Sunday, March 31, 2013

Beyond Revengeanced


Yes. There's a plane eating whale made of flying fire and a Pokemon Pegacorn in the first trailer. No, I don't know if Kojima's just fucking with us at this point. And yes, Big Boss clearly has a horn sticking out of his head in the last shot. Because why wouldn't he?

Why? because Hideo KOJIMA is an unstoppable force, and he's made so much money in this industry that he can literally do whatever the fuck he thinks is cool, even if it's batshit crazy and makes no sense to anyone, ever. Let's face it, at this point the only guy making games in Japan who even might be crazier than him is Suda 51 - I stress "might" though, since they're crazy in totally opposite directions. It'd be like comparing David Lynch to Alejandro Jodorowsky; you probably could, but what on earth would you get out of it?

Truth time: I never had the appropriate system when the original Solid trilogy came out, and I've had my eye on that "HD Remastered Collection" for over a year now*, but actually playing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots without a particularly solid understanding of the mythos Hideo KOJIMA's been building for the previous decade would be sort of like... okay, imagine somebody made up a mix tape using the best scenes from Apocalypse Now, Robocop, The General's Daughter, The Empire Strikes Back, Ong-Bak and Independance Day. Now imagine all of these movies star the same actors and that their dialog was re-written to form one cohesive continuity... but the scenes basically play out exactly the same way. That's how goddamn bewildering and incomprehensible MGS4 is without the previous 3 games (plus spin-offs) to fill in the gaps. They try to explain it, but Hideo Kojima's such a convoluted storyteller I doubt it made any more sense in the previous trilogy anyway. But like I said, tempting HD remake collection hovering around $35, probably just a matter of time before I find out first hand...

* In my defense, that sucker came out right around the same damn time I was packing up to move cross-country. Playing 50 hours of nihilistic military fantasy punctuated with bipolar mood swings into zany comedy was, for better or worse, as far from the fore of my thoughts as possible.

And yet, despite MGS4 being the single strangest 12 hours of my life, it was kind of awesome. The game can't decide if it wants to be an action movie or a soap opera or a stealth kill game, so it plays it like all three. It expounds dead serious, po-faced commentary on war in the 21st century one minute and then reveals latex-clad cyborg women who pilot tanks with their brains not five minutes later. It even breaks the fourth wall, forcing you to find a maniac who "changes the TV input" on your own fucking TV! I've never fully been able to tell if Kojima realized how absurd that combination is, but it's so abbrasively different from anything else out there I find myself unable to look away. Even that 5 hour trifle of an action game, Revengeance, looks pretty goddamn fun... maybe not $60 worth of it, but it looks amusing *enough* that I'm keeping an eye out for a fair price drop regardless.

"METAL GEAR SOLID V" - not "5", but the letter 'V' - will apparently be two separate games forming a single, potentially cohesive storyline. Details are heavily guarded at this point, but its' been confirmed that Ground Zeroes takes place in 1974, picking up sometime shortly after the two PSP spin-off games, and The Phantom Pain (above) will presumably take place nine years later, still a decade and a half before the events of the first MGS. So, yes, holding aside all the spinoff games the storyline goes 3-5-1-2-4, plus additional "canon" games that take place between 3 and 5 (Mobile Ops/Peace Walker), and after 4 (Revengeance). Welcome to my world.

This all does beg the question: Where the hell is TWIN SNAKES, the revamped Gamecube remake of the original MGS? The main reason I didn't pick up the HD collection when it was new was the total lack of the first game, which is (if I'm not mistaken) only available in its classic flavor as a PSN title. Twin Snakes used the game engine from the sequels, re-recorded the English voices to be more in tune with the original Japanese dialog, and even got Ryuhei KITAMURA (yes, the goddamn director of Versus!) to direct the new cut scenes. While it has some issues of its own, frankly, THAT'S the version I want to see remade in 720p at 60fps... and yet the only way to play it would be to purchase a used copy for more than the rest of the franchise put together and then emulate it on the ol' Wii.  Go figure.

Methinks it's time to buy the HD collection and worry about the first game in one capacity or the other. Sad as this is to say, I only know who Big Boss is because The Wiki Knows All, and that just doesn't seem right... time to educate myself on the wild world of non-existant politics, which - unlike the real world of politics - at least occasionally break away from the stuffy pontification to give you a bitchin' map where you can snipe dudes with tranquilizer darts from a cardboard box. I'm just saying if I had to stuff an NPC into a locker to cast a vote for Congress and then hide in a cardboard box to avoid detection for the next few minutes, maybe, maybe I'd pay more attention to CNN.

Not sure if canon,
or just equally WTF.

Friday, March 29, 2013

New Beverly Report: DEMONS & THE EVIL DEAD

The 35mm Ascot Films print of DEMONS on display at the New Beverly (provided by the Alamo Draft House) was a thoroughly pleasant surprise; framed at the 1.66 OAR, uncut, and featuring a surprisingly decent sounding mono track, the film included English opening and closing titles, plus Italian credits just before the epilogue starts playing. The print's garish, nightmare inspired pallet looked as vivid as anyone could have asked for with nary a trace of fading, and while minor damage was common, major analog tears were non-existent. It was (according to management) provided by the Alamo Draft House, and overall was in fine shape.

But how did the film "look", in an aesthetic sense? For one thing, the absolutely electric blue hues and deep blood red of the theater interiors were gloriously vibrant, bordering on the surreal and recalling equally glorious moments of Dario Argento's post-giallo centric career before he went all... well, y'know. And while the very nature of a 35mm release print leads to expanded contrast I was a little surprised to see just how bright and under-exposed the shadow details of the dimly lit theater really were, with the scenes "behind the screen" in particular having a visible red tinge over everything, even when you'd expect it to fade all the way to black. By and large, the 1986 US print looked like a more vivid and filthy presentation of Arrow Video's HD master; the one day-for-night shot panning down the Metropol exterior was not chemically tinted on the US prints (or at least not obviously so), and while I maintain that the Arrow Video transfer has boosted gamma and weak black levels from a purely calibration minded standpoint...  well, at least I can't say that it's inconsistent with an actual 35mm print.

