The Metropolis Remix is here.

Ages ago, we started on an ambitious– perhaps over-ambitious –project: re-scoring all of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis with a diverse soundtrack pulled from about 25  years of video games. And now, after much waiting, hard work, complications, and kind of forgetting about it a couple times, it’s finally done. Watch it here, and tell your friends, because we are really proud of this one.

Why did you do this? We love film, and we love games.

Come on. Be more specific.
Well, we also wanted to say something about gaming and its place as an art. Many of the games we used music from– most, in fact –are from the 16-bit era or earlier. These are games that, like Metropolis, are from the infancy of their medium. But, like Metropolis, that didn’t hold them back: games like Final Fantasy VI, Mother 3, and Chrono Trigger tired to tell epic, emotionally-intense, and sweeping stories, while games like Super Metroid use their relatively “primitive” graphics and sound to create an incredibly immersive and mysterious world.

There’s a reason why Metropolis is a legendary film. It’s not just because the special effects still have an impressive scale and awe to them, or because it tells a complex and subtle story (it really, really doesn’t). It’s because, in an era of film defined by its limitations– missing even sound! –Lang recognized those limitations and used the technology at his disposal to make them irrelevant. With black-and-white, low-resolution film, he created a level of grand spectacle that didn’t get surpassed until Star Wars, 50 years later. And that’s what, for their entire history, games have been doing. Game music, for decades, didn’t have orchestras at its disposal– it had between four and eight channels of MIDI synthesizers, and game composers found new types of musical theory, new compositional techniques, and a whole new way to approach musical storytelling that fit both their technological constraints and the demands of their medium.

Why this version of Metropolis?
Wow, you really know your film history. Yes, there’s a few different versions of Metropolis, including one that’s wholly remastered and contains a lot of lost footage. We went with a slightly earlier one for a few reasons. The simplest ones are length (it’s already two hours long and was a huge amount of work as is without adding another half-hour of footage) and to try and be slightly less copyright-infringey (the copyright on Metropolis has always been dodgy– for 50 years it was public domain, Lang’s estate doesn’t see a penny from it now, and we decided to use an earlier cut from when it was public domain rather than the restored version currently being sold).

We also used the older, less complete version because it fit our vision a little better. If we wanted to engage with the film’s legacy, this is the cut to use– for decades it was the most complete and available. It’s similar to the one that Giorgio Moroder released with a pop music soundtrack (one of our inspirations), and, even incomplete, is the one that really represents what Metropolis meant for much of its history. There’s also the irony that, for about 60 years, the film’s original score was considered lost, and the version we used originally had only an adaptation of what remained of the soundtrack. There’s a certain pride to the fact that we’re joining in the long tradition of artists and producers who have re-scored this movie, from Adam Ant to the BBC’s electronics studio.

Were there any songs you used for specific reasons?
It’s not just about the music fitting–there’s a few songs that we picked because of interesting resonances between game and film (the very first piece of music we put in was Sonic 2’s “Metropolis Zone”). Metropolis casts a long shadow, and you can feel its influence in Final Fantasy, Mother 3, and others. Final Fantasy‘s “Shin Ra Theme” and “Magitek Factory” were pieces we’d decided on using before we even knew where they’d fit, and Mother 3‘s “Tragic Reconstruction” and “Natural Killer Cyborg” were such perfect tracks from name alone that we held onto them for weeks until we knew exactly where they needed to be. Similarly, the opportunity to use a System Shock 2 track behind the awakening of the robo-Maria– a near-doppelganger for that game’s SHODAN –was too big a temptation to pass up, as was using the Cyberdemon’s theme from Doom for its programming.

Not to say that there’s not moments where the opposite is the case: Donkey Kong Country is a far cry removed from German Expressionism, but the “Fear Factory” scene in the movie is one of our proudest moments. And while we didn’t have to use Mega Man 2‘s music for the famous “sexy robo-striptease mind control” scene, come on– what were supposed to do, not use Mega Man 2 music?

Is there a cover I can print off and use for the DVDs of this I’m going to make and give to all my friends?
Why yes, wildly-enthusiastic voice, there is!

metro-poster

Failed Revolutions: A Peter Molyneux Profile

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

Steve Jobs: European artiste model.

It’s hard not to love Peter Molyneux. He seems like a really nice guy, he’s got cool ideas, and he’s genuinely passionate about games and their potential in a way that very few people with his level of power in the industry seem to be. Here’s a 53-year-old man who wears a suits a bunch and is absolutely, 100-percent in love with video games and is always encouraging others to take pride in their craft and stretch their artistic limits. More than maybe any other developer, he seems to be constantly trying to find new things for games to be, and constantly pushing the medium to new, unusual places.

The problem is that very few of those places have been good in about 12 years.

That’s not really fair, honestly. Molyneux’s only made a small handful of games we’d call flat-out bad. But, ever since he became the head of Lionhead Studios and started being the lead developer of his own dreams, they’ve all been huge ideas that promised to change gaming and then profoundly didn’t. And so, let’s take a look at the strange, imaginative failures of Peter Molyneux (technically, Peter Molyneux, Officer of the British Empire– which is pretty cool).

Black and White (2001)

Black and White was the first game by Molyneux’s Lionhead Studio, and the first game to really embody what would become Molyneux’s guiding

The most beautiful "endlessly throwing rocks at kids" simulator you'll ever play.

The most beautiful “endlessly throwing rocks at kids” simulator you’ll ever play.

principles as a designer: a focus on myth and fairy tales, archetypal morality systems, and player choice. You could tell it was about myth, morality and choice because it was a game where you played as a God and was named after the binary morality you could choose from. It’s… not a subtle game. You literally have a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

Picking it up recently, it was surprising how well the aesthetic elements of it have held up. The visuals– which were incredible for 12 years ago –are clearly dated, but still have a good look to them, and a lot of little things (the game’s atmospheric use of lighting, the  surprisingly good physics) help give it a sense of grandeur and scale that fits it well. For all the emphasis put on the man’s choices in regards to narrative or agency, it often goes unmentioned that Molyneux and his team have an incredible skill for making a game look and sound really, really good.

The problem with Black and White is that its biggest weaknesses were what were supposed to be its biggest strengths. For all that it was supposed to put the God into God Games, there’s never really a sense of power. You can pick up your villagers and throw them around, but even getting a hut built requires resource-gathering and micromanaging. The average Sim City mayor feels more powerful and omnipotent than the divine hero of Black and White. This isn’t helped by the fact that the campaign casts you as a perpetual underdog battling more powerful gods, including crippling core gameplay elements for long sections, meaning that the player never has a chance to actually revel in their power. Similarly, the game’s morality system offers extreme choice, but no real reason to choose. Being pure evil is going to do nothing but screw you over (because if you can choose between keeping your followers well-fed and strong or burning them alive, one of those options is the smarter plan), whereas most of your benevolent actions are fairly dull and unnecessary (you’ll spend a lot of time and energy healing people who aren’t sick).

Black and White isn’t a bad game, but that’s its core problem: its premise should be there for pure escapism and moral anarchy, but it’s ultimately a fairly slow and rote experience. The campaign is only five levels long, and the core mechanic of that campaign– convincing other villages to worship you –is fairly simple. There’s lots of toys (complex miracles, an AI that was breathtaking for its time, all sorts of questionable actions) but no real reason to use them. It’s a game driven by huge dreams and staggering ambition that, in the end, makes you miss the down-to-earth focus and ordinary professionalism of Sid Meier.

