Tag Archives: spooky

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 #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!

FGC #495 Castlevania Judgment & Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

This is gonna be weirdYou want a videogame crossover, you’ve got options. But apparently you can’t have all the options.

The Castlevania franchise is fairly unique, as, right from its third entry, its creators decided to introduce different time periods. Like Zelda, it was determined you could only tell the same story with the same hero so often (apparently twice), and it was time to move on to a different epoch with the same basic trappings for the next adventure. However, unlike in The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania seemed to revel in introducing completely new characters with every age, and (depending on the quest du jour) also introducing an additional supporting cast or secondary antagonists. Unfortunately, all of these “extra” characters were always disposable, as all Castlevania ever really needed was a Dracula and a hero that could menace bats. This meant that, by about the mid 2000s, there were a handful of really great characters across the Castlevania franchise that only ever had one or two chances to shine. Such a waste. Why can’t all of our Castlevania stars find a way to play together and get along?

So why don’t we have a Castlevania Crossover featuring all our favorites? And, if the first one doesn’t shake out, let’s do it again!

It started with Castlevania Judgment. At a time when nearly every Castlevania title was sentenced to the miniscule portable systems of the time, there was much excitement about the first “real” Castlevania title on the Nintendo Wii (the dominant console of the era). But then Castlevania Judgment was… not what anyone expected. Anyone.

Get 'emFirst of all, it was a fighting game. But that could work! Castlevania is a platforming franchise, but it’s also always been about little more than burly dudes with long hair fighting demons from Hell. And that’s, like, 90% of fighting games (the other 10% are just karate tournaments), so that is a good fit. And this was during a period when fighting games were generally pretty experimental, so, before fighting games settled back into just being online matches to mirror the arcade fights of days long gone, the time was right for an innovative fighting game based on action/platforming gameplay. And a fighting game would be ideal for the Castlevania heroes that, since Symphony of the Night, had gradually been accruing more and more “moves”. Alucard could utilize an entire army’s worth of weaponry, magical spells, and an inexplicable jump kick. He could put Guile’s lousy sonic boom to shame without even trying.

Unfortunately, Castlevania Judgment was (to put it charitably) a little too experimental. It was neither fish nor fowl: in trying to be a fighting game that aped the motions of an action/platformer, it created an environment where the two fighters didn’t really know if they should be dodging encroaching zombies or attempting to punch (whip?) their opponent. Combos are futile when you might be interrupted by an errant jumping fish, but dodge-rolling around the arena while Dracula just stands there drinking wine is equally ineffective. And the way the movesets were limited for “simple controls” (the calling card of a game designed for the assumed-to-be-casual audience of the Wii) wound up contributing to many fighters that were savagely unbalanced. Yes, I know Maria was always better than Richter in their debut title, but getting wrecked simply because one player chose a little girl and her owl in a fighting game is an entirely separate experience. There’s a skeleton of a good game here (ha! Topical Castlevania metaphor!), but it needed another game’s worth of tweaking to hatch an actual enjoyable, enduring experience out of this egg (are there any monsters that “hatch” in Castlevania? Bah. More of a Metroid thing).

Hi, DadBut there was one place where Castlevania Judgment excelled: plot. Wait, no, that’s a lie. The plot is a stupid excuse to pull various Castlevania characters from 1456 to 1942 to fight a Grim Reaper from 10,000 years in the future. It’s barely worth mentioning (which is really sad when there’s a skeleton at the end of time involved). But what’s great about this title is that all the various stars of Castlevania are all allowed to interact. Finally! In fact, it involves a number of heroes and heroines that were nearly totally mute in their initial appearances, so we can finally see what’s going on in Simon’s head. It’s not all just terrible nights to have a curse! And the crossover of Judgment allows for the insanity of great grandpa versus distant descendant, which allows for even more story fun. It may be little more than fanservice, but, for a fan of the franchise, Castlevania Judgment justifies itself through its cast’s interactions. It didn’t matter that the art style was a few too many bodies short of a Legion, what mattered was that this was Eric interacting with Grant, and that was pretty damn cool.

But, for a videogame, gameplay is key, so Judgment is simply remembered for being a complete flop of a Castlevania experiment. It was by no means the “Castlevania returns to consoles” that everyone wanted. It was some weirdo title featuring the cast of Death Note, not Castlevania HD. No, if we wanted that, we had to wait for the “real” Castlevania HD: Castlevania: Harmony of Despair.

And that one was an odd duck, too.

