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Column: The Gaijin Restoration

Column: The Gaijin Restoration - Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun

July 2, 2006 7:35 PM |

title["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun released for the NeoGeo Pocket Color in 2000.]

(Click through to read the full column, including more on this cult portable title.)

Column: The Gaijin Restoration - Gunslinger Girl Vol. 2

June 11, 2006 9:12 AM |

hiding["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Gunslinger Girl Vol. 2 for the PlayStation 2 released in Japan in 2004.]

Violent Tymes
On November 23rd, 2004, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility revealed their list of the WORST VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES for 2004. Talk about making my job easy; we were ramping up for Cinematech: Nocturnal Emissions (under a different project name at the time) and compiling our own lists of the most violent, depraved, weird and FMV-full games we could think of. Their list ended up being laughable at best and sorely in need of a proof reader. There were games not released yet, games from 2001, and a lone end quote hanging out with San Andreas, no doubt in coercion to go out for some Hot CoCo. The creme de la stupid was the inclusion of Gunslinger Girls 2.

First off, such a game does not exist. Gunslinger Girl exists as Vol. 1, 2 and 3. A small caveat, but still. Also, this game was only released in Japan, based on an anime series that ran in 2003-04 in Japan, and as far as Wikipedia can tell me, was released on DVD in the States in late 2004. This makes me think someone on the ICCR has a kid ankles deep in some sinister torrenting scheme. (To be fair, the ICCR later re-edited their list, leaving the initial lampooned paper as a sort of rough draft.)

no alt textSo, of course when I recieved Gunslinger Girl Vol. 2, I hoped for heaps of gore, with villains brained, and hopefully, girls hurling guns at rabid okapis, with a bravado and accuracy that screams: "We don't need no freakin' bullets!" Alas, we get a piecemeal shooter on flexi-rails that's as violent and sexy as a sad-sack 12 year old, sweaty yet turgid, trying to sneak into a PG-13 movie.

In Medio Tutissimus Ibis
no alt textGunslinger Girls Vol. 2 starts out with you playing a 14 year old school girl in a lengthy tutorial, followed by another, briefer, tutorial. There are also a few tutorials in between. The gameplay, boiled down to roots and ash, consists of taking cover, reloading, aiming and shooting as an endless army of henchmen as you track down the bosses. Occasionally you shoot thrown grenades or dull scenery that may reveal power-ups. The triangle button and a nudge of the analog stick act as a sort of super-aim, draining a bit from your concentration bar as the aiming reticle snaps onto an enemy, so you can unleash a flurry of iron slugs into his trunk.

This super-aim is the scoring prodigy of the engine, allowing you to dance around several enemies and rack up a sort of combo. The problem is juggling triangle to circle (to shoot) to X (to reload) doesn't have the finger chemistry it should. More importantly, the lock-on feels cheap, when manual shooting is also easy (but carries the weight of challenge) and you can then shoot people in the freaking head, which is much more cathartic. Except the gunshots remind of anemic cult members at the outhouse: strained.

Past the tutorials lay two episodes with 3 sections apiece. Part one has you on Knight Boat right out The Simpsons, chasing down, what I can only assume, is an evil, gorgeous albino girl, through the canals of Venice. A final confrontation places us both on motorboats exchanging shots, instead of the saliva that I may or may not have hoped for. The next level has you chasing a stranger on a train, ending in a shoot out with some dudes on motorcycles right out of Shadow Hearts. And that's all you get.

The End of the Middle

no alt textO.K. to be fair, the game has a bit of charisma and replayability, as well as a DVD with four or five episodes of the show, Region 2 encoded. There are a variety of guns to unlock, either through high scores, or killing specific enemies, and what you unlock on one volume can be played in the others, giving the series a bit of a .Hack feel.

As for the charm, when running from one area to another, obviously late for class, you often find yourself under fire with no cover. ROLLING will flash near the score and you can quickly dab the shoot button to do a rolling dive and perhaps flash some scandalous Fruit of the Looms. You can also smash square if you have enough concentration to go into super concentration mode and peg every enemy on the screen. Just don't forget to duck and reload afterwards. Still, the game punishes you in end of mission report cards for using super concentration, but also castigates you for not feathering the triangle button enough.