Fable (2004)

SOMEONE'S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

SOMEONE’S been reading their Joseph Campbell!

Oh lord, Fable.  Not only could you write a novel on the gulf between Fable‘s ambition and the end product, that novel would honestly be fascinating and we would buy it and tell our friends to read it. Fable was like an artist set out to paint the Sistine Chapel and instead produced… we honestly can’t complete that metaphor because a work of art as workmanlike and fundamentally inoffensive but unexciting as Fable doesn’t get remembered by history. Don’t believe us– the previews for the game are still up, and every single feature listed is something that didn’t make it into the game.

It’s Molyneux’s fault, honestly. The man promised a game that was going to be like Morrowind crossed with Ocarina of Time, which you might recognize as our favorite games ever made. What makes Fable‘s hype somehow admirable instead of just embarassing is that it clearly came out of love: Molyneux was swept up by what videogames were doing and so enthralled by the potential of the medium that he forgot it was 2004 and not the magical future where computers can make games out of pure hope and whimsy.

All criticisms aside, it's impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

All criticisms aside, it’s impressive what this game got out of the original Xbox.

In the end, Fable was a fairly pedestrian but ultimately fun game. The core morality mechanic– that your character’s morality was reflected in their face and body, meaning you could grow horns or sprout wings –was simplistic, but a really nice way of demonstrating the mythic, fantasy-hero sense of good and evil that the game was going for. Like all of Lionhead’s games, it was visually stunning and had a unified and lush style to it.

At the time the fact that this “industry-changing, open-world, every-action-has-real-consequence, live-an-entire-other-life” game was a fairly linear fantasy action game was seen as hugely disappointing and shameful. Looking back, it’s honestly endearing. It’s clear that Molynuex wasn’t intentionally lying or trying to mislead (unlike some games), but that he was so excited by what he was doing and so hopeful about his game’s potential that he just wanted all of us to share in his excitement. This is why, despite having severe grievances with almost every game he’s done, we honestly really like the man: he’s so completely motivated by a love for his art, even when that might not be the best idea. When a developer literally, word-for-word, says that his project is “gonna be the best game ever,” it’s hard for their excitement not to be somewhat infectious.

Fable II (2008)

We got no real issues with Fable II. It’s not the game that Fable I promised it would be, but it comes closer than any other game in the series. It’s

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

Look at that! An antagonist with realistic motives and character development!

the only Fable game with a fairly interesting plot, real moral nuance, and interesting side characters, helped along by very well-used celebrity voice actors (Stephen Fry in particular stands out as a character who’s half Oscar Wilde, half Blackbeard). It has a really good villain and combines everything that worked in Fable I with a bigger scope, better combat, more open world, and, most importantly, a better sense of what it wanted to be.

Its greatest strength is that there’s a real human connection. Whereas most of Molyneux’s other games can feel somewhat cold and distant, you really care about the characters of Fable II. The story is interesting, and has a lot more going on than “hero confronts bad guy.” The villain is a great example of how to write a villain that’s hate-able, disgusting, but also human and sympathetic (whereas the first game has, basically, The Devil and the third has a motiveless shadow monster). And there’s a real sense of epic scale to the game that was missing from the first. It’s still mostly linear, but the settings are varied, the spectacles are huge, and the story is suffused with a sense of grandeur and mystery. The ending of the game in particular, in which the player is faced with an almost impossible moral choice and in which the narrative pulls back from its huge epic adventure to some very simple human moments, is probably the best thing Molyneux’s ever done as an artist. It’s still not a masterpiece or a revolutionary game that changed everything, and if you don’t like some of the core Fable mechanics  this game won’t win you over, but it’s a really solid action RPG that never disappoints.

Fable III (2010)

Fable III is a really mediocre action RPG that perpetually disappoints. As much as we like Molyneux and respect the man’s vision, we cannot get

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

WHY DOES THIS MECHANIC EXIST?

behind his decisions on this game. Then again, neither can he.

At least some of its failures are interesting. There are a lot of ideas here no one ever thought of doing before. The problem, though, is that unlike his previous innovations, no one thought of them for good reason. When you pause the game you get teleported to a magical room where you can go to your armory, inspect a map, and all the other things that are normally on the pause menu. It’s a neat way of giving the pause menu narrative justification, except that it also adds at least three button presses and five seconds between basic actions like changing what spells you’re using, checking the map, and changing clothes. The fact that you actually overthrow the king halfway through and the game becomes focused on making decisions as a new king is cool, except that it means that there’s half as much RPG-action as the last games and the moral choices stop being part of your character’s growth and just become you listening to two arguments and then hitting a button. Fable III may honestly have the biggest ideas and the most dramatic changes of any game in the series, but the way in which it tampers around with core gameplay mechanics, not just of its franchise but of game design in general,  is baffling and undermines the game’s potential.

There’s also more conventional failings. Whereas the previous Fable game had used its notable voice actors to great effect, this one squanders an

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

Remember that sad, interesting-looking old guy above? His replacement is a shadow monster who eats people.

unimaginable amount of talent. Michael Fassbender, Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Simon Pegg, and Sir Ben Kingsley are all in this game. The only one you’ll even notice on a playthrough is John Cleese, and only because he has the most recognizable voice– Lionhead decided that the best use of a Monty Python alumnus was as the stiff-necked straight man to other people’s jokes. (Stephen Fry is recognizable, but only because his character returns, reduced from an interesting amoral rogue with to “man in top hat who represents the evil moral choice.”) The game is smaller, shorter, and easier, and the gameplay is identical to Fable II but simpler. Even the core mechanic of the Fable series, player choice, feels neglected. The Hero (who the game can’t seem to decide is a mute protagonist or not, as sometimes they speak and sometimes communicate in gestures) no longer changes depending on their skills and alignment, and the idea of choosing who you’ll be has no impact when it’s almost impossible not to have every skill maxed out by the end of the game.

As much as people criticize Molyneux for his overarching ambition. Fable III, though, shows why that’s not fair. Fable III is the only Lionhead game not to feel ambitious, and it suffers for it. Whereas the faults of Fable and Fable II felt somehow excused in the face of how much they were trying, Fable III‘s smaller scale and relative polish just makes its faults seem ugly. The game’s not much worse than the first Fable, but because it aims so much lower it’s a lot harder to love.

Fable: The Journey (2012) and Project Milo (RIP)

We love you, Peter, but there's no way we weren't using this picture.

We love you, Peter, but there’s no way we weren’t using this picture.

In all fairness, Fable: The Journey is the only game on this list we haven’t played, because we’d have to be much more successful bloggers before we buy a Kinect (and, regardless of everything we’re about to say, it’s shameful that Lionhead used a Kinect-exclusive spinoff to tie up loose ends and explain mysteries that had been running through the entire trilogy). But that’s sort of the point: it was a rail-shooter for the Kinect. It got mixed reviews, Molyneux’s promise that “it’s not on rails!” was proven to be a flat-out lie rather than onverenthusiasm, and the general critical consensus was that it was a good story– one of the best in the series –undermined by mediocre gameplay, dodgy motion mechanics, and an unnecessary reliance on the Kinect.

