Xenosaga Episode III Part 08: What Time is It?

Previously on Xenosaga: KOS-MOS and T-elos got into a bit of a scuffle, and that somehow blew Shion into a forest? Huh?

Shion, dear, I handle the recaps around here.

KOS-MOS!!! Also… everyone else… I guess…”

So we pick back up here at… Forest. Well, that’s not very helpful.

Head west and find a locked tunnel or something, but more importantly, a shop and a save point.

We’ve got a few new items for sale. Huh. Why is this “full revive” item so cheap?

Equipment selection hasn’t updated, though. I like getting new weapons, but I also don’t like spending money, so I guess it works out.

Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be a key laying around for that tunnel, so let’s head back west this time…

FGC #185.2 Hatsune Miku: Project Diva (series)

Dance for me!And now it’s time to complain about Project Diva for the exact reason I just spent an entire article praising it.

Hey, I’m a complicated guy.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a tendency to… indulge in the histories of fictional characters. I literally cannot remember a time in my life when this was not the case (personally, I blame Nintendo Power reaming paragraphs of biographical information out of those glowy balls in Castlevania 3), but I have distinct memories of discussing the backgrounds of Robot Masters with friends in grade school (“There has to be a reason there’s a Snake Man and a Toad Man!”), and later spending time at my grandparents’ home and sneaking off with a laptop to read up on SoulCalibur character profiles. Obviously, this trend has continued into my adulthood, as I can somehow recount the life and times of violent skeleton ghosts at the drop of a hat. It’s pretty inevitable that, should I enjoy Media X, then I’ll be up until 4 am on X-wiki sussing out the complete tale of Character Y. And, to be clear, this doesn’t just apply to videogames; let me tell you about my universal savior.

So it was only natural that, when I discovered I really enjoyed Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F, I had to dive into the Vocaloid fandom. I wasn’t going to start putting together any transgender cosplay or anything (… probably), but you better believe I wanted an explanation for everything I was seeing during these eclectic music videos. Why is that woman always in the sad videos? Are these two supposed to be twins? Is the pink haired one, like, the mom? And why is the star of the show sometimes villainous? None of this makes any sense, but I’m sure there’s an online resource to explain what I’m seeing.

And… there wasn’t.

Well, alright, that’s not completely true. There are, of course, billions of words on the subject of Hatsune Miku and her Vocaloid buddies. Or toast?But I found that investigating “the real Hatsune Miku” was a fool’s errand no more valid than attempting to explain why Bugs Bunny is a wise-cracking wabbit one minute and a (parenthetically female) opera singer the next. The Vocaloids were created as mascots for a piece of virtual singing software, and no one really felt a need to pin down the exact personality of the virtual divas. There are general roles for these characters, but, by and large, they are deliberately as adaptable as the singing software to which they are attached.

As I covered in the previous article, that’s marvelous, and practically unheard of nowadays. Whether you’re Justin Bieber or Harry Potter, you need to have a defined image, and videogames have been providing these stories for decades. Mario could just be Jump Man, but, no, he’s a proud and courageous plumber that was born through the intervention of bipedal dinosaurs. Ryu is a wandering street fighter that lives for the glory of the fight and maybe to avenge his dead/not-dead master who died/fell asleep at the hands of the malevolent Akuma and his assassin’s fist. Mega Man is a dorky little metal boy with a peashooter that is somehow attached to literally thousands of years of robot wars and apocalypses of various sizes. Come to think of it, how dare Hatsune Miku not have a defined background? What’s the matter, blue hair, having enough backstory to fill up a few pages of a strategy guide not good enough for ya?!

And, while I may have been quietly disrespected by the lack of Vocaloid background beyond “Hatsune is dedicated” or “Rin is eccentric”, I got by. This was an excellent rhythm series, so who cares if the main character is as flat as a chalkboard? What’s important is the experience and the songs! You don’t need a story mode in a rhythm game!

And then… there was one.

ROCK OUTHatsune Miku Project Diva X is the third or fourth Project Diva game released on this side of the Pacific. It is, like its sisters, another rhythm game where you can tap along to your favorite Vocaloid tunes. There is great choreography, fun songs, and the usual mix of quirky ‘n cool that defines the other Project Diva titles. I can’t complain about more of the same, because it’s more of the same good, and, if we’re going to get a new Madden every year, we may as well get a Japanese idol simulator annually to balance out all the testosterone. I’m always going to be down for a new Project Diva, one way or another.

