Category Archives: Fustian Gaming Challenge

FGC #508 Chocobo Racing

Chocobo Racing is a time capsule buried by a company just before its own apocalypse.

Chocobo Racing was released by Square Co Ltd in in 1999. That’s Square, to be clear, not Square-Enix. This was before Square made its movie-based disastrous decisions and was gobbled up by its greatest competitor. In 1999, Square was riding high on practically defining a console generation with the likes of Final Fantasy 7 and whatever game came after Final Fantasy 7 (Tactics?). However, despite the tail end of the 20th Century being the glory days of Square, it rarely delved into full-on company cross overs. There might be a cameo here or there, but, by and large, Fei’s Gear wasn’t ever going to battle the blade of Mikado. Even the banner Final Fantasy franchise rarely allowed for a random encounter between Terra and Bartz. But a “silly” kart racing game? Hey, that might be a fine opportunity for the greatest stars in Square’s stable to strut their stuff. And who was chosen for Chocobo Racing? Well, let’s take a look.

The main birdChocobo is the gimme of this group. It’s Chocobo Racing! He’s the star of his own spin-off series! He’s arguably the most frequently recurring piece of Final Fantasy lore that isn’t a sword. He’s also rather well-suited to the whole racing thing, as “chocobo racing” has been an activity in more serious Final Fantasy titles that feature the occasional toyasaurus. The Chocobo that stars in Chocobo Racing is supposed to be a lovable dork that coincidentally winds up making the world a better place, so he’s an excellent bird to take center stage for this adventure/grand prix.

Mog!Similarly, we’ve got Mog the Moogle in the Mog-Mobile. Moogles have been a part of Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy 3, but they really got some focus in Final Fantasy 3… er… 6, when Mog the Moogle joined the party. And, because that Mog was a fast-talking, street-smart, SLAM-dancing moogle, the template for future moogles seemed to be solidified as cynical companions for naïve yellow birds. And that’s great! Everyone needs a sarcastic sidekick, and we’re all allowed to imagine this is the Mog that fought Kefka reborn in a universe where he only has to worry about Cid building an appropriately fine-ass scooter for his magical-ass deely bopper. Mog is fun, moogles are fun in the Final Fantasy franchise, this is all very fun for everybody.

SpookyAnd while we’re looking at icons for the Final Fantasy series, we’ve got Black Mage and White Mage. Chocobo Racing was released a little over a year before Final Fantasy 9, so this was just the cusp of the Black Mage Revolution that saw Vivi catapult his race to stardom. Unfortunately, this left White Mages puttering behind and barely attaining cameo status. It’s sad! White Mages and Black Mages used to be two sides of the same coin, the Tao of Final Fantasy, but then Vivi made one of those races about 1,000% more iconic, and that’s all she wrote. Or, one may suppose, he wrote, as this is another clear case of the boys becoming more iconic than the girls. Whatever the case, White Mages are still occasionally featured by Square Enix, but Black Mages are part of the Final Fantasy logo. It’s nice to remember a time when they were still equal, and the only race that mattered was chocobo racing.

Tanks a lotThe only other “story” human (or human-shaped entity) in Chocobo Racing is Cid. In this case, we’ve got a Cid that is completely unique to the Chocobo Racing Universe (it’s a thing!), and that’s just how Final Fantasy rolled back in the day. We didn’t see a repeat Cid until, what, Kingdom Hearts? And that Cid was playing second fiddle to a pair of chipmunks. A new Cid for every occasion was once a staple of the Final Fantasy Expanded Universe, and that had been a tradition going back to the birth of the chocobo. Cids are Final Fantasy! He is a helpful NPC that is unlockable if you decide to toss the dude a tank. This is the way it should be!

Go draggyBut wait! There is a Final Fantasy tradition older than Cid and chocobos! Bahamut is the big… uh… something of the game. He’s not a bad guy. But he’s… kind of an antagonist? He apparently broke up big bad magic because he didn’t think sentient life could deal with such an intimidating doomsday spell, but now he’s seen the error of his ways, because all anyone can do in his world now is race around on go karts. It’s a feel good story? Maybe? Look, what’s important is that Bahamut appears, he’s technically the Exdeath or Zeromous of the plot, but, since Chocobo lives in a gentle world, Bahamut’s surprise third act appearance primarily involves admitting he was wrong to be a misanthrope (or whatever mis-word is appropriate for a world that involves a fair number of sentient racers with wings). Bahamut is usually the arbiter of truth or at least a space-laser flinging dragon in Final Fantasy, and he appears often in the franchise (sometimes multiple ways per game), so this is a good role for the little (not little) dragon. He’s another Final Fantasy “cameo” that is Final Fantasy.

That dragon brings us to the bestiary reps. Can we admit that Final Fantasy didn’t really have an iconic collection of monsters until… Maybe Final Fantasy 5 or so? Case in point: Goblin. The Goblin of Chocobo Racing is meant to be a good Goblin thief that is basically Robin Hood/Locke Cole, but his general presence is a representation of Final Fantasy’s first random encounter. The Goblin (or Imp, if you’re stuck in OG USA Final Fantasy) is the first monster ever seen in Final Fantasy, and has appeared in many forms (and color swaps) across the franchise. They’re pretty straightforward low-level mooks, and their design (give or take that time they had wheels) is simple and screams “threatening, but you can take ‘em”. But are goblins an iconic part of Final Fantasy? Nope. Despite appearing as an early threat in so many classic Final Fantasy games, they never attained the popularity of Enix’s amazing level one encounter: the slime. Are Goblins too complicated? Not blue enough? Who knows why, but the humble Goblin is an extremely lackluster monster to represent Final Fantasy.