How did this happen? How did a man like Molyneux, who always seems to be trying to go bigger and more creative, end up making this game? Did the man who is, more than maybe any developer but Suda 51, keenly attuned to the potential of technology to further art and story look at Microsoft’s questionable motion-sensing Wii knockoff and say “this new and challenging technology would be best used to turn my beloved open-world-RPG franchise into a linear rail shooter”? Or did Microsoft say “the Kinect is not doing great, especially among non-casual gamers. Let’s get that respected developer who’s under contract with us to create a non-casual game designed to showcase it, using his most popular franchise?”

We can’t say for certain, but there’s two good pieces of evidence for the latter. The first is that Fable Heroes, an Xbox-Live side-scrolling beat-em-up, exists. The second is Milo.

Whether or not it's a good idea is debatable, but it's definitely a new one.

Whether or not it’s a good idea is debatable, but it’s definitely a new one.

Project Milo was a project Molyneux showed off at E3 2009. It was intended to use the capabilities of the Kinect to really make the player feel like an active participant in the game’s world– you would interact with a ten-year-old boy, speak to him with the built in microphone, teach him to skip rocks using the motion sensor, and generally play with things that were unique to the Kinect (which, it should be noted, rail shooters are not). It built on AI from Black and White, it drew from Fable‘s idea of guiding the life of a single person and that person’s dog. By all accounts, Molyneux looked at the Kinect and thought of a game that he wanted to make that could never exist without the technology.

And then it was announced that Project Milo had never been intended for release as a game– despite numerous people on the development team saying otherwise –and was instead a tech demo. Technology used to create it was used to make Fable: The Journey instead. And that’s what makes Fable: The Journey so depressing. We know that it’s not the game Molyneux wanted to make. We know that when he saw the Kinect he had big, bold ideas of how to use it in new ways, just like how the Xbox’s processing power and memory space inspired the huge potential of Fable. But the game he wanted to make was the kind of strange, small-scale, offbeat thing he would have made before he started working for Microsoft, and it wouldn’t have helped convince people the Kinect was worth buying. And so instead, the man’s dream franchise got shunted into an out-of-place linear shooter game designed to sell hardware. We can get mad at Molyneux for Fable III, but Fable: The Journey just inspires pity: one of gaming’s most imaginative and enthusiastic dreamers, putting out a product he didn’t want to in order to sell hardware.

The Future

That’s not going to happen again, though. Molyneux has left Microsoft, gone independent, and is making games following his own visions. He recently announced and financed a game on Kickstarter and– while we’re skeptical about him using a platform based on the idea of “you need to deliver on your promises” –we wish him luck. The man is one of gaming’s true dreamers and we can’t help but love him, even when he stumbles.

A Look Back at Phantasy Star

Frikkin’ Sega, man.

(Sorry for the hiatus, Dear Readers– one of us has been working a new job, the other on a big creative project, and we’ve been putting the finishing touches on our Metropolis project. Normal posting is resuming now).

One of the authors of this blog did not have a Nintendo as a kid. If you hadn’t already guessed after our article on Sonic 2006, one of us grew up as a Sega kid. And part of being a Sega kid means having different experiences from a lot of gamers. Mario games always feel a little sluggish. You gain a real affection for weird and offbeat concepts like Seaman and Crazy Taxi. You feel more affection for Ristar than for Megaman. And you play Phantasy Star.

That last one is what prompted this article. It’s a series that doesn’t get talked about much at all these days, except for its MMO-style spinoffs in the (totally-different, yet fantastic) Phantasy Star Online series. But for a while, it was Sega’s answer to Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Between ’87 and ’94, it produced a series of influential, mostly-excellent JRPGs that were pretty major achievements for their time. And they deserve a salute.

Phantasy Star (1987)

Phantasy Star I was a pretty huge deal in 1987 (’88 in America). It came out in the same week as the first Final Fantasy, and– I know this sounds

There are like five groundbreaking new ideas in this picture.

hard to believe —Final Fantasy wasn’t the best JRPG to come out that week. On a technical level, the game is a staggering achievement for its day. It was the largest console RPG, and one of the largest console games, ever made– not to mention by far the biggest and most ambitious game on the Master System. The combat system– featuring animated enemy sprites and backgrounds that changed depending on location –was like nothing else on the market visually. Some of the dungeons were even in rudimentary 3D! Granted, the idea of a first-person maze crawl in a JRPG is a pretty iffy one, but still! Fake-3D, on consoles, in 1987!

What really makes the game a big deal, though is how much of its genre it pioneered. JRPGs are basically synonymous with Final Fantasy, but PSI is where the modern JRPG really took form. It was among the first to allow more than one playable character, and the first in which those characters were unique, with their own personalities and attributes. It was the first JRPG to use non-engine cutscenes, providing a level of visual detail to story scenes that was absolutely incredible for the time. There’s a reason it was the most expensive console game of all time when it came out, and a reason a lot of critics compared it to the first Legend of Zelda in terms of its ambition and innovation.

As for the game on its own merits? Pretty strong. Obviously rough to play today, and certain things– like those amazing 3D dungeons –have aged really badly, but for a 1987 RPG it’s a pretty impressive thing. The story and setting were plenty innovative, too. It was the first JRPG to use the guns-and-swords, sci-fi/fantasy blend that’s now a staple of the genre, and the first RPG to feature a female hero (named Alis). While fairly rote, the story has a lot of human elements to it that felt new– you weren’t trying to rescue a princess or save the world, but instead overthrow the cruel king whose robot-cops murdered your brother. While the story is bare-bones and the translation is… questionable, it was one of the first RPGs to be driven by its characters’ personal motivations rather than “you should go save the world now.” Also, it was one of Yuji Naka’s first games. That guy is awesome.

Phantasy Star II (1989)

“You like that?” Sega said. “You like a game that’s big, has lots of characters in it, and ends with you facing an ultimate evil? How would you like a game that is JUST CRAMMED FULL OF THAT?” And then they skateboarded away chugging their Surge, because they were Sega.

If there’s two words for PSII, they’re “bigger” and “darker.” It takes place a millenium after the first game, when high-tech terraforming and a system of sueprcomputers has turned the desert planet of Motavia into a paradise. Or… sort of. This is where the second game in the series gets interesting. As it goes on it becomes more and more clear that you live in a police state, and that the paradise is falling apart at the seams. Whereas the first Phantasy Star started by showing you that the king is evil and should be overthrown, the second makes the system much more insidious and deeper-running, and makes you a part of it for much of the game. There’s not a singular bad guy running things, and there’s a real sense of despair that pervades a lot of the game.

Sega, pictured doing what Ninten-didn't.

Sega, pictured doing what Ninten-didn’t.

There’s two things here that are especially important. The first, and the most famous thing to come out of the game, is the fact that one of the main characters freaking dies. This was the first RPG where this had ever happened. It was huge. She’s part-human, part-monster, and the protagonist has been protecting her from bigots for most of the game. She’s the second-most important character in the game. And when she dies, it’s because of you— she’s biologically connected to one of the game’s villains, and defeating that villain means she dies. Beating the boss means killing a character who’s been with you since the beginning. Gamers had never seen an RPG character die for good before, and this game made them responsible for it.

The other is the ending. The bleak, bleak ending. By the end, millions of people are dead,

an entire planet is destroyed, and the computer system that ran the ecosystem is collapsing and taking the world’s environment with it. You finally face down the aliens

"Turns out it's man."

