Tag Archives: zombies

FGC #574 Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection

Here they come!This was either the absolute perfect time to release Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection, or the absolute worst.

Yes, folks, we’re going to talk about COVID, the past year, and probably squeeze some ghouls ‘n ghosts in there, too.

Let’s pretend this article is actually about the title matter, though, and address Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection. It’s a Ghosts ‘n Gobilins game! In the year 2021! And it is a 2-D “old school” title like its forebearers! No 3-D Maximo for this Arthur! And, in a lot of ways, it follows the Contra 4 model of being “the most Ghosts ‘n Goblins”. Yes, there is new content across this latest Demon Realm, but it’s hard to point at any one thing and not see how it is a precise evolution of something that existed in a previous G ‘n G title. As an easy example: all of the bosses are foes Arthur has faced before, but they all have new patterns, so they are effectively new challenges wearing old skins. Same for the many venues Arthur must traverse, and the surprisingly high number of demon stomachs he is going to have to trudge through. Technically there is nothing and everything new here, and it’s a fun time for G ‘n G fans old and new.

But you don’t play a G ‘n G game for the scenic vistas, you play for the challenge. And does Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection challenge the player? Hell yes. GnGR leans completely into the challenging spectacle of previous G ‘n G titles, and even seems to ascend to the level of “masocore” that is usually only reserved for Super Mario Maker stages made by sexual deviants (you heard me, you maniacs!). In fact, it is possible that GnGR focuses too hard on difficulty, because there is a definite feeling that the “flow” of previous titles has been forsaken for checkpoint-based mini challenges. This title does not contain anything as dramatically epic as Super Ghouls’ second stage, so it is hard to escape the impression that the game was designed around a difficult-and-escalating series of “challenge areas”, not a cohesive Demon World. Or, put another way, for reasons that will never make any sense, there is the boss of a stage that is a deteriorating stone dragon, and then you must progress through a series of stone dragon riding challenges in the next stage. Wouldn’t the previous boss be Let's run!an excellent capper to that area that contains nothing but its brethren? Yes! But then the difficulty curve would arc in the wrong direction, and we cannot have that. Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection is about the challenge, so everything about its world is about the challenge first and foremost. You are playing a Ghosts ‘n Goblins game, over everything else, you should be worried about maintaining careful offensive with continual defense.

And constantly dodging everything in a concentrated, eternal effort to survive? Yeah, that’s been this last year in a nutshell.

I’m not writing this article for right now. I’m writing this essay so I don’t forget what 2020 has been. I’m writing this article so I can remind myself what has happened. I’m writing this for future generations trying to understand why there are millions of weirdos that act bizarre because “oh, they lived through COVID”. If you’re reading this in the Spring of 2021, shortly after GnGR’s release, then this is all going to be something you are inordinately familiar with. And that “something”? It’s that life has been impossible for the last year.

While it is still fresh in my mind and not polluted by nostalgia, here is the arc of the last year or so. As of New Year’s Day, 2020, I was celebrating in Athens, Greece on a European trip that my (now) wife had planned for our vacation. At the time, there were news reports that China had some kind of weird virus thing going on, and, by the tone of the reports, they were trying to contain it by setting up concentration camps. Ha ha! Weird, backwards China is stomping all over the rights of its citizens because they can’t keep a virus under control. And here I am, exploring the Parthenon with thousands of other tourists, and petting strange cats I found on the street. Hey, babe, it’s okay, I’m not going to get worms, I’ll wash my hands eventually.

We eventually came back to the States, and I formally asked the love of my life to marry me. That was the final day of February (Leap Day!), and there wasn’t much of a question as to whether she would agree to the arrangement, as we had already literally set the date a month prior (we travel backwards through time on occasion).Slashy slashy 11/20/20 was chosen because the numbers looked cool. Sweet! We proceeded to have a rockin’ engagement bash thrown by our friends, and we were partying like Gatsby. Things were looking up, and I’m pretty sure we hadn’t heard about that virus from another continent since January. Is that thing still around?

And then we hit March. It is remarkable, in retrospect, how quickly things changed. On what was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, many bars were not only 100% open and operating, but they had all sorts of “special” drinks that mocked the current situation and recommendations. Would you care for a quarantini? Or a maskgarita? COVID was considered little more than a punchline, and, while the locals were well aware that New York City was already suffering, nobody thought to consider that a virus ravaging an area a short car ride away would actually impact the local population.