CRUSHAnd, while we’re at it, look at Golem. Here’s another one that has appeared in practically every Final Fantasy title, but is he ever remembered? There was one Golem that was kind of a jerk, kind of an ally in Final Fantasy 5, but when he came back around in Final Fantasy 6, he was an Esper that was little more than an auction house trinket. Other than that, he’s an opponent that is always just kind of there, but does little to make an impact in any way other than a few stone punches. This is, once again, a spot where Enix wins, and you wonder why rival Square would even attempt to evoke the occasionally sleeping giant that guarded a certain town in the original Dragon Quest.

GrowlAt this point, it might be easy to assume Square had zero iconic monsters in 1999. Not true! There was at least Behemoth, the big, bad purple horse-cow-bull thing. Maybe it’s an overgrown cat? Whatever. What’s important is that Behemoth was supposed to be in Final Fantasy 1 (he’s there in some promotional art), finally arrived for Final Fantasy 2 (gee, seems like a lot of Final Fantasy was established with the one game everybody hates), and then stuck around to be a memorable battle in nearly every Final Fantasy thereafter. And that’s the thing! Goblins ‘n Golems are forgettable because they barely ever even have a special move to toss at the party. The behemoth, though? Now there’s a fight you always remember. Whether you’re trying to unseal untold magics or rescue a ninja/painter from an undead monstrosity, behemoths leave an impression. It’s not about iconic design or overly inflated anime eyes, it’s about facing a brick wall of monster meat that is ready to murder your party at a moment’s notice. And later versions of behemoths in Final Fantasy gained friggin’ chainsaw swords, so this beast has staying power beyond any silly old rock piles.

DO NOT TOUCHBut for a fine time capsule of 1999 Square monsters, please look at the fact that one monster is a hidden character, and it’s Cactuar. Final Fantasy really did grow out of the old Dungeons & Dragons mold, and, likely thanks to its source material already being fairly worn in the early 80’s (possibly the early 1680’s), most of its monsters would be equally at home in Day Dreamin’ Davey. Around Final Fantasy 4 or so, though, the bestiary started growing more unique. By Final Fantasy 5, we had the tonberry. In Final Fantasy 6, we saw the cactuar. Soon these monsters would dominate Final Fantasy discourse (and maybe a few summons), and become creatures so iconic, they cameoed in Square’s most treasured Playstation 2 release, The Bouncer. But back in 1999, what was truly unique about Final Fantasy monsters was still in its infancy, so only Cactuar is represented, and only as a hidden “Easter Egg” that is not part of the main story. Such a thing would never happen in Chocobo Racing 2020 (coming never).

WhateverBut this was 1999, so we needed to feature the latest Final Fantasy luminaries. First up? Squall Leonhart, star of the recently released Final Fantasy 8. Final Fantasy 8 is featured more than any other single game in Chocobo Racing, as it gets not only a racer, but also a gunblade powerup and an entire track based on Deiling City (a location in FF8 that, unfortunately, does not at any point reveal itself to be a secret airship). This is clearly a case of Square trying to claim their latest Final Fantasy offering was as popular and iconic as the Final Fantasy that had been released in 1997, but it seems that Square wouldn’t learn that lesson until… what year did Final Fantasy 7 Remake come out? This one? Dang. That lesson took a while (and Dirges don’t count). People just want to see Cloud and his whaddyacallit sword, not this dork with a lion fetish! Stop trying to make Squall a thing, Square! His jacket is too fuzzy!

And double-plus-extra don’t try making Moombas a thing. They’re not moogles! Everybody would rather be playing as Red XIII anyway.

Let's moseySpeaking of, Cloud Strife is here. He’s got his signature motorcycle, but it’s not yet his motorcycle made out of swords. And, while it’s always nice to see the star of Final Fantasy Tactics and Ehrgeiz, Cloud doesn’t really bring anything additionally to the table. There’s no Midgar track, no Buster Sword powerup, or even so much as a FF7-style materia to be found. He’s just Cloud, and he feels more like a cute afterthought than a legitimate addition to the cast. 1999 was apparently a year Square was ready to acknowledge Final Fantasy 7, but was willing to move on. Vincent Valentine weeps.

NO COPSBut if you really want to cry, take a look at Aya Brea, star of Parasite Eve and Square’s only female cameo (and, assuming the creatures to be fairly androgynous, the only other woman on the roster apart from White Mage). This cameo is mostly… Well…You have to use your imagination. Squall and Cloud both have super-deformed, Chocobo World-appropriate versions of their traditionally serious, polygonal selves. Aya, meanwhile, gets a police car… and that’s it. She’s presumably in the police car, but if it was revealed Edie E. was the real driver in there, nobody would be surprised. So it’s nice that Parasite Eve got to cameo like the big boys from Final Fantasy, but it would be cool if someone put more than seven seconds into modeling a proper Aya. The poor gal just gets no respect.

Of course, Parasite Eve: Third Birthday happened eleven years later, so it’s not like this was the worst slight Aya would ever have to experience…

And that’s it for contemporary Square heroes and heroines. No representation from Tobal, Einhänder, or a certain brave fencer. But that’s because Square didn’t need to look to its bountiful present, it was content to fill out the rest of its bonus characters with protagonists from its past. Classic 8-bit Chocobo (complete with ancient chocobo sprite) is pretty much a shoo-in, as this is, ya know, Chocobo Racing. The S.S. Invincible of Final Fantasy 3 is similarly expected, as the ol’ airship is another Final Fantasy mainstay. The only issue is that a certain region wouldn’t recognize anything from Final Fantasy 3 for another decade or so, but an airship is an airship (don’t tell Cid I said that). And our final 8-bit star is Jack.

