Archive for May, 2009

Bionic Commando – In the Swing of Things

May 28, 2009

As someone who did not own an NES, Bionic Commando was one of those elusive titles I would often hear about but never got a chance to experience. You’ve got a bionic arm, you can’t jump, and you swing around and blow up Hitler “Master-D’s” head? Sounds kinda interesting, I suppose.

So it was a welcome surprise when Capcom released Bionic Commando Rearmed — a 2.5D remake of the NES original — last year, which I promptly downloaded. Most reviewers familiar with the original agreed that this remake was an overall improvement on an already great game. Having never played it myself  it was all new to me, but I mostly agreed; The game was challenging but enjoyable, and I could see why people liked the original so much. The fantastic “Neo Chip Tunes” style soundtrack was worth the price of admission alone.

Rearmed’s release was also a lead up to the fully 3D sequel, coming a full 20 years after the original version. The remake did a decent job of getting me a bit hyped up for this game, which was obviously Capcom’s intention to begin with. I liked Rearmed, so it makes sense that I’d like the sequel, right?

…right? *cricket noises*

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Terminator Salvation: His Heart Will Go On

May 28, 2009

I will start this article honestly. Ten minutes into the latest entry into the Terminator franchise, Terminator Salvation, I wanted it to be over. Now, I rarely feel that strongly about not wanting to continue watching a movie. Hell, I was curious enough to watch, like, half an hour of Ultraviolet on TNT one time. The only other time I remember being so completely over a movie practically before it had begun was Jurassic Park III. I was checking my watch twenty minutes in on that one. What do Terminator Salvation and Jurassic Park III have in common? Could it be that they’re both unnecessary science fiction sequels that absolutely no one clamored for?

y halo thar~

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A Revolution in Gaming: BIG RIGS Over the Road Racing

May 27, 2009

 

Back in 2003 a virtually unknown Ukraine-based developer called Steller Stone released a PC game called “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing.” The premise of the game was to race semis around five courses with police in hot pursuit. The finished product featured four courses (the fifth instantly crashes and aborts the game), no police and motionless opponents who wait patiently at the starting line. Citing the lack of gameplay, including such barebones elements as collision detection to distinguish whether you’ve encountered an obstacle, the game journalism community summarily declared it the worst game ever made. On metacritic, it maintains the all time lowest score for any game, an 8%, which was achieve only because some reviewers did not have a scale that went to 0.
I say genius is rarely recognized in its own time.
Many culture critics have suggested that we’re well past the time when videogames should be taken seriously as an art form, but the uniform critical dismissal of “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing” is proof that the budding movement is still undergoing growing pains. How else to explain the refusal by mainstream reviewers to confront perhaps the most gutsy, acerbic, auto-critique that the industry has yet seen? Big Rigs is a passionate, avant-garde wake-up call to a community whose “artform” is still in its infancy. While games like “Zelda: Twilight Princess” and “Braid” are still just gingerly pushing the envelop, Big Rigs was throwing dynamite into the post office.
Consider, if you will, the conspicuously breath of its so-called flaws. Do they not seem to challenge our very definition of game, even of entertainment? I mean, why bother to subtitle a game “over the road racing” (which implies an “under the road racing” and perhaps even an “inside the road racing”) if not to interrogate the basic tenets of how we conceive racing.
One particularly clever touch is that sometimes while starting off from behind the checkered line, the game interprets you as passing the finish line and immediately declares you the winner. Naïve predecessors like “Grand Turismo” featured “endurance races” in which the player must complete upwards of 500 laps around a circular track, but Big Rigs dares to subvert this concept entirely, confronting us head on with the existential boredom of such an empty exercise. 
Is there’s any point in racing endless laps? Don’t we just end up back where we started? If 500 laps, why not 499, or 498? Indeed, why even 1? What a poignant metaphor for life. And with the false illusion of competing racers removed, we can see the race for what it is: an opiate of speed and glory to keep the ambitions of the masses safely in check and fuel sales booming. The gaudy, low-resolution trophy that appears above the words “YOU’RE WINNER!” only mocks us, exposing how crudely the ruling elite attempts to stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains with fictional tinsel rewards. Since the game does not allow for any other result (there are no time limits), our initial reaction is a realization that we trapped in an eternal hollow victory.
We are forced to play only the four daytime tracks, as though an unseen puppet government were imposing a subtle curfew. But by denying us even the option of playing Nightride, the course which is inaccessible, we are forced into the shadowless, uniform brightness (seen as graphics deficiencies by uncritical minds) of the other tracks. Not only the tracks, but the trucks are indistinguishable. Thus the game gradually compels us to see how the choice between glamorously over-lit virtual substitutes (the commodities of decadent late capitalism) is really no choice at all. 
But Nightride, the race that immediately aborts and crashes your PC when selected, takes us a step towards the solution by awakening us to our own mortality. By giving us the option to knowingly choose Nightride, to consciously end the charade, we retain the power of accepting the harshest reality of all: that it is better to play no game at all than to spin in circles for a blind, uncaring god.
Thus Big Rigs effortlessly synthesizes Adorno’s Frankfurt school determinist Marxism, which believes that man is merely the pawn of social institutions with Sartre’s existentialist credo as expressed in “Being and Nothingness” that, if only through negation, we can define ourselves with an act of genuine free will. Fed on such bourgeois capitalist gameplay concepts as collecting a hundred coins to gain life it’s no wonder that mainstream reviewers cowered before Big Rigs’ bold implications.
But Over the Road Racing goes still further beyond these entry texts. Within its merciless social critique it offers a profound brand of hope by continually stripping away the artifices of conventional games. Trees and mountains (natural law) as well as roads and street signs (positive law, i.e., human law) are represented, but their power is shown to exist largely as constructs in our own minds. We naturally try to stay on the road, for instance, and to avoid trees, but soon we realize that going off the road incurs no extra friction and creates no loss of speed. Similarly, we pass through walls, trees and mountains with no change. This is Big Rigs’ way of peeling back our accumulated layers of learned assumptions and reawakening us to our environment. 
It does not take long before the player discovers that they can transcend the racetrack entirely, drifting smoothly into a featureless grey infinity. Thus having shed the last reminders of material limitation, save a looping fragment of techno, the player is free to meditate, contemplate the mysteries of the universe or turn to self-reflection. 
While other games presume to instruct and enlighten, Big Rigs discards the old hierarchies of classic art. Even in the recent spat of sandbox games the producer is still leading the consumer around by the hand, tacitly reinforcing the value of manipulating pixels on a screen. With Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, the player is instead encouraged to get up from the computer and take their lives into their own hands.
That’s what makes Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing a revolutionary work. It is a Dadaist anti-game that Marcel Duchamp could have enjoyed and a daring non-race in the minimalist tradition of Yves Klein. (Am I going too far to suggest that the game’s occasional use of the color blue is a sly nod to the master?) rolled into one. This is the opening salvo of a new era in videogames, though it may be simultaneously the killing blow. For while “edgy” games of our primitive day have posited that videogames should be taken seriously as art, Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing asks us whether art should be taken seriously at all.
Score: 10/10