And then we hit real quarantine. Offices hastily closing and frantically switching to “remote” setups. Retail businesses randomly declaring themselves essential because they sold absolutely critical items, like Funko Pops. And a deluge of information that may or may not have ever been correct. Masks were either essential or a silly precaution only employed by the most germophobic nerds. What could qualify as a mask? A scarf? A bandana? A banana? Whatever. And don’t touch anything! Or maybe do, but use hand sanitizer constantly! Assuming you can buy it at all, because it has been sold out for weeks! And speaking of shopping, leave your groceries in the garage for three days, because apparently they need to die, venture through the underworld, and then be reborn on the third day in order to be cleansed of all impurities. It was a weird time! You practically had to have a score card to determine whether someone wearing a facemask while bicycling was either the biggest dork on the planet, or a person that was infinitely more responsible than your average plebian.

WeeeeeBut it was all in pursuit of one thing: nobody wanted to get sick. The Corona Virus was reported as deadly from day one, and even people that claimed it was little more than “a big flu” knew they didn’t want to get sick, regardless of survivability. As more data was released regarding how ‘rona could impact the lungs of even a healthy person in unprecedented ways, it was confirmed that this was a virus that was more than just a week or two in bed. So we all did the only thing we could: we dodged. We followed the rules. We stayed home. If we went outside, we avoided other people. We went shopping as little as possible, and (if at all possible), during less crowded hours. We touched nothing. We hugged nothing. We spent all day, every day either “hiding” in quarantine, or venturing out only when it was possible to assess the value of every last action, and whether it was “worth it” to get the ‘rona because you had to go out for more paper towels. You want to die for that Taco Bell run? Be my guest. I’ll attend your funeral on Zoom.

And I’m not even going to consider the number of people that had to make that decision for the purpose of continuing to have an income. My wife and I both were fortunate enough to be in positions where we simply changed tracks to remote working (gee, that “switch” sounds so easy now), but so many people were forced into situations wherein they literally had to risk their lives so more fortunate folks could have food or healthcare. And this is to say nothing of people who had no choice but to risk their wellbeing for their family or friends that required their presence. I took up a job as a Legend of Zelda NPC, and walked around the neighborhood, dropping off supplies and food at the front door of my parents. But I am (again) lucky that any of the older folks in my life did not need constant care, nor did they require me to physically be there (potentially with an “outside the bubble” health aide involved, too). We threw around the term “heroes” a lot during the start of the pandemic, because it genuinely did seem heroic to risk your own lungs to help another, whether that be through produce stocking or helping an older person get upstairs.

RiitBut, as this life of dodging everything wore on, an important question began to surface: when can we have fun bbagain? And, as alluded to earlier, this presented a difficult question in my own life: when am I going to get married?

Our original wedding date was November 20, 2020. That sounded cool an’ all, but by the time we were finally able to meet with “the venue” in June, that already seemed dangerously optimistic. What had initially been a two week quarantine was still going strong come Summer. Some fragments of normalcy had begun to return (the only reason that we were meeting in June was because hotels had just been allowed to legally reopen), but we were still nervous about setting any concrete plans for November. It would be one thing to plan a wedding if it was a simple affair, but at the point you have to make decisions about booking a DJ, you want to know that your deposit is not going to go to waste. So, as of June 2020, we made the decision to push the wedding out to March of 2021. Surely “one year later” would give the world enough time to recover from all of this nonsense. Surely putting some money down on March being a good time would be a safe bet.

Lord, typing this in March of 2021 makes me wonder how I was ever so stupid.

In all honesty, I do not remember exactly when we determined we would go back to the November 20th date. I know a significant factor was determining that there would be no way in hell that allowing my wife’s family to fly in November or March would be a good idea, but I am not certain when that information was first evident. Regardless, we decided to reinstate the wedding on November 20, and plan for what would be (in my wife’s own words) “the most expensive backyard BBQ ever”. It would be outside. The guest list would only include local people that we were generally already interacting with at that point anyway (aka a lot of coworkers). We would pray for a sunny day, and hope for the best with… everything.

