Monthly Archives: March 2018

Of Men Mighty and Mega

Mega Man was the video game I cut my teeth on. Well, more accurately, Mega Man X4. It was a tough game that I worked my way through as a kid. Didn’t beat it until at least three years after I got it, but still picked up Mega Man X5 and Mega Man X6 (and Mega Man 8) in the meantime to fight the new bosses, master the new levels, and get my ass kicked time and time again. I got better, beat them, got into the harder Mega Man Z games (look, the naming conventions are weird but make sense). Every couple years I revisit them, particularly Z3 and X5, my undisputed favorites.

All this to say, I know my Mega Man.

So what makes a Mega Man game? Theme-wise, it’s good robots fighting a bunch of bad robots, usually eight, then fitting a bigger boss. Mechanic-wise, it’s a lotta jumping and shooting mixed in with being able to get a defeated boss’ weapon which is another boss’ weakness. There’ve been some variations here and there (the X games added dashing and wall kicking), but for the most part, things are quite similar.

For the sake of convenience, I’m excluding the Battle Network and Legends games from this, since those are an RPG and Action-Adventure respectively, and are different genres from the others which are very much pure Action Games.

Point is, there’s a particular sort of gameplay when it comes to Mega Man.

But, I’d argue, that a big part of Mega Man’s game design goes beyond that. What makes (well, made) the Mega Man games so distinctive was how well they did what they did. The mechanic at it’s core: running, jumping, and shooting, was perfect. The controls were as tight as they got, and the levels just right for them. Mega Man’s jump was also precise, you always knew right where you were jumping. Dashing as X or Zero was equally so, and the moment you took your finger off the button, they stopped moving.

This meant that no matter how crazy the stage design got (and good grief some stages are maddening), you were always in control of your character. Bottomless pits and spike traps were (usually) more challenges of dexterity than outright attempts to kill you. The stages were fair, with most new obstacles being obviously such. This meant that when you died (and you will), it was more often than not because of a mistake on your part, one that you can see. The games were about slowly learning stages and bosses, and then executing everything flawlessly.

And, most importantly, they were fun as hell. And Capcom no longer makes them.

But a few years ago Keiji Inafune, someone who worked on the original Mega Man games, was Kickstarting a new game that looked an awful lot like Mega Man: Mighty No. 9. The game’s a platformer, you run, you jump, you shoot, you beat bosses and take their abilities. Heck, the game was number nine, a clear reference that both the original and X series ended at number 8 (besides the retro revival for the originals).

Mighty No. 9 was released a couple years ago, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this week upon it being free for PlayStation+ Subscribers.

And it is not a good game.

Lackluster visuals and presentation aside, it’s just… not really fun. It’s not the difficulty, rather it feels like the game cheats. Jumping onto a moving vehicle feels like a crapshoot, and avoiding attacks is luck more than anything. Sure, it’s fun to figure out a boss’s weakness and lay into it, but it’s missing that special something.

Namely, the precision that made Mega Man such a great series. Platforming feels wonky, the ‘AcXelearte’ dash is as likely to get you killed as out of trouble, and there’s no wall kick that made the X and Z games so interesting but instead a ledge grab that feels finicky at best. The gameplay loop just doesn’t work.

Part of what made the Mega Man games such fun was reaching that point of flow, where you kinda mesh with the controller into a sorta zen as you try and finish a stage and beat a boss. Instead here I am, a lifelong gamer, fumbling with the controller in Mighty No.9 ‘cuz Beck won’t grab on to a frickin’ ledge. Look, its boss fights are fun, I’ll give it that, but it just doesn’t feel like Mega Man — which it’s quite clearly intended to. Maybe were it not so clearly meant to be such it wouldn’t feel this bad a game.

Actually, it probably would. It’s clunky, and really makes me miss Mega Man.

So I’ll probably end up replaying X5 or Z3 next. Just gotta beat this game next because I will not be daunted by poor game design!


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Beauty in Destruction

I saw Annihilation this week, which, y’know, shouldn’t really be surprising. I like Alex Garland as a writer (Never Let Me Go is heartbreakingly beautiful, Dredd is a solid action movie) and enjoyed his directorial debut in Ex Machina. Annihilation is science fiction replete with a primarily female cast, so it checks a lot of boxes for me.

And it’s a wonderful film, truly haunting with some moments of absolute horror, but one that is essentially devoted to the pursuit of the sublime, of that terrible beauty. It doesn’t quite stick the landing, but the trip to end is one that stays with you.

It’s also super clear that Alex Garland has played The Last of Us. No, plot points aren’t borrowed from Naughty Dog’s great game. There’s no fungal virus and it isn’t about the relationship between two very different people. But Annihilation, though based on a novel, undoubtedly draws on the video game in its portrayal of the world beyond the Shimmer.

The central plot of Annihilation deals with the Shimmer, a phenomena radiating from a crashed meteor wherein everything within its thrall gets, well, weird. The mystery of the Shimmer and what lays within is the big question of the movie and drives Lena and her team to investigate. Over time, it becomes clear that the Shimmer affects organic life somehow, and changes it.

