Saturday, June 28, 2014

Drakengard 3: Four

Drakengard 3 arrived last month. It’s a very strange game, abusive and self-mocking and technically graceless. It’s a monster that won me over in ways I never expected. It’s a lot of things, but it’s most clearly a portrait of Zero, a goddess-like Intoner who goes around a twisted medieval Europe and murders her deified sisters with a mixture of vicious abandon and blasé cruelty. I’ve talked at length about just what Drakengard 3 did to me, and it’s time for an addendum about one of the game’s more interesting characters. She’s not who you might think.

Four is the least threatening among Zero’s numerically named sisters, all of whom decided to rule the world and rather rudely didn't invite Zero. We meet them when Zero attacks their city stronghold. One is the rational leader, Two is cheerful, Three is spookily distracted, and Five is hedonistic to no end. Four seems the most reluctant to fight; during an initial free-for-all with Zero, Four pleads for her sister to reconsider such violent rebellion. Later in the game, Four is the second victim in Zero’s conveniently numbered murder spree. En route to a mountain fortress, Zero tells her companions that Four is an uptight virgin and that “deep down, she’s evil.”


If Four’s evil, we don’t see it in the prime stretch of Drakengard 3. Upon confronting Zero, Four again begs her to stop and proclaims how highly she thinks of the murderous Intoner. So great is Four’s faith in her sister that she’s even willing to fall for a blatant and deadly ruse. Later, as the game’s timeline unravels into chaos and paradoxes, Four reappears as a lunatic, driven mad by the ominous floral entity that birthed all of the Intoners. She’s a piteous sacrifice, hiding in poorly concocted innocence and a mess of happy, Zero-centered memories that aren’t even real.

For a look into Four’s true depths, one must venture beyond the central game. The short stories available on the Drakengard 3 website introduce Four as a teetering stack of neuroses. Traveling with her sisters (minus Zero), Four worries about her sibling Intoners, mends their clothes, tries to keep a borrowed house clean…and then explodes into a room-wrecking fury and seethes with hate for her family. And herself most of all.

Among the Intoners, Four seems caught between the thoughtless cruelties of Three and Five and the orderly lives of One and Two. Simultaneously fretting over and jealously loathing her sisters (the lustful Five in particular), Four is a creature of bitterness, obliterated self-esteem, and thick sediments of repression, all bottled up behind her conscientious veneer and feigned moral superiority. She gets no help from her Disciple, a polite masochist named Decadus. Ruled by his fetish, he sees Four entirely as a means for punishment—even in her refusal to indulge it. This only frustrates her further, of course. Violence is Four’s sole release, but she couldn’t inflict any on Decadus. That’d be dirty and bad and a dead giveaway of her darker impulses.

All of this comes out in the playable Drakengard 3 bonus chapters, each of which focuses on a different Intoner. Four’s side-story sees her butchering enemy soldiers on her elder sister One’s orders, with Decadus and the dragon Gabriella tagging along. Sanctimonious as ever, Four laments all of the killing she carries out, and her tone nauseates Gabriella. Four excuses the bloodshed as necessary for One’s noble future, but she can’t pretend in the quest’s last act. Astride the dragon, Four chases down and incinerates a fleet of shakily defended elf pirates, who wail and plead for clemency in absurdly high-pitched voices (as though Four is massacring The Littl’ Bits). And Four? She laughs with all the racist glee of a Blackwater mercenary or an Einsatzkommando.


So Four is evil after all. Yet it’s not obvious as to why. In one of the side quest's cutesy storybook interludes, Gabriella gazes within Four’s heart and sees a gaping hole with only a frigid breeze to fill it. So the viewer may decide just what completes Four. She could be a pure sadist, masking her many little envies and criticisms under a prissy rectitude just so she can feel better than her sisters at something. And there's no redemptive fantasy fulfillment in her story, in contrast to the whole “moe” fixture that persistently paints women characters as just flawed enough to be rescued by some heroic male avatar.

Or perhaps Four is more pathetic than a mere joke. Her downloadable quest unlocks a string of her memories, and they’re all hateful diatribes spewed in the split second before her death. Four lashes out at her sisters, her Disciple, her public, and her creator with all the spite and sarcasm of a catty teenager, but her last little jab is aimed within.

