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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

FGC #493 Alien vs. Predator

Predator is gonna winNow let’s talk about the other kind of crossover.

Back in 1994, the concept of Ridley Scott’s xenomorph Alien fighting the Predator that menaced Arnold Schwarzenegger was a pretty hot commodity. We were still a decade away from the first Alien vs. Predator film, and… That’s what everybody wanted, right? Alien was a popular trilogy (I’m not being glib! It was only a trilogy in ’94!), and everyone fondly remembered Predator’s time in the jungle. These were movies that defined sci-fi features for a decade, so it would make sense that only a movie could contain the sheer enormity of their first encounter. Unfortunately, that showdown was going to have to wait, and, in the meantime, we had to content ourselves with comic books inspired by easily missable cameos in Danny Glover vehicles. But the early to mid 90’s is when things started to kick into high gear, as there was supposed to be a movie that never wound up materializing, so we at least got a novelization and videogame or two. And, hey, videogames are always great!

… Except when they’re on the Atari Jaguar. So we’re going to go ahead and ignore that game.

But Alien vs. Predator the arcade cabinet by Capcom was pretty boss, so we’re going to look at that one.

Little hot in hereAlien vs. Predator is superficially exactly what you would expect of any given franchise adapted into a quarter muncher for ’94. We’ve got seven levels filled with monsters and mooks that all have to be punched until they flicker off the screen. There are crates and barrels that must be pummeled until pizza comes out, and a powerup or two along the way that enhances your ability to punish pursuers. Every level ends with a boss, and, by the end, of course those “bosses” have become common enemies with unreasonable health bars. And, like some of the latter beat ‘em ups of the era, there’s a complete story, with text that changes according to your chosen hero, so there’s a tiny bit of replay value beyond seeing how differently everyone performs their jumpkick. It’s a beat ‘em up. It could be The Simpsons or The X-Men or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it’s Alien vs. Predator, so here are a few aliens instead of foot soldiers. They explode less. Have a fun time.

And, no matter the era, this is the crux of the problem with many crossover games: they’re only popular characters soldered onto whatever genre is available.

Back in the 90’s, it was the beat ‘em up. Shortly thereafter, it was kart-based racing. Nowadays, it seems every franchise gets a tactics game. It’s not Alien versus Predator, it’s Tekken vs. Mega Man. It’s Pokémon vs. Nobunaga. Even titles like Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games take their all-star, unmistakably varied casts and boil them down to “this one is slightly faster than that other one”. Waluigi can outrun Sonic the Hedgehog! This is the greatest injustice in the history of videogame canon! What is unique about the individual characters involved must be boiled down to little more than a collection of relevant stats. Why? Because it would take far too long to flesh out complete “moves” for every participant, and then balance those skills against every other character in this crossover. So when huge, bulky Bowser and small, nimble Diddy Kong settle their differences with kart-racing, their differences barely register.

WeeeeAnd, unfortunately, this seems to be the standard for many crossover games. Fantastic characters from multiple franchises might be interacting for the first time, but they all “play” exactly the same. And that, objectively, sucks! Videogames are unique in that they can define characters through not only motivations or physical design, but also through movements and “skills”. Mario jumps. Mega Man shoots. Sonic runs. If you smoosh all these characters together, you can either find a way that jumping is effective against shooting and jumping, or you can simply give them all jetpacks and claim it’s a jetpacking contest of champions and call it a day (obviously, I believe the next big gaming trend to be jetpack racing). It flattens all the exceptional protagonists involved into an identical, unremarkable blob. Basically, many crossover games take a wonderful dinner of roast turkey, curried chicken, and garlic shrimp, slap all the dishes into a blender, and serve up a humdrum banquet of hotdog milkshakes. Even with perfect ingredients, a hotdog is still a basic meat tube!

