Monthly Archives: July 2016

Xenosaga Episode II Special 3: A Missing Year

Previously on Xenosaga: We took a look at Jan, now let’s try some Jin…

One of the most interesting things about working on this Xenosaga LP project has been pouring over the mountains of “fan facts” and other potentially dubious sources of information. As one story goes, Xenosaga was originally supposed to be six parts (this seems to be confirmed), and it would follow more of an “anthology format” than what we actually saw. In other words, while the main party of Xenosaga stays pretty much consistent within the Xenosaga we received, in this mythical proposed Xenosaga, the party would mutate and change between episodes, dropping or adding characters as according to their story arcs. Apparently KOS-MOS would be the through line for the series, but anyone else was generally replaceable.

This makes a certain amount of sense, because, if you were paying attention to Xenosaga Episodes 1 & 2 (not talking about the DS version), you may have noticed that a few party members are kind of… done. Junior came to terms (re: shot) his brother, and seemed to reconcile with his “cowardly” past. MOMO learned that her beloved father wasn’t an insane lunatic, and got that Y-Data sucked out of her brain, so no more kidnapping. And Shion confronted her past, and learned that sometimes, in order to love a Realian, you have to kill a couple of children.

Shion is probably the most important character to talk about in this case, as her position as the POV character was always something of an odd choice. According to this “Xenosaga Anthology” rumor, Shion would only be a playable character for Episode 1 (which, remember, was supposed to be what we received as XS1 and XS2), she’d get her cathartic Cecily/Cathe/exploding planet moment, and then she’d slink into the background, always a presence, but more of an Allen than a Shion. This makes a certain amount of sense, because, practically from the beginning, Shion was established as a sort of unwilling combatant, and, like MOMO, she’d make a whole lot more sense on the sidelines, maybe hacking something or asking the main party if they’d like to go to the final dungeon now.

But, as we know, that didn’t quite work out. Shion wound up being the undisputed (maybe a little disputed) main character for the entire trilogy. Which is cool! I like Shion, and I feel like her character as empathetic science nerd is something that maybe should be seen a little bit more in JRPGs (no more sword wielding teenage action boys!). But the problem with Shion, as of the end of (real) Episode 2 was that she was kind of… done. Alright, yes, we still have her undead fiancée creeping around in a cloak, and there’s that (seemingly forgotten) threat of turning into a gnosis thanks to her Woglinde times, but both of those problems are very… subtle. Unless the story wants to blow the “mystery” of ol’ Red Testament, neither of those problems are exactly a reason for Shion to get off the couch and strap on her arm thingy.

So, what do you do with an unmotivated protagonist?

Give her a brand new motivation!

FGC #160 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

WeeeGrand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the only Grand Theft Auto game I have ever played to completion. When this game came up on the FGC, my initial thought was to fire up the game and figure out exactly why. Then I, ya know, played the game, and, for all the reasons that I may have stayed glued to GTA:SA back in the day (conquering neighborhoods, “powerup progression”, or even just a tolerable plot), I realized the real reason I played GTA:SA so intensely was… cheats.

So, let’s look at the cheats of GTA:SA.

Incidentally, if you want the full cheat codes, go ahead and head over to Gamefaqs. I figure copy/pasting that one link is faster than blatantly copying all the inputs.

Instant $250,000, full health and armor

Ah, here’s the reason I finished this game. I’ve never liked the combat in GTA games, whether it involve fist-fighting, gun shooting, or katana slicing. The aiming system improved for San Andreas, but, seriously, I have never seen a franchise that was so successful with a series of protagonists that controlled so poorly. Yes, driving is the meat and potatoes of this series, but anytime you have to truck through a building and avoid gunfire… ugh… I’d rather take a nap in a lava bed.

However, with the cheat that effectively guaranteed infinite health, I was able to bulldoze those aggravating sections with the grace of a rhino (but with twice the armor). C.J.’s enemies never knew what hit them… or maybe they knew, but were less than willing to admit they were fighting some kind of immortal gangbanger. … Blacula would make an excellent videogame hero, come to think of it.