But this Project Diva game had a p…p….plot! The Vocaloids are trapped in some sort of musical limbo, and aren’t even allowed to sing until “you” the player manage a very willing Hatsune Miku to sing through a few hits. Then, once a musical prism has filled with voltage (or… something?), the other Vocaloids are free to sing along through other songs to fill up other prisms. And each prism has a theme like “cool” or “elegant”, and, between songs, the Vocaloids discuss what it means to “be” these abstract concepts. The girls start a rock band! That blue kid becomes an idol! The twins are performing some kind of comedy routine! And it all culminates with a grand performance where they finally make it to regionals! I’m filled with glee!

Wait, no I’m not. I hate this. I just want to get back to the rhythm game. Who would ever want this nonsense?

Oh… right. I did.

So I am again reminded that I have no idea what I want to see in a videogame. I want grand sweeping stories of love and hate and triumphs over adversity… but I’d probably be happier if those stories didn’t actually happen in the videogames themselves. I complain about “gimped” Street Fighter 5 and its teeny tiny story modes, and then And tailsliterally laugh out loud at the complete insanity that is its “real” story mode. I want all the information I can find on the latest Bioshock prior to release, but I ignore those silly audio tapes because I’m playing a videogame, dammit, let me get back to the action and not sit around listening to some doctor prattle on about the wonders of mad science.

I want the story to be there, but I want to ignore it the minute it becomes available. I’m not that hard to please!

And, of course, in this case, the “story” hampers the very thing I enjoy about the experience. I like Hatsune Miku chameleoning into all these different roles and situations for three minutes at a time, and a “set” backstory only obstructs that ability. Batman can’t randomly become a magical girl, but Hatsune Miku can instantly become a hard-boiled vigilante for the length of a song. However, something about that switch loses something when, moments later, Hatsune Miku is back on your screen asking for a new teddy bear for her room.

So, in the end, what’s important is that no one listens to be about videogame writing, because I clearly have issues with not knowing what I want. If anybody needs me, I’ll be back in the Kingdom Hearts corner, scrutinizing some old man for his ridiculous plans to conquer Disney World. That should make me feel better…

FGC #185.2 Hatsune Miku: Project Diva (series)

  • System: Playstation 3, Vita, and still Playstation 4.
  • Number of players: Just one story to unite them all.
  • Not going to talk about the 3DS game? Nah, that’s it’s own thing.
  • So Final Fantasy 4 and Project Diva are both worthy of multiple articles, but not other games? Well, both of those “franchises” have had multiple releases, so I haven’t even done an FGC article for every Project Diva or Final Fantasy 4 game available. And now we don’t have to hear about the Vocaloids again for a while, so everybody wins!
  • She's cute, alright?Favorite Vocaloid: Uh… they’re pretty much all the same? I guess I like the tall, pink-haired one. What’s her name again? Never mind, I don’t want to know anymore.
  • Did you know? Hatsune Miku only made the scene with the Vocaloid software’s second release. She wasn’t there from the beginning! And her entire debut popularity is owed to a welsh onion (citation needed)!
  • Would I play again: The good news is that story mode eventually kind of quits, and then you can do whatever the heck you want. So, yes, I will be randomly replaying bits and pieces of any given Project Diva game as the mood strikes me. Like a fighting game, a good rhythm game is great for pickup ‘n play over some downtime between game “experiences”. So way to go, Hatsune Miku, you succeed despite yourself.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Pokémon Blue! What good timing, as I was just thinking of the original 151 thanks to various cell phone related activities. Bulbasaur rides again! Please look forward to it!

FGC #185.1 Hatsune Miku: Project Diva (series)

WoooI’m an old man, and thus I am entitled to complain about a few things. Top of that list?

MTV doesn’t play music videos anymore.

Now, before you start telling Ol’ Man Goggle Bob the true story of how I don’t understand the kids today and whatever, let me just point out that I’m a student of media, and I know damn well why MTV quit the music biz. I admit that this problem was mostly caused by me, and my generation, and every other person out there that (allegedly) downloaded 3 gigs of MP3s off Napster while still rocking a 56k modem. I know the problem is Youtube and every video streaming service that lets you watch anything you want, any time you want. And I know that, let’s be honest, about seven out of ten music videos completely sucked, and a half hour of The Real World probably gets more eyeballs than three minutes of the latest from Wham (no, you are not worthy of an exclamation point). I know the video star had to die, because, ultimately, the medium itself was untenable in a post-internet environment. I know that.

But…

I miss music videos.