Big Rigs Box Art

Back in 2003 a virtually unknown Ukraine-based developer called Steller Stone released a PC game called “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing.” The premise of the game was to race semis around five courses with police in hot pursuit. The finished product featured four courses (the fifth instantly crashes and aborts the game), no police and motionless opponents who wait patiently at the starting line. Citing the lack of gameplay, including such barebones elements as collision detection to distinguish whether you’ve encountered an obstacle, the game journalism community summarily declared it the worst game ever made. On metacritic, it maintains the all time lowest score for any game, an 8%, which was achieve only because some reviewers did not have a scale that went to 0.

I say genius is rarely recognized in its own time.

Many culture critics have suggested that we’re well past the time when videogames should be taken seriously as an art form, but the uniform critical dismissal of “Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing” is proof that the budding movement is still undergoing growing pains. How else to explain the refusal by mainstream reviewers to confront perhaps the most gutsy, acerbic, auto-critique that the industry has yet seen? Big Rigs is a passionate, avant-garde wake-up call to a community whose “artform” is still in its infancy. While games like “Zelda: Twilight Princess” and “Braid” are still just gingerly pushing the envelop, Big Rigs was throwing dynamite into the post office.

Consider, if you will, the conspicuously breath of its so-called flaws. Do they not seem to challenge our very definition of game, even of entertainment? I mean, why bother to subtitle a game “over the road racing” (which implies an “under the road racing” and perhaps even an “inside the road racing”) if not to interrogate the basic tenets of how we conceive racing.

One particularly clever touch is that sometimes while starting off from behind the checkered line, the game interprets you as passing the finish line and immediately declares you the winner. Naïve predecessors like “Grand Turismo” featured “endurance races” in which the player must complete upwards of 500 laps around a circular track, but Big Rigs dares to subvert this concept entirely, confronting us head on with the existential boredom of such an empty exercise. 