Even Four’s vilest moments seem spawned by her self-loathing and those frequent reminders that no one really cares about her. In her side-quest, Decadus doesn’t listen when she shares how unappreciated she feels or lectures him that sex shouldn’t come before true love. There’s a barely disguised plea for him to treat her as an actual person, but Decadus sees Four’s words as deliberate and delightful sadistic denial of him, while Gabriella mocks her false piety. Four is that lost kid, the one who isn’t bullied or abused but rather just neglected to the point where something dies deep inside. So home she goes to burn some ants or rip apart some stuffed animals. Her one remaining hope is that her absent sister Zero will befriend her…but we see how that turns out.


Drakengard 3’s Intoners appropriate familiar women in fiction: the spooky amoralist, the shallow peacemaker, the bloodthirsty sociopath, the shameless hussy, and, in Four’s case, the priggish, virginal nutjob. Yet they often seem attacks on those same deadly-sin archetypes. They’re all incomplete in some way, forced into roles that they can’t escape. Four’s part defines her through sexuality even when she avoids it, and Decadus is there to remind her unintentionally with his constant eroticism of misery. Squashing back a tide of frustration, Four turns to thinly justified wartime brutality—the only way she can let out everything without cracking her good-girl façade. Because that façade is all she has.

It’s a shame that this sort of thing has to be tucked off to the side. Modern games have an unwelcome habit of hiding important details in easily overlooked audio logs, official websites, and places that aren't part of the initial tour. Drakengard 3’s ancillary tales add a lot, and they’d be more helpful if they actually were in the game from the start.

But that's not how this era works. In fact, the Intoner-specific vignettes probably wouldn't exist at all if Square Enix couldn’t sell them for six dollars apiece. At least the game should include the website's short stories in the same way it includes the characters’ memoirs and a lineup of weapon backgrounds. Without their sides of the story, Zero's Intoner sisters just seem incomplete. And not in any intriguing sense.

One other thing about Four. As shown in this artbook page scanned in by Something Awful forums user Pesky Splinter, Four’s original design differed a bit from the final incarnation.


The early illustration, presumably by character designer Kimihiko Fujisaka, envisioned Four as a vivacious corsair brandishing pistols with elaborate underbarrel blades. This gave way to the clawed gauntlets and reserved expression of the Four seen in the game. Handguns seem unknown in Drakengard 3 continuity despite the prevalence of cannons, and a cocky smile didn’t suit the prim-laced landmine that Four became.

But this early design need not go to waste. You can assume that it’s from yet another alternate version of Drakengard 3, one where Four confronts her horrible corrupting insecurities and strikes off as a pirate who may not need to murder a fleet of Happy Little Elves. The entire Drakengard series is a mess of multiple paths and parallel timelines, so feel free to imagine your own. It’s the only way to find any sort of happy ending.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Dark Matters

[The following article discusses rape and other forms of sexual assault as they are depicted in video games. Please avoid reading further if this subject upsets you.]

Video games seldom take a responsible tone when addressing rape. It’s rare to see a title acknowledge sexual assault as anything more than an exploitive dash, a cheap, nasty surprise for a vulnerable and usually female character. It’s a brilliant package deal for the careless writer beleaguered with demands for maturity. What better way to paint a villain as instantly loathsome, stoke the player’s righteous fury, and elevate your game above the childish superficialities of past eras! After all, trashy films, sleazy anime, and execrable comics with titles like Stormfang Saga do it, so why shouldn't video games?

The latest such attempt is in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It drops the elder of the saga’s two Snake operatives into a secret American military compound, from which he must rescue operatives Paz and Chico. Along the way, the player can uncover recordings of the game’s villain, Skullface, torturing the prisoners. Both Paz and Chico are raped. Chico is forced to rape Paz. The audio log concludes with Skullface and his surgeon planting two explosive devices in Paz—the second one apparently hidden in her vagina. Should you doubt this, the scene provides the squelching, visceral sounds of a bomb going somewhere it probably shouldn’t.