So, this is a PG-13 experience all around. Maybe if it bundled all three volumes together, sans the anime, maybe it would feel like a game. Or maybe it just needs a GunCon 2 or a Wii re-haul.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

gungirl-gsw.jpg

COLUMN: The Gaijin Restoration - Adventure Island 4

June 4, 2006 3:21 PM |

title screen["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Hudson's Adventure Island 4 for the Famicom released in Japan in 1994.]

Hey You Guys!
“Sometime in 1986 my parents rented The Goonies and my life was forever changed...” is a horrible way to start a piece of writing, even something as lowly and common as a blog entry. It’s filled to the brim of faux pathos worthy of a Lyttle Lytton award. Still, I rather enjoyed Goonies and the next year badgered my grandmother during one of her routine baby-sitting sessions into purchasing The Goonies II for the NES, where Annie was a mermaid, Konami Man replenished your health and you met the Fratelli’s miniscule cousin, Pipsqueak.

no alt textIt was my first real Metroidvania, though produced long before that portmanteau was coined. Some dabbles in Metroid had taken place, borrowing a friends cartridge, but never much progress. Though, my mind was blown open and feasted upon by the simple fact that the first worthwhile act in the game involved going left. Goonies II was eventually completed, with a little help from my father, a Zork sorta-guy, who dug the ability based roadblocks and the first person, leave your reflexes at the door, puzzle rooms. I even took a picture of Annie the Mermaid for Nintendo Power (never published.) This gameplay was fantastic, getting intimate with the map, digging out from an inner-core, seeing tantalizing locales that you can’t quite get by yet, etc, etc, what you can read in any recent handheld Metroid or Castlevania review.

Aged To Perfection
no alt textTakahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima IV or Adventure Island IV is a Famicom game released in the geriatric twilight-years of said system: 1994. At this point I was campaigning around Britannia with a boomerang wielding mouse and most of Japan were counting down to December 3rd and the PlayStation. Hudson, developer and publisher, had even spun-off several Super Adventure Islands on the SNES, but it seems that Master Higgins, the rotund adventurer and fruit gourmand was fated to shine his 8-bit nipples one last time.


Unlike the previous games, which consisted of kidnapped girlfriends, linear level progression, skateboarding and the quest for the ultimate Del Monte fruit cup, Adventure Island IV has you rescuing kidnapped dinosaurs (which you can later ride!), a pure Metroidvania world to map and explore, snowboarding and surfing added to the repertoire and, well, even more fruit to collect. (And eventually your buxom bikini clad cosplayer is whisked away as well.) Caveat: no map.

Should. Be. Played.

no alt textThe game is a charm, and though it offers not battery backup, the passwords are short and in English, as well as the menus. The world is diverse but perhaps not a fully realized Pangea; even with a myriad of items its pretty obvious what to do next. A handful of bosses plague you throughout the game, but with multiple hitpoints and odd eggs scattered about offering carnivores delights, Master Higgins, can play Cabana Boy for quite a while. The control is also spot on, and you unsavory types looking to emulate will be missing out on very refined NES d-pad action. It’s a marvelous little gem that I would have hoped for a revived life on the GBA, but maybe now it could lead to the dual-screen world, with a map and some sickeningly sweet peach syrup on the side.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty. He just got a moped.]

COLUMN: The Gaijin Restoration - wordimagesoundplay

May 21, 2006 9:03 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Tomato's wordimagesoundplay from Sony Music. It was released in 2005 for the PlayStation2 in Japan.]

Perspective/Tunnel Vision

In 1965, a man (who had dabbled in lingerie and had once cut off John Cage's tie in a music recital) shot the Pope. On video. With a new Sony Porta Pack, which legend tells he simply procured from a dock somewhere. That night he showed his saturated video and video art was born; video art was for the people. That man was Nam June Paik, who recently passed away this year, but leaving a legacy of video art that has transcended past the ruddy halls of public access and pushed through into the realms of interactivity, and thusly, video games.

no alt textTomato's wordimagesoundplay is an odd little beast. A PlayStation 2 disc, it was actually published by Sony Music, not SCEI/J, the likely suspects. It was also given a stealth launch worthy of the Saturn and has had a mysterious, small, trickling release, with an estimated print run equal to the feeding of the 5,000. Despite being a Japanese release, the game has an undeniably British twang, since the full motion video clips and the music is supploed by Underworld, who actually founded the Tomato group, a collective of sort that seems to focus on art and design, with nothing to show for the culinary arts, despite their moniker. With this little 2D metallic doughnut's odd origins out in the open, let's step into this art project.