When I was a teenager, I had “the triangle”. Channel 30 was MTV, 46 was VH-1, and 22 was The Box: Music Television You Control. The Box might require a little explanation, so, for those of you that didn’t have such a wonderful service, The Box was a channel that played music videos, and those videos were completely controlled by the viewers (who shelled out to call a 900 number). It was like a jukebox… on your TV! Wow! MTV and VH-1 played videos as according to their corporate overlords, but The Box was totally in the hands of the people! And the people liked Bone Thugs-n-Harmony for some reason, but, still! What an amazing time to be alive! I could scan those three channels at any time, and odds were good that I’d find a music video that was at least passable. And if Al TV was on? ROCK OUTForget about it, I’m not getting anything done for hours.

Obviously part of the appeal of music videos was the, ya know, music. This news may shock you, but I may not have been the most popular teenager in my school, but at least I could listen to the latest hits and impress the pretty girls with my knowledge of counting blue cars (“See! I like popular things, too! Please like me!”). And I guess I enjoyed the actual songs. Looking back on it in my advanced age, I literally cannot tell you if I enjoy a single Blink 182 song, because, somehow, I’ve been listening to tracks from their 90’s hits for the last two decades, and, at this point, they’re practically hymns in my mind. Like, I can’t remember a time I didn’t “know” these songs, and… what’s the musical equivalent of “it tastes like chicken”? “It sounds like pop”? At this point in my life, I feel like I have more discerning tastes, but anything pre-2001 or so kind of blends together into a smoothie of… God help me… now that’s what I call music. Ugh, I think I just made myself sick.

But no matter, what’s important is that I finally get to the point of this article. Music videos had something that I feel is completely lacking in today’s media: true randomness.

The Age of MTV was a truly wild and untamed time, and it seemed like, at any moment, some artist could come along with a halfway decent song and make a big splash by, I don’t know, employing a claymation studio, or maybe dressing up the entire cast in dinosaur costumes. Or both! And the bands actually participated. It wasn’t like these were short films that just happened to be scored by the leaders of the music industry; oh no, this was a time when a band could define itself by how much fun it was having “on set”. Ha ha, this song might be heavy metal, but here’s the drummer Even the loading screens are coolscooting around in a wheelie chair. And if the group wanted to be serious, they could be… for this song. This one is a ballad, so let’s make it dark in a moist environment… but who cares if we do the next one on a front porch swing?

And that’s what I really remember about music videos, looking back. Nowadays, I feel like every musician has to be a brand, and, thanks to media outlets and tweets galore, Kanye West must at all times be Kanye Westing, and Lady Gaga must for every second be Lady Gagaing. I’m sure there are music videos today where Rihanna is taking a piss with her image, but since there’s not much reason for anyone but the dedicated fans to cue her up on Youtube, it’s drowned out by social and big media. This is Drake, and we’re far removed from the days when Michael Jackson could be a gang member in one video and an everyman/zombie the next.

In short, I miss the “liquid” music video star; the mercurial creature that could be anything or anyone as the song demanded, schoolgirl or ninja, whatever direction, just so long as it’s entertaining.

And, what’s more, I didn’t realize this is what I missed until Hatsune Miku Project Diva F.

The Project Diva games are rhythm games first and foremost. Hit X or wiggle the analogue stick at the right time to keep the music going, and, if you’re good, you’ll get a high score. It’s the same as it’s been since DDR or PaRappa the Rapper.

This song is nutsBut what sets Project Diva F & Project Diva F Encore apart from the competition is the music video aspect. The titular Hatsune Miku is as unpredictable as her MTV forefathers. In this video, she’s a forlorn lover. Now she’s a ghost. Now she’s a goddess. Now she’s some kind of rampaging machine monster. Now she’s an obsessed fangirl. There is no codified Hatsune Miku, and, while she and her friends may have a tendency to fill certain positions, any of the “stars” of this game are in the same boat. You’re unlikely to see the same environment or “module” twice, and it defines a game that refuses to let the beat drop.

MTV as I remember it may be gone forever, but its spirit lives on in a ridiculous Japanese rhythm game. We’re past the days of leather jackets and multi-colored logos, but it looks like we’ll have the Vocaloids to carry on the torch a little longer.

Way to go, Hatsune Miku, you brought a smile to an old man’s face.

