Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Title for the Gaj Forum? New Title for the Gaj Forum!

Well, it's official. I received a few suggestions via email, the comments section, and Facebook, and I appreciate them all, but I actually managed to think of a new title myself. In the end, I decided to go with Nuclear Houseplant. Since you're already here, you know that the new address is nukeplant dot blogspot dot com, and now that you're aware of that, I'll be expecting you to visit regularly. See what I did there? Yeah, you have to watch out with me.

I've brought all the old posts over from The Gaj Forum, and they're indexed as if they had originally appeared on this very blog, though it's actually a new one. Oh, internet, what'll you come up with next? Amazing. Simply amazing. Okay, then. See you around!

New Title for the Gaj Forum?

Well, it's been fun the past two months, operating under what has felt like an ego-stroker of a masthead, but I think it's time to change the title of this blog. "Gaj Forum" is too specific, and it doesn't say anything at all about what this blog is really up to. I guess that I tend to insert some autobiography into many of the posts I write, but hopefully my posts are much more outwardly focused overall. I think they are. Also, my blog apparently shares a title with someone else's web site, the real problem being that the other website is gajforum dot com. I clearly need a new title. Unfortunately, I think I'm completely out of ideas just now!

So any suggestions? Overall, I want something that expresses the mission around here, which is writing thoughtfully and critically about games, and I'd like a little style to it, too. I'm trying for something mildly geeky, and maybe even something overly literate, but I don't want it to be pretentious. So, for instance, "Iterum: A Retro Gaming Blog?" Yeah, that's out of the running. By all means, please email me your suggestions (if the link's not your thing, it's gajderowhat at gmail dot com), post them as comments below, or tweet them to me. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the suggestions!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Long-Awaited Reunion

A couple of months ago I wrote an entry about my early experiences with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and I've since felt just a little bit guilty that I've now blogged about that game but neglected my favorite of the Zelda games, which is, unquestionably, The Wind Waker. By complete coincidence, I also happened to overhear a Twitter exchange Friday night between Steve Amodio of 8-bit Hacks and Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer. They were both discussing Wind Waker, and I couldn't help but get in on the conversation. I could only stand a couple of tweets before I lost all hope of resistance; I ran over to the shelf, pulled out that little Gamecube disc, and pushed it into the Wii. I was transported.

Wind Waker is a game that it's hard for me to think about objectively, much like Ocarina of Time. I just have too many memories, fond ones, that I have to dig back through to get at the experience of playing it. So indulge me for just a moment while I recall some of those. I graduated from college in the spring of 2003, and if you're a gamer with a memory, you might recall that that was just about the time of Wind Waker's release. That April, I'd gotten myself a little early graduation present, a Nintendo Gamecube, with a copy of Metroid Prime. I'd tried to hold out on buying another console, because I already owned a Playstation 2 that I'd halfway convinced myself I was buying for the DVD playback capability, but I'm only human, and try as I might, I just couldn't keep my eyes off the reviews for Metroid. It had been two generations since there'd been a new Samus Aran adventure, and I needed my fix so, so badly. Plus, there was a new Zelda that had just come out. That would have to be mine soon, too.

Well, I spent a little of April, but not too much, playing Metroid Prime, as did my roommate Andrew, who to this day needs to come to New York and finish his damn game. Really, I did a good job of controlling myself, considering this was Metroid. But that was it; the money was just about gone, and if I was going to survive until I could make it back home and get the old summer job back, I needed to cut back spending. No more games. But I guess I'd just lucked out and happened on the world's most generous and perceptive roommate, because without needing to, without being expected to at all, Andrew bought me Wind Waker as a graduation present. I'd never deserved such an incredible gift less than this one, and I was sincerely touched. I'd say I'll repay the favor one day, but I honestly don't think it's possible.

I don't really care to recall much else about my very earliest moments with the game, since some of them were sullied by the presence of a strange green liquid we found in our apartment, but I will talk about the elements of the game that make it my favorite.

First of all, if you own the game and haven't gotten a chance to do this, take the King out somewhere quiet and wait for dark. Look up at the night sky. I have never seen a night sky like that in a game, not ever. I have never been so immersed in a game as when I take a moment to rest and look up at that sky. The fact that you can then tilt your view down and maybe catch a glimpse of a distant island, maybe even the Tower of the Gods, gray and misty through the spray but still visible from miles off ... that just holds the illusion in place.

The game is perfectly paced, or more accurately, it isn't always strictly paced at all, though there's always something rewarding to do. Nintendo tailored the usual Zelda schtick to what I suppose was the prevailing mechanic at the time, the open world of the sandbox game. The complexity and number of dungeons was scaled back; this time around, there were only a few short dungeons prior to the final one, depending on how you count these--and I'm perfectly willing to admit that things may only have felt shorter because there was no water temple this time around. A greater portion than usual of the central quest took place in the overworld, and the onus was on the player to sail around the huge ocean finding charts (and then--how I do love this game--following them!), performing a few tasks for the game's various NPCs, and in one particularly rewarding quest, locating three strange statues and placing magical pearls in them.

A lot of players have complained about this structure, saying that the incessant sailing (and there is a lot of it) is a bit of a chore. I can certainly sympathize, because after the fifth or sixth time, I didn't enjoy having to pull out the Wind Waker and change the wind's direction. Still, for me, the immensity of the ocean and the need to sail across it continuously made the game's world feel real. I think "real" is a word that's applied to games far more often than it really applies; looking back, I can really only think of a few games that had worlds I thought felt actually real. One was Super Mario Bros. 3; prior to that, I'd never realized there could possibly be any logical reason for the transition from level to level in a game, but SMB3 had levels tied together within thematic worlds that, at least at the time, made perfect sense. Super Metroid presented a world that felt entirely organic; I completely understood how taking an elevator down from the right place in Brinstar could lead you to Norfair, and for heaven's sake, the world finally had a surface you could explore, to say nothing of the dark, lonely reintroduction to Zebes.