This may be the most horrifying of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s uses of rape, but it sure isn’t the first. The original Metal Gear Solid strongly implies that Meryl is sexually assaulted during Revolver Ocelot’s torture sequence, the second game finds once-laughable nerd Otacon confessing that his stepmother raped him, the third has some disturbing notes about undercover agent Eva, and Metal Gear Solid 4 luridly mixes sexuality and trauma into The Beauty and the Beast Corps. The entire Metal Gear Solid web weaves together grim realities and goofy fourth-wall assaults, and Kojima’s infusion of radio-drama rape and vagina disploda is both, entwining the absurd and the horrific.

Kojima is no lone provocateur. Numerous other games trot out rape scenes with all the care of a backhandedly misogynistic romance novel, a torture-porn flick, or the Raveonettes’ “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed).” You can find it callously applied in Heavy Rain’s TV-movie interludes, F.E.A.R. 2’s finale, and just about any game where a female character’s backstory boils down to “she was raped” and little else.
Is that all video games can do? Do any of them treat the subject with a modicum of respect?

It’s hard to tell.

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is a strange creation among the point-and-click adventure games of the 1990s. It’s based on the notorious Harlan Ellison’s equally notorious short story, in which five unfortunate humans are the playthings of a psychotic supercomputer called AM. Ellison worked with the developers (and voiced AM itself) to grant each character a backstory and a personal journey through a surreal, AM-concocted episode. Gorrister is tormented by thoughts of a suicide he cannot commit, Nimdok relives his days as a Nazi surgeon, and Ellen, a brilliant engineer, has to remember why she’s afraid of the color yellow.

 
Ellen’s vignette leads her through a simulacrum of an Egyptian temple and into an elevator. There she’s forced to confront something long buried: during one late night at the office, a man in janitorial garb cornered her in an elevator and violated her. AM summons up the rapist as a faceless shadow in a yellow jumpsuit, and he recounts “the blood, the screams,” and just how deeply the incident wrecked Ellen. It’s perhaps the most disturbing scene in a game that explores the Holocaust, mental illness, and an eternity in a fleshy, mute prison, and it’s hardly leavened when Ellen fights off the phantom and continues on her quest.

The scene is vintage Ellison: a vicious little dose of nightmare that holds nothing back. Yet for all of its nastiness, it’s not just a distasteful memory. As in the rest of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, there’s a psychological tension beneath the surface tremors. The game dwells less on the details of Ellen’s attack and more on the lingering effects she suffered. It’s abbreviated and perhaps sexist, but it’s concerned with something beyond provoking the player to loathing the villain just in time for some climactic boss battle. That’s Ellison’s modus operandi. Even when he pounds the reader’s sensibilities into paste or shapes misogyny into stories like a child manhandles Play-Doh (see “Broken Glass” in his Angry Candy anthology for an example), he at least does it for a reason.

The third chapter of Yasumi Matsuno's Final Fantasy Tactics introduces Rapha Galthena and her brother Marach, the adopted children of Grand Duke Barrington. When the game’s conflicted hero Ramza Beoulve meets them, Rapha’s trying to convince Marach that Barrington is using them, that he destroyed their village and killed their parents just to claim their arcane talents for his death squad. Rapha then mentions “the thing he did to me” and accuses Marach of knowing about it and still taking Barrington’s side. In one of the rare moments where the blunt, oft-incomprehensible original translation of Final Fantasy Tactics works better than its ornate PSP revision, Rapha simply shouts “I KNOW you know!” 


Rapha later confronts Barrington amid a chaotic slaughter at his castle, and the duke gloats at her hesitation in striking. In the PSP version, he remarks that “the flesh remembers, Rapha. It remembers fear, cold, and trembling.” The retranslation even reveals his additional lines about how her “fear will blossom into another flower—and I shall have that one as well.” Marach overhears this, and rushes in to catch a bullet from Barrington’s flintlock. Yet Rapha’s denied any revenge as some higher-up villains arrive and toss Barrington off the rooftop. This creates one of the tougher battles in the entire game, as the player scrambles to help Rapha while she furiously rushes to attack overpowered foes. After all of this, it’d be unrealistic if she didn’t.

The word “rape” never arises, and it hardly needs to—even in the murky exchanges of the original translation, the meaning is clear. There are no nauseating flashbacks or detailed testimonials. It disturbs by implication, both in its direct allusions and peripheral questions (if Barrington hadn’t abused Rapha, would she and Marach have stayed Ramza’s doomed, dutiful enemies?). Matsuno hides all sorts of brutality in the large-headed character sprites and pointy-hatted mages of Final Fantasy Tactics, and he often does it by knowing what not to say.