Don't step on meSuperficially, Castlevania: Harmony of Despair is nothing we haven’t seen before. Literally! C:HD is entirely assembled from Castlevania assets scrambled together from previous titles. It’s mostly just the IGA-vania titles (starting with Symphony), but there are also some significant Rondo and even 8-bit influences to be found here. And the gameplay, on a superficial level, is exactly the same the likes of Alucard or Shanoa have seen before: venture through a giant maze, stab some demons, collect a glut of treasure, and beat the damage-sponge of a boss. All very familiar, and, given this was at a time when we could rely on seeing a 2-D Castlevania title every other year or so, it was something that felt almost… extraneous.

But interpreting Castlevania: Harmony of Despair not as “this year’s recycled assets” but as a crossover culmination of the previous decade’s worth of Castlevania content paints a different picture. This is Metroidvania action in its purest form, which is something that is usually only available upon completing the latest Castlevania adventure. You don’t have to spend half of this title waiting to earn a double jump, or blow hours finding the right room that contains the right story flag to find the next area. This is just running, jumping, and exploring huge maps and battling worthy bosses. Exploration through unlocking has fallen by the wayside, yes, but what is left in its place is an uncontaminated Castlevania experience where you can just enjoy the innumerable of abilities of your chosen protagonist. If Castlevania is about man versus castle, then this is Castlevania to the Castlevaniaest power.

And the multiplayer options available to this title add a whole new dimension to the experience. You can cooperate! You can compete for treasure! You can select a character with a wildly different movement skill, and giggle as your ground-based buddy has to watch you fly through the sky on magnetic wings. There are a million ways to play with friends, and the “HD” of Harmony of Despair lends itself to a wonderful online experience where these enormous levels can easily house six active vampire killers. What we have here is not only a pure Castlevania experience, but a purely fun experience as well.

I am despairingBut there ain’t no plot. There’s no reason to do anything in Castlevania: Harmony of Despair past scoring points and clearing stages. You play C:HD for the same reason you play Madden or Tennis: just have fun with the game. And, while that is certainly a valid reason to play any videogame, it feels like a loss for the Castlevania franchise. Alucard likely would have a lot to say about pairing up with the reincarnated, pretty-boy version of his father, but C:HD doesn’t want to delve into that conversation. C:HD is about a magical book that contains magical heroes fighting a magical castle, and it’s nothing more than that. Everyone involved is just a 2-D simulation of their “real world” counterpart, and, while this is a crossover for every manner of sentient armor in the franchise, it is not a crossover for the iconic characters of Castlevania.

Which raises the question: which Castlevania Crossover wins? Castlevania Judgment eschewed typical Castlevania gameplay, but reveled in the personalities of its popular protagonists. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair was Castlevania gameplay taken to its most logical (and fun!) extreme, but reduced its iconic heroes to little more than different jumping stats. And the winner? Well, they both lost. Castlevania Judgment is regarded as an embarrassing diversion for the franchise that was never to be revisited again, and Castlevania: Harmony of Despair puttered out so completely it didn’t survive long enough to release its final planned DLC (Hammer! We could have had Hammer!). In both cases, both Castlevania Crossovers were disappointments to the curators of the franchise, and likely contributed in no small part to Castlevania rebooting and/or becoming a series of slot machines. Considering both Judgment and Harmony of Despair were epitomes of different aspects of the franchise, it’s rather depressing to see them both become epitaphs for an era.

But, hey, maybe watching the franchise die is appropriate for a pair of titles where you’re encouraged to kill Dracula about 17,000 different times. That dude can’t reincarnate forever!

FGC #495 Castlevania Judgment

  • Get 'emSystem: Nintendo Wii. This means it is technically also playable on the WiiU, but it was never officially ported to any other system due to, ya know, the embarrassment.
  • Number of players: If they’re fighting, they’re coming in twos.
  • Favorite Fighter: There’s no doubt about it, Maria Renard is a beast. I don’t care if she’s a 15 year old acting like a six year old and is mostly doing her damage through a particularly superb owl, she’s simply the best. And in this game where everyone looks like they spent a little too much time at Hot Topic, I’m also very happy to see that much pink.
  • Your Mileage May Vary: One big problem a number of people had with Judgment is that it includes characters from time periods divorced from their initial, iconic introductions. Sypha is a fledgling sorceress that has never encountered Alucard, Maria is a petulant teenager obsessed with “maturity”, and Bloodlines’ Eric is a petulant brat. This is a far cry from how these heroes act in their source material. However, I’m all for it, as I am a firm believer that people change over the years, and, sure, the stoic and dedicated “Wind” may have been a bit of a pissant when he was a kid. Who wasn’t? For anyone curious, this is basically a reverse “Cranky Old Man Luke Skywalker” syndrome, and I’m okay with it.
  • Why is this happening: It turns out that the whole plot of Judgment is the result of the evil plans of Galamoth, the future tyrant dinosaur wizard that cannot deal with Dracula being more powerful than a tyrannosaurus. This means that, ultimately, this title is another spinoff of Kid Dracula.
  • What’s in a name: Judgment only has one “e” in it.
  • Superb OwlDid you know? Of the default, non-DLC, non-needs-another-game-to-unlock characters, only Alucard appears as playable in both Judgment and Harmony of Despair. Shanoa joins Judgment if you connect Order of Ecclesia, and Maria and Simon both were added to C:HD as DLC, but only Alucard is there in both from the beginning. And he’s not even a Belmont!
  • Would I play again: I have a certain macabre fascination with this title. I don’t hate it… but I’m not really anxious to play it again. I like thinking about it, though!