There aren't a lot of games that can do this quite right, and though Ocarina of Time had had a few odd moments that drew me in completely, the world never felt quite real to me; it might have been that 3D simply wasn't yet ready for prime time. Obviously everyone is going to have a different experience, but for me, the sailing mechanic was fun, and it made me feel like I was really in the game.

Beyond that, the game had the most expressive style of all the Zelda games, and though I haven't finished them all, I've put significant time into every single one, even the Capcom-developed Game Boy Color titles! By "every single one," I mean every single one excepting the plainly horrendous CDi titles. Anyway, I understand that this is a point of controversy, since Wind Waker uses cel-shaded, cartoony characters and animates several of its effects with, gasp, sprites (see the beautiful puffs of smoke in the shot above this paragraph for one example), but the graphical style fit the mood of the game completely. The wonderful music goes right along with the visuals, and there are even loud chords that play ascending tones to underscore sword hits. The whole audio-visual presentation is brilliant and simply fun, and despite the lighter aesthetics, Wind Waker has what's always seemed to me an affecting storyline. I won't spoil it, but I will say that prior to playing Wind Waker, I'd begun to assume that there was absolutely no significant tie among the various Zelda games; Wind Waker, for its part, makes it clear that a link does exist, and it's crucial. To this day, I'm not sure if this isn't just a bit of retconning on Nintendo's part, some sleight-of-hand to make it look like there's a context that these stories fit into when, in fact, there really isn't, but in the experience of playing Wind Waker, I found myself caring deeply about the characters and the world they inhabit. Again, funny little cartoon characters inhabit Wind Waker's world, and to some they seem simple, but if you really look, you'll see that they've been designed and animated with real love. The level of detail comes out when, for instance, you visit Link's grandmother and witness the tangible concern she feels for her grandchildren, or when you encounter a Moblin for the first time--every part of those guys moves as they clomp past you. Several of the most beautiful moments in the game would be spoiled if I described them to you, but suffice it to say that the environment in Wind Waker is every bit as carefully crafted and stunning as its inhabitants. And to my surprise, given that this is such a funny-looking game, I will never, ever be able to get the final encounter between Link and Ganon quite out of my head--another series favorite for me, incidentally.

So, good gift? Yes, excellent gift.

Pictures swiped shamelessly but with much gratitude from Gamespot and, respectively.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Whapocalypse? Part 1

I don't know why I didn't realize this much earlier in life, but you know what? Zombie stuff and post-apocalyptic stuff are so proximate!

I figured this out last week, when, in a desperate bid to squeeze the greatest amount of fun out of my diminishing holiday break, I finally did the right thing, by which I mean that I bought Left 4 Dead. I've long had the tendency to assume, with or without reason, that my computer will be incapable of running any game I might want to play. The most powerful console in the Gaj household is a Wii, you see, and the most powerful gaming computer we have is a spring 2007 iMac with a Windows partition. But guess what? That rig runs L4D beautifully.

If you've played L4D, you probably know that that should have been more than enough fun for one person to deal with, but finding out that L4D runs on Macky got me all ambitious. Could it also run Fallout 3?

I had to try. The answer is yes. Yes, it can.

Now, in case you haven't played Left 4 Dead or Fallout 3 (or you're one of my non-gamer readers), I suppose I should fill you in very briefly. Left 4 Dead is a first-person shooter set in the midst of a zombie infestation, and it plays out over four separate scenarios with a cast of exactly four survivors: Zoey the college kid, Francis the biker, Louis the IT guy, and Bill the retiree who just happens to be a Vietnam vet. These four characters have to cooperate to make it through the game's four scenarios, not only in the sense that the firepower of four people is better than the firepower of one, but also in the sense that there are a few enemies in the game that can entangle, pin down, or otherwise incapacitate players, and only another player's intervention can prevent death in one of these instances. Characters also have the ability to heal each other. The game doesn't just encourage the multiplayer dynamic; it requires it, and in fact, if you want to play the game by yourself, the other three characters will be taken over by the computer and will fight alongside you. Unfortunately, much of the game's fun comes from the disasters that happen when humans have to figure out how to work together in the face of a desperate and unfamiliar situation, and the computer's interventions on the human player's behalf are always a little too professional and smooth to feel completely realistic.

Fallout 3 is a completely different kind of game. While it's wrapped in an FPS façade, it's actually a role-playing game that puts more emphasis on character development and questing than fighting, though there's an awful lot of fighting, too. Fallout 3 centers on a character who emerges from a fallout shelter or, to use the game's vocabulary, a vault, about two centuries after a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and China has left the greater Washington, D.C. area, and presumably most of the world, ugly, lawless, and irradiated. What follows is more or less up to the player, who has an entire post-apocalyptic world to wander through and mess around in.