So here’s Alien versus Predator, one of the earliest crossover titles in gaming. It may not be a crossover title between strictly videogame-based characters, but it is a crossover between two huge franchises. And, even if we want to ignore how badly everyone wanted to see aliens and predators fight back in the 90’s, you could even consider Alien versus Predator a crossover between three franchises: Alien, Predator, and the surprisingly well-defined “90’s Capcom Aesthetic”. The two humans starring in Alien versus Predator could have been Final Fight characters (and one arguably swiftly inspired both Resident Evil and Street Fighter characters), and, give or take a gun-for-an-arm, they’d be comfortable in any other beat ‘em up in the Capcom stable. So how do these “three” franchises interact? Well, the aliens are the persistent enemies of the game… but they’re indistinguishable from typical beat ‘em up opponents in all ways save their iconic visual design. The “facehugger” alien babies even operate exactly like TMNT’s mousers! And the differences between the “unevolved” Capcom humans and their advanced Predator compatriots? Barely worth mentioning. Yes, there are variances in speed or skill between the four playable characters, and every fighter gets a unique weapon, and there are a handful of “subtle” differences amongst the cast in things like firearm-usage… but they’re essentially interchangeable. The entire point of the original Predator film was that humans are at a slight disadvantage when combating an alien threat that happens to have advanced weaponry and the ability to Unpleasantbecome completely invisible, but you’d never know there was such a gulf in capability from playing Alien versus Predator. Apparently Lt. Linn Kurosawa has a greater “skill” stat than either playable predator. Does that mean she’s a thousand times more skilled than ol’ Dutch? And why couldn’t Ripley punch her way across a xenomorph invasion? Was it just because her stats were too low for anyone to hear her scream?

Is Aliens versus Predator a fun arcade game? Of course it is. It’s one of the best beat ‘em ups out there, and it’s a genuine shame that it was not available for home play for decades (well, legally, at least). But is it a good crossover game? No. It irons out everything unique about the franchises involved, and offers a smooth, indistinct product that is indistinguishable from any other beat ‘em up of the day. The gameplay of AvP is great, but it is gameplay that could be featuring Captain Commando as easily as Predator Hunter. In the end, the very diverse stars of these very diverse franchises only add up to “look at that thar alien”.

And an entire generation of gaming crossovers followed suit.

And when that happens, whoever wins, we lose.

FGC #493 Alien vs. Predator

  • System: Initially only arcade, but now available for the Capcom Home Arcade. You know that one, right? It’s that “mini console” that looks like a giant Capcom logo/arcade stick? I’m sure it actually exists. I think I saw it in England one time.
  • Number of players: Three simultaneous players. Why they didn’t just allow for free reign with a full set of the four selectable characters is beyond me.
  • BraaaaainsFavorite Character: Predator Warrior is the obvious best, despite the clear disadvantage of deciding to bring a pointy stick to an alien fight. Linn Kurosawa gets second place for being nimble as hell. Predator Hunter and Major Dutch don’t even rank.
  • But Dutch is supposed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger with a gun arm, right? Oh yes. Certainly. That is the eventual governor of California running around and pounding aliens. I wonder if Arnold ever gets residuals for all the videogame characters that aped him for a solid two decades…
  • The beauty of Aliens: Thanks to the attendant franchise, this is one of those rare beat ‘em ups where you don’t fight a single “generic guy” until around the fourth level. It’s all aliens until you kill the queen, and they return again later when it’s revealed that the big secret of the story is that humans are breeding their own aliens. Who would have suspected that humans were the real aliens all along? Or… something.
  • The ugly of Aliens: Unfortunately, the flip side of the alien army is that the majority of the bosses are just “alien with a new skill”. Spitting alien. Hard-shelled alien. Make space great again alien. When the inevitable boss rush occurs during the final level, you can barely tell the big boys from the lil’ dudes.
  • Bonus Time: There is exactly one stage where you’re granted unlimited ammo, and are asked to gun down every last alien from the back of a moving truck. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. And now I want an AvP shootin’ game (not on the Jaguar).
  • Conventions of the genre: A predator eating hot pizza off the floor never gets old.
  • Bonus!Did you know? Lt. Linn Kurosawa likely inspired Ibuki from Street Fighter 3, who debuted three years later. There’s a distinct similarity in hairstyling there, and there’s also the minor fact that Ibuki has a classmate named Sarai Kurosawa. There might be a connection!
  • Would I play again: Hopefully this arcade game makes its way to modern consoles, as it would be an ideal budget beat ‘em up for the Switch or PS4. I would spend five dollars to play through this again with friends. Maybe even ten!

