25 Years 25 Games #3: Super Punch-Out!!

For as big a fan as I am of Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, it was kind of shocking to me to find out that there was a sequel on SNES.  This was in 2008, about the same time as Nintendo announced the Wii game.  Somehow, the existence of the SNES game eluded me for nearly 15 years.  I really don’t know how I didn’t know about it. I did buy it on the Virtual Console, but I never got around to playing it.

After beating it, I have to say that I don’t like it as much as the other two Punch-Out!! games I’ve played. A big part of that is how familiar I am with the NES game and how closely the Wii game sticks to it.  Super Punch-Out!! is quite a bit different. It is more complex, with a wider variety of punches and dodges available to the player, and it has a roster of opponents that is mostly unique to this game. (and the arcade games that no one has ever played) I think what really hurt my enjoyment of it, though, is that I don’t really remember how long it took me to get good at Punch-Out!!

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I found playing Super Punch-Out!! very frustrating.  After the first few easy opponents, I started ran into the wall that is learning new fighters.  I got by Piston Hurricane and Bald Bull pretty easily, but Dragon Chan and Masked Muscle was where I started having a lot of trouble.  These fighters have a lot of different moves and tics, and learning those takes time.  Especially when the game doesn’t quite work like I expect it to.  The real problem is how fast I was trying to beat this game.  Now I think of NES Punch-Out!! as a pleasant romp, at least until the last three or four fights.  But it took me a long time playing that game to get that good.  Like playing it off and on for more than 20 years. Compared to that, or to a game that is deliberately as close to that game as possible.  Super Punch-Out!! is trying to push the series forward, and it mostly works, but it frustrates an old pro at the NES game.

None of those problems really have anything to do with what this game actually is.  Although I don’t much like this game, I can’t really claim that it isn’t a good, or maybe even great, game.  The complexity it adds should be counted as a good thing.  I really liked the different super punches that Little Mac has at his disposal.  I never really figured out how the different punches worked, but the options are good.  It will take time to learn when to use which one might take some time, but I like having a more options than just uppercut.

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I’m of two minds about the new boxers in this game.  I really like some them; they work.  What I don’t like is how far they start to get away from being, you know, boxers.  Masked Muscle is fine; his luchador shtick doesn’t interfere with him being a boxer.  His one extra move is to spit in the player’s eyes, an illegal move but not a crazy one.  Likewise with Heike Kagero and his hair whip.  But Dragon Chan and his kicks or How Quarlow and his stick are just a step too far for me.

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Super Punch-Out!! is a great looking game.  No one can argue with that. Just like the original was one of the best looking games on the NES, this one has some of the best looking sprites on the SNES. The music is also a highlight.  Really, there is no part of this game that isn’t well made; I just don’t like it as much as the previous game. Nintendo rarely misses and they were really on the top of their game in the SNES days.  While Super Punch-Out!! doesn’t quite have the reputation of some their best games, like Super Metroid or Yoshi’s Island, but it really shows how the mastered this hardware.

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25 SNES #2: Radical Dreamers

The second game in my quest to explore more fully the SNES video game library is a strange one. A good one, but it is truly one of the oddest games that I have ever encountered. Radical Dreamers is a visual novel with some light RPG elements. Honestly, it is pretty light on the visual part of visual novel as well. It is also a sequel of sorts to Chrono Trigger, which is quite possibly the best game on the system as well as my personal favorite. So in making a sequel to a popular game, Squaresoft chose not only to change the genre, or to release it only on a little used platform, but it also buries the lead so deep many players are likely to not get ever realize what they are playing. Still, it turned out to be a fairly entertaining game, especially with the fan-translation by Demiforce.

Radical Dreamers - Nusume Nai Houseki (Japan) (BS) [En by Demiforce v1.4] (~Radical Dreamers - Le Tresor Interdit) 0000

That Squaresoft would make a sequel to Chrono Trigger is not odd. Especially one that follows up one of the biggest dangling plot threads from the game. That the perfect storm of factors that lead to Chrono Trigger’s creation weren’t able to be recreated wasn’t a surprise; that they got the minds behind the two biggest RPG franchises together to make it in the first place was something of a minor miracle. Still, that it was not really an RPG is a strange choice. It was also only released on Satellaview, an early attempt by Nintendo for some sort of online gaming, is also a curious choice. I am sure Nintendo was eager to get other companies to support his endeavor. A fairly short visual novel was probably a good choice for that platform. These two choices are compounded by not being upfront that this is a follow up to Chrono Trigger. Players were likely an hour or more into the game before the oblique references to Chrono Trigger added up to enough make it clear that it takes place in the same world and it is most of the way through the game until Magus reveals himself.