FGC #185.1 Hatsune Miku: Project Diva (series)

  • System: Playstation 3, Vita, and now Playstation 4.
  • Number of players: One? I guess this isn’t Gitaroo-Man.
  • So, which version/game is best? You never forget your first time, so Diva (1) seems to have the best songs. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t have English subtitles, which were introduced in Diva Encore, which are helpful to figure out what the hell is going on in these tunes. But I don’t really like the songs as much in that version… I guess? And then there’s the recent Playstation 4 release, and… we’ll talk about that more later.
  • CreepyFavorite Song: Of them all, I actually like a song from Diva Encore the best: Close and Open, Demons and the Dead. Couldn’t tell you why, exactly, but it… feels right? I’m not a music reviewer, dammit!
  • Did you know? The Vocaloid software was called, while in development, “Daisy”, presumably because of Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two). Also presumably because of HAL 9000, because artificially generated voices weren’t creepy enough already.
  • Would I play again: Well…

What’s next? I’m not done yet! I’ve got Vocaloid fever, and I’m not wasting this series on a post about rassin’ frassin’ MTV. Get ready for another look at the Hatsune Miku Project Diva series, maybe this time actually looking at the game for more than a paragraph. Please look forward to it!

FGC #184 Milon’s Secret Castle

This won't be funI was raised by my parents and a McDonald’s VHS series copy of Wayne’s World. This means that, for better or worse, a significant number of Mike Myers quotes penetrated my brain for decades. I’ll… spare you the rehearsal. But one quote that always stuck in my mind wasn’t one of the oft-repeated catchphrases of the film, it was an exchange between Noah, the greedy arcade owner, and Rob Lowe, played by Rob Lowe. When asked about the biggest problem facing his arcade, Noah replies that he needs to advertise new games, like Zantar. Zantar is described like so:

“Zantar is a gelatinous cube that eats warriors in a medieval village. And every time it eats a chieftain, you ascend to a higher level. Beauty part is, you can’t get to the next level, so the kids keep coughing up quarters.”
“Gelatinous cube eats village. I think it’s terrific”

The reason I’ve always remembered that exchange is because… it’s wrong. It’s a line written by a Canadian man born in the early sixties about a medium that is assumed to be like every other “let’s exploit kids” toygetic industry. Actually, let’s be real here, there was no lack of fleecing at any given arcade in the 80’s and 90’s. I probably donated the current national net worth of Venezuela to any given Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle beat ‘em up that happened to cross my path. And if you look at those games, you’ll see they are completely built around bosses and cronies that are either impossible to dodge or avoidable, but it would mean boring repetition for the next hour or so. I’m sure The Simpsons Arcade Game can be conquered on one credit, but, man, that’s not the game I want to play.

But, that said, you can win, and, if you put in the quarters and shove that joystick to the right, you will make progress. You wouldn’t play the game for any other reason, right? It’s not that hard to identify when you’re being swindled.

So (and I realize I’m preaching to the choir here), this Zantar game would never fly in a real arcade. Yes, it would be easy to create a videogame that masks your progress and constantly makes it seem like you’re so close to that next level /chieftain digestion, but even the worst of the worst “freemium” games of the modern era know that kids ain’t stupid, and, without at least the illusion of progression, those gelatinous cubes won’t fly. Or roll? I don’t know how gelatinous cubes get around.

SING ALONGEven as a child, I realized this was the case. Hell, given the glut of videogame auxiliary media at the time, I probably expected it. The Super Mario Bros. Super Show was a pair of doofs in costumes or an animated series that rehashed tired old folk tales with a pair of plumbers in the heroic roles. Captain N couldn’t color its protagonists properly. Even the eventual Mega Man animated series couldn’t seem to understand how key characters like Proto Man operated (though, granted, that was a series where robots could devolve into neander-bots…). In short, it seemed obvious that anyone writing about videogames (and not writing for videogames) was a clueless adult that had never felt the glory of flinging a metal blade at malevolent masonry (and I’d claim that this is what led to the inordinate popularity of Nintendo Power: it was the only piece of media in existence that seemed to actually know what it was talking about [give or take using crash bombs on Heat Man]). So Young Goggle Bob took this out-of-touch comment in stride, because, surely, this was just another dumb joke at the expense of a medium parents just don’t understand.

Except…

Milon’s Secret Castle might be the Zantar of the NES.

LOOK THAT WAYIt’s been discussed here and in the comments before, but there was a weird imperative on the NES to make videogames hard. This makes sense to a certain degree, as it was believed that if a gamer couldn’t reach the end point, they’d keep banging their head against the wall until those bricks came down (or a concussion was invoked). I… guess that was true for some people? Like, if you finished the game on a rental, then there was no reason to ever play the game again, right? Except… how many people played Battletoads? Was that rented/played over and over again, or did people just give the heck up and plug in Super Mario Bros. 3 again? Seems like the games that held the attention (and pint-sized wallets) of my peer group erred towards Ducktales and Zelda, games that weren’t exactly easy, but certainly conquerable. Deadly Towers got one rental, and I wasn’t demanding it for Christmas because I hadn’t seen the ending, I was demanding it be stricken from my memory. Some scars never heal…

Milon’s Secret Castle is such a scar. I rented this game (well, technically it was on my dad’s video rental membership), and I’m moderately sure I never got off the first floor. I think I got to the first boss, because that poop-colored creature seems familiar, but that was it. No continues, back to square one after one life lost, and I don’t think I even remembered how I activated that boss in the first place. Rental returned, and Milon’s castle remained a secret forever.

