Thursday, June 17, 2010

Abandon Hope, Part Deux: "Doom" Review

Film: Doom (no, you don’t have to typeset the movie in capitals. Nor does it deserve it)
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Genre: Sci-Fi / Horror
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karl Urban, Rosamund Pike
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Date: October 20th, 2005
Budget: $70 million

Y’know, I realize that it’s only been about a week since I tore into DOOM 3’s bloated carcass like a pack of starved hyenas…but after sitting through the Doom movie again, I almost feel like I owe it an apology. Yes, it’s trapped in the gameplay equivalent of a mid-life crisis, and aptly suffers for it, but even when it strays the farthest from the path, DOOM 3 at least can remember what DOOM should be about. It’s about Hell quite literally breaking loose. It’s about one man standing alone but unperturbed against a seemingly endless army of assailants. Strip away its vestigial features, and even DOOM 3 is about such things. What it is NOT is everything that Doom the movie IS; a molasses-slow soft-sci-fi tale with less respect for the integrity of the franchise than Jack Thompson. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason DOOM 4 hasn’t been released yet is because whatever little dignity that the series retained after this movie has locked itself up in the bathroom and refuses to come out until John Romero says he’s sorry.

Not an easy task. He’d rather make you his bitch.

Then again, it’s not like anyone should be surprised by the film’s poor quality. It is a video game movie, after all, a subgenre of cinema universally notorious for sucking more balls than Lindsay Lohan on a drinking binge. There are a number of theories as to why seemingly no one can create compelling movies out of beloved video games, but there’s two that really stick out in my mind as the root of the problem, both of which Doom demonstrates quite well. And the first of these is simple to understand: the makers of these films are lacking in appreciation. In a film adaption of any sort – but particularly the rabid, attentive, and critically-inclined fanbases of subcultures like video games – respect for the integrity of the source material is vital, and the lack of it is a death sentence. This should have been apparent a couple decades ago when some idiot decided that the best way to bring the universally-adored Mario Bros. to the silver-screen was to give them rocket boots and ray guns in order to battle subterranean dinosaurs. Hell, arguably the closest a video game movie has come to capturing the essence of the games themselves was the Silent Hill movie, and even that film missed the point so badly that merely mentioning it around Silent Hill purists (such as myself) induces more blinding fear and personalized pain than a trip to the Otherworld. Or maybe that was the point.

Pictured: the murder of Dennis Hopper’s career.

But Doom doesn’t even come close, and it knows it damn well. You don’t even need to see the movie to understand how loosely it grasps the basic tenants of the classic it’s based on, because even reading the bare-bones plot synopsis leaves the impression that a most vital component is missing. There is no Hell in the Doom movie. There is no Satan, no demons, not even zombies (well, not in the traditional sense, anyway). Every single reference to the occult and the damned – y’know, the basis for the ENTIRE CONFLICT OF THE GAMES – is siphoned out for theatres. It’s just about the least necessary and most confusing plot perversion I can think of. Why did they do this, to piss us off on purpose?! The film didn’t even intend to make the grab for a profitable PG-13 rating, so that certainly couldn’t have been the motivation. The only reason I see for why they would have done this was to avoid any potential controversy, at which point I have to ask: you guys do realize what made the first game so famous, right?

HINT: It wasn’t the fluffy bunnies.

So what’s the origin story for our flesh-eating monstrosities if Beezelbub is out of the picture? Well, fasten your seat belts and strap on your helmets, my beloved readers, because here comes a brand new crash course in stupidity.

In the film, as it turns out, Mars happened to be home to an ancient, advanced humanoid alien race; granted, this is a silly plot point that even DOOM 3 brought up every now and again with the Soul Cube malarkey, so we can let that bit slide. Unlike in the game, however, this species was essentially genetically identical to humanity, with one small twist: a synthesized 24th chromosome that granted them superhuman capabilities, including immunity from disease and the ability to heal from grievous wounds almost instantly. However, the chromosome is apparently attracted to unmapped centers of the genome which correspond to genetic indicators of both good and evil; people exhibiting a genetic predisposition for good retain their human traits, while the more psychotic and immoral individuals become transformed by the gene into mindless monsters who can, in turn, infect their victims with the chromosome. Inevitability, the Union Aerospace Corporation begins tampering with this 24th chromosome, and predictability, these genetically-enhanced mutants start a panic on the Martian facility.

You got all that? Good. Now, please take a moment to take out your repressed frustrations of idiocy-induced rage upon something other than your computer screen. Once finished, you may choose to continue reading, OR, because you should recognize by this point just how hopeless this movie really is, you can stop now and exit your browser before the remainder of your faith in the artistic spirit has evaporated. Just hit the little red X in the corner.

That one.

For those of you still with us…hoo-boy, where do we even begin to discuss how monumentally brainless this concept is? First of all, the idea of a gene being affected by ambiguous and conceptual establishments such as “good” or “evil” is astoundingly foolish, without question. Sorry. Secondly, I don’t know just how many of the writers working on this film passed any sort of biology class in high school, but they should all at least have a general understanding about how the human genome works. Chromosomes aren’t a fucking virus; they can’t be injected through a hypodermic needle, they can’t be passed on through fluid transfer (seriously, when was the last time you were bitten by a dog and had your DNA structure remapped?), and they sure as hell don’t cause mutations over the course of a few minutes. Thirdly, and perhaps most glaringly…uh, 24th chromosomes already exist, guys. Except those individuals with an added pair usually don’t inherit superhuman traits or transform into monsters. No, they usually end up with less cinematic and more legitimately horrifying conditions, like Trisomy 18, Trisomy 13, Down Syndrome, Triple X Syndrome, and Klinefelter's Syndrome, among others. Congratulations, makers of Doom, you’re all a bunch of insensitive dicks.

Of course, this pitiful revelation doesn’t fully unravel itself until much later in the movie, so the uninformed might hold out through the beginning in the false hope of seeing some kick-ass, demon-flavored action. Even so, you’ll probably have your hopes dashed in the first few seconds when you see a flock of bad actors…er, I mean scientists running around plasticine sets stolen from Ridley Scott’s backyard, trying to escape from some unimposing camera angles. Of course, this disaster calls for some backup, so the UAC calls in a troop of marines to quarantine the base, search for survivors, and retrieve their valuable property. You may notice that I said marines – as in more than one – and you may find that odd considering how you can count just how many notable human characters exist across all three major games of the series on one hand. Well, that just brings us to the second major reason why video game movies don’t work: because the two mediums are incompatible with one another.

A video game tells its story in a much different fashion from a movie. Because of the power of audience interactivity, you don’t need a large cast of characters nor long exchanges of dialogue to explain the plot; properly done, it is possible to tell winding and epic tales through a game even when no one is speaking, and at the player’s own pace, no less (the Silent Hill series, Portal, and Shadow of the Colossus are all great examples of this). Games like DOOM serve as an even more alarming revelation that games can remain entertaining even with little-to-no plot at all. Films, by contrast, cannot function this way. Transmuting a story (or lack thereof) intended to be told through a considerably less linear and structured medium towards a complete different format, as you might imagine, causes issues; it results in restructuring the essence of the narrative to the point of unrecognizability just so that it can fit onscreen. And there are few better examples of how devastating this transformation can be than the Doom movie.