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Still the game itself is a lot of fun. It follows a trio of adventurers, Kid, Serge and Magil, as they break into Viper Manor in an attempt to steal the Frozen Flame from the villain Lynx. Most of the main scenario of the game consists of running through the mostly abandoned mansion trying to find where the Flame is hidden. It really builds the characters well in its rather short running time. Serge, the player character, is somewhat inexperienced, which means that Kid and Magil spend a lot of time helping him out. The center of the game is the relationship that develops, aided by the player, between Kid and Serge. Magil holds himself somewhat separate. In all, it is a compact, fun adventure, though some of the battles can get annoying. The music is quite good, and the few instances where it really uses graphics they look pretty nice.

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After the main scenario is completed players can activate a handful of others. Those are mostly comedy or just plain weirdness. In one Magil falls in love, in another he is a space cop and even a mecha pilot. I didn’t complete all of them, but they fit in with the title. They are all something like dream sequences, fitting for a game called Radical Dreamers.

If the main scenario sounds familiar, that is because it was expanded to be the opening part of the eventual “real” sequel Chrono Cross. The broad strokes are the same, though many of the details are changed and it serves merely as the opening of a much larger adventure. Really, the only thing that was lost in conversion was that Magil was secretly Magus. The Viper Manor portion of Chrono Cross was probably the best part of that game; the rest seems a little lost.

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Still, the existence of Chrono Cross and this game’s scarcity condemn it to be little more than a footnote in the grand scheme of things. It is a small little project that served as the basis for something much better. The game is still worth playing, even if just for an excuse to see the weirdness.

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The Revenant Review

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My thoughts following watching The Revenant, a film directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, was that it was an altogether excellent film and I hope never to see it again. Much like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant is a near three hour long western that is frequently brutal and often bleak.  Where the former film goes for stylized and exaggerated violence, The Revenant uses chilling realism to tell its story. It is singularly effective, gut wrenchingly hard to look away from and almost impossible to look at again once it is over.

It is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a trapper working with the US Army who in 1820 gets mauled by a bear.  His companions drag him as far as they can, but in the end leave him in the care of a few men, including his son, who are supposed to watch him until he dies. After one of the men, Fitzgerald, kills his son and leaves Glass for dead, he treks across the wilds of Dakotas to get revenge.  Many of the details are have been altered, or changed outright, but the bear attack and trek through the wilderness are true to life.  I was warned beforehand that the bear mauling scene was brutal, and it is, but it is followed by numerous scenes that are equally hard to watch.  Glass goes through hell in his quest, and no one else gets off easy.  Each act of bloody violence compounds on the one before it, exhausting the viewer is its sheer ugly spectacle.

In sharp contrast to the ugly violence perpetrated by the men in this film is the incomparable beauty of the setting. Offsetting the scenes of blood in this film are vast panoramas that display the beauty of Northern Great Plains. It shows different sorts of fauna, along with the rivers, forests and mountains that awe viewers in between scenes full of blood and violence.  The two are so different it is almost as though they are from two different films.

DiCaprio has gotten a lot of attention for his performance, but equally striking is the performance of Hardy.  Hardy plays the villain that is almost comically in his complete lack of redeeming characteristics, but Hardy makes him seem real. Right from the start, when the Native Americans start attacking the trapping crew, he is more concerned with the pelts and his payday than getting anyone else out alive.  He follows that up with a racist speech, an attempted murder and several actual murders. There are shades of grey with everyone else, from Bridger, the young man convinced to leave Glass to die, to the Native Americans on the warpath looking for their Chiefs kidnapped daughter, but Hardy’s Fitzgerald is a monster.  

It all comes together into a film that is equal parts beautiful and ugly. For the most part it sticks to its simple story other than from some ill-advised detours into magical native mysticism.  I found the violence sickening, and it wore on me as the film went on.  The Revenant is a film that feels every minute of its long run time.  Still, it is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.  It is also an experience that maybe shouldn’t be repeated.