“Turns out it’s man.”

that are controlling your government and leading to your people’s extinction– turns out, in a corny twist that was pretty cool for the day, that the evil invaders were humans from the distant planet Earth –and you don’t. win. The game ends with your team trapped on the human ship, knowing there’s no way back, fighting for as long as you can and taking the ship down with you. The world is “saved”– although Phantasy Star IV highlights how small of an achievement that is –but all the characters are pretty much guaranteed to die, unknown and unremembered. It’s notable that even in PSIV, where almost every character and event from earlier in the game gets acknowledged, this game’s heroes have been effectively erased from history. It’s an ending that would be dark even by modern standards, and was part of what made the game’s narrative revolutionary.

The gameplay is… something of a mixed bag. It was the biggest game ever, of any system, when it came out, and it shows. Part of how it shows, though, is that every single dungeon is sprawling, labyrinthine, and brutally hard (the first dungeon in the entire game is about as big and maze-like as the most difficult ones in PSIV). The game is incredibly heavy on grinding and most of the player’s progress is pretty slow. Similarly, combat is tough as nails, with enemies dealing a ton of damage and random encounters being frustratingly common. The game’s biggest gameplay innovation does grow out of grappling with this difficulty, however– the only character you need to have in your party at all times is the protagonist Rolf, whereas there’s a large roster of side characters with specialized skills you can swap in or out every time you visit home. If a dungeon is too hard you can grab a doctor, or if you’re having trouble with groups of enemies some characters can attack multiple targets at once. It’s not enough to keep the game from getting too frustrating, but the ability to construct and manage an RPG party in this level of detail helped give the game more depth and encouraged the player to approach every challenge tactically.

Phantasy Star III: Generations of Doom (1990)

maia

Sega, pictured doing what Bio-wouldn’t yet.

Phantasy Star III is the only game in the series that has real, serious problems that can’t be excused by its time. It’s incredibly ambitious, but it’s also deeply, deeply, flawed, and the only one of the core four games that doesn’t really seem that important to game history. If this list is making you hanker for some old-school RPGs and a series marathon, this is one you can probably skip.

First, though, that ambition. You start the game as Rhys, a prince of a war-torn kingdom trying to rescue his betrothed from a dragon. You then discover that your stereotypical Western fantasy kingdom is, in fact, just one of several gigantic environments on a colony ship (evacuated from the same planet that was destroyed in Phantasy Star II), team up with a couple of maintenance robots, and are then given the choice to marry either your original love interest or the woman who’s been aiding you in your quest.

Then you play as Rhys’s child for the next third of the game. This was Phantasy Star III‘s big focus, and where a lot of its resources went: it spans three generations, and which characters you play as depend on what choices you make in previous sections of the game. Characters will inherit the skills of their parents, meaning that depending on who marries whom you can end the game with a radically different party layout. It meant a

Come on, Sega. You're better than that.

Come on, Sega. You’re better than that.

branching storyline, a huge cast, long-term consequences for player choice… and a lot of problems. It was a mechanic that was definitely ahead of its time, but it was also ahead of the hardware of its time– that amount of branching decisions had to fit on a cartridge the same size as Phantasy Star II, meaning that many of the game’s central characters were palette-swapped versions of each other, that there wasn’t time or space to really establish their personalities and motivations, and the game was critically short on memory. Animated enemy sprites were gone, combat animations regressed to the level of Dragon Warrior, and the plot was fairly bare-bones.

That’s the problem with Phantasy Star III— it sunk a lot of its resources into the generational mechanic, and that mechanic isn’t enough to make up for how much it cost the game. The enemy design is pretty awful, battle backgrounds are a copy-pasted mess, the combat system is much less deep than its predecessor, and the soundtrack ranges from passable to bad to this is seriously one of the worst video game songs of all time. The game’s still not bad– no contemporary critic though it was as good as PSII, but it got fairly positive reviews– but these significant problems coupled with its very loose ties to the series’ overarching story mean that it’s definitely skippable.

Phantasy Star IV: End of the Millenium (1992/94)

It's the teenage catgirl who's only one year old! God bless Japan.

It’s the teenage catgirl who’s only one year old! God bless Japan.

What isn’t skippable– for fans of the series, fans of JRPGs, or anyone –is Phantasy Star IV. Whereas every other game on this list has to be qualified with phrases like “for its time,” the series’ fourth installment is an absolute classic and still holds up fantastically well. It’s probably the best non-Sonic game on the Genesis, and one of the best-looking, best-sounding games of its generation.

Plotwise, it’s clear that a lot of work went into PSIV. It was intended to be the last traditional Phantasy Star game and its writers went all-out in both giving the series a great ending and paying tribute to the games that had led up to it. There’s an impressive, and successful, effort made to take the previous three games and tie their stories into a fairly consistent story– the game’s world gets a more fleshed-out history, the actual purpose, plans, and origin of recurring antagonist Dark Force is revealed, and many of the setting’s disparate elements are tied together. On the smaller scale, this is one of those games where it’s clear the developers had a deep love for the series they were working on, as a whole host of side characters, quests, items, and ideas from previous games make appearances. (The quality of the writing’s also helped by Sega’s choice to give the creators complete creative control, meaning that every aspect of the plot and characters arose out of what the artists wanted rather than what would sell or what corporate wanted).

One of the best things about Phantasy Star IV, like II, is the extent to which its plot eschews heroics and derring-do. After the destruction of their homeworld in the second game, Parmanians– basically humans, and the race to which most of the main characters belong –have colonized the two other worlds in their solar system. But they’re just barely surviving. The game is almost post-apocalyptic, as all of the sci-fi technology of the previous entries is either lost or decaying (leading to the rare time random encounters have an in-plot justification: the world is overrun with monsters, meaning that only armed travelers can move between settlements), there’s no unified government, and the terraforming systems meant to keep the worlds habitable are slowly running down and malfunctioning. Even by the end of the game, after the horrible demon-monster that threatened all life is defeated, it’s clear that the game’s world is never going to recover or be much less hostile to human life. While not as dark or desolate as II, the game still puts you in the twilight days of human civilization (Phantasy Star Online actually picks up from this, as you attempt to colonize a new home after this collapse). And speaking of the ending– in a medium driven by sequels, the decision to conclusively end a long-running and well-respected series, and to do so in such a bittersweet and nuanced way, is incredibly admirable.

Chaz has unique commentary on everyone's kitchen. None of them are as clean as his.

Chaz has unique commentary on everyone’s kitchen. None of them are as clean as his.

This is kept up by the protagonists, who are an incredibly motley and diverse bunch. While they’re all decent people, none of them is outright heroic– you’ll make a good amount of your early-game earnings from the party leader extorting one of your other party members out of his wedding fund in exchange for your protection. Your wizard is a cocky know-it-all who thinks that being able to use magic makes him the coolest guy around, your healer a cantankerous troublemaker with a terrible sense of humor, and even the game’s hero is a panicky novice who wants to get all these problems over with so he can settle down to an ordinary life full of interior decorating and being oblivious to women hitting on him. The mixed bunch of characters (who are often  argumentative and at cross purposes) and rough, dirty world help keep the game from falling into the heroics or melodramatics that can drag other RPGs down.

