Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thanks For Whomp 'Em, Too



So long, Seta. And may flights of Bio Force Apes roar thee to thy rest.



You too, Jaleco. Thanks for all the box art.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Swear Together

I’m still enjoying Tactics Ogre. By all standards of logic, I shouldn’t. It’s a tremendously dated game compared to its modern strategy-RPG descendants, and it shows in the fixed-view maps, the un-cancelable moves, and the fact that the Tactics Ogre version of level-building involves staging practice battles where your troops just whack each other for twenty minutes. I still like it.

In fact, Tactics Ogre has led me to understand why I enjoy Yasumi Matsuno’s games in general. The storylines play some part, as they’re freshly harsh and depressing, sometimes to the point of breast-pounding bathos (here I’m thinking of the scene where a dying pirate leader cries out that she’s going to see her dead husband and bringing their unborn child with her). More than that, though, is Matsuno’s habit of capturing something that RPGs rarely strive for: a constant reminder that you, the player, are an insignificant speck.

Most RPGs, regardless of origin, give the player an entire world to explore, usually as a dramatically simplified globe with about a dozen cities or so. Even in smaller games that span only a few fantasy kingdoms, the story will confine itself to those borders, rarely hinting that there’s a planet beyond them. Yet Matsuno games, from Ogre Battle to Vagrant Story, always paint a broad picture, making it clear that there’s a vast and complicated world going on out there, with churning political struggles and brutal warfare, and that the main character’s tale, however compelling, is just a scrap of it. Even Final Fantasy XII, part of a series that traditionally lets the player map out several continents, stuck to a small stage of a few warring nations.

It’s not just the realistically confined setting, either. Like other Matsuno games, Tactics Ogre builds up an elaborate background of cultures, nations, and reasons for all of them to hate each other. There’s an in-game encyclopedia entry on every faction and major character, and their histories often stretch past Tactics Ogre and into the eight-part Ogre Battle franchise that will never be properly finished. Some RPGs, the Suikodens among them, play in deliberately limited scenery just as Matsuno’s games do, but they don’t flesh out their surroundings nearly as well.

So that’s part of why I like Tactics Ogre. Another part lies in the dialogue. It’s bland and filled with errors, but the translators, much like the Final Fantasy VII localization team, went batshit insane with power once they realized that Sony allowed actual profanity in PlayStation games. It's especially common in exchanges between the heroic Denim's touchy sister, Kachua, and his murderous friend, Vice.



I’ve yet to see them invoke “fuck” for Tactics Ogre’s blend of medieval insults, but Kachua gets called a bitch about 87,000 times by the end of the second chapter.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Not-Really-Lost Ghost in the Shell Scene

A lot of kids discovered anime in the 1990s, but I was an unusual case. I wasn’t introduced to it by Sailor Moon or Ronin Warriors or the discovery that those Robotech episodes I’d caught years ago were pulled from three different and unrelated shows. I knew anime existed and I’d seen Akira on the Sci-Fi Channel, yet it wasn’t until I picked up a magazine called GameFan that I realized Japanese animation was a wide and frequently awful subculture.

One could run an entire website about GameFan’s idiosyncrasies, but it gave me an excellent introduction to anime. The magazine’s Anime Fan section was initially written by one Casey “Takuhi” Loe, who was both articulate and reasonably critical about things. Most anime reviewers of the day were either burned-out husks from the previous decade or apologists who loved anything up to and including Violence Jack, but Casey knew enough to describe anime thoughtfully while upbraiding the terrible releases (which came fairly often) and recognizing the guilty pleasures.



It was through Anime Fan that I first learned of Ghost in the Shell. In the March 1996 issue of GameFan, Casey ran the above image alongside a list of the U.S. theaters carrying the movie. That’s where the mystery arises. I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell many times over the years, and this shot of heroine Motoko Kusanagi, naked and underwater, appears nowhere in the film itself. Motoko is shown submerged in two scenes: one in which her bare android frame is assembled, and another in which she’s wearing a full diving outfit. Neither has her regarding a glowing, unseen object in her clutches.

The easiest explanation would classify this shot as promotional artwork cooked up by Production I.G before the film’s completion. Still, the imagery is strange for a simple promo shot; the overlapping bubbles and unclear background make it rather messy, and Motoko’s proportions look like something captured from a quickly glimpsed frame of animation. What’s more, every other piece of Ghost in the Shell promo art was either a direct grab from the film or some obvious illustration.

I doubt the image comes from a deleted scene. Animation is more expensive to finish than basic live-action footage, and studios usually don’t color and complete animated scenes that aren’t guaranteed to make it into the final product (the exceptions being rare and high-budget cases like Disney’s The Black Cauldron or Don Bluth’s The Land Before Time). Even if it were from an earlier cut of the film, a yanked clip would likely be included as an extra on the DVD or re-inserted in the new 2.0 version of Ghost in the Shell.

In conclusion, I have no real answer, and I have only Casey Loe’s old Anime Fan column to thank. Years distant, it’s still making me care too much about Japanese cartoons.