The rest of the cheats in this game make the experience more enjoyable, but this is the cheat that kept me (and C.J.) alive.

Spawn a Jetpack

VrooomAnd now for everything else. GTA:SA is kind of a terrible game in a lot of ways. For one, super obvious thing, checkpoints are practically nonexistent, and if a mission takes twenty minutes to “get there”, and your car mysteriously implodes ten seconds into the actual gameplay, well, tough noogies, it’s time to drive all over the countryside again. This has never been fun.

However, flying back to the mission marker via jetpack? That’s something I can endorse.

If memory serves, there are either no real jetpacks over the course of the game proper, or there’s approximately one, and it’s hidden in a secret spot in an air force base or something. This is absurd, because, obviously, there’s no finer way to zoom around San Andreas, or, barring that, pretend you’re the Rocketeer, and search for errant zeppelins. This jetpack isn’t perfect, as sometimes you want something a little bigger…

All Boats Fly

Oh, wait. Yes, that’ll do.

All Traffic Lights Stay Green

I was just recounting how videogames run by their own rules, and nobody gets a bonus for heeding traffic signals in GTA, but apparently AIs that live in GTA universes pay attention to the rules of the road, even when a capricious player destroys those rules. GTA:SA feels like the last GTA game where causing mayhem was the be all and end all, and it even includes these “little things” like watching every NPC slam into every other NPC. Oh, speaking of mayhem…

Max Fat or Max Muscle or Max Sex Appeal or Max Skinny or Max Wanted Level

BANGGrand Theft Auto 3 and its silent protagonist made a concentrated effort to make the player identify with the psychopath asked to kill thirty random pedestrians by the strange man on the other side of the pay phone. C.J. of GTA:SA is much more his own character: a man betrayed by the normal rules of society and, eventually, even the love of his companions. C.J. has hopes, dreams, and maybe a solid green suit, and his existence is very different from the tabula rosa of GTA3.

I’m not completely certain how I feel about this change, as it creates a weird disconnect from the insanity of the game itself. You’re not causing the chaos, its C.J. You’re not stomping a hooker to death, it’s C.J. You’re not seducing some random nurse for hot coffee/powerups, it’s C.J. It feels vaguely dishonest for a game that revels in its havoc to so totally detach the player from the avatar, and this trend only grows in scope as the series progresses (GTA5 arguably being the peak where the “crazy guy” is presented as an option and not the inevitable norm).

That said, I feel it’s this disconnect between player and protagonist that occasionally turns me into a vengeful god.

C.J. is just out for a stroll, taking his favorite uzis for a walk. And, whoops, for no apparent reason, he’s the most wanted man on the continent. His first impulse is to book it to the nearest vehicle, but, uh-oh, now he inexplicably weighs 300 lbs. And, a few steps later, all of his muscle mass has evaporated. As he desperately pushes his overtaxed heart to the breaking point and wedges himself into a nearby cab, he suddenly shrinks down to anorexic proportions… and that’s about when the tank shows up.

It’s going to be a long day for C.J.…

Spawn a Stretch Limo or Jump 10 times higher

And sometimes I am a caring god, and give C.J. everything he ever wanted.

All Pedestrian are Elvis, Clowns, Beach Goers, or Hookers

HOT DOG!Who doesn’t like a change of pace? “Pedestrians” in GTA games are a strange lot, as they pretty much have to be there to make all this carnage “mean” something, but, conversely, they’re… nothing. Cops and gang members are one thing, but pedestrians pretty much exist only to run away screaming and occasionally provide “witty” (Rockstar level witty) dialogue. Other than that, they’re mobile speed bumps. I’m having a hard time thinking of something in another videogame that is so simultaneously essential and useless.