A heads up, though, some minor spoilers for Annihilation are inbound. Unless you’ve seen the trailer, than you’ve already seen what I’m talking about (I hadn’t, and upon watching it now, holy crap that thing reveals a bunch).

It affects people too. Lena and her team come across a prior expedition from about a year before. The members were affected by the Shimmer, and their bodies begun acting up. At the bottom of the pool they find the remains of a person who has since become almost plantlike and fungal and merged — grown — into the wall. His legs are still there, seated, but his entire upper torso has, for lack of a better word, flowered. It’s gruesome — his skull is several feet above his legs at the top of the ‘plant’ — but it’s also beautiful, in its own way.

The Last of Us (which, coincidentally, came out a year before the book Annihilation is based on did), features the same image. Over time, those infected by the fungal cordyceps will stop moving, settle down, and grow into their surroundings until all the remains is the vague silhouette of a human being surrounded by waves of fungus. While playing the game you will encounter these strange ‘corpses,’ sometimes moving them aside, sometimes just walking past. They’re grotesque, but at the same time beautiful.

The same can be said of how The Last of Us portrays its apocalypse. The world’s been ravaged by neglect and the Infected, and yet it’s somehow still beautiful. The flooded desolation of Pittsburg is tattered with trees and greenery growing through and around buildings; it’s all so lovingly rendered that the landscape of the apocalypse almost loses its despair and takes on its own serenity, grandeur. Consider the giraffes, and how amidst the bleakness there was such beauty. Annihilation has its share of abandoned structures and desolation, but the Shimmer speckles it with flowers and other bits of pretty. Somehow the abandoned is beautiful, even with the horrors inside.

What connects Annihilation and The Last of Us isn’t just the imagery (although, dude, those bloomed corpses are super similar), but rather how unique is how they portray destruction. Other similar stories with wastelands, be they the thousands-of-years-later ruins of Horizon: Zero Dawn or bombed-out town in your war movie of choice show beauty in contrast to destruction. Look at that shell of a tank, now look at the majestic tree next to it. For Annihilation and The Last of Us, destruction is intrinsic to beauty; it is the former that causes the latter: there is worth in the decaying frame of a half-sunken house, the corpse of an infected is as beautiful as it is terrible. It’s a haunting aesthetic, one that informs the incredible atmosphere of both works.

Addendum: A quick google shows that, yeah, Garland’s played The Last of Us and it’s one of his favorite games (alongside Bioshock). So maybe I’m not crazy about the influence the video game had on his movie, after all, artists steal.

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Simple Pleasures

I saw Game Night last night and it’s a delight of a movie. It takes a clever conceit (an immersive game night goes a step too far) and builds on it to great affect. There are some really clever turns that mix with a movie full of a surprising amount of heart and some great laughs. It’s a lot of fun and I really liked it.

I mean, it’s not, y’know, an important movie by any stretch. Like it’s not one that’s gonna go down in the annals of comedy, probably. But it’s a lotta fun.

Kinda like the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven. I can acknowledge that it is not a super great movie, it doesn’t go as deep as it could with the assembled talent, has a climax that borders on perfunctory, and is by all accounts a shadow of the, well, magnificence, of the original.

And yet.

I really like it. Enough so to put it on a year end list. And yes, I’m totally willing to admit that it’s because of the Asian Cowboy. And also because multinational teams scratches a very specific itch for me. I don’t really care about the movie’s flaws; I can acknowledge them, but it hardly diminishes my affection for the film. I doubt anyone’s gonna remember it in five-odd years. But.

There’s the book Ready Player One. It’s a nerdy nirvana of a book, rife with references to 80s pop culture in all its forms. I know it smacks of wish fulfillment, which given author Ernest Cline’s own childhood in the 80s, definitely casts the novel, where an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture is needed to win the race and basically become the richest person ever, into a somewhat juvenile author’s fantasy.

And yet.

It’s such fun. The references, from the most obvious to the deepest cuts are fun, and getting them makes you feel like you’re part of the club; it’s like a nerdy Ulysses. Ready Player One is the first (and only!) time I’ve seen Ultraman referenced outside of Asia; and he’s a mild plot point! There’s a chapter dedicated to Wade trying to get a perfect score in Pac-Man, which, as someone who can do a perfect run on the first five levels of Pac-Man, I very much appreciate the detail. It’s also a book that treats online friendships as legitimate, which, hey! That’s really cool!

I know Ready Player One is definitely not high literature, but it makes no claims as such. It’s a fun read, and I love it for that. It’s entertaining.

And isn’t that what entertainment is supposed to be? Yes, there is the empirical good and bad (The Only Living Boy in New York is two hours of my life I’m never getting back, somewhat assuaged by running a commentary in an empty theater with a good friend), but past a certain point is it enough for something to be fun? I feel like there’s often such a rush for a piece of fiction to be Important that we forget about the fun of it all. Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is not a super deep or particularly outstanding game; but it is a ridiculous amount of fun to play. And that’s why I like the game. It’s why I really like The Magnificent Seven and Ready Player One, they’re fun.

Game Night’s a lotta fun, and I did really like it. And at the day, I think that’s enough. I don’t think I need to justify that to you (or myself), Sometimes it’s enough to just be entertained. ‘cuz, y’know, it’s entertainment.

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