Hot stuffAnd if I thought life was nothing but dodging before, planning a wedding with the looming threat of coronavirus and its attendant issues was its own, zombie-deluge level challenge. Not only was there the general fear that the wedding cake or dress might not be available due to a local outbreak, there was also the hazard that a government could, at any moment, essentially make our wedding illegal. Okay, we vowed that the actual wedding ceremony would happen one way or another (if every participant had to be on a stream, so be it), but the actual reception was the tough nut to crack. We wanted to celebrate our union! We wanted to at least have the appearance of a normal wedding (albeit one without hugs)! We wanted to have some goldarned pigs in a blanket, dammit!

Spoilers: our extremely limited backyard BBQ of a wedding reception did go off without a hitch. The dress was there, the cake was there, and, more importantly than all of that, literally no one got sick as a result of our wedding. We did everything right, apparently, and the small enclave of our friends and family that attended had a good time and did not contract a deadly disease. It was everything we could ever hope for, given the circumstances.

And when I think of what could have happened, I am still shaken by what I could have done.

I do not know what I would have done if I had been showing some kind of symptoms shortly before the wedding. Or, I suppose if I’m being completely honest, I think I do know what I would have done. I think I would have gone forward with the wedding. If I knew I had coronavirus, if I outright tested positive, I know I would have cancelled everything. But if I “just” had a strong headache, a less responsive sense of smell, or was just kind of generally sneezing more? And I did not have enough time to get the results of a (presumably rapid) test? I probably would have gone forward with the wedding as planned. Hey, everybody gets an upset stomach before their wedding, right? It’s probably nothing! Why should I cancel the months of planning and disappoint all those happy guests with a no-show groom? Why not endanger the lives of everyone I know and care about for a chance at some decent cake?

Bad timesAnd it is freaking horrifying knowing that it is possible you could do that. It would have been difficult to cancel the wedding and its attendant features so close to the event, so I probably would have gone ahead and allowed people to be infected because to do otherwise would be a hassle. But I did not have to make that decision, and I possibly would have made the right decision (just reschedule, you absolute asshole). And, relatedly, it is equally horrifying to know that anyone else could be in that same situation, and making the same wrong decision. And infecting everyone around them. And spreading a deadly virus even further. And all in the name of getting those little eggroll things that only seem to exist at catered events. Acknowledge how you must multiply all of these potentials for virus transmission by your entire life and everywhere you have to be just to survive, and life becomes a gauntlet of dodging, dodging, dodging. Anyone could have made selfish decisions. Anyone could have made well-meaning decisions to help others, but wound up infected as a result. Anyone could be a threat to you, your family, and everyone you know. And it takes little more than a sneeze…

And that has been life for the last year. That’s the gameplay of Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection. Dodge, dodge, dodge and hope you don’t make the wrong jump into an abyss. Hope you have the right equipment for all the challenges you’ll face. Hope you don’t have to make a terrible choice because of the sheer randomness of what is happening. In much the same way an hour and a half flew by while I fought the same boss over and over, a year has now gone by while I spent all of my spare mental energy trying to determine if it is safe to deal with some jerk that seems to genuinely believe it is safe to go see Tenant. We have all spent the last year dodging assaults from all possible directions. We’ve all spent a year playing Ghost ‘n Goblins Resurrection.

But, end of the day, at least I can say I beat Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection. And we’ll find all the shadow orbs in this pandemic, too.

