A Thousand Words: High Seas Havoc

High Seas Havoc

Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.

The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.

Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.

The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.

There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?

Review: The Thran

The Thran

J. Robert King’s The Thran is meant as a backstory novel in the setting of Magic: The Gathering. It tells the story of the ancient civilization that only existed in ruins by the time of The Brothers War, and the rise to power of Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. This setting, with its fusion of magic and technology (of course there are airships), and especially the twisted technomagical nightmare of Phyrexia itself, is my favorite part of Magic.

The setting and premise is good, as is its antagonist’s/evil main character’s portrayal, but this book desperately needed a better author. Lynn Abbey did Phyrexia’s nightmare justice in Planeswalker. King does not. Not only is the depiction of the human Yawgmoth merging with the plane done in a very “straightforward” manner, but he even “unplugs” and returns to being normal throughout the book afterward, as if the author didn’t feel like writing cosmic-level fantasy.

Which is a shame because not only is the setting good, but the alternate possibilities are there too. The Thran Empire was not exactly a paradise, and Glacian, the withering master technologist, comes across as someone who’d make for a great blue mana-themed villain in his own right, obsessed with building the better mousetrap at any cost. It’s potential that King simply couldn’t realize. So this feels like something only lore completionists would really like, which I feel was probably always the case.

A Thousand Words: Rocky Rodent

Rocky Rodent

It’s easy to dismiss Rocky Rodent as one of the follow-on Sonic The Hedgehog knockoffs. But looking at it and looking at the actual Sonic games makes for an interesting comparison to what something superficially similar just didn’t understand.

Judged on its own terms, Rocky Rodent is decent enough. The music is good enough, the gameplay is never outright bad, and the styling is legitimately quirky, both in the haircut power-ups (seriously) and general eccentricity (the first boss is an SMG-wielding mobster in a VW Bus being driven by a cartoon rat). However, beyond that it’s one of the best examples of copying the surface of something but not getting the points.

Part of this is the level design, but a far bigger part is that the game uses what’s essentially Mario’s damage system. You have a maximum of two hit points, power-ups increase them by one, and getting hit with a power up causes you to lose it. In areas where you HAVE to be powered-up to get past an obstacle, this means backtracking to get it again if you’re hit.

Compare this with the rings intentionally designed to give you a huge margin for error (so you can go faster with less skill) in the real Sonic series, and you see the problem. It’s less coherent thought and more just following the two leaders. Thankfully the visuals and competence of the game mean this isn’t more of an issue than it is.

In an era of lazy, outright terrible cartoon mascot platformers, Rocky Rodent can at least be successful gameplay-wise and a little distinct setting-wise.

Review: The Sixth Battle

The Sixth Battle

Barrett Tillman’s The Sixth Battle is an interesting book. The 1992 novel of a gigantic combined battle over South Africa can either be considered the last Cold War “big war thriller” or the first post-USSR one. Because of its timing, the plot has to be kind of, er, forced a little, but that’s a small issue.

When I started reading the book, my thoughts turned to Red Phoenix. The similarities are there in that both are big picture thrillers that need to have a certain type of structure (most notably a lot of viewpoint characters and a setup period) to get that wide view across to the reader. For me personally, the perils of this is that since I already know a lot of what the authors are trying to communicate to a less knowledgeable audience, I see more of the downsides to this approach than the upsides.

However, I can also see-and appreciate-how rare a book like this is. “Big war thrillers” with this level of detail and knowledge behind them are and were very hard to come by. The Sixth Battle goes for a distinct setup, thinks it through, and competently executes the action in an evenhanded way.

Taking my biases into account and trying to adjust for them, I still recommend this book. It does feel a little clunkier than the best “big war thrillers”, but it’s never unreadably so. And it offers an all-too-uncommon experience that’s rarely duplicated elsewhere.

A Thousand Words: Metal Slug

Metal Slug

SNK’s classic series Metal Slug takes the Contra-type “side scrolling shooter” game and adds an unforgettable art style to it. The excuse plot is you controlling a member of the elite “Peregrine Falcons” against the “Rebel Army”-and more weird enemies.

The art, from the goofy yet legitimately detailed sprites to the lavish backgrounds to the smooth animations, is consistently amazing. The music isn’t as standout (with a few exceptions), but is always at least serviceable. As for the gameplay, it’s both very good and inherently limited.

The action, weapon combinations, and controls are all excellent with the exception of a few clumsy platforming sections. The issue is the games are very short and were originally for arcades. So it’s either “be good enough at this very hard game to avoid deaths or just brute-force your way through with credits”. This probably couldn’t have been avoided, but it’s still a little bitter. That being said, this series is a classic for a reason and the games are well worth playing.

Review: Day of Wrath

Day of Wrath

The time has come to review another Larry Bond book, 1998’s Day of Wrath. Now, I was a little reluctant to do it because of a small meme I have where I joke about how few Larry Bond novels I’ve actually covered on the blog. Oh well.

It’s one of the biggest examples of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music”. The plot is simple enough, as Col. Peter Thorn and Agent Helen Gray take on a super-terrorist plot by a wealthy and fanatical Saudi prince. As far as cheap thrillers go, you could do worse. In total isolation, this would be a middling, slightly above-average thriller book.