What’s next? Crossovers continue with another game featuring humans and aliens playing well together. Please look forward to it!

WRONG FRANCHISE

FGC #481 Mega Man ZX Advent

Have a mega timeI’m working on a theory here, and it’s that, despite the fact that Mega Man 9 is one of my favorite games and possibly one of the best Mega Man games ever, it also completely destroyed the Mega Man franchise.

And it all roots back to the history and evolution of Mega Man.

In 1987, there was Mega Man. The premiere of the Blue Bomber saw a robot that walks, jumps, and shoots. When he defeats a Robot Master, he gains that robot’s weapon, and can use it a limited number of times as an offensive option. This playstyle continued through the “Nintendo Years”, and saw six NES games and five Gameboy games. There were many pretenders to the Mega throne, but, by and large, Mega Man changed very little on the NES. A slide here, a mega buster there, but it all still went back to the same gameplay that was established in ’87.

In 1993, we were introduced to Mega Man X. X was, figuratively and literally, the newest model of Mega Man, and came with more than a few upgrades. He could dash. He could cling to walls. He felt more mobile than his stiff ancestor. And, on a very important but oft-ignored note, X could charge his robot master (now “Maverick”) weapons, and possessed an even greater ability mimic his opponents. Simple Mega Man would have never gained the invisibility of Sting Chameleon (Invisible Man?) from a fight, but X had the option to go incognito and fire off triple shots. Finally, “Mega Man” had an avenue to enjoy the more complicated Robot Masters that had been appearing since Wood Man first rained wicked leaves down on the battlefield.

Generations!1997’s Mega Man Legends was, unfortunately, an evolutionary dead-end for the franchise, but Mega Man X4 (released the same year) allowed a complete Zero to costar with X (he was technically playable in X3, but he was more prototype than man). The Mega Man franchise always put a particular emphasis on distance and how easily ol’ Mega could be defeated by simply bumping into an enemy, so it seemed only natural when the franchise went all in on a character that had more of an emphasis on close-range combat. And it was a change for Zero as much as anyone else! Zero used to be able to slash opponents from a distance with an armbuster and flying cut, but now he was limited to a sword’s length for combat. And it worked! Many preferred playing as the up close and personal Zero in X4 and future X titles, so it was little surprise when it was time for…

Mega Man Zero hit the scene in 2002. Once again, we had two evolutionary paths, with Mega Man Battle Network’s action/JRPG hybrid gameplay first emerging to great acclaim in 2001, and then Mega Man Zero curating the 2-D action a year later. MMZ could potentially be seen as a step back for the franchise, as singular Zero was technically more limited than X in his modular attacks, but, as the MMZ franchise evolved, Zero gained an arsenal that would put any other Mega Man to shame. And right from the beginning, it was clear that the point was never to give Zero another seventeen variations on Metal Blades, but create a smaller, tighter gameplay environment for an audience that had literally learned to walk alongside the little metal boy. Mega Man Zero’s Zero did not feel like the same upgrade we saw between Mega Man and Mega Man X, but it did offer a new, more intricate experience for the veteran Mega fan.

Seems familiar2006, four years (and ten games!) later, we received another two “sequel” franchises. Mega Man Star Force was our upgrade for Mega Man Battle Network, refining the basic gameplay and adding very important plot points about dinosaurs being killed by a lack of friendship. And, on the other side of the aisle, we got Mega Man ZX, the continuation of the Mega Man Zero franchise. In this world, the wars of Mega Man Zero eventually ended, and the heroes of that time were skinned alive and could now be worn like suits. Don’t worry! They’re still sentient “biometals”, so at least X, Zero, and all their frenemies can experience the joy/horror of being a fashion accessory for centuries! And the protagonist of Mega Man ZX watches their own personal Obi Wan die, which unlocks the ability to mega-merge the biometals of X of Z(ero). Thus, the titular Mega Man ZX is born, and they’ve got all the powers of Mega Man X and Zero. Finally! The lovers are united!