Pedestrians get an upgrade when you can at least laugh at the fact that you forgot to turn a random code off. Oh, cool, it’s Elvis. There’s another Elvis. Oh and… right, yes, Elvis code. Never before has my lack of memory been such a boon! And the codes that randomly transform the populace (and C.J.!) into beach bums, sex addicts, or clown sex addicts (assumed) are ideal for when you feel like crusin’ San Andreas and getting your pie on. Okay, fine, there isn’t a crème pie weapon, but a Bozo tossing a Molotov is pretty much the same thing, right?

All Vehicles Explode on Contact

WHAMMOAside from the already mentioned Health Code, this would be the cheat I enter every single time. There’s something damn satisfying about absolutely everything exploding in your wake, whether you’re driving a hot dog truck or a hovercraft. I realize it’s a cliché to invoke the good name of Michael Bay, but it is damn fulfilling to be responsible for more explosions than Alfred Nobel. Some people just want to watch the GTA world burn…

As an added bonus, you may enter this code, and then attempt to drive the streets of San Andreas “for real”. Carefully drive at thirty miles an hour, stop at every traffic light, and… every time you mess up, something explodes. It’s just like real life, if everything in real life was made of nitroglycerin.

Bonus points if you’re driving an ambulance.

Weather Cloudy

Well, not every cheat can be interesting.

FGC #160 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

  • System: Playstation 2 is what I played for this review and what I’ll always remember, but the game also wound up on Xbox, Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, and wasn’t there a cell phone version or something? That had to be terrible.
  • Number of players: There’s only room for one king of San Andreas.
  • Hot Coffee: Does anyone even recall the “hot coffee” debacle? Remember how it was found that you could hack sex scenes into GTA:SA because the designers had wisely decided to drop that asinine feature People are going to have to diebefore release? And because of some random hackers, GTA:SA had to be sold with an “Adults Only” sticker and be completely recalled? Shouldn’t such a thing have had more of an impact on gaming history?
  • Favorite Vehicle: Why don’t tanks have radios? This seems like a major design flaw.
  • The Air up There: It’s kind of sad that I played GTA5 and then replayed GTA:SA to confirm one thing: Rockstar has no idea how to make plane controls “work”. Maybe it’s just me, but I can never steer a plan effectively in a GTA game, and nothing has improved across sequels. Granted, I’ve never flown an actual plane, so maybe it’s just too real for me. Either that or I am a living tree magnet…
  • Did you know? Hot Coffee gets all the attention, but a skateboard was also cut from the final game. Apparently, the skateboard would have worked like a combination vehicle/weapon, allowing C.J. to scoot along or wallop an officer with the board itself. This eventually got recycled into Bully, where it feels slightly more appropriate.
  • Would I play again: I had a lot of fun with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but everything I liked about it got magnified by 100% and transformed into later Saint’s Row games, so that’s where my current allegiances lie. They made cheats an integral part of the experience!

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Athena for the NES! Speaking of vengeful gods, let’s take a look at a mostly-naked one! Please look forward to it!

Weeeeeee
I’m an excellent driver

FGC #159 Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore

Longest title ever?I’ve outlined my “Gaming 5” in the past, but I feel like I left something off the list…

Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore is a phenomenal game for teaching a gaming neophyte how videogames work.

I have never watched an episode of American Idol. For that matter, I’m almost certain I’ve never watched more than five minutes of the show. This is probably just a result of American Idol first getting super popular around when I “cut the cord” coupled with the (delightful) fact that I haven’t dated anyone that was particularly into the show (fun fact: the converse of that is why I understand The Real World mythology more than I care to admit). However, without ever having watched the show, I feel like I’ve absorbed the basic flow through sheer cultural osmosis. The start of the season features a bunch of randos singing their hearts out for a panel of judges, and said judges make witty comments and promote their picks to… regionals? Something like that. Then the thinned-herd performs again and again, the judges make more pithy comments, and America chooses its next American Idol. Then the winners make a beach party movie for some reason.