Semicolon/Breath

no alt textTheir are four distinct modes, all with haute-couture names: Miracles and Wonders, Latlong, Phonology and Sleeping Eye. Respectively: a 3D space filled with a meandering narrator pludging (plowing while
somehow being sludge-like!) through the 3D Text; a story of London and Tokyo, shared on a screen, again with text, but now video sliding underneath keywords and the like, begging for a Found in Translation wisecrack, but generally enjoyable with a cinematic score; a human sequencer, where one choose from an octet of limeys who shout out catch phrases about fax machines or make awkward hand gestures with mouthy theramin sounds which you can then slightly manipulate and even save to your memory card; a 15 slider puzzle, with a twist, (but
still...) that unlocks linking mini-games (all tied together by some internal logic) that recall clay creatures and textual mazes reminiscent of the Atari 2600's Adventure (though dragons that look like ducks are still far more terrifying than the word snake.)

wordimagesoundplay has a lot of words, images and sound. Generous, heaping portions. Its the play that's in question. I love games and I love media art, but I find myself being overly conscious of lauding anything that combines these great two tastes into some delectable snack food. I'm a huge fan of Rez, whose work-in-progress name was Project K, a curt nod to Kandinsky, the synaesthesiac Russian painter. Toshio Iwai's Otocky and Electroplankton have a strong didactic urgency, something that I feel is an honest and earnest theme in the
budding art style. More importantly, all of those artworks acknowledge their ironic existence and allow the fact and feature of PLAY. Even Corey Arcangel's Super Mario Clouds acknowledges it in the most extreme of ways: by removing it. wordimagesoundplay is on the PlayStation 2 when it really could have all done in Flash (damnable, hateful, words, I know) and presented to the people there, instead of as a forced fetish boutique object.

Appropriate/Form

no alt textIf the media is the medium is the message is the massage, then there needs to be a liquid feel for what is 'form appropriate.' This is clearly an art piece, pressed and presented in obscurity that will blossom on eBay. At some point the game collectors, the Underworld fans and burgeoning upstarts that populate Dorkbot will try to grab hold of its meager, mod-chip supported, aura. Now, to cement myself in hypocrisy, if it was ever to come out on an artfully mastered DVD, I'd throw down. And as an equal disclaimer: I don't own wordimagesoundplay, it was a loaner.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty. Yes, he went to art school.]

COLUMN: The Gaijin Restoration: 'Slumming It In Kentia Hall'

May 15, 2006 1:15 PM |

Countryside Bears![" 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's 'special edition' column looks at games, both Japanese and not, highlighted at last week's E3 Expo.]

E3 is over. Worked fourteen days in a row. 170 hours. Before this starts sounding like a LiveJournal with byte diarrhea, I’ll stop. But consider yourself warned. With no time to play games, and with Simon, the patron saint of obscura ludo, blogging the bejesus out of games ripe for this Gaijin, all I have to offer is my lateral thought patterns on the organized chaos that strikes three days each year.

As Simon mentioned, my good friends at the U.S. D3 (who just released a killer Cabbage Patch GBA game, featuring – get this – puppies!) shocked me on two fronts. First, the lovely Baito Hell is coming state side under the guise of WTF. I’m very interested on how the translation will be handled and how they’re going to price this sucker. Also, surprising but awesome was the resurrection of the 100 Bullets license - though for all-new games, not the cancelled Acclaim title. Smart moves like that coupled with the cash Naruto most be bringing in, I really peg this as a publisher to watch. Hopefully we’ll get a shovel-load-ware of Simple XXXX games in the States some day soon.

Speaking of ballsy U.S. publishers, I take my hat off and offer a low bow to Atlus - Rule of Rose is coming Stateside. Now, after Hot Coffee (and perhaps Michael Moore) nudging publishers like Atari to censure games like Fahrenheit, it takes some big cojones to bring out a game that’s constantly dressed in an odd mist of amateur pedophilia. Now, I’ve seen about six trailers for this game and the first few hours of gameplay, and while it’s by no means a child molestation simulator, that odd inkling of writhing preen limbs and fat girls going a little heavy on the lipstick does help lend a certain aura of creepiness that you can chalk up to cultural differences and perhaps natural perversion… still, it’s in the minutiae that the games atmosphere truly locks you in. Screw the cool AI dog companion, it’s all about using your weapons, like a FORK (Ultima VI joke here), in situations where your character puts one hand over her face and starts swinging blindly.