The gameplay in Phantasy Star IV is rock-solid, although not as deep or complex as its rough contemporary Final Fantasy VI. Turn-based combat is fast-paced, the battle system is fantastic-looking (with probably the Genesis’s best sprite work), and the decision to divide characters’ special abilities into more generic Techniques (which draw from mana) and Skills (which are unique to each character have limited uses depending on the character’s level) adds some additional depth and makes each character feel unique in combat. The characters themselves are also well-designed– most of them have two or three specializations,  so that you’re never too dependent on one party member and they can work together in different ways (including combining two or three different characters’ attacks into powerful and cool-looking combos). The game also does an admirable job of actually reflecting characters’ growth and personalities through its mechanics; in the most notable example, the protagonist’s recognition that he needs to take responsibility and become a leader coincides with the point in the game where he develops a wider base of skills and starts to become the core member of your party in battle.

It's like if H.P. Lovecraft designed Magic Eye pictures.

It’s like if H.P. Lovecraft designed Magic Eye pictures.

Probably the game’s biggest triumph, though, is its visuals and music. The art design and graphics are absolutely gorgeous, which certainly doesn’t hurt that combat system– the animations for characters’ attacks and abilities are really, really good-looking and have a sense of motion and energy that really suits the fast, streamlined combat. Settings and environments look lush and feel atmospheric, and there’s a real sense of awe as you enter some of the game’s more impressive settings. This is helped along by the music– some of the best of the era, and up there with the Sonic games as the Genesis’s best. Some of the music is a little goofy (but endearing), but for the most part it’s an incredibly impressive soundtrack that also helps establish a great sense of place and suits the game’s sense of mystery and desolate setting.

End of the Millenium

In the end, Phantasy Star IV may represent the series’ biggest achievement: a quartet of games that tell an overlapping, continuous story. Compared to the in-name-only nature of the Final Fantasy series or the stand-alone sequels of other games of the time, this is a special thing. Even given the variable quality and tenuous connections that link some of the games, it’s an impressive legacy. Each of the games is very much its own unique entity, but taken together they represent both several years of strong RPGs and a great look at gaming history. Made when RPGs were being born and molded, they’re  an interesting example of a lot of gameplay and narrative firsts and a new perspective on the genre that’s often been overlooked. While some of the games may be more interesting to historians than to players, it’s a landmark series that honestly deserves more mention for its innovation and greatness.

The Game of the Movie: Great Filmmakers and their Game Equivalents

As our upcoming Metropolis Remix should make clear, we’re not just video game geeks– we’re also pretty big film geeks. And, to celebrate the announcement of our remix, we thought we’d run an article that let us indulge both of those. Games and film are both visual mediums and communicate in a lot of the same language. So here are three filmmakers we love, and the games that talk about similar ideas and use similar cinematic/narrative techniques to do so. And of course, what better way to start than the director who started this whole debate?

The Movies: Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang is known for two things (well, three, if you count helping to create rocket science)– making some of the best German Expressionist films ever, and making some of the best film noir movies ever. His work in the silent era– MetropolisThe Woman in the Moon –are dizzyingly imaginative and grandiose, staggeringly ambitious and beautiful. His “talking” films–MThe Testament of Dr. Mabuse, and, later, The Big Heat— are some of the earliest examples of noir: they’re dark, brooding, intricate pieces with ambiguous morality and a weary pessimism.

The best introduction to the man’s themes and range would be to watch his two masterpieces, Metropolis (why not try our remix!) and M. The former is as big as the pictures ever got, an operatic and potent sci-fi epic filled with the best special effects work of the era, big political ideas, allegorical heroes and proletarian sentiment. The latter is painfully quiet, drenched in shadow and paranoia, anchored not by visuals or big ideas but by Peter Lorre’s career-making performance as a sad, isolated pedophile serial killer (in 1931, people!) and Gustaf Gründgens as the cold-hearted mob boss hunting him. They’re radically different despite being separated by only four years, both united by a sense of social awareness and humanity.

It’s not too hard to find games that are big and sweeping epics, and shadowy dingy noir experiences are equally easy to come by. But we knew we’d need a game that could cover both ends of Lang’s style; something that had the grandeur and majesty of a rocket launch and the gritty humanism of Lee Marvin’s sadistic mob enforcer.

The Game: Bioshock

Okay. This is… a pretty obvious choice.

It’s no secret that we love Bioshock. We mention it a lot. And, even leaving aside the twisting plot and player-driven storytelling, this breadth is

Pictured: Expressionism, Noir.

part of what makes its story great. It can go from the elegant and impersonal to the deeply human instantaneously: think of the first level, which begins with the towering skyscrapers of Rapture and ends with a horrifying look at Ryan’s paranoia and the human tragedy of the city’s denizens. It’s a perfect artistic match too: the world’s glamorous art-deco look and rich, light-and-shadow visual style owe a huge amount to the German Expressionism Lang was instrumental in defining (and, out of all the games we’ll discuss here, it’s most clearly influenced by its film counterpart), while its rough-talking toughs and dames, gin-chugging mob bosses, and jazzy score are a natural extension of hard-boiled noir. It also has the class consciousness, tortured characters, and keen sense of social order that characterize so much of Lang’s work.

It’s not just the general strokes, though. There’s a multitude of little details, stylistic decisions, and memorable moments that tie the game to his work. It’s hard to walk through Hephaestus, the industrial core of Rapture, and not think of Metropolis‘s chugging, monstrous machines (and, let’s be honest, this was almost certainly deliberate on Irrational’s part), or see the film’s themes of decadence, labor rights, and technological inhumanity reflected in the game’s philosophical debates. But Lang’s smaller, later films have every bit as much in common, particularly in a lot of Bioshock’s storytelling style.

It’s another half-hour before we see the main character’s face.

As soon as he got access to talkie technology, Lang became obsessed with sound, the overheard, and the power of the voice, and these are the mechanisms that Bioshock lets drive its narrative. Rosebud, for example, is a deformed splicer who scurries across the ceiling and behind walls, dropping down flower petals on the player and singing to herself.  This is incredibly similar to the way that Peter Lorre is first introduced in M, long before we see his face: as a shadow on the wall, a echoing whistle, a child’s ball rolling out of the bushes where he’s strangled her. Or his second sound picture, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, where the main villain is a voice without a body–most famously in a scene where a shadow figure behind a curtain is revealed to simply be a cardboard cut-out hooked up to a loudspeaker –feels like a definite forerunner of Bioshock‘s cast of characters speaking solely through radios and audio tapes (not to mention the reveal that a major story character is only a voice, and exists only on your radio). The game’s not solely influenced by Lang’s visual style; it shares his narrative obsessions and love of oblique, shadowy storytelling.

The Movies: Werner Herzog

The most revealing thing about Herzog’s style and passion as a filmmaker is that he doesn’t consider his documentaries and his fictional works to be distinct from one another– every film he’s made is in pursuit of “truth,” whether it’s to be found in stories or in the real world. This leads to a fair bit of overlap between the two genres: his documentaries have little vignettes and scenes in them that are totally fictional, while his fictional films incorporate real characters, non-actors and are often dependent on coincidental footage and completely real actions (such as in Aguirre, when the crew built rafts from local trees, lived on them, and ate the same food as the film’s characters).

The most relevant aspect of this is the way in which Herzog uses the camera as an active participant. In Aguirre, a film about a mad conquistador seeking El Dorado which was shot with a single handheld camera, water is splashed onto the lens, the viewer is shaken by the movement of the Amazon, and scenes from filming are incorporated into the story. In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Nicolas Cage’s brilliant, manic performance is made uncomfortably close by a camera which simply stares as he descends into lunacy, letting him sink to new moral lows and not giving the viewer a chance to look away. Fata Morgana is a documentary about the Sahara that mainly lets the camera wander and encourages the viewer to put together the pieces themselves. It’s perhaps best demonstrated in his remake of Nosferatu when Dracula  first creeps into Harker’s room: rather than move the camera cinematically and build tension, he films it almost like surveillance footage, keeping the camera at a distance and letting the scene play out, highlighting the very real sense of invasion and shame rather than a more abstract fear.