Now, Left 4 Dead, which I'm focusing on in this post, isn't set in any particular location (though there are occasional references to Pennsylvania, the home state of the legendary George Romero), and so it can't match the degree of geographic realism that smacks the player in the face in a play-through of Fallout 3, but it occurs in environments that feel familiar. Have you ever been to a train yard, or have you maybe seen one on a commute? There's one in the game. Have you ever walked past (or to) a hospital in a city? That happens in the game. And of course we've all been to the airport. There's one of those in the game, too. But what Left 4 Dead does is to take these basically familiar environments and mess with them. Most obviously, they've all become zombie nests, which of course isn't quite right. But there are much more interesting ways in which things have been altered. The city setting is just like the one in the opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead, which means it looks like a city in shambles where everything's gone wrong. The usual transportation routes, streets and sidewalks, are often blocked off. Once I emerged from an emergency exit to find one end of an alley blocked by a crashed ambulance. Well, I was in a hurry; it might not have been an ambulance. At any rate, the characters often have to look for paths through abandoned buildings or even sewers in order to progress. Gaping holes in apartment walls and floors provide access that would otherwise be denied to the player. The narrative the game presents through its settings isn't particularly deep, but it's sufficient: some sort of zombie epidemic is in progress, things have gone absolutely batshit insane as a result, and in the absence of the usual authorities and conveniences, the player's survival is now solely her prerogative.

From here, it's just a matter of finding the way out. The game presents environments that the player has to move through quickly in order to survive and find safety, but it also trashes those environments so thoroughly that the usual ways we negotiate them become completely obsolete. This fits right in with other games in Valve Software's oeuvre, because these games almost always take place in, if not common, at least convincing spaces. These games always force the player to take unauthorized (and plainly unwise) detours through their locations. The company's first game, Half-Life, opens in a large science facility that suddenly turns into a hellish disaster area when the player inadvertently opens a trans-dimensional portal. The facility is being torn apart by the time the player returns to the entrance, and it becomes necessary to travel the long way through the bowels of the facility to escape. The sequel to Half-Life starts in a small town in a territory governed by an oppressive regime; the player has to exit the town and escape overland, stopping occasionally at outposts set up by members of a resistance group. The company's best game, Portal, opens like a sort of controlled science experiment, with the player filling the role of a mouse in a maze. It all seems strange but conceivable, sort of like a grant-funded research project a person might actually sign up for, until it becomes clear that the experiment is designed to end with the player's death. At this point the player has to exit the experiment area and climb, jump, and run through places that are clearly off-limits in order to survive. Christopher at Gamespite has written a great and more thorough treatment of the game's design than I have space for here, if you'd like more specifics. Or, you know, you could play the game!

L4D uses exactly the same gimmick: your characters start out in an environment that's familiar but broken, and they have to take weird paths to get out. L4D, like most of Valve's games, is about the clever repurposing of the locations in the game with the result that the player constantly feels like she's responding creatively to a distressing situation. Of course, this is all an illusion, because the bizarre off-the-reservation game design is completely deliberate, and it's the straightforward paths through the game that are off-limits. Still, at their best, these games really feel like action movies like Die Hard or even The Warriors, movies where characters find themselves forced to choose Plan B and take the long, indirect way out of a bad place.

This is essentially the thing about zombie movies: the best of them take place in locations that are recognizable or at least vaguely familiar, like Dawn of the Dead's shopping mall or Shaun of the Dead's London suburbs. But the minute the people who usually frequent these settings become undead flesh-eaters, the whole system fails and we all have to find another way around.

I didn't realize it before, but I'm glad someone else did: the zombie movie is exactly the right place for a Valve-style FPS.

Next time, I'm going to explain the way that Fallout 3 (sort of) fits this mold, and if that doesn't take too long, I'll also discuss where the zombie and post-apocalyptic genres, which it turns out are next-door neighbors (when they aren't in fact sleeping over at each other's places), get their unusual power to entertain us (well, me). If Fallout 3 does take too long, then I guess we're looking at another three-parter.

That great picture comes from a Photobucket album maintained by XzN-Staff.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Again?! (Now with S. Bettenhausen)

Aww, guys. Rebel FM was already good enough that I would have listened to it as long as you kept making it. You didn't have to bring the GLaDOS voice! You didn't have to tell stories about drinking (hard) with Ayami Kojima or singing duets on "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" with Koji Igarashi or terrorist fist-jabbing Hideo Kojima. But you did. You did, and I think I might have liked this week's episode even better than last week's.

So, a week—one week!—has passed since the Hearst acquisition of 1UP, and already there's another episode of Rebel FM on the online. Remember that 1UPocalypse happened last Tuesday; this episode went up yesterday. The episode was actually recorded less than a week after the acquisition! So what are you doing with your time, hmmm?

This week's show is handled by Philip Kollar together with the staff of, Anthony Gallegos, Arthur Gies, and Nick Suttner. Also appearing are guests Andrew Pfister and Shane Bettenhausen. Andrew Pfister, of course, needs no introduction; I trust everyone remembers Shane from his appearance in The Matrix Reloaded.

Although I've heard some complaints from people who don't know what they're talking about, the sound quality on this week's episode is greatly improved. This means that the DIY quality I praised last week is somewhat diminished, but hey, as long as you guys can include barking dogs or car alarms or gunshots or, I don't know, guys outside yelling, I'll keep listening, okay? In fact, in all sincerity, with the exception of just a few mild air-blasts, this sounds almost on par with most of the 1UP podcasts I've heard.

Contents this week include best (and a few worst) stories from everyone's EGM/1UP experiences, which are lots of fun to listen to. Since this show is hosted by 1) game industry professionals who are 2) male, taxonomy is a big thing, so everyone gives his list of the top five games of 2008. The lists are great; I'm definitely glad I got to hear these guys' top fives, and if you haven't been playing as many games as you should, you might get a few ideas.

