Friday, February 27, 2009

The Wrestler

Apologies for no Wednesday update. I had a raging migrane, and I promptly came home from work and slept for 13 hours. Today, though, I feel fine.

I saw The Wrestler one week ago today, and now that I've had time to ruminate on it, I'm posting a review.

The easiest way to sum this film up is to say that it does live up to the hype. Quite frankly, I haven't seen Milk, but Sean Penn must've put on an amazing performance for him to beat out Mickey Rourke for the Academy Award. Mickey Rourke put on the performance of a lifetime as has-been '80s wrestling superstar Randy "The Ram" Robinson. You truly believe that wrestling is this man's life. He loves it, and when he's performing, it's the only time he feels truly alive.

The film follows Randy as he readies for the prospect of a rematch against The Ayatollah, his opponent 20 years earlier at the film's version of Wrestlemania III. The event is being run by real-life east coast promotion, Ring of Honor, and as such, features cameos by many real life wrestlers. Ernest "The Cat" Miller plays the Ayatollah himself, and wrestling fans will catch R-Truth, Austin Aries, Necro Butcher and many others making appearances in the film.

The reason "The Ram" is so anxious for this rematch is because his life has become a shambles. He lives alone in a trailer park, he's estranged from his daughter, he works in a supermarket and the only person that's anything remotely close to his friend is a stripper named Cassidy (played brilliantly by Marisa Tomei). His only joy is stepping into the ring for various indie promotions on the weekends.

The film is shot in a documentary style, and has a feeling of documentary reality. There's very little music, with the exception of scenes that take place in locales that would be playing music, and much of the camera work is handheld. The viewer really feels the bleakness that goes along with the lifestyle of trying to recapture one's glory days.

Quite frankly, as someone who spent quite a lot of time wrestling, the movie hit me a way I somewhat expected and somewhat didn't. I've been on wrestling shows with guys whose best days are behind them, and I've watched them do their best to recapture that glory, and... well, it's pretty sad. The film captures this feeling perfectly.

That being said, the film does have a few shortcomings, but they're mostly things only a huge wrestling geek would notice. The most prominent being that "The Ram" and the Ayatollah are supposed to be washed up, in spite of having headlined Not Wrestlemania III. Well, we know who headlined the real Wrestlemania III, and one of them isn't exactly in the poor house, and the other has passed away, but the one who passed away wasn't exactly in danger of having to wrestle on indy shows to pay the bills any time before he died.

But that's nitpicking. Overall, the film is excellent. A great, if not horribly sad, film in every respect. If you're a wrestler or a wrestling fan, you owe it to yourself to see this film.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Resurrection of Virtual Console

Today, three games were posted on Nintendo's Virtual Console service. All three were Commodore 64 games, and they were the first such games on VC. This week was the first week since December of 2007 that saw three VC games.

The obvious question then is "Is the VC back?"

This isn't really a fair question. It never really left. Even though there have been a lot of weeks with only one game lately, sometimes that one game has been really, really good. For example, all four of the Mondays this past January saw only one game, but all four of them were in the good to great range (in order, they were Kirby's Dream Land 3, Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, M.U.S.H.A. and Wonder Boy in Monster Land). Certainly, Nintendo spoiled us early in the Wii's life by releasing three or more games a week regularly, and when that stopped, there came a lot of internet bitchery.

This is not to say that the bitchery is entirely unfounded. Some weeks saw only one game, and that game was absolute dreck (e.g. this past Groundhog's Day saw only Sonic Chaos for Sega Master System). Nintendo implied, if not flat out promising, a much greater number of releases prior to the Wii's release. There are some, myself included if I'm being honest, that believe the House That Mario Built should've just taken the iTunes approach and dropped anything and everything they had access to right away, and added less frequently and in much larger chunks as the acquired new systems and companies willing to contribute content. They didn't.

On the flip side of this coin, one needs only look to the competetion to see how wonderfully Nintendo has treated us retrogamers. SCEA has released, so far, 29 PSOne games for download on the Playstation Network. 29. As of this morning, there are 283 games on the Virtual Console. That's nearly ten times as many games. Meanwhile, the classic arcade games on Microsoft's system are extremely infrequent (though they typically get good treatment, check out R-Type Dimensions if you don't believe me). Of course, they don't have the backcatalogue that Nintendo or Sony do, so I'm inclined to cut them a little slack.