Yet the underlying idea is rooted in pulp substratum. Barrington is a vile goblin through and through—he manages to look greasy and bloated even in the cute, noseless art of Final Fantasy Tactics. Nor does the game really develop Rapha beyond her introductory trauma. Aside from a brief, admiring talk with Ramza, she serves primarily to progress the story, show the profligacy of nobles, and discover a new side to the Zodiac stones that Ramza seeks. That malady strikes every supporting character in the game. Once they join Ramza, they don’t stand out much.

The Fallout series explores all sorts of depravities amid civilization’s ruin. The issue of rape seldom arises in the player’s view, but Fallout: New Vegas approaches it in a side-quest. When talking with the New California Republic 1st Recon, the player learns about Betsy, a sniper who was ambushed and raped by a marauder named Cook-Cook. Betsy has since grown less stable, to the point where her commanding officer asks the player to talk her into seeing the camp’s resident therapist.

 
The player can enlist Betsy and other Recon members in killing Cook-Cook and the Fiends, but the solution to Betsy’s unraveling psyche lies in a separate task. It’s carried off in almost laughably terse fashion: talk with a few of Betsy’s comrades, and she’ll decide that she may as well get therapy. Yet the sentiment beneath is something rarely broached in video games or general pulp lit: the idea that a rape victim needs more than vengeance.

Then there’s the inescapable specter of Silent Hill 2. Driven to investigate a fog-shrouded town at the behest of his now-deceased wife, main character James Sunderland encounters many horrors—and among the most striking is a figure named Pyramid Head. The bizarrely helmeted creature is first encountered at an eerie standstill, but not long after he appears in a nearby room, sexually assaulting two malformed female mannequins until they flop lifelessly to the floor.



Pyramid Head serves many ends in Silent Hill 2’s psychological hellscape. He’s the embodiment of James’ sexual frustration, his regrets, his unspoken desire for punishment. And there’s more than one such abstraction in the game, just as James isn’t the only doomed visitor to the town. His fellow guests include a sexually abused runaway named Angela Orosco, whose affliction manifests in a creature called Abstract Daddy. Like Pyramid Head and the rest of the Silent Hill 2 foes, it’s an aberrant golem and a harbinger of self-destruction, as grotesque as its subliminal inspirations.

This makes it all the more unnerving when those grotesques turn cute. Pyramid Head is a favorite among fans, who invoke him in rape jokes, cosplay. and precious fanart. Konami even indulged this with New International Track and Field, where Pyramid Head appears in squat chibi form alongside similar big-headed versions of Solid Snake, Sparkster, and Simon Belmont. Maybe Skullface will make it into the next Konami Krazy Racers, tossing vaginal grenades as he putters around the track.

Despite the queasy mollifications of fans and publishers, Silent Hill 2 may be the most subtle of the above examples. The others are too heavy-handed, too abbreviated, or too melodramatic. Yet even they manage something beyond the usual careless appropriation.

Not that games are alone in this problem. It’s perpetually fashionable for game nerds to fuss and fume and hatch self-loathing catechisms over how backward our hobby is for falling short of J.M. Coetzee or Virginia Woolf, but it’s myopic to confine the issue to games. Comics, TV series, animation, and alleged classic science fiction and fantasy novels fall into the same ugly habits when they concoct power fantasies and use rape as some wretched accessory, as routine a plot gear as an alien invasion or the blood-streaked walls of a space station. Both Game of Thrones and True Detective recently drew fire for making such mistakes.

This brings us to the obvious: it’s difficult to tell a story that involves rape. Many prefer to leave it out of plots entirely, even those set it circumstances that would involve the threat of sexual assault in the real world. Perhaps that’s why many games decide to avoid it in grim and harrowing realms where no other debauchery is ignored. Our video games are still built for entertainment most of the time. And if they’re not going to handle a subject with the gravity it merits, it’s best they don’t touch it at all.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Introducing Rygarfield

You know what’s wrong with webcomics? They just don't have broad appeal. Name any webcomic, and you can find a great mass of people who hate it or, worse yet, ignore it.

