s Body by more than $22 million, but topped even Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! by more than $20 million.* It was a good weekend for Hollywood’s box office: on the whole, films performed 14 percent better than in the same weekend last year. It was a notable achievement for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which made more than half of its profits in its 3-D and/or IMAX versions (studios have been crossing their fingers that 3-D will pay off; for films like this, it appears to be doing so, but will it work for all films? Surely not. For an intelligent take on the perils of the new wave of 3-D film, please read Kristin Thompson’s excellent piece here. As well, for those of you keeping score at home, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (hereafter just Cloudy, lest the more tempting title-shortening strategy erroneously evoke Bill Murray’s 1979 opus) is the highest-grossing animated film to be released in September. I tell you, the statistics-geekery in the film biz rivals that of Sabermetricians. BaseBallHQ

But in many ways, the multiple videogame incarnations of Cloudy are more important to Hollywood than is the release of the film on which the game is based. This is because, for the last 15 years or so, the so-called “ancillary markets,” taken together, have reaped in far more money than the theatrical release for just about any mainstream Hollywood film you can name. There’s much, much more money these days in developing a property, copyrighting the hell out of it, and then licensing various companies to use representations from that film on videogames, bedsheets, Happy Meals™, toothbrush holders, and any other plastic piece of crap you can imagine.

Ancillaries like the PSP version of Cloudy are vital to the success of a movie, even if they are not the movie themselves. And studios have still found it essential to hype up the theatrical release of a new film, for the reason that a giant P.R. splash for the film itself has residual effects: it embeds the film in our consciousness, and effectively makes us aware of the existence of all the ancillary products. Of which this PSP version is one.

The PSP version of Cloudy is, in a word, adequate. It feels like what it is: a somewhat hastily programmed, somewhat inelegantly designed tie-in product that has been designed to maximize the profits of its cinematic mothership. Which is another way of saying that this new focus by the Hollywood studios on ancillary markets has diluted the quality – the necessity, even – of those very ancillary products. Irony abounds.

I mean, this game is fine. It’s not great; it’s not terrible. It’s for kids, as you surely already know. The movie has been marketed fairly aggressively to kids – with success: according to that boxofficemojo.com page, “Sony’s exit polling indicated that 79 percent of the audience was parents and their children and 21 percent was general moviegoers 12 years old and up.” I would suggest that this videogame is aimed at precisely the same crowd. Do you fit into this crowd? Then perhaps you will like the game. Though I have not yet seen the movie, I would imagine that it is an inoffensive, adequately animated, lightly comic story with some funny – but not howlingly funny – sight gags. I bet this is your impression of the film, too. If these descriptors appeal to you, perhaps you should play this game.

Or perhaps not. There ain’t much to it. You play as Flint, the main character of the film, and the story of the game is the thinnest possible extension of the story of the film. Your mission: dispense with the giant food that has fallen from the sky onto your Small American Town. You have a small arsenal of weapons, including a giant fork and the like, but you can only use certain of them for certain tasks: the game does not encourage creative use of tools/props/weapons. Similarly, there’s really only ever one path by which Flint can travel so that he encounters the giant, semi-malicious (but not too malicious! We don’t want to scare away the kids!) comestibles, and only one order in which he can complete the tasks appointed him. As I say: it’s for kids. As I also say: it was perfunctorily designed. To quote again from boxofficemojo.com about the film: Cloudy “lacked the story elements to play in the league of Pixar or DreamWorks Animation.” Indeed. In this regard, the film has been successfully adapted for the PSP format.

All that said, this game is a pleasant enough diversion. It’s satisfying to slice up giant, quivering blobs of yellow Jell-O, and to melt through giant Popsicles. But it’s not challenging, and, again, there’s really only ever one way to handle any given obstacle. Versatile this game is not. Neither is the game especially responsive: at one point, while trying to defeat some sort of swirling spaghetti tornado, none of the allotted weapons seemed to make a lick of difference, and I just had to wait until said tornado wandered, of its own accord, into a puddle of apparently super-spicy chili; thus was it dispatched, not through any effort of my own. Rather a strange strategy, and one that served as the straw that broke my gamer’s thumbs. Once I reached that point, I lost whatever minor investment I had in the game, and turned it off for good. If you have (or if you are) an eight-year-old kid, though, betcha dollars to doughnuts (they/you)’ll enjoy this game.