I will say, however, that the Ascot Films release didn't have that slightly green push of the Arrow Video release on the relatively neutral scenes; the shadows in the opening shot of the subway pulling into the tunnel were pitch black, not midnight blue with a slightly brown twist. Keep in mind the US version has a completely different title sequence, so comparisons might not be totally fair, but it stuck out none the less. Also, keep in mind that the very concept of a 35mm print includes shining light through an opaque medium, which kind of prevents "black" from existing in any real sense; even the best of prints have elevated black levels compared to a properly mastered Blu-ray, which can go just as dark as you like it in the RGB 16-235/IRE 0-100 scales. Apples and Oranges.

THE EVIL DEAD, however, was a mess of a different color entirely. Whilst I've had little but high praise for the 2011 Blu-ray, which in turn was created from a 2K restoration of the original 16mm camera negative, the 35mm print I saw last night was actually based on that very same director approved digital master. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand the conceptual appeal of seeing a restored 35mm presentation of any film that's justifiably called a classic - and Sam Raimi's 30 year old drive-in splatter shtick is certainly that, even if he thinks we're all idiots for saying it - it's not what I expected when I was going to a "Grindhouse Double Feature" (though, ironically enough, the restored print was provided by the folks at Grindhouse Releasing).

Have you ever seen DVNR on a 16mm movie shot in the late 70s underneath actual 35mm film grain? Now I have. There's only a handful of shots that looked really, truly bizarre, but they were there, just as they were on the Blu-ray. Also surprising was the general lack of grain on... shit, pretty much everything. The Evil Dead on Blu-ray was so grainy and finely textured you'd be forgiven for thinking Sam Raimi developed a way to shoot on sand paper instead of celluloid, but the 35mm presentation looked "soft", and never especially heavy on the grain, not even on the optically printed shots (such as the split-screen stop motion effects during the final reel). What the hell's going on here? Did printing the 2K master to 35mm include a blurring pass to produce a less garishly grainy print? Or is the Blu-ray just swimming in digitally generated video noise? I honestly don't have a firm theory. It's even possible that the 35mm print was intentionally defocused to downplay the grain, but not having ever seen a proper 16mm blow-up print - and not really knowing the protocol for playing them to begin with - I don't really know.

What we know for sure is that the 2011 2K restoration for The Evil Dead was approved of by Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, and that the vast majority of it was pulled from the original 16mm camera negative. Occasional dupe prints were used to fill in gaps, and while opticals were subtly improved - removing matte lines on the moon, color correcting lighting oddities, digitally removing producer Rob Tapert from the background of one shot, and reversing one of the film's most infamous gore shots so as to not break obvious visual continuity - the 2K remaster is, in the broadest of strokes at least, very much respectful to the film's low-budget roots. The audio mix was a little jacked in my eyes, clipping in spots and having a level of dead silence you'll never hear on a theatrical print's optical mono track, but the restored audio comes part and parcel with the restored visuals, and I don't know if the exaggerations I was hearing were the result of the New Beverly's sound system or the print itself. Much like the visuals, the "newness" of it all didn't appeal to me, though from a technical standpoint

Seeing Grindhouse's 35mm print actually revealed even more image compared to the 1.33:1 BD transfer, regularly showing a bit of gunk stuck at the top of the camera gate or the rounded corners of the aperture plate, though the framing is similar enough that unless you're really, really into wiping your ass with the concept of "Image Safe" framing, you'd never really notice to begin with.

DEMONS was a hell of an experience, and a fascinating point of reference for any home release. EVIL DEAD was... fun to see in a theater full of people who love it. And if I had any reason to celebrate, the surprise presence of  35mm trailers for THE GRUESOME TWOSOME, TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE (Bay of Blood) and CORRUPTION probably made up for it.

...have I mentioned that I'm stoked that the Fede Alvarez remake of Sam Raimi's first featyre is coming out next week? I'm sure I have. But seriously. Stoked.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Demons Unspooled

Whilst I totally understand why Quentin Tarantino is an inherently divisive figure - let's face it, Aspergers Syndrome and cocaine are a pretty polarizing combination - the fact that he's willing to run The New Beverly Theater as a non-profit museum of vintage and modern titles alike, exclusively on 35mm*, is one of those things that the man deserves a lot of credit for.

The sold out Tuesday night show, their monthly Grindhouse Double Feature no less, happens to be Lamberto Bava's DEMONS and Sam Raimi's THE EVIL DEAD. The latter has been such a popular mainstay for so long it'd be disingenuous to suggest that it doesn't get shown as a "midnight movie" on a pretty regular basis, but I've never seen it on 35mm, so it's still new to me.

DEMONS, on the other hand, is a rare treat to say the least! I'll be paying close attention to the "look" tonight, as I did with both Suspiria and The Burning when I saw them on 35mm in the last year or two. I've actually never seen a 16mm blow-up on the big screen before either, so The Evil Dead will be an interesting experience... boy I hope that's a vintage print, not one of those "All New!" 35mm Answer Prints that totally defeat the purpose of watching a beat-up print from the time of release.

For the record: Techniscope doesn't look as bad as you probably think it does. At least not if 1990: The Bronx Warriors was any indication. Holy hell, seeing that on 35mm was a treat.

* They will play video sources, but only on very, very special occasions. The non-convention premier of the NIGHTBREED workprint was a great example... and holy crap did it look poor on a 30 foot screen.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Remote Controlled Titans

Jeff Lieberman's largely unavailable 1988 horror-satire about the dangers of (what now seemed inevitable) pop-cultural brainwashing, REMOTE CONTROL, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray HERE direct from the film maker. They're both restored from a new 2K master, each copy is hand-signed and numbered by writer/director Lieberman, they've pressed a thousang copies per format, and there's a limit of 2 copies per customer - in other words, it's basically Twilight Time plus Albert Pyun, but without the scalping and SD masters, respectively. Interesting.

There's a lot of crap coming out right now that I want to get my hands on first, but I hope this'll be around for another few weeks so I can put in an order... never even heard of this damn flick, to be honest.

In other, perhaps even more bizarre news, the Los Angeles based Dark Delicacies bookstore sold a handful of copies of William Malone's 1985 creature feature THE TITAN FIND, better known as CREATURE in much of the world. It's not one bit unfair to call this an Alien knock-off, but at least by all counts it's one of the better knock-offs of the period, and stars Wendy Schall and Klaus Kinski. Malone tracked down the uncut master positive and created a new 2K master from it, and was in the midsts of releasing it himself on DVD... but after a handful of copies were sold at Dark Delicacies, a signing was canceled and the store - perhaps inadvertently - that Malone had signed a deal with a distributor who was interested in a wide DVD and Blu-ray release. All eyes are currently on Synapse Films waiting for the other boot to drop, though as of this moment no official word on who exactly now owns distribution rights has been made... odds are almost overwhelmingly in Synapse's favor here, though.