****

Good night, Konami

It has been a long time since I played Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but I haven’t really stopped thinking about it or trying to write this blog post; I am merely having trouble finding the words to express my thoughts about the game. MGSV is a game that has inspired many thoughts, most, but not all, of them complimentary to the game. Not only is it a massive game, but it is also likely the last game in the series. Or maybe just the last legitimate game in the series. On top of that, it seems to be Konami’s last video game, as they make an inelegant exit from the industry to focus on the actually profitable parts of their business. In many ways, MGSV feels like the last game of an era. Maybe that is because I played on the PS3, but it feels something like a farewell to that generation and a farewell to the last vestige of Japanese influence on the current gaming industry.

Part of me wants to use a post about The Phantom Pain to eulogize Konami; the hardest part of playing this game is having to reconcile its mastery with the loss of that titan. The video game industry without them simply feels wrong. Each console generation has winnowed out companies that were able to adapt to the new technology. They may have been masters at one point, but their times passed and they went away, with new developers rising to take their place. Mid-tier companies like Jaleco and Sunsoft sputtered and failed in the transitions to 16-bit and 3D. Throughout all of that, though, there were some stalwarts, companies like Nintendo, Capcom and Konami. No matter the system, you could expect to see their games among their most well regarded. (With the obvious exception of Nintendo on non-Nintendo systems) For more than two decades Konami developed a great mix of big time titles, like Castlevania, Gradius or Contra, and slightly lesser known fare like Legend of the Mystical Ninja and Suikoden. They pumped out tons of quality titles in all sorts of genres. Since the days of the Playstation, their biggest hit has been inarguably Metal Gear Solid. While Castlevania and Contra withered on the home console side, both series managing to make marks only with frequent and frequently excellent handheld titles, Metal Gear Solid kept the attention of gaming community. It is only fitting that with Konami making a lamented and ungainly exit from the video game business, Metal Gear Solid V is their last hurrah.

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Eulogizing would make more sense if The Phantom Pain was a backward looking game, but it is not. It is still out there on the forefront of the gaming scene, where the series has always been. While it does play in many ways like previous MGS games, it does so much more. The first three MGS games were each one or two missions. Snake starts with a goal and each boss and area is another step in achieving that goal. MGSIV, for better and worse, expanded that, being comprised of several missions. MGSV takes that a step further; it is a full campaign. Snake deploys into two giant sandboxes with a giant list of missions to accomplish. This added scope leads to more gameplay systems added to an already complex game. Now, Snake runs an entire military force. The more he builds his base, the greater the resources available to Snake in the field. The base building plays into the online component. It also plays into the new buddy system, where Snake brings along a companion with a certain set of skills. It turns the whole thing into a very complex web that is surprisingly painless to navigate. The depth is there for players that want to dig into it, but it is also possible to just understand that bigger numbers are better and just play the game.

Where the game falters, at least somewhat, is in the story. The broad strokes are great, but that is all there is; the game is only the broad strokes. It plays as though the story portions weren’t finished, especially knowing how long winded the previous MGS games could be. Since I don’t want to spoil the big reveal that has certainly already been spoiled for everybody, I will say that the somewhat simple tale of revenge and a man slowly becoming the things he hates are done well.

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That is really my problem in examining this game: I am not invested in it is enough. I can’t provide a strong break down of the gameplay because I was that player that barely took the time to understand it and just figured bigger numbers are better. Mind you, I played the game for near on 100 hours, but I never really dug too deep into all of my options. I used the same load out for most missions. I hand a tranq pistol and a tranq sniper rifle. I knocked dudes out and tied balloons to them to take them to my base. I snuck whenever that was an option and tried to avoid killing. And I am not enough expect enough in the story of Metal Gear to get really analyze its themes. I have missed too many chapters, including the opening one to this game. I am rarely an expert on games; I am more of a tourist. I come through and see the sights, but I don’t stop long enough to really dig deep into the details. I am fine with that, I would rather play a lot of different games than learn one completely. But The Phantom Pain is a game that needs to be examined by an expert.

What Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is to me is a last trip through a series and a company that is going away. I don’t know that it is a good farewell to either. It feels like an evolutionary step for Metal Gear, a game the takes the series to a new place just waiting for another game to perfect it, like MGS3 did for the original. And it doesn’t inspire much reflection on Konami, other than that at one point they used to make excellent games like this as a matter of course. I was glad to play this game, but it ends on a bittersweet note because I know that there will not be any more like it.