There's also a discussion of bias that starts when the Rebels mention some of the comments they've been getting on the first episode. Apparently Chuf and Gies have been getting some accusations that they're keeping Sony down or advertising for Microsoft or something ridiculous like that. Okay, so for a while now, has worn a Halo 3 skin while Anthony and Arthur worked on other things. Now there's still more stuff, like, um, Rebel FM. So it did take Chuf and Gies a couple of days to update the skin to something different. But hey! Fanboys! Yeah, even if they'd left that up? A Halo 3 skin isn't a political statement. Grow up; you're making gaming look like a hobby for children.

Sorry! Like other rational gamers, I am always annoyed by the ridiculous things some people will say about one system or another. However, I also acknowledge that this is not entirely surprising given the way that game publishers treat game critics; this episode also has a discussion of a couple of the milder flaps these guys have dealt with after publishing negative reviews of games that, frankly, probably weren't particularly good. When game publishers can't act any more adult than this, I guess it's not so surprising that many consumers don't. Also, a lot of said consumers actually are, you know, 13 year olds. But look, I'm not arstechnica, so enough of this.

Anyway, this leads into a related conversation about perceived bias at 1UP and in the games industry in general. This ends up being quite interesting as well, with a few remarks on the 360/PS3 rivalry (the commercial one, not the prepubescent one). It's nice to hear these guys say what they think. Nick Suttner points out that a preference is going to be inevitable: game journalists are going to be interested in something, and they're going to write about what they're interested in. This is simply how it's going to be when what these guys are paid to write are critiques; they need to have opinions, and they need to be able to voice those. The greater discussion of bias in the media, what that is, whether there is one, what's bias and what's opinion, etc., needs to come up a few levels in terms of intelligence, but the issue of bias in gaming media is a completely different discussion, carried on by a subset of our society (several of whom take no part in that other conversation), and it's good to hear the Rebels address gaming media issues head-on, and with intelligence, too.

The show ends with a few entries from the EGM letters archives, or EGM: The Lost Letters, as I think we can all agree to call them. Some of the letters are pretty fun, including one that gives EGM a huge F for switching from number scores to letter grades for game reviews. Shane's remarks about the importance of F- and F+ are much appreciated, and his sentiments on the soap opera Passions will be passed along to the appropriate parties.

Rebel FM continues to be a great listen, with some really interesting issues coming up this week. I still can't believe the level of professionalism on the show, given that most of these guys are fresh out of the first post-layoff week. Things continue to be positive, with no slandering of 1UP or anything of the sort, and in fact, with the exception of one or two emotional moments, you'd never guess what the Rebels have been through in the past week. Again, the listener's just struck by the degree to which every one of these guys loves the industry he works in, and the level of talent everybody has for the work he does is absolutely commensurate with that enthusiasm.

So guys, I know it's tough, but what you're doing continues to be great. Keep recording Rebel FM, and I'll keep listening and covering it.

Oh, and links:'s entry for Rebel FM Episode 2 (also available on iTunes and Zune)

Talking Orange, Matt Chandronait's webpage and future home of the rebooted, indie version of The 1UP Show.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Der Burgherr des Teufelsschlosses

A while back, I had the chance to play for the first time a video game that's a fifteen year old classic in Japan but officially sort of new in this country.

The game is Castlevania: Rondo of Blood (Akumajō Dorakyura Ekkusu Chi no Rondo in Japanese), originally released for the PC Engine CD system, essentially the original Japanese version of the American TurboGrafx CD. Aside from the poor commercial performance of the Turbografx here in America, there's no really clear reason to my mind why, but the game was never released over here until fall 2007.

Unsurprisingly, given that the game was released for a CD-ROM system, Rondo of Blood opened with a fairly elaborate animated sequence that explained why, for the upteenth time, a scion of the long-suffering Belmont line had to take up the old whip and travel to Dracula's castle to yadda yadda yadda. What's relevant here is not so much what happens after the intro as the intro itself. Have a look if you like (this is in the vicinity of 3 minutes):

Rondo of Blood's intro

Now, as I was saying, it's not so surprising to see an animated intro in a game on a disc-based system, though by 1993 standards the sequence in question is pretty nice. What was then and continues to be quite surprising is that the intro is auf deutsch mit japanischen Untertiteln. I quote:

"In der guten alten Zeit lebten die Menschen noch ruhig und in Frieden. Niemand glaubte, daß es in Zukunft zu einer Bedrohung kommen wurde. Auf der Schattenseite des Friedens und des Wachstums gab und gibt es aber auch immer das Böse. Die Menschen beginnen, das Wachstum abzulehnen und bezeichnen den Frieden als Degeneration.

"< < Wir haben uns hier versammelt, um die Mächte der Finsternis mit unserem verfluchten Blut zu rufen. Wir wollen, daß sie die Welt regieren. Wir erwarten lächelnd den Niedergang der Welt > >.

"Nach einhundert Jahren ist der Böse wieder auferstanden. Er kann sich in eine Fledermaus, einen Wolf und Nebel verwandeln. Er liebt die Nacht. Er schlürft das Blut von jungen Frauen und lebt ewig. Der Burgherr des Teufelschlosses, der Herr des Bösen, Graf Dracula ist auferstanden."


"In good times past, people still lived quietly and in peace. No one believed that in the future there would come a time of peril. But on the underside of peace and prosperity, there is and always has been evil. People begin to dismiss prosperity and to describe peace as decline.

"'We have assembled here in order to call on the powers of Darkness with our damned blood. We want them to rule the world. We happily anticipate the world's destruction.'

