Tag: Reviews

Final Fantasy 7 PC Mods

I'm not altogether sure when I first stumbled across the Final Fantasy 7 modding community. It's not surprising that it exists -- it is, after all, a popular game with a huge fan following -- but it is perhaps surprising that there are some really high-quality improvements to the game out there. High enough that I got the itch to replay the game for the first time in about a decade.

I'll talk about the experience of replaying it at 28 later. (tl;dr: it's not as good as 15-year-old Thad thought, but it's better than 18-year-old Thad thought.) For now, I'll stick with the technical.

Now, there are advantages to simply emulating the PlayStation version -- the ability to save anywhere is a biggie, and emulator-level texture smoothing is nice too. But I decided to go with the PC version because, again, it's the mods that drew me in. The major hub of mod development is the qhimm forums. And here are a few I've been using, ranked in order of importance.

The Essential

First, you'll need to get the game. Try eBay.

Then, you'll need to patch it to version 1.02.

And there's one mod that is absolutely necessary to get Final Fantasy 7 PC to run at all on a post-Win98 computer: Aali's Custom Graphics Driver. At the time of this writing it's at version 0.7.10b, but it's under active development. Make sure you jump to the end of the thread and grab the latest version; the link in the first post is version 0.1a from March 2009.

Setting it up is a simple process and described in the post that links it. You need to run both ff7config.exe and ff7.exe with full Administrator privileges, and I found that the graphics looked washed-out until I set compress_textures = no in the ff7_opengl.cfg file. It's probably a good idea to go through the troubleshooting thread if you have any other issues with it.

The Pretty Great

FMV Updates -- the PC versions of the FMV cutscenes look, inexplicably, even worse than the PlayStation versions. Modder DLPB has taken the PS1 versions and given them frame-by-frame upscaling and cleanup. The end result is, as he put it, a polished turd -- it's still kind of a mess but it's a damn sight better than what you get out of the box. Keep in mind that, after installing, you'll need to edit the videopath setting in your Windows registry.

Avalanche's Graphical Overhaul: Gorgeous but not quite finished.Team Avalanche's Graphical Overhaul (the thread links the GUI Update as well, but I'll get to that a little lower down). Many of the models in FF7 -- such as the characters, monsters, and treasure chests -- are untextured polygons. That means they upscale without loss of quality, and actually hold up pretty well even though they're not as smooth as what we're used to in this day and age. The polygons with 2D textures on top of them, on the other hand -- like, say, the world map -- look quite a lot the worse for wear upscaled to a modern resolution. The Avalanche World Map Patch adds hi-res textures, in both 720p-and-down and 1080p-and-up flavors, and it looks goddamn gorgeous. It's currently an 0.9, which means it's not quite there yet -- now and again you'll see a low-res stripe on a hi-res mountain, as in the image to your right -- but it's close, and it's well worth installing in its mostly-complete state. (YMMV on which components you want to install -- I don't use the alternate avatars or the replacement Barrett model.)

FF7Music: Okay, so the FF7 soundtrack sounds not-very-good coming out of Windows's default MIDI sequencer. It's bundled with its own Yamaha sequencer, but it's incompatible with modern versions of Windows. It's possible -- and perhaps more elegant -- to tweak your soundfont with Timidity, but FF7Music gives you the flexibility to set whatever tracks you want. The installer I linked includes the PS1 version of the music, and also a resequenced version by a guy going by the handle finalfantim -- it's not a remix as it's the exact same MIDI tracks, but he's resequenced them using high-quality instruments and, while it's a matter of taste, I find that they sound better in nearly all cases. (Except the guitar on his version of the Cosmo Canyon theme; I don't care for that and use the PS1 version.) Of course, there's also the option of customizing it with music of your choice -- I've always hated the FF7 version of the Victory Fanfare, so I've swapped it out for a nice Minibosses version instead. And if you want to edit music files so they loop properly, there's a tutorial for that, too.

(The biggest drawback for me? While the thread says FF7Music works in Wine, I've found it doesn't work very well on my system -- it'll play a track or two, the opening, maybe the overworld theme when I load my game, but it stops after a few track changes. So if I want to enjoy the benefits of FF7Music, I have to reboot to Windows proper. YMMV, though; if you want to try using it under Wine, maybe you'll have better luck than I did.)

(I should add, though, that in my experience every single other mod I list here works great under Wine.)

Haven't Decided What I Think of These Yet

Team Avalanche's GUI Overhaul -- I linked this same thread up above to praise the Graphical Overhaul, but the GUI update is a separate mod. And as the header implies, I'm not sure if I like it or not. It's added a font that looks more like the one in the PS1 version of the game, but I'm not sure it looks as good as the default Windows font; there are some spacing issues I don't care for. And it actually supercedes some of the additions in the Graphical Overhaul -- for example, the GO includes a rather nice set of color item icons by a guy named romeo14, but the custom GUI will ignore them in favor of its own grayscale versions. And while it works fine on one of the two computers I installed it on, it somehow managed to hose my installation on the other, leaving it so that the game crashes as soon as I load a menu -- and it must have overwritten a setting somewhere, because it happens even if I disable the mod.

Project Blackfan -- Okay, so we've covered overworld graphics. This is a huge attempt to replace all the field graphics. Modder yarLson is extracting every single background image and running it through a Photoshop filter. The result -- well, the biggest problem is that they're all PNGs because that's the only format Aali's driver supports; highest-quality JPEGs would have looked just as good and taken up a fraction of the space. As for how they look, that's a matter of personal perspective; all graphics filters inevitably come down to whether you prefer your upscaled lo-res images to be pixellated or blurry. These are blurry. For my money, they work absolutely wonderfully on natural environments that look like photographs (like the rocky areas in the North Crater) but aren't as good on the technological sets (like the Highwind). It's worth checking out to see what you think; since the files sit in the mods\[modpath]\field directory, they're trivial to remove if you don't like them.

Millenia's custom weapons for Cloud -- from what I've seen these look great; however, the new swords appear to have finally shattered my Cloud's fragile psyche and convinced him to join Cobra.