Every year, video gaming changes further from what it was when I started playing and I am less and less interested in putting forth the effort to track down the stuff I like. The pool of new games I want to play dwindles every year and every year I care a little less. The Phantom Pain is the first game in long while to remind me that there are things that I have never done in a game. If only other games offered similar new experiences.

What I read in December 2015

December was a slow month; the holidays did not leave a lot of time for reading.  Still, I got through a couple.  I refuse to go a whole month without reading something.  In December, I read two books, though one of them was very short.  I am really happy with what  I read in 2015.  By my Goodreads count, I read 71 books.  Some were good, some were not.  I’m not sure I’ll hit that number again this year, but I hope to at least read fifty new books.

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Arms and the Woman

Harold McGrath

Arms and the Woman is a delightful, if not particularly good, Ruritanian Adventure from an all but forgotten author writing around the turn of the century.  I stumbled onto some of his books after reading The Prisoner of Zenda a few years ago and I have been reading them occasionally ever since.  It takes Zenda’s basic plot points, like the fictional European country and royal look alike, and does things just slightly differently.  What I really liked about it was how proactive, at times, the heroine was.  The protagonist leaves America because his love tells him up front that she doesn’t love him.  So he goes to Europe, as a reporter, and happens upon an inn with a barmaid that looks much like his love from America. He spends time there, only to discover that she is a princess in hiding.  He vows to protect her, but when he is forced to accept a duel with swords, which he is not particularly adept with, she ties him up and takes his place.  Not only is she a secret princess, she is also a master duelist.  He falls in love with her, but she thinks he still loves the girl from America.  After some adventures with her evil suitor, some misunderstandings and secret family members, they live happily ever after.  It is not particularly good, but it was a lot of fun.  The absurdity inherent in this sort of story just keeps snowballing here until it reaches truly terrific proportion. Considering how short it is I have no problem recommending it.

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Daughter of the Forest

Juliet Marillier

Oddly enough, I read this one the recommendation of my mother.  She is not usually one to read fantasy and if I’m being honest her recommendations tend to not be all that great.  A book about gladiators she recommended to me a couple of years ago turned out to be one of the most mean spirited things I’ve ever read.  But she read this for her book club and thought it would be something I would like as well. This time, she was right.

Daughter of the Forest is set up like a fairy tale; drawing upon and playing out like folklore. In it, protagonist Sorcha, the seventh child and first daughter of Lord Colum of Sevenwaters, must save her family from a curse.  Her father is distant with the children after the death of their mother, and they grow up largely untended.  When he remarries, his new wife turns out to be a witch.  While trying to free their home from her dark influence, they end up cursed.  Sorcha’s six brothers are turned into swans and she must sew them each a shirt to free them without ever speaking lest the curse becomes permanent.

At times the structure of the book doesn’t quite work. For instance, the book spends the first couple hundred pages introducing the brothers, but they don’t play much of a role during the rest of the book. Their connection to Sorcha is vital to how things play out, but a lot of the early parts of the book don’t really establish that connection. Also, it leaves parts of the end of the book feeling a little rushed. That is my biggest problem with this book: it left me wanting more. I wanted to know more about Red, the man that Sorcha falls in love with, and more about Lady Oonagh, the woman who curses Sorcha and her brothers. While the book does build to a conflict, it doesn’t really build to the same conflict it starts with. Still, I liked this quite a bit. It is a fast read that is much less reliant on violent struggles than most fantasy.

The Hateful Eight Review

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The Hateful Eight might be one of the meanest, darkest movies I’ve ever watched. Still, I would also call it one of the most enjoyable. Despite its overwhelming bleakness it is never difficult to watch. The Hateful Eight has a running time of very close to three hours, but you never feel a moment of that running time. The film is mesmerizing, disgusting and utterly entrancing.