On the flip side, Final Fantasy III on the DS looks fantastic and will hopefully destroy Dirge of Cerberus, which is horrid and is only trying to dry hump the cash cow. FFIII was my first import, and you never forget your first. It’s also the only FF game I’ve ever completed, and while I can’t speak much of the overarching plot, the scenario writing is fantastic, with a job system that is lenient enough for exploration but obvious enough to keep you floating on that linear quest for crystals or whatever. Bonus: you can turn your party into frogs or tiny heroes. Like Yoda.

Slumming through Kentia Hall and the country-specific booths in the main halls led me to the cornucopia of cell phone games. I got to play Gamevil's Nom2, in its entire one button splendor: it’s the real deal. The GameQuest Direct guys seem to have republished the entire Shadow Hearts series for those who missed out on it the first time, and the definite rip-off artists Phoenix, complete with British accents, were trying to hawk 8 quid Disney-esque games like Mighty Mulan, Son of the Lion King and Countryside Bears. [We just noticed they have a game called 'Furry Tales', too - yeeeeeuch!] Barry Hatter was, sadly, MIA.

Speaking of Disney, Korean company Windysoft wins the Engrish 06 award for their press CD. Reading: “Windysoft: Disneyland of Online World! Compant (sic) that shares dreams with customers”, I found myself re-evaluating Korea’s standing in the games industry. But I leave you with a final game, also Korean. Diet Queen [we found a pic on the E3 2006 Korea site] from E3net is a cell phone game that promises you that slim body you always wanted via mini-games, jazzercise and aromatherapy. It also has a calorie calculator. This is perfect for that imaginary girlfriend you were trying to break up with. And now I sleep.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

COLUMN: The Gaijin Restoration - Sampaguita

April 30, 2006 10:27 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Yarudora Series Vol. 3: Sampaguita from Sony. It was released in late 1998 for the PlayStation in Japan.]

The Pleasure of My Text

I’ve been hooked on interactive fiction for quite a while, and by extension adventure games. There are several of my unspellchecked text adventures haunting the net (which I won’t reveal, due to intense shame.) My bookshelf houses the Oulipo Reader, Cortazar’s Hopscotch and the excellent Twisty Little Passages, and I feel in every fiber of my being that Fahrenheit, er, I mean, The Indigo Prophecy is an excellent, evolutionary return to form, using the semantics of cinema to deepen the experience of narrative. But, my humble beginnings come from my A+ book report from the 2nd grade on Seaside Mystery, or its complete title: Choose Your Own Adventure #67: Seaside Adventure. This was the gateway drug to Infocom, to Sierra, and eventually Half-Life and beyond.

no alt textChoose-your-own-adventure (CYOA henceforth) is an interesting, not quite missing link in interactive fiction. Often pegged as juvenile, it’s true that CYOAs do often cater to the kinder-crowd, but its simplicity and influence often creep into new media. Laser discs (with a modicum of twitch), DVDs and even CDs got into the act (with special mention to a vinyl record by one Ken Nordine: Colors, which came with obfuscated directions for random access playing.) I digress; I blog. This weeks little gem from the East is Yarudora Series Vol. 3: Sampaguita. The former part of the title is a concatenation which expands and translates to “Drama that You Do.” The latter, Sampaguita, is a Sri Lankan flower. The game is an anime CYOA for the PlayStation 1. That drama and that adventure owe it all to their preceding pronouns.

Dark And Stormy Nights

no alt textThe game casts you as generic, nice if a bit lonely, salary-man everyman. Walking home one dark and stormy night, the area is bristled in an eerie tension. Police patrol, the wind blows, and black puddles glower light, and an alleyway hides away a crying girl in beautiful pink dress. She has amnesia. You do the noble thing and take her home and tend to her wounds. From here on, anything can happen to cut this story short.