GO JACK GOOh, sorry. Don’t know Jack? He’s from 3-D WorldRunner aka The 3-D Battles of WorldRunner. In the grand scheme of things, the game was little more than a Space Harrier-esque shoot ‘em up for the NES. It was very technically impressive for its time, and included some landmark 3-D finagling on a system that was not meant for any more dimensions than two. But it isn’t exactly Super Mario Bros. 3, so you’d be forgiven for missing out on ol’ Jack’s adventures. Except there’s one other important factor in Jack’s life: 3-D WorldRunner is designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi (the man that conceived of Final Fantasy) and Nasir Gebelli (the head programmer of Final Fantasy and other titles), and the music was composed by Nobuo Uematsu (music lead of a solid ten or so Final Fantasy titles). So, yes, Jack was birthed by the same men that created Final Fantasy, and saw the franchise go from Square’s final fantasy of success to a series that apparently deserved its own kart racer.

And then that same franchise damned the entire company with a movie, and it was eaten alive by its hungriest competitor.

1999 was a bridge between the start of Square Ltd. and its impending finale. Square would soldier on, in one form or another, and continue to create amazing games; but it would never be the company that birthed Jack, the chocobo, and Aya Brea again. It would be a company that would drop the humble goblin for a slime, and some small part of its history would be forever lost.

But we’ll always have Chocobo Racing.

FGC #508 Chocobo Racing

  • System: Playstation 1, and no rereleases as far as the eye can see. Apparently it was a PSOne Classic in Japan, though, so I guess it works on PSP in some far off land.
  • Number of players: Pretty sure this one didn’t attain Mario Kart 64’s heights, and is constrained to a mere two racers.
  • Go away, birdMaybe actually talk about the game for a second: The fact that there is a complete story mode with characters and motivations and world-threatening (kinda) issues is exactly what you’d expect of a 1999 Square title, but, aside from a fun ‘n silly plot, there isn’t much to distinguish Chocobo Racing from the many other kart racers of the era (or, uh, any gaming era). The actual layout of the courses seems to be the biggest issue, as they’re either “simple dumb circle” or “7,000 right angles”, and there are very few maps between those two extremes. Feast or famine with this bird racer.
  • Hey, what about Chubby Chocobo? Chubby Chocobo brings me no joy, and forces me to remember aggravating inventory management issues in earlier Final Fantasy titles. Oh? He’s also available as a one-in-twenty summons chance in Final Fantasy 7? Screw random number generators! I’m not acknowledging Chubby Chocobo’s existence at all!
  • Magic Time: The items (what do you call a red shell?) of Chocobo Racing are all magic from the Final Fantasy series. And the usual spells map surprisingly well to a kart racer. Haste, Fire, Reflect: these are all standard “moves” in other kart racers. Even Mini slides in there without any need for a Toad dropping poison mushrooms.
  • So pureFavorite Racer: I choose to believe Squall is annoyed at all times by his fellow cutesy racers, and is now assuming he is experiencing one of Laguna’s weirder earlier memories. Squall dreamed he was a kart racer, and it was awful.
  • Did you know? There isn’t a single Golden Chocobo in this game. How did that even happen?
  • Would I play again: Nah. This game is an excellent time capsule for Square’s last independent days, but it’s not exactly the most fun game in the world. Kart racing is one place where the N64 won the console wars, and Final Fantasy isn’t going to change that.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Wheel of Fortune! Would you like to buy a vowel? Well you just might! Please look forward to it!

FGC #507 Kill la Kill –IF

Kill itWorking hypothesis: in the 21st century, for anyone that is privileged enough to be in a position where their creative output is capable of being excessively monetized, the scariest moments in their life were in high school.

And to the rest of the population, that’s horrifying.

Let’s state something plainly: high school sucks. It seems there was some golden age of high school that inspired Bruce Springsteen and more than a few musicals, but, as long as I have been alive, I haven’t encountered a single human being that considered high school to be the best years of their life. Scratch that, I have met people that “miss” high school, but they are, by and large, currently working at a location commonly referred to as “the sheep grindery”, and they’re generally addressed as “Crazy ol’ Gus who smells like a sheep grindery”. Modern high school is, by and large, less an educational institution for teenagers, and more of a daycare for proto-adults. The average high school student is old enough to be trusted with vehicles, voting, and vices, but they’re not trusted enough to acknowledge that the concept of “home room” is a daily waste of a precious 20 minutes of life. Study after study shows that teenagers need more freedom and more stimulating methods of learning during adolescence… so, of course, high school is little more than a graduated elementary school, only marginally different from the instructive environment that greeted these students when they were five. College at least offers the benefits of some manner of quad!

Get 'emBut it’s not the failures of the educational system that make an impact on most people. High school is often remembered as a fiercely competitive gladiatorial arena where only the strong survive… so much as “the strong” is defined as “has the right haircut”. Pop quizzes and alike may inspire a lifetime of impromptu nightmares about not being prepared, but the real horrors of high school are all social. Does Becky like me? Should I ask her out? If I ask her out, and she says no, will I be ostracized for the rest of my days? Everything in high school is magnified by having to deal with a social circle of hundreds that isn’t going anywhere for four years, so you damn well know that if you accidentally splash water on your jeans the first day, you’re going to be “Pissy Tammy” until college. And your name isn’t even Tammy! Who started calling you that!? What’s more, Tammy, is that high school seems almost designed to make you hate yourself and the things you enjoy. Like playing a music instrument? Ha ha, band geek, good luck having a social life. Loving the gymnastics of cheerleading? Well you better start loving some football players, too, because everyone is going to assume you’re sleeping with them anyway. Sci-fi club? Noxious nerd. Basketball team? Dumb jock. You literally cannot win, and even the most beloved of the quarterbacks spends his nights wondering why so many people are mean to him. Oh, did you just reflexively think, “well, yeah, people are mean to him because he shoves smaller kids into lockers”? Well then, yes, we can see why the very nature of high school leads to stereotypes and a virtual melting pot where it seems like 75% of the student body is against literally 100% of that same student body at all times.