Tarantino masterfully builds the bleakness of this film into every part. Starting with the beautiful landscape shots, showing snow covered mountains and forests barren of life, other than the stagecoach carrying some of movie’s travelers. The snow covers all life; nothing in this mountain wilderness is alive. Into this world is where our characters enter, with Samuel L Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren appears as if from nowhere, blocking the way of a stagecoach carrying bounty hunter John Ruth and his bounty Daisy. They are soon joined by another lost traveler, supposed Sheriff Chris Mannix. The four of them travel for some time, treating viewers to one of Tarantino’s trademark conversation scenes. Each one of these characters is horrible in their own way. Mannix is a former confederate raider, a man with who feels no shame about his racism. Daisy shows herself to be simply vile, being as awful as possible at every opportunity. The apparent heroes of the piece, Ruth and Warren, are only marginally better. Ruth quickly proves himself to be both violent and a fool. Warren is accused by Mannix of brutalities during the war, acts not confined to his enemies and he doesn’t even bother to deny the accusations. None of these are good people.

When they reach their stopping point, a small respite named Minnie’s Haberdashery; the other four appear, other travelers waiting out the coming blizzard but not the people they were expecting. Warren is suspicious and Ruth suspects at least one of them is there to free Daisy. This is when the film switches to it true story, which is a murder mystery with eight (it actually isn’t eight, I can’t think of a way to count those in the cabin that doesn’t equal nine) terrible people trapped in the same place, all distrustful of the others, each with secrets. They are violent people trapped in close proximity until violence erupts.

And things do get violent. As secrets are uncovered and violence is done, each character ends up looking worse and worse. Warren might be on the side of good, but his methods are anything but. He is the hero, but still manages to gloat over how much he loves to kill white people. Ruth may be admirable in many ways, but he is still a fool that when enraged beats a captive woman bloody. Daisy is awful enough that the audience cheered her beating. Still, by the end there is almost a bit of hope among all the blood and death. There is common ground found between two very different men. It maybe doesn’t matter, it isn’t likely to change their fate, but it is something.

Watching a Tarantino movie is something like seeing Rembrandt do superhero comics. It is an unquestioned master working in a medium that gets little respect. Tarantino can set a scene and build tension like no one else, but he works exclusively in the lowest, most pulpy of genres. I wouldn’t want him to change for anything. He gets great performance out of great actors; there really isn’t a weak link among them, though the best are Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue and Walton Goggins as Mannix. Who is to say that spaghetti westerns or martial arts revenge movies aren’t deserving of true masterpieces. That is what The Hateful Eight, like Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds before it, is: a masterpiece.

*****

25 Years, 25 Games #1: Super Bomberman

I decided to ease myself into this 25 Years, 25 SNES Games project with Super Bomberman. More so than any other game on my list, this one I knew what I getting going in.  It’s Bomberman.  Everyone’s played some version Bomberman before. Right?

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Maybe not everyone has played Bomberman, but since his last game came out more than a half decade ago, maybe people don’t know Bomberman.  Well, they should; his games were great. They spanned most consoles from the NES all the way to Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3. While Hudson Soft other supposed mascots, the one that stuck around throughout the history of the company was Bomberman.  The games, at the heart of their most important mode, can trace their style of play back to Pac-Man and other single screen character action games.  Players control a little robot in a maze, trying to clear paths or trap monsters/other players with their bombs.  On the surface it is simple, but the complexity is hidden just beneath the surface, especially against living, breathing opponents.

sbm2  While I was a fan of Bomberman, I had never played any of the Super Bomberman games, of which I understand there are four.  I spent a ton of time with Wario Blast (featuring Bomberman) on Gameboy, which instilled a love of the little robot in me.  I also spent some time with various N64 games and a few download titles since.  But I never really even knew about the SNES games at the time.  Super Bomberman is a good, if not spectacular, rendition of Bomberman.  You blow up enemies and pick up power-ups.  There is a story mode, where you play against the computer, pretty simple with some fun but unspectacular bosses to fight.

sbm3I am given to understand that the other Super Bomberman games are better than the first one.  That seems likely.  This game is a pretty no frills experience.  It has just story mode and battle mode.  Each works just fine, but there are few bells and whistles.  Still, the game is still a lot of fun.  Bomberman stuck around so long because the core game is so very good.  Though this game provides little beyond that experience it is still a worthwhile experience just for that.

