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Irascible Analysis of Popular Culture

Nostalgia Challenge: Shadow Madness

Now here is a title that, by all rights, should have long since been consigned to the dustbin of history. The graphics are atrocious in every possible way, the story is well-worn at best, the characters paper-thin, the CG is ugly, the combat is dull and repetitive, and…so on. Most of the major aspects that people point to when speaking of the greats of the RPG genre are all, at best, sub-par here, so why bring it up again so long after its release and financial bomb? Well…there’s just something about it. Shadow Madness was born out of Square translator Ted Woolsey’s Craveyard studio, which was shuttered in 1999 after the release of its only title, which was also parent company Crave Entertainment’s first title. Also of note, Paul Reed, designed for Metroid Prime, was responsible for the game’s story.

Well, with that out of the way, let’s get down to why the game is being brought up some eleven years after its release. I bought it back when it first came out, during a phase where I was inclined to purchase anything from the RPG genre that was released for the PS1. That included a few that really weren’t very good. I recall playing it some back then, but I don’t think I ever go to the second disc. It was somewhat fun then, but it eventually got put away and I haven’t been back to it a good number of years.

On May 10, 2010, I played it again. When I stopped, I found that nearly two hours had passed, almost without me realizing that I’d spent that much time with the game. In part, I think I can attribute some of this to the graphics no longer really being a major factor. Yes, it still looks quite awful today, but all the other PS1 games I’ve been playing lately look rather dated themselves, even the graphics powerhouses of their day. FF7 has blocky characters and highly compressed CG, but it’s still a good game, you know? It’s the same concept, although you really have to take it a bit farther with Shadow Madness.

To make a long story short, Shadow Madness gets by on its quirky nature and humorous dialog, which works far better than when it tries to be serious and generally fails. While all other components of the game have failed it utterly, the game’s writing saves the day and somehow makes the whole thing worthwhile. It might simply be the contrast with the other PS1 RPGs, which have writing that often feels a bit stiff and overly formal. Shadow Madness plays things loose and isn’t afraid to get a bit silly at times. That’s actually kind of refreshing when you think about it. And…that’s what the game has going for it. That and nothing more, I’m afraid. But, oddly enough, that did me two hours in and I actually kind of want to play it some more tomorrow.

It’s currently being sold on Amazon for a little over $3, which is probably about what it’s worth.


May 10, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Mystery Science Theater 3000

On November 24, 1988, the first episode of a new series aired on local-access cable channel KTMA out of the heart of Minnesota. The series, entitled Mystery Science Theater 3000, was the brainchild of prop comedian Joel Hodgson and feature Joel as a hapless everyman blasted into orbit by a couple of geniuses who forced him to watch bad movies as part of an experiment. To help fight off insanity, and loneliness, Joel constructed two robots named Tom Servo [voiced by Josh Weinstein and later by Kevin Murphy] and Crow T. Robot [voiced by Trace Beaulieu and later by Bill Corbit]. Together they watch bad movies and joke about how bad they are.

The format of the show is as thus: each episode opens with the series opening, showing who all the characters are and explaining the premise of the show in song form. Then there’s an opening sketch scene with Joel, and later Mike, doing something with Tom Servo and Crow. Then, after a commercial break, there’s a sketch with The Mads and the crew of the Satellite of Love, where there’s an invention exchange [mostly just for the Joel era] and then the movie of the day is announced and then sent. The crew goes into the movie theater to watch the movie, where they make witty comments and note the movie’s glaring flaws. Interspersed between segments of the movie are more sketches, usually just between the crew of the satellite. Then, upon the conclusion of the movie, there’s one more sketch between the crew and The Mads. The episode is then rapped up and the credits roll. Beginning in the second Comedy Central season, each episode ends with a “stinger” a humorous clip from the movie, usually just a few seconds long.

After one season on KTMA, the series was picked up by new-comer cable channel Comedy Central. The channel was looking for fresh content and MST3K allowed them to fill up a full two hours of programming and it was cheap to make, both of which were very appealing. This change also brought about several others. The early KTMA episode were mostly ad-libbed, but starting with the first Comedy Central season the episode began to be more scripted. During the third season, Josh Weinstein left, replaced by Frank Conniff as one of the two mad scientists and by Kevin Murphy as the voice of Tom Servo. Mike Nelson was appointed as head writer and also appeared during the sketches between portions of the movie as various characters.