"After one hundred years, evil has risen again. It can transform into bat, wolf, and fog. It slurps the blood of young women, and it lives forever. The Master of the Demon-Castle, the Lord of Evil, Count Dracula has arisen."*

The first time I heard this, honestly, I was so anxious to just play the game that I mostly ignored the German. The one thing I did think was, "hmm, now that's strange. German? Well, okay."

But look, this intro is so strange in so many ways. Maybe the most salient oddity is the choice of German. I don't know what the assumption is in Japan, but I do realize that in the minds of some in the United States, there are exactly two languages spoken in the chunk of Europe east of France that isn't Italy: German and Russian. I suppose that the more geography etc., people get under their belts, the more cultures and languages they become aware of. On that basis, there are also lots of Americans who are aware that there is a Switzerland where they speak, like, Swiss probably, a few Scandinavian countries where they speak whatever, Norwegian or something, Greece, Ukraine, and then some other places whose names end in -ia. At some point along the geographic knowledge spectrum, we become aware that there is a country called Romania, that it is quite large, and that one of this country's largest and most renowned regions is Transylvania.

But maybe some people's knowledge of geography, though it is expansive enough that they are aware of the existence of Romania, still doesn't cover the fact that the primary language of Romania is Romanian. By "the primary language of Romania is Romanian," I mean, to be completely clear, that the primary language of Romania is not German. Don't get me wrong! A very, very small minority of Romanian citizens, descended from Saxons who moved to Transylvania in the 12th century, speak a dialect of German. I could be very much mistaken, but I think this dialect is closely related to the German spoken by the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Anyway, if you're thinking, "Oh, well, there are these Transylvanian Saxons, and they speak German! That must be the answer!" you're wrong. Assuming that Rondo's writers had the Dracula = Vlad the Impaler thing in mind when they settled on German, I think it's unlikely to be the Transylvanian Saxons who provide the justification for German in the intro. Here's why: when Vlad III came to power, a number of his rivals found support, and safe haven, among the Saxons of Transylvania, and according to popular legend, Vlad killed thousands of the Saxons in retribution. Of course, all this is probably exaggerated if not false, but it is true that the Saxons were never among the ruling aristocracy of Romania, so German is probably not the language you would normally associate with a bigwig like Dracula.

I suppose it could be that the games draw heavily on the atmosphere and themes (and melodramatic tone) of gothic horror novels from the 18th and 19th centuries. Castle of Wolfenbach is one of the genre's more famous representatives, and as you might guess from the title, it's set in Germany. Frankenstein is almost a parody of the genre, and it was published in 1818, the same year as Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, though the latter had been written almost twenty years before.

Hmm, no. I could be wrong, but I think that prior to Rondo of Blood, the real inspiration for the Castlevania games was less gothic horror than Hollywood horror. Nothing seems to have exerted as much influence on the series, particularly in early installments, as the Universal monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so forth. In fact, the first Castlevania plays a little like an 8-bit version of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Dracula, for his part, errs on the side of dapper in those early installments, wearing nice tuxedos instead of ancient old man clothes like in Bram Stoker's Dracula or, as I've interpreted it, the novel itself. Or the silent Nosferatu. Clearly this tuxedo thing comes from the Bela Lugosi Dracula and the sequels that followed it, as well as the various Hammer Dracula films.

Anyway, the Bela Lugosi Dracula may dress like a westerner, but he doesn't talk like one. Out of all of those classic horror movies, the only one I can think of that's set in Germany is, again, Frankenstein. As much as I want to pin the Castlevania creators' entire concept of what a horror story should be on those Universal horror movies, I just don't think that's ultimately the source for the German we have here, either.

What about Simon and his family? Native German speakers? Alas, Belmont is British in origin. However! Richter is an old German name, and if you'll recall (or if you haven't had the pleasure of playing Rondo of Blood), the protagonist of the game in question is Richter Belmont. Perhaps the Belmonts moved to Germany to keep closer tabs on Dracula? Of course, if you watch the entire intro, this doesn't seem to make much sense, since Richter gets to the village Dracula's minions are attacking awfully fast, and the carriage ride from Germany to Transylvania is awfully long. Also, Dracula's castle isn't geographically rooted anywhere specific in the Castlevania series, though I'm pretty sure this is a plot device/retcon that Koji Igarashi (the games' producer these days) came up with well after Rondo of Blood was released.

I'm sorry to say it, but I think we come back to the least entertaining possibility: there's no plain explanation for the German in Rondo of Blood, and most likely it was simply easier to find someone living in Japan who could translate the game into German than someone who could translate it into Romanian. If it wasn't going to be Romanian, it might as well be German, I suppose. Would Russian or Ukrainian make any more sense? Then again, there's always Latin; Romanian was one of the first languages that branched off of Latin, and supposedly Romanian hasn't moved nearly as far from Latin as most Romance languages.

Still, there are these little bits that make me wonder. One is Teufelsschlosses, which seems a little weird until you realize it's just the German translation for the Japanese Akumajou, which means "Demon Castle" or something along those lines. The really obvious and puzzling one I'm sure you've already noticed: schlürft, which I've translated, on the recommendation of my gigantic Collins Deutsch>English/English>Deutsch dictionary, not to mention the comments on the Youtube video above, as "slurp." If our translator from Japanese is so well versed in German, why "slurp?" Isn't this supposed to be all, like, serious? Or is that just it—did the translator take a teensy little liberty he or she thought no one would ever catch?


*I should say that I've transcribed (I think correctly) and translated the intro narration from the original Rondo of Blood, and I'm not at all sure if it's the same in the updated version.