Image: Cloud's messed-up jaw

Keep an Eye on These

Retranslation -- this could go either way. It's sure to be more competent than the game's official translation, but it's too early to tell whether it will be any fun. Fan translations of Final Fantasy 4 and 5 back in the 1990's were fun and vastly superior to Square's initial attempts at English scripts for those games, but the fan translation of 6 met a more lukewarm reception; I'm part of the group that thinks it sucks all the charm out of Woolsey's (admittedly compromised) version. Now, this 7 fan translation could end up like 4 and 5, or it could end up like 6 -- and given that the focus seems to be on debating whether the Turks should be named Reno and Elena or Leno and Yrena, I'm sadly inclined to fear the latter. But hey, at least they know how to spell mithril.

Menu overhaul -- this is actually included in the Retranslation mod, so don't install both. (Actually, at the time of this writing neither one of them has a demo available to install at all, but...you know, keep it in mind once they're updated.) At any rate, it changes the menu font and alignment, apparently to something more closely resembling Final Fantasy 9's version. It was initially designed to accommodate the longer names of items, spells, and summons in the retranslation, but I foresee it improving aesthetics and possibly even gameplay for the existing version of the game as well.

FL's Battle Scene/World Map Enhancement -- I've covered projects to improve the world map and the field maps; this one is for the battle scenes. (And also the 2D bits of the world map, like the skyline with Meteor, though I couldn't get that bit to work -- maybe it's incompatible with Team Avalanche's world map version?) It's still early days, but it's looking good.

Project Bombing Mission -- Team Avalanche's project to replace all graphics -- battle and field, background and character -- in the opening section of the game.

Q-Gears -- an attempt to rewrite the FF7 engine from scratch. It's the equivalent of Exult, the open-source engine for Ultima 7; it would use the FF7 resource files but would provide its own executable. If this project is finished, it has potentially huge ramifications; it would mean multiplatform support for FF7 and, potentially, other PS1-era Square games like 8, 9, and Xenogears. It could make all of them easier to mod, as well as open up opportunities for people to develop their own games based on the engine.

Haven't Tried

Kranmer's Trainer -- I griped earlier about FF7 PC's lack of save-anywhere functionality. Well, nobody's grafted save states onto the thing, but this trainer purports to do the next best thing: enables the "Save" and "PHS" options any time you open the menu. I say "purports" because AVG flags the binary as a Trojan and refuses to run it, so I haven't actually tried it; I believe it's a false positive but fair warning, use it at your own risk.

AnyCD -- purportedly this removes the need to change discs/mounted disc images. It's not a nodisc crack, as you'll still need at least one game disc (or image) to play, but if it works that's two disc images you don't need to store on your hard drive. Three if you include the installation CD.

Zerox's Tifa model -- I haven't tried any replacement character models because it would be distracting to have a detailed character standing in-between two PS1-vintage ones; maybe I'll replay the game when there are high-detail models for every character. But this one looks good from the screenshots!

Not Actually a Mod

Can't really think of a better place to put this. While FF7 PC has joystick support, I couldn't get it to recognize my Rumblepad 2. I rigged up keyboard emulation using Logitech's Gaming Software. I mapped the buttons to the appropriate keys to match the PS1 button config, and additionally set up the left stick for movement and the right stick for camera rotation. (I also set it up so pushing in the left stick works as a second Run button, but it doesn't work very well.) You can import my settings or, if you don't have a Logitech controller or just don't like my settings for some reason, try rolling your own using finalfantasy7pc.com's game controls page as reference. (If you are using Logitech's Gaming Software, remember to check the inexplicably-named "FPS Style Movement" box or diagonals won't work on the D-pad. Because FPS, apparently, is the only genre where you hit two directional buttons to make a diagonal.)

Not My Cuppa

APZ Cloud -- this one's been pulled from the qhimm forums since the designer swiped the textures from somewhere else; he's working on a new version now. The existing APZ Cloud is a popular mod but I don't really like the look of it -- but YMMV. I preferred his Kingdom Hearts model, but he never released it for download; the qhimm forums have a strict policy against ripping models from other games.

Phoenix Rejuvenation Project -- an incredibly ambitious project to replace every single "chibi" field character with a more detailed, more realistically-proportioned version. I have a great deal of respect for the talent and work that's gone into the project, but I think it's a bad idea from the get-go; I'm all for more detailed models but the field models should stay chibi. In fact, I intend to devote my entire next post to the subject. Be here.


If you would rather be somewhere else, do feel free to discuss this post and general FF7age over at Brontoforumus.

Also, I finally fixed the horribly outdated worstforumsever.com link at the top of the sidebar. Just in time for my background check!

Revisiting NIMH

My mom read me Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH when I was a kid. A few times, as I recall.

I first saw Secret of NIMH on VHS when I was in fourth grade. Mostly I was put off by the divergences from the book.

Now, the movie's got a pretty devoted fanbase, and I do love me some Bluth, so I decided to give it another shot 18 years later and see what the fuss was about. I figured my older self would be more ready to appreciate the movie on its own merits.

On one level, I was right: it was much easier to appreciate the gorgeous animation, the superb voice casting, and the sheer scope and ambition of the project than when I was 10. On the other, my gripes with the movie remain surprisingly similar to what they were back then.

Some spoilers follow, as well as my dim recollections of how things went in a book I haven't revisited in twentyish years.

First, the good: the movie is fucking beautiful. Just amazingly animated. I love the character designs, from the scabby, scaly claws of Nicodemus and the owl to Dragon the cat, who resembles a nightmare version of the Cheshire Cat. Bluth was a visionary who helped drag animation from the dark ages after Disney's death, and he assembled one hell of a crew (I noticed a Bruce W Timm in the credits). And the cast -- well, Derek Jacobi is currently touring internationally in a critically-acclaimed performance of King Lear.

It's also, as best I remember it, a decent if truncated recreation of the major arc of the book: Mrs. Frisby (Brisby in the movie) needs to move her house because her sick child can't travel, she's directed to a group of superintelligent rats living under the rosebush, and they help her because her husband was a compatriot of theirs. It turns out they were subjected to scientific experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health; they've escaped and are currently in hiding, stealing electricity from a farmer's house, but they want to move shop and survive on their own resources. This has to happen a lot faster than anticipated because the scientists from NIMH track them down and seek to destroy their lair.

The movie does a pretty good job of telling that story in under 90 minutes. But it's got its share of flaws, too.

First of all, I can see why the movie had trouble finding an audience on release: because it finds trouble finding its audience in its presentation. It's too scary for young children, but the humor is too dopey for older ones.