*It’s worth noting, however, that, based on budget-to-return ratio, The Informant! is the clear winner here. It cost only $22 million, and made about half of that back in its first weekend. Cloudy cost about $100 million, so it made about 30% of its cost back in its first weekend. Both films will surely turn profits, but on different scales. And it’s easy to determine why the one film has a torrent of associated ancillary products (see the rest of the review) and one does not.

Review of Shin Megami Tensei Persona, originally published here

Most of my PSP-playin’ time occurs during my long, wretched train commute. In fact, if you have a sizable commute, I’d strongly recommend picking up a PSP, as it makes the time go by much more quickly. (Note: If you drive to work, please do not heed this advice.) I won’t say the time exactly flies, but it’s surely better than staring out the window at the wastelands of Long Island.

Anyway, yesterday, on my morning commute, I noticed that one of the train regulars was playing his PSP, as he sometimes does. We’ve even made small talk about the games we’re currently playing. Yesterday morning, mere moments after I shut my machine down out of frustration with Persona, I noticed that my fellow commuter was playing the very same game. So, like any good commuter, I glanced across the aisle and over his shoulder to watch his progress. He was clearly further along in the game than I was, so I paid close attention to see how the game changes and develops in its later stages. I was unsurprised to find that the level of development was precisely Zero. He was dutifully wading through the same boring crap that I had to wade through in the game’s early stages. Me, I decided to read a magazine instead.

Man, Persona is a tedious game. Allow me to explain this tedium.

First, the story makes no flippin’ sense. (Perhaps this is a problem endemic to entities entitled Persona. The same-named 1966 Bergman film doesn’t cohere narratively, either; but, then, that was the whole point. This game is hardly calling upon its players to question the very nature of story and narration; here, the incoherence is a hindrance.) There’s this weird trait common to the several Japanese role-playing games that I know: gussying up really standard gameplay with some sort of highfalutin, incomprehensible, ill-explained jargon concerning “Deep” topics such as the nature of reality or identity. The characters in Persona (and other games) refer to otherworldly phenomena that are never defined or explained, mostly as a way to lend the gameplay some sort of “seriousness.” (In the case of Persona, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the whole game – dialogue and all – seems to have been designed by pouty, clove-smoking Emo Kids: the Atlus Corporation’s idea of graphic “edginess.”) Frankly, it all plays out like those hazy late-night dorm-room discussions from your freshman year: dull, rambling, and pointless.

I guess this is the latest entry in an established game series, so you may already know (but I didn’t) that, in this game, the characters invoke “personae” to fight their battles for them. These personae can acquire skills and traits that you can combine and recombine for effective battling. Or something. I don’t know. The personae add nothing to the game. Merely, at times, you’re an Emo Kid; at other times, you’re a wingèd wraith that can cast spells or something. The only qualitative difference is that one avatar is marginally less pouty than the other.

Another bit of the tedium comes in navigating your characters around the buildings and city that comprise the playing arena. Even with the little map in the corner, moving around the insides of buildings is massively confusing and boring. Just hallways and doors – that’s it. Same for moving through the streets of the city. You can move north, south, east, and west, shown from a bird’s-eye view. OK.

The real frustration sets in when, in the course of moving through a building or city, you are interrupted every fifteen seconds (no joke) because you have to do battle with some group of demons that escaped from the 27th dimension or something. The game touts its micro-scale control over your characters’ abilities, and this is no lie: in your roving band of four or five emo kids, you can (and must) select exactly how each of them will act when confronted with emo-demons. You can invoke a persona, you can throw an emo-javelin at them, you can run, or you can converse and negotiate with them. Which is all fine, if you are a micromanaging kind of person. For me, though, choosing the options for each damn character became very tiresome very quickly. You’ll spend a couple minutes sifting through menu options, and then the battle – over which you have no control, once you pick your options – occurs in about ten seconds. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I couldn’t be arsed to further micromanage the distribution of skills and abilities.

Mercifully, there is a “replay” option, which has your characters do again whatever they did in the previous battle. I chose this option a lot, especially since I began to take a certain pleasure in seeing the emo kids suffer at the hands of equally cranky demons.

In short, I found the game monotonous and frustrating, and very early on stopped caring about whether I would succeed at it or not. This would seem to me to be a mark of a lousy game.

I can only hope that my commuting buddy disagrees with my opinion. He did seem to be pretty wrapped up in the game – and he did reach a higher level – so he must like it more than I did. Which, really, isn’t saying much.