And, yes, that can leave a mental impression.

The botsToday’s game is Kill la Kill –IF. As one might expect, this is a videogame based on the anime Kill la Kill. By and large, the game follows a truncated version of the original Kill la Kill plot, as we’re dealing with a fighting game, and we don’t have all day to wait around and figure out special moves for a cadre of incidental characters. Kill la Kill the 26 episode animated series is reduced to about ten characters and an hour or two of “story mode” so its audience can just have some fun tossing fists back and forth. And what is Kill la Kill boiled down to its most essential story beats? It’s the story of the student body president fighting random, occasionally possessed students, and eventually leading to a final confrontation with her mother. Or, you can choose the other path, where you’re the “outsider” student, and you’ve got to battle all those students and the previously featured president of the class. And that’s it for the plot of Kill la Kill –IF. It’s a fighting game based on being a high school student, and it transforms the usual “high school is a struggle between students, other students, and adults” into a literal struggle that involves weapons and sentient uniforms that may or may not represent conformity. High school is Hell, at least you have a sword.

And the whole “high school is Hell” concept isn’t unique to Kill la Kill by any means. In fact, that very phrase was the pitch for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a television series from two decades ago that combined high school tropes with actual monsters every week. This week: Buffy has to care for an egg as part of that one child-rearing class that only seems to exist in fiction, and maybe the egg is set to hatch an Ancient One in the basement! It’s spooky and relatable! And, whether it was simply because Buffy was popular or writers latched onto the trope almost instinctively, the “high school is Hell” concept has been repeated across practically all media, from books to movies to videogames to whatever the hell Todd and the Book of Pure Evil was supposed to be (Jason Mewes, know that you are appreciated). And, to be clear, the “seriousness” of high school doesn’t just exist in these “hell” versions, either. Whether you’re watching an outright drama or a fluffy situation comedy, the crushing weight of the possibility of being socially embarrassed is often plumbed for pathos. Even something as silly as Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the OG, TGIF version, not the current Netflix iteration that literally involves Hell) frequently derives its 20-minutes of drama from the possibility that the titular Sabrina will be outed as an “other”. The message is clear: high school is deathly serious and vaguely traumatizing. It can and should be compared to eternal torture.

And, honestly, if high school is your idea of Hell, you’re living a pretty good life.

It's roughDoes high school suck? Yes. But you know what sucks more? Not seeing your family on a holiday because your boss explains he “needs coverage”. Getting exposed to a fatal disease because “the economy has to keep rolling”. Being strangled because you bought your groceries with the wrong bill. People are suffering in horrible ways on a daily basis. When you consider that some people live their lives under constant threat of literal death, it seems disingenuous to worry about a situation where “the prom” is the biggest problem one can encounter. The idea of issues in high school being life threatening is a fun metaphor, but for so many people, high school and beyond being death-defying is not a metaphor in the least.

But if real life is so dangerous for so many people, why has the high school cow been milked so often it is pumping out powdered dairy substitute? The answer seems obvious: if you’re privileged enough to be in a position where your story is being told to the masses, then it is likely high school really was the worst time in your life. Why? Because high school really does suck for everybody.

And that’s a good thing.

You can’t win high school. We frequently revisit the trope of “the queen bee” or “the rich kid” because it presents the comforting lie that someone was the top of the high school food chain, but, in reality, those “winners” often spent most of their time wondering why they were losers. And, while this might be an untenable situation for those of us with some combination of OCD and an unfathomable drive to be liked by all, it does mean that no one student can be the “boss” of high school. You might be first in the class, but you’re not the quarterback. You might be the star of the track team, but you’re still going to sweat more asking out your prom date. No matter how much power you have in high school, you literally will never have enough, because there is always another aspect of the experience that will be outside of your grasp. And, since humanity has something of an issue with letting things go, you’re always going to remember that feeling of powerlessness. You’re always going to remember that hell.

It sucks hereAnd when you grow into power, when you grow up, get that degree, become the boss, and become the person that has the power to have their own stories told, that’s when you’ll look back at when you were powerless. High school was the one time when power was impossible, so that was the worst time in your life. You’re in power now. You’re the man, man, but remember when you were little more than a scrappy underdog? Remember when it was you against the world? Remember when you didn’t have the power to fail repeatedly yet still succeed? That was terrible! Never mind that there are people today that will never feel that same level of excessive privilege, you have to tell your story about how Debbie always went for that cool jock, and you could do nothing. No one can deny you your prizes now, but at least you can romanticize the times you had to struggle.

And everybody else has to struggle with real life being Hell.

The wonderful thing about high school is that eventually it inevitably ends. Maybe the same thing should happen with privileged men telling stories about high school.