As for the changes -- well, I think bringing Jenner in as a present antagonist instead of relegating him to flashbacks, and giving the film a clear villain, is a smart move. However, I have to go with 10-year-old Thad's assessment that all the nuance is drained out of his character from the book. Book Jenner was a tragic figure; not evil per se, just someone who had a fundamental disagreement with Nicodemus's plan. Here he's a conniving, mustache-twirling, murderous cliché. And an irrational one at that -- when Mrs. Brisby warns the rats that the NIMH scientists are coming to destroy their lair, Jenner calls her a liar and attacks her. How does that make sense? He may be a power-mad murderer, but he has no reason to doubt her, and it's hardly in his best interest just to assume she's lying and go back home without investigating whether or not anyone actually is coming to kill him and undo the life's work he's fought so hard to preserve. All in all, the movie trades a complex character for a lame caricature.

And about that "NIMH is coming, you have to escape" bit? No payoff! We never see the rats scrambling to move; we just find out they got out of there, seemingly with no pain or trouble in the process. The climax of the book is completely gone, with the fight with Jenner taking its place.

And the fight with Jenner -- well, I'm not as bothered by Nicodemus's death in the movie as 10-year-old Thad was; it's a tragic, affecting scene, and killing off the wise old mentor character is a classic storytelling component that is probably more satisfying to a general audience than the book's ending, where Nicodemus survives but Justin apparently, but not certainly, dies.

But then there's a swordfight.

Don't get me wrong, swordfights are awesome. And this particular swordfight is awesome. But it doesn't really fit. Those miniature swords look awfully well-made; they're not what you'd expect a group of rats living under a rosebush to make, no matter how highly developed they were. And what do they have them for? Justin's a guard, but we never actually see him turn a sword on anyone outside of this scene. The rats presumably don't want to swordfight the cat because it would risk revealing their existence to the farmer -- so why do they have them in the first place?

And the swordfight leads to the movie's biggest weakness: the fucking amulet.

See, in the movie, Nicodemus has two magic artifacts: a screenie thing that lets him watch the outside world and show flashbacks, and a magic amulet. I'll come back to the amulet in a minute, but let me start by saying the screen contributes absolutely nothing to the story. We see Nicodemus looking through it at the beginning and narrating to the audience that Mrs. Brisby is going to ask him for help, and then later he has her look through it so she can see the origin story.

You don't need a damn magic screen for either of these things.

Nicodemus is sharp enough to know Mrs. Brisby is going to come knocking on his door following her husband's death without a damn magic screen. And Mrs. Brisby doesn't need to see the origin story flashback; only the audience does. The screen as a framing device is used as an excuse for some of the best animation in the film, but again, you don't need a magic screen to set up the use of special effects to frame a flashback; that's a movie trope that the audience already understands.

But the real irony of using the magic screen to show the origin story is that it effectively demonstrates why the magic screen doesn't fit the story. We're looking at a story about rats who become superintelligent as a result of medical experiments. It is fundamentally a science fiction story. The magic artifacts don't match the SF premise, and are never fucking explained; Nicodemus just has them, because wise old people in movies have magical artifacts.

Which brings us to the amulet. The movie doesn't bother explaining where it came from, just that Nicodemus has it for some reason, and that Jenner apparently knows what it is but doesn't know Nicodemus has it. Which really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, because you have to figure that if Jenner knew about a magic artifact but didn't know who had it, Nicodemus would be a really, really obvious guess.

So okay. The rats set up an elaborate pulley system to move Mrs. Brisby's house; Jenner sabotages it and causes the whole thing to collapse and kill Nicodemus. Jenner gets in a swordfight with Justin; Jenner's lackey, who's been reluctant about this whole "let's kill Nicodemus" plan for some time, saves Justin and then he and Jenner both die. Then, when all hope seems lost, Mrs. Brisby moves her house using her magic amulet.

So okay. My biggest problem with the amulet? It's not that it doesn't make sense in the context of the story, it's not that its origin and purpose are never explained, it's not that it's a MacGuffin and a deus ex machina. My biggest problem with the amulet is that fucking amulet is an asshole. Seriously. The fucking thing could have moved Mrs. Brisby's house any time, but it waited until three people were dead. And two of them seemed like pretty nice guys!

Glee takes all the kink out of Rocky Horror

My girlfriend's a big Glee fan. I watch it with her now and again -- it's a little poppy for my tastes, and has gotten too big too fast, but it's not bad; there's some good singin' and dancin' and I've loved me some Jane Lynch since Best in Show.

So last night I did what any self-respecting owner of a Denton High Class of 1963 jacket (if that's not an oxymoron) would do: I watched the Rocky Horror episode. And...I am deeply ambivalent about it.

The singing, dancing, choreography, and costumes were generally great...but to say there were compromises for network TV is an understatement. Yes, I understand that twelve-year-olds watch this show, but not to put too fine a point on it, they just did Rocky Horror with no cross-dressing. Seriously. That happened.

I mean, I'm all for letting a woman play Frank-N-Furter; I've seen some great female Franks in my time (and the best version of Dammit Janet I've ever seen was performed by a female Brad). But Rocky Horror without a single man in fishnets? Basically a contradiction in terms, and rather odd coming from a show that hasn't exactly shied away from drag before.

And then there are the bowdlerized lyrics. Some of them are incoherent -- what the fuck is "heavy sweating"? -- while others change some of the best-known lines in the show. "I'm a sweet transvestite from sensational Transylvania"? What, you can say "transvestite" but not "transexual"? Especially odd given that they used the derogatory version, "tranny", in an earlier scene. (Giving them the benefit of the doubt: as any Rocky cast member can tell you, "Tranny" is also short for "Transylvanian".)

On the other hand, the bowdlerizations made sense in the context of the show's plot, and were fairly clever from a metafictional standpoint. After all, the whole episode revolves around the simple fact that no public high school, anywhere, would ever actually put on Rocky Horror; the show being too kinky for public school works as a metaphor for it being too kinky for this timeslot, and also gives an in-plot explanation for why the lyrics are changed.

