Seething Cauldron of Pop Culture Talk

Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

SNES vs. Genesis: Introduction

The early 90’s saw one of the biggest battles of console gaming history, between industry veteran Nintendo and young upstart Sega. After the stunning success of the NES, Nintendo was left with a decision to make with how to follow up on that success. Their idea became the SNES, a system more powerful and more versatile than its predecessor. It launched in November 1990 in Japan, August 1991 in the States, but was preceded by Sega’s Genesis console which launched in October 1988. And this time around Mario had stiff compeitition: Sonic the Hedgehog.

What followed was a might battle and Sega made inroads on Nintendo’s hardware base, but, in the end, it wasn’t enough and Nintendo left the battlefield as the ultimate victor. That’s what the history books say, but who REALLY won? In this multi-part series, the lineups of the two consoles will be dissected and picked apart as the truth float to the top and all the hyberpole and hype is filtered away.

Hardware power? Graphics? Sound quality? Controller? Catridge size? Doesn’t matter. This series will focus on the one thing that matters more than anything else: THE GAMES.

Coming up in Part 1: Action Games

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Console Wars, Games | , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: The Dreamcast

Following the breakout success of the Genesis, Sega released a series of hardware flops that failed to capitalize on the goodwill that they’d generated and, instead, succeeded in flustering customers and confusing retailers. To rectify this, Sega developed and released what they hoped would be a return to form with the Dreamcast. Released in November 1998 in Japan, September 1999 in the States, it debuted with Sonic Adventure, Soul Calibur, Power Stone, and Hydro Thunder, a very strong lineup by any measurement. It did well for itself early on, but was quickly overwhelmed by Sony’s hype-machine leading up to the release of the highly-touted PS2. While not a total failure, the Dreamcast was the nail in Sega’s hardware coffin, almost leading them into bankruptcy, and, by the accounts of many, the point where Sega’s software quality took a severe nosedive. That’s all history now, so let’s see how things have held up a decade later.

The System: Though covered in dust and grime and yellowed plastic, the system starts right up without a hitch. Very sturdy. It makes a bit of noise as the disc spins at speeds reaching the sound barrier, but that’s about the only sound that the system makes. No problems here!

The Controller: It’s not good. The handles are shaped oddly, giving you feeling that you’re attempting to rip it in half, and using it is very awkward. I don’t remember this being a problem when I was young, perhaps because my hands were smaller then, but it’s definitely a problem now. Using it for any length of time is bound to give you hand cramps. Also, the odd bumps on the analog stick have a tendency to rub your thumb raw. Not good.

Sonic Adventure: One of the quintessential Dreamcast titles and, arguably, one of the last great Sonic games. Unfortunately, it doesn’t held up as well as it could have. Sonic feels very floaty, the camera has a tendency to move where you don’t want it to, and there’s an abundance of scenes where you’re meant to gaze in awe at the power of the Dreamcast as the game takes control and plays for you. There’s also the awful story and equally bad dialog/voice-acting. There’s still fun to be had here, don’t think otherwise, but a host minor issues plague the title and make going back to it a bit more difficult than some other classic titles. Upsides include some good music, colorful graphics and art style.

Crazy Taxi: Drive very fast and wildly as you take passengers from one destination to the next, just like a real taxi driver! It’s fast paced and arcade-y, so don’t expect anything remotely resembling realistic physics and even collision detection. None of the downsides really make much of an impact though, as the game is still very fun to play for short stretches. Music is really dated though.

Jet Grind Radio: Lots of funky music and art style that holds up pretty well, being one of the first games to have celshading. Movement is, at times, clunky and unresponsive. On the second level I quit in frustration because, for the the dozenth time, I fell down in the sewers as I was trying to skate across a chasm on top of a crane because I couldn’t get my character to move in a straight line. The game still has some fun moments, but it’s something you’ve really got to be committed to, you can’t just drop in after a ten year absence and immediately blaze through. Patience is necessary for this one.

Shenmue: Possibly the most famous Dreamcast title and easily the most hyped. Considered by some to be one of the greatest game experiences of all time and considered by others to be the most boring, it’s definitely garnered a lot of debate in its time. Even now, you can still strike up a lengthy conversation just by mentioning it. Anyway, I played it lightly when it first came out, preferring to watch my brother play through it, and I recall being fascinated by just how much freedom the game gave you and how many random, little things there were to do. Unfortunately, none of that really translated to FUN. To put it simply: Shenmue is a like a Japanese kid simulator. You live the life of Japanese kid, getting up in the morning, walking around your house, venturing into town, buying capsule toys, and occasionally fighting Yakuza. There are some really great ideas here, but few of them are put across in ways that actually make the game FUN. Here we come back to that word. Ambitions? Tons. Fun? There are time when it can be, but you have to fight through tedium to get there. Is it worth your time? Unless you’re just really curious to see what the fuss is all about, probably not.