But back to the question at hand; is the VC back, if indeed it ever left at all? My answer would be a tentative yes. People (internet people, mostly) had begun to question if Nintendo even cared about the VC anymore. While I never questioned that, I had begun to question to what extent they were committed. Today, however, gave me hope. Three new games and an entirely new system added to the catalogue show me that Nintendo is still committed to giving us a steady amount of new/old content every week. And really, that's all I ask.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

My Imaginary Childhood: A Review of Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS

I know, I know. I just promised updates every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and here we are, Saturday, with no Friday update. Well, there's a very good reason for this. I was finishing Retro Game Challenge so I could write this entry.

First things first, reviews found on this blog will not contain any score of any kind. If you're looking for reviews that attempt to encapsulate things into an arbitrary metric, there are plenty of places here in the tubes where you can find them. If you want to know what I think about a piece of media, you'll have to actually read what I write.

Now that that's out of the way, onto the task at hand.

Retro Game Challenge, for those who don't know, is a collection of eight NES games that never existed for your Nintendo DS. In Japan, the game is based off of Game Center CX, a popular TV show which sees comedian Shinya Arino (a.k.a. The Kacho) try to beat various old videogames. The tragedy here is that he's not very good at videogames. It regularly takes him hours, if not days, to finish the games, and we, the audience, laugh at his misfortune as he fails again and again.

Well, in Retro Game Challenge, he has his revenge. He turns you into your childhood self to go back to the '80s and hang out with his childhood self and help him with eight games. Of course, simply beating the games would be too easy, so he subjects you to a series of challenges in each game. They typically include things like beating certain stages, or using certain techniques. By doing this, the game avoids the pitfall of "play a game for two minutes and move on to the next one" that often befalls collections titles.

Now, as I said, these games are all fake. They never existed, but they certainly could have. Six of the eight titles are unique experiences (the other two are a sequel and a "special edition" of an earlier game that feature the same basic gameplay) and they all play wonderfully. They all draw on many influences, and represent a snapshot of a given genre that harkens back to the 8-bit days. Truly, the folks at Namco-Bandai took great care in creating each game, and it shows.

Each game is a might-have-been classic, but with modern design sensabilities. Cosmic Gate is like Galaga, but includes things like score multipliers. Star Prince features much less slowdown than an actual NES shooter would've had. Guadia Quest allows you to save anywhere, which, as anyone who played NES RPGs could tell you, would've been welcome back in the day.

But the games are only part of what makes this title so great. They are great homages to a bygone era, but they are not where said homage ends. No, because you see, when you play these games, you are given a virtual instruction book (which you should read before playing each game), as well as a shelf full of relevant gaming magazines. You also carry on conversations with young Arino (and, occasionally, his mom) about the games coming out.

These elements really make this game what it is. If you lived through the NES days, this game will trigger a nostalgia for those days. In the parallel universe of Retro Game Challenge's 1980s, all the things that happened to you as a kid will happen again, only slightly differently. Gamefan magazine will tell you all about the new releases. The kids on the playground will start rumors, which young Arino will tell you about while you play. You will begin to actually anticipate the release of games that aren't real. Retro Game Challenge is a totally immersive experience for those of us who lived through that time. The team at XSeed that localized this game should really pat themselves on the back, they did a tremendous job.

That isn't to say that the game is without shortcomings. First of all, it includes eight games, as I've said, but Rally King SP and Robot Ninja Haggleman 2 are both extremely similar to their predecessors. Moreover, if you don't much care for '80s style RPGs, Guadia Quest will test your patience with required level grinding and tons of random battles. Finally, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 could've dealt with at least a basic map system.

My biggest gripe, however, is that most of the games simply aren't long enough. The only exceptions to this are Cosmic Gate, which is 64 stages of not-quite-Galaga action. Star Prince is only four stages, Robot Ninja Haggleman 3 is only three and so on. Most of the non-Guadia Quest games require you to play through a second time with a higher difficulty, but that doesn't change the stages themselves, just adds more enemies. Even Guadia Quest itself is only a 6-12 hour RPG, which isn't much, when it comes to RPGs.