FGC #495 Castlevania: Harmony of Despair

  • System: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. The Playstation 3 version has local multiplayer, but the Xbox 360 version can be played on the Xbox One, so one might be more available than the other.
  • ZOOM!Number of players: Six. That… rarely happens.
  • Favorite Character: Shanoa if we’re talking about the default cast, but Yoko Belnades if we’re including DLC. What? I guess I enjoy dark magician girls.
  • Your Mileage May Vary: The “grinding” nature of Harmony of Despair and its rare boss drops is rather unpleasant. If you want the best gear, you’re going to repeat the same levels over and over, and there’s never anything fun about that. But then again, the whole point is to play these levels repeatedly to get better “scores”… so maybe this is a good thing?
  • But the DLC level that is just the entirely of Castlevania 1 as one complete map is the best, right? Oh, absolutely.
  • Love that castleDid you know? Even if he’s only 8-bit, with his double jump, slide, and collection of subweapons, Simon Belmont in Harmony of Despair is actually the closest he’ll ever be to his eventual incarnation in Super Smash Bros Ultimate. Granted, he’s still mostly just copying Richter… but it works!
  • Would I play again: Man, it sure would be nice to get an online gang together to raid Dracula’s castle again. You definitely lose something when you’re playing this game alone, but just revisiting it for this article reminded me how fun the whole experience could be. I’m sure I’ll be stalking those halls again soon enough…

What’s next? Let’s see what happens when two entire games ram straight into each other. Please look forward to it!

This is what Konami wants

MKK: D’Vorah

And now it’s time for an autobiographical story no one asked for. I get one per project, and it’s happening now.

Time for some religion

I mentioned before (at the end of a Let’s Play that covered three separate videogames and took nearly two years) that I used to work at a church during my high school years. To be clear, this is likely not what you would immediately picture as “a church”, its form and function was more akin to a Non-Denominational Christian Convention Center. During the summer, there would be a different speaker every week, and, in general, these speakers were people that were nationally known and drew crowds that topped out around 1,300 people. It was, definitively, not your typical church.

Now, a church of that size requires a large staff. Not just for the religious services, but also for “little things” like grounds keeping, custodial services, and even rudimentary office work. And, since this was a church (“church”) that prided itself on helping out the community in uncommon ways, the staff for these tasks was mostly teenagers. There was an adult management group, but the personnel for this whole operation was easily about 80% teenagers mostly originating from the two local high schools. And, since the church dedicatedly paid slightly better than minimum wage, it wasn’t a bad job for someone that might otherwise be stuck working at Jimmy’s All-Nite Chiken ‘n Taters.

Of course, this was still a church, so the majority of kids working there came from one of two circumstances:

1. Their parents thought they were godless, irredeemable sinners, so go get a job at a church, maybe they’ll straighten you out.
2. Their parents were overly zealous, dedicated Christians, and getting a job at a faceless, godless company would ruin their faith forever. How about you work with Men of God at a church?

Now, I want to be clear here that, should anyone reading this be a parent thinking about sending their child to work at a church for either of the above reasons, neither option up there actually works. The “bad kids” pal around with the bad kids, and they network to learn new and exciting ways to deceive their parents so they can get back to doing the drugs and the sexes. And the Flanders children? Well, you really want someone to lose their faith, send them to a dedicated Christian job or Christian University. They’ll thus inevitably see exactly how the sausage of souls is made, and likely lose their faith for a solid month or two while they reconcile how a Cardinal can house an entire bagel tray while people starve outside in the cold.

But, then again, that isn’t how it worked out for Kevin.