I think I saw the final reel or so of this on the Sci-Fi channel years ago around two in the morning, right before they'd give up and play Infomercials 'till dawn. I'd love to revisit this, just to see if it's half as good as I remembered it (or if it's even the same damn thing).

For the record, I've been to Dark Delicacies a few times. Cool little place that does autograph signings every week, and I was lucky enough to get Bill Mosley to put his signature on something for me not too long ago because of it. I've bought a handful of posters from them too, and the prices were better than I typically see on eBay. Good people there. Hopefully they'll hold another event in the near future and have Malone sign some damn Blu-rays instead.

The Fight Of The Protomen

(The Protomen: Act I)
Full Disclosure: While I take it that everyone reading this has accepted that literally everything I say is a subjective, personal opinion, this one should be taken with a shot of salt and lime more than usual. Not because I'm saying any part of it without conviction - let's face it, when I say I love something it's because I fuck'n love something - but because I'm speaking outside of my usual expertise: Namely, that of a music critic, which is a thing I am not. I can only express the feels, man, and hope that some of you might give it a look based on that.

So while I'm being as humbled as I can be, I should probably also point out that I don't readily identify myself as a "gamer" in the broader societal sense - at least, not in the sense that the word is typically used to describe. I detest online multiplayer with strangers, and whenever I do drop $60 for a game opening week it's on something absurd like Hyperdimension Neptunia or Lollipop Chainsaw rather than the latest Call of Duty or God of War spinoff - but that doesn't mean that I don't still like games.

I like them a heck of a lot, actually - if you could see how many hours I sunk into Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage you'd think it was all a cry for help, and I've never been more exhaustively infuriated when 3/4 of the way through Dead Island, my game shat the bed, forcing me to reset my stats and complete the final map with not only nerf'd characters skills, and no customized weapons at all. Hell, I even finished all but the final stage of Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days - not because it was particularly good, but because it encouraged local co-op, allowing the wife and I to mow down rows of Mandarin spewing NPC's and strategize how to take down that one dipshit hiding on the first floor with the grenade launcher. Y'know what that is? That's bonding time, friends. Not binding time, though, that's... that's another discussion entirely. My point is, while I'd happily elect myself as some sort of exploitation-slash-animation nerd, gaming is a hobby, and a secondary one at that. One I very much like and take seriously... but no, my days of taking anything that involves buttons labeled "A" and "B" with anything but a passing grin are, for the better I'm sure, long behind me.

Pictured: Everything I ever wanted for my birthday.
(At least until "vagina" became a valid answer.)

As a child, however, the NES and its latter 16-bit successor were a huge chunk of my adolescent life. I learned how to read more through a combination of The Legend of Zelda and Looney Tunes than anything else at my disposal, and I can remember myself, two family members, and literally two other kids being the sole survivors of a showing of The Super Mario Bros. Movie. And I was excited to see it. I mean, yeah, I was still under 10 at the time - I deserve the benefit of the doubt at that age - but the fact that I'd spent more time stomping goombas than I ever had working on math homework was just a staple of my younger self. I hundred-percented the shit out of Super Mario 64, and was young enough to look at that as something of an accomplishment. I also got to the final boss in Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos - now, I don't think I ever actually beat that cocksucker Jaquio, but all things considered, just goddamn getting there was an impressive enough achievement for anyone too young to have pubic hair or credit card debt. I always hated sports games and drifted away from consoles in general once Sony had, somehow, become the tent pole company pushing both hardware and new developers... but for a while, that's who I was.

To put this in simpler terms, I'm absolutely a member of that nebulous group occasionally dubbed by its members as "Generation NES". And one of my all time favorite franchises from this period came in the following box, rented for one joyous weekend sometime in 1989 for a mere $2.50 (plus a late fee or two, I'm sure):

Wait... did our hero just break his ankle?

Mercifully I never saw the butt ugly cover of the first entry, or I may never have given it a second look... too bad that hoagie chugging monstrosity spawned its own memetic playable character in Capcom's already irony-soaked STREET FIGHTER X TEKKEN game instead of the version of Mega Man everybody actually likes. Oh, that feeling you have while watching that trailer? It's called "Swallowing Sadness". Mega Man and I basically parted ways on the NES around part 5, I think, but I tend to hold the potentially sacrilegious opinion that Mega Man X was the best form the franchise ever took anyway. I'd make that same argument for Super Metroid as well, but now we're barreling off course... let's get back to those rock 'n' roll guys I posted at the top for a few minutes.

The Protomen started as an independent rock project in 2003, and have - for the most part - retained their anonymous status, with the lead singer having only ever referred to himself in public as "Raul Panther" - but hell, the second most reasonable name these guys have relating to their public personas is K.I.L.R.O.Y, so, just don't think too hard about it. Their first album was released in 2005, and while neither the most complex nor original album, musically speaking, it grabbed my attention by its premise: A rock 'n' roll fable - their words, not mine - presenting the continuity of the original Mega Man NES games as an operatic tragedy. The album's liner notes are filled with a complex backstory filling in details that diverge quite heavily from the Capcom series proper, with a level of dystopian decay, violence, and moral ambiguity that didn't fit in with a NES series who's sole mechanic can be summed up as "walk, jump, shoot, repeat". Granted, Mega Man is one of the handful of Nintendo franchises' to be popular enough to get a semi-canonical Saturday morning cartoon series in the early 90s and gave way to a host of cut scenes in the games proper, giving just enough back story that using the simple world of the blue bomber as a means of fraternal warfare made just enough sense to make perfect goddamn sense to turn into a... Rock Opera. Because holy crap, what doesn't become more awesome in the presentation of a long-form concept album?

Even if you aren't familiar with the in-game history of Thomas Light and the sinister Albert Wily, The Protomen's self-titled debut album give you a crash course that tells you about all you need to know; Dr. Wily holds the world in fear with his army of dangerous robots, and Dr. Light built a machine known as Proto Man to fight back. Proto Man lost the war, and Light tried again, if by way of 1984 and with a dash of Blade Runner for flavor. Mega Man fought against Wily's horde, only to realize his fallen brother, Proto Man, had defected and now fights for the liberation of machines instead of men. Whereas Capcom's games ended this conflict in a draw and eventually had Proto Man gradually switch sides back towards that of humanity, The Protomen's album gets to this conflict and ends on a darker, emotionally charged note that re-writes the very essence of the Mega Man mythos.