This game really makes me pine for the days when games like this came out.  That is maybe (absolutely) being unfair to the robust indie and download game market, but I can’t help but look back on the days when something like this could get a boxed release and be a well-remembered game.  Games like Bomberman aren’t exactly gone, but they have become rare and have been shoved off to the sidelines of the gaming world.  The closest recent example of game like this that I can think of is Nintendo’s Boxboy; a game that is relatively simple on the surface, but has satisfying depths to plumb.  Really, this is just an old game enthusiast yelling at kids to get off my lawn.  I am growing increasingly disconnected with modern gaming, and going back and playing games like this makes it clear to me how much more I liked games back then.

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So, Super Bomberman; it is a good game.  One that is a perfectly fine game, but maybe isn’t as worth playing now thanks to other Bomberman games that just offer more.  I have heard the Saturn Bomberman is the cream of the crop, but there is too much of the series I haven’t played. Still, I’d call the first SNES game I played this year an unqualified success.

Now Playing in December 2015

Beaten

Xenoblade Chronicles X – I beat it, and I have a post upcoming.  Hold me to that, I have a lot I want to say about this game, which I recently named my game of the year.

SteamWorld Heist – I also have some things to say about this game.  Right now I’ll just call it one of the best strategy games I’ve played in a long while and a perfect marriage of great gameplay with a charming world.

Ongoing

Rune Factory 4 – This is just the sort of game I make these posts for: games that I like, and maybe have something to say about, but won’t likely ever beat or manage to write a full post about.  In the past I have not been a big fan of the Rune Factory branch of the Harvest Moon tree. One of the most compelling aspects of that series is that there is no fighting.  Adding that to the game, and making it not appreciably more fun than the farming, seems to defeat the purpose.  Still, I am really enjoying my time with this game.  It is fun to play and really makes you feel like you are accomplishing something even if you play in little bursts.  Plus, the whole cast here is new to me, not like many Harvest Moons with their repeats of certain characters.  Once in a while a game from this series really hits the spot, and now is one of those times.  Will I make it past the first year or through the whole of the story? I doubt it, but I will likely get 15-20 of good enjoyment out of this game before I wander off for more exciting pastures.

Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky – Still slogging through this.  The bloom is off the rose at this point.  While I don’t think it is a bad game, I do have several bones to pick with this game.

Codename STEAM – A Christmas present, this game landed with something of a thud earlier this year and seems to be pretty much forgotten already.  That is unfortunate.  While it has some pretty big flaws, through the first five or six chapters it has been highly satisfying.  The story is delightfully bonkers. I am sure I will have more to say about this game.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate – I think I am falling back into this rabbit hole.  Maybe it is time to see what the back half of this game’s content looks like.

Prince of Persia – I got this for Christmas as well, and I like it quite a bit through the first three or so areas.  I am having some problems with somewhat delayed reactions with the controls, but that might be on me.  Still, it is a good looking game and I love climbing all over environments.

Never Alone – I want to like this game, but I don’t.  At least not at the start.  It is just a little too pokey and slow.  Maybe it will grow on me, I certainly hope so, but so far it feels just a little lackluster.

Upcoming

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam – I like most of the games in both series, so playing the mash up seems like a no-brainer.  Plus, at the rate I’m burning through Codename STEAM, I’ll be ready for something new by the end of the month.

Super Bomberman – I am starting off my SNES reevaluation with this game from a classic series.  It seemed like a nice, familiar way to ease myself into this.

Radical Dreamers – This will be my second SNES game of the year.  It is a game that has been near the top of my playlist for a long time, but I needed some sort of incentive to actually play it.

Yakuza 5 – I finally got it downloaded, but Xenoblade was taking all my time.  Then I played my (7 year old) Christmas gift, Prince of Persia.  As soon as I finish that, I am jumping right into this. Maybe sooner.  