The Game: Half-Life 2 (and episodes)

“Every man for himself, and God against them all” seems like an apt description of occupied Earth.

At “encourages the viewer to put together the pieces” a good chunk of you said “Oh. Valve.” And that’s absolutely right. There’s not a better

Pictured: somehow, NOT City 17

match for Herzog’s “leave the camera running” approach than Valve’s method of narrative, which rejects cutscenes and exposition in favor of simply letting the story happen in real-time (especially in Half-Life 2, in which as long as Gordon’s conscious the “camera” keeps going). They will never sacrifice a sense of realism and physicality in the name of making something more cinematic or exciting. Just as Herzog lets his view linger on the churning Amazon waters in Aguirre or simply lets his actors create chaos, Half-Life 2 creates a naturalistic world and turns the player into an objective observer of it. The slow walk in the opening through City 17, in which you’re reliant on intuition instead of exposition, the chaos that erupts when you send antlions into a swarm of combine, the first meeting with a Combine Advisor in which you can only stare, paralyzed, at it– these are all moments which feel like a natural counterpart to Herzog’s passionless, implacable stare. In particular, the series’ most traumatic moments– the Stalker car in Ep. 1, the meeting with the Advisor in Ep. 2 –feel like companions to the murder scene in Woyzeck, where the violence is center-framed and the camera remains immobile for the duration of the entire unbroken scene. And, just as the opening shots of Aguirre present a seemingly-solid jungle and waits for the viewer to spot the line of people walking through it, Valve guides the player through the world not with objectives or HUD symbols but by placing them in seemingly-infinite setting and using lighting, level design, and visual cues to point the way.

“A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger.”

Like Bioshock, there are also plenty of thematic parallels. Half-Life 2, like many of Herzog’s pictures, is about a conflict between destiny and powerlessness– Gordon Freeman, like the protagonists of Woyzeck, Even Dwarfs Started Small, or My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, has no control over his own future and is trapped in a world that he doesn’t belong in. This idea– the notion of a world rigged permanently against the heroes, of a universe so cold and violent that survival is a triumph– is what gives Half-Life its tone of unrelenting fear, and what gives Herzog’s works their grinding momentum. Similarly, Herzog’s other main topic– the “burden of dreams” –gets a fair bit of play. The band of idealistic heroes struggling against a dimension-spanning monolithic empire is exactly the kind of foolhardy nobility that Herzog loves. There’s also a good bit of the “harmony of overwhelming and collective murder” that he focuses on in films like Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo: Half-Life finds you exploring areas like Ravenholm and the Sandtraps, where the world itself has been rebuilt to be your enemy.

The Movies: David Lynch

There are two David Lynches. There’s the one that everyone knows from pop-culture, who does weird, weird movies about sex and dreams and is probably high all the time. But there’s also the real one, who does weird, weird movies about sex and dreams but is an unabashed sentimentalist, lover of white picket fences and diners, has probably never had a stronger buzz than a good black coffee, and has one of the most optimistic views of the world of any filmmaker since Frank Capra. He made Eraserhead, yes, but he also made  Wild At Heart (a film that is almost painfully sincere and romantic), he truly believes in the kind-hearted wholesomeness of Twin Peaks, and he gave Blue Velvet— on of the most emotionally violent films of all time –a happy ending. (There’s also the David Lynch who made Dune, who was burned alive and buried in North Carolina under the filming locations for Velvet).

Thematically, Lynch is fixated on morality and desire. If we’re given permission to do what we want, how far will we take it? Mulholland Drive puts us in the head of a character who has done an evil thing and guides us through the process by which she justifies it, and views her own life. Blue Velvet uses Kyle McLachlan as an audience surrogate and forces us to confront our own cruelty and the way that we envy the freedom of evil and cruelty– probably the best single shot in his  filmography is  Dennis Hopper, torturing Isabella Rosselini, staring directly into the camera and hissing “you’re like me.” But for all this deeply ambiguous subject matter, Lynch’s fundamentally hopeful worldview is able to find a path out: the evil in his world (Dennis Hopper’s almost-Satanic Frank, Twin Peaks’ BOB, a spirit of pain and torment, the Winkie’s Man in Drive who functions as an embodiment of the world’s arbitrary cruelty, Willem DeFoe’s tattooed, rotten-toothed, rape-gargoyle in Wild At Heart) is inhumanly evil, something that we can recognize and reject. And there’s no more noble, kind, and altruistic hero in pop culture than Dale Cooper, a man willing to enter Hell itself in the name of love and good police work.

Aesthetically, you can go down a checklist: industrial machinery, 50’s Americana, jazz music, highways, coffee, cigarettes, hallucinations,  sex,   diners, blondes, cranial injuries,and deformity.

The Game: Fallout 3

“I’ don’t understand why people think Crazy Clown Time is something sinister.”

It’s not just the weirdness– so many people harp on how Killer 7 or Psychonauts is “the David Lynch of videogames,” which is a great way to show that they’ve probably never watched any of his work. It’s the way that surrealism butts up against the wholesome and romantic, the way that Lynch finds beauty in horror and grotesqueness in the ordinary. And that’s what Fallout 3 does. Like so much of Lynch’s work, it’s both a celebration of Americana and nostalgia (poppy music! cool cars! 50’s diners! baseball!) and an acknowledgement of the evil that’s inextricably tied to them (nuclear escalation! American imperialism! A culture of sexual violence! BOB just, oh god, please make him stop!). Its darkest moments and happiest moments are all twisted together and bound up in the same screwed-up world. Just like how Wild At Heart painted a romantic, wild-lovers-against-the-world story and then had it go exactly like those usually do, Fallout creates a world where the idyllic fifties never ended– and neither did the duck-and-cover paranoia, racism, and global cold war thereof.

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?”

It also has a distinctly Lynchian sense of morality. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, who is presented with a submissive and broken woman and has to consider if he’s willing to become a monster, Fallout 3 gives us a nuke in the middle of town and the ability to push the button. Both ask us the question: “consequence-free, no judgement, opportunity in front of you: you wanna be evil?” And you can be evil— BOB, with his  “thing for knives” has nothing on the Ravager of the Wastes. You can also be good; like Cooper, like Betty Elms, you can be a cheerful force of do-goodery and a helpful angel.

And you can, of course, do this while exploring industrial machinery, decked out in 50’s Americana, listening to jazz music, strolling down highways, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, having drug-fueled hallucinations, flirting with the opposite sex, stopping in diners, traveling with (or being) a stunning blonde, inflicting brutal cranial injuries on the deformed. Matter of fact, that’s how the game encourages you to play it.

Failed Revolution: Duke Nukem Forever

[Our Failed Revolutions series is as an attempt to look at gaming’s most interesting failures: games that were supposed to change everything and didn’t. In these articles, we examine games that, through hype,innovation, or art promised to create a huge splash and instead landed with a whimper.]

This article is not safe for work or the company of decent human beings.