While the whole The Protomen: Act I concept album is certainly decent, and runs with a number of musical styles ranging from twangy country to distorted electronica beats and even bouts of furious punk rock, the absolute show-stopper is The Stand (Man or Machine), a deceptively serene piano driven piece in which the jaded and dissonant Proto Man reveals himself to his 'brother' who thought him long dead, and spits the young would-be hero's idealistic philosophy right back in his face.

(The Protomen: Act I) 
I guess you could easily enough argue that it's all a manipulative stunt driven by nostalgia, tearing away the wholesome layer from a nearly 30 year old game franchise and leaving an adolescent-minded 'serious' version behind... but honestly, it works more than it doesn't. In no small part because despite this being the world's unofficial "Grim and Gritty" reboot of a franchise best described as silly, it's working with whatever moral and narrative complexity already existed, even in the games themselves. Hell, the first album even uses the 8-bit synth themes as the backdrop for the music proper, layering on increasingly complicated music on top of carefully reconstructed NES soundtracks, forming not the overall tone of the album, but a recognizable part of it that it still clicks in with the memory of the games themselves. It walks a fine line between lionizing and destroying the material it's named after, and I think the sum of its parts is better than it really ought to be. It's all just fan fiction at the end of the day, but at least it's good fan fiction - what more can we ask for from a Nerdcore rock band who's most obvious inspiration were a fusion of Queen, Les Miserables and Kurt Vonnegut?

Along with an increasingly ridiculous stage presence (see above), the album is available on CD with a large selection of... I guess they'd be narrative notes? They set the stage during instrumental passages in a way that wouldn't be possible otherwise, not without it quickly becoming a bizarre music-driven radio show. All in all, their first album is the positive side of both nostalgia and fan omnipresence; it's proof positive, even if it's on a small scale, that artists who grew up with this stuff as the voice of their childhoods are not only capable of making incredible art, they're capable of turning those memories into art itself, that not only redefines the shared experience we all had with it, but stands on its own two feet by using those common experiences to color how we interpret these new threads born from the same common threads.

Case in point, during The Stand (Man or Machine), as Proto Man delivers his heart-breaking soliloquy as to why mankind is doomed to be crushed under the hell of Wily's robotic domination and, in turn, is telling Mega Man his own tragic reality of having only found acceptance from the person he was literally built to destroy... a funny thing happens. Proto's very human voice cracks the further into his story he goes, gradually shifting away from the bitter, angry feelings of an all too human narrator to the distorted whine and snarl of a machine: Proto Man has not only rejected his father's philosophy, he's showing a physical rejection of humanity so strong that by the end of the song, he's basically an incomprehensibly auto-tuned Megatron sound bite. Proto isn't the only character who's literal emotional breakdown is realized in this way, either, leaving a totally chilling end to what could have otherwise been an operatic celebration of Good vs Evil. Like I said, I'm no music critic, but as a piece of what - again, I must stress - is rock 'n' roll fan fiction about a game for children, that is fuck'n awesome.

Don't turn your back on the city.

The Protomen, in all their cheesy yet hard-earned glory, weren't done with simply recounting the rise and fall of Dr. Light's most famous creation - if they were, this post would be a lot shorter, because frankly I'd be less enthusiastic. In 2009 they released The Protomen Act II: The Father of Death, with producer Alan Shacklock, who made a name for himself producing albums for Meatloaf. Unlike the previous album, there are no intro/outro tracks, the 8-bit chip score noodling is regulated to a few surprisingly good instrumental tracks, and the storyline is... well, despite the title it's actually a prequel to The Protomen's self-titled album. The Father of Death begins, again, with canonical Capcom fragments - namely, Wily and Light teaming up as young men to build an army of robots to carry out duties humans couldn't safely do on their own - and then quickly expands what little we knew about these man into an original story that has no direct bearing on the official storyline... but doesn't outright contradict it, either. With the exception of a handful of names, this could easily be seen as a totally original work, but the fact that it was carefully constructed to resonate with the ideas in their previous album makes that fact all the better.

Wily and Light built the first machine that could do the work of a man, and while they both realized greatness could come from it, Light could see that Wily's aims were far less altruistic than his own. No longer wanting to be a part of Wily's grand plan to rebuild the city into an automated metropolis he went to his lover Emily's home to leave with her... only to find that Wily had already killed her, the last letter she'd written to her beau still in hand, and that the police were right behind him. Light was the only suspect, and Wily used his newfound control over the local media to paint Light as a monster. He was eventually brought to trial, where he was pronounced not guilty, turning Tom into a pariah and giving Wily a face to unite his city against. With no other choice, Light fled the city before he was lynched, and was assumed dead by Wily's mechanical eyes...

(Act II: The Father of Death)

Many years later, Wily's city has become a soulless, "perfect" machine unto itself. A young man who calls himself Joe and still rides his father's gas powered bike has seen the way the electronic utopia has closed in around everyone, leaving them listless and unable to do anything for themselves. Wily tries to put a stop to Joe, and in the process drives him inadvertantly towards the old hermit who lives on the outskirts of town. Light and Joe realize they're two halves of the same resistance, and realizing their time is limited, concoct a plan to destroy Wily's transmitter, bringing down his army of machines in one fell swoop... with survival almost surely impossible.

Let me make this explicitly clear; Doctor Thomas Light sends a shaken teenage boy off to right the world's wrongs with a backpack full of explosives, with the only plan they have is him crashing his vehicle and then sacrificing himself in one glorious, nihilistic act of resistance. Doctor Light is about two steps from becoming Osama Bin Ladden... and he's still the guy we're rooting for! The "Good Doctor" returns to Wily's city as fast as he can and sees that Joe's sacrifice has meant nothing; in the years since he was run out of Wily's city, he had built a fortress with its own broadcast tower. He had built an army. A mechanical Hell on Earth. With nothing left up his sleeve, Light waits for Wily to strike the coup de grace and end this miserable, deadly dance the two have done for years. In his final moments, read the last letter Emily had meant to give to him. They strike a chord with him, and Light realizes that he has one more option to fight Wily on his own terms. If you remember that "Act II" takes place before "Act I", you know exactly where this is going... and then feel a little sad for him.