Is there’s any point in racing endless laps? Don’t we just end up back where we started? If 500 laps, why not 499, or 498? Indeed, why even 1? What a poignant metaphor for life. And with the false illusion of competing racers removed, we can see the race for what it is: an opiate of speed and glory to keep the ambitions of the masses safely in check and fuel sales booming. The gaudy, low-resolution trophy that appears above the words “YOU’RE WINNER!” only mocks us, exposing how crudely the ruling elite attempts to stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains with fictional tinsel rewards. Since the game does not allow for any other result (there are no time limits), our initial reaction is a realization that we trapped in an eternal hollow victory.

winner trophy

We are forced to play only the four daytime tracks, as though an unseen puppet government were imposing a subtle curfew. But by denying us even the option of playing Nightride, the course which is inaccessible, we are forced into the shadowless, uniform brightness (seen as graphics deficiencies by uncritical minds) of the other tracks. Not only the tracks, but the trucks are indistinguishable. Thus the game gradually compels us to see how the choice between glamorously over-lit virtual substitutes (the commodities of decadent late capitalism) is really no choice at all.

But Nightride, the race that immediately aborts and crashes your PC when selected, takes us a step towards the solution by awakening us to our own mortality. By giving us the option to knowingly choose Nightride, to consciously end the charade, we retain the power of accepting the harshest reality of all: that it is better to play no game at all than to spin in circles for a blind, uncaring god.

Thus Big Rigs effortlessly synthesizes Adorno’s Frankfurt school determinist Marxism, which believes that man is merely the pawn of social institutions with Sartre’s existentialist credo that, if only through negation, we can define ourselves with an act of genuine free will. Fed on such bourgeois capitalist gameplay concepts as collecting a hundred coins to gain life it’s no wonder that mainstream reviewers cowered before Big Rigs’ bold implications.

Being and Nothingess

One of Big Rigs major influences, albeit a tentative study that balks in the face Big Rigs conclusions

But Over the Road Racing goes still further beyond these entry texts. Within its merciless social critique it offers a profound brand of hope by continually stripping away the artifices of conventional games. Trees and mountains (natural law) as well as roads and street signs (positive law, i.e., human law) are represented, but their power is shown to exist largely as constructs in our own minds. We naturally try to stay on the road, for instance, and to avoid trees, but soon we realize that going off the road incurs no extra friction and creates no loss of speed. Similarly, we pass through walls, trees and mountains with no change. This is Big Rigs’ way of peeling back our accumulated layers of learned assumptions and reawakening us to our environment. 

It does not take long before the player discovers that they can transcend the racetrack entirely, drifting smoothly into a featureless grey infinity. Thus having shed the last reminders of material limitation, save a looping fragment of techno, the player is free to meditate, contemplate the mysteries of the universe or turn to self-reflection. 

While other games presume to instruct and enlighten, Big Rigs discards the old hierarchies of classic art. Even in the recent spat of sandbox games the producer is still leading the consumer around by the hand, tacitly reinforcing the value of manipulating pixels on a screen. With Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, the player is instead encouraged to get up from the computer and take their lives into their own hands.

That’s what makes Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing a revolutionary work. It is a Dadaist anti-game that Marcel Duchamp could have enjoyed and a daring non-race in the minimalist tradition of Yves Klein. (Am I going too far to suggest that the game’s occasional use of the color blue is a sly nod to the master?) rolled into one. This is the opening salvo of a new era in videogames, though it may be simultaneously the killing blow. For while “edgy” games of our primitive day have posited that videogames should be taken seriously as art, Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing asks us whether art should be taken seriously at all.

 

Score: 10/10

Grump Alert – Pioneer Project

May 26, 2009

Video game blogs are like assholes: everyone’s got one. I mean, hell, look at this! But not all of them show the same kind of design talent and effort in dredging up some of the hidden gems of years past as one that recently came to my attention: Pioneer Project. It’s run by a charming lady in the UK, so sometimes the titles of games may seem confusing to readers from the States (since when is Tomba! Tombi! ?), but hopefully it can raise some interest in some younger or not-that-hardcore gamers out there to go back and revisit some really worthwhile games. Browsing through the articles on record so far had me reminiscing about the fantastic five-day rental of Tomba! I had back in the day. Maaaan. What a great game. And I’m completely jealous that the UK got Vib Ribbon and we couldn’t. You could even say I’m quite grumpy about it!!!

But really, a fellow SEGA fan (the good SEGA from the Genesis/Dreamcast days, not the pitiful, mangled husk of a company they are now) couldn’t help but charm me~

Check out Pioneer Project and maybe you’ll like it, too!

Performance Review – Caprica: Cylons Have Scratchy Voices

May 19, 2009

When I heard that Sci-Fi was thinking of developing a prequel series to Battlestar Galactica, I dismissed it. I mean, really, it seemed like one of those things you hear about, then gets dropped for one reason or another down the line and no one really notices. I mean, a prequel to the edgy, dark Battlestar Galactica remake turning into a… soap opera? It seemed like one of those concepts that would never get farther than its pitch. But Sci-Fi was apparently eager to cash in on the rabid fanbase that was giving the cable network some of its best ratings. They’d be stupid NOT to capitalize on Battlestar Galactica, right? So Caprica was greenlit and eventually arrived straight to DVD as a backdoor pilot for an apparently eventual TV series. Is it as inessential as it initially seems?