So yes, there is now a cast of characters in the DOOM universe (if you can really still call it that). All you really need to know, however, is that one of the marines is played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and another is portrayed by the guy who played Eomer in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. Pretty much everyone else is a bit player destined to serve as an expositional dump truck or to be brutally murdered for our, ahem, amusement. The other soldiers are particularly unmemorable because they encompass almost every one-trait stereotype to be found in the ranks of cinematic military forces. The young, inexperienced rookie with the heart of gold? Check. The hollering adrenaline-filled warrior who treats lethal combat like a game? Check. The silent religious nutjob? Check. The asshole? Oh-ho-ho, you better believe that’s a check. Seriously, around the time this motley crew of clichés was boarding a dropship and exchanging insults with one another, I was starting to question whether or not I was actually watching Predator by mistake.

“C’mon guys, this pose will be great for the trailer!”

And perhaps I wouldn’t have been bothered so much by this if they had used the expanded cast to tell a compelling tale. But as we’ve established, DOOM never really had much of a story to begin with, and the aforementioned, blisteringly-idiotic changes they brought to it aren’t exactly enough to pad out the size of a feature length epic. So what exactly does our badass clique of heroes do when they arrive at the monster-ridden lab?

NOTHING! You get NOTHING! About 75% of the Doom experience is about watching these battle-hardened soldiers stumble about in the dark searching in vain for plotpoints and the occasional ineffective scare (oh yes, Doom thinks it's a horror film, isn't that cute?). Every now and again the agonizing boredom is punctuated by a line or two of mildly significant dialogue explaining the soft-science nightmare that is the plot, and the marines certainly are trigger-happy, riddling shadows with bullets at the drop of hat. But honest-to-God action sequences are few and far between, and everything in between serves as mind-numbingly dull filler. Do you want to know how long it takes before a marine is attacked by anything resembling a monster (slightly crazed zombie-like survivors not-withstanding)? 40 fucking minutes! Seriously! And even then you’ll be reeling from the abysmal special effects of the baddies far too hard to enjoy it. It’s like the filmmakers modeled their movie directly off of the complaints about DOOM 3, rather than the game itself.

In one of the more accurate scenes from the movie, The Rock wonders where the hell all of the duct tape is.

As if it wasn’t bad enough that the urgency of the story is slowed to a slug-like crawl right from the word go, it gets worse. The scenery, like I mentioned, seems pulled straight from Aliens or Blade Runner, only about 50 times less interesting. Compounding the problem, the laughably small number of sets and the poor, choppy editing leech all sense of scope from the UAC base; hell, we rarely even get a reminder that most of the action takes place on Mars, so the film practically feels like it’s taking place in a two-story house that forgot to pay the electric bill. Meanwhile, the script is pathetic, yet another symptom of converting a largely plotless game into theatric form. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I said that one of the marines tells another, “I gotta take a dump” without any sort of provocation, but yep, it happens. It’s even worse when, a few minutes later, that same marine drops his rifle’s magazine and spends about thirty seconds of the completely tensionless scene retrieving it…only to be killed for completely unrelated reasons a few seconds later. For goodness sake, the DOOM comic was better written than this!

OK, maybe that was a lie.

There are, of course, the few shameless occasions where the director throws a bone to the game’s fanbase in a futile attempt to keep their interest. As far divorced as the movie is from the game, it does sneak a reference or two in there. One of the scientists, for example, happens to be named Dr. Carmack, an obvious nod of the head towards id Software’s co-founder John Carmack. The Rock also happens to stumble upon the infamous BFG…although the movie attempts to retcon the weapon’s official name to “Bio-Force Gun”, it shoots a blue glob of caustic goo instead of a green irradiated explosive, and the only target he manages to hit with the damn thing is a group of unarmed civilians off-screen (seriously movie, fuck you). And course the monsters are pulled from the game’s roster, though thanks to the religiously-cleansed new background only about three different kinds show up, and they rarely do more than swipe at the marines for a bit before running away, lest there be any intense fight scenes in this movie.

And then there’s the famous POV section, Doom’s purported coup-de-grace. For about five minutes towards the end of the movie, we inhabit the first-person perspective of our protagonist as he trudges through corridors, blasting everything in sight. In all fairness, it’s probably the closest the movie ever comes to feeling like DOOM, but it’s all too little, too late. The cheesy special effects and shoddy camera work simply inhibit the effectiveness of the sequence, not to mention that it appears out of nowhere, has nothing to add to the story, and slows the build-up to the climax of the movie (which, if you can believe it, is essentially a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style fistfight. In a DOOM movie!). And apparently our good friends Mac and Bob were stationed at the UAC’s Ark complex as well, because during the sequence our hero stumbles upon not one, but TWO chainsaws lying about haphazardly in the research facility, one of which he uses to brutalize the Pinky demon (pretty much the only interesting monster design plucked from the games).

Well…at least it kind of LOOKS LIKE the game…the decade-old game…

Overall, it comes across as a rather desperate last-ditch effort to make the Doom label seem appropriate, even if it is the most interesting and action-packed scene of the whole thing. Here’s an idea, filmmakers: maybe the next time you want to attract movie-goers with a neat gimmick, maybe you should try to utilize it for most – or maybe even all – of your movie instead of just the last few minutes. It would be difficult, sure, but I guarantee you it would sell better than the bland, soulless turd you ended up making, and I can think of at least one other movie that pulled it off.

I never thought I’d see the day where I would reference one of my all-time favorite films in comparison to the Doom movie, but…there ya go. Maybe just watch this instead?

So that’s Doom, the movie: yet another forgettable relic to inscribe upon the pantheon of terrible video game adaptations. At least Uwe Boll movies are watchable with a big bag of popcorn, a group of friends with good taste, and a running MST3K-style commentary; by contrast, the only ways you can make fun of this movie just remind you how generic, inaccurate, and unnecessary it truly is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to wash my hands of this whole debacle by playing the first good ol’ DOOM. Those hell barons aren’t going to gib themselves!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here: "DOOM 3" Review

Game: DOOM 3 (Yes, you do have to capitalize the title consistently. It bugs me, too)
Platform: PC, Mac, Xbox
Genre: First-Person Shooter / Survival-Horror
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: August 3, 2004 (NA), August 13, 2004 (EU)
Players: 1 (2-4 online, though enterprising modders managed to boost this paltry number up to 16)

It’s been 17 years since the release of the very first DOOM, a game that arguably has a claim to being one of the most historically significant and influential of all time. Don’t believe me? Just think about everything DOOM did for the industry. It popularized and cemented the first-person shooter genre into gaming culture, so much so that most FPS’s for years afterward would be referred to as “DOOM clones”. It helped spark the fires of the violent video games controversy that lives on even to this day, no matter how often Joe Lieberman fails to secure a presidential nomination. It gave rise to the early days of video game piracy, back when torrents and file-sharing programs took the more primitive form of floppy disks swapped amongst kids in the back-alleys of school like an illegal drug. It was one of the first games to inspire a legitimate mod-making community, rife with unauthorized pop culture insertions from The Simpsons to Ghostbusters. And of course, it had that undeniably awesome theme music, one of the most iconic tunes in gaming history. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the original DOOM (and to a lesser extent, it’s sequel DOOM II) has a laundry list of milestones and achievements, and the industry owes it a debt that can never be truly repaid.

Ah, those were the days…

It’s been five years since the release of DOOM 3. And, it, umm… looked real nice at the time, I suppose. I, err…I guess that’s it, really.