The deluxe edition of Persona comes, by the way, with two CDs (!!) of music featured in the game. The only reason I can imagine that one might shell out extra cash for this bonus feature is if you happen to be in the business of torture. (Perhaps you’re a freelance operative for some shadow government, I don’t know and don’t want to know what you people do.) If you are, pick up the deluxe edition of Persona right away. If ever you want to extract information from an enemy without violating the Geneva Conventions, pop these discs into your stereo and let ‘er rip. Even the stubbornest, most iron-willed Green Beret would cough up his most valuable national secrets after four or five spins on “Repeat.” I shudder at the very thought.

Which is why, after the first hour or so, I played this game with the volume turned all the way down.

Review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes, originally published here

I am one of the many thousands of people who grew up in the age of Star Wars, loved it immensely as a youth and young man, and have been, somewhat regretfully, forced into reëvaluating the whole universe/multiverse/shebang, what with the “advent” of the latter three films, the spinoffs, the second major wave of mercenary merchandising, and of course the cataclysmically horrific Jar-Jar Binks. (Ain’t no apologizing for that guy.) The original three films are still somewhat enjoyable, but they seem to have lost that “touchstone” status for me as I realize that, honestly, they’re not all that great.

Which, really, has very little to do with the multi-coloned Star Wars: The Clone Wars: Republic Heroes, which I’ve recently been playing on my trusty PSP. But it is worth noting that this game is an ancillary of a spinoff of a sequel of a sequel of the transmedia, cross-platform … thingamajig that Star Wars has become. Proudly, the back of the box boasts that, by playing this game, one may “experience an original storyline that bridges the gap between Season One and Two of the hit TV series.” (NB: Storylines are now somehow experiential.) You can bet that that gap was placed there by design. If you like the TV show, you’ll want to play this game, since it’ll fill in, apparently, all kinds of story information that you can’t get elsewhere. This multiverse is infinitely expandable, and that’s the point.

I am faintly aware that a Clone Wars TV series exists, and I seem to recall a film version in theaters not too long ago. (And that it didn’t seem to make much of an impression with critics or audience.) Didn’t hold much interest for me. But I liked this game pretty well – with some serious reservations.

I am in no way aware of the complex storyline that lies behind Republic Heroes; I don’t even know which alien races its characters belong to, or whether they’re good guys or bad guys. It took me a little while to get used to the fact that, as far as I can tell, anyway, the clones are the good guys. See, they all wear outfits that strongly resemble that of Boba Fett. Boba Fett, for my generation of Star Wars fan, is the epitome of nastiness; he richly earned that plunge into the Sarlacc, or whatever the hell that thing was.

In any case: at various stages of the game, you play as one of the Fettlings; as a young Obi-Wan; as a young, pre-Darth Anakin Skywalker; and as some sort of octopus-head guy. Each of these characters has different moves, skills, abilities, and I enjoyed this variety, even as I couldn’t follow the story. (I liked the octopus-head guy the best, I think.) Which is actually another way of saying: if you’re familiar with the various strains of the Star Wars multiverse narrative, you may find this game rewarding, as it complicates them significantly.

One of the reasons that I avoided the Clone Wars movie was that I didn’t care for the chunky-style CGI. I thought it inelegant and inexpressive. But now, after playing this game for a while, I’ve developed a two-tier appreciation for the animation design. It is, first of all, very savvy: presumably, the animators elected this relatively low-detail style because it “ports” well across media: the characters don’t look appreciably different in the game than they do in the show or the movie. Beyond that, though, I began to appreciate the character design in its own right. The lines are clean and, while they permit relatively lesser degrees of expression in the characters, it’s sufficient for the actions and storylines of the game. And it’s a highly unified “look” that the game has – all graphic elements are pleasingly of a piece.

But there’s a significant problem with the graphics. The backgrounds, which are also chunky-style, do not effectively convey depth, angle, and perspective. Many of the spaces that the characters traverse are too obliquely angled, too dark and shadowy, and too featureless – especially on a small PSP screen – to be comprehensible. My characters were constantly running into walls or trying to turn corners that were not actually there. I take this to be a pretty major design flaw.

Gameplay was, for the most part, enjoyable, even as there’s really only ever one way of solving a given task. (I was playing on “Easy” mode; not sure how much difference this makes.) The tasks are reasonably well designed to encourage your characters to develop skills that they’ll deploy more richly in later stages. But Yoda did get pretty pesky, popping up at all-too-regular intervals in order to deliver sage advice in that stilted way he has.