There’s a scene in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink which perfectly encapsulates what happened to Duke Nukem Forever. Barton, John Tuturro’s self-righteous “genius” at the core of the film, is trying to write the screenplay for a wrestling picture. He’s operating in a fugue state, hammering endlessly on the keyboard, working in a fit of what he assumes is genius inspiration. Finally, the audience hears the ending of his masterpiece…

And it’s the same ending as the last thing he wrote. All he’s done is a half-baked retread. And then the script is rejected and he’s condemned to Hollywood Hell for having wasted his employers’ time and money on a script that is bloated, rambling, and wholly inappropriate to what he was asked to produce.

That’s Duke Nukem Forever.

Pictured: the general critical response.

What it Promised:

Well, 3DRealms promised that it would be the greatest shooter of all time, but no one believed that. But the general belief was that DNF

We basically expected this in 3D.

would reflect its origins as a mid/late 90’s shooter: something chaotic and dumb, with a stupid and gleeful sense of humor. If it succeeded the game would be something of a throwback– another decidedly retro shooter to put alongside releases like Serious Sam and Painkiller.

The basic expectation– the more realistic one –was that DNF would be a fun game that simply took far too long to make. Some optimists hoped it would prove that Duke had always been the king, that it would usher in a new age of retro shooters and mindless fun, and that every year spent waiting would be justified. It’s doubtful that even they really believed this, though. For the most part, the world simply expected a run-of-the-mill old-school game, maybe a little rough around the edges, but with the simple and pure heart of testosterone and fun that the series had always been known for.

In essence, Duke promised to return in his old and glorious form, reminding us how much fun the pre -Half-Lifeera of shooters had been and being a burst of big stupid action. It promised, at least, to be old-school mindless fun.

What it Delivered:

The action game with “balls of steel” invites you to spend a solid half-hour doing finicky platforming inside a fast-food restaurant.

The Duke Nukem Forever that we got was not simply a disappointment. It was a neverending cascade of bad decisions, stealing the worst and most inappropriate elements from the past 15 years of gaming. It was ugly, non-charmingly stupid, terribly written, unfunny, and evil.

One of the game’s most egregious mistakes was its decision to be a “modern” shooter, and the baffling choices its developers made in pursuit of that goal. Take, for instance, the amount of the game that draws from the Half-Life series. When you think “what was Half-Life‘s biggest contribution to the art form?”, what comes to mind? Its ability to tell a story through setting and incidental dialogue? Its breathtaking art design and detailed world? The gravity gun? 3D Realms decided that the part of Half-Life most worth appropriating (endlessly– filling almost as much time as the actual combat) was the awkward first-person platforming from Half-Life 1. It’s honestly amazing– there are so many bad decisions and inexplicable choices made (endless platforming, weird attempts at horror, an entire level that’s just minigames and Myst-style exploration, jokey levels that feel cribbed from Earthworm Jim, weapons and gadgets that serve no real purpose, a level of detailed interactivity that is never used or justified). Playing it is a look at what 17 years of creation with  no editing or supervision achieves

What’s even more unbearable is the sense of superiority that DNF has towards other, better games.  In one scene early on, Duke is presented with what’s clearly Master Chief’s armor from Halo, which he rejects because “power armor is for pussies.” He says this despite having regenerating health, a limited inventory of two weapons, the ability to melee with his gun butt, and a dedicated grenade button. It would be one thing if the game felt cocky and smug about being the King of Shooters. But to do that while shamelessly incorporating elements from every popular shooter it can name– including ones, like regenerating health that rewards you for running and hiding, which make no sense in this game –highlights what a failure it was. If DNF had been the old-school, Doom-style shooter we anticipated, no matter how bad, we could have appreciated its charm and bravery. But its wholesale aping of newer, better games turned what would have been a bold-but-misguided game into an ugly mess.

Of course, the game’s other failure is its decisionnot to modernize as far as the writing and story were concerned. In the 90’s, Duke’s braggadocio and painful coolness actually worked because it was so rare for action games to have a sense of humor at all. Playing the game in 2011 just made a character who was once at least marginally charming into an unlikable boor. In the same year when Portal 2 came out– which had some of the best writing in any medium that year —DNF thought that titty jokes and movie quotes could still make up an entire game’s writing. Again, this could work back when having a voiced character alone was impressive and him making jokes about movies was just gravy. Bu there’s no reason for Duke to tell people that they are primitive screwheads and that he has a boomstick anymore. There are Evil Dead videogames, and they’re better than Duke Nukem Forever. We can actually hear Bruce Campbell say that, if we want.

(For that matter, we don’t even have to compare it to Portal 2. If we wanted an FPS that came out in 2011, had an overly-macho protagonist, bright and colorful graphics, goofy but lovable, writing, over-the-top violence, a deliberately old-school sensibility, tons of penis jokes, ludicrous sci-fi weapons, was made by a veteran of 90’s shooters, and was actually really good, we’d just play Bulletstorm).

We could handle a wisecracking, movie-quoting hyper-American macho man back when the engines and graphics were similarly crude. But Forever’s insistence that Duke is cool, awesome, the best, and that we should be honored to be playing him just felt painful and self-indulgent. One of the best comments is from videogame journalist/humorist Yahtzee Croshaw, who was asked to write the original script (after the game had already been in development for 12 years):

All I got told was that it didn’t suit the tone they were going for. I was taking the piss out of Duke himself and they wanted Duke to be relatively straight while the world and the people around him were silly. I didn’t submit a revised audition because that didn’t make any sense to me at all. I would think the only way an action hero as typically 90’s as Duke Nukem could survive today would be with as much irony as possible. I said as much, and thus ended my potential glittering career with 3D Realms.

“I just want to be loved.”

The entire first level of the game takes place in a building dedicated to Duke and how awesome he is. It opens with Duke playing his own game, getting oral sex from barely-legal identical twins in schoolgirl uniforms, signing autographs for fans, being loved and adored by all, and it never lets up. It’s supposed to be an escapist fantasy, but the only people who would fantasize about this level of adoration are sociopaths and narcissists. Again, this isn’t just a bad decision but wasted potential. The game had been the butt of jokes by an entire industry for a decade— if 3D Realms had come out with a game that was sly and self-deprecating, that acknowledged its own problems and the ludicrousness of its premise, the game could have been, if not good, at least charming. It may not have been the landmark achievement it so badly wanted to be, but it could have been special and likeable. It was not.

Finally, though. There’s the issue we’ve been dancing around. The one that means this game could never be likeable. The one that makes this game not just a forgettable whiff of stink but the worst game of its year by a significant margin. We have a standing policy that this is a blog for critical discussion, not Nerds Getting Angry About Video Games, but we can’t talk about this impartially without feeling dirty.

We here at Cardinal Virtual love video games and would never want to see them censored or controlled. We feel that they deserve the same recognition as all other artistic mediums. And we’ve got fairly dark artistic sensibilities and will adamantly defend the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Mass Effect, Mortal Kombat, and other sex-and-violence hellraisers.

But at the moment in Duke Nukem Forever where the oral-sex-twins from the opening are swollen with alien babies, fused to the floor, their breasts thrust towards the camera and jiggling, weeping and finally exploding into gore, and Duke’s response is to joke about it and then slap the fake boobs on the wall and giggle, we found ourselves saying “you know, maybe Jack Thompson has a point.” The rest of the level is full of raped women, lashed to the walls and moaning in agony, who Duke can put out of their misery. Throughout the level Duke makes jokes about Japanese tentacle rape and gay sex and laments that the aliens “took our babes.” (Then, in a perfect demonstration of the game’s ability to quote pop culture and miss the point, the player gets an achievement that referencesAliens, the ultimate feminist action film). The next level is a fantasy sequence in a strip club where the player completes (terribly-made) minigames (one of which is a whack-a-mole game involving aliens bursting out a naked woman’s corpse) and helps  Duke get laid.