OK, let’s be honest here, there’s not much more that the so-called third game in the series can do but look upon its glorious ancestor in awe-struck splendor. And considering the many degrees in which the FPS genre has evolved since 1993, for there to be no noteworthy hallmarks upon the résumé of this game is, quite frankly, rather pitiful. There have been multiple takes upon whether this truly diminishes the impact of the game, though; it was, indeed, given a strong reception upon initial release despite its lack of innovation. But personally, that’s not even what galls me about DOOM 3 the most (although that is most certainly a part of it). It’s that, somewhere in time, starting from the moment it began development to the moment it hit store shelves, DOOM 3 stopped being…well, DOOM.

The best part of DOOM 3. Yes, really.

I’m going to go out on a limb and proclaim that you might have played a video game or two at some point in your life. I’ll presume further that there’s a very good likelihood that, for reasons clearly iterated in the first paragraph of this review, the original DOOM may have been one of them. And if you’re the type of person who fancies themselves a “gamer”, then I sure hope that is the case; if not, then I would suggest doing so right this second before even considering using that term to describe yourself again. Seriously, right now. I’ll wait. This article isn’t going anywhere.

Okay, you finished? Good, now assuming once more that your memory hasn’t decayed to the point of complete incompetence, you almost certainly possess a grasp on what the DOOM experience is composed of. The very mention of the title should give rise to visions of speedily running about in mostly well-lit, occasionally open-ended areas swarming with fiendish, over-the-top-cartoony monsters. They stand between you and where you need to be…and they also happen to be standing on the receiving end of your shotgun. As the corpse pile up, shells are spent, and totally radical MIDI-ized metal riffs wail in the background, masking the screams of your fallen foes, you vaguely recall a brief mention of some kind of story that instills method to this madness. Then you immediately cease to care and continue your odyssey into pure, unmitigated violence against the forsaken hordes of Satan.

So upon booting up the DOOM 3 disk, a warning light should flicker on in your head when, right from the beginning of the game, it becomes apparent that it’s going to attempt to have a plot. It touts itself as a re-telling of the tale from the original game, but what was once a brief write-up translating in essence into “Hey, there be demons here. Go kills them.” now takes the form of extravagant cutscenes, featuring characters and dialogue when the need for such a thing clearly does not exist. Among the ranks of the game’s compelling cast are a doctor you know is evil from the second you meet him because he lacks a pupil in one eye and speaks in a voice you might hear from the hidden intercoms at a carnival’s haunted house, as well as a authority-figure-type counselor who the game tries desperately to establish as a fake-out villain, but who clearly isn’t because…well, he isn’t the unambiguously evil doctor.

Seriously, how do you even get hired looking like that? Does “evil cackling” make an attractive feature on the résumé of an aspiring scientist?

As if the cliché-o-meter isn’t full to bursting already, there are also no less than two grizzled, gravely-voiced veteran lieutenants, one of which escorts the counselor with the aid of about six lines of dialogue, and the other of which spends the first half of the game sitting in his office, giving you orders and eating all the Easy-Mac until he remembers that there’s supposed to be a story, at which point he turns evil for the purposes of creating hopelessly non-existent dramatic tension. And then there’s you: a nameless, mute, disproportionately-muscle-bound meatslab of a man who holds no interest or emotion in anything taking place around him. Of course these supposedly interesting new characters and concepts need to be introduced, so whereas DOOM had you pumping lead into zombies by the ten-second-mark, DOOM 3 marks its clear intention to shamelessly integrate the ideas of other, better, and more recent FPS titles by leading you through a lengthy, bloodless introduction scene similar to (i.e. almost identical to) the one in Half-Life. Then again, Half-Life didn’t allow you to murder innocent scientists without anyone else even giving you a weird look in return.

“Yes, can I help you? Wait, what are you doing with that revolver? No, stay back, I…GAAAH!”

Inevitably, of course, all Hell literally breaks loose in the Union Aerospace Corporation facility, and you, the player, have to fight your way out, figuring out what went wrong in the process (spoiler alert: it may have something to do with the evil scientist cackling uncontrollably in the corner of the room). It’s at this point that you expect the balls-to-the-wall action you remember from your nostalgic memories to finally arrive and make the game fun again, but it’s not too much longer before you’re disappointed. This simply isn’t DOOM as you remember it, and while change isn’t inherently a bad thing, you’ll find that the series isn’t so much “changed” as it is “trapped”: sandwiched between the game it’s supposed to be and the game it wants to be.

To be fair, there are some ways in which, for better or worse, DOOM 3 is actually very much the same game you played in 1993. The scientific complex you venture through is rendered in a stunning total of about three different shades of grey (discounting the numerous spatters of red, of course). You stumble across armor, med-kits, and ammo with every alternate step. The level design is standard and linear, only occasionally manipulated in the form of a key-fetching quest or a brain-dead puzzle. The monster designs – many of which are simply monochrome variants of the classic baddies encountered in the old titles – range from only mildy disturbing to downright juvenile when placed in the more realistic context that the game strives for (not to mention one of the bosses – I kid you not – is a former marine general whose torso has been grafted onto tank treads for seemingly no reason).

Skeletons with rocket-launching shoulder-pads and flaming, jetpack-adorned skulls were rad in the early 90’s, but now…?

Furthermore, the AI is as laughably single-minded as it was back in the day, never amounting to more than “run at guy, bite at face”. Even the weapons arsenal is nearly unchanged, plucked straight from the Generic FPS Weapons Handbook 90’s Edition. The only notable deviations in your armory are the series trademark BFG, a demon-slaying plot-MacGuffin known as “the Soul Cube” (don’t ask), and the chainsaw…though really, within the framework of the newly dead-serious story, what a chainsaw is doing on a Martian research outpost is really anyone’s guess.

UAC Employee #1, Mac: Hey, did you get those hydrofusion battery order forms I asked you to mail out? We need those in the lab by Tuesday.
UAC Employee #2, Bob: Uh, yeah, about that…I DID mail them out, like you asked…but there was kind of a mix-up in the post office, and we accidentally ordered about a hundred chainsaws instead.
Mac: Damnit, Bob! First you “accidentally” triplicated the quantity of our shipment of security armor and back-up ammo, then you spent company money on a rocket launcher that we will never , EVER need, and now THIS!
Bob: Well…we could just scatter all that stuff around the base. Y’know, hide it in inconspicuous places, around corners…no one would ever know!
Mac: Yeah, I guess you’re right. No sense in stockpiling all that stuff in some dusty supply room somewhere. And hey, at least you managed to successfully order in those NON-flammable, NON-exploding barrels this time, right?
Bob: Uh, yeah, about that…

But then again, as boring, cliché-ridden and conventional the gameplay may be, it is at least acceptably functional on a mechanical level, and may very well have served as an appropriate springboard towards a no-holds-barred spamfest shooter romp…or at least it could have been, were the classic DOOM elements not attempting to occupy the same space as a survival-horror game.

Yes, DOOM 3 grabs hold of the retrospectively silly notion that the original games were as scary as they were furiously intense and runs with it to the ridiculous extreme. So now, instead of boldly and recklessly charging through open-ended levels filled to the brim with hordes of ferocious demons, the fully-armed space marine finds himself steadily creeping through claustrophobic labyrinths, only occasionally stumbling into the one-odd pitched battle with a single Satanic minion. Meanwhile, the awesomely plagiarized tunes of the classics are replaced by the quote-on-quote “atmospheric” silence of the base, sporadically broken up by the sounds of combat or the periodic cheesy horror-movie-trailer-voiceover courtesy of that evil doctor archetype telling you just how many ways you’re going to die.