And it’s a shame, because there’s the nugget of a good metroidvania somewhere in here. The whole concept is that Milon is ascending some monster –infested castle, and the only way to make progress is through discovering hidden shops selling useful items. Granted, none of the items make a lick of sense (a magic potion allows you to shrink after being hit by a boxing glove… okay?) but this was a time of size-changing mushroom and Bibles that made magical rods shoot fire, so that kind of thing is to be expected. You’re not really encouraged to revisit old rooms like in a proper metroidvania, but the whole permanent powerup acquisition and using new skills to defeat enemies and overcome environmental challenges was a new and novel innovation at the time. And it’s all wrapped up in a fairly cute package. Adventuring in your pajamas should be a thing of beauty!

WhoopBut there’s no beauty to be found here. Milon’s Secret Castle is a dumpster fire of terrible design decisions, first and foremost the fact that you must test every stupid block in the entire game three different ways. It’s not enough to shoot a block to see if it is arbitrarily destructible, no, you must also jump against blocks like Mario to see if there are any secrets contained therein. Oh, and even after you’ve done that, some blocks appear to be pushable, so squish Milon up against every wall you can find. Then, maybe, you’ll find the way to the next shop or level. Then again, that’s assuming you’re not immediately destroyed by every damn monster floating about. These creatures respawn practically instantly (and not even in proper NES fashion, they’ll come back without the aid of a scrolling screen), and Milon gets zero mercy invincibility. Some haphazardly lousy positioning can lead from perfect health to instant death. One life, and there’s a secret code to continue only after you’ve ascended to the second floor. And speaking of a lack of transparency, it’s thirty years later, and I still don’t know exactly what activates the first boss. I know it’s not collecting the first two keys, but it might be buying the spring shoes? Or is it finding that secret music room? Or using the boxing glove? I have no idea. I’m not sure I want to know.

As an adult, I am struck by the “why” of this game. Why is it so difficult? Was it poor design that overly relied on instruction manuals or other sources? Was it the old days of gaming, where the idea of getting out the graph paper and “figuring it all out” was considered the fun part of the challenge? Was it just a slapdash attempt at something new that came out of the oven a little too early? Frankly, any of these answers could be all or part of the truth, but I keep coming back to Zantar…

Flip flopWas Milon’s Secret Castle just a naked Skinner Box of impossibility? Yes, the game is winnable, but not without a lot of effort. No 1-ups, no mini map, no hints (that are at all useful), just the player and a clear goal to ascend an impossible castle. It can take hours of practice to beat that first level, and then there are four more to go, with no (obvious) continues. If you’re only playing games to beat ‘em, congratulations, you found a game that might last the rest of your life. Way to go, Hudson, you’ve created the perfect game for Noah’s Arcade.

So maybe I owe Mike Myers an apology. Sure, the comments by Noah in Wayne’s World sound like some out-of-touch “last generation” old man ranting against a medium he doesn’t care to understand, but there may be a few Zantars out there. They might not all contain gelatinous cubes, but I can think of at least one with a secret castle.

FGC #184 Milon’s Secret Castle

  • System: NES, and also available on the Wii Virtual Console. Don’t buy it, you’re only encouraging the wrong kind of behavior. There’s also kind of a Gameboy version, but there are enough changes that I’m going to claim it’s its own game.
  • Number of players: One Milon. No, I didn’t spell that wrong.
  • What’s in a plot? Apparently the story of this game involves Milon, the only Hudsonite that can’t communicate through song, being the savior of his queen and people when an evil whateverthehell attacks. Does this mean Milon is deaf? Is his whole deal that he’s the hero that transforms his disability into a super power? Is… Milon Daredevil? Or at least Echo?
  • So, did you beat it? Nope! I only have so much patience, and it ran out right about the time that boy fell down a well.
  • RARGHFavorite Powerup: I like watching Milon get squished by a boxing glove to become Tiny Milon. It reminds me vaguely of later Wario platformers, and that’s always a good thing.
  • Did you know? Milon had a guest spot on Saturn Bomberman. Now that Hudson is effectively no more, we shouldn’t see the squirt and that silly bee ever again.
  • Would I play again: No. And you can’t make me.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F for the Playstation 3. I guess we’re going to have an anime sing-along? Please look forward to it!