These are minor points though. I mean, after all, if they sated us in the first game, why would we buy the sequel? Yes, there is a sequel. It comes out in Japan this week, and we can only hope it will make its way here soon. The simple bottom line on Retro Game Challenge is this; if you lived and gamed in the '80s, you should own it. If you didn't? You should still give it a try, the games have a slightly primative feel, but they're still rock solid games.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jumping on the Bandwagon with Street Fighter Nostalgia

1Up's Retronauts blog spent all of last week reminiscing about Street Fighter. Many other sites/blogs/what have yous have been doing the same. Street Fighter was a big part of my youth, so I figured I'd just go ahead and jump on the bandwagon.

I don't remember the first time I played Street Fighter. I do remember where I was, though. I was at a small malt shoppe in my hometown. I must've been about six years old, which would've made it 1989, and, at the time, the aforementioned malt shoppe was about two blocks from my house. We lived in a safe community, so my mom let me ride my bike or walk down there by myself. This was good, because it required me to get a little bit of exercise before playing videogames.

The videogame I played most often at that little malt shoppe? Street Fighter. Not Street Fighter II. Street Fighter. Two playable characters, Ryu and Ken, Sagat (sans scar) as the final boss, not a female character in sight. Street. Fighter. No numeral.

Street Fighter blew my six year old mind. The characters were so big, so detailed. There were secret moves. Urban Champion was the closest thing to this I'd ever witnessed, and, lemme tell you, that was pretty damn far away from Street Fighter. You couldn't even kick in Urban Champion, let alone throw magic fire. Perish the thought of having a garbled voice tell you "You've got a lot to learn before you beat me. Try again, kiddo! HAHAHAHA!"

There was a fair amount of vs. play, but mostly I seem to remember all the kids who played trying to come up with strategies to beat Adon. Man, we hated Adon. Adon was a bastard. It was enough that we had to figure out that the best (and to us, only) way to beat Mike was just to fireball him once, then turtle in the corner (no one called it "turtling" in those days, but still) until the time ran out, but Adon? Most of us figured Adon was the final boss, because, man... was he tough.

Eventually, one of us (it might have been me, as I did eventually beat Adon once or twice, but it probably wasn't) beat Adon and found out that, no, sorry, there's one more guy. And that guy made Adon look like a complete wuss by comparison. Sagat. Sagat was huge. Even huge-er than Birdie. And tough. And he could throw fireballs, too. And they hurt. Suffice it to say, none of us ever beat Sagat. I did eventually beat Street Fighter almost two decades later on Capcom Classics Collection, Vol. 2, but it seemed a hollow victory. Also, the game has aged terribly.

It was some years later that I first encountered the sequel. Now, the first time I played Street Fighter II is as fresh in my memory as what I had for lunch yesterday (Culver's, it was delicious). My dad used to bowl in a Friday night league. He sponsored the team, as well as bowling on it, and some Fridays, he'd take me with him. "Why," you may be asking, "would your dad take you to the bowling alley?" Well, because he loved me, and he knew that I, in turn, loved videogames, so he'd give me a roll of quarters (This was shortly after he'd aquired his own business, and suddenly had more money than he'd ever had before. We weren't rich by conventional standards, but by our previous standards, we were wealthy, and my dad was generous with me.) to play in the massive arcade housed within the bowling alley.

Now, this was back in the days when bowling alleys housed some of the best arcades around. In fact, this bowling alley, Olympic Lanes on 27th Street, had an arcade that, quite frankly, shamed the local mall arcade (sadly, though the bowling alley still stands, the arcade is a shadow of its former self at best). It was HUGE. And it was there, on one fateful day in 1991, that I saw it. Street Fighter II. It was opposite a Street Smart cabinet, which made Street Smart look even worse than it does on its own.

A kid had just finished a game. No one else was playing (in retrospect, this must've been very close to the release of the game, because I don't remember seeing no one playing a Street Fighter II cabinet again for some years). I had to play. I dropped two quarters into the slot and continued. I naturally assumed I'd be Ryu. Imagine my surprise when the character select screen appeared. Again, my eight year old mind was blown. Now, as an eight year old, I'll give you one guess who I chose in my first ever game of Street Fighter II. If you think like an eight year old boy, the answer can only be Blanka. He was a monster! I was playing as a freakin' monster!