(Act II: The Father of Death)

Musically, The Father of Death is a lot more complicated than its predocessor. The album toys with Country, Spanish guitar, Ska, even a mournful Gospel piece finds its way into the formative emotional roller coaster that compromises the first half of the album. Once the lurch forward into the future happens, the album settles into a seemingly odd choice of machismo fueled 80s synth-pop, which are (arguably) the high point of this band's entire output so far. In a way, this all makes sense too; the lore it's riffing on specifies 200X as the year in which Mega Man rushed into battle, which means that throwing the past of this universe to not only the potential sounds of 198X, but the stylings from whence these games were born to begin with gives an oddly fitting "full circle" from the inception and inversion to what, in my eyes at least, could be the final relevant form of Capcom's most famous machine.

There's a number of legitimately good songs here - The Hounds is an exciting, unexpected bit of genre bending that gives us a side of our villain that's never been properly explored. Breaking Out is a piece that could have easily slipped into Walter Hill's Streets of Fire, a soundtrack which - coincidentally - the band has admitted played a large part in inspiring this album to start with. Light up the Night, in particular, is the catchiest goddamn 80s movie show-stopper about suicide bombing that somehow never existed and shows this 9 piece band is more than capable of elevating themselves above a novelty, if they so choose... and yet, they seem to not be going anywhere but further down the retro rabbit hole.

For better or worse, their third album was A Night of Queen, a live show covering a wide variety of what could be the greatest, gayest rock band of all time. It actually isn't bad, either, though as good as the band's frontman "The Gambler" is, no man alive can top the vocals of the late Freddie Mercury, so it's relevancy to the world is debatable. According to a fairly comprehensive fansite - which, I'm afraid, is infinitely more readable that the official one - their fourth album, The Cover Up, is set to be a literal album of 80s movie soundtrack covers, and they're already suggesting by way of key art on a limited casette release* that this might also be woven into the fabric of the original material they've been producing. Considering how damn good their oddly Ennio Morricone inspired version of NO EASY WAY OUT was - which quietly slipped out on a limited vinyl B-side, the way all singles did once upon a time - I'm curious to see where this goes. Are we getting The Protomen Act 2.5 by way of Rocky theme songs? Beats the hell out of me. But if we do, wouldn't that be kind of great?

And what of the future of The Protomen's Capcom inspired rock opera? Well, as of PAX 2012 they've officially unveiled a rough version of a single track from the third and final Mega Man continuity. Details remain in the mist, but based on both what we've seen and the general shape of Mega Man lore, it's a pretty safe bet that Roll is going to be the one to end it all.

Kneel before your robotic savior!

Honestly, I can't wait to see how this all pans out. I'm all for the earnest worship of whatever the hell it is makes you happy - hell, working intently and maniacally on nerdy studd is what landed me a career in the first place. But I'm especially happy when the results of that fan-wank turn out to be something good. I've long been told not to say anything if I don't have anything nice to say (and tend to do a shit job of it, I know), but all I'm going to say about The Megas is... well, these guys are what I thought The Protomen would be. And I was thrilled to be proven wrong.

With any luck, at least you might now understand (if not even share) my fascination with The Protomen. There's something not just fun and unusual about them that caught me by the short hairs, but something honest, something that comes from a place of understanding that you can take this stuff as seriously as you want, so long as you don't half-ass it. A big chunk of the things I find myself enjoying in terms of music, movies, games and everything else that crosses my path is a certain sense of Absurdist Drama, that idea of taking something as simple as the story of robots shooting lemons at each other and then making the audience feel something for it. That's the stuff that I can't get enough of.

Along with their next two albums on the horizon, The Protomen have supposedly shot a number of music videos over 2011-2012, and are also working on a Kickstarter Funded documentary. In a way, if you've only heard of them recently you're cheating; we blew past years of uncertainty and unanswerable questions. But we're in a wonderful position to see this thing end, bringing to rest a part of my own adolescence that never quite burned out of its own accord. It's fun, and goddamn it, sometimes that's all it should be.

Now, if only I didn't know THIS existed and was selling for double/triple the original MSRP, I'd be even happier...

* Seriously, everyone within earshot who does anything that relates to music: STOP USING TAPES. They sound terrible. They're not convenient. I don't care if it made Rosario Dawson's panties drip in Death Proof. They're a joke, and unlike carrying around a vintage 8 pound Game Boy, there's nothing on a tape you couldn't easily get onto a CD. Like I said above, these guys get one pass what with the release date, but Jesus Christ...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Get Yer' Boomsticks Ready

 Because you know... Japan.

So, first the good news: both France and Germany are releasing Sam Raimi's horror-fantasy mash-up cult classic ARMY OF DARKNESS on Blu-ray in exhaustive Special Editions, which are all set to include a grand total of three cuts of the film: The familiar 81 minute R-rated "US Theatrical" version, the 89 minute "International Theatrical" version few English speakers have ever seen, and the 97 minute "Director's Cut". Ginchy, right? We can finally marvel at Bruce Cambpell at his Campbelliest in 1080p, free of the studio mandated cuts that saddled the American cut of the film!

What could possibly go-- actually, I'm not even gonna finish that sentence. At least half of you know exactly where this is going, but, let's talk about it anyway...

The good news is that, at the very least the 81 minute "US Cut" will be pulled in its entirety from the same HD master Universal has released on Blu-ray in various territories, while the 89 minute "International Cut" will be provided by an HD master compiled by MGM for various European and Asian territories. So what of the 10 minutes worth of footage featured only in the Director's Cut? If early reviews can be trusted, I've got three words for you, friends:

Standard Definition Upscale.

"But what about the MGM Hong Kong DVD?!" I hear some of you ask. "That looked great! It had to be from an HD master!" And supposedly it was... partially. According to a hastily translated account ripped from - if I'm not mistaken - the FOLLOWING REVIEW, this is what they had to say on the matter (with some basic grammar fixes by yours truly):

"MGM had an HD-Master for the Euro Version. They used it for the release in Germany and for the Hong-Kong DC, both on DVD. For the additional scenes in the HK DVD, MGM had only an SD-Master, which they edited into the Euro Version. So the Director's Cut on DVD in Hong Kong is a mix of the Euro Version HD Master, and additional scenes in SD."