But there’s a major problem with gameplay, too: after several hours of playing, in which I met with no insurmountable and fairly few genuinely difficult obstacles (though the safe-cracking thing is annoying), I was thrown into battle with what was, as far as I can tell, an unbeatable enemy. I’m sure that this boss (can’t recall his name; for some reason I want to say that it’s not unlike that of Eliza Dushku) is beatable, but I’ll be damned if I know how. This big metal dude flew around, lashing me and the octopus-head guy with some sort of laser-whip; he never flew close enough for us, as ground-bound Jedi, to even get in a single lick. In perhaps an hour of trying to defeat this guy, I never landed a single blow, and I tried every damn Jedi trick in the Jedi book. Not only does something like this take the fun out of the game, but it seems to me to, once again, represent a major design flaw: if you face only creampuffs for the first several stages of the game, you won’t be able to take out the big baddie. I’m not the world’s best gamer (even though I have an ironic mesh cap that says as much); you may have an easier time with Eliza than I did. But this was enough to encourage me to put down the game for good.

Review of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, originally published here

I am going to let you in on one of the dirty little secrets of videogame reviewers (and we have many of them, let me tell you). More often than not, we do not finish the games we review before we review them.

Man, I hope I’m not breaking something akin to the code of honor that magicians have. But, damn. I feel like I’ve just unburdened myself of the hundred-pound weight that’s been hanging around my neck for so long.

Man, I hope I’m not breaking something akin to the code of honor that magicians have. But, damn. I feel like I’ve just unburdened myself of the hundred-pound weight that’s been hanging around my neck for so long.

OK, not really. I’m probably not telling you anything you didn’t know already. I mean, the completion of some of these games requires multiple days’ worth of gameplay, and while I try my hardest to project the image of an International Man of Leisure, I just don’t have that kind of free time.

This is all to say that I made time for Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which I enjoyed a great deal and recommend without any major reservations. It’s a fine game with a very engaging story, pleasing and fairly realistic graphics, and a genuinely creepy sense of dread that sort of seeps in from the seams.

I’m aware of the other games in this series, but have not played any; nor have I seen the movie. (Though I intend to, because I find Radha Mitchell exceedingly cute.) Neither had I ever played any “horror” games before this one, though Shattered Memories is not the kind of game that’ll make you jump out of your chair in terror. Rather, it’s the kind that gives you little cold shivery prickles at the back of your neck, even as you stare at a small screen as you ride a subway train. The mood it conveys is effectively creepy and grim; moreover, it sustains this mood for nearly the entire duration of the game, which I take to be no small achievement.

You play the game as Harry Mason, an everyman who, in the game’s opening scene, loses his daughter, Cheryl, in a car crash. Here, “loses” does not refer to Cheryl’s death, but to her disappearance: Harry cannot find her once he extricates himself from the wreck. It’s this quest that motivates the main action of the story: Harry walks through the eerily vacant town of Silent Hill in search of his daughter.

One of the things I like about this game is that Harry’s only tools in his quest are a flashlight (which casts impressively realistic shadows) and a cell phone, a multi-use tool that contains a GPS-like mapping system, a camera that features into gameplay, and the ability to make and receive calls, tasks without which the game would be uncompletable. Apparently, the Wii version of Shattered Memories incorporates the use of these devices in exceptionally naturalistic ways, given the nature of that platform’s controller. And that may be the case. But I found that the control of these devices has been assigned very logically and fluidly to the PSP controls.

There are two basic modes of gameplay: exploration and creature-evasion. In the former, you search any and all accessible buildings, woods, streets, vacant lots, amusement parks, malls, and other creepily people-free places. In so doing, you interact with an impressive range of objects in order to gain access to spaces, recover “mementoes” (objects of cryptic significance), find necessary phone numbers, and gather evidence that relates in tantalizingly opaque ways to Cheryl’s disappearance. It’s not just the standard locks, keys, closets, etc., that Harry must manipulate: he also encounters a pawnbroker’s revolving security device, slot and gumball machines, cigar-store Indians, and a planetarium projector (!), to name a few. It’s fun to interact with these diverse devices, and to piece together the clues, even if they don’t always amount to what you think they will. Overall, the “exploration” phase of gameplay is far more enjoyable than the other phase.