FGC #507 Kill la Kill –IF

  • System: Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. Essentially, all the big platforms that host anime nonsense.
  • Number of players: This is a high school of two.
  • Mega Get 'emMaybe actually talk about the game for a second: It’s a fighting game that, like Dragon Ball FighterZ, is here to let an excited audience “play the cartoon”. That said, the roster is extremely limited (two angry leads, the four generals, two boss ladies, and two DLC whackjobs), and the gameplay is extremely basic. Or maybe it’s complicated? I have a hard time distinguishing how complicated fighting games are, as, if there’s a dedicated “special” button, I kind of assume it’s more simple than King of Fighters. Regardless, despite some gorgeous visuals, this game feels more like a budget release than something that will enjoy three seasons worth of DLC.
  • That old chestnut: Oh, excuse me, there are an additional two fighters on the roster: the two mains, but now they’re both dual-wielding. That’s, like, totally a different character. They play slightly differently!
  • Small Favors: Also, considering the source material, it is a minor miracle this game doesn’t employ Senran Kagura-esque clothes-plosions. Everybody stays just as half naked as normal throughout every bout. Hooray?
  • Say something nice: This is a pretty basic fighting game, but the story mode does include a few interesting fights against multiple opponents that seem… seamless? No, that isn’t quite right, but the “targeting” for quashing multiple objectives does at least feel vaguely natural. It would be cool to see this system adapted to a game that has more interesting mooks… Or at least some saibamen.
  • What’s in a name: Kill la Kill is basically a pun in Japanese, and it boils down to “dressed to kill”. In English, however, it just sounds like someone learned, like, one Spanish word, and then gave up. Localization now!
  • Let's go!Story Time: This game’s plot isn’t merely an excuse to truncate KLK to something a little more fighting game-centric, it’s a dedicated “imaginary story” about student council president Satsuki Kiryuin’s chilling daydreams about destroying the high school hierarchy and her mother. This allows the game a chance to be “canon” (within Satsuki’s mind), but still change the plot and perspective as much as can be allowed by a judgmental fandom. That said, for highlighting a completely invented playground with theoretically no limits on storytelling potential, this tale still boils down to little more than an abbreviated version of the original, so what was the point?
  • Favorite Fighter: Nonon Jakuzu is the uber-band geek drum major that attacks with classical music, so it’s kind of hard for me to say no to that. Her official biography says she’s also responsible for the gardening club, so, ya know, good for her.
  • Did you know? Erica Mendez is the voice actress for main heroine Ryuko Matoi. Laura Bailey famously played Kaine in NieR. However, hearing Mendez shout at the Kill la Kill cast for being “a bunch of dumbasses” really evokes Bailey’s opening dialogue from the boot of NieR, and, to my gentle ears, it’s difficult to tell the two women apart. I guess there are only so many ways you can shout at anime dumbasses…
  • Would I play again: No thank you. This is a fun game for two hours, but feels very slight. I won’t be revisiting this anime high school anytime soon.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Chocobo Racing for the Playstation! Let us race monsters with birds that are known for outracing monsters! Please look forward to it!

Seriously

FGC #506 Gunstar Super Heroes

Nobody gives the Gameboy Advance library enough credit for being flipping amazing.

Okay, yes, there may be a number of Gameboy Advance acolytes out there. The GBA was a viable system for a number of years, and, while it may not have had the longevity enjoyed by its ancestor (the Nintendo Gameboy started out porting NES titles, and reached its finish line interfacing with N64 games) or its obvious descendant (The Nintendo DS: the last bastion of portable gaming before the rise of the cell phone), it was still a system that that defined gaming for a time. It had no real Game Gear or PSP to make a play at its throne, and, while some rumors of a supposed Neo Geo Pocket may have persisted, the GBA was the undisputed king of the portable heap in its day. Inevitably, this did lead to a number of gamers young and old extolling the virtues of the Gameboy Advance, and its library of thousands of amazing games. In truth, it is an outright lie to claim the Gameboy Advance was not lauded in the past straight through to the present.

But when you ask GBA fans about the games they played the most on that lovely little system, their responses often contain games that are better known for their appearances on other platforms. The SNES seemingly provided much of the best of the Gameboy Advance library, with series like Final Fantasy Advance, Super Mario Advance, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past & Four Swords (Advance). And when a game appeared on the Gameboy Advance, but was not an outright port, it was often seen as a portable compromise. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance revisited the Final Fantasy Tactics gameplay not seen since the Playstation 1, but there was no way this game featuring snowball fights was as mature as a game that blamed an uncaring God for misfortunes in its opening dialogue. Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission both did their best, but they could never combine to match the timelessness of Super Metroid. And the other half of the metroidvania equation seemed to find its home on the GBA, but the likes of Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance or Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow were never considered as intricate as their symphonic ancestor. WeeeeeIn fact, the Castlevania series on GBA seemed to summarize to state of these franchises: these “types” of games would never work on the real consoles, so here they are in portable form. Here is a discount version of your actual favorite games, and if it winds up being your favorite, lucky you. Glad you can see the good in these “bargains”.

And, while that may have been a prevailing philosophy of the time, it is important to note that that was complete bullshit.

Let’s take Super Mario Advance as an example. On the surface, it is a remake of Super Mario Bros. 2, the end. It has the same gameplay and same basic graphics as the Super Mario All-Stars Release. Whoo boy. It is a good game, save the fact that Super Mario Bros. 2 was thirteen years old when it hit this portable scene. But claiming Super Mario Advance is merely a SMB2 remake is doing the whole of the game a disservice. There are new bosses, animations, and, for some reason, a robotic transsexual dinosaur. There are new mushrooms and coins to find. There are points for some insane reason. As our own commenter extraordinaire, Metal Man Master noted, it changes the Super Mario Bros. 2 experience to a startling degree. It was touted as a simple remake or “portable conversion”, but Super Mario Advance started the long history of “ports” on Gameboy Advance that were anything but. Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 has the most confusing title on Earth for a reason!