But...is it really too kinky for the timeslot? I've seen Rocky on broadcast TV, in prime time, nearly uncut. Hell, The Simpsons put Dr. Hibbert in Frank-N-Furter garb in 1995, and The Drew Carey Show did the same with Diedrich Bader two years later. Maybe Glee has a younger audience than those shows, but it doesn't seem like it's that much younger. And hell, didn't the slutty cheerleaders just make a reference to scissoring each other a couple of weeks ago?

And it's frankly a little mind-boggling that Rocky Horror would even be controversial after 35 years. Somewhere, I'm sure Richard O'Brien is counting his money and having a good chuckle at the fact that it still freaks out TV producers after all this time.

All in all...well, it was fun, the songs were nicely done, and if this introduces some 12-year-olds to Rocky for the first time, good on it. But on the other, the spirit of the work is clearly missing, and, most problematically, the core "It's okay to be different" message becomes "It's okay to be different (as long as you don't do anything more scandalous than walking around in boxers)." (Boxers. They didn't even put Brad in briefs, dammit.) Glee's been pretty gutsy in its positive portrayals of the LGB community up to this point, so it's just weird that it would suddenly get squeamish when the "T" rolled around.

If you'll forgive me an annoying, smug movie review-style closer: the message here seems to be "Don't be it, dream it."

An Overrated Classic

Now, I love me some Grant Morrison. He wrote the quintessential Superman story, he made me revise my "I hate the fucking X-Men" policy, and just look at what he's done with Batman.

But in the mid-1990's, I was more of a Marvel guy, so I never read his run on JLA.

Now, I've been told for years that it's a classic run, and so I finally picked up the first trade the other day. And I have to say...what the fuck is this shit?

Image: Constipated Green Lantern

Yeah, it would be a lot easier to appreciate the spectacle of the seven greatest and most iconic DC superheroes if they didn't look like this:

Image: Mullet Superman, Pointy Batman, Bimbo Wonder Woman, Popeye Flash, Surprised Martian Manhunter, Enraged Green Lantern, Angry Aquaman

Hell, let's take a look at that entire Popeye Flash panel; it's a great "goofy faces" picture in and of itself:

Image: Giant Spitcurl Superman, Grimacing Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter picking up his skirts, Very Surprised Wonder Woman, Popeye Flash

And of course the 1990's art aesthetic didn't just apply to the pencils -- let's see some Photoshop Blur!

Image: Photoshop Blur Abuse!

WHUTT! indeed. And the Photoshop problems don't stop there. It's not really easy to tell onscreen, but I can assure you that on the printed page, there are badly-antialiased fonts and jaggy pixels on backgrounds.

Now, I'm picking on the art a lot here, because it is a constant barrage of pure eye-searing awfulness, but what about the story? Can a brilliantly-written Grant Morrison story redeem truly reprehensible art?

Well, as we all know from New X-Men, the answer is "sometimes". Unfortunately, that doesn't happen here. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced this story was written by Morrison, or even a human being; it reads like it was written by the Justice League Cliché-o-Matic 5000.

New superhero team shows up and promises to save the world?
Image: The Hyperclan pledges to save the world.
Check. They're actually bad guys?
Image: The Hyperclan pledges to bring the world to its knees.
Check. They lose because they underestimate Batman?
Image: Protex dismisses Batman as too fragile to be a threat.
Check. Martian Manhunter is set up as a traitor because he's an alien who doesn't fit in...
Image: Protex recruits J'onn.  Sure he does.
...but it turns out he was a double-agent the whole time and he's still on the JLA's side?
Image: J'onn fakes out the bad guys.
Check and check. (An aside: that's the one artistic touch I really like in the book, is the Martians' shape-shifting depicted as clay crumbling off and reshaping. So kudos for that.)

Overcompensating for the fact that everyone makes fun of Aquaman by constantly showing that no really guys, Aquaman is a total badass!?
Image: AQUAMAN IS HARDCORE.
Check. Kryptonite?
Image: Protex has Kryptonite.
Ch--
Image: THE KRYPTONITE IS A LIE.
Ha, good one, Grant. Almost had me there. But I'm still pretty sure I had a Bingo two clichés ago. ...okay, one more.

Facile explanation for why the JLA doesn't just fix the world like the bad guys said they should?
Image: If you fall they will catch you, they'll be waiting -- time after time

Check. Also, what the hell are they all looking at?

Soooo yeah, a JLA story that would have sent me to the hospital if I'd made it into a drinking game, complete with Liefeld-lite 1990's art atrocities.

My question is, does it get better after that, or has everybody been having fun at my expense and this "classic" run is actually that terrible all the way through? Should I bother picking up any of the rest of it, or just skip to Earth 2? Please advise, Internet.

Metroid: Brother from Another Mother Postmortem

So, Metroid: Other M has ginned up a fair bit of discussion and controversy. On the whole I liked it -- I probably wouldn't put it in my top five Metroid games (and how weird does that sound, "my top five Metroid games"?), but it was perfectly solid.

That said, there is plenty to gripe about -- and I'm going to throw my hat in, starting with the stuff that didn't work and how it can be fixed, and then moving along into the stuff I did like so we can end on a nice happy upbeat note.

Oh, and major spoilers follow. So, you know, stop here if you don't want to read them.

The cutscenes.

This particular aspect of the game has probably attracted more criticism than any other, and for good reason. We've gone from an essentially mute protagonist to one who constantly narrates -- badly.

How to fix: 90% of the problems with the cutscenes could be improved by cutting out the narration. Ever hear the expression "Show, don't tell"? If someone has to explain what's going on in a visual medium, you're doing it wrong. And we don't need Samus doing these "dear diary" things where she tells us what's going on inside her head -- as the Robot Devil sagely told us, "You can't have your characters just announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!"

There is one glaring exception: the one time the game doesn't overexplain the plot is the part that most needs it, the identity of the Deleter. Who the hell is he? The game doesn't tell us. Is Samus supposed to have figured it out? If so, why didn't she ever mention it in her incessant damn narration? The closest we ever get is her finding James's body last. Are we then to assume it was him? Or is it deliberately unresolved, perhaps to be revealed in a sequel? And if that's the case, why the hell isn't that set up somewhere? It's this major plot thread that just...gets dropped.

(And if it was anyone but Adam or Anthony, what's the point? Does it really matter which random Redshirt is the traitor?)

Oh, and also, guys...it's the twenty-first damn century. There is no excuse for unskippable cutscenes.