That other phase, dubbed by the good people of Konami as the “nightmare” portion of the game, is some sort of weird alternate reality in which the world (and its inhabitants) ices over, and creepy, faceless, pinkish, slender, unidentified demon-people emerge from every cranny to chase and terrorize Harry. There’s never any real explanation for what these things are – not even the game’s unusual and much-discussed ending (addressed below) entirely clarifies it. These creatures are annoying, frankly. Harry can’t kill or fight them – all he can do is run from them, and shake them off of his person should they attach themselves, as they are wont to do. If they hang around too persistently, they will put Harry out of action, and you’ll have to return to an earlier stage of the “nightmare.”

The creature/nightmare phase of the game is by far the weaker, precisely because you can’t fight or defeat the creatures – all you can do is run. But that running is itself frustrating, since the geography of the nightmare-space is indeterminate. Through every door is a series of two to four subsequent doors, and there’s never a clue as to which makes the most sense to open. It’s exceedingly difficult to build up a sense of the space in these scenes, which I understand is a design choice, but, still, it’s annoying, since you pretty much navigate by trial and error, if not by blind chance. (The creatures are always too hot on your tail for you to bust out the GPS, if even it works in Nightmareland.) The fact that some of the creatures sport whimsical, Nefertiti-shaped heads does not compensate for the frustration one experiences in this portion of the game.

Actually, there’s a third phase of the game: several scenes take place in a psychiatrist’s office, where you are given a series of tests by which the game “analyzes” you and, allegedly, adapts to your psychology. This is a bunch of hooey, of course, but the scenes in the doctor’s office are important and intriguing.

So, yes, the game’s story has a “twist” ending that, in retrospect, casts all previous elements of the game in a new light. It’s a good twist: it emerges organically from the story and the tone of the game, and, for that, is surprisingly subtle. I am bound by a blood-contract with Konami not to reveal this ending, and wouldn’t do it, anyway, even if they hadn’t threatened to subject me to an endless video loop of the performances of the alleged comedian known as “Carrot Top.”

It’s tough to call Silent Hill: Shattered Memories fun per se, since it really is quite dire and grim. But it’s an unusually well-conceived game that I enjoyed – despite the somewhat annoying monsters-are-chasing-me scenes – quite a lot, and that I recommend highly.

Review of Shadow of Destiny, originally reviewed here

“Is there anything interesting going on around here?”

So queries one of the random pedestrians that populate the half-convoluted, half-dull world of Shadow of Destiny. At various points in the game, the proper answer to that question is either “Kinda, yeah, but it’ll take me a while to explain it,” or “Nah. You wanna go for a drink or something?”

Alas, the sole bar in the town of the fictional German town of Lebensbaum (“life tree”) is often closed; anyway, if it does happen to be open, you can’t do much once you enter. But perhaps I should back up a bit.

You play Shadow of Destiny as the awkwardly named Eike Kusch. Not “AY-keh,” as the Japanese pronunciation would have it, and as Eike’s distinctly anime-ish appearance would suggest, but “IKE,” as in the fella who presciently warned us about the military-industrial complex. Eike is a lanky gent who is prone to exaggerated cranial double-takes, and who is voiced by, according to the internets, an actor named Scott Keck, whom I wish well but whose voice I hope never to hear again. It is truly one of the poorest voice performances I’ve heard in a long time. And the rest of the cast, faced with the same poorly written and -translated dialogue right out of Monty Python’s “my hovercraft is full of eels” sketch, fares little better. It’s an unpleasant game to listen to, not just because of the terrible voice acting, but because the effects of the compression/decompression process are (for the first time in my PSP experience) noticeable to the point of distracting.

I seem to keep getting sidetracked. Funny: I didn’t think I had that much to say about this game.

This is a time-travel game. Time travel never makes sense: there are always narrative gaps and implausibilities and suchlike. This is OK, really – it’s part of the genre, as far as I’m concerned. I liked Hot Tub Time Machine just fine, and was not troubled too much by its inconsistencies.

Shadow of Destiny is fairly ambitious – perhaps too ambitious – in its attempt to weave time-travel into its story. As the story begins, lanky Eike finds himself imprisoned in a purgatory by Homunculus, an androgynous oddball with seemingly malicious intentions. Homunculus (every mention of whose name conjured for me visions of Wallace Shawn, whose presence would be most welcome here) gives Eike the “Z-pad,” which is not an internet-enabled feminine hygiene product available only in Akihabara but a time-travel device whose ‘Z’ presumably stands for the German word for “time,” Zeit. With the Z-pad, Eike can shuffle back and forth between 2001 (the “time in which [he] originally exist[s],” to use but one of the game’s thoroughly stilted phrasings), 1980 (complete with beWalkman’d joggers!), 1902, and 1580, when Lebensbaum was a mere cobblestoned village whose peasant inhabitants were constantly in search of something interesting to do.

