A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

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.

A Thousand Words: Revolution X

Revolution X

What happens when you take a pair of has-beens fading rapidly from relevance and merge them together? You get Revolution X, an arcade light-gun shooter starring a past-its-prime Aerosmith. The plot is simple-save Aerosmith from a bunch of people in yellow gas masks who’ve outlawed fun. You do so with a gun that fires CDs as well as bullets. Yes, it’s that kind of game.

The gameplay is mostly simple-fire at the hordes of enemy goons on your screen, put more quarters in when they inevitably kill you, repeat as necessary. Two of the later levels make this worse by trying to be more complicated. One, a maze, is simply annoying. The other, a time-sensitive mission where you have to completely destroy a bus before it reaches its destination, is considerably more aggravating.

By the time of its release, Aerosmith had long since fallen from the heights of their popularity, and with more powerful and smaller consoles just coming out, arcades would soon follow. This game is one of those weird novelties that can only happen at a specific time.

A Thousand Words: Red Dawn

Red Dawn

The 1980s classic invasion movie, Red Dawn is a strange beast. While it rightfully ranks up there with Top Gun as one of the most iconic and remembered movies of its generation, I found it had some fundamental issues. And no, it’s not anything dealing with the actual premise.

The production values are very good. The acting is, at the very least, sufficient. Yet the movie’s biggest problem is its conflicting tone. There’s two types of invasion stories, what I call “grim invasion” and “pulpy invasion”. Grim invasion is what most of the original invasion novels were, while pulpy invasion is something out of, well, guess.

Red Dawn sort of awkwardly teeters between elements of both without really settling into one or the other. While not a deal-breaker for the movie, it sours it somewhat and leaves me with the feeling that picking one type, likely pulpy given the concept, would have made for a better story. That being said, the film is still well worth a watch.

A Thousand Words: Violence Fight

Violence Fight

The video game Violence Fight is a very, very strange game. It’s also very, very bad. One of the pre-Street Fighter II arcade fighting games, this Taito “masterpiece” only stands out for two reasons.

The first is its “story”, where, in the 1950s an underground fighting tournament is popular among (exact words) “mafia, reckless drivers and general businessmen.” This is a 1950s that includes a World Trade Center, a wannabe Mr. T, and multiple tigers for the player to fight. It’s weird, but this is an old video game, so it’s a little less weird in context. The second is the bizarre effects that occur with a hard blow, like “GOGON” and “BOGOON!”.

Otherwise, it’s not very good. The controls are multi-axis but bad, like Pit Fighter, another dud from the same time period. The graphics aren’t bad for the time, but that’s pretty much it. It’s a weird period piece and that’s all.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

Probably my first exposure to technothrillers came on the screen, when I watched The Hunt For Red October long ago. The movie is both a classic and, in my controversial opinion, better than the book.

Yes, I said it. The movie distills the essence of the book into one brief tour de force. The main plot is simple enough to distill into screen form without most of the clunkiness that Clancy had even back at the beginning. Yes, there’s more “Hollywood-ism”, but there’s also less of Clancy’s bias.

Technothrillers in general are hard to adapt to the screen because they require a big budget to be effective. In this case, the filmmakers got the budget, got the actors (Sean Connery’s accent notwithstanding), and knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result is one of the best film adaptations of all time.

A Thousand Words: xXx: State Of The Union

xXx: State Of The Union

One of the few comparative advantages that books have over visual media in the spectacle department is that huge feats can be added with no extra cost. The time and money spent on an author writing something is, for most intents and purposes, the same whether the author is writing a nonviolent office romance or a baseball third baseman fighting evil Georgists on the moon.

The flip side is that this makes most thrillers hard to actually adapt. Only the most successful can get movie/TV adaptations, and those have a bunch of risks. Smoothed out, they have many changes. Enter xXx: State Of The Union, the movie that most accurately shows the spirit of the most ridiculous “airport thrillers.”

The original xXx, starring Vin Diesel, was considerably worse. That was a period piece dated immediately in the “90s X-Treme” area (despite being released in 2002). This sequel, starring Ice Cube, manages to transcend all of that. You have stormtroopers in futuristic masks participating in an American coup attempt. You have a tank battle on board an aircraft carrier. You have a finale where a car’s tires are deliberately ripped so it can go on train tracks (where of course it fits perfectly).

Somehow it all added up so that this one and only representation of the craziest cheap thrillers ended up getting on the screen with a budget that did it justice. Something with this exact blend of “amazingly stupid” and “stupidly amazing” very rarely comes around. And that it is why, in spite of all its many, many faults, I just love this movie.

A Thousand Words: Yume Nikki

Yume Nikki

The early indie game Yume Nikki is, even by the standards of what this blog has become, a strange choice. It’s a cult classic art/puzzle game. There really isn’t that any plot or explanation beyond the surreal illustrations as a pigtailed shut-in named Madotsuki wanders around various dreamworlds. For an indie game, it has a distinct, memorable artstyle, and its early origin, much like Cave Story’s, helped it along significantly.

Of course, the other side of this is that it combines the type of low-intensity gameplay later referred to derisively as “walking simulation” with (barring looking it up online) often impenetrable puzzles. It’s definitely a cult classic, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t become anything more.

There could hardly be anything less like the usual fare of Fuldapocalypse. Which is kind of why I selected this. A huge part of the appeal is in wondering what everything is and what it means-all the many, many, many guesstimates of who Madotsuki is, what happened to her, what all the monstrous dreams mean, and even the seemingly obvious ending, add to the appeal of mystery and uncertainty.

It would be ruined if there finally was a definitive, official explanation for everything.

And yet, in the technothriller and especially “alternate history as a genre” style of story, massive detail is a centerpiece. This could just be apples and oranges, but a thought that often comes across when I read such tales is “Is this detail really necessary? Would it often be better, or at least not any worse if it wasn’t spelled out so much?”

It’s good food for thought.

A Thousand Words: Command And Conquer Generals

Command And Conquer: Generals

EA’s 2003 real-time-strategy game Command And Conquer Generals was a fixture of my childhood. Along with Advance Wars, it was one of the two “bottom rungs” on the complexity ladder of getting me into wargaming. (From there came Fleet Command and Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank, then came Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations and the rest is history).

In gameplay terms, it has the same benefits and flaws all RTSes do (A “turtle/murderblob” singleplayer, a “chess boxing” multiplayer that’s utterly different from single-player) and the specific issue all C&C-style RTSes have (infantry are weaker than they should be because vehicles can run them over). And, through no fault of its own, it has the awkward turn of the millennium “the graphics are 3D models, but they’re not the best 3D models” effect. It arrived at kind of the tail end of that, but still.

But what I think is most interesting is the tone. Beyond just the stereotypes and the “it’s ripped from the headlines, honest” parts, there’s some “iffy” parts. China has double-barreled megatanks but its infantry don’t even have AKs. F-117s are stealthier than F-22s because they’re stealth fighters, duh. It’s very much a “pop culture war” from the early 2000s.