Item acquisition.

Bad for the story. First of all, Samus being told not to use any of her equipment, and just deactivating all of it, has pissed a good many fans off, and rightfully so (see "Samus is a pussy", below). But even ignoring that, the execution is utterly nonsensical -- Adam allows his men to use Ice Beams from the get-go, but won't let Samus use hers until she's spent 10 minutes in a volcano? And speaking of the volcano, she's not allowed to use the friggin' Varia Suit at first? I mean, okay, you can come up with a plot explanation for being careful with missiles and bombs (though this would, you know, require some sort of damn payoff later in the story to actually work), but what the hell possible story justification can there be for not allowing someone to use heat shielding in a fucking volcano?

There is a neat "Screw (Attack) this" moment later on where Samus loses contact with Adam (for, it is later revealed, a profoundly stupid reason), and reenables a couple of moves on her own...but there's still no damn explanation for why she doesn't just unlock her entire arsenal at that point. For God's sake, she doesn't even enable the Gravity Suit until after she's slogged through the high-gravity area.

Oh, and incidentally, guys, it's been mentioned before, but giving a cute explanation for why Samus has to give up all her equipment at the beginning of the game only works if you explain what happened to all her missiles and energy tanks. Which brings us to:

Bad for gameplay. Unlocking Samus's powers at set intervals reduces the variety of items for you to find down to three: missiles, energy tanks, and powerups that reduce your charge time.

Now, reducing charge time is neat, and I was always happy to find one of those. And energy tanks are an essential part of a Metroid game too -- I just wish Nintendo hadn't decided to crib one of the more annoying collect-y bits from the Zelda series and started splitting them up into quarters. Does anybody like hunting for Pieces of Heart? Anybody?

Of course, the vast majority of the stuff you find in walls is going to be missiles. Trouble is, missile upgrades are damn near useless this time around, as you can fully recharge your missile supply in a couple seconds at any time (except, arbitrarily, in the last fight!). I mean, yeah, it's obviously better to have 50 missiles than 10, but the missile count just isn't as significant this time around. Especially when you're incrementing it by one at a time.

How to fix: Easiest thing to do would be just to go back to resetting Samus's powerset at the beginning of the game without explanation and having her get upgrades from Chozo statues. Sure, it requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but you know what requires a hell of a lot more suspension of disbelief? Being forced to turn off heat shielding in a volcano. And, you know, all that other shit I just got through complaining about.

If you're really concerned about having an in-plot explanation for Samus losing her powers, set the next game after Fusion and throw together some explanation about how the Fusion Suit can't retain its upgrades over time. Easy.

And it doesn't have to be the same arsenal in every game, guys! Let's see some new equipment!

Samus is a pussy.

We've already covered Samus's subservience to Adam, but the scene that rightfully cheesed a bunch of people off is the one where she's literally transformed into a crying child when Ridley confronts her.

Guys, I see what you're going for here -- the game plays with the image of a child's cry from beginning to end. And you're trying to show Samus gets scared sometimes -- Alien, after all, never had a problem showing Ripley scared shitless.

Difference is, Ripley still got shit done. She never needed a man to swoop in and snap her out of her little-girl crying.

And of course there's the fact that Samus has killed Ridley, what, four times by this point? That doesn't necessarily mean she can't still be afraid of him -- after all, it's not going to make the giant monster who killed your parents less scary if he keeps coming back from the dead -- but she never froze up on the previous four occasions, so it seems silly for her to do so now.

How to fix: I've already covered the "don't make Samus switch her equipment off and on at some dude's whim" point. As for the Ridley scene, it's okay to show her scared, but not to have her fall to pieces and just stand there. You really want to play the "crying child" thing, okay, make it a flashback, but this whole scene, Anthony's non-sacrifice and all, would still have worked without making Samus totally helpless.

Invisible walls.

This game has the worst abuse of invisible barriers I've seen since the Nintendo 64 era. It's embarrassing. If something looks like empty space, I should be able to walk through it. If there's an object with a flat top that's lower than the maximum height of my jump, I should be able to stand on it.

How to fix: If you don't want me to be able to walk through something, put a wall there. If you don't want me to be able to stand on top of something, make it taller, or have it end in a point. It's not rocket science, guys; this is embarrassing.

Pixel hunting.

I am not a guy who usually looks at walkthroughs, but several times throughout this game I had to punch one up after spending ten minutes trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be looking at out of all the tiny objects off in the distance that are almost the same color as the background. It's utter nonsense -- that boss isn't going to attack me until I see the larva? MB's just going to stand at that window and watch me look around for five minutes and only run away once I've actually looked directly at her? -- and it completely kills the momentum of the game.

While scanning worked okay in Metroid Prime, this is fundamentally different. Prime clearly marked everything that was scannable, and let you move around while you were looking for things.

How to fix: It can't be fixed. Fucking get rid of it. The moment you think it would be a good idea to include another pixel hunt, bash your hand with a hammer. Keep doing this until you no longer think it sounds like a good idea.

Unclear objectives and inconsistent rules.

Following off the above section: I had to look up a walkthrough three times in the endgame. First, to find out what I was supposed to be looking for in Room MW. Second, to figure out how to beat the Metroid Queen -- yes, I'd figured Power Bombs, but holding down the button didn't work, you had to go into the menu and activate them. Which would be fine if that had been how it worked for every single other power, but all the rest activated automatically. You can't go changing the way powers are activated at the very end of the game.

And after that, there was one final pixel hunt. In the middle of a fight. Where you can't dodge or recharge your missiles and indeed there's not actually any indication that your goal is to look at the middle of the room instead of the guys shooting you in the face.

How to fix: You don't need to hold my hand and spell everything out for me, but make points of interest visible (at least if they're places I have to go and not, say, missile upgrades), and don't change the rules of the game at the very end.

Anyhow, enough with the complaints and on with the good stuff:

The cutscenes.

It almost feels like the cutscenes were created in order, because -- with the exception of the horrendous Ridley sequence late in the game -- they get progressively better. Adam's death is a real high point, and while Madeline spends a bit too much time on exposition, there's a real sense of tragedy and pathos to the ending. There's potential here; it gives me hope they'll get it right from the beginning in the sequel.

And you know, I didn't really think the voice acting was that bad -- I didn't think it was fantastic, but it was competent, especially given the material.