In his time-shufflings, Eike meets various Lebensbaumers, then their ancestors, and their doppelgängers, and so forth. Most of the micro-scale tasks that Eike must undertake involve using some item or bit of knowledge from the past to help himself out of a bind in the present, or vice versa. I’ve read some online criticism of this game, the focus of which was that the tasks are a bit simplistic: there’s really only one way to solve them, and the solutions are telegraphed pretty clearly. This is, for the most part, true, but a bigger problem is that some of motivations behind these micro-tasks are quite opaque. Occasionally, I just got lucky in grabbing the right item. Many of the tasks/quests are a bit arbitrary.

Oh, I forgot to mention that Eike dies a lot. Like, all the time, usually because of some impishness on the part of Homunculus. I must’ve died 20 times in playing this game, even though, as far as I know, I did everything the game suggested I do to prolong my life. It gets annoying, this frequent dying. If you play this game, I’d suggest using the “Save” function often.

The main selling points of Shadow of Destiny (or, as George McFly and/or a less charitable reviewer might call it, Shadow of Density) are its intricate storyline and its multiple endings. The story does become intricate, what with the jumping back from one time to another to another. Often, in fact, the object of the quest at hand gets obscured, which is why the designers gave Eike a notepad/diary, in which he ostensibly writes down everything that happens to him. The notepad, in addition to being one of the game’s main sources of fractured English, becomes a clumsy if occasionally necessary device for sifting through the various temporal striations of the narrative.

As for the multiple endings, well, they’re there, all right, but I didn’t find the game compelling enough to run through it again to “unlock” whatever scenes and endings that I may have missed. The game has a “Choose Your Own Adventure” structure to it, in that choices you make at one point in the story determine further events and outcomes. (This is another reason to hit “Save” often: you can go back to the divergence-point in a forking path if your initial selection leaves Eike dead – again.) Certain “bonus” endings can only be accessed if you play through the five “first-level” endings – a task I can’t imagine being especially satisfying (or relevant) to anyone but the obsessive-compulsive.

If the story gets a little out-of-hand, it’s because, at root, this is a game that aspires to be a movie (one that’s in dire need of a script doctor); it just happens to have some interactive elements built into it. Its narrative ambitions are rather too grandiose, but its gameplay is only average. It’s not a particularly successful blend of the ostensibly cinematic and the videogame.

That said, this game is fine, really. It was engaging enough for me to actually finish it – something I rarely do before writing these reviews. I sometimes found the stiff dialogue annoying, but sometimes I found it oddly endearing. They were trying so hard, you know? Ultimately, Shadow of Destiny is a solid but not thrilling way to spend some time, not a game that really cries out to be played.

Review of Puzzle Chronicles, originally published here

The path before us is strewn with the bodies of our forebears: good men and women who fought to the last. But to free the souls of our people is a goal as noble as any in our storied history. Our quest is a dangerous one – only the bravest will join me!

… LOADING …

Hey, Todd, throw me another beer, huh? Yeah, thanks for looking out for me, “Mom,” but I got plenty of time. The load times in this crappy game are ridiculous.
Ahh, that’s the stuff. Elixir of life, man.
My agent said it would good for me to “diversify my résumé” – that’s how come I’m here. A paycheck is a paycheck, right? Times is tight, or so they tell me.
Hang on.

Our quest will lead us to realms uncharted, to face foes as yet unvanquished! Fearsome Ogryns and deadly-accurate Archers of the Ashurin Empire await us, relishing the chance to spill – nay, to drink – our blood. But with the guidance of our muse, Morgana, and the good fortune of the gods, we shall prevail!

… LOADING …

Dude, I don’t write this stuff. They give me the lines and I read ‘em. Can’t even come up with decent names. I play some warrior guy named “Bran.” Like, what your mom’s doctor told her to eat more of.
Yes, Todd, I just referred to your mother’s bowel movements. Deal with it.
At least it’s consistent, though: the characters in this thing don’t even move. It’s just still images, like a comic book. Not much of a video game, if you ask me. Pretty hokey.

The Ashurin Empire must be vanquished! How shall we vanquish them, you wish to know?

By playing sideways Tetris, basically.
Yeah, yeah, OK. Sorry, Marty. YES, I’m a professional, I swear. Just … a little frustrated with this thing. You understand. Won’t happen again.