Now, as I said, I continued from another kid's game, so imagine my further surprise when I get completely mollywopped right out of the gate. I mean, I'd had two solid years of Street Fighter experience by this point, and even though I still couldn't beat Sagat, I figured I couldn't suck this badly. Naturally, I couldn't give up. I put another fifty cents into the machine, and I quickly realized that the character who'd just mollywopped me wasn't selectable. I didn't really know what to make of it, but I'd wanted to try him out for two reasons. One, he'd just handed me my ass on a platter, and, two... it sure looked cool when he threw his cape off at the beginning of the first round.

That's right, the kid abandoned his game at Bison (probably because what had just happened to me had happened to him enough times that he was out of quarters). I had no idea he was the final boss! I thought they'd just totally jacked up the difficulty! Well, I got beat by Bison a few more times, and then started over from the beginning. I tried a few other characters, beat some guys, and got beat, but eventually I ran out of quarters and my dad finished bowling and we went home, but I was hooked.

And I still am.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gaming's Citizen Kane

Let me begin this post by promising you, my readers (all three of you) that I'm going to begin posting at least three times a week, once each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I've decided that if I ever want more than three readers, I need to post consistently.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, onto today's post.

There seems to be a question that comes up every so often amongst people in gaming culture. "When are we going to see gaming's Citizen Kane?" is how it seems to be phrased most of the time, but the title of the film varies.

The question implies that games haven't matured. They haven't fulfilled their potential. They haven't matured as a medium.

The question is stupid.

Really, the question seems to be guided at the quality of writing in games. Why aren't the stories better? Why isn't the dialogue more realistic? The answer to these questions, and all the Citizen Kane question implies, is simply because videogames, ultimately, are not a story driven medium. Videogame stories, even the "robust" ones in RPGs, are window dressing. The only possible exception to this rule is adventure games, and those are the ones that are always held up as just that when it comes to the quality of writing.

Games are interactive, and the thing that drives them is their playability. People enjoy games that are fun to play, case closed (yes, there is always the "kusoge" phenomenon, but that's another article altogether). The story, ultimately, doesn't matter. I don't care why my spaceship/space marine/plumber has to shoot/chainsaw/stomp the whatever it is that has threatened the galaxy/tried to exterminate humanity/kidnapped the princess. I just care that it's fun to save the galaxy/humanity/princess.

Take Street Fighter for example. Street Fighter IV ships to retail tomorrow here in the US. No one cares about the stories told in that game. All people care about is throwing fireballs at their friends. Street Fighter II defined the arcade experience in the '90s, and gave what was, at the time, a flagging arcade industry new life. And no one cared about the story. The fourth entry in the series (by which I mean the sixteenth entry in the series, but who's counting?) probably will not accomplish anything on that level, but it will sell truckloads of copies. And no one will care about the story.

Now, if, on the other hand, one was to argue that the Citizen Kane question is meant to address the singular work that comes along and changes the entire paradigm upon which people create new pieces of media, well... we already have that. It came out almost a quarter century ago, and it was called Super Mario Bros. Super Mario Bros. did for videogames exactly what Citizen Kane did for film. It changed the rules. It required those who created the media to do more than was previously expected. It represented a gigantic leap forward in technique.

Super Mario Bros. was not the first platformer. Citizen Kane was not the first film to not be lit like a stage play. What both have in common is that they did what they did to such a degree that there was no turning back. With the way Mario jumped and camera angles in Citizen Kane, they raised the bar for their respective medium. The sharpness of Mario's controls and the use of lighting in Citizen Kane both showed audiences something they'd never been privy to before. They both accomplished the same thing for what they were.

And, really, that's the bottom line here. Games aren't movies, so just like during the silent film era, nobody was wont to ponder "When will film get its Odyssey?" no one in this era should be pondering "When will gaming get its Citizen Kane?"

Wednesday: Jumping on the bandwagon with Street Fighter nostalgia!