“Oooooo, look! Now your screen is reeeeeeed! Are you scaaaaaaaared yeeeeeet? OooooooOOOOOoooo!”

Most notably, nearly every event in the game hinges on cheap scare tactics, a most detrimental fact in regards to combat; seemingly every demon in the game is stationed in place like a spring-board display in a theme park ride, waiting until you cross some form of invisible line before leaping out from behind a door, around the corner or – my personal favorite – an otherwise-empty sliding-door compartment in the wall. Here's a question: why are the bloodthirsty spawn of the Malebolge patiently waiting for passers-by in a fucking pantry? And what the hell were those closets necessary for before the demonic invasion?

Mac: Hey Bob, the atomic collider just malfunctioned. Do you have any spare flux capacitators lying around your office?
Bob: Nah, sorry man…but hey, why don’t you check the metal-shuttered closet in the hallway?
Mac: Y’know, I never did understand why the UAC had these built in. Hell, it seems more like a violation of building code than anything el…dude, there’s just a shitload of board games in here!
Bob: What, really?
Mac: Yeah, who woulda thought? Candyland, Mouse Trap, Stratego, Yahtz…oh my God, fucking Hungry Hungry Hippos!
Bob: Score!

Then of course there’s the darkness. Every last corridor of DOOM 3 is simply flooded with shadows, a fact just as inconvenient to the player as it must have been to the chronically-depressed former employees of the UAC. Seriously, for a facility touted to be at the cutting edge of human knowledge and understanding, nobody there seems to know how to create a productive work environment.

“Look, all I’m saying is, a bigger janitorial budget might improve morale just a little.”

This, in turn, introduces the flashlight mechanic. Yes, we’ve all heard the flashlight jokes, from how a well-funded research facility seems to lack any duct tape to graft the damn thing to your gun to the obvious inquiry of why space marines stationed in a noticeably poorly-lit environment (in the future, no less) wouldn’t be issued weaponry with built-in visual aid…but rather than harp on these fallacies of logic, let’s discuss its harmful ramifications on the actual game, shall we?

Does no one else find it ironic that the lighting effects were one of the most publicized features of DOOM 3’s new engine? Because, y’know, there’s barely any light to begin with?

The goal of the flashlight mechanic is fairly obvious and well-intentioned at heart. By making the player choose between the gun or the flashlight without overlap, it creates a dichotomy between visibility and defensive ability, attempting to induce fear in the process. This works in theory. In practice, however, it’s downright infuriating, for several reasons. For one thing, it’s distressing to leave player success or failure up to the hands of their very natural limitations, i.e. their vision. In other words, it’s one thing to lose in a death-grapple with an imp due to skill, and quite another due to the fact that the player couldn’t aim the chaingun through impenetrable darkness; this is especially true since, as implied earlier, there is isn’t much initial threat from an enemy when you happen to be armed to the teeth and coated in body armor, and thus the sight disability serves as the only real challenge in many confrontations. Also, the aforementioned over-saturation of shadow makes the flashlight essentially necessary to see at all in certain spots, which more or less removes the critical choice from the player. Again there’s a distinction to be made here to the developers: it’s one thing to impair the player’s combat readiness for the sake of horror, but it’s quite another when you create the illusion of choice regarding this impairment. And lastly, it’s just downright clumsy implemented; having to constantly have your thumb hovering over the button while you wait for the game to schizophrenically decide whether it’s going to maintain the quiet integrity of the atmosphere or just throw a cacaodemon at you is annoying, as is the rather awkward animation you’ll constantly witness as you flip back-and-forth from your weapon to the torch. It’s really just a frustrating mechanic from start to finish, and reinforces the belief that the game is attempting to be something that it’s not.

And really, that’s the most glaring weakness of DOOM 3; in attempting to branch out towards a genre almost inverse in style to its roots, it sours the remaining aspects of the source material. Had the developers more consciously chosen to extract the remaining FPS lifeblood from the game and transform it into a purely survival-horror experience, it might have worked; as it stands, the DOOM brand stands averse to the elements that make a horror game function. Compare the hybrid, half-heartedly frenzied horrorscape of DOOM 3 to a true master of the genre such as the Silent Hill series; sure, the former may startle on the first through playthroughs with its one-time funhouse scares, but the latter’s fog-drenched, unsettlingly lifeless environments create an atmosphere of sheer, pulsing dread just from the player picking up the controller…and that’s a game series where you can shoot and have a flashlight on at the same time!

That’s right. James Sunderland is more competent at multi-tasking than a trained space marine.

Even more action-oriented horror gameplay along the lines of DOOM 3’s thought process has been successfully achieved by the likes of Condemned: Criminal Origins, which equipped you, the player, just as well as the psychotic (and shockingly intelligent) foes, making every confrontation a matter of life or death. Here, alas, the predictability and repetition of the game’s handful of scary tricks soon bog it down, forcing it to rely on the shooter elements which, thanks to the terror-emphasis, went sadly underdeveloped.

But I haven’t even mentioned the most obnoxious aspect of DOOM 3: the PDA. Oh, sweet-buttery-Jesus the PDA. You’re granted a free personal-data-assistant as you enter the base; whether this is a free promotion from the station’s gift shop or a simple act of kindness, I really could never tell. It serves little help on its own, but you can upload the files of other employees’ PDAs upon finding them, through what I can only assume is an infrared communications port akin to the Game Boy Color. Of course, you’ll stumble upon plenty of unattended devices as you progress through the decidedly empty base, whereupon you can shamelessly rifle through the audio logs and emails of the deceased. Respect for the dead, who needs it?

“I’ll trade you my breakthrough research notes for your private insurance information!”
BONUS CAPTION: What? IMP is evolving!...Congratulations! Your IMP evolved into HELL KNIGHT!

It’s really nothing more than a variation on the audio logs popularized by System Shock (confirming once more that the game would rather ape innovations of influential late-90’s shooters rather than devise any itself). But whereas other games with such a system like System Shock, Bioshock, and Metroid Prime possessed an interesting plot, shrouded in the cloak of a mystery to be unfolded, I must remind the developers that the only intrigue to the plot of DOOM is exactly how evil the clearly evil scientist actually is, and that the most startling revelation the logs ever unveiled for me was that the UAC seemingly only has one female employee (apparently the feminist movement receded in on itself somewhere in the early 2100s). No, there’s a much more sinister purpose for the audio logs of DOOM 3 than simple story embellishment, and it can be stated in one word: lockers.

The worst part of DOOM 3. Yes, really.

See, the understandably nerve-wracked denizens of Mars clearly figured that something unholy (quite literally, as it turned out) was about to go down, so they decided to store their munitions and medical supplies for safe-keeping within the confines of massive, encoded storage lockers, each with a four-digit entry code. And because nobody thinks to use the primitive devices of pen or paper in the future, the only way anyone recorded these passwords was within the files stored on their PDAs. This means that, in order to be at maximum strength throughout the game, you’ll need to pause the game every time you pick up a new PDA, scroll through the text files and listen to the mind-numbingly dull recordings to find these all-important codes, whereupon you can retrieve the grab-bag of goodies inside the lockers. You can, of course, choose to listen to the audio files whilst still venturing through the facility, rather than simply sitting at the PDA-menu screen twiddling your thumbs like a fool while you pretend to feign interest in Dr. Gripesalot’s thoughts on the new plasma gun’s alpha-wave combustor-core, or Mr. McFussypants’ watercooler gossip about how that dick Jim from accounting stole his best stapler when he wasn’t looking, or whatever…but guess what? If you happen to the miss hearing the actual code from behind the sound of an explosion, or demonic scream…or, y’know, the sound of the game being played, you have to start it over from the top. Most insultingly of all, the lockers themselves are almost never hidden at all, always found a couple rooms away – or, even worse, a few measly feet – from the PDA that holds their passkey, rendering the whole exercise pointless, futile, and a direct affront to my intelligence. There’s simply no excuse for the kind of flow-breaking tedium this system invokes.