Fortunately, I have devised a new project to scale magnificent heights in online comedy and profit. It is a webcomic that no one could shun, a webcomic that fuses the Internet’s boundless affection for old video games with the proven success of one of the past century’s most marketable characters. I call it Rygarfield.


Rygarfield is available for syndication, merchandising, and whatever funding you might care to send me. Feel free to make ROM hacks and memes about Rygarfield, so long as you credit me and pay me royalties. And if anyone points out that Rygarfield is a blatant arrogation of copyrighted material, tell them it’s OK under the doctrine of fair use. Just don’t tell them to look up what the doctrine of fair use actually means.

Be sure to check back for regular Rygarfield comics about sarcasm, dog abuse, and that weird, unreachable door in the water just above Dorago's lair!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Off-Kilter Instinct

I’d like to talk about Killer Instinct and B. Orchid. Really.

I admire Killer Instinct in a strange historical capacity. It’s not the reluctant fondness I have for the considerably trashier BloodStorm. It’s more of an appreciation for the way the original Killer Instinct summarizes all of the trends that video games toyed with in the mid-1990s. It’s a fighting game, of course, and it has plastic-looking computer-rendered graphics, a soundtrack of guitar licks, ample violence, preposterous sexism, an announcer squawking excitedly about BLASTER COMBOS, and a lineup of stereotypes exploiting everything from the Predator to Jurassic Park. And all of this came from Nintendo, who by then was sick and tired of Sega pretending to be the more daring game-industry titan.

If you want to experience a good game from 1995, play Chrono Trigger, Panzer Dragoon, or Metal Warriors. If you want to know what games were really like in 1995, play Killer Instinct.

B. Orchid is part of that, of course. Her design is an amalgamation of every unfortunate stereotype inflicted on women by that decade’s video games. She gallivants around in a skin-tight suit with “HOT” on the side, moans provocatively during her post-fight footage, and, for a “No Mercy” move, whips open her top and shocks her male opponents into cardiac arrest. Yet there was a time when people were hopeful about B. Orchid.


The above profile comes from a 1994 issue of Nintendo Power. I can sympathize with the writer who had to find good things to say about Orchid, looking as she does like some hideous 1960s Eastern European knockoff of a Barbie doll. In a bout of vague optimism, Nintendo Power suggests that Orchid will change the way female characters are portrayed in video games. In hindsight, the kindest view of Orchid is that she didn’t influence such depictions one way or the other, that she was a symptom and not a catalyst.

Orchid’s appearance in Killer Instinct 2 grew even more exaggerated. By that point neither she nor the series had the same cachet among violent fighting games, but she had fans. Strange fans.


Consider the above sample from a 1996 issue of GameFan, covering the imminent release of Killer Instinct Gold for the Nintendo 64. The caption pleads for “no more letters” requesting “that shot” of Orchid, and in smaller text implores the petitioners to “get a life.” This suggests some odd background. Did a fan or a number of fans write scads of insane letters about this picture? Did a cabal of worshipers gather in some dim chatroom on the nascent Internet and conspire to blanket publications for imagery of…B. Orchid?

Microsoft and Double Helix put together their own Killer Instinct and revived the more popular characters. Orchid is one of them, of course. Her design is no breakthrough among women characters in video games, but it’s probably the most tasteful she’s ever looked. Yet I’ve seen some irate remarks over it, with one fan stating “I will never forgive the XBone for ruining B Orchid.”


There’s a lesson here. No matter how repellent and disposable you may find a character, rest assured that there’s at least one person who loves that same character enough to defend his, her, or its honor at vehement length. It doesn't matter if that character is Captain Choyear from Sonic Blast Man II, Ayumi from X Blades, Zana Keene from Arrow Flash, Maxwell Cougar from Bullet Witch, that fat little hobbit guy from Wardner, or even James Pond.

And there’s surely someone out there who can’t stand your favorite video-game character, you tasteless lackwit.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Little Things: Kid Kool

Some mysteries are compelling not because they’re important, but because they’re so weirdly insignificant. For one example, consider the king’s butler in the awkward and rampantly detested Kid Kool and the Quest for the Seven Wonder Herbs. He's a miniscule oddity in a lousy old NES game, and that makes the enigma itch all the more.