Picture credit goes to What a great idea for a site!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Pure Class

I was going to open with some stuff about former 1UP staffers, striking from their hidden base, having scored their first victory, etc., but come on! How obvious is that? Also, their base isn't all that hidden, really. It's in Oakland. Follow the car alarm. Yes, seriously.

Seriously, though, when I went to bed Wednesday night, I knew that the next morning would bring something great. Tweets were coming in from Matt Chandronait and Ryan O'Donnell announcing they were heading to the BART to ride out to Anthony Gallegos' house to record a new podcast they were calling RebelFM. Also tweeting about the new show was Nick Suttner. All of the above, together with Philip Kollar, Jade Kraus, and Anthony (AKA Chuf)'s roommate, Arthur Gies (who sounds a lot like Kevin Smith), stayed up late-late recording a humongous one hour, fifty minute podcast and then editing and distributing the thing.

I won't say too much about the podcast itself, as Bob Mackey's already done a great job discussing it over on 61FPS. What I do want to say, and I'm sort of echoing Bob here, is that it is amazing how little of the podcast is spent discussing the past two day's events. If it isn't clear why that's so surprising, let me just revisit the timeline: Tuesday the whole crew were told of the buyout by Hearst and were laid off. Tuesday night they celebrated a great (great, great) run with friends from 1UP and around the industry. Wednesday they went back to the office and cleared out their desks. Wednesday night was the podcast.

And yet they spend less than the first half hour discussing what's starting to be called the 1UPocalypse. And for the short time that they do discuss it, they don't seem the least bit angry or resentful. They acknowledge the economic realities of the situation, and it's clear that they'd prefer to have kept their jobs—1UP was obviously an incredible working environment—but they don't bear any ill will toward UGO or Hearst. Naturally, they point out that 1UP hasn't been gutted, and though the cuts that have been made are regrettable, many of 1UP's great writers are still there, and they encourage their listeners to keep using the site (as do I). In fact, the Rebels spend a good deal of what time they do devote to the 1UPocalypse discussing the more positive aspects of it, like the droves of Twitter followers they've gotten over the past day or so, or the endless expressions of support, or even the visit from the one 1UP fan who drove to 1UP's building Wednesday afternoon to deliver a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

So for a podcast called RebelFM, whose logo has a subversive-looking backwards letter R (someone notify HUAC or Fox News or something!), the tone is positive and friendly. The "Rebel" in RebelFM has nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of antagonistic stance. This isn't the Avengers splitting up over the Superhuman Registration Act; there's not an evil Corporate 1UP and a benevolent but above-the-law Pirate 1UP. The name only reflects the Rebels' lack of affiliation. They're adrift, now, creating something on their own and for nothing more than their own love of the work, which is more than clear throughout the podcast. This isn't to say that they'll be doing this with whatever's left in their checking accounts. Since the first podcast went up (it's going to be a regular thing, with syndication on iTunes already in place and Zune syndication planned), they've received a good deal of funding in internet-facilitated donations. They're planning to use the funds to keep the show running as well as upgrade their equipment to produce higher-quality recordings. While this will sort of diminish the great DIY rebelness of it all, I'll acknowledge that this will probably be a necessary improvement. Matt Chandronait, one of the former producers of The 1UP Show, is also using his website,, to promote a new video podcast. If you haven't gotten a chance to see The 1UP Show, it's still available on iTunes, and you should have a look; the coverage is excellent, to say nothing of the music and production on the show. Matt and Ryan's work is top-notch, and it would be great for them to be able to continue to produce an online video game show profitably or at least sustainably.

What really stands out in RebelFM is the sheer professionalism of the show. It's there in the Rebels' insistence on continuing their work in the midst of what must be a really difficult situation, and it's there in their strikingly positive way of discussing the situation. It's in their ability to stick to the business of covering games. The first episode, which no one had much time to prepare for, and which was recorded on music-recording equipment—I'm pretty sure this means Chuf and Arthur's Rock Band microphones or something like that—turned out great, for all that. I joke about the sound quality, but even that isn't anything to complain about, really. I'm looking forward to future episodes, which, with the benefit of better equipment and more preparation, should be even better. If they can bring Ryan Scott in for an appearance, well, that would be almost too good.

Thanks for all the hard work, RebelFM, and good luck. And Chuf: yes on the t-shirts.

Click here for the home of RebelFM, Episode 1

Click here for the future home of The 1UP Show's next-gen offspring

Click here for what continues to be a great site for video games coverage

Click here for great ways to start keeping tabs on 1UPpers past and present

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Once upon a time a young man moved from a teensy little state called Texas to The City. He wasn't quite ready to live all on his own in a huge city where he had no friends, but fortunately he didn't have to, because the generous and nurturing family of a friend welcomed him to their home in Connecticut every weekend.

One weekend, when he should have been working on a Greek Prose Composition assignment, he was instead flipping through the New York Times. What should fall out but the New York Times Magazine, and on its cover? A dainty white cup wearing a birthday hat of carrot foam.


A few years later, when I first saw the new Hearst Tower, I thought of that carrot foam, and I realized that I was looking at what was, to me, the ugliest building I'd ever seen. Or nearly so. It looked like the short little masonry base of the tower had vomited up this bubbly mess of steel and glass. Ugh.

Since then, I've learned to tolerate the building. It's the first green NYC skyscraper, and that certainly counts for something, and it's the workplace of Gayle King, who comes off to me as the sweetest person in the Oprah circle, which, okay. I guess it has its okay points. It's also way less imposing and way less wasted space and way less owned by Time Warner (because Hearst is SO much better, huh?) than the nearby Time Warner Center, so if I'm going to claim a notable building I see every week on the walk to Job 2 as "mine," I guess I'd take Hearst over The Imposing Black Towers of Doom.