That's coming from somebody who's actually seen the disc, but... honestly, I have trouble buying it. The fact is, the "DC Exclusive" footage looks great for a standard definition release, and it all just looks so damn good, I have trouble believing that MGM haphazardly spliced an interlaced SD master into a pristine HDCAM source to accomplish it. More importantly, the DC includes fresh scans - HD or not - from a 35mm source from start to finish. Clearly MGM has access to a complete and usable film source - why not request that single reel of footage be re-transferred? Could this be a joint venture between Filmedia and Koch and both of them decided, "Psh, fuck that DC, man - it's just not worth the money"? Hell, Koch transferred less than a minute for their release of 4 Flies on Gray Velvet, something just doesn't add up here.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, but the difference in quality between the International Cut and the Director's Cut is simply a non-issue; I have trouble even spotting when it switches from familiar footage to extended gags, and considering I broke a dozen blood vessels in each eye watching the color timing snap unexpectedly on that totally uncut German release of Ebola Syndrome where everything suddenly turns a jaundiced yellow hue whenever extended blood is about to flow, I'd like to think I'd notice something. Of course, it's not impossible that MGM created an SD master of the DC from start to finish, and this new HD master was Frankensteined between that and a pre-existing "International" HD master... there's just too many variables here to put my finger on, at least before the damned thing is officially available to the public.

The Filmedia French release (Evil Dead 3 : L'armée des Ténèbres) packs all 3 cuts on a single disc, presumably via seamless branching, with a retail of 25 Euros. Germany has an upcoming release via Koch Media (Die Armee der Finsternis), which will be available in both a Director's Cut only single disc for 15 Euros, or a top-popping 6 disc 2 Blu-ray/4 DVD combo in a Media Book for 45 Euros. That hefty price increase comes with the now rarely seen US TV Cut (basically a sanitized presentation of the International Version) and ports Director's Cut commentary, while both include various behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and a host of deleted scenes that every fan of the film has probably seen at one point or another. My guess is that Koch and Filmedia will be using the same HD master, but as nobody's yet seen the German release, it'd be premature to state that as fact.

I'm on the fence over which of these releases to grab, but it won't be too much longer before I get one of them shipped to my door. We'll take a more in-depth look soon enough. In the meantime, I'll try to share some thoughts on a very special purchase I made earlier in the week... we'll see how horribly distracted I get, though.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

No Comment, Sarkeesian?

WvTiVG: Damsel in Distress (Part 1)

The first episode of Women vs Tropes in Video Games is... well, it's certainly better than her previous projects. It talks about the history of the trope in question, details the vast number of titles that adhere to it, and even bothers to fact check the source material, which is substantially more than can be said for HER FIRST ATTEMPT* at critiquing sexism in a video game.

At best, I'd say it's inoffensive, impersonal, and has all the charm and passion of a high-school oral report. All this controversy, public outcry and calls of shenanigans, you'd either expect something expansive and mind blowing or maybe just a total train wreck. In the end, all you get a single person speaking in carefully measured tones, explaining (at goddamn l-e-n-g-t-h) about the origins of the Damsels in Distress trope, and even what raison d'etre means, assuming her audience is too stupid to know a rather common phrase from one of the few languages English regularly pinches quips from.

In other words, it's basically the same all all of her other videos, just longer and more accurate. And if you'd like to see what's, effectively, an alternate take on this whole subject in relation to the Super Mario Bros. universe in particular, here's an older, more concise, self-aware, and clearly fandom-driven exploration from everyone's favorite MovieBob**:

Game OverThinker V2

The information presented in Women vs Tropes in Video Games 1.1 is - with a few things I'll contest in a moment - accurate enough, and a wide variety of examples are cited to show how firmly entrenched the trend is, but beyond pointing out that Damsels in Distress exist in video games (and have been for a long time), she doesn't have much else to say about it, other than suggesting that maybe these more popular DiD's should get adventures of their own - and apparently hand-held side games aren't good enough for those purposes. She also suggests that popular culture can reinforce stereotypes and attitudes on a subtle but damaging level, which is a fairly common argument to be sure, but also skirts dangerously close to the nonsensical arguments that video games lead to mass shootings or that pornography leads to sexual abuse. Granted, that's perhaps the whole underlying point of this series, so while I strongly disagree with her on the broad strokes, I'm still holding out hope that she'll have more interesting research suggesting she's on to something (aside from the anecdotal evidence of 4chan's casual backlash, of course).

Granted, there's every possibility that this is because this is Part 1 of the subject, laying ground work, while Part 2 will have some more in-depth content... but still, after almost a year of controversy and a small fortune to have fallen into the project's lap, I expect... well, something bigger. Interviews with game critics? An attempt to get some of the designers responsible for these titles a chance to say what they did, and why they did it? I'm all for random assholes on the internet having their say - heck, it'd be hypocritical for me not to -  but I don't need $6,000 to look into a camera and do it, and if I were given $150,000 on top of that I'd try to have *SOMETHING* more to show for it. Ah, well... c'est a vie. Which is French for "who gives a fuck", and I never had to tell you that because I know you're all adults and capable of using the google.

To her credit, Sarkeesian has a handful of interesting ideas to cover here, such as how Donkey Kong started out as a licensed Popeye the Sailor game, and how Starfox Adventure was originally a completely unrelated original property, "Dinosaur Planet", and the ever popular sammich' munching furry icon Krystal was originally one of two protagonist in the game rather than a mere macguffin to be freed at the end. She doesn't, however, point out (at least not explicitly) that Krystal's brother Sabre was planned to have at least equal play time, leaving Krystal as a co-protagonist rather than the protagonist, and that a large part of the game would have been completed with a masculine avatar anyway. A minor distinction, perhaps, but one worth making if your whole argument is that said character's role was being "minimized" to begin with.

She also asks why Princess Peach is not a playable character in the "NEW!" Super Mario Bros. franchise entries, despite the Wii versions supporting up to 4 simultaneous players - two of which are Toads. Personally, I think that's a damn good question; what's the point of having two interchangeable toads? Mario and Luigi are basically a pallet swap, always were, but there's no reason you need to have the entire supporting cast be as bland as possible. Peach doesn't have to have different abilities; that was a hold over from Doki Doki Panic!/Super Mario Bros. 2 International, and with the whole point of this being one giant nostalgia trip fueled expansion pack to the Super Mario Bros. name, why not toss in one more throwback and let Peach do her thing? I don't think anyone actually playing these games requires Bowser to kidnap her as a plot device, mostly because playing platform-adventure games is the reward; the story is basically a non-issue.