Kid Kool’s interminable story sequences introduce only four characters: the ailing king, his butler, the titular Kid Kool, and, in the best endings, a princess. The butler doesn’t serve much of a purpose beyond rattling off the details of Kool’s herb-gathering mission and announcing the hero’s demise. The latter happens a lot in Kid Kool, because Kid Kool despises everyone who plays it.

But it isn't the butler's dialogue that's puzzling. It’s his appearance. His haircut, glasses, and snaggletoothed nerd visage clash with the King’s Garfield-like appearance and the mundane anime-kid design of Kool and the princess. And why do his shorts clearly say “T YAN”?


It all suggests that the butler is a caricature of someone, possibly this T. Yan individual. But who could that be?

The most obvious explanation would be that the butler is a leftover joke from Kid Kool’s original Japanese version, Kakefu-Kun no Jump Tengoku: Speed Tengoku. It was a vehicle for Kenji “Kakefu-kun” Sagara, a popular child actor in Japan during the late 1980s. Vic Tokai’s Americanization of the game replaced his Hanshin Tigers baseball cap with a spiky coiffure and changed his name to the less expensive Kid Kool, but the other characters were left alone. One clue crops up in the Japanese credits: the butler’s name is listed as “Dirty Echigoya.” It also lists the king’s name as Nioccory V of Poconioccory and his daughter as Josephine Nioccory, and I have no idea what that might mean.


Could T. Yan, Dirty Echigoya, and the butler's horrifying visage refer to some other celebrity from the same era? At the time of the game’s release, Kakefu-Kun was known mostly for his appearances on quiz shows and commercials, which extolled his resemblance to a Tigers player. Sadly, those lead to dead ends. It’s hard to find records of Kakefu-kun’s career in English, and there’s no sign of anyone with the butler’s goofy appearance or either name.

It might be that the royal steward is based on a Vic Tokai staffer. It’s not uncommon for game designers to pattern characters after their fellow employees. In fact, that's where Shu Takumi got inspiration for certain eccentrics in his Phoenix Wright games. It’s rather brazen to have an in-joke like that front and center in Kid Kool, and yet it makes sense. The credits don't mention an Echigoya, but there is a map artist named Sano Yan. A likely suspect.


Another possibility arises, however. Vic Tokai made many more games than Kid Kool, and a glance through their credits reveals one name that corresponds to T. Yan more than any other. That would be Takayan the Barbarian, director of those charming Trouble Shooter games…or the Battle Mania games, as they were known in Japan. Perhaps he worked on Kid Kool under "Sano Yan" or another name. Vic Tokai had lots of great pseudonyms to go around in those days, like "Dark Side Toshi," "Propeller Wado," and "Bigfoot Shijoh."

Could that be it? Did Takayan the Barbarian, future leader of Studio Space Iron Men, play butler in Kid Kool? Or did he turn a co-worker into the malformed attendant? It would be right at home with the in-jokes throughout Trouble Shooter.

It’s a shame that much of Vic Tokai’s past remains opaque, because a look into their history brings up all manner of fascinating details. Vic Tokai co-developed games with Seibu Lease, an even more obscure company. Vic Tokai canceled a North American release of their RPG Shinseiki Odysselya under the name Lost Mission, and it’s a curious game in any form. Vic Tokai also left the industry in 1997, and rarely do they remember that they ever made games.

Vic Tokai never grew to become another Capcom or Konami, but their games had cartoonish appeal and memorable characters beyond their station. Clash at Demonhead and the two Trouble Shooters are underrated delights, and second-stringers like The Krion Conquest and Chester Field show winsome sides amid their flaws. Sometimes that sort of scrappy inspiration is more intriguing than a creatively polished gem.

And Kid Kool? Well, even that left us something to ponder.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Men, Women, and Weirdos of Bangai-O

Treasure’s Bangai-O games are wondrous menageries of destruction. They drop tiny robots into zoomed-out stages and let them wreak havoc with lasers, baseball bats, grenades, and blinding storms of enough missiles to choke an Ichiro Itano dogfight. This brand of adorable chaos is easy enough to find. Bangai-O HD: Missile Fury is still on Xbox Live, and Bangai-O Spirits is pretty cheap among DS games. They’re both decent games, and yet they lack one endearing point of the original Bangai-O: nonsense-spouting bosses.