There are 20 bad endings, 5 normal and a scant 3 good to strive for. The whole game is animated in a queer letterbox frame, pushed to the top of the screen, and peppered with stills when the action slows down. Periodically the choices pop up, and here is where the game becomes fiendishly unfriendly for friends of imports: it randomizes the selections. You can’t map a flowchart of progression without memorizing the actual kanji, hiragana and katakana, with some options looking identical to the untrained eye. A lone walkthrough Romanizes some choices, allowing one to go syllable hunting for a good, or even a normal ending, though finding all the bad endings is by no means easy.

In-flight Entertainment

no alt textThere’s a charm to the game regardless. It reminds me of watching the person to the left’s in-flight movie, with a glaring angle, crap resolution and no sound, (your PSP battery is dead, and you’ve already read this month’s Edge 4 times over) and trying to bend the movie to your will.

The plot is filled with action, snuggling, mysteries recovered, trips to arcades and a man named boy. Eventually a halo of flowers shows up, which I can only assume is the sampaguitas. Probably highly charged with mimetic energy. But to recall my cryptic and grammatically awkward mention of pronouns from above, it’s how the game handles you that is remarkable. Your choices may be few, but you only speak what you select. Your head is always cut off, or only the mouth is visible. The only time your eyes are revealed, is at the climax of the plot. And even then, your mouth is covered. This leads to interesting blocking and opens an interesting angle for those interested in inoculating the reader/viewer into the story. If any of this interests you, it seems Sony has ported it over to the PSP, so you can explore Maria’s dark past on your bullet train commute past Mt. Fuji.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

Column: The Gaijin Restoration - Jung Rhythm

April 23, 2006 9:54 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Jung Rhythm from Altron. It was released in early 1998 for the Sega Saturn in Japan.]

Music Makes Me Move
When I was two years old, my parents noticed my left eye bulging out of my head. This led to that and whatyaknow, I had a brain tumor on my optic nerve. Snip-snip, all better. Except now I had monocular vision, but no monocle. A steady diet of 2600 games were prescribed to build up my shattered hand-eye coordination. But somethings never hit 100%, including my spatial reasoning (you don't want to be in the car when I'm merging on the freeway), my handwriting (I was a prime candidate for Ms. Mavis Beacon) and my rhythm (a straight-A 3rd grader pulled down to the murk of mere adequacy by the tyranny of the recorder.) Also, on the latter: I'm very white.


vibWhat I lack in rhythm I make up for in plucky soul. Though I adore music games, I am by no means good at them. Now the question is: I may not have Rhythm but do I have Jung Rhythm? This is a quaint Sega Saturn game which apes PaRappa the Rapper, or more accurately, totally bites its style more than a little. Fundamentally, both games are singing games, have you play as children, require precise timing, have six story based stages/songs, an unlockable seventh, and I suck at both of them. More importantly, they both feature really odd scenarios, from Parappa getting a drivers license to Jung Rhythm's eating breakfast, painting a cow and competing in a version of Set It Off with a low poly Paris Hilton 3rd grader.

The low poly count isn't really an issue, but it's a constant reminder of the Saturn's sorry fate, at least in 'The Colonies'. The stills presented here have shrank some of the ugly, but believe me, its a bit of a grimace, especially when you have to consider the charming superflat of PaRappa. Scenes are vibrant, and change dynamically depending on performance and progression. Control is amazing for any right brained or two left thumbed would-be 8 year old little girl. Even with God of War coming out a decade after the PlayStation controller was released, I still have problems hitting TRIANGLE or SQUARE with conviction when it's dictated. The Saturn's more literal ABC control makes me a much better pusher-bot, and when the D-pad is brought into the equation, I can cope with transliterated cardinal directions.


Everyone's a Critic

vibThis is a fairly easy game to play without a firm grasp of Nihongo, though the songs are indeed in Japanese. There is a cutscene with a song rendered in English, and quite a few songs have the odd purloined word show up - Ms. Mini Hilton even starts counting in Swedish at one point, bringing chills to spines of anyone who ever saw mid-90's John Candy/Doug E. Doug vehicle Cool Runnings. The one caveat is stage progression. When you make it to the end of a song, a panel of judges pass fiery convictions on your performance. You must be up to muster with all the judges to a certain degree to continue. And here we find no Jung Rhythm nor reason. While one Judge seems to just go for general accuracy, and another likes when you go crazy on the ad-lib moments, the others are conundrums wrapped in enigmas presented by Japanese text and bar graphs. Frustrating.