Sorry. Last night, yesterday afternoon, something--I don't, can't think in Pacific was purchased by the Hearst Corporation, owners of the abysmal UGO Network (intended "for gamers"), under whose aegis 1up will now be operating. 30ish 1up employees, several of whom were accomplished writers and video producers for the site, were laid off in the ensuing redundancy shuffle, and it's just heartbreaking. 1up, which started in 2003 as sort of a Facebook for gamers*, has been a nice, friendly, welcoming place for people interested in games and gaming culture. It has also long boasted a "world-class" editorial staff, which is a claim I'd not argue with. This may sound trivial if you're not into the whole gaming thing, but the cream of 1up's staff was like the gaming world equivalent of the New York Times' columnist lineup. I've often thought, while reading material written by 1up types, that Chuck Klosterman's 2006 statement that "There is no Pauline Kael of video game writing" has become obsolete.

Some of 1up's best writers remain, and I'm confident that those who have been laid off will bounce back, because there's just too much ability in those folks for them not to, but there's no denying that if this has been an emotional experience for me, a guy who's still a fresh re-convert to the whole gaming thing, a guy who's only ever connected with these folks through their writing or maybe the occasional e-mail or PM, it must be absolutely wrenching for those actually involved.

In the midst of all this, I've decided to write this quick post to say two things. Well, or make one observation and ask one question. One, the ridiculously emotional response coming out of people who have never worked at or for 1up, people who, like me, were only ever part of the community, says a lot about what 1up's become and what its writers have done for people. It's amazing what the power of writing, writing well, and genuinely, can do. It's also amazing how successful 1up has been in its mission to form a real online gaming community. There is so much eulogizing and teeth-gnashing, sometimes in the same place, going on right now. So to those of you in the same boat as myself: hey, see you on 1up. See you on Gamespite. To those of you who are former employees of 1up: good luck. I'll always be a fan, and I'll look forward to what comes next. To those of you still there: you've made 1up what it is, and I know that when everything clears, I'll still be able to look forward to some good stuff. And blogs about the Shooting Watch, which are beyond good.

Two: what does this portend for print media? In my understanding, one of the elements that's led to Ziff Davis' (1up's former owner) selling of 1up has been the basically unprofitable (read: costly) practice of publishing EGM, 1up's now-defunct older-sibling magazine. There's been talk on the internets of the decline of print media for some time now, and those people I do know in periodicals and the publishing business say it's becoming harder and harder to turn a profit. So what's next? My knowledge of trends and news is mostly on the digital side of this twofold world we've been living in for the past decade or so, and my knowledge of the print end of things comes solely from the consumer's point of view. So what's going on out there? Is this part of the recession and fairly limited, or is print publication as a whole in a decline? Is it a long-term decline? A permanent one?

Well, whatever. Finally, if I've shown up on your Twitter overnight and you don't know me, it's because this seems like the best chance of creating tenuous connections between myself and the now separating pieces of the extended 1up katamari. Again, good luck, see you later.

*You see, this is the genius of 1up. It was a Facebook for gamers before there was a Facebook for anybody.

update: right now, one of the few gratifying things in the midst of all this is the number of former 1uppers I'm seeing post messages on Twitter like "wow, look at all the twitter followers I've gotten!" Apparently everybody else had the same idea I did. See what I mean about "community?"

update again: the image credit goes to Businessweek.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Alan Moore's next project, or how to stage a public tantrum

This posting is so full of spoilers that you should probably ignore it if you have yet to play Metal Gear Solid 1 or 2 for the first time and you have plans to do that. If you don't fit that profile, enjoy!

So, I was just writing a comment in reference to a link a Facebook friend posted this afternoon. The link goes to a short blog posting at Topless Robot talking about trivializing merchandise that's cashing in on the Watchmen* movie. The products range from the unsurprising to the frankly ridiculous ("Dr. Manhattan Logo Baseball Cap" is now a phrase that refers to an existing object). Anyway, the posting goes on to joke about Alan Moore's notorious dislike of merchandising and marketing and film adaptations of his work in general. So in my Facebook comment, I said that Alan Moore needs to write a book that folds back on itself by featuring, as some sort of plot detail, the shameless hocking of merchandise tied into the film adaptation about the book itself. That was what I said.

Or--or!--it occurs to me that Moore could also take a page out of Hideo Kojima's book. It never occurred to me prior to this past year that Metal Gear Solid 2 was anything other than simply the MGS sequel Kojima wanted to make, but on episode 43 of Retronauts, Jeremy Parish says that MGS2 was also a "temper tantrum" on Kojima's part. With MGS2, Kojima jerked his creation away from his fans' clutches, stridently sticking to his own vision, even if his vision wasn't quite what he thought the fans were after.

What you have to understand about MGS2 if you want to get what the "temper tantrum" comment means is that MGS2 is all about deception and manipulation, and those themes extended even to the American marketing campaign for the game. For example, one of the game's biggest surprises is that, for the most part, it doesn't document the adventures of the series' usual protagonist, Solid Snake. Instead, the game starts with a brief mission aboard a "tanker" and then flashes ahead two years to a longer mission that takes place on a "clean-up facility" installed over an "oil-spill" "caused" by the "tanker" in the Hudson River. Okay, no more scare quotes for a while! In the first mission, the player's avatar is, in fact, Snake, but in the second mission, the avatar is instead a younger operative named Raiden. The fact that the game switches characters in mid-stream was withheld from the American gaming press and came as a complete surprise to players when they got to the second section of the game. The American version of the game, which I assume is identical to the Japanese version, deliberately plays on its audience's ignorance, hiding the identity of the second section's protagonist behind a diving suit with breathing mask. The second operative's commander even refers to him as "Snake" for the first several minutes of the second section, much of which is made to resemble the opening section of the first MGS.