What I Watched in December 2015

Movies

  • The Master – This is a case of a movie that is clearly excellent, but somehow I didn’t end up liking it.  Part of that is due to how good some of the performances are.  Joaquin Phoenix does an outstanding job, but his character is too convincing at being off-putting and uncomfortable.  He is hard to watch.  He is also the center of this film, Hoffman’s turn as the titular Master notwithstanding.  Having a character that makes everyone, the viewer included uncomfortable makes for a hard movie to watch. ****
  • Forgetting Sarah Marshall – This wasn’t anything outstanding, but it was a funny movie full of generally funny people.  I just think it hovered between trying to have some kind of real heart and being really funny, without committing fully to either idea.  The result is pleasantly enjoyable, but not outstanding.  ***
  • Punch Drunk Love – I started to watch The Ridiculous 6, but after a few excruciating minutes I switched over to this. I doubt any would call this Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film, but it is likely Sandler’s.  He plays a business owner, henpecked by his numerous elder sisters who occasionally have violent outbursts.  He meets a woman, finds a harmonium and makes a call to a phone sex line.  While his relationship with the woman deepens, he has to deal with blackmail attempts. It is a strange, off kilter romance that is highly enjoyable.  ****
  • In the Heart of the Sea – see review here.  **1/2
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – see review here.  ****1/2
  • Kill Me Three Times – This movie really wants to be some kind of Tarantino, or at least Guy Ritchie, crime movie, but it just isn’t that good.  That is not to say there is nothing to like in what is mostly a limp, mean effort.  Simon Pegg is clearly having a lot of fun playing the villain and the way everything twists around to everything together. Still, too much of it is just poorly explained.  It isn’t a good movie, but there is some enjoyment to be gleaned from it. **1/2
  • Mission Impossible Rogue Nation – Just as good on DVD as it was this summer.  It is certainly better than the limp Bond offering from this year. ****
  • Whisper of the Heart – A Ghibli movie that had slipped by me until my brother got it for Christmas.  This movie is amazing, a perfect expression of the yearning and dreams of childhood.  One of Ghibli’s best, and that is saying something.  *****
  • High Road to China – This is something of a bone thrown to Selleck after he was forced to pass on Raiders of the Lost Arc, and while it does have some superficial similarities to Indy’s first outing, it is something else entirely.  While it is an adventure movie, it is not much of an action movie.  It does feature some great biplane action, I guess.  I think it is telling that at the end it is not Selleck’s O’Malley that gets the triumph, but his love interest.  Still, it is a fine, unfairly forgotten film. ***1/2
  • Quigley Down Under – Tom Selleck plays a cowboy in Australia, first hired then hunted by Alan Rickman’s villain.  It is a well-done western that somewhat updates the formula, if only by setting it in Australia rather than actually in the west.  Rickman’s villain is a conscious lover of the west, but Quigley shows him that all his aping of cowboys doesn’t make him one.  It also allows the main character to call out the racism of the west without actually doing so.  It is not a great movie, but I would definitely call it a good one. ***1/2
  • Electric Boogaloo – I was not super knowledgeable about Cannon Films going in, but this documentary was great.  It perfectly shows what made them interesting even if it didn’t make their movies any good. They churn out schlock, desperate to make it in Hollywood.  Their occasional hits seem to be more the result of just how much they throw against the wall than any sort of plan, but they did have them.  Still, I think the film world was better off with them churning out schlock than without them.    ****

TV

  • Daredevil – As with Jessica Jones, there is a sense of diminishing returns with Daredevil.  There is a lot of really good show here, but I can’t help but think it would be better if it was ten episodes instead of thirteen.  I’m not sure Daredevil really uses its running time wisely, since despite all the buildup they had for the Kingpin, he falls rather easily.  The second half never touches the heights of the beginning, but it is never really bad.
  • Poirot S3 & 4 – I really like this show, even though it can be slow and dry.  They are well done adaptations of Christie’s stories, with little frills or flash.  Suchet does a great job as Poirot, and most of these are really good stories.  Solid is, I guess, the best way to describe this show.
  • Fargo S2 – This is the best show on Television, even with its all too frequent references to Coen Brothers films, not just Fargo.  This season jumps back to the early eighties, and has a hapless couple accidentally pitting a local crime family against a big one from KC.  It nails pretty much every character and story beat perfectly.  The show is just great.
  • Supergirl – There are still flashes of greatness here, especially Melissa Benoist in the lead role, but it still hasn’t managed to pull all of its various characters and setting into a cohesive whole.  It is getting closer, though, and the good has always outweighed the bad.  Hopefully the second half of the season brings it all together.
  • Flash & Arrow – I’m putting these two together because the big episodes for each in December were the crossover episodes.  And man, what a crossover that was.  The Flash still manages to delight at every turn, and Arrow has been much better this season that last.  I’m not sure how much I like Hawkman and Hawkgirl, but still, seeing both gangs together to fight Vandal Savage was great.