The Metroids.

I could count all the Metroids in this game on my hands. They only show up at the end of the game, and they are bitch-ass hard to kill.

This is exactly how it should be. Keep the Metroids scarce, make them scary and make them a legitimate challenge.

The high-gravity sequence.

Yeah, it was a pain in the ass to play, and Samus's refusal to activate the Gravity Suit is utterly nonsensical, but it was probably the most legitimately creative point in the game.

The escape sequence.

It's hard to take a formula and make it surprising. Super Metroid put its twist on the escape sequence by making the room tilt; Zero Mission added the Zero Suit stealth sequence, and this one puts the whole thing after the end credits. Great twist; too bad it won't be a surprise next time (and too bad a guy with a loud mouth spoiled it on my messageboard).

The return of the Zero Suit doesn't make a lick of plot sense (and neither does Adam leaving his helmet behind in the first place), but it's fun -- chalk another one up in the "I'm willing to suspend disbelief if you give me something worthwhile in exchange" column.

Speaking of which,

Three Stages of Ridley.

It's completely ridiculous, but I love it.

No drops.

It was a little odd at first, getting used to the lack of energy/missile drops, but it really fits the mechanics of this game well. Running out of missiles is a minor inconvenience, but recharging health requires a real risk -- and pays off often enough that it's not frustrating, while getting you killed often enough that the game's still a challenge.

Well-placed save points and forgiving deaths.

In general, I tend to wish the Japanese would figure out that we're not saving to batteries anymore and realize save points are anachronisms and just let me save wherever I want -- but this is the next best thing. You rarely, if ever, go 20 minutes without hitting a save point and, better still, always respawn close to where you die (eg at the beginning of a boss fight). It allows the game to be challenging without being too punishing -- especially given the aforementioned unskippable cutscenes.

The gameplay!

Saving the most obvious for last -- for all its flaws, this is a pretty fun game to play. It's nailed the atmosphere and mechanics of the series. Sure, combat's a bit more complicated, but it seldom hurts the momentum of the game. Make no mistake: this game plays like a Metroid. It's got its blemishes, but I enjoyed it, and I played it through to the end -- and, perhaps most notably, it made me want to go back and replay its spiritual predecessor (and chronological successor), Metroid Fusion.

All in all, a pretty good game. With some spit and polish, a sequel could be better yet.

Local Business

So today is Read Comics in Public Day, or, as it's called in my house, a day I walked out the front door. I got to read a bit of Paul Cornell's Action Comics while waiting for a haircut. Nice to see the local barbershop doing good business: the one-two punch of road construction and SB1070 has made it tough for businesses in that area.

So if you happen to be in the neighborhood, Chavez Barbershop is recommended — you can't beat their prices, they're open long hours, and I didn't have to wait long enough to finish my comic. The haircut's pretty good too.

On the other hand...

Two posts ago, I argued for more 8-page comic book stories.

A couple weeks back, I picked up Nation X #4, because it had a Milligan/Allred story with Doop. Now, that was pretty awesome...

...but then I realized I'd paid $4 for an 8-page story. I would not have bought the book for any of the other stories in it. The one where the kids raid the fridge was fun, but still not enough to justify the purchase.

So, all this to say, I'd love to see more anthologies like Nation X...except, you know, good.


Playing: Mega Man 10
Reading: Just wrapped Men of Tomorrow.

Form and Function

A few weeks back, I rented Hellboy: Sword of Storms. It was a neat little movie, and adhered pretty well to the the comics' folklore vibe. The highlight was a sequence adapting Heads.

And it occurred to me, you know, the best Hellboy stories are 8-page adaptations of folk tales, in which Hellboy himself plays only a minor role. Similarly, wouldn't it be great to see some 10-minute Hellboy animated shorts?

It's a real pity that both 8-page comic stories and 10-minute animated shorts have fallen by the wayside. DC, at least, seems interested in bringing them back: they've been doing 8-page "secondary features" in some of their popular titles, and next week's animated Crisis on Two Earths will also include a 10-minute Spectre short. Which is the perfect length for a Spectre story.

And of course all this has me thinking, Why 22 pages? Why 22 minutes? Why 6-issue arcs? Stories should take all the time they need; no more and no less.

Which isn't to say that rigid parameters can't foster creativity. The BioWare Writing Contest I participated in a few years back had some very tight guidelines -- only so many characters, only one location allowed, and that location has to be a pretty tiny square. But in a way, that stimulated creativity. Sometimes, you need parameters.

Douglas Adams is a favorite example. His best Hitchhiker's Guide work was written for radio, with a rigid three-act structure and length requirement for each episode, with the requisite pacing those things entail. Those episodes were adapted as the first two books of the Trilogy. The third, Life, the Universe and Everything, was adapted from an unused Doctor Who pitch, so it was conceived around a predefined structure as well. The last two books, where Adams took a more freestyle approach, tended to flail a bit; they were adapted by Dirk Maggs for radio a few years back and, for my money, worked much better with his judicious editing.

(The awesomeness of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul does not fit my narrative as, to the best of my knowledge, it wasn't adapted from a radio or TV format. The first Dirk book was, though.)

There are plenty of writers who could benefit from tighter restrictions. Will Eisner put as much plot in a 7-page Spirit story as Brian Michael Bendis does in a 132-page Avengers arc. Sometimes I like longer, decompressed stories that spend more time on the scenery and the atmosphere. But there should still be a place for those weird little Hellboy stories.

I recently read Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall. Its pacing and form were noticeably different from the typical Fables books, because of its format: it was written as a graphic novel, rather than simply collecting 6 issues of a serial comic.

(A tangent on nomenclature: I absolutely despise the term graphic novel as it is commonly used, ie as a synonym for "comic book" used by people who think they're too cool for Spider-Man. However, it is a useful term when used in its original sense, ie a comic written in long form instead of being serialized in stapled, 22-page, monthly increments.)

Of course, 1001 Nights isn't a graphic novel so much as a graphic short story collection -- far from being a longform Fables story that takes its time, it's a series of stories which are shorter and tighter than a typical issue of Fables. So actually, it's more along the lines of those 8-page Hellboy stories I've been yammering about.