Time for some religion

Kevin is someone I still speak to, and he kind of has a public job, so I’m using a pseudonym. I also, now twenty years later, know how Kevin has turned out. He’s a kindergarten teacher. I’m pretty sure he was going to be a kindergarten teacher from the time he was in kindergarten. He has that exact personality, and I don’t know how else to describe it as “he’s Mr. Rogers” (I should have just called him Roger, dammit…). He is nice, caring, and unerringly patient. I’m certain he is always going to be this way, and, ultimately, always has been this way. We need more Kevins in this world.

However, this kind of personality is rather undesirable when you’re a teenager that is working at a church where you’re one of the “dedicated Christian” kids, and you’re dealing with other teenagers that are, ya know, teenagers.

One other thing that went on at this church was the “guest list”. This was still back in the day before cheap (“cheap”) tablets and computers being used for public data entry, so, every week, the “congregation” at this church “signed in” by hand with as much information as they wanted to provide. A lot of people simply wrote their names, but many more people actually listed their full addresses. This church drew people from coast to coast, so there was no small amount of bragging involved if you happened to travel literal days to see one speaker. Additionally, as everyone knew, if you signed in with your address, you’d receive mailings of brochures for upcoming speakers (very important in the time before reliable website schedules), and, of course, the occasional request for donations. As these donations were central to the church, it was the responsibility of the teenage office staff to spend the whole week typing these handwritten addresses into the church’s unwieldy database. This was a gigantic job, and if you want to guess the name of the geek that earned his first official job in tech converting this database into a format that wouldn’t stop functioning as of Y2K, feel free. It starts with “Goggle”.

Time for some religion

Of course, anyone that has dealt with teenagers and hand-written data entry knows that you need more than a few safeguards to confirm the job is actually getting done. For the congregation, there was never any obvious check mark for whether a person was already in the database (aka someone had visited and provided their address before), so it wasn’t unusual to see someone tossing entire reams of paper in the trash without entering a single name “because they’re already in there”. Hell, you could “finish” this job and get back to smoking behind the sanctuary by claiming literally everyone was already in the database. And you’d never know if your dedicated employee was even reading the pages before declaring them done. So, just for giggles, it was determined that the more senior staff would write in “fake” entries. This was something that was already happening thanks to some random funny (“funny”) guests that had visited the church, so it wouldn’t upset the apple cart to throw in a few ringer names. Basically, on a few pages every Sunday, amongst the other names, we’d scribble down “Seymour Butts” or alike, and let that sink into the pile. If someone doing data entry that week mentioned “Ha ha, someone wrote down this funny name” to someone else in the office, you knew they were actually reading these sheets. And, while some “funny names” would inevitably be missed or ignored, you had a pretty good handle on whether or not someone was paying attention if they literally never acknowledged the fake names.

Kevin was frequently on data entry. Kevin, according to available evidence, read all of the names. Kevin usually mentioned the fake names, chuckled, and then moved on. But one day, Kevin read one of my fake names, and absolutely freaked out. It wasn’t intended to be a particularly clever fake “name”, it was simply a thought that crossed my mind while I was trying to think of something creative, and I scribbled it down haphazardly one unexceptional Sunday morning. Most of the staff relied on something vulgar for this exercise, I went for the absurd. Kevin wasn’t a complete babe in the woods, he could deal with general offensiveness, but, in this case, I managed to so squarely hit on a phobia that I apparently traumatized Kevin to his core. He immediately needed to be consoled, and, even though he rationally knew this was a deliberately ridiculous entry, it still disturbed him to the point that, even to this day, I feel bad about shaking him to such a degree. Kevin was and is a good guy, I’m still sorry that this bit of nonsense ruined his day.

That fake “name”?

10,000 Angry Bugs in a Human Costume.

… What? I was in church! It put me in a Hellraiser mood!

Bugs!

So I’m not saying Ed Boon is stealing my ideas from twenty years ago (he certainly stole my quarters from that era), but D’Vorah is 10,000 angry bugs in a human costume. That’s her whole deal. She’s a scary bug lady, and I hope Kevin stays far away from the Mortal Kombat franchise.

If you want further details, D’Vorah is the new generation of Tanya, as she always backs the big bad/loser of the game. She betrays Kotal Kahn for Shinnok in MKX, and she betrays Shao Kahn for Kronika in MK11. Other than that, her significant contribution to the plot is earning one of the best, “real” kill kounts in the MK franchise, as she permanently killed “present” Baraka in MKX and “present” Scorpion in MK11… though both of their past versions are alive (“alive” for Scorpion) in MK11. At least Mileena stayed dead!

But she’s mostly just a professional henchman (woman) that is 10,000 angry bugs in a human costume, so… uh… Sorry for the nightmares, Kevin.

Next time: Kotal’s buddies that don’t have anything to do with childhood trauma.