By capturing their power gems! The manipulation of our enemies’ power gems is a skill that our ancestors have passed down to us over hundreds of generations! Now is the time to put our ancient powers to the test!

… LOADING …

It just doesn’t make sense to me, man. Why would the outcome of a game of sideways Tetris have any impact whatsoever on whether All-Bran here kills an “Iron Cobra”? It’s not like the sideways-Tetris gets any harder once you get to the big bosses, or anything. You just play it again and again and then, eventually, you play it against the big boss, and then you beat him, and then you win. Not much of a challenge.
I tell ya, it’s hard to read this dialogue with any conviction.
Hang on, Todd. Boss man needs me.

Train your mighty warbeasts, my kinsmen, and join me! Together, we will raise an army and release our enslaved people from the clutches of the nefarious Ashurin!

… LOADING …

Yeah, that’s another thing. You get a “warbeast” – basically a dog – but it doesn’t DO anything. It just howls now and then, and I guess helps you a little bit in sideways Tetris. You’re supposed to be able to equip it with other stuff, but it doesn’t matter. You win regardless.
And you can buy all this stuff – like swords and boots and shields and crap like that. Once you have it, you’re basically invincible. You can’t lose. I mean, don’t these videogame kids like a little bit of a challenge? My nephew plays this one game with, like, ten different guns and a moving camera and robots and all sorts of shit. I played it for ten seconds and I’ve never been more confused in my life. Meanwhile, he’s running around, shooting aliens like it’s second frickin’ nature.
Remember Little League, Todd? Life was easier then. No robot aliens to kill.

Our tribesman await! Come, my people! Join me! Only together can we slay the Ashurin foe! Only with our knowledge of the sacred gems can we free our people! To arms!

… LOADING …

OK, Marty. Thanks, yeah. Next time, something better, huh? A paycheck’s a paycheck, right?
Yeesh, I don’t think I’d’ve lasted much longer. What a clunker. I gotta get me a new agent. No more Bran Flakes for me.
Hey, Todd, you wanna grab a beer? Together, we can conquer the Heineken Empire! Ha!

Review of Lunar Silver Star Harmony, originally published here

I sighed a lot when I played Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, even though I didn’t play it for very long. Surely, in fact, this game completely wrecked curve of the “sighs-to-playing-time” ratio. It’s one of those games.

By which I mean that it comes from the alternate universe of anime-steeped Japan, wherein, and I mean this quite seriously, peculiar modes of narrative, character, emotion, and behavior steer the course of all kinds of media texts: videogames like this one, yes, but also films, manga, television shows, and so forth. Maybe I found this game so tedious because I am not fully versed in the world of anime, but I think it runs deeper than that. There’s something seriously off about Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, and it infuses everything about the game, right down to its bizarro, agrammatical title.

This game just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or, I should say, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to someone who is not deeply familiar with anime storylines, modes of character behavior, and suchlike. Characters’ actions and motivations are opaque to me: they have goals for no particular reason; their traits seem arbitrarily assigned; their quests are dumb.

Moreover, the gameplay is deeply, deeply irritating – pointing, I think, to the fact that the makers of this game are addressing an audience to which I absolutely do not belong. Ever watch a game of field hockey? It’s an intensely annoying experience, because the rules of the game are such that play stops every 30 seconds for some infraction or other. You can never get a good “flow” going. My high-school friends and I used to bring board games to the field when our pals on the field hockey team asked us to come to their games. Lunar: Silver Star Harmony feels much like watching field hockey, but instead of being able to play Monopoly or something while your friends have to adjust to the fits-and-starts rhythm of the game, you’re subjected to it yourself. Your little bigheaded characters cannot take ten steps – no exaggeration – without being interrupted by some baddie or other.

What’s more, the battles with the baddies are SEVERELY annoying – again, evidence, I think, of some sort of mode of gameplay that evolved since I started playing these things some thirty years ago. This is a mode of gameplay that is NOT FUN. You play as the leader of a small group of kids who go out to find a dragon or some shit like that, I dunno. Accompanying you is an annoying flying cat that fails endlessly, groaningly, stultifyingly at crafting witticisms. Anyway, when battling the baddies – task which, again, occurs every time the field-hockey referee blows her whistle, which is to say: every 20 seconds or so – you must complete a tedious action-selection process that, when tallied up, surely consumes the lion’s share of game-time. You have to sift through drop-down menus to decide whether to run, fight, block, or use some special combo moves. And you do this for EACH character. And then, once you’ve entered your choices, the actual battling happens – and you have no control over it at all, since you’re locked into whatever you opted for in the drop-down menus. So, in other words, there’s no action, per se, in this game. Rather, the action happens automatically: the battles unfold turn by turn – apparently, in Lunar-world, no one can accomplish more than one task at any given moment. The game completely does away with any sense of action or adventure or – dare I say it – fun, relegating gameplay, such as it is, to random perambulations throughout some faintly Tolkienistic landscapes, and then entering choices into what are effectively actuarial tables. There’s nothing to DO in this game. It’s deadly boring. All the reasons for which, presumably, most people play videogames – action, speed, timing, tests of reflexes, pattern-recognition, interactivity – are inaccessible to the player of Lunar: Silver Star Harmony.