Mac: I was thinking of running down to the coffee room for a donut, you wanna…umm, what are you doing?
Bob: Oh, sorry, I was just recording an audio log of my research for the day. Plus I stored all my left-over sponge cake in the locker over there, so I wanted to remember the passcode I set for later.
Mac: That WAS damn good sponge cake. But listen, why’d you record a secret code in the one device that anyone on this base can access without any sort of authorization of their own? And couldn’t you have just written it down on a sticky note and kept it in your pocket or something?
Bob: Well sure I could have, but then how would the player know how to get to it once he’s found his way here?
Bob: Wait, what? WHAT?!

The saddest part is that many of these annoyances can actually be partially avoided by forsaking the single player campaign and jumping online. Mind you, the competitive multiplayer is a joke, nothing more than basic deathmatch with a pathetically small player count (by default, anyway) and the same ol’ dark, cramped map layouts. But when tackling the hordes of Lucifer in online cooperative play (strangely found only in the Xbox version), the attempts to polish the game down into a shorter, more stream-lined experience surgically remove many of the aforementioned hindrances to the fun. There are far more monsters packed in far more open spaces, making for a more action-packed adventure, and the addition of a second player transforms the flashlight from an annoyance to an actually interesting mechanic; one player guides the other through the dark labyrinths, counting on the partner to defend him/her from beasties.

It’s simply a shame that this won’t be the game that will be remembered through the annals of gaming history. Instead, it will be the game that crushed light-hearted, over-the-top monster-slaying fun under mundane concepts, confused gameplay, and cheap scares. People unfamiliar with both first-person shooters and horror games (as I once was when I first played the game, in what seems like eons ago) might enjoy a one-time, mildly-atmospheric march through DOOM 3, but anything beyond that and the game loses its luster, ceasing to be little more than a tech demo.

But in spite of all of that, it’s hardly the worst thing to hold the DOOM name. Why, that would have to be…

…oh God no.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Dustbuster: "Phantom Dust" Review

Game: Phantom Dust
Platform: Xbox (backwards compatible on Xbox 360)
Genre: Err...
Developer: Microsoft Game Studios (with designer Yukio Futatsugi)
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios (Japan), Majesco (USA)
Release Date: September 23, 2004 (Japan), March 15, 2005 (USA)
Players: 1-2 (2-4 online)

So intent are we, as a culture, to categorize everything that it’s currently difficult for a unqualifiedly “different” form of music, film, or video game to be declared. So when a game like Phantom Dust comes along and creates a hybrid of styles too outlandish in concept to fill any established genre niche, we tend to ignore it, as if it disgusts us by virtue of the way it defies our flawless system of artistic taxonomy. Besides, experiments fail all the time; surely the safe and familiar establishes a better insurance policy for disappointment, right? Alas, the falsehood of this common belief is one of the key lessons I’ve learned in recent years. And thanks in part to recent run-in with a brilliant but infamously overlooked video game title by the name of Psychonauts (which is something I won’t be reviewing here, though perhaps this guy could tell you all about it), I’ve been reminded of just how delightful certain titles can be even when the majority of the populace has eviscerated them from their hearts and minds in favor of Vaguely Sci-Fi-ish Alien Shooter Gore Fest 3 or whatever. And so, I present to you what I feel to be the most unheard-of little gem in my treasure chest of games, Phantom Dust.

But I perhaps I should confess that I stumbled upon this glorious title completely by accident. It wasn’t even a conscious purchase, but a gift, probably one persuaded by its $20 budget price. But Mario-Party-hatred not-withstanding, let it never be said that I am completely opposed to the virtues of chance, because without it I never would have been able to preach the virtues of a game that allows you to, among other things, telekinetically hurl bombs at people, generate flaming swords out of your hands AND make a pact with Mephisto for in-game bonuses (if any of the above premises made you either raise your eyebrows in confusion or pump your fists in a fit of manly excitement, then please, continue reading).

Phantom Dust is not only a very, very fun ride, but it’s also a very, very perplexing one that, even several years later, I still have a hard time describing on a whim. Were I forced to pigeon-hole the game into an official genre title – in accordance with society’s whim to drain the fun out of anything – I would call it something along the lines of an real-time-arena-fighter with competitive trading card game elements. And the truth is, it’s actually a little more complicated than that.

This guy is the protagonist, by the way. Make of that what you will, but at least be thankful he doesn't talk.

The story starts out simple enough: it’s yet another post-apocalyptic scenario with the last remnants of humanity left on the fritz, framed in the styling of surreal Japanese anime. This is no Fist of the North Star, however; in this particular rendition of the end of days, the surviving members of our species have lost all of their memories and been driven deep into the underground thanks to a mysterious, memory-draining (and dare I say, phantom-like?) dust that covers the surface of the Earth. Sure, it’s common for the protagonist of a game to start out with an empty head, but it’s a whole other story when the entire cast is filled to the brim with amnesiacs. In fact, the only memory left that everyone seems to share is of some enigmatic ruins…along with the inexplicable urge to go there. And so you join the ranks of the Espers – those who have learned to concentrate the power of the dust into psychic energy – in order to search the dangerous surface world for clues on the location of the ruins, and eventually unraveling a revelation far more shocking than you bargained for.

Well, that’s all well and good, but how exactly do these trips to the surface pan out in-game? Well…that’s where things get a little tricky.

See, each Esper brings to the surface with them a set of psychic skills, known collectively as an arsenal. These skills gradually spawn in the form of capsules on the battlefield, three at a time, at which point they can be assigned to one of the four face buttons on the controller. These skills are used to combat enemy monsters and beings, each with their own set of skills…assuming, of course, that you have enough energy to use the skill, which regenerates over time but must have its capacity increased by collecting Aura particles, which are also incorporated into the arsenal. Oh, and as a reminder, all of this pans out in real-time.

It's processing the sheer amount of raw data that appears on screen like this that should theoretically give me my OWN psychic powers.

Still with me? Well, then there’s the issue of creating an arsenal prior to charging out on the battlefield. An effective arsenal must strike a perfect balance between offense, defense, and that ever-present white Aura stuff that glues it all together. And with 300+ skills available, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options on hand.