Coda

no alt textIn the end, it's another music game that never came to the states. It's available and cheap. Making progress can seem random at times, but the bizarre plot and hum-along music are up to par. So, I invite you to enter the 3rd grade, eat some breakfast, slap down a ho, paint a cow, sing some karaoke (does that count as a post-modern gaming scene?) and make it to the stage to sing a stunning duet with rock god Mr.Chorking. Which is a horrible name for a rock god!

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty and recently wrote about Zelda and its lateral connection to the seedy world of attractive violinists.]

COLUMN - 'The Gaijin Restoration' - Baito Hell 2000

April 16, 2006 1:21 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is Baito Hell 2000 from SCEI. It was released in late 2005 for the PSP in Japan.]

Work Ethnic
I've been blessed with cerebral vocations. Even in high school I was a pharmacy technician, a job within the prestigious medical sphere. I got to learn about, handle, and dispense drugs, deal with insurance and grapple with an archaic UNIX system, which seemed to validate my clandestine 2600 magazine collection. (Still, a majority of the job was about counting in fives.) College led to the volatile world of the House Chair - think RA without the snitching or the free housing - and operating 16mm projectors. (I, a machinist!) Post college has led to the delicate world of montage theory spliced together with interactive entertainment. (And lots of playing games.) Still, I have a fondness for a December night spent in a NYC bar a friend tended. Free drinks aside, at the end of the night, we had the task of discriminating hundreds of beer bottles by their color. If there can be happiness in slavery, then the zen-head lives in repetitive manual labor.


vibThis brings us to SCEI's Baito Hell 2000. The title has also been translated as 'Byte Hell 2000,' but is a reference to 'arubaito', meaning part-time work. While initially touted as the PSP Wario Ware, it's really its own beast. Wrapped in surreal menus of flatulent grim reapers, sentient mushrooms and the like, offering a variety of minigames, it lacks both the linearity and the acceleration of Wario's sweatshop. With only a handful of minigames open at the beginning, you gain money for doing these paltry tasks, which are then spent on vending machines, sickly reminiscences of Shenmue's various games of chance. Also, like Shenmue, you may want to win Outrun (a new minigame), but more often than not it's a various iconic bauble, and for a hat trick of Shenmue similarities, you seem to get these less interesting trophies as repeats fairly often and fairly early.

The games are where things get interesting, as well as tedious, and often boring. The opening set has you collecting mushrooms on a highway, Frogger-style. The mystery of why there is so much fungus on the freeway is never revealed. It's easy enough and more often than not, you find yourself ending the game on purpose to collect your meager wages. Not to say all the games are devoid of challenge. Soon, you will be fielding grounders, and chopping wood while avoiding chopping rabbits, puppies and forest dwelling dolphins. Not to say all the games have any sort of challenge. One banal activity has you putting caps on pens, while a counter on the bottom of the screen tallies your work. The counter can count roughly somewhere between zero and a googleplex (the number, not the website.) The background consists of an assembly of women in hairnets. Still another poses you as the marine from Doom (see screenshot) counting how many biological people (no robots or ducks) have walked by. It's a bit a like that Brain Training exercises, but rather silly.

The Pleasure of Understanding

vibThe best games are the ones that require you to figure out exactly what you are doing. While Wario barks out a beacon verb at the start of each game, this isn't always the case in Baito Hell 2000. The wrestling match disapproves of you winning, but pays out poorly for a devastating loss. The people here want a show. You gotta throw the match, but with finesse of a vaudevillian. As the ref counts to your defeat, the closer you approach the final countdown before escaping the double nelson means the more photographers come out to photograph this dramatic battle, and the more the crowd goes wild. In other words, it's like The Sting without the Joplin. It's these minigames that make Baito Hell a satisfying game to plod through, even if it means spending a couple of minutes putting caps onto pens.

No Sex In Your Violence

no alt textLanguage is a barrier at times, with Angel dating sims being text heavy, but in general, it's a game one can get through using brute force and a handy hand in repetition. Not really a Wario Ware clone, I see a deeper analogy with the Japanese art of Chindogu, the un-useless invention. There's a beauty and a perversion in this game, developed by a duo of musicians, a distinctly modern Japanese pastiche, with its roots sipping zen. (Special thanks to Ted Reguliski for recommanding this game. Apologies for the poor quality of the screenshots, as PSP capture still leaves a bit to be desired.)