Sword of the Berserk – Guts Rage: Slow, awkward, and repetitive. Puck is annoying is aggressively annoying, graphics are bland and barren, and the voice-acting is atrocious. Excessive violence doesn’t save it from aging very badly. The theme song is pretty awesome though. Overall, it’s a game that seemed really fun at the time, but was simply a novelty.

I’d like to replay a few more titles, but time has not been kind to my collection and these five are the only remaining games that I really care to play again.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hidden Gems: Time Stranger

Alright, take the director of the Pokemon movies and have him do a sequel movie to a fighting force mecha show from the early 80’s. It sounds like a recipe for unadulterated mediocrity, yet somehow it manages to be one of the most bizarre, surreal, and personal animes ever created.

In a way, I would liken this to Watchmen, even though it came out over a year before that famous comic. Both weave tales of heroes who had their moment in the sun, but when the war was over, they faded into obscurity. They’re all older now and one has turned his one-time fame into a successful commercial enterprise. Another is the Surgeon General. They don’t really see each other anymore and they’ve all got their own, somewhat boring, lives now. But when one of their own is threatened, they band together to fight. They outcome is very different, of course, and Time Stranger’s is an internal struggle, but the similarities remain nonetheless.

Remy, the female member of the Goshogun fighting force, falls into a coma after an accident. The other members of the group come together to support her and try to get her the medical treatment that she needs. It’s an uphill battle and the doctors have little confidence in her recovery, or survival. In Remy’s mind, she and her friends a trapped in a strange desert city where the locals believe that once its your time to die you have no choice but to die. Remy and her friends all receive letter claiming that they will die very soon, but they aren’t going to go down without a fight. As Remy’s letter claims that she will die first, they all focus on trying to keep her alive past the deadline to show the locals that there’s no such thing as fate.

While Time Stranger does have several action scenes, action is not the focus. Rather it focuses on Remy’s internal struggle and how she deals with almost insurmountable odds. She realizes that her death is almost a certainty, but she never gives up.

But let’s get one thing out of the way: Time Strange is 14 years old and it looks it. The animation gets the job done, and there are some moments where a lot is done with a little, but it’s not going to blow anyone away. More than anything else, that’s the main gripe with the show. However, it should, in no way, take away from enjoyment one gets from viewing this movie.

The music is a mix of haunting and surreal, with a pure 80’s power ballad at the end. Again, nothing truly exceptional here, but it holds up better than the animation and aids in setting th proper mood.

The main draw here is the characters, or, specifically, Remy. She is one of the strongest and most unique female characters I’ve seen in an anime. She can fight when she needs to, but it’s her strong will and never-say-die attitude that make her truly standout.

Specs: Directed by Kunihiko Yuymama, Released by Ashi Productions in 1985. Released in the US by Central Park Media, still available new.

Upsides: Great story with lots of psychological depth, interesting characters, strong female lead.

Downsides: Some of the animation hasn’t aged too well, some of the impact is lost by not having seen the original series.

Verdict: This is one anime movie that’s not to be missed. 9/10

Where to Find: Just about anywhere that has a decent anime selection.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Anime, Hidden Gems | , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Spyro the Dragon

Two years after Super Mario 64 dropped and showed everyone what a 3D platformer was all about, a new mascot character hit the scene with his own brand new platforming adventure. Spyro was the brainchild of Insomnia Games and Univseral Interactive, who joined forces to give the purple dragon his own series of games. There’s been a slew of games since 1998, but Spyro the Dragon was the first.

When the dragons insult evil genius Gnasty Gnort on live TV, he immediately takes action and transforms all of them into stone statues. All of them except a young dragon named Spyro. As the titular character, you must travel the various realms of the dragon world and free your fellow dragons from their stony prisons, all the while collecting jewels and various other things. Eventually facing off against Gnasty Gnort and putting a stop to his evil ambitions.

The graphics hold up fairly well despite the game being nearly twelve years old. The various worlds of the dragons are colorful and cover a variety of various themes, from war-ravaged wastelands to pastoral towns.  Aside from the usual pixelated textures that were common on the PS1, there’s plenty to like about the graphics and the art style. It’s definitely got a quirky, charming style that works with 3D limitations of the system.