First there are your attack skills, with can strike at various ranges (long, medium, or short) and have various patterns (shot in an arc or a parabola, falling from the sky onto your enemy’s head, in the form of a blade, etc.). Then there are defensive abilities that can protect you from the aforementioned attacks, shielding your front, sides, or all around you, or perhaps even sending the attack right back where it came from, among other possibilities. There are skills that boost your stats and skills that decrease those of your foes, or even a skill that allows you forcibly trade your stats. There are skills that erase, stripping the skills right from your foe’s hand or devouring their capsules…but watch out, because the price for many of these abilities might involve erasing so of your own possessions. There are skills that allow you to dash, levitate, teleport, heal, turn invisible, turn invincible (briefly), paralyze, freeze, confuse, distract, summon a precision strike from a satellite-mounted death laser…the list goes on. Hell, there are even skills that allow you to change the rules of the entire game, altering what skills everyone can use, how much damage everyone does, or even just reversing everyone’s analog controls (which inevitably results in everyone drunkenly wandering off cliffs). Oh, and another thing: each skill is divided into one of five classes, and you can only have a certain number of classes in any one arsenal at a time, depending on the size of the arsenal case, dictated by…


Make no mistake, the learning curve for Phantom Dust is not so much a “curve” at all as it is a jagged, foreboding cliff face. But once you’ve grown accustomed to the game’s unique brand of combat, it suddenly morphs from a bewildering experience into an engrossing one; after growing acclimated to the bizarre system, you begin to realize the vastness of possibilities the it presents. Sure, I’ve made my fair share of vanilla “shoot-things-move-until-they-die” setups, but the true fun of the game is getting really creative with the more esoteric skills available.

For the sake of example, I was once able to develop an arsenal that revolved around me boosting my speed to such ludicrous levels that I could dodge most homing attacks by simply running away from them. I’ve created vampiric decks of skills that bolster my health and Aura levels by draining it from my enemies. I’ve made arsenals that focus on depriving everyone of energy so that my weaker, low-cost skills could reign supreme…and, inversely, ones that purposefully boost my enemy’s energy to insane new heights so that I could later use a skill that did damage equal to their Aura levels for one-hit-kills (I call that one “Backstabber”, in case you were wondering). But perhaps my favorite is one that doesn’t even have any attack skills in it at all; the goal is simply to sneak (or sometimes, teleport) into the enemy base, steal or destroy all their capsules, then flee, repeating the process until the opponent completely lacks for both skills and, well, hope. And let me tell you this with certainty: just one victory utilizing such a devious, cerebral scheme is more satisfying than any number of frag kills in any number of generic first-person shooters you could ever play.

Sadly, I can confirm that even in such a brilliantly strategic game, cheese tactics still exist. You wouldn't know from this picture, but you are actually witnessing the Phantom Dust equivalent of a "Zerg rush".

Once you’ve grown addicted to the Dust’s power, and subsequently hooked some of your friends, the skirmishes that unfold are truly a fantastic sight, especially with additional players over Xbox Live (try using the skill that allows you to listen in on the enemy team’s headset conversations…classic). It’s a shame, then, that the single-player campaign – where you must unlock the capacity to even make arsenals and acquire skills in the first place – is such a tedious chore.

The first two or three chapters in single-player are essentially an epic-length tutorial, which is perhaps necessary due to the sheer bulk of knowledge necessary to fully enjoy the game. But even after that, the missions rarely boil down to anything more complex than “go here, kill everything, and come back”. It doesn’t help matters that the various monster types rarely differ in anything other than arsenal setup and health amounts, and that there are a mere seven levels available, only five of which you’ll ever visit on a regular basis. Granted, the levels that exist are brilliantly designed and tie into the surreal, post-apocalyptic setting quite well – ranging from an abandoned mall (that the game’s characters refer to quite certainly as a “palace”) to a true mindfuck of a city where gravity and perspective are flipped by ninety degrees – and the end of each chapter usually has a hulking boss battle to spice things up. Nonetheless, only the joy of testing and fine-tuning new arsenals on the battlefield will carry you through the repetitive scenarios, essentially leaving the burden of having fun on you.

Even worse than that is the underground city that serves as your hub between missions. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the design of the place, nor the functional aspects of it (namely, the zones where you can buy new skills or edit your arsenals), there IS something wrong with having to play hide-and-seek with mission availability. See, while you’ll get the majority of your assignments from a specific NPC tasked with exactly that job, occasionally he’ll run out of errands for you to run and suggest that you talk to someone else for new quest. And because that someone could be essentially anyone, it forces you to play duck-duck-goose with NPC dialogue boxes until you finally find the guy who will allow to progress the story along. It’s boring, it’s unnecessary, it brings the game’s pacing to a screeching halt, and it kind of makes me want to use my dust-fueled telekinetic powers to detonate the heads of whichever game designer thought that adding a marker on the map telling us who to talk to next was too much.

Like this. (gotta love Scanners, by the way)

But, surprisingly, all of these flaws actually end up fairly irrelevant. In the end, what you pay for in Phantom Dust is its unique gameplay, and the system it developed for that purpose couldn’t be any more perfect. It sets out to found a startlingly new form of in-game combat, both fast-paced and rich in strategy, and accomplishes its goal with flying colors. As stated before, the game was discount price upon release, ensuring a cheap bargain deep at the bottom of your local discount bin; the graphics still look impeccable, despite being a generation behind and five years of age; and the cries of its surprisingly robust underground community have cemented its backwards compatibility on the more modern Xbox 360, so it’s far from too late to enjoy this rare and undeniably unique experience.

There, now maybe somebody other than me will own this damn game.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Awesomely-Bad: An Introduction to Movies That Are So Bad That They're Actually Good

The monster that the movie has been waiting to unveil finally jumps onto the frame in an attempt to startle – and rend the flesh of off – the helpless teenage protagonists. The only problem is that you, the viewer, saw it coming from a mile away…along with the Party City price tag on the monster’s neck.

Actors deliver their cheesy dialogue with all the grace and subtlety of a caffeinated gerbil. The plot is a hodge-podge of pseudo-mythological nonsense, tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory, and/or Star Wars plagiarism, derived from a screenplay most likely penned by the producer’s eight-year-old son…and the budget seems to have been procured from that very same boy’s piggy bank savings. Yep, there’s no mistaking it at this point: you are watching an incontrovertibly bad movie.

So why the hell are you having so much fun?

It’s certainly not a point of shame; besides, even if it were, I would be the last to admit it. This may surprise many, but I absolutely adore certain bad movies. That’s right: for all the time I spend ragging on certain instances of art that fail to actually be art, I’m much further charmed by the pleasantries of 1980s B-movie fodder than I am by the majority of today’s modern theatrical releases. Hell, if you were to break into my room when you knew I was about to watch a movie, it’s probably just as likely that I’d be popping in the DVD for either The Godfather or Street Fighter The Movie.

Well...of course.

You might be questioning why this is so, and if that happens to be true, then welcome aboard the S.S. Who the Hell Knows, because we’re on the same boat.

I apologize profusely for the above sentence. It was late and I was tired.

I’ve pondered long and hard about why people can enjoy themselves watching a film that they know, deep down, is an unquestionable piece of shit. How is it that one bad film causes deep displeasure and the other does not? Are they not both equally damaging to the infrastructure of film? And if the “bad” movie makes for good entertainment, does it then cease to register among the damned and rise to the sacred level of…good?

Ultimately, though, I came to a realization, one born of distinction. You see, there are truly two breeds of bad movie in existence: bad-bad movies and awesomely-bad movies.

Alas, we will spend the majority of time in the theaters experiencing the former category, and they truly are a detestable breed. The common bad-bad movie fails to entertain for many reasons, and I could spend the rest of this article listing them in full: bad acting, stupid story, half-baked morals, poor special effects, appearances by Paulie Shore, involvement from Michael Bay, etc. These movies emotionally drain us and leave the empty husks in the theater to rot, usually for the sake of a quick buck.

...not like I'm pointing fingers or anything...