Did I get any of that wrong? I want to say that I didn’t (mostly because I’m a narcissist), if only because it’s integral to “understanding” American Idol. Nobody has to have the “rules” of American Idol recapped every episode. Unlike, say, Survivor, where there could be some confusion as to the exact goals of the game (“Wait, is this supposed to be like a ‘real’ thing, or does everyone know it’s a game? Why is that guy always naked? Do they have access to toilet paper? Is that why everyone is always scowling?”), American Idol is a straight-up singing competition. Sound bad, and you’re a laughingstock destined only for Arrested Development guest spots, but sound good, and you could be America’s next pop star… oh, wait, that might be another show.

This is also how Karaoke Revolution works.

… Kinda.

Rock outFirst, the similarities. Brass tacks, Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore is about singing, and singing well. There are forty songs to choose from, and once you choose between the three songs you actually know (“Is Sister Christian the name of the song or the band?”), you’re off to sing-along land. As an added bonus for people that have work in the morning, each song has an abbreviated “radio cut” that gets all the best parts, but doesn’t last any longer than about three minutes. Fun fact: if you choose the short version of Bohemian Rhapsody, your friends will boo you.

But now let’s look at the videogame side of things.

As ever, your job is to impress the judges with your singing. In the real world, this would include, ya know, actual singing, and not warbling like a drunken cucco. But this isn’t reality, this is videogame land, so clear your throat, take a deep breath, and, if you want, feel free to groan out something that sounds like a melody. It might just work!

Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore, like all Karaoke Revolution entries, simply relies on the player doing two things: make noise when you’re told to make noise, and make sure that noise is somewhere in the proper pitch. Somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bass or a soprano, the game does account for your register. That’s good! The bad side is that the Karaoke Revolution system doesn’t recognize words at all. Whoop whoopAlright, yes, this does allow for every other song to become a Weird Al hit (even if the set list is sorely lacking Like a Surgeon), which can’t be a bad thing. But it also means that you don’t really need to enunciate a single word to score a platinum ranking, and, once you realize this, you can make your way to victory by simply humming a few bars.

What I’m saying here is that if you can win a karaoke competition by playing a harmonica, something is wrong.

But that’s how the game is played, and, while American Idol did occasionally reward interesting interpretations of well-known songs, you’ll lose in a heartbeat if you try that crap with Karaoke Revolution. You will sing, mumble, or whine within the proper pitch parameter, or you will fail. Play by this game’s rules, and attempt nothing else you may have learned in some sort of “music class”, should such a thing exist.

And that, really, is where videogames originate.

Videogames, when you get right down to it, are bonkers. You’ve entered an all new, magical world of pipes and smiling clouds and mushrooms that change your shape. You encounter a walking chestnut. Is your first impulse to engage this new life form that has vaguely human features, or immediately smash it into a bloody oblivion? A turtle approaches! Better stomp that sucker and kick it as far as you can. Don’t look down that hole, it’s bottomless and leads to agonizing death.

Whip itVideogames play by their own rules. We’ve become desensitized to the sheer insanity of attacking an immortal vampire with S&M gear, but that concept wound up with fifteen sequels where it became increasingly likely you’d be able to transform a teenage girl into an owl. To the average, non-gaming person, though, that sentence sounds like some kind of fever dream, and not a valid way to bypass a living portrait portraying an upside down world of murder clowns.

Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore is tremendously more mundane than a trip to the Mushroom Kingdom or Castlevania, but it still exists only within its confines. The same performance that would earn you a platinum rank in this game would get you laughed off the stage of “real” American Idol, and a stunning, ballad rendition of Tainted Love might impress Simon Cowell, but it’ll fail you right quick in Konami’s eyes.

And, really, that is a fair way for videogames to work. You’ll get no bonus points for stopping at traffic lights in Saint’s Row, and Karaoke Revolution works on a microcosm of that same concept. There are different rules here, and you follow them, or you fail. It’s as easy to understand as a singing competition.

Videogames aren’t reality, but they find their own ways of interpreting reality. The faster you learn that, the more you’ll enjoy the medium.