During the fifth season on Comedy Central, series-creator Joel Hodgson left the show over creative problems with series-producer Jim Mallon. Joel hand-picked Mike Nelson to replace him as the show’s host and so began the Mike era. From there, the show’s riffing took on a bit more of a biting, sarcastic tone than the good-natured ribbing that prevailed during the Joel era. The difference is noticeable, but it also helps keep the show fresh. At the end of the sixth season, Frank Conniff, left the show, replaced by Mary Jo Pehl as Pearl Forrester, Dr. Forrester’s mother. Then, following the end of the seventh season, the show was cancelled by Comedy Central. Although it looked as though the show were gone for good, The Scifi Channel picked up the show and it gave it three more seasons. Following that move, Trace Beaulieu was replaced by Bill Corbit as the voice of Crow and Mary Jo Pehl took over as the mad scientist. She was joined by Bill Corbit [as Obeserver [aka Brain Guy] and Kevin Murphy as Professor Bobo, her often dim-witted assistants.

Then, with the conclusion of the tenth season, on September 18, 1999, the show was official cancelled for good. After a few more years of reruns, The Scifi Channel cut the show loose. For the first time in seventeen years, MST3K was no longer broadcast on televion. The era had finally come to an end.

Fortunately, the show has not been forgotten. A steady stream of DVD releases from Rhino Home Entertainment have been coming out with the latest, volume 17, being released in March 2010. The releases have not come as quickly as they might, due to lengthy negotiations being required to get the rights to all of the movies that were used as part of the series.

History aside, MST3K has featured a host of movies over its eleven seasons. Many of them feature a scifi or horror bent, but others are simply bad movies that would have otherwise sank into oblivion were it not for being featured on the show. MST3K has even featured more famous film franchises like Godzilla and Gamera, and the works of Ed Wood and Roger Corman. The movies range from practically ancient to nearly new, covering every decade from the 30’s to the 90’s. In addition to full-length films, MST3K also features shorts, to pad out movies that are too short to fit a 90-minute program. These shorts are off educational or informative in nature, used in schools and colleges, and are often hilariously awful, making them ripe for some great riffing. There are also a few serials such as Commando Cody, The Phantom Creeps, and General Hospital.

So what is it that makes MST3K so good? Because, for most of us, this is the kind of thing that we’ve always wanted to do. It’s great fun to kick back with your friends and just tear into some really bad movie that you wouldn’t really enjoy by taking seriously. That’s what MST3K does and that’s also why it’s best when viewed friends. Not every episode is the funniest thing ever, but with 199 episodes there are plenty that very nearly are. Do yourself a favor and rent a few. You won’t regret it.

May 7, 2010 Posted by | Movies, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nostalgia Challenge: Normality

The early-to-mid 90’s were heady times for the adventure genre, particularly on the PC. LucasArts and Sierra dominated the genre with many titles that have gone on to become all-time classics, but even smaller companies were getting in on the action by introducing their owns games with their owns little twists. One such title, from British developed Gremlin Interactive, puts you in the shoes of Kent Knutson, a rebellious, wise-cracking teen living in a 1984-esque alternate world. Normality was published by Interplay in June 1996 for the PC.

The plot revolves around Kent and his quest to find out what’s really going on behind the scenes and put a stop to all the oppression that’s going on lately. Much of the humor in the series comes from Kent’s lively quips [courtesy of Corey Feldman], the bizarre situations he finds himself in, and the clever solutions that he comes up with. It’s a really funny game, one that easily rivals the best of the genre during this time.

Unlike many adventures games from this time, Normality features full-3D graphics that look to be similar in quality to titles like Duke Nukem 3D. It allows the player to look around the various environments without restrictions. It’s actual has aged fairly well all things considered, although it’s still filled with pixelated textures, 2D characters, and simple environments. That shouldn’t be a hindrance, however, as the game runs just fine in DOSBox. The graphics are helped by a unique artstyle and some nice little details here and there.

Despite the viewpoint, there’s no action in this game, it’s all classic point-and-click gameplay from start to finish. As with most such games, it revolves around picking up various items, combining items, figuring out when and where to use items, and talking to the various NPCs that inhabit the world to figure out what to do and where to go. Some of the solutions are a bit esoteric, though funny, and may require some serious lateral thinking. If all else fails, GameFAQs has guides available to help get you to the end.

Upsides: A unique story, lots of funny characters, classic point-and-click gameplay with a different perspective.

Downsides: While the graphics have some nice touches they’re really dated, some of the solutions are kind of confusing.

Verdict: It’s still just as funny as I remember it being, it’s also still really fun to play. Definitely one that shouldn’t be forgotten. 8/10

Where to Find: Normality has long since gone out of print, but the European release is still readily available on Amazon for about $10.

Random Note: The engine used in Normality was used once more for Gremlin’s second, and last, adventure game: Realms of the Haunting.

May 3, 2010 Posted by | Games, Nostalgia Challenge | , , , , , | 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

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