Friday, November 28, 2008

Games of Yore: Life Force

Feeling the need to further rationalize my tendency to write about what ever the hell I please, I am starting a new games-related feature on Chorus, Isolate, Confirm. However much hullabaloo there may be over the latest title for this console or that, it's sometimes important for a gamer to reflect on his heritage. Hence, Games of Yore.

The games I write about in this column must meet only two requirements. They must have been released at least ten years ago, and they must have some significance to me. That's it. I like to keep the rules simple. Now, then...ARE YOU READY FOR YORE?

Game: Life Force (Konami; 1988)
Console: NES
Genre: Scrolling shooter

One Christmas morning, my friend Peter got an NES from Santa Claus. He graciously called me that same day to invite me over to play, as my household had not yet graduated from the Atari 2600 School of Hard Knocks. Over the phone, he told me that he had three games: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Life Force. I had never heard of Life Force, and asked him what it was. His response, as best I can remember:

"I'm playing it right now. It's pretty cool. I'm in a space fighter flying through something that looks like intestines, blowing up these things that look like giant polyps."

Repulsive as it sounded, I had to know what this bizarre marriage of outer space action and medical drama was all about, so I headed straight over to his house to investigate.

Life Force (also known as Salamander in Japan) turned out to be, for lack of a better analogy, like a drastic re-write of Fantastic Voyage in which the protagonists had no vested interest whatsoever in preserving the life of the organism into which they'd been injected. (Or, if you're not into books, imagine a remake of Innerspace in which Dennis Quaid's sole purpose is the destruction of Martin Short.)

As the game's instruction manual explains, a rather large alien called Zelos has become over-zealous in his eating habits. He has basically eaten everything in the universe, including Easter Island and ancient Egypt, and now must be destroyed from the inside. The 80s kid in me hears that plot description and can't help but yell, "TOTALLY AWESOME, DUDE!"

And it was awesome. But I have to say, a lot of stuff about Life Force didn't make a whole lot of sense. For example, why is the very first boss a huge, flying brain with arms and an eyeball? And why is Stage Five full of all that King Tut crap? And why is Stage Six infested with leaping moai heads that spit donuts?

In retrospect, however, my young mind didn't dwell for very long on such technicalities. I was too busy marveling at how radical it was to play a cooperative two-player game with my best friend, and not have to keep dropping quarters into it. I was too busy improving my Vic Viper space fighter with enough SPEED, MISSILE, LASER and OPTION upgrades to make it an unstoppable storm of flying firepower. I was too busy swearing at the hundreds of dirty tricks the game pulled, specifically for the purpose of killing me. Especially those damn solar flares in Stage Three.

Life Force's winning combination of giant brains, challenging gameplay and memorable music (a cornerstone of Konami's scrolling shooters) quickly endeared the game to my younger sister and I. We teamed up to plow through all six stages while singing impromptu lyrics to the game's soundtrack. We fought over who would pick up which power-ups. We were Konami kids, once and for all time.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Palin? "Nailing?"

In this clip from Fox "News," reporter Carl Cameron BLOWS THE LID OFF!!! the dark, sticky underbelly of the McCain-Palin campaign. Bill O'Reilly halfheartedly defends his polar bear-killing sweetheart, but it's clear he's rearranging deck chairs on the already sunken Titanic. Among the amazing deficits in Sarah Palin's expertise:

She couldn't identify the countries that constitute North America.

She thought that Africa was a country, and South Africa just a region within that country.

She threw tantrums, despite being an adult (at least in the physical sense).

Lady, there are only three countries in North America. At least take a wild're bound to get at least one of them right!

(Huh huh huh..."nailing.")

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Bleach: Soul Carnival

Earlier this year I complained about the PSP's conspicuous lack of quality fighting games. Developers are skipping out on what I perceive as an obvious opportunity to bring "versus fighting" and side-scolling brawler titles to Sony's tough, little machine. As if in response to my woes, this autumn saw the release of Marvelous Entertainment's Ikkitousen: Eloquent Fist (a somewhat prurient, sprite-based Final Fight clone), and the subject of this quasi-review, Bleach: Soul Carnival.

Because of my past disappointments with Bleach games on the PSP, I was initially attracted to Soul Carnival because of what it appeared not to be: Another chapter in the overly simplified Heat the Soul fighting series. But, as it turns out, Sony's Soul Carnival deserves all the credit in the world just for being what it is: Fun (if occasionally mindless) platform/beat-em-up action framed by a comfortable amount of character management, item synthesis and a mercifully small amount of dialog.

This game embraces Bleach's relatively large cast of supporting characters by introducing them as playable and/or support units (like an improved, deeper version of the card system in the Bleach DS series). The player can then use the character of his choice, flanked by any combination of assistants, to rampage through levels and cut down all the resident thugs.

Said rampaging is made fun via smooth, fast controls and character graphics that aren't quite sprites, yet aren't quite cel-shaded 3D models. In fact, I literally haven't been able to figure out how the character graphics are rendered yet...but I have a feeling it's something akin to the free-rotational sprite system used in Sega Sammy's The Rumble Fish. What ever it is, it looks nice, if you don't mind the munchkinized "chibi" design that's been forced on all the characters.

My only major gripe with the game is its clumsy, poorly-designed menu interface, which becomes an obstacle when you're trying to equip your playable characters with accessories and support buddies. Years of gaming experience tell me that I should be able to switch characters in the menu by pressing the shoulder buttons. Alas, obvious as it may seem, no such function exists. Ignoring that, however, Bleach: Soul Carnival is just what the PSP's sparse fighting library needed.

Below is a YouTube video I found with some decent footage from early in the game. Skip the first minute to get straight to the fun part.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Well Done, America

The US has been broken for eight years. Step 1 of its repair: Complete.

I spent this morning following the election coverage online, cheering in my chair for every republican defeat. I feel like I can finally take a long-overdue timeout from being frustrated. Let's hope the reduction of stress doesn't harm my ability to blog in any way.

Warm congratulations to Mr. Obama, and to everyone who helped him become President-elect.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Piss Me Off: Halloween on the Yamanote Line


You're giving the rest of us foreigners a bad name by making the already unpleasant experience of a home-rush train ride even worse with your obnoxious presence.

Stop it.