More in the "paced like a novel" vein would be DC's upcoming Earth One books. While it is obvious that these stories need to be published, as nobody has retold Superman's origin story in over three weeks, it's going to be interesting seeing them told with a little more breathing room, without the overwhelming, breakneck pace of Superman: Secret Origin.

I kid, but you know, the nice thing about constantly retelling Superman's origin is that now the Siegel heirs get a cut.

At any rate, once the rehashes are done, it would be quite nice to see DC tell some new stories with these characters in this format -- stories as long or as short as they need to be, at whatever pace suits the piece, without having to speed toward a cliffhanger every 22 pages.

V for Vendetta is actually a decent example -- yes, it was serialized, but its chapters don't fit into a consistent, forced length or pace. And while some of the chapters were climactic action sequences of V stabbing people a lot, others had him simply soliloquizing about anarchy.

(And funnily enough, the guy writing Earth One: Superman is J Michael Straczynski, the same guy whose The Brave and the Bold is currently the best 22-page superhero book that actually tells 22-page stories -- but whose run on Thor was decompressed, organic, and even meandering. Which is not a criticism, as I loved his Thor; it's just a statement that the man can write very well in different formats.)

If the world is a just and beautiful place, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a template for the future of television. It manages the rather neat trick of adhering to a rigid structure that also just happens to be noticeably different from the traditional structure of a TV show: three 13-minute acts, each itself featuring a beginning, a middle, an end, and four songs. It's similar to, but distinct from, the standard three-act structure and 44-minute length of an American TV show.

Even The Daily Show -- God, not a week goes by anymore but one of the interviews goes over. Which is swell, but the way this is handled online is completely boneheaded: if you go to Full Episodes on thedailyshow.com, or view an episode on Hulu, you get the broadcast episode, which shows the truncated interview, followed by an admonition to check out the website, followed by Moment of Zen and credits. I can see this as an unfortunate requirement for broadcast, but guys, Internet videos can be more than 22 minutes. Why in the hell do I have to click through to a different page on the site (or, if I'm watching from Hulu, a different site entirely) to watch the rest of the interview? It's viewer-unfriendly, especially if you use your PC as a media center hooked up to your TV. Cut the full interview into the damn episode. Add an extra commercial in the middle if you have to. (It would be swell if you didn't show the exact same commercial at every single break, but that's a separate presumably-silly-and-useless "rant".)

At least they've wised up a little and started showing just the first part of the interview in the broadcast episode and then showing the rest in the "Full Interview" link on the website. It used to be they'd show a chopped-up version of the interview in the broadcast episode, meaning that instead of the Full Interview link picking up where the show left off, it had five minutes' worth of the same content spread out across it.

You know, it seems like the youngest of the major media is also the one with the least rigid requirements for length. Video games can be anything from a three-second WarioWare microgame to a persistent world that players sink years into. People may grouse a bit that Portal or Arkham Asylum is too short, but it doesn't prevent them from being highly-regarded, bestselling titles.

Which is, of course, not to say that longer games don't have to function under tight restrictions. They're often very high-budget affairs with a hell of a lot of people involved (as Dragon Age tries to forcibly remind you with its absurdly slow credits crawl) -- programmers, writers, artists, and so on. The Mass Effect games have voiced player dialogue and let the player choose Shepard's sex, which means every single one of those lines has to be recorded twice. (And frankly that doesn't seem like enough variety -- I have a Samuel L Jackson lookalike who says "aboot".)

And those restrictions are probably why every dialogue choice in ME is broken up into a predictable paragon/neutral/renegade choice. That kind of very-unsubtle delineation is exactly the sort of thing western RPG developers have been trying to get out of (as in both The Witcher and Dragon Age), but in the context of ME it works quite well -- I've even tried my hand at writing in a three-choices, no-hubs dialogue style and it works very organically. (For the ludicrous amount of dialogue in Dragon Age, there were places I could see the seams showing -- spots where I'd have three dialogue options and, as soon as the NPC spoke, knew that all three led to that exact same response. But that's probably a lot harder to notice if you've never written a dialogue tree yourself, and it's certainly an artform in and of itself, giving a response that works equally well for three different questions. I can only think of one occasion in the dozens of hours of Dragon Age where a writer screwed up and had a question hub that began with an NPC answering a specific question in a way that didn't make any sense if the dialogue looped back.)

And of course it's the medium that allows this kind of longform storytelling. Game length is no longer restricted by the arcade environment. Which is, of course, not to say that short-play games don't get made anymore -- Street Fighter 4 is a high-budget, "hardcore gamer" example, but Nintendo's entire business is built around games a casual player can pick up and play for ten minutes at a time. Ditto every Flash game on the Web, and most games on the iPhone.

And, indeed, Internet delivery is going to liberate other media from their restrictions. Eventually, we're bound to see shows like The Daily Show just run more than 22 minutes if they have to, and, God willing, we'll see more offbeat stuff like Dr. Horrible. The Web's given us comics as diverse as Achewood, Dr. McNinja, Templar, Arizona, and FreakAngels, and cartoons from Adventure Time to Homestar Runner to Charlie the Unicorn to Gotham Girls to the complete version of Turtles Forever. It's also allowed MST3K to continue in the form of the downloadable RiffTrax and the direct-order Cinematic Titanic.

Variety is the spice of life. I love comics -- and yeah, that includes mainstream superhero comics. But I'm sick of all of them having the exact same structure. Fortunately, I think we're on the edge of an age of experimentation.

Or another damn market crash. It is an odd-numbered decade now, after all.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

I just caught Repo! The Genetic Opera at my local independent theater. I'd seen the trailer some months back and it had piqued my interest, and I get bulletins on what Chandler Cinemas is doing because the manager, Matt Yenkala, is a friend of mine and runs the local Rocky Horror cast.

The background: test audiences and critics panned the movie, and Lionsgate refused to distribute it, so the makers are taking it on tour personally. Chandler Cinemas was the first stop on their second tour.

It's the sort of movie where if it sounds like something you're going to like, it probably is. A rock opera about a dystopian future with mass organ failure, transplants, and repossessions of same -- yeah, it's pretty clear there's a very selective audience there. But I saw the trailer and thought "That looks awesome," and as far as I'm concerned it was.