Which brings us to today’s game, Gunstar Super Heroes. Gunstar Super Heroes is remembered by many as little more than a GBA port of the beloved Genesis title. The basic plot of GSH makes it clear this is a sequel set years after the original adventure, but all of the heroes and villains coincidentally have the exact same roles and names. The level structure is the same (give or take a Mega Man X-esque introductory stage), and, in the end, you’re still going to wind up fighting the same final boss/god-robot of destruction. You run. You gun. It’s Gunstar Heroes for a new generation, but with the same old gameplay from 1993. Maybe we’ll see Beyond Oasis Advance next week.

Oh, I get itBut actually play Gunstar Heroes and Gunstar Super Heroes back to back, and you’ll find that Gunstar Super Heroes is not only a very original sequel, but also one of the most astounding games of 2005.

Gunstar Super Heroes does echo its ancestor, but it uses the structure of GH less as a dedicated guide, and more as a skeleton on which to add meat. And, fun fact, if we’re going to go with that metaphor, then GSH has piled on enough flesh to make GH morbidly obese. Nearly every level in GSH features at least one area that could have been an entire game’s concept all by itself. Guiding chicks back to an exit in a rotating labyrinth? Battling a boss while leaping between a friendly ship and a teetering helicopter? An entire shoot ‘em up stage with a wholly rotating playfield? There are so many new ideas in any one level of GSH, claiming GS is little more than a portable remake of the original is akin to claiming the latest Star Wars Trilogy is little more than the OG Star Wars Trilogy with a different skin. Episode 9 had a grandpa that gets his freak on! Return of the Jedi barely had grandpas at all!

And when you look at Gunstar Super Heroes compared to its contemporaries, you realize the incredible level of originality on display. Gunstar Super Heroes was released the same year as Devil May Cry 3, Psychonauts, and God of War. It was the year Guitar Hero made its debut. If you’re looking for something more singular in gaming, it was the year we were first allowed to climb up on a big boy in Shadow of the Colossus. These were all colossal (ha!) games, but not a single one was 2-D run ‘n gun action title. WeeeeeeNot a single one took what once would have been described as “mode 7 rotation” to its logical extreme. 2005 was a high water mark for gaming in general (Resident Evil 4 taught us all to love zombies all over again), but only one game from that year took all the best traits found on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, shook ‘em together, and produced a wholly unique and unforgettable experience.

Well… perhaps unforgettable is the wrong word. Gunstar Heroes has been reintroduced to a generation thanks to the Sega Genesis Mini, and has also been available on countless Sega Genesis compilations and retro download services. Gunstar Super Heroes? Forgotten. Despite being a game that reviewed well constantly in its time (Gamespot gave it an 8.9/10, which is the gentleman’s 139/150!), it sold very poorly, and was seemingly immediately forgotten by gaming history. As a result, GSH has not reappeared on any later consoles, portable or otherwise, and is currently only available as a *RARE AUTHENTIC* eBay purchase. Gunstar Super Heroes may have been a marvelous game, but now, whether through cultural osmosis or only six people playing it in the first place, it is only remembered as little more than a Genesis remake when it is remembered at all.

Gunstar Super Heroes deserved better. The Gameboy Advance deserved better. The GBA was more than a portable system built for ports, it was an astounding platform for titles that wouldn’t be showcased anywhere else. But, because many of those games are remembered as little more than handy timewasters, the GBA’s finest are generally forgotten. This was the system that did its best to improve Yoshi’s Island, it should be remembered for more than Pokémon Leaf Green.

Give the Gameboy Advance, and Gunstar Super Heroes, some credit.

FGC #506 Gunstar Super Heroes

  • System: Gee, I dunno, maybe the Gameboy Advance?
  • WeeeeNumber of players: Is the secret to having a successful run ‘n gun two players? This one is only one.
  • Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Gunstar Red is a woman! And it barely ever comes up! This makes Gunstar Super Heroes one of the few games I can name with a female lead that is neither a boobs-delivery service nor a frequently cited upstanding example of a modest girl in gaming. Or maybe this is just another example of how Gunstar Super Heroes is all but forgotten…
  • Favorite Stage: In the interest of sequel separation, I will note that the Gunstar Heroes franchise is the only one where I enjoy boardgame-esque levels. Black’s gambling fortress is again one of the best stages in the game, and I don’t even mind that it’s basically just an excuse for a boss rush. They’re neat bosses!
  • Favorite Boss: Pink gets the biggest glow-up between generations. What was once a battle with a heavy lobster is now one against a battle angel spewing laser beams. There’s probably some kind of deliberate anime reference going on here, but I’m just happy to fight a robotic celestial monster.
  • Say something mean: Okay, I admit the Gunstars do deserve a higher resolution. Everything feels a little cramped, and I would love to see Gunstar Super Heroes remastered for a screen slightly larger than a postal stamp.
  • SquwakAn end: You get a pretty traditional Gunstar ending if you clear the game on normal, but if you make your way through hard mode, you’ll find that Yellow has a secret desire to become a dictator, and there are multiple Gunstar universes, and… Well, it’s kind of sad, as it was all likely setting up a sequel that would never be. Hard mode is making moving on even harder.
  • Did you know? You have a lot of melee options in this game… but why would you ever use a single one? Seriously, you have a gun that shoots fire bolts. I can’t imagine using anything else.
  • Would I play again: This is the reason the Gameboy Advance Player exists. Some people may be saving their Gamecube controllers for Super Smash Bros Melee, but I’ll just be over here running around with Red ‘n Blue.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kill la Kill -IF! If you’re looking for some… interesting school uniforms, look no further! Please look forward to it!