FGC #159 Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore

  • System: Playstation 2, Xbox 360, and Wii. Yes, it was that awkward transition year of 2008. Playstation 3 came along eventually.
  • Number of players: Who likes duets? Nobody, that’s who.
  • Favorite Song (KRPAIE Edition): Bohemian Rhapsody without a second thought.
  • But I’m more likely to sing: Piano Man by Billy Joel, because I am secretly a sixty year old alcoholic from Jersey with dreams of getting out of this bar. Okay, one of those things is true.
  • And just to annoy your friends: She Bangs is also available as a selection, so you too can simulate William Hung’s breakout performance. Or don’t, and live a happier life.
  • Create a character: I swear this is like looking in a mirror.
    My twin!
  • Did you know? Paula Abdul, friend to MC Scat Cat, refused to participate in Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol. However, she did relent in time for Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol Encore, but then Ryan Seacrest dropped out of the licensing, and had to be replaced with A Ryan Seacrest Type. Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson enjoy sleeping on piles of money, and had no problem with appearing in either game.
  • Would I play again: There was a time these karaoke games were in heavy rotation in my peer group, but just looking at the anemic play data for this version, I want to say this one was the tail end of that local fad. And if you’re just playing karaoke alone in your basement… well… Let’s say no.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas! Let’s go back to the old neighborhood and conquer/burn it. That should go well! Please look forward to it!

FGC #158 Family Dog

So innocentFamily Dog is… too real for me.

Family Dog is a Super Nintendo game, but before that, it was an animated series, and even earlier than that, it was an animated “short” showcased on Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. The “original” Family Dog of that program was directed by Brad Bird and written by Brad Bird and Tim Burton. I realize that I don’t talk about my movie tastes much on this blog, but let it be said that “animated short by Burton and Bird” is a phrase that makes me more excited than a rabbit injected with Trix. I liked 90% of Tomorrowland, so combine that guy with the man that gave us Beetlejuice, and I’ll be there with bells skulls on.

The original Family Dog “episode” is fun, if not exactly all that interesting. I can see how the novelty of “animation for the whole family” (and not just the kiddies) was something people would notice in the pre-Groening days, but in a post Simpsons universe (and, reminder, Brad Bird worked on that show, too, and even directed Krusty Gets Busted [aka the premiere of the devious Sideshow Bob]), it just comes off as fairly quaint. This was before even the wave of “marginally mature” (aka gross) cartoons like Ren and Stimpy, and, when you’re applying Looney Tunes thinking to your typical sitcom family, you do get something at least remotely remarkable.

The Family Dog TV show was in the works for a number of years, but it finally materialized shortly after The Simpsons became a nationwide phenomena. Unfortunately, my beloved Bird was not involved, but it was a perfectly passable animated sitcom. The titular family dog was prone to a bit more slapstick and lesson learning than in his premiere short, but it was still a generally gentle (again, think early Simpsons era, when Bart was a “bad boy” for speaking ill of cow reproduction), classic sitcom. Here’s the Wikipedia description for episode two of the show:

“When the Binsfords take a trip to the zoo, their pooch tags along and causes plenty of trouble.”

VrooomSee? Typical, dumb sitcom crap. I ate it up as a kid, but I reviewed an episode or two before writing this, and, yeah, I can see why this show only hit eleven episodes (even if the official excuse involves overseas production or some nonsense. Sure, blame all your problems on Asia).

So, because Family Dog, ya know, existed, it received a SNES platformer. It worked for Tim the Tool Man Taylor, so why not use a character that practically already exists in pixels? I actually played this game as a rental back when I was a wee Goggle Bob, because I liked the show, and Super Castlevania 4 was probably already taken that week. I don’t recall getting past the first world, and I know this because I would definitely remember seeing what came next.

Now that I have gotten that far, I’m probably going to remember it until the day I die…

Before we go any further, I want to note that I like animals. As a point of fact, I like most animals more than most people. I’m not a misanthrope (well, completely), I just see animals as a lot more pure than human beings (dogs very rarely want anything more than food and pets), so when one is suffering, my absolute first instinct is boundless sympathy; meanwhile, I see a ten year old with a cough, and I assume it’s because the kid secretly egged my house last year. It’s completely irrational, This is why I live with dustbut I absolutely go out of my way to make sure a dog, cat, or even pig is comfortable before I address the creature’s owner. I also very rarely give my human friends belly rubs.