FGC #574 Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection

  • This sucksSystem: Seems like we’re only looking at Nintendo Switch at the moment.
  • Number of players: Arthur is a single hero kind of guy, but he can get assistance from a second “assistant” player. But that’s cheating!
  • Get those upgrades: Holy cow, Gold Armor is a game-changer. And I would not have ever known if not for the skill unlock system eventually leading to an “armor powerup” spell. Yes, it takes forever to charge, but being able to start from practically any checkpoint with a gold armor powerup is amazing. It well and truly makes GnGR one of those games that frontloads the difficulty, and things get a lot easier as you level up.
  • Favorite Weapon: Gold Armor-Crossbow is practically Contra’s Spread Gun, and it can fell a Red Arremer on its charge in a single shot. I liked being able to sling arrows already, guys, you didn’t have to sweeten the deal that much.
  • Favorite Boss: I like me some flamin’ devil dogs. Fire Cerberus? Whatever that puppy happens to be called, he’s my favorite boss, as he is pure G ‘n G in a nutshell. The whole thing seems impossible at first, and there is always a level of randomness, but you can overcome if you figure out the patterns and tells. Or you have that golden arrow thing, too. Whatever works.
  • Step into the Shadows: I was expecting the “second run” of GnGR to be the typical “the real game starts now” wherein the stages are the same, just harder with additional traps and spawns. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the “shadow stages” are more or less entirely new challenges with familiar level layouts/graphics. Good on GnGR for “for real” doubling the length of the game, and not just including its own Very Hard mode.
  • ChompyDid you know? Satan appears as the third boss (or fifth, if you are completing all the stages). There are (many!) demons that stand above Satan in this universe. And that reminds me: despite being Satan, the big guy rarely gets to star as a final boss. Any games you can think of where straight up named-Satan is the finale, and not some random fallen angel (ala Lucifer)?
  • Would I play again: Like a Mega Man X title, it is genuinely fun to replay earlier stages with a complete set of upgrades. And it is challenging-fun to play the game without a precise loadout. So I’m probably going to play the game with one of those choices. … But never both.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Big Bird’s Egg Catch for the Atari 2600. We’re going from 2021 to 1983! Please look forward to it!

These dorks

FGC #555 Dead Rising 4 (Frank’s Big Package)

Frank West is a consumer whore.

Dead Rising (1) is a videogame that, arguably, is wholly unique in the history of gaming. It’s a Capcom title, and, given the pedigree, it should not be surprising that it superficially appears to be a continuation of the Final Fight-esque beat ‘em genre. There are hundreds of thousands of zombies to clobber, and, like in Haggar’s trek across his beloved city, there are going to be a lot of haymakers from one side of the screen to the other. But calling Dead Rising a beat ‘em up is extremely reductive, as there are those precious JRPG elements that were all the rage at the turn of the millennium. Frank is a scavenger, and you better believe he learns new and interesting ways to beat back the hordes while carefully managing the resources littering his immediate area (even if the sheer number of meats hanging around is a bit Metro City-esque again). But it’s somehow even more complicated than that, as the hard timer on the plot and various requirements cause Dead Rising to border on rogue-like territory. You’ll never beat this game optimally without some knowledge from prior deaths! And this was all sold on a marketing campaign that leaned heavily on the “look how many monsters are on the screen” thing. And, while this was indeed a remarkable accomplishment for the new Xbox 360 and the future of its gaming generation, it wound up being one of the least impressive segments of Dead Rising’s many accomplishments. Dead Rising is a game’s game, with so much to enjoy, conquer, and just plain do. And persistent references to Mega Man Legends weren’t bad, either…

Wreck the mallsAnd, of course, no discussion of Dead Rising would be complete without noting its well-worn plot. Tell me if you have heard this one before: Frank West is an “everyman” journalist that inadvertently gets caught up in a zombie outbreak that takes place at a gigantic mall. Frank must survive not only the zombies, but also other survivors that maybe aren’t coping in the healthiest of ways. Yes, give or take some extended lore that tells the full story of the origin of this outbreak, we’ve got Romero’s Dawn of the Dead here, right down to helicoptering into a mall “sanctuary”. And, to be absolutely clear, that’s perfectly fine! Donkey Kong is legally distinct from King Kong, and Dead Rising is allowed to liberally borrow a few elements from the grandpappy of all zombie movies. And, in both cases, it seems the main venue of the mall is important: there is a bit of commentary on the fact that the “mindless hordes” are obsessed with “stuff” (brains/supplies), and malls were the meccas of brainless entertainment for years and years. And, in both stories, any conflict that isn’t caused by the “force of nature” zombies is inevitably the result of survivors that snap and give in to their desires. It doesn’t matter if that desire is “want to live without revealing an infected wound” or “I need some mutton”, struggle and death is the result of these selfish actions. A mall might be a simple place to fight over bargains in our mundane world, but, in a zombie invasion, that same war is escalated to literally deadly levels. And, even if our heroes may be cantankerous and aggravating, they win and succeed as best they can because they do not give into their baser desires. Frank West and Peter alike avoid suicidal bad endings because they ignore the temptations of the world and do their best, despite their situations not being anywhere near “best”.