But it comes in the context of Bond’s writing style. Day of Wrath has all the weaknesses of it I’d noticed in Bond’s other books. The biggest is an extremely long and extremely predictable opening act, something I noticed in Cauldron, Red Phoenix, and to a lesser extent in Bond-contributing Red Storm Rising as well. This, along with a bit of clunkiness and the dichotomy between “wants to be realistic-sounding” and “has the main characters doing ridiculous action hero feats”, drags it down slightly.

The real problem with this book isn’t that it has Bond’s weaknesses, or that the weaknesses are more prominent than his others. It’s that it doesn’t take advantage of his strengths. This is a “shoot the terrorist” thriller that could have easily been written by one of the many, many other writers in that genre. The plot centers around the not-exactly underused MacGuffin of nuclear bombs. Bond’s ability to write large conflicts is simply never used at all.

Given how rare that type of fiction is, having Bond make a “big war thriller” with the stereotypical Middle East Coalition opponent who used their oil money to fund the production and procurement of various super-prototypes would at least be more distinct. It would be something that a more knowledgeable wargamer could do legitimately better than a “normal” thriller author trying to do such an ambitious tale.

Instead, he ends up like the weird musician doing a standard pop song-not technically bad, but merging with the pack instead of standing out. Putting him against tougher competition, his weaknesses become more apparent. It’s like having Eddie Van Halen for a song and, for whatever reason, not having him do a guitar solo of any kind. Yes, it’s music and the talent is obviously there-but you know it could have been so much more memorable.

Review: Fallen Soviet Generals

Fallen Soviet Generals

Aleksander A. Maslov’s Fallen Soviet Generals is a long, detailed, historical list of how general officers died in World War II. It’s a book I’ve mentioned before on this blog, but it deserves a full review of its own. Because the subject is interesting to me (for some reason), I enjoyed the book in spite of its obviously morbid topic.

This has the weakness of a dry history book. It’s not very lively or engaging for someone not into the subject matter, and it’s not helped by the book both being originally written in another language and being translated/edited by David Glantz, a legendary historian whose prose is nonetheless sometimes, er, flat. But it also has the strengths, meticulously categorizing how, where and when every single Soviet general died in the war.

The topic is interesting to me because, especially to an American (the US lost only twenty generals in World War II, less than a tenth the Soviet total) used to technology where they theoretically should be at less personal risk, the loss of a general officer seems like a strange aberration. Yet it clearly wasn’t, and there are many conflicts where it would be. Even for conflicts of a different technological type, Maslov’s book remains an excellent resource for how and why general officers could die in battle.

A Thousand Words: Waterworld

Waterworld

Guns N’ Roses November Rain is widely recognized as the final, out-with-a-bang entry of the musical niche known as the “power ballad.” Kevin Costner’s infamous Waterworld kind of feels like the movie version of this. Of all the movies labeled the worst ever, this deserves it the least in hindsight-though it’s perhaps fitting, since critics never cared much for hair metal anyway.

The plot and setting make no sense, and the acting is nothing special, barring Dennis Hopper’s typically hammed-up villain. But what this movie offers is spectacle. Before CGI truly came along and money became tighter, the huge practical effects epic had to have one final giant push. And in the form of the evil ski-jumpers, hamfisted environmentalism (from a movie that had to make a giant, inevitably polluting, artificial island in its production), and piles of (oil-burning) pyrotechnics, it succeeded.

This movie can’t really be considered “good”, but I had a lot of fun watching it.

Review: The Ninth Dominion

The Ninth Dominion

The second, and as of now last book in the Jared Kimberlain series, Jon Land’s The Ninth Dominion is a par-for-the-course crazy ridiculous action-adventure book. By the standards of classic Jon Land novels, it has some issues. While it doesn’t help that its immediate predecessor was arguably his most ridiculous (in a good way) novel yet, there’s issues beyond this.

It’s a little less crazy. Beyond that, the biggest issue is that it doesn’t take full advantage of its almost Batman-esque premise of the craziest and most dangerous serial killers escaping. The prose and pacing are a little below Land’s height.

That being said, it still has all the strengths of a Jon Land thriller, and I still enjoyed it significantly. By the standards of more mundane thrillers, it’s quite goofy indeed. Its flaws are not deal-breakers by any measure, and there’s no shame in falling slightly short of a very high bar.

Review: I Jedi

I, Jedi

Michael Stackpole’s I, Jedi may be my favorite Star Wars novel ever. It’s also a book that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. After all, Stackpole is a writer who isn’t the best prose-wise and tends to take game mechanics literally. Corran Horn, his protagonist, is the ur-example of someone parachuting their own Mary Sue into an existing franchise. The first part of the book uses the same plot as a book by the infamously subpar Kevin J. Anderson.

And yet, it somehow works brilliantly. Part of it is that Stackpole’s writing is in better form than usual, in everything from starfighter battles where Corran fights his old teammates and can sense their thought processes to everyday life on a backwater world. Another part of it is that by being small-scale and comparably low-stakes, it manages to actually make the universe look bigger and more wondrous.

Stackpole’s epic might be helped along by the other books of the time, which tended to have a random ex-Imperial using the superweapon of the week and an inappropiately small number of Star Destroyers to threaten the entire galaxy. But even on its own, it works. It embodies the “distant vista” principle, restores a sense of awe, and just succeeds as a story in its own right.