There are a lot of strange factors that influence the American audience's reception of Raiden, and a lot of them hinge on the character's appearance. In Japanese culture, it's not uncommon for a heroic male character to have long hair and a build that's more graceful than muscular. This sort of appearance might in fact be more common among male protagonists in Japanese video games than the alternative; the last few Castlevania games (prior to the latest one, which has a female protagonist) all had characters who were presented on the box art as reasonably slight, long-haired guys, and the Final Fantasy series often hews to this aesthetic with male characters. Sephiroth, the villain of one of the best known Final Fantasies (VII), is a pretty good example of what I'm talking about, with his long, silver hair and his (slimming) black outfit.

In America, many people have a completely different understanding of the code that lies behind a character's appearance than the Japanese do. Thus many American gamers, as far as I've been able to tell, read these characters as more essentially feminine than their Japanese counterparts do. There's a fine line there: these characters may or may not be intended to read as effeminate (I'd need to read way more literature than I have to understand whether that's the case or not), but the sorts of Americans I'm talking about take what might be deliberate effeminacy and read it as femininity.

So the point I've slowly been trying to set up here is that Raiden struck American audiences as, well, girly, or at least not the first guy you'd choose to play as in a game. And as if the game were designed with the American audience in mind, there are a lot of in-game jokes that, to be fair to American gamers, reinforced this interpretation of Raiden. For one, he's constantly modeling the stereotypical angsty qualities of a bratty teenager, complete with a snipey phone relationship with his (fake/not fake) girlfriend. At one point he's forced to run buck naked (seriously) through the bowels (not, um, entirely a metaphor) of a war-robot-base-thing. When he meets the President of the United States (not the one you're thinking of), the latter makes a quick manual genital check to establish Raiden's gender. Classy!

So whether Raiden plays as feminine or effeminate or whatever in Kojima's native Japan, it's clear the game knows Raiden isn't the player's first choice, and it plays with that awareness early and often. Hideo Kojima games have always sort of read the player the same way that Harold Bloom says Shakespeare reads you: "more fully than you can read him" (to which's Mr. Mxyzptlk said, "so don't flip through Lear on the crapper"). The first MGS has a section where a villain actually reads your Playstation memory card, figures out which Konami games you have save files from, and then remarks on how you like to play Castlevania. But usually it's less literal than that; these games often have a way of playing with your expectations in a way that's tri- or tetrafurcated. In MGS2, Raiden is made to look like Snake when the game reenacts the opening moments of MGS1. Then it becomes apparent he's NOT Snake, and for the player, the significance of that similarity to the first game sort of recedes. But then later it's revealed that the whole second half of the game was a ploy--in fact, the Patriots, the evil and all-knowing Stonecutters of this game, put Raiden through a rerun of the first game's events just to shape him into an operative as talented and deadly as Solid Snake. So that momentary reminiscence of the first game, that little scrap of familiarity that was thrown out so quickly? That was deliberate.

Oh, but wait, it turns out that the Patriots weren't actually trying to train Raiden! They were trying to manipulate him into going through the motions of the first game's events just to position him to kill his mentor and, frankly, one of the good guys. I know, this is confusing.

The point is, the whole second half of MGS2 is a humongous mindgame that extends from the insertion of an oddly designed player character to an ending engineered by the same people responsible for every single moment of the game's plot. The philosophical question behind the game's events is simply whether freedom or control is the key to the sort of society you want, and it's an important and an intriguing question, but the game goes so far in stressing the themes of control and manipulation that it deceives its audience at every turn, even selling itself as a different sort of game than it actually is. Even the "tanker" from the first half of the game ends up being a military transport carrying a deadly war machine, but what's really crazy is that the "tanker's" explosive destruction is rigged as a pretense for building the Plant, the petroleum clean-up facility that serves as the setting for most of the game's second half. In other words, everything in the game, even the environment, is a lie.

Oh, and the Patriots themselves--who are they? Why, they're a bunch of guys who 1) have been making donations to Snake and pal Otacon's NGO for peace "Philanthropy," and in addition to that 2) all died a hundred years ago. Mysterious!

In retrospect, this is terribly satisfying, if you can be completely fair about it. Kojima wanted to get his point across, and he did, and along the way he stuck a great big middle finger in the face of every gamer going into the experience with any sort of expectations. If you went in expecting just a game, something that was kind of, sort of designed for you? No such luck :)

Click here to begin watching the whole darn game if you're confused, bored, and have about 7 hours on your hands!

This is the sort of thing I think Alan Moore should do for his next book. Not a real book, but a temper tantrum. Go get em, Alan.

P.S. I'd just like to say so long to those who didn't survive UGO's acquisition of the 1Up Network this afternoon. There's an awful darn lot of talent among you all, and it has been a true pleasure following your material. Good luck to you in the future; I know you'll do great. Here's hoping that 1Up, which is still home to some of my favorite game journalists, remains classy and informative, as I'm sure it will, in spite of its sordid new owners. Click "lifestyle" to initiate disgust sequence.

*Yes, this blog now comes without italics, because 1) it's a blog and 2) I'm sick of typing the html code for italics every time I mention a title. Enjoy!

Oh, Kung Fu Grip Japanese Toys and Collectibles gets the credit for the photo of the great MGS2 Kubricks!