And then there’s Dead Rising 4’s Frank West. That Frank West is just going to have fun with it.

Gonna get itDead Rising 4 apparently started production as Dead Rising 1: Remake. This makes a certain amount of sense, as Dead Rising 2 focused on a wholly different character and setting, and Dead Rising 3 did much the same. Yet, through all of that, Frank West was regarded as the hero of the franchise, despite now canonically being an “old man” of about fifty (fifteen years happened over those plots!) who only pops in for the occasional DLC. A Dead Rising reboot could bring the franchise back to its more famous roots, and, bonus, you wouldn’t have to worry about that whole “whoops, we cured zombieism” issue that popped up in the later games. However, that reboot didn’t actually come to fruition, and Dead Rising 4 became a game that simply looked a lot like Dead Rising 1. Here’s the same town again. Here’s the same hero again. Here’s the exact same premise again. Throw in a terrible helicopter ride, and, yes, this might be Dead Rising: Fifteen Years Later, but it is certainly unmistakably Dead Rising: All Over Again.

Actually, scratch that, Dead Rising 4 is nothing like Dead Rising. The plot and players might be the same, but Dead Rising 4 wholly eschews the “rogue-like” elements of its predecessor. There is no time limit, and the plot is going to barrel forward regardless of your inability to rescue a survivor or two. Absent the claustrophobia imposed by a timer, DR4 becomes an incredibly open experience. Couple that with adopting Dead Rising 3’s “town structure”, and “Dead Rising” practically becomes a wholly different genre. This is no longer a game that could be called “survival horror”, it is Grand Theft Auto with zombies. And that can be fun! GTA NPCs are practically indistinguishable from zombies even on their best day, and, if you’re driving down a street and mowing over pedestrians, they may as well be the walking dead. And Dead Rising has always been about collecting to a certain degree, so an entire abandoned city (abandoned by the living, at least) is ideal for grabbing random knickknacks. It actually makes more sense to loot an abandoned hotel room in an outbreak than randomly robbing places all over Liberty City!

ChillyAnd, for many players, this change in gameplay is an unequivocal check in the plus column. You could easily make the argument that Frank “unfettered” is the most fun way to play any Dead Rising, and isn’t that what you were always working towards in the previous games? That all-important “free play” reward you’d obtain for clearing all the stiff requirements of the “real” game? It’s just in reverse here, as the “old” gameplay was still available (eventually) as DLC. Hell, if you’re playing the game on the Playstation 4, you can skip right to that mode immediately. But for the many other players that simply want to have fun transforming zombies into putrid pudding, all you need is the ability to hit that start button, and you’re off to the (shambling) races. There’s a great big world out there, Frank West, go have fun with it.

But… should Frank be having fun? Should an entire zombie apocalypse be fun? You can count the surviving population of Willamette without clearing a hundred, so Frank is living through something approaching genocide. Given this outbreak hits at the start of Black Friday, the underlying tragedy of Dead Rising 4 is that the local populace was gearing up for a lovely holiday with their families, and are now collectively damned to be little more than a tick on Frank’s hit counter as he plows through on a bizarre lawnmower-bumper car combo. Frank is quipping all the way, the player is having fun earning experience points, and… Dawn of the Dead this ain’t. That movie is a bummer, man. And what was that about a mall being the height of greed and consumerism? You’re not going to find that here. In fact, Frank West freaking loves being a consumer.

Like a sharkDead Rising 4 is a stuff-based game. A dollar bill is useless in zombie society, but “scrap” becomes your new currency, and it is veritably indistinguishable from any other kind of zenny, gil, or cash. You can spend money at “shelters”, and, if you’re a good little Frank, you can rescue other survivors that will expand a shelter’s inventory. That’s right: your most coveted reward is the opportunity to buy more things. And even if you somehow don’t engage with this scrap-based economy, you’re going to need every last trinket and inexplicable Vega claw you can find. Weapons break frequently, and you’re always going to need to find something new to bash the hordes. But wait! There’s more! This limited time offer allows you to combine weapons and items into even better items, so having a spare dinosaur hat or Christmas decoration is always going to be appropriate, because you never know what might turn out to be the essential component of a 5-star weapon.