So, yeah, I don’t get it. I don’t get this game, I don’t get why anyone would play it, I don’t understand why the characters act like they do, why the action of the game has been so thoroughly stripped away, why anyone would this that stupid flying cat is charming or funny. There’s precious little left for the gamer here. No fun, no action, only failed attempts at humor, inexplicable and uninteresting characters and quests, irritating gameplay.

Ultimately, I wasn’t so much annoyed by this game as I was baffled. If bafflement is your bag, then by all means go for this one. If not, stay away.

Review of Despicable Me, originally published here

In The New York Times last week, a reviewer noted that Zach Galifianakis is on the verge of either major stardom, or of overexposure. I found this to be apt. And I think this assessment may apply equally to Steve Carell, who, like Galifianakis, is a funny and talented guy who may be spreading himself a little thin lately. His live-action film Dinner for Schmucks opened within a week or so of the feature-length animated film Despicable Me, on which this PSP title is based. And, of course, since the big money these days is in the ancillary properties – not so much the movie proper – Carell’s contract surely provided a handsome sum for him to provides the voice of Gru, the main character in the film, in this game and, surely, other ancillaries. Spinoffs, anyone?

And Carell is a funny dude, no doubt. His wisecracks are among the highlights of this game, which falls somewhere between “pretty good” and “you know, for kids.” Should you, as the gameplayer, steer Gru toward a fiery – or watery, or spiky, or whatever, as the case may be – death (well, failure is more like it – this game is for kids, you know), the game responds with one of a series of Carellian insults (“There is a tutorial, you know!”), which more than once made me chuckle. I found the game to be pretty solid, but found myself almost wanting to kill Gru because I looked forward to Carell’s witticisms.

Witticisms do not a game make, however, and, while the game is pretty diverting – I plan on finishing it – it suffers from a few drawbacks. For one thing, the controls are rather counterintuitive. Switching weapons is pretty cumbersome, but not as tediously button-intensive as deploying the “Minion” characters (about whom more in a moment), which is itself not as annoyingly difficult as aiming the gun, a skill essential to certain tasks. I just never got into a rhythm of actually operating this game. I also found the “flying” mode – in which Gru pilots a little pointy spaceship/jet thingy (perhaps this is in the film, which I have been meaning to see). There, the controls are simply inadequate: the little slidey textured button on the PSP does not offer particularly supple control over this craft.

The game is sometimes quite easy (the “you know, for kids” mode) and sometimes surprisingly challenging (the “pretty good” mode) – it seems to me that the designers didn’t quite know which segment of the market to target. Or perhaps they were aiming to have this game cross over market segments – surely that was the intent with the film: Carell for the grown-ups, animation and the little Minions for the kiddies. Anyway, the platformer-type action that makes up the bulk of the game’s action is usually fairly straightforward: dodging flying obstacles, jumping at the right moment, and so forth. The tasks are of varying difficulties, but you can master every one of them if you get the timing just right.

Some of the puzzles, though, really caught me off-guard by their complexity. The puzzle portions of the game are the parts in which you deploy the Minions: the cute little yellow dudes in overalls that are the focus of the film’s ad campaign. When you require them, you can summon the Minions from offscreen (via a sort of cannon, manned by yet another Minion), and stack them into various arrangements, each of which possesses certain specific qualities: the Minion stack can be used as a bridge; the Minion “wheel” can be spun for use as a fan, and so forth. Between the permutations of Minion arrangements, the various ways in which you can control or alter them with your various pieces of weaponry, and the often-clever arrangements of movable gates, doors, and the like, many of the puzzles really do require some forethought and repeated attempts. It surprises me to do so, but I will recommend this game to you if you like a good brainteaser – if you don’t mind the other, less challenging, bits of the game.

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