The gameplay is not too dissimilar from other 3D platformers like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, in that you are tasked with climbing to various heights, fighting lots of weak enemies, and collecting an assortment of baubles that serve no real purpose. However, it does have a few ideas of its own, such as Spyro’s fire-breathing, head-butting abilities, and gliding abilities mix things up a bit beyond just jumping and punching. There’s also a nice variety of different enemies and each area has it’s own variations on some of the standard enemy types. It’s a fun game, plain and simple, far more than the basics of the gameplay or story or whatever would have you believe. And it all holds up very well as an overall package.

Specs: Developed by Insomnia Games and Universal Interactive, Published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Released on the PS1 in 1998. Available in all regions.

Upsides: Colorful graphics, fun gameplay, a sense of humor.

Downsides: It’s all been done before and probably better.

Verdict: A fun platformers that stands the test of time and remains a nice time-waster despite its age. 8/10

Where to Find: It was released recently on PSN. It’s also available used on Amazon for $10.

Random Note: After three games, Universal took over the series and Insomnia moved on to Rachet and Clank.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , | Leave a comment

Arakawa Under the Bridge

Brought to you by the mad comedy wizards at SHAFT and SHAFT’s go-to director Akiyuki Shinbo, comes a very strange love story. Kou is a young man born with a silver spoon in his mouth as the son a wealthy corporate head, however he’s grown up with the concept of never owning anything to anyone pounded into his psyche. This concept governs his entire existence. No matter how small the issue might be, he is determined to do it himself and ensure that he receives no help at all from anyone. This is complicated when he is saved from drowning by a strange girl named Nino, who claims to come from Venus. In return for rescuing him, and at Kou’s insistence that he repay her as quickly as possible, she asks him to stay with her in her home under the bridge as her boyfriend. Kou, despite misgivings, accepts.

It’s based on a four-panel gag manga, as evidenced by how each episode is broken up to several three-four minute segments that focus on one idea or joke.

The animation is typical SHAFT animation, with lots of quick shots and close ups and odd shift in art style. It’s not particularly impressive, but it gets the job done and has enough life to it that there’s certainly nothing about the technical quality that will bother you.

Episode 1 had some good moments, but was a bit uneven overall and tended to beat some of its jokes to death. Episode 2 was a bit improvement and was much funnier and had fresher jokes overall.

Early Verdict: A funny show and one that shows some promise. Will stick with this for at least a few more episodes.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Anime | , , | Leave a comment

Spring 2010 Anime at a Glance

Watching:

1. Senkou no Night Raid [2 episodes]
2. House of Five Leaves [2 episodes]
3. Angel Beats [4 episodes]
4. Arakawa Under the Bridge [3 episodes]
5. Tatami Galaxy [1 episode]
6. Working [3 episode]
7. Rainbow [2 episodes]

Dropped:

8. Heroman [2 episode]
9. Kaichou wa Maid-sama [1 episode]
10. Mayoi Neko Overrun! [2 episodes]
11. Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou
12. Hakuouki [1 episode]
12. B Gata H Kei [1 episode]

Notes:

Heroman features a standard plot about a put-upon kid who receives a giant robot which he then uses to fight evil invaders. Nothing new there, but the show has enough color and energy to make up for any shortcomings in the plot. I don’t know if I’ll finish the show, but it should be fun for a few episodes at least.

Despite a premise that made it seem destined for utter failure, Kaichou wa Maid-sama is actually a very earnest shoujo romance. It’s got touches of humor, a strong female lead, and a male lead that’s actually a decent guy. On the flip side, it’s annoyingly generic in its plotting and seems like a ripoff of Kare Kano but without the visual uniqueness and energy.

B Gata H Kei gets Dropped. DROPPED. Not quickly enough. It’s just so incredibly stupid, with no redeeming values what-so-ever.

Hakuouki just didn’t catch my interested.

Arakawa Under the Bridge has that special brand of weirdness that only SHAFT can provide. Some of the humor is stretched a bit too thin, but it had enough humorous moments and interesting quirks to keep me interested through the whole episode. I don’t know if I’ll stick with this one to th end, but I’ll definitely watch at least a few more episodes.

Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou has a very interesting premise, a student at a magical school is pegged as the second coming of the worst dark lord in history, but it’s all squandered on harem nonsense and a parade of panty shots and other such fanservice foolishness. A pity, but hardly a rare occurrence in today’s anime market.

Senkou no Night Raid is an action packed thriller about a group of Japanese secret agent in China during the 1930′s. They’ve also got some kind of super powers, one can leap through space and another can performs feats of extreme physical strength and so on. The historical significance of the period and location is pretty dark for Japan, so it’ll be interesting whether they touch on any of the atrocities committed in China or simply leave it as background.

Working is a show that I should hate, but somehow I don’t. It’s a slice of life comedy about a average guy who falls in with a bunch of wacky characters that work at a local family restaurant. Somehow it manages to be funny without resorting to sexual innuendo and fanservice, which is much appreciated these days.