THE BLOB

FGC #505 Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

The moon does appearConsider this a trigger warning: this is going to be a fairly heady article. It’s going to get personal, too. We’re talking about Michael Jackson, and… yeah, I don’t think I need to further explain what difficult topics will be explored. This is your warning… or something approaching that.

And, to be clear, this is a goddamn shame. We’re covering a game (or two) featuring Michael Jackson today, and, ladies and gentlemen, the jokes write themselves. There is a part of me that really wants to travel the low road on this one, and point out how something like 90% of the content here has aged monumentally poorly. You want some humorous content? Here’s MJ getting railed by some manner of dick-robot.

Right in the beans

Haha! He’s gonna be singing soprano after that!

But, if I’m being honest (and that’s the point of this essay), that’s exactly why I feel I need to be serious here. Yes, a videogame starring Michael Jackson has aged poorly. Yes, that is fairly inevitable with any product starring someone that was a cultural icon (see also some mall adventures). And, yes, due to the details of Jackson’s fall from grace, even a common trope like “save the kidnapped children” is going to be seen in a different light. This is all true. But the important part? The thing that would not stop running through my mind while playing this random Sega Genesis cartridge from 1990 is just how overwhelmingly sad the whole thing made me feel.

When I was a kid, Michael Jackson was my goddamned hero.

Save her!I’ve claimed in the past that my musical tastes as a child were entirely and wholly provided by my parents, who, as children of the 50’s, had more of an inclination to listen to The Big Bopper and The Beatles than Aerosmith. By the time I was a teenager, I learned both of my parents had been actively shielding me from “the hard stuff”, but even the forbidden list was predominantly songs that were golden oldies. My mother didn’t like the idea of me listening to Bohemian Rhapsody even by my teenage years, as it was “a suicide song”, but that was still a song released almost a decade before I was even born. Point is that, for all “the hits of the 80’s” that my local FM station assures me are real, I listened to maybe 1% of what was actually popular when it was prevalent. I think only Don’t Worry, Be Happy was on the approved list…

But, somehow, Michael Jackson was the exception. Actually, I take that back. I know exactly why MJ was an exception: “Weird” Al Yankovic. My parents knew their beloved, gigantically nerdy son, and figured I would enjoy the likes of “Fat” or “Eat it”. Weird Al’s oeuvre was obviously kid friendly, and (not going to lie) it was probably a great choice, as I’m pretty sure absorbing Weird Al’s recurring clever wordplay when I was a child is why I make word choice good now. But listening to a series of parody songs inevitably invites a need to hear those source songs, and, since WAY seemed to have a thing for MJ songs, you can guess what was high on the listening list. It wasn’t very long before I graduated from Weird Al’s Even Worse to Michael Jackson’s Bad (wait… isn’t that backwards?).

And I was in love.

ZOMBIES!I’m not even going to try to define why Michael Jackson was popular with the public at large. However, I can safely point to a handful of reasons why I, personally, liked Michael Jackson. In no particular order:

1. His music slapped
2. Actual moonwalking was fun and easy
3. Music videos that could and would include claymation

However that list does ignore the prime reason I adored Michael Jackson: he was a big damn weirdo.

Look, this is a blog where I occasionally compare relationships old and new to videogames. I have written obscure NES hero fanfic. I don’t think my dear audience believes there was a switch in my head that flipped to “big ol’ weirdo” when I became an adult. I was a weird kid. I had friends, I participated in activities, and I had extremely loving and protective parents; but there’s no debate as to who was “the weird kid” in any given classroom. And being the weird kid? There’s no helping being the weird kid. The dumb kid can get some special educational help, the smelly kid can get a shower, and the kid who pissed himself in first grade can just learn to beat up every other kid by second grade. But the weird kid? You don’t really ever stop being the weird kid. You’re always going to get distracted by Weeeeunusual bird feathers on the ground, or spend gym class planning out your victory dance rather than actually playing the assigned sport. You try not to be weird by carefully noting the last grade you’re ever allowed to talk about cartoons (it was third), but that all falls apart the moment you obviously get excited about the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. And then it’s noogie time, and you’re reminded that, one way or another, you’re not like everybody else.

Michael Jackson was a universally beloved musical icon. And Michael Jackson wasn’t like anybody else.

Michael Jackson was a star, and he lived his life exactly how he wanted to live it. And this isn’t about residing on a ranch literally named for never outgrowing childhood, this is about his actual performances. He sang the lyrics he wanted to sing. He danced the way he wanted to dance. And he took his performances and personas to some extremely unusual places. He wasn’t content to simply have a “scary song”, he had to produce an entire music video featuring zombies as an homage to old horror movies. He appeared in cartoons when the medium was considered about as culturally relevant as cereal commercials. And if he wanted his own videogame, he got his own damn videogame.

Get in there!Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker appeared in many guises on many systems, but the two main versions were the arcade game and its Sega Genesis counterpart. To be honest, neither game is particularly that good. The arcade version is something of a rote beat ‘em up with its only defining characteristic being a monkey-based powerup that transforms your chosen Michael into a laser-blasting robot. The Genesis version isn’t much better, but is marginally more unique. This is more of a Rolling Thunder/Elevator Action-esque affair, and the caveat is that you have to open like every goddamn window, trunk, and door between Michael and the enemy’s secret base to find the lost children required to finish a stage. There’s a nugget of a good game idea in there, but it winds up becoming little more than Michael Jackson’s hide ‘n seek as he checks every closet in the house for more and more children (… dammit, I said I would avoid the low hanging fruit…).