The line separating these monstrosities from the awesomely-bad movie is a thin and blurry one. An awesomely-bad movie can possess any of the above traits (with the exception of Michael Bay, for obvious reasons) and still manage to entertain. There is no exact science to the distinction; rather, one simply feels the unique aura of good-heartedness about the film that renders it fun to watch in spite of its flaws. This aura can arise from excess silliness, in both premise or event; the charms of a low-budget production; or perhaps even a single moment that makes you sit up and laugh out loud. The unfortunate truth, however, is that these films grow rarer every day, consumed by Hollywood’s endless march into genericism and blandness over true enjoyment.

…which is why I’ve compiled a little primer of movies that I personally to be “so bad that they’re good”, so that their kind does not fade into obscurity outside the reaches of the Internet. So the next time you have a free moment and want to watch a movie, but don't feel up to being depressed by a good movie like Fargo again, then you can always turn to…

The Official Supernova Asylum Introductory Guide to Awesomely-Bad Cinema

Troll 2
Often considered the holy grail of hilariously awful films, Troll 2 is a film so universally incompetent that it even manages to get its own name wrong (not only is the film completely unrelated to the original Troll, but it doesn’t even use the word “troll” once). Between the burlap-sack-masked villains, the bizarre morals (vegetarianism is evil?), and the worst line-reading in the history of cinema, Troll 2 has been elevated from its humble, low-budget origins to cult status. There’s even a documentary detailing the fervor surrounding this movie, entitled Best Worst Movie. Consider this required viewing for anyone entering the realm of “so-bad-it’s-good” cinema.

Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000
Battlefield Earth heralds the arrival of subpar filmmaking into the 21st century…and it is glorious. Striving to be a colossal sci-fi epic, its ambition collapses in on itself in every conceivable way over the course of the film. From the bafflingly off-kilter camera angles to John Travolta’s worst over-acting ever, every last frame of Battlefield Earth is a prime example of unintentional comedy. It’s been universally panned across the board, but don’t let that inhibit you from seeing it; I guarantee it makes for a much more entertaining science-fiction flick than…oh, say, Avatar.

Manos: The Hands of Fate
When a film is created based on a bet and the screenplay is drafted upon a napkin in a Texan coffee shop, the results are almost immediately bound for the dust bin. But thanks to Mystery Science Theatre 3000, the archaeologists of obscure movies, you, too, can now enjoy this once-lost piece of theatrical blasphemy. There are so many things wrong with this movie that it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps the shoddy editing that occasionally keeps shots of the clapboard in the film? The completely irrelevant sideplot that mostly consists of a random couple making out inside of a car, several miles away from where the “action” is taking place? The fact that the title literally translates out from Spanish into Hands: The Hands of Fate? Overall, it’s best if you simply accept and embrace these facts as you laugh out loud to the sight of a misplaced bet shriveling and dying onscreen.

Dragonball: The Magic Begins
Before there was the big-budget 20th Century Fox adaption of the famous anime series, there was the bootleg Taiwanese knock-off. Try in vain to cling on to your treasured sanity as a monkey child, an obese shape-shifter, a wise-cracking cockatoo and a pedophilic turtle-man set out to save the world from a Power Rangers villain castaway and make veiled references to rape. And you know what the crazier part is? I’ve told that this is actually the MORE accurate adaption of the series!

Yet another fossilized turd returned to the public conscious by the MST3K team, Hobgoblins is most famous for being a dark, twisted mirror into which all your deepest fears manifest themselves as agents of chaos that converge into the blackened void of a new age. By which I mean the film makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I could attempt to detail the plot of this movie to you in full, but such an attempt may prove dangerous without a strait jacket and a cache of drugs on hand to soothe the senses.

Night of the Lepus
The horror movie genre was created with the noble goal of making humans fear that anything and everything in the world has the potential to murder you. And so it is that we have Night of the Lepus, which, for those of you not familiar with animal taxonomy, concerns giant killer rabbits. Yes, rabbits, almost as if that one scene from Monty Python and Holy Grail became self-aware and mutated into its own film. Maybe it’s just me, but it’s difficult to conjure up the slightest bit of terror when the face of death looking down upon me possesses floppy ears and adorable beady eyes. But it’s hardly the most insane and ludicrous of premises, not when there exists a film like…

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats
I swear to you I am not making any of this up. There really is a movie out there about a sentient bed that digests its victims, proving that, in Hollywood, the sky really is the limit. By all accounts, this is pretty weird as it is. Weirder still is the fact that the film took about 26 years to release after its completion. Even weirder is that the movie actually takes the form of, not a cheesy horror film, but a grungy art house epic, complete with inner monologues, stone-cold acting and trippy dream sequences. But to really, truly get a grip on how batshit-bizarre Death Bed really is, allow me to describe the most intricate, overcomplicated way to defeat a monster in a movie ever: to destroy the demon bed, one of the protagonists has to draw a circle of blood around the bed, create matching circles in the outside yard, gather the bones of the bed’s victims and carry them into the outside circles nude, which teleports the bed outside and destroys it…somehow. Why not just throw a match in the room and set the damn thing on fire?!

Yor: Hunter From the Future
Paper-mache dinosaurs. Purple cavemen. Laser-shooting cyborgs. Fire mummies. The single manliest thing to ever happen on film. Yor: Hunter From the Future is an amazing movie for all of these reasons and more, and if you disagree, I may have to hunt you down and destroy you, for it is clear that you have no soul.

Pretty Much Anything By Bruno Mattei
The surprisingly robust filmography of Italian director Bruno Mattei is like an endless library of laughably awful creations. The movies range across many different exploitation genres, from zombie films to Nazi porn (no, seriously), but I refer mainly to his blatant plagiarism of many classic American films, including Predator (Robowar), Jaws (Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws), and Rambo (Strike Commando). Of course, my favorite is the movie which plays out like a shot-for-shot recreation of Aliens, and goes by the name…Terminator 2. Again, I’m dead serious. He even beat James Cameron to the punch by two years!

Pretty Much Anything By Uwe Boll
If you know anything about Uwe Boll, you know why I’m bringing him up here. Needless to say, he’s become legendary for his ability to take popular (or sometimes, not) video game franchises and castrate everything that was ever holy and sacred about them for their film adaptations…and yet we all still come crawling back to see them, possibly because we know we’re getting a good (read: bad) product. It’s a sad indicator when your career highlight is having a cameo in your own film wherein you get shot to death by police officers…along with all the innocent children the room. I swear I’m not lying!

Pretty Much Any SyFy Original Movie
Though the 1980s golden age of B-movies may be long gone, its tradition lives on through the glorious vessel that is the SyFy channel. Flip it on late at night and you’ll likely be greeted with the sight of horribly CGI-rendered beasties being shot at by clueless actors in their late 40s with grenade launchers. I guarantee that almost any one of them is bound to be a laugh-out-loud masterpiece…it’s just a shame you have to wallow through hours of Wrestlemania to see them.

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter
OK, I’m not going to lie: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter is the single greatest movie ever made. Yes, yes it is. How could it not be? Think about it: Jesus Christ teams up with a Mexican wrestler and a spandex-wearing secret agent nun to defend the lesbians of Ottawa, Canada from surgeons, atheists, and skin-harvesting vampires. What, exactly, in that sentence does NOT sound like the greatest thing ever?! Watch this movie. Like seriously, right now. It’s the best.