And, while the whole conceit of Mega Man ZX could have just been an excuse to give Zero a decent buster, the game really does feel like the conclusion of years of Mega Man and Zero games. Zero’s greatest strength was always its focused gameplay… but this left the hero feeling rather limited compared to his ancestors. Meanwhile, Mega Man had a thousand options for combat (or at least nine), but many of his adventures seemed overstuffed and… Sorry, the English language doesn’t yet have a phrase that translates to “too top spin-y”. But Mega Man ZX struck an excellent balance: the dedicated gameplay of the Zero franchise was here, but the options available to X were also fully integrated into every level. Mega Man ZX could “be”, essentially, Zero, or transform into a more mobile air-dasher. Or a water witch. Fireball bro. Cyber ninja. The hero’s got options! And each different form wasn’t just a matter of a slightly modified buster, they all offered unique mobility options, too. In a way, this is what was promised back in the ancient days of Rockman and his ability to mimic his opponents after a battle. Or maybe that’s just what was promised by Ruby Spears Mega Man…. Still! Whatever works!

And it must have worked well for somebody, because Mega Man ZX gained a sequel, Mega Man ZX Advent, the following year. And it advanced the Mega Man formula by being completely bonkers.

Kiss from a roseMega Man ZX Advent eschews the typical mega-sequel plan by ejecting its previous protagonist right out of the gate. What’s more, this isn’t even a situation wherein the “ZX biometal” is immediately passed to the next generation or some other similar narrative trick to explain sprite reuse. No, the hero/heroine of Mega Man ZX Advent initially acquires the A Biometal, granting them the ability to wholly copy any given biometal or pseudoroid. What does this mean? It means you can play as the bosses! No more “got a weapon” or “can play as ZX-H” or whatever, you can just straight up emulate any given boss in the game! And it doesn’t matter if the boss “is too big for most areas” or “doesn’t have legs”, you can just turn into that fish monster on land if you really want to! Worst comes to worst, you just lose a life, so don’t worry about it. You’ll figure out that being a gigantic alligator monster all the time isn’t the best choice eventually.

And, while it demolishes the tightness of Zero to make some sections of ZX Advent unerringly silly (“Quick! Turn into the twin cat-bears!”), what’s truly remarkable here is how much the player is trusted with these unwieldy toys. Mega Man Powered Up had been released the previous year, and it did its level best to make sure all of the playable Robot Masters were balanced and similar so Guts Man could (technically) conquer any challenge originally designed for Mega Man. There is no such equilibrium here: it’s a known fact that half the playable “party” cannot complete the game from beginning to end. Hell, a fraction of that group can barely even jump! But that doesn’t matter, because you can switch between forms at any time, and who needs to worry about whether Queenbee the Hymenopteroid can fit through a particular hallway? Just switch! The X button is right there! The ring menu means pausing the action isn’t too big of a deal, and you’ll be switching over to the appropriate pseudoroid with a few button presses.

And being able to cycle through a complete set of “Robot Masters” really felt like what Mega Man was always meant to be. Mega Man ZX Advent was the culmination of a full twenty years of Mega Man games.

And it turns out it really was the zenith of the franchise. There was nowhere to go but back.

The secret bonus of Mega Man ZX was the ability to play as Omega, the super-powered version of Zero that was supposed to be his original, unstoppable body (long story). The secret bonus of Mega Man ZX Advent was the ability to control Modal a (case sensitive), which…

Pew pew

Looks a little familiar.

Model a was clearly a deliberate move, as the next Mega Man title to come down the pike was Mega Man 9, a retro title released in 2008. After years of Mega Man upgrading to match the graphics of the day, this was the first Mega Man title to fully embrace the NES aesthetic, and return to (faux) 8-bits. This was the first Mega Man to not try to upgrade old titles to modern sensibilities (like Mega Man X Maverick Hunter or Mega Man Powered Up) but take gameplay back to older standards while offering new and interesting experiences. But, retro or not, Mega Man 9 was an excellent game, and, while it may not have featured a “modern” Mega Man, it was the type of experience that could only be produced by people with decades of experience in the genre.