And, assuming you somehow were missing the central moral here, please take a look at how Willamette is shaped. There are safe areas. There are places where you are all but guaranteed to find a new weapon or snack. And you know what these places are? Stores. “Safe” Shelters are where you can purchase respite, and abandoned stores are where you are most likely to find that shiny new thing (to kill with). The message is 100% clear: consumerism is good, places you can spend money are the best, and you’ll never have any fun unless you accumulate as much as possible (And don’t even get me started on the ultimate weapon, an exo-suit, is the product of the military industrial complex). Frank West is greedy, but his greed is not going to impede his survival, only enrich it.

That’s a far cry from your usual zombie land lesson.

Dead Rising PresentsDead Rising 4 is not a bad game. Far from it! But in a franchise that previously did its best to be downright oppressive with limiting indulgent tendencies, having so much freedom right from the start neuters the message of Frank’s previous adventure. No longer do you have to carefully weigh the cost of time spent recovering that Servbot hat against saving a survivor’s expiring life force, now you can leisurely grab as much of this world as you want, anytime you want. Dead Rising 4 is a very different game from its predecessors, and, as a result, it undermines the original in more ways than one.

And, gee, I wonder if there’s a connection between this franchise descending into its uncritical love of consumerism and its omnipresent setting of Christmas…

… Nah, probably a coincidence.

FGC #555 Dead Rising 4 (Frank’s Big Package)

  • System: The OG was Xbox One exclusive, but it has migrated over to Playstation 4 (with DLC!) by now.
  • Number of players: There are some multiplayer extra modes/DLC, but the original is single player. I guess you have some options.
  • How about those expansions: Mini Golf and Multiplayer appear to be strictly… uh… multiplayer, so I’m not hitting those anytime soon. Frank Rising is the obvious continuation of the story and a pretty interesting concept (Frank is a zombie!), but it quickly just becomes a fairly rote rehash of recurring Dead Rising stories/gameplay (Frank is a zombie… but that just means he has a different standard moveset and can’t ever pick up a bat for some reason). Capcom Heroes, a mode where you can randomly utilize the moves of other Capcom “heroes”, seems like it would be right up my alley, but considering it’s tied to a complete play through of the entire game again… it’s really not a substitute for the real thing. Also, giving Ryu a chi grenade seems wrong somehow.
  • Favorite Combo Weapon: I am not immune to the siren’s call of “get as much junk as possible”. I am but a man! And I am a man that loves hacking down the zombie gangs with Sub-Zero’s signature ice sword. I naturally gravitate toward melee weapons in these games (because I can’t aim for a damn), and freezing everything in sight is a nice bonus for studying the blade.
  • I’m Rick James: Look, I know a lot of people complained about “Old Man” Frank West becoming virtually indistinguishable from Ash Williams of the Evil Dead franchise. And I can see how there is a clear parallel there in setting, situation, and mentality. And you know what? Who the hell cares! More characters should be like Ash Williams, because Ash Williams is awesome. I look forward to a Nintendo game wherein Mario has a chainsaw arm and boomstick.
  • Stupid soldiers: I’m not a big fan of the sheer number of times Frank gets shot. Could we stick to monsters that generally claw, jump, and maybe spit acid? That feels a little more…. normal for a zombie apocalypse.
  • HadoukenDid you know? The original Dead Rising was chastised for employing a font that was optimized for HD resolutions, and was practically unreadable on old, standard definition televisions. This problem indicates that Dead Rising was initially released billions of years ago, possibly before the extinction of the dinosaurs.
  • Would I play again: I might be rough on the general messaging of Dead Rising 4, but that’s just because I hate a society that is somehow based on “buy all our playsets and toys”. Once you get past that, this is a pretty fun game, and I would gladly stomp around Willamette again (with the aid of a flamethrower car). I have always enjoyed “free mode” in Dead Rising, so I’m not exactly upset I don’t have to micromanage Frank’s life to have a good time. I’ll be back in time for Christmas!

What’s next? Speaking of Christmas, we’re going to have a look at another Christmas adventure… uh… kinda. Check back on Christmas Day for some holiday hijinks! Please look forward to it!

Go Captain

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