Now go forth, my friends. Go forth, and embrace the awfulness!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Rant Concerning the Horrifying Implications of the Mario Party Series

I am certainly not a stranger to being the odd-one-out in a debate. Though not by choice, I often end up as the black sheep when discussing the many facets of popular culture. In a conversation with me, exclamations of, “How can you not like X?” or “What’s wrong with Y?” are fairly commonplace. By no means is this intentional, but I’ll defend my opinions to the death anyway, with a fervor that one might not expect from such conceptually unimportant topics.

And never was this more apparent than when I declared my hatred of Mario Party.

A thousand curses upon thee, foul box art!

Upon the release of this crucial information, a feverish frenzy of words soon followed. And since I always explain myself much better in written form than in the hot seat of such an active conversation, I figured I’d take the time to fully exposit what Mario Party, and Nintendo as a whole, has come to represent.

Now, unless you were born at any time before the collapse of the Soviet Union, you know these games well. A string of eight titles (currently, and not including handheld titles) ranging all the way back to the humble Nintendo 64, Mario Party was just one of many new spinoff genres through which Mario could snake out of actually being in a platformer again. At heart, it was an electronic manifestation of the classic Milton-Bradley board game setup; players rolled the die, moved their bulbous-headed, big-eyed mascot of choice an according number of spaces, and watched the consequences play out. At the end of each round, a minigame would occur that players could win for an added bonus. The goal was to gather as many stars as possible (because, as an influential critical hero of mine has stated, it is always stars); whoever has the most when the last round has finished wins. This simple concept has remained popular and lucrative to this very day.

But let not the simplicity of the concept nor the colorful cuteness of the graphics blind you from the fact that, at heart, the Mario Party franchise is a dark, unfeeling entity. After all, there’s much to be said about such a basic idea having spawned seven rather unnecessary sequels over the course of three console generations, serving little more purpose than to add minor revisions to the already well-rounded formula at the expense of a $50-$60 tax per victim to throw onto the Official Nintendo Money Pile™. But that’s not even the true source of my distaste. No, the Mario Party games, in my mind, represent something far grander and more sinister than that.

Although I'd also like to point out that these games are also partially responsible for creating this abomination.

To understand why, you have to mentally wind the dial of time back into the late 80s and early 90s. Nintendo was a very different entity back then, as was the home console market. The former, having finally secured a safe future for the latter with the good ol’ NES, was thriving profitably in the limelight. Of course, the market was also young, and it largely maintained the sensibilities of its arcade predecessor, i.e. the desire to siphon every quarter from every pocket of every dumbstruck grade school reject. And of course, the best way to ensure that kids would keep on pouring coins into the slots of arcade machines worldwide was to make the games damn near impossible to beat in one try. Unfortunately, even with the dawn of gaming machines that had no need for such a thing, this tradition lived on. These days, my friends, were the days of “Nintendo Hard”.

Also known as the "Ninja Gaiden Effect".

One-hit deaths. Limited respawns. Bosses that took up half the screen and had a health bar eight times the size of yours. Such were the hidden trademarks of this time in history, casually hidden behind the inviting 8-bit graphics and memorable MIDI sound effects. But while these types of games could be frustrating, they were, paradoxically, entertaining at the same time. Every time you heard that ominous “game over” tune in Super Mario Bros., you weren’t sad that you died; you were excited to see how much further you could get next time. It was all about mastery through repetition, gradually taking hold of the game’s inner mechanics and bending them to your whim, just so you could have the satisfying reward of eventually overcoming the challenge, or at least finding out if the princess really was another castle. “Nintendo Hard”, in many ways, was a blessing for the culture and art of video games as much as it was a curse for the average, weak-thumbed consumer.

And nothing is a further testament to the long, strange history of Nintendo than just how ironic this phrase has become. Because while the age of “Nintendo Hard” has long since passed, the demand for the gradually mastery of games lives on in many (if far-less unfairly difficult) modern titles…except most Nintendo games. And while this current situation has had a number of factors behind it, if there’s any one scapegoat I can blame for this transition, it would be Mario Party.

In essence, Mario Party is the exact opposite of “Nintendo Hard”. There is little to no room for improvement; ultimately, your fate is controlled not by you, but by the almighty die. In general, the minigames are the one area of game in which actual skill comes into play, and surely enough there is a fairly noticeable advantage to anyone who can actually play these games the best (however simple-minded they may usually be). But in the end, all of your well-earned coins and stars (the currency by which you are intended to win the game) can be stripped away from you in an instant, most times not by a mistake on your own part but by a simple twist of fate.

Worse yet, the game delivers rewards to those who don’t deserve them. Simply landing on the most of certain colored spaces – a factor, once again, controlled by that big ol’ die in the sky – can earn you a precious star in the end, which in itself may be enough to secure victory. You can even win a star for having the most coins at the end of the game…when you stole almost all of them in the last round by playing a battle game and winning by sure luck. What are you trying to say Nintendo? Are we rewarding last-second burglary now? And let’s not forget the infamous Fortune Spaces, which randomly (I can’t help but use this word as much as possible for emphasis) assigns one player to cough up their goods to another. It may just be a game, but when I see all of my hard-earned stars handed over to some schmuck who couldn’t even figure out how to make a single combo in the Mario’s Puzzle Party minigame, well…

Yeah, pretty much this.

All of this, in my mind, vehemently assaults a key tenet of good gaming: when you fail, you should feel like it is your own fault. Random factors come into play in almost every game, that much is certain; however, a well-designed game will not make you feel as though you were doomed to your ultimate end for any other reason other than your own ineptitude. This is the very same drive that invites players to try again with a new approach, actually improve their capabilities and, when done properly, render random chance a non-factor. Mario Party, on the other hand, revels in its chaos. It considers the arbitrary nature of the game as a vital element of its fun. Ultimately though, part of the fun in competitive games is a sense of order and understanding of the rules, and to be a given a chance to utilize whatever skills they may have that pertain to the game. In so many different ways, Mario Party desecrates this ideal.

You may claim that game remains fun regardless of its chaos, but just think about the philosophy in-and-of-itself. Who would play football if the success of every play rested on a dice roll? Or if the pins of bowling randomly re-aligned themselves before every round? Or if in baseball, occasionally, just occasionally, a bomb would fall on first base and kill the runner if he happened to be there? Do these games remain fun? Or does the soul-siphoning realization that every action can be thwarted by dumb luck drain every bit of dignity from them?

And it’s not just Mario Party, not by a long shot. As a whole, Nintendo has chosen to move all of gaming in this direction in order to appeal to the “casual gaming” crowd. Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii have both received lukewarm or even downright hostile reactions from many fans of the original games, and from my experience this rests solely on the house that Mario Party built. Hell, the Wii itself thrives on the concept of accessibility over depth and mastery. I can’t help but emphasis once more the irony of the whole situation.

They have certainly proved, of course, that this is a lucrative path. And, hey, despite my twisted ramblings, most people will still claim that they love these games. And power to them! I can understand why; the emphasis on multiplayer shenanigans and sheer wackiness of it all makes a direct callback to that aforementioned era of board game dominance, just without all the choking hazards. But at the same time I can’t help but feel like they serve as a detrimental antithesis to many of the aspects that make video games interesting and more evolved than their tabletop cousins: constant discovery, evolving gameplay, and the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles. These are elements that connect the art of gaming to that of the film medium, allowing us to personally reach highs and lows in the same way a character might in a movie.

I guess if Mario Party were a film, it would be kinda like Meet the Spartans.

EDIT: It just occurred that this comic strip essentially sums up everything I just wrote in about three panels.