Which is great, because Mega Man 9 was apparently the end of any experimentation in the franchise.

CHOMPSince the release of Mega Man 9, we’ve seen Mega Man 10 (another retro title) and Mega Man 11 (something a little more modern). Aside from that? Nothing. No Mega Man X, Mega Man ZX, or Mega Man Battle Network. No Mega Man: Ultra Plus or whatever could have been next for the franchise. Mega Man 9’s success seemed to cement the concept that gamers just want classic, unchanged Mega Man, and that’s what Capcom is going to keep cranking out. We’ve seen about seventeen different rereleases of Mega Man 3, but nary a peep about Mega Man Legends 3.

(And, yes, we could blame this all on Keiji Inafune, the godfather of Mega Man, leaving Capcom, but that ignores the fact that we have Mega Man 11, and it’s probable there is a reason Inafuking isn’t at Capcom anymore…)

Was Mega Man 9 a good game? Yes. Hell, it was amazing. By comparison, is Mega Man ZX Advent a bad game? Well, it’s not bad, but it is very sloppy compared to Mega Man 9 (or even Mega Man Zero 4). But it’s a lot of fun, and its experimental side is arguably what Mega Man fans have wanted all along. But since even more fans simply wanted good ol’ Mega Man, Mega Man 9 was the end of the franchise’s 20 years of experimentation. Mega Man 12 may be allowed to have a gimmick or two, but it better be the OG Mega Man, or it ain’t getting greenlit.

Mega Man 9 is my favorite game that murdered its own franchise’s creativity.

And Mega Man ZX Advent is my favorite game where you can play as Bifrost the Crocoroid.

FGC #481 Mega Man ZX Advent

  • System: Nintendo DS initially, and now available for PS4/Switch via the Mega Man Zero/ZX Collection. This game was actually chosen by Random ROB a while ago, but I decided to hold off for the modern collection. And it’s good!
  • Rock out!So you spent an entire article bitching how Capcom ignores the experimental Mega Man titles, and they just released one of the experimental Mega Man titles? Yes. Shut-up.
  • Number of players: Grey or Ashe, but only one at a time.
  • Favorite Pseudoroid: Vulturon the Condoroid is a heavy metal vulture that summons robot zombies and flies through the air strumming his murderous electric guitar. Just… just how are you supposed to compete with that? Block Man can’t touch that with a ten foot block.
  • Second Runner-Up: But all of the pseudoroids are amazing in this game. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just phone in a number of Robot Masters that are all basic variations on a theme (like the Guardian Quartet), but we’ve got giant bees dragging around enormous hives and twin dog monsters and Metal Sonic and… Well, the list goes on for a while.
  • Say something mean: The empty rooms that can be uncovered but won’t activate until you speak to the right random Ranger to initiate a sidequest are the absolute worst. The fact that there are like 50 “golden skulltula”-style monsters to hunt down, and the quest giver is tucked away in one of the final levels is somehow even beyond the absolute worst. Some kind of… Mega Worst.
  • An end: Complete with the secret ending, the finale of Mega Man ZX Advent sets up a sequel featuring evil biometals, a turncoat leader, and an uncertain future that we know will culminate with Tron Bonne running around a sunken world. But what happens next? Who knows! Like Mega Man Legends, this branch of the Mega Man franchise never made it to a full trilogy, so here we sit waiting for more.
  • BUZZ!Did you know? Chronoforce the Xiphosuroid, the horseshoe crab-looking pseudoroid that can control time, is named for the Xiphosura order, which includes the Tachypleus tridentatus aka kabutogani. And that’s where we get the name for the Pokémon, kabuto.
  • Would I play again: Did I mention I like playing as the giant crocodile monster? Because I very much enjoy playing as the giant crocodile monster.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gradius V for the Playstation 2! Keep your options open, Vic! Please look forward to it!