And, despite the fact that both of these games aren’t particularly good, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was one of the two reasons this Nintendo kid wanted a Sega Genesis. There was Sonic the Hedgehog and Michael Jackson, and all a Wee Goggle Bob wanted in this world was a system where they were both combined (and maybe a game, too). Michael Jackson, the King of Pop that was also a giant weirdo, was waiting for me there. He liked videogames, too!

And then everything happened.

To be clear for anyone that didn’t live through it, it wasn’t like society declared him cancelled, and then Michael Jackson was forever banished from the public eye. Michael Jackson had always been weird, but now there were allegations. Now there was a reason to chastise the man for doing things that were not simply unusual, but wrong. And not everyone believed it! It was a slow drip of accusations, lawsuits, and the occasional televised “deeper look”. Regardless, Michael Jackson retreated more and more from the public eye, and, by the time he passed in 2009, he was remembered as practically a different person from his 1990 incarnation. Hell, the change happened so gradually, it allowed The Simpsons to go from idolizing Michael Jackson as the most important person to ever visit Springfield…

Michael Jackson!?

To, four years later, claiming Michael Jackson was little more than a mythical, malevolent phantom…

Who!?

A hero had become a villain, and now we’re at a point where MJ has been wiped from the show’s history.

And eleven years after Michael’s death, I’m still not sure what the hell I’m supposed to learn from such an event.

Do I believe the allegations at this point? Yes. Duh. Though, if I’m being completely honest, it took me a long time to get there. Michael Jackson is weird! I believed that people were just taking his obvious weakness for children and childish pursuits and turning it into some kind of pedophilia. In retrospect, that seems almost dangerously optimistic, but, at the time, it was just how I defended my hero. And that was the problem. Whether it be because of my impressionable age, the indoctrination of videogames and media where he was a literal hero, or simply because I wanted to listen to good music without thinking too hard about bad things, I followed Michael Jackson a lot longer than I should have. In retrospect, I regret ever giving the man so much I AM ROBOTas a dime, left alone allowing him to dominate that precious tape collection I always lugged to the nearest boombox. Michael Jackson was my hero, a hero that stood for everything I cared about when I was a certain age, and then it turned out that he was scarring children for life literally while I was supporting him. I was a fan of a “hero” that has victims.

Has this influenced my own life? Probably. I’m not going to point the finger squarely at one Bad individual, but I feel like this is part of the reason I gravitate toward fictional heroes like Optimus Prime or Voltron while leaving the real world behind. Barack Obama is a president and a man I felt I could stand behind, but I could never support the man with the kind of all-consuming dedication I have seen from other fans, because he was and still is, ultimately, a man. And a man has flaws. Sometimes those flaws are making decisions you don’t agree with, sometimes those flaws are literally criminal, but they are still reasons not to venerate any given man or woman. We’re all people, and we should treat every person with an even dosage of doubt.

This is where we are: I play a videogame about a pop star rescuing children from zombies with the help of a monkey, and the only thing I can think of is how we should be skeptical of literally every human on Earth. Michael Jackson ruined the lives of many children. He was not a hero. He didn’t “rescue kids” anymore than he could turn into a robot. But it’s not all bad! There are good people! There are people worthy of praise! They might not be perfect, but there are people that actually save children. You don’t have to worship them, but there are people that balance the cosmic scales, even if not a single one is the King of Pop. We can move on from Michael Jackson.

Right in the beans

And MJ can just eat a piledriver.

FGC #505 Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

  • System: Sega Genesis is technically the version ROB chose, but the Arcade version is also a valid choice that follows roughly the same plot and concept. That concept is that Michael Jackson can turn into a space ship or a car anytime he wants, but chooses not to.
  • Number of players: One on the Genesis, the unusual three in the arcade. You would think Jackson would account for five.
  • THE CHANGEAdaptation: Yes, this is videogame tie-in game for Michael Jackson’s movie of the same name. If you missed out on his cinematic masterpiece, it’s basically a loosely connected collection of music videos and concert footage that includes a miniscule feature about Michael Jackson rescuing children from his former manager/mob boss. It’s worth a look if you’re ever on Youtube and feel like watching something that will make you hate yourself for a solid hour or so.
  • Favorite Level: Like The Simpsons Arcade Game, the third stage inexplicably turns into a graveyard featuring innumerable zombies. Their continual leaps recall Chinese hopping vampires, though, and there are at least two zombies that split in half to rain knives from the sky. What I’m saying is that my favorite level is the absolute weirdest.
  • So, does Thriller play over the zombie level? Nope! Apparently there was a licensing issue, as MJ didn’t write the entirety of Thriller. However, there are some prototype versions of the game floating around that retain the song. Vincent Price doesn’t appear in any version, though, unfortunately.
  • An End: The arcade version sticks to one genre, but the finale of the Genesis game gets a light shoot ‘em up in there for the final confrontation. It is the exact opposite of fun, but it is vaguely reminiscent of that Star Wars game. Oh, and the actual ending of the game is just Michael dancing with a monkey.
  • Did you know? The basic premise of this article is also why I will not be covering Space Channel 5 or Space Channel 5: Part 2. I can only deal with so many Michaels in power.
  • Would I play again: Did I mention that this game is not particularly good? It wasn’t terrible for the early 90s, but it has not aged well in more ways than one. There are a lot of other games I can play that are about 120% less problematic.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gunstar Super Heroes for the Gameboy Advance! Now there are some heroes we can get behind! Please look forward to it!