That said, the first world of Family Dog is mostly around-the-house comic mischief. Billy Binsford, the brat of Dog’s family, attempts to harm Dog, and it’s your job to steer the mutt away from danger. There are other hazards, like naked cats and bouncing balls, but your main goal is to simply make it to the right side of the screen without Billy perforating the pooch. Bounce on couches, collect bones, and avoid the vacuum. That thing sucks.

And, yes, Family Dog is in danger the entire time, but it’s Itchy and Scratchy style danger. It might involve some kind of stylized ferocity, but it’s pretty much the definition of cartoon violence. I’m sure there are some dogs that have been seriously injured by cats, but when I see something Tom & Jerry-esque happening, my first thought isn’t of the real world. But that all changes after the initial areas…

Family Dog has apparently been bad…

So he is asked to go for a ride.

This seems like fun!

Wait a tick…

BY LASSIE’S GOLDEN MANE, WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING HERE!?

Yes, Family Dog is left at a kennel for the crime of attempting to survive a destructive child, and it’s a prison-esque hellscape. Yes, there are still a few cartoony elements, like bulldog footholds and doberman pinschers in guard uniforms, but, by and large, this whole area is made to be far too real. The goofy music of the earlier stages is gone, and now it’s just the drip, drip, drip of leaky pipes and the barking of other inmates. Family Dog, who looks like a random mess of triangles and cylinders, is met by realistic looking dogs with very realistic looking teeth. The only escape is by freeing other captive animals, literal jailbirds, and then plowing past the barbed wire fence that surrounds the building.

I’m not going to lie, even if I didn’t have affection for animals, I would be disturbed by this area. The difference between the opening area of the (mostly) loving home of Family Dog and the Ughchilling penitentiary of the second area is night and day. Maybe I just have more psychological issues than I care to admit, but a fear of abandonment is a universal anxiety, right? You wake up one day, and everything you love is gone, and you’re left alone in an unfamiliar hostile environment… that’s Hell, right? We agree on that? I want to say Dante wrote something about this…

I really don’t think this has a place in whacky 16-bit platformer. I just reviewed a game that featured “Heck”, and that level barely registered as spooky. Here, it’s downright petrifying.

After you finally escape from the pound, the final world is basically just “outside”. It’s supposed to be an unnerving forest or something, but it’s a level very much like the early areas, and its aesthetic seems to be inspired by the similar spooky forest of Amagon. Then you’ve got some random branch hopping straight out of Wizards and Warriors, and… you’re done. Back into the arms of your loving family.

That abandoned you.

And required you to survive trial upon trial just to force your way back into their family unit.

Screw you guys, I’m never looking at this game again.

FGC #158 Family Dog

  • System: Super Nintendo. Genesis kids are probably more well-adjusted as a result.
  • Number of Players: One is the loneliest doggy.
  • No treasure hereSalt in the wound: Family Dog’s only offensive maneuver is a powerful bark that will repel enemies after way too many hits. And you’ve got a limited count that can only be increased through powerup acquisition. Wow, this is a lot like Amagon.
  • More from Brad Bird: We never got an Iron Giant video game, did we? I want to say that could have been really, really cool, and completely against the theme of the movie. I’d be okay with that.
  • Did you know? Scott Menville voiced the homicidal Billy Binsford on Family Dog. Given Billy’s one consistant character trait was his overwhelming disdain for animals, it’s amusing that Menville also played Captain Planet’s Ma-Ti, aka the kid with the monkey. I evidently like Menville facts!
  • Would I play again: Go to hell.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Karaoke Revolution Presents American Idol Encore! That’s a mouthful, which is just great for a mouth glued to a microphone. Please look forward to it!