Duke Nukem Forever wanted to prove that there was a place in gaming for games like it, and in a way, it did. The fact that this made it into the finished product, was released as a triple-A feature with posters and promotions, and has games journalists defending it as just “macho nonsense with a throbbing vein of humor,comparing it to Lolita’s use of an amoral protagonist, or fans defending it as “just jokes” says a lot about gamer culture. It’s hard to imagine this happening in film– a much-awaited movie featuring an hour of rape victims used as the subject of jokes and viewer titillation would be unthinkable. Even I Spit on Your Grave, as awful and exploitative as it was, at least made the rape victim its antihero. And, in all fairness, these opinions are the minority among critics (sadly, most forums we looked at while writing this seemed to disagree, and the word “feminazi” was used a lot).

We have a chance to have a picture of Christopher Walken instead of Duke’s smug, unlikable face and we’re going to take it.

Duke Nukem Forever didn’t change gaming, and– despite talk of sequels, its middling success, and DLC releases –it wasn’t the blockbuster it wanted to be. The long-awaited Return of the King was a critical failure which destroyed its own creators. But, as with every entry in our Failed Revolutions series, there’s still something interesting about it. While later entries we’ll talk about brought interesting ideas or stories to the table, Duke Nukem’s sad resurrection instead serves as a portrait of some of gaming’s worst impulses and ideas. As much as we’ve talked trash about its gameplay and writing, it’s still worth playing (though not paying for) for those interested in the medium who want to see a fascinating window into the creative process of artists who have lucked into having no one to say “no” to them and are throwing everything they have at the wall. (It’s oddly reminiscent of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in that regard, except that parts of Heaven’s Gate are actually really good).

As for the game’s… ethical issues? Those are indefensible and we can’t encourage anyone to even look at them. But it also got people talking and watching critical response to it was fascinating. It marked one of the first times a real, big-budget property in Western gaming crossed a definite line and, while the game has plenty of its defenders, it was also one of the first times we’ve ever seen in which game critics actually took an ethical stand on something. And, while the game’s response may have also illuminated how far the medium and industry have to come, we like to think that the shockwave of argument and revulsion is going to be remembered. And that, if it accomplished nothing else, Duke Nukem may have helped gaming grow up a little bit.

3 Free Indie Games Worth Your Time

For most of Indie Month, we’ve been doing big-picture kinda deals– looking at two talented and prolific developers, and examining some elements of the “genre” as a whole. We thought we’d close by looking at what makes indie games really exciting: the huge breadth and variety of available experiences, and the huge number of them that are free.

There’s no excuse for not playing these. They’re generally pretty short, almost effortless to get a hold of, and every one of them has something inspiring or original about it. Go forth, and remember that we live in a pretty exciting time for the medium.
Time Fcuk

“I’m in a room full of bodies. They all kinda look like you.”

Edmund McMillen makes games that are creative and sharp, but have a tendency to be muddled in tone. Super Meat Boy was a great masocore platformer which eventually turned into visually uninteresting levels full of buzzsaws. The Binding of Isaac is fantastic, and probably his best work (god knows we can’t stop playing here at the CV “offices”), but its moody atmosphere and dark humor evaporate every time a stupid meme reference or rage face pops up.

Time Fcuk does not have these problems. It’s a tightly-bound puzzle-platformer that maintains a bleak, dread-drenched tone from start to finish. From the moment you enter The Box– stepping into the time loop that you’re trapped in –the game sinks into a deep melancholy. Its monochrome level design, atonal soundtrack, and stellar sound all give it a hopeless  feel. In a genre where every game seems to want to imitate Portal, going for more of a Silent Hill vibe is a pretty daring choice.

It’s also one of the only McMillen (and co.) games where the writing really shines. Throughout the game, you’ll get communications from yourself in the past and future. However, as you spend more time adrift, going more and more mad from the isolation and puzzles, the “yous” in various points in time start to fracture and change. Partway through the game, it becomes ambiguous if you’re even yourself or playing as a doppelganger. There’s not much plot to speak of, but the writing is sharp throughout and contributes to a great sense of building horror at your situation.

 

Tower of Heaven

At first glance, Tower of Heavenis the kind of game that indie development is bloated with: a brutally hard platformer with retro graphics and

The game gets a lot of beauty out of three colors.

slightly philosophical themes. And while that doesn’t make it bad— the gameplay is solid all the way through, the Gameboy-style graphics are cool, and the music’s excellent– where it really shines is how much it plays with that formula.

Every couple levels, the game adds another seemingly-arbitrary rule that will instantly kill you if broken: don’t touch blocks from the sides, don’t touch certain blocks, no backtracking, et cetera. What makes the game so smart and interesting is that, taken together, all these really mean is “get better at platforming.” Every rule just means you need to be more precise in your jumps, avoid obstacles, keep moving forward, and evade enemies– the same basic constraints all platformers put you under.

The end result feels incredibly pure and focused in a way a lot of ultra-hard platformers don’t. Just as the game works with an intensely reduced color palette smartly applied, the core mechanics are all about taking the unspoken rules of platforming and giving you absolutely no room for error, and building an entire game out of these rules.

 

Iji

Dan Remar’s Iji is definitely the highest-profile of the games we’re looking at this week, although not on the level of Cave Story or Spelunky

It takes an entire game’s worth of planning and risk to get that gun. It’s worth it.

(which we didn’t mention under the assumption that you’ve heard of them, and if you haven’t, well, you have now, so go download them immediately). It deserves that profile– it’s a staggeringly fun action game with great vector-style graphics (think Another World) and a damn good central story.

The story’s where it really shines, although the combat, fleshed-out RPG elements, and Metroidvania-ish level design are all pretty stellar as well. It puts you as a survivor of an alien attack, cybernetically augmented and fighting to drive out the invaders. This is all pretty rote stuff, but the game keeps track of your choices and gives you real input into the narrative in a way action games usually don’t. A no-kill run will result in some enemies trying to be peaceful and helping you, whereas playing more aggressively will gradually turn the protagonist into a bloodthirsty wreck incapable of mercy. The change– from hearing Iji shriek when hurt and whimper after killing an enemy in self-defense to hearing her howl with rage or laugh when catching enemies in traps –is heartbreaking and guaranteed to make you want multiple playthroughs. It does a better job of making you feel sorry for your enemies than any other game we’ve seen. There’s tons of easter eggs hidden in the story as well– careful planning can save the lives of certain characters, different skill focuses can make boss fights and areas skippable, and it’s possible to go through the whole game with a clean conscience if you’re very, very careful.

And, as said, the gameplay is a beast. It’s fast and frenetic, with gigantic weapons, hoverbike chases, colossal boss fights, and a detailed and beautiful world. Taken together, the game feels like some bizarre hybrid of Metal Slug and Shadow of the Colossus.

 

Hiatus

Hey everyone. Cardinal Virtual’s going on a hiatus for the rest of July– both your authors have a lot going on, and we need some time to work on and polish some more articles. When we come back, we’ll be ready to talk about games  with more energy than ever before.

See you in August!