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

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COLUMN - The Gaijin Restoration - Vib Ribbon

April 9, 2006 12:41 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is NaNaOn-Sha and SCEI's Vib Ribbon, alongside a quick look at its spiritual sequels, Mojob-Ribbon and Vib Ripple. It was released in 1999 for the PlayStation.]

The Lure of Vectors
Flash has changed the Internet. From intros to the ubiquitous skip intro button, lively animation has been twisting and tweening over CAT5 for years now. The power of pure unadulterated math and a coordinate grid has given rise to quick, crisp, scalable, if simplistic animation. Games, too, were once ruled by the vector graphics. Even today, if you chance upon an Asteroids machine or score a Vectrex on eBay, you can see the cause for appreciation of the elastic, monochromatic dancing light rotating, scaling and glowing on the screen. Shooting an asteroid and watching a diminishing trail of light following your bullet still gives mild heart palpitations, and Mine Storm's explosions have been known to make some tear up.

vibThe Masaya Matsuura-designed Vib Ribbon embraces the vector decor for a tandem arrangement: all the graphics are being created procedurally, and the seed of that procedure is generated from music CDs the player puts in. Thus, the game has to load its entire program set into RAM, where textures and the like gobble resources like Pac-Man in a ball pit.

Through this restriction, an amazing kinetic art is made. Our little spastic rabbit friend reminds me of Fiver, of Watership Down fame, caught in a constant shaking seizure, with a dash of Roger Rabbit bravado. (No cross-dressing Bugs in sight.) The music derived landscape is just as frantic, with shifting pits flipping into towers and an impossible circumference that brings forth images of the Little Prince's B612 asteroid, (which hopefully survived the onslaught of Asteroids...)

The Only Truly Interactive System is a Pacemaker

vibSo, Vib Ribbon lets you put in your favorite music (or use the supplied J-pop tracks from Laugh & Beats which, at the very least, are deserving of a listen and a laugh, as their name implies), generates levels based on amplitude, bass levels, and whatnot. All of those visualizations plugins for your favorite software media player work on the same principle, and it's nothing particularly new. Atari sold, or attempted to sell, light glasses in the early 80s, and it has been Jeff Minter's vocation for awhile. Vib Ribbon brought an implied level of interactivity. However, I see interactivity as a two way street. While the music plays out and the player attempt to navigate that killer bass line, the player isn't affecting the music. To be fair, successful navigation gives little bleeps, but they aren't fit to the tempo like the chord shooting of Otocky. And failure will stop the song, but this simple binary operation is as complex as a flowchart and hardly qualifies as an immerse interactive experience.

A Discouraged Magellan

no alt textDespite my meta-critique above, Vib Ribbon is a charming game, much like Matsuura's predecessors in the Parappa The Rapper series. While the Gaijin Restoration looks at games that didn't cross the oceans, Vib Ribbon made its way to the UK, and even at a discounted price, but alas, like a reluctant Magellan, never made it to the new world.

Some spiritual sequels were produced for Japan: Mojib-Ribbon, which featured such innovation as uploadable rap lyrics, but remains an exclusive pleasure as it requires writing Kanji with analogue stick, with all the stroke, order and penmanship needed to succeed in the competitive cram schools of japan. In other words, not import friendly. I've yet to get my hands on Vib Ripple, which allows you to upload digital pictures and explore them, but the colorized graphics, while well done, don't have the feeling, of taking guilty joy in the obsolete and the stark.

Anyone interested in Ribbon family should check out the following: the Vib Ribbon opening which is both adorable as well as informative, the Mojib-Ribbon opening which is tantalizing and the mirror of the old GIA Vib Ribbon worship page, with mp3 downloads and more video. And for good measure but bearing no relation, another Japanese ribbon game, the king of one button games, SFCave.

[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

COLUMN: 'The Gaijin Restoration' - Docchi Mecha!

April 2, 2006 12:11 PM |

Label Art Work["I often import games from abroad and play them. On such occasions, my imagination is sometimes stimulated more as I don't understand the language.” – Fumito Ueda, creator of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. 'The Gaijin Restoration' is a weekly examination of underappreciated Eastern games that never cross to Western shores. This week's title is SCEI's Docchi Mecha!, released for the PlayStation in April of 2000.