Rainbow, about six kids in a Japanese prison in the mid-50’s, is a show that I’d really like to enjoy watching, but it’s oppressive depressing nature makes that very difficult. Everything is very downbeat and dark, even the art is stark and unfriendly. Also, all of the adult characters are perverted sadists with no redeeming factors at all, which makes the show kind of ridiculous even when it’s trying to very serious.

I haven’t actually watched KissxSix but everything I’ve read and seen about it suggests to me that anyone in their right mind should steer far away from it. I don’t think this show has anything good going for it whatsoever.

House of Five Leaves a samurai drama, is one of the best shows this season. It’s a slowly-paced series that focuses on the characters and their interactions and what they’re all about rather than action or wacky hijinks. Very, very good show with some rather unique character designs.

-Tatami Galaxy is probably the strangest series this season. It follows a college student who has completely failed at love and so decides to make everyone else fail too. For a while, it works, but then he starts to have feelings for a female student who he has known for a while. It sounds standard enough, but the results are anything but. Utterly wild show in every way.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Anime | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hidden Gems: Metal Max Returns

In 1991, development team Crea-Tech developed a game called Metal Max, a futuristic RPG where the player controlled and tweaked their own tank which they rolled out against a series of monsters. It was followed by a sequel on the SNES, Metal Max 2, and eventually a remake of the original, also for the SNES, called Metal Max Returns in 1995.

The game starts with your character being tossed out of his own home by his own dad for having the audacity to want to be a bounty hunter, which is apparently the hot job in the post-apocalyptic world of the future. With no place to call home, the player character set out to a nearby cave, after hearing that a super-awesome tank is hidden there. After some fighting, the player character is eventually saved from certain death by a professional bounty hunter who’s also looking for the tank. Unfortunately, the tanks isn’t really that great. The pro tanks one of the tank’s guns and then leaves the rest to you, since his own tank is better anyway. So begins the player character’s journey across a broken landscape beset by twisted mutants and renegade machines from a time long past.

The graphics are reminiscent of Final Fantasy V and have that RPG Maker-look that so many early to mid 90’s JRPGs had. There’s nothing particularly special in the world or the characters or the city, but there is one area that’s better than the norm: the monsters. These are some seriously messed up monsters, such as a giant worm with a drill for a head or a hippo with a cannon grafted to its body. They’re all very strange mutants and add a bit of humor to the affair, although I’m not entirely sure it’s on purpose.

The sound is a bit tinny, as in the tank’s guns don’t really sound that much like tank guns, but that’s pretty standard for older games like this. But the music is okay for the most part, with a few tunes being fun to listen to over and over.

The gameplay isn’t much different from the standard turn-based RPGs that have flourished in Japan for the past two decades. You have a party, you have gear, you fight monster in turn-based combat, and you level up. The only real difference between this game and all the others is that this one has a TANK. That’s actually a pretty big difference, because tanks are awesome and provide you with an edge in combat thanks to their increased power and armor. It also add another layer to the game since you have to care for you tank and upgrade it just like the player character and the other party members.

Overall, the game is pretty easy. If you end of getting killed somewhere, your dad comes to drag you back to your hometown where a crazy scientist goes all Frankenstein on you and zaps your corpse with electricity, with the intent of bringing you back to life. How your dad finds you, or even knows your got “killed”, is a mystery as if how you can constantly be brought back from the beyond so many times with no ill effects. There are some tough boss battles scattered around to make things interesting.

It’s a very non-linear game with only minimal storyline, so it’s the gameplay and exploration that are going to keep you coming back. Keep that in mind before you start playing.

Specs: Developed by Crea-Tech, Published by Data East, Released in 1995 for the SNES. Japan-only.

Upsides: Lots of tank customization, a breezy experience that starts quickly and keeps going, a weird post-apocalyptic world to explore, lots of bizarre monsters, and some decent music.

Downsides: insane encounter rate [two steps between battles?!], very easy, very non-linear to the point of tossing out story altogether, and overly complex menu system.

Verdict: A fun little game. Nothing amazing, but it’s a good way to waste a dozen hours. 7.5/10

Where to find: Just about any ROM site. A translation is also available. Google will show the way.

Random Note: Metal Saga on the PS2 is actually the fourth entry in the Metal Max series and the only entry to make it out of Japan.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Games, Hidden Gems | , , , | Leave a comment

Be ye warned.

And so begins a harrowing journey into the dark abyss of Great Rumbler’s mind. Be ye warned, o weary traveler, the knowledge you find here may be too much for this world. Use with caution and, as always, leave enlightened.

April 15, 2010 Posted by | Random Thoughts | Leave a comment