She gets one otherwise interesting detail flat out wrong, claiming that Zelda has never once been the star of her own adventure. If we're only looking at games develop and released by Nintendo, this is true, but this also suggests that she doesn't even know these "games" exist:

Cenobites don't have shit on the unending pain a CD-i can deliver to you.

Look, it's obvious that we all wish the Zelda CD-i Trilogy didn't happen, and even Nintendo itself has disavowed all knowledge in their fancy pants hardcover Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia compendium, but ignoring those infamous, meme-spewing atrocities against interactive video entertainment existed - especially when you've gone out of your way to acknowledge that you're talking about both core games and spinoffs in your research - kind of makes you look like you're either clueless, or manipulating the facts to suit your own argument. I'll let Anita's many vocal defenders decide which.

While we're on the subject of everybody's favorite non-shrooming Nintendo Princess, I also took some issue with the notion that... okay, so I'm going to spoil the living shit out of Ocarina of Time here, but it's been over 15 years since that particular chapter of the franchise came out - and over a year if we include the 3DS re-release, even - so eat a dick if you're going to get upset over this. She briefly mentions that when Sheik reveals himself to be Princess Zelda in disguise, reverting back to a typical feminine form, she's captured by Ganondorf literally three minutes later.

This sounds like a fair argument if you want to apply the DiD trope to Ocarina of Time and all, but this is ignoring two very important factors: One, that Sheik is physically a separate entity from Zelda, a more muscular, less curvy and darker-skinned person that is, by all appearances, a member of the Sheikah race while Zelda herself is a Hylian. In other words, the only reason Ganondorf didn't capture Zelda while she was hiding as Sheik was because he had no reason to assume that Zelda was a larger male of a completely different race, not to mention the fact that she'd been hiding in plain sight as a double agent for Ganondorf for the better part of seven years. It'd be like the villain trying to capture Marilyn Monroe when, without his knowledge, she'd been magically turned into Yul Brynner. You can use this convenient plot twist to make a case against progressive feminism, there's also a lot of narrative weight behind it that Sarkeesian ignores, painting the game as perhaps less clever than it deserves. Suspension of disbelief, and all that jazz.

Case In Point: Link looks more like a girl than Sheik.
Hell, Ganondorf probably thought Link was Zelda in drag.

Another minor issue I take is the suggestion that they're pumping retro games out on modern consoles as a "fast cash grab", leaving the DiD Trope intact without any thought to how future generations will interpret it. Sarkeesian herself acknowledges that these sales are being driven by nostalgia, and nostalgic fans are already familiar with the fact that, for example, Princess Peach is typically a captive to be rescued. Now, while I can understand the idea behind "improved" HD remakes (and some are done exceptionally well) I don't want the actual game to be affected. I'd rather be offered a cheap download of a classic 8-bit game totally unmolested than have it be modified for modern sensibilities, and I've felt this way since... hell, the Ninja Gaiden Trilogy release on the SNES? Marketing material that might have aged poorly to adults edited to suit the current cultural landscape of today's children is... well, frankly, it's kind of fucking stupid. She's either suggesting that these games should be lost to the ages and made unavailable in any meaningful capacity, or that they should be censored to meet a more modern point of view - one which, as far as I'm aware, isn't that dramatically different from when those games were introduced in the first place.

She didn't win any bonus points for getting her knickers in a twist over the iconic Double Dragon opening gut-punch, and she saved her one real moment of snarky deadpan silence for a clip from Dragon's Lair (ie: one of the most imaginative, beautifully realized, and intentionally braindead video games ever made). But this is kind of her shtick, so whatever.

At the end of the day there's one thing that really sticks in my craw, and that's the disabled comments (and video ratings, which I'm less concerned with). Disabled, fucking, comments. On the one hand I get not wanting to sift through the inevitable shit-storm of trolls who didn't nip this in the bud the first time, but on the other hand it, intentionally or not, confirms what I've always feared about Anita Sarkeesian: Her interest in "discussing" these matters begins and ends with her telling you what's what. There is no conversation, no feedback, no raison d'etre apart from her stepping up on a YouTube soapbox and assuming everyone in ear shot agrees with every word of it. How is that useful to improving and expanding any culture? She's an academic for crying out loud; she understands things like "debate" and "discussion". Without providing an avenue for anyone to try and ask her for clarification, or engage in anything resembling civil disagreement, she's basically locked herself in the role of being a teacher reading from a manuscript that's not changing any time soon.

As I've said, I have no problem with the study of gender roles in popular culture, and I think categorizing, exploring, and perhaps even updating it could be a good idea. Unfortunately, Sarkeesian doesn't want any of us to talk to her about what we think; she's happy to throw her ideas out into the wild and then ignore what anyone might have to say as a rebuke.

I was hardly expecting the first episode to be an hour long interview with Shigeru Miyamoto ending in a brutal Feminazis United decapitation. I just expected something, given all the controversy that came before it. If you have anything to say about it, I can't speak for Anita Sarkeesian, but my comments are always open. I'm curious what you guys think, considering how big a deal this thing somehow became.

UPDATE: Apparently the Feminist Frequency site has an option for comments. And yet, there are none after six days. Curious, that...

* For the record, Bayonetta is not a single mother, and the game sold less than 1.5 million copies in 4 months, not 3 million. Her opinion that the game is a worthless waste of time and money is her own, but the above are facts, and would have been apparent had the actually bothered to spend 5 minutes looking up either of these things. With that in mind, I'm damned willing to bet she never actually played it, which seems... disingenous, at best.

** I really like MovieBob. He's got a certain admirable, unapolagetic quality about his love and over-thinking for nonsense, but also approaches material like movies, comic books and video games with a level of humble, realistic detachment, acknowledging that they are pretty gooddamn silly, whilst pointing out that this doesn't mean we can't still love them for what they are, rather than what they aren't.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Christine's Vengeance

There's only so many one-sheets for this one...

Just a quick reminder to anyone who might have missed out the first time; March 8th, 4PM Eastern, Twilight Time/Screen Archives Entertainment will be doing two things:

1) Re-listing CHRISTINE as a standard $29.99 title and limited to one per customer, based on order cancellations from the initial sell-out. though I can't imagine there will be more than a handful of copies available. Odds are this window will be less 7 hours, more 7 minutes.