Let's get the obvious out of the way: it ain't Shakespeare. The themes, characters, and plot are all pretty shallow. I would add that the lyrics struck me as mediocre (most didn't rhyme, and relied on awkward slant-rhyme like "daughter/monster" and repeating the same three words three times; the lyricist did better when he wasn't trying to rhyme), and some of the songs run together in my head (though that's a common failing in musicals), but by and large the singing was good, and it's a rarity to see a full-on rock opera -- not merely a musical, but a show where most lines are sung rather than spoken.

Critics throwing about phrases like "worst movie ever" or making comparisons to Uwe Boll are just engaging in obnoxious hyperbole. Even if there were nothing else to like about the movie, it's very striking visually -- every scene has something fresh and interesting to catch the eye (and most scenes look like metal album covers).

Peter Travers at Rolling Stone, who should really know better, went for the low-hanging fruit and spent a nine-sentence review mocking Paris Hilton -- but honestly, I find it hard to complain about a movie where she plays a superficially pretty, morally bankrupt substance addict who is an embarrassment to her rich and powerful father. See? You can go for low-hanging fruit and still praise the movie, Pete.

There was a Q&A after the show with director Darren Bousman, co-creator Terrance Zdunich, and...there was a third guy but unfortunately I didn't catch his name; my apologies. Nice guys, all of them, who were just happy to have a theater full of people who "got it" -- it's a movie with limited appeal that was never suited to a mainstream audience, and has been given short shrift by a Hollywood system that doesn't know how to cope with a movie that's neither a summer blockbuster nor winter Oscar-bait.

It's not a brilliant or life-changing film. But it is a very good B movie. Anthony Head steals the show as the Repo Man, there's a lot of really pretty stuff to see, and it's at its best when it remembers to be funny -- which fortunately is most of the movie. (The denouement gets a bit maudlin and is longer than it needs to be, but this is an opera, for cryin' out loud.) I thought it was a fun damn way to spend a Thursday night, especially in a house packed with enthusiastic theatergoers. If it sounds like it's up your alley, it probably is; check it out if the tour comes your way, and give it a rent once it's out on DVD if it doesn't.

Halloween '08, Part 3: Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula

Continuing from my previous post:

Bram Stoker's Dracula was my favorite of the four movies, and here's why: it managed to create the most faithful adaptation of the events of the book, while totally subverting its theme. Also, it had boobies.

The movie goes to great lengths to adapt the book accurately, from the inclusion of Holmwood and Quincey, a pair of redundant characters who are usually left out of movie adaptations, to details like Dracula climbing on the walls of the castle like an insect, feeding a baby to his wives, becoming younger after feeding on Lucy, and appearing on the streets of London in broad daylight; Harker going prematurely gray after his ordeal; Dracula's wives surrounding Van Helsing and, unable to break his protective circle, killing his horses.

And yet, in the end, the viewer is left with a wholly different feeling about Dracula: far from being evil incarnate, he's more of a sympathetic character. It's the uptight Victorians who are the real villains here; Hopkins's Van Helsing is out of his damned mind, chopping a woman's head off and then casually discussing it over dinner, after dismissing her as "a bitch of the Devil, a whore of darkness" while laughing giddily.

The sexuality that's implied in the book, and in most of the film adaptations, is overt here. Yet, it seems far less perverse than the society that condemns it. Lucy talks lustily about "unspeakable acts of desperate passion on the parlour floor", and this seems a far more natural thing for a nineteen-year-old girl than choosing a husband. She doesn't look like she's suffering when she's clutching at herself during an "attack" by Dracula, but she certainly does when she's having her head cut off by Van Helsing.

Yes, Dracula's origin story and his motivations are original to this version, as are his meetings with Mina under the identity of Prince Vlad. Most importantly, Mina's consent, and indeed insistence, on being turned is original here. And that's an integral part of the film: when all is said and done, it's clear she belongs with Dracula, her exciting and mysterious ancient love, not the boringly conventional and dull Harker (a role which you'd think Keanu Reeves would be perfect for, but which he still manages to drag down). Dracula is a sympathetic character, and thus the whole story is turned on its head.

Thematically, it's The Rocky Horror Picture Show played straight.

No, hear me out.

I'm not comparing the quality of the two movies, and certainly not of the two directors. Rocky is an awful damned film, which is of course part of its appeal. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula is, by contrast, an utterly brilliant film. But thematically, the two have a lot in common: a fresh take on monster movies of the 1930's, centering around the conflict between old, prudish attitudes toward sex and modern, more liberated ones. Both movies focus on straightlaced couples seduced by a character who's traditionally depicted as a villain but who, in the end, is far more relatable than the eccentric German professor who seeks to destroy him.

Which is not to say that Frank-N-Furter and Dracula are good guys -- they're both cannibals, for God's sake. Frank kills Eddie and serves him up for dinner; Dracula throws a baby to his wives (and reminders are given throughout the movie that he is, in fact, Vlad the Impaler). And so both of them are still monsters, and there's no defending those acts -- saying they're another metaphor for breaking taboos is a copout. Less a copout, perhaps, is to contrast these actions with their sexual behavior: it's not sex that makes them monstrous, it's violence; the typical western notion that violence is more acceptable than sex is another piece of those perverse and puritanical social values that both movies criticize. (In Dracula's case, it also allows for the contrast between a charming, Lugosi-style Dracula and a monstrous, Schreck-style one within the span of the same movie.)

So that's where the Coppola movie shines: Stoker's Victorian sensibilities are wrong, but his story can be easily adapted to late-twentieth-century themes -- perhaps because Stoker's novel itself is about the clash between the ancient and modern worlds. (Not to say, by any stretch, that modern films aren't prudish in their own way -- MPAA-approved nude scenes are still utterly absurd, and this is a movie chock-full of graphic sex scenes where nobody ever completely disrobes.) Ironic, then, that Stoker's name is in the title -- this was the first in a trend of films with authors' names, not always appropriately, stuck in the titles to differentiate them from previous adaptations of the same work (the worst offender being Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, which bore even less resemblance to Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book than Disney's animated version; if memory serves its credits didn't even say "Based on the book by Rudyard Kipling" but "Based on characters from the book by Rudyard Kipling").

Anyhow. All this to say, Francis Ford Coppola makes pretty good movies. I know, amazing observation, right? That is why you read this blog. Because you enjoy watching someone take 800 words to say something everybody already knew.

Go vote tomorrow.