Hey, is this the set for Across the Universe?

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Star Trek: The Future’s So Bright, You Gotta Wear Shades… Seriously

May 17, 2009

Let me start off by explaining to you, the reader, that I grew up a Star Trek geek. I’m not really sure how it started. My father has his own fascination with sci-fi spectacle, having owned dubbed copies of just about every shitty sci-fi movie you could think of in the 80s on Betamax tapes that piled high in our basement as if it were the lair of some sort of audio/visual schizophrenic. I think we owned something like three or four different copies of Aliens at one point. But that’s just the background info. This post is alllll about Star Trek.

The earliest memory I have of the franchise is my dad watching syndicated episodes of The Next Generation as they were being aired in the late 80s/early 90s. For some reason I really wanted to stay up with him and watch, but I was too young and they were on too late, so my sister is the only one who had the privilege of watching them with him. It’s probably for the best. Looking back, the show definitely wasn’t intended for the enjoyment of young children. But my fascination for Star Trek had been planted…

When Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was introduced, I’d finally seen a few Star Trek movies, even seeing Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in theaters and not really understanding it, but having a blast anyways. I don’t think I got into the habit of watching DS9 regularly until the story arcs started picking up around the third or fourth season. (Coincidentally, that was around the time Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore began taking the reins of the series.) By then, I believe Star Trek: Voyager was also starting broadcast on the doomed UPN, a network bitterly divided between black sitcoms, Star Trek and professional wrestling. If ever there was a network with segregated audiences, it was UPN. I didn’t understand until years later that Voyager was an extremely unsatisfying series that frittered away all of its potential in lieu of the sweet embrace of familiarity.

Then after Voyager, Paramount immediately flew in headfirst with another new Star Trek series, Enterprise. Ohhhhhh boy. The problems with this show were many. The episodes didn’t bring anything new to the table for anyone that had been following Star Trek over the years, the cast was by and large wooden, and there was the misguided notion that this would be the “sexy” Star Trek and whenever the away team would come back from a mission, they’d spend the decontamination period rubbing each other in their underwear. Oh, and the second-in-command was a Spock-wannabe who had two of the most enormous, fake-looking breasts I’ve ever seen on television. The hardcore fans were even picking up on the show’s lack of quality and tuning in in fewer and fewer numbers, causing the series to be canceled in its fourth season after several unsuccessful attempts to shake up the format of the series.

The motion pictures weren’t faring too well, either. The last success had been the Ronald D. Moore-written Star Trek: First Contact and the movies that came after it had frittered away even that movie’s goodwill. Star Trek: Insurrection was like an awful episode of TNG stretched out to feature-length size. They visited a world where everyone got younger and the cast started acting stupid and Picard fell in love and F. Murray Abraham was the quadrant’s biggest botox addict. And the final movie featuring the TNG cast, Star Trek: Nemesis, was a misguided attempt to try to recapture the grand scope of The Wrath of Khan with a Picard clone raised by Remans (appropriately a planet close to Romulus) and featured Data in the martyred role of Spock. Blehhh. I didn’t buy it and neither did the movie-going audiences.

And so the franchise was done-in by diminishing returns, lazy creative choices and a general lack of interest at Paramount for making Star Trek an AAA priority. I was kind of sad to see the franchise lay fallow, but not if Nemesis and Enterprise were the best they could come up with. In the intervening years, I got interested in the non-Trek sci-fi TV shows I’d missed, such as Farscape, Firefly and the new Battlestar Galactica, which showed just how varied the possibilities for television science fiction could be and how much of a dinosaur Star Trek had turned into over the years. Then murmurings began happening that Paramount was interested in re-launching Star Trek, not as a TV show, but as a tentpole feature film. And then news came down that J.J. Abrams, mastermind behind some of television’s biggest genre successes of the past few years, Alias and LOST, was going to be the one to bring it back to life. EEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!

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Performance Review – Fringe

May 14, 2009

Around 8 months ago I heard tell of a wonderful thing: A Science Fiction show that would be a veritable mishmash of the X-Files and other past greats of the genre! It’s co-created by J.J. Abrams, you say? That’s a guaranteed recipe for mystery and craziness if I’ve ever heard one! It’s going to be on FOX, huh?

At this point my response was, “So, has it been canceled yet?”

However, FOX’s general ineptitude with (good) shows these days is not what I am here to discuss. I’m here to talk about Fringe – the previously alluded to sci-fi show co-created by Abrams that evokes the X-Files as well as other past hits (and/or misses) – which has just wrapped up its first season. So is it everything it was hyped to be? Is it the new Lost? Are various orifices explored in the name of science!? Read on and just maybe you will find out.

The answer to that last one was yes, by the way.

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