The Plays The Thing...

Docchi Mecha! started of, for myself, as a purely financial investment. It was 5$ used and in pristine condition, as most second hand imports I've found to be, often replete with registry cards, memory card stickers and various warnings about epilepsy, or perhaps cautionary tales of bubble economies. The cover, presented here, piqued interest, but, caveat emptor, I've learned my lesson. It was the backcover that made this the companion purchase to Dirge of Cerberus (which was, is, and always will be chocobo guano.) The front featured vector style proto-prince Katamaris and flocks of HR Puf 'N Stuf types consisting of enough ellipsoids to make Ecstatica blush. The kawaii and weird checked out. The back cover, while mundane in comparison, offered the glimmer of hope of being playable.

This wasn't going to be a bunch of text, accompanied with dithered pictures of Japanese girls of questionable age, nor a menu intensive attempt at regulating the temperature of my mech suit as I face the existential crisis of deep space combat. It looked to be some sort of real time strategy excursion, not exactly a console or Japanese staple. Interesting.

Ellipsis Ellipsis Ellipsis

chair5.jpgThe game starts with an odd introduction, with 3D/2D constructs that seems cel shaded and seemingly engine built, but doesn't seem to be the same rendering of the main game. I could be wrong; this could be an export from some tweaked Flash, but it honestly feels like an engine build. Why is this important? Well, in the annals of video game archeology, this could be one of the earliest cel shaded games. With a release date of 04/27/00 it beats Slap Happy Rhythm Busters, Jet Grind Radio or the domestic Wacky Races to market by a couple of months.

After the impressive opening, there is an unfortunate maze of menus to navigate till the game drops you into the first bout. Now this is a 3D world, presented with the choices of isometric camera, and zoomed isometric camera. You control the white cherub flying overhead, on a miniscule map: my enemy's base was seconds away, with only two control nodes between us. At the beginning you call forth little beaked peapods and via a menu, suggest where they head, and what type of activity to partake in. And this is the issue: while I was influential, I was not authoritative. It reminded me of the Sega CD FMV sports titles, where you coached players, but they wouldn't necessarily listened to you. There was no micromanaging of pathfinding, or selecting what specific enemy beak'd peapod to squelch. But I bore my will, and advancements were made.

My peapods harvested enough succulent golden orb food to allow me to summon agreeable one-foot aliens, giant fish obsessed with sucking on the dirty ground, and uncontrollable godzilla terrors, each with their own unique talents. I never had any problems with the latter, as they were literally uncontrollable. They would go over to the enemy and start munching on the peapods until the Lilliputians overtook him. All of these units had a great look, though using ellipsoids, a trick to get a lot of independent 3D objects on the screen, they all featured cartoonish but striking eyes, and an almost bumpy texture of cheap convenience store pinatas. Varying techniques of warfare were used, from blitzkrieg to guerrilla combat, but I was always beaten back to my base, but only ever extinguished by the time limit, expressed by a fuse counting down the across the screen, in time to the wax and wane of the day/night cycle. Repeated plays and repeated defeats.

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... Unfortunately

The tip of the iceberg has been surveyed, and I expect there is some grand treasure frozen underneath. Maybe a caveman. This is when import gaming straddles that line of wonderful and annoying. The internet was initially of little help, with the translated katakana mainly finding empty FAQ pages, or Docchi Meccha! nestled in a list between Do You Remember Love and Dodge Ball. Katakana searches led to a Japanese wikipedia entry, which, Babelfished, makes for an interesting read. The pidgin explanation confirmed what I expected but didn't clear up enough to allow me any progress. Also, it seems my homebase, as well as the enemies, translates to a king-pao, which I thought was a moniker for some sort of chicken dish. Apparently, there is also quite a bit of medium-named voice talent signed on as well.

This is the most frustrating type of game: I can gleam much of the mechanics, I'm in thrall to the art style of both the cinemas and the game, and it plays like a hybrid notion, but I can't crack the cypher. I invite any stalwart GSW readers to comment below, and flesh out any of the games intricacies that you may know.

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[Ryan Stevens is the associate producer on the various Cinematech shows on G4TV, which showcases many of the games written about here. He's been known to do the collaborative blog thing at That's Plenty.]

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