A Lesson Unlearned

A long time ago, when I was still a naive youngster of 21 or 22, I made some bad decisions.  That isn’t unusual; most people in their early twenties make some mistakes.  One I made involved a PS2 game called Ar Tonelico.  The mistake was that I purchased and played it.  It served as a wakeup call to the trend that Japanese games were following and helped me avoid games with similar content going forward, but I still had the embarrassment of having played that in my mind.  In the better part of a decade since that game came out, I have successfully avoided similar titles, knowing better that to even get them for a laugh.  Unfortunately, I made a similar mistake again with the 3DS (and Vita) game Conception 2.

The thought processes that lead me to buy Ar Tonelico were sound. The previous year I had played Atelier Iris, a charming if insubstantial game with its focus evenly spread between adventuring and crafting.  It had a nice throwback feel that helped offset its apparent cheapness.  Finding that the team behind it, the developer Gust and publisher NIS America, were putting out another game with a similar look I was intrigued.  I didn’t look into it a ton; it was a niche title that wasn’t getting a whole lot of press so there wasn’t a lot to check.  I just semi-blindly purchased it at a time when I had some money.  I mean, I was in college, and that meant I didn’t really have a steady cash flow, just times when I could buy video games and times when I couldn’t.  Ar Tonelico had the good fortune to come out in a time when I did have money.  It starts out not especially disconcerting, just some 2D sprites and a battle system all about protecting the magical singer in the back row.  Then the game introduces “diving” which has the main character enter the singer/mages (called Reyvateils in the game but that doesn’t matter) which unlocks abilities and costumes.  Every discussion about diving, though, is framed with sexual innuendo.  It quickly crosses the line odd to creepy with stuff like inserting song changing crystals into the girls’ “installation ports.” It is uncomfortably pervy.  It was also a sign of things to come.

The appearance of somewhat skeevy sequences, at least to American sensibilities, in Japanese games has long been a thing.  In Lunar 2 you can find pin-up pictures of most of the female portion of the cast, as well as a few joke ones.  Many JRPGs have an inexplicable bath scene or the like.  Ar Tonelico was the crest of a wave games that existed just for those pervy moments, followed by just about the rest of NIS’s output and stuff like Senran Kagura.  As a lover of Japanese games, it was inevitable that I would stumble upon one of these nightmares; Ar Tonelico just happened to be the one that I played.  After seeing that crap first hand, and I played all the way through it just for the amusement of my roommate, who found the whole thing bafflingly hilarious, I knew better than to pick up anything like it going forward.  Or so I thought.

When Atlus released Conception 2 for the 3DS and Vita, I ignored it.  There were other, more interesting games coming out at the same time and it set off my skeev-o-meter like crazy.  However, this summer, amid of drought of interesting 3DS software, before Legend of Zelda Triforce Heroes, I picked it up digitally during a sale.  The game itself is not very good, but that is compounded by its focus jiggling anime titties and weird sexual innuendo.  It starts right in the title: Conception. It is all about making babies. The central mechanic for party building in this game is called “class-mating,”(I must admit that that is a terrific pun. Kudos to the localization team.) in which the protagonist and his female classmate of choice go through a special process that results in the creation of “star children” who make up the bulk of the player’s party.  Those kids get stronger the closer the protagonist and the woman are, so the game is actually about romancing anime ladies to make babies, except that any reference to sex must be oblique.  Aside from some brief amusement at the pun in class-mating, this whole thing is just off-putting.  Almost as much as the Headmaster at the school where all this happens.  He talks exclusively in lurid references to the women present.  I’ll repeat that.  The headmaster of the game’s school setting talks about nothing except how hot he thinks the games girls are.  He is just some super creeper.  I’ve enjoyed some games that have elements of dating sims.  I love Persona 4 and it has plenty of that.  But that is only one element of Persona 4; most of the game is about chasing down a killer as an anime Scooby-Doo gang.  It strays into weird hijinks occasionally, but it doesn’t linger there.  Conception 2, those parts are not additional, they are the focus of the game.  The game exists primarily for pseudo-sexual encounters with its female characters, the dungeons and battles are merely there to pad things out.  The whole endeavor is gross.

I think I have truly learned my lesson this time. There is no enjoyment to be had for me in this sort of game.  With the game market in Japan continuing to shrink, leaving what developers that remain the unenviable choice of having to either risk not finding an audience or banking on the otaku crowd that eats up this creepy bullshit. Conception 2 went for that second option