The dialogue is one of the best part of Bangai-O, odd as that may be for a shooter with no real storyline. Robot-pilot siblings Riki and Mami get advice from a bored housewife and a medium who channels long-dead celebrities, and every stage caps off with some bizarre boss who pilots a rival mecha or sits in a computer core. In localizing the Dreamcast version of Bangai-O, Conspiracy Entertainment intentionally left the text unpolished. It reads like something fresh off a buggy, wheezing translation machine, and it suits Bangai-O perfectly.


Conspiracy even carried the tone over to the boss profiles in the manual. The rest of the booklet is fairly straight-faced about everything, but every boss gets a description rife with absurdity. My favorite is 86, an SF Kosmo Gang leader who communicates entirely through sketches.


The entire set of character profiles can be found here. Bangai-O fans will note that very little of this backstory ever sees mention in the game itself. For example, you’ll never learn about the heroic Yomeiri Masuke’s hit TV series unless you read the manual.

Several Dreamcast games made their way to modern systems in recent years, but they’re limited to Sega offerings like Sonic Adventure and Space Channel 5. I hope that Treasure, now pursuing Steam development, sees fit to reissue Bangai-O in its blithering Dreamcast glory. Perhaps they’ll include the manual, so that all who play it can appreciate things in full.



Yes, Riki. It really is.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Gravity Rush: Touched by the Hand of God

Gravity Rush was my favorite game of last year. It was the reason I bought a Vita, and it's the reason I still own a Vita. It gives a woman named Kat control over her personal gravity, and she slowly becomes a floating city's misunderstood resident superhero. The journey isn't entirely smooth for her or the player, but there's rarely a tepid moment. It’s incredibly fun just to mess with gravitational defiance, to send Kat hurtling across skyscrapers and racing along the underside of a metropolis that’s part Mobius comic, part Russian art deco. It’s a shame that the Vita’s limited success keeps Gravity Rush out of reach for many.

A certain part of Gravity Rush is troubling in one way or another. The game uses the Vita’s touch screen primarily for menus and one rather unnecessary sliding move, yet there’s a secret addition. If you touch Dusty, Kat’s pet cat and floating companion, he’ll disintegrate in a puff of smoke and re-materialize himself a second later. If you touch Kat, she’ll gasp in surprise and look around her.


Many of the Gravity Rush players who’ve noticed this assume that it’s some perverted joke, and they point out that Kat vaguely motions at her rear end as though to shield it. Sadly, this would fit with another unpleasant part of Gravity Rush. While the game takes the high road a good deal of the time, at least one scene subjects Kat to the sexualized nonsense that comic books often visit upon their heroines; a visitor catches her just after a shower, so she loses her towel and blushes. Haw haw. And since Kat’s an exceptionally likable and sympathetic heroine, this event grates even more than it would in a mediocre game. Gravity Rush, you are better than this.

But let’s give director Keiichiro Toyama and the Gravity Rush team the benefit of the doubt for a short while. Kat’s response is the same no matter where the player taps her, and her motions are identical to those she makes if she drifts too far from the city and warps back to safety. It suggests that she’s perplexed rather than harassed, or at least that the director left it purposefully vague.


Kat’s reaction is still disturbing, but for a much better reason. She’s felt the presence of some unseen entity, a being that exerts control over everything she does. Kat may be esteemed as the “Gravity Goddess” in her own world, but she now realizes that she isn’t the top of the pantheon. Unlike the player lending prayers to the final battle in Earthbound or fielding questions from the robot-girl of Wonder Project J2, there’s nothing comforting about Kat’s brush with her manipulator. She clearly doesn’t know what she experienced, only that it came from a place beyond everything she knows. As with all cases of omnipotent intercession, she can’t be sure it even happened.

Kat recovers quickly from her tinge of divine influence, and it leaves any reflection up to the player. Perhaps you, the meddlesome architect of Kat’s triumph and suffering alike, should feel bad about confusing her. You’ve dropped her off floating cities, crashed her into streets, and pressed her into service for both a scheming military and ungrateful citizens. Now you’re giving her existential tremors.


Dusty, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care about otherworldly taunts or the fragile curtain of Gravity Rush's reality. He’s a cat, after all.