2) Offering 100 copies of Christine, signed by star Kieth Gordon. You have to order $100 or more worth of any Twilight Time titles and then put in a note like "I'd like a signed copy of CHRISTINE. Y' bastards." And if you're one of the first 100, you get it. Not sure if you can back out if you don't get it, though...

Aaaaaand I'm done talking about this movie until I have a chance to open my copy and actually, like... look at it.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Sarkeesian Apocalypse is Nigh

The Harbinger of the Geekocalypse, huh?
I'm slightly disappointed it wasn't Joss Whedon...

I'll be damned; after about a year of utterly ridiculous bullshit, Feminist Youtube video creator Anita Sarkeesian will finally launch the first episode of her already controversial "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" video this Thursday. This is about 9 months after she announced that she had started the project with donations from a Kickstarter project, and can finally put to rest the endless snickered implications that she took the money and ran. Which would be, y'know, retarded since this appears to literally be her job.

But perhaps a little history is in order to understand why we're talking about her in the first place: Despite the fact that her videos consist of her talking into the camera while clips occasionally play behind her, she needed a larger budget for this project than usual - presumably to buy a truck full of games as research material, well, fair enough - and setup a Kickstarter with a goal of $6,000. To, in simplified terms, talk about how video games are inherently sexist on YouTube. So far so good, right?

Well, once 4chan's /v/ Board caught wind of the whole thing, a mess of ugly, trollish behavior followed, including massive levels of anti-semitic and death/rape threats on her YouTube account, home made flash games where you could literally bloody up her photo, and even blatant, pornographic shenanigans on Wikipedia article. In short, someone dared to talk seriously about a young medium with a largely teenaged male demographic as its primary market and how it might not be a great representation of women in the process (*gasp!*), and that very same demographic decided to prove her point to the hilt by being a bunch of loud, immature and misogynistic assfucks.

Sarkeesian wasn't exactly quiet about the incident, however, and as news spread through every corner of the video gaming community it led to a shockingly positive backlash against her detractors; not only did she surpass $6,000 - she walked away with a grand total of over $158,000!

...I don't get it. Horikawa just kind of hissed it,
or at least that's the way I always remembered it.

Now, for someone who claims to be speaking out as an expert on women's issues and fighting against the injustices of the world, it's a little suspect that she hasn't announced any of that "extra" donated money being given to, I dunno, shelters for abused women or fighting child rape in Africa or any number of more positive uses than potentially invoking a perfect 10 on irony for being harassed (among other things) about her Jewish decent and keeping a small fortune she only earned from the exposure that said harassment actually got her... but, I digress. Mostly.

At the end of the day, it's her cash, and she can do whatever the hell she wants with it. In a way it's admirable to blow every penny on every single game system and potentially interesting title available, though if "research" was the whole point, I'm not sure why emulating or even watching video walk-throughs of long out of print games was good enough. But hey, having seen people write shit off wrongly because they didn't bother to actually ever see it - and I myself have been guilty of this more often than I'd like to admit - I can't blame anyone for doing their homework before they attempt to present what they have to say as a well informed and meticulous opinion based on first hand experience.

Is elf cheese stinky? Probably. But I'm not going to be the asshole who says that without having at least tasted it. On a related note, if anyone knows where I can purchase snacks made from the breast milk of beautiful, fictional women, let me know. Don't look at me like that; we've established this is for research, damn it!

There's so much more to all of this than Sarkeesian herself, though. 2012 was a fascinating year in the broader geek culture when it came to looking into the mirror and asking if the nerdy stuff we've all grown so fond of - video games, comic books, movies and the like - did adhere to bizarre double standards in a likely unconscious effort to sexualize and/or subjugate female characters in genres and mediums traditionally designed as adolescent male fantasy. The most obvious example was the Street Fighter X Tekken Internet Reality Show "Cross Assault" - yeah, that was actually a thing for some damn reason - which quickly devolved into one of the team captains, Aris Bakhtanians (wearing the scruffy beard and Robert Baratheon beer gut), being increasingly squicky towards his own team-mate Miranda Pakozdi, threatening to smell her and watch her in the bathroom, among other "charming" antics that would be funny if this were an episode of Beavis & Butthead and it were still 1996.

For her part, Pakozdi resisted the charm of starting a Reality TV feud, and merely ended her final match in an obvious forfeit, literally refusing to play the game and watching her character get pummeled in silence. Keep in mind these are people who basically play Street Fighter for a living, where losing in any official capacity is simply not an option for their future in the... I refuse to call it a "sport", but you know what I mean. It'd be like a professional pole vaulter merely walking under it and raising his middle finger to the judges the whole way; it certainly makes a statement, but it's still not good for their reputation or their averages.

That all would have been bad enough, but the fact that Aris Bakhtainas went on to give a ludicrous statement about how, and I swear I'm not exaggerating any part of this, "sexual harassment and racism is a part of fighting game culture", was the icing on the douchebag cake. He's essentially justifying the constant stream of words like cunt, rape, nigger and faggot used purely as low class insults on Xbox Live as the song of his people. And I gotta tell you, speaking as someone who took it upon himself subtitle tentacle rape porn in his spare time, that sort of mentality is just gross.

Look, I'm not saying you can't say these things in any context - I call my cat a motherfucker on a daily basis, despite the fact that he has never, as far as I know, had coital relations with his mom -  but I'm saying that you say them among actual friends, not to complete strangers when you're hoping to win a cash prize for throwing Hadoukens, and certainly not to people you consider team mates. In short, the fact that anyone would suggest that losing the phrase "rape that bitch!" while playing BlazBlue would somehow destroy the culture of playing BlazBlue was an eye-opening thought. He's clearly just a bloated sack of dumbfuck, but the thought that he might not be alone was a humbling one to anyone who picks up a controller to unwind.

Can't imagine this Scarface inspired key art going anywhere but family-friendly.

Things didn't get much more cheery from there. E3 happened just a few short months later, and the initial teaser for Hitman Absolution. I personally thought the whole thing was dumb more than it was sexist, but in the wake of the Sarkeesian fallout, plenty of people saw women in BDSM Nunspoiltation costumes and sky high heels getting punched in the face by a conservatively dressed player analog, and saw it as little more than exploitive, sex-drenched posturing to sell a game in which you shoot people. Which, you know, it is... I just fail to see it as a problem when the whole point of these games has always been debauched blood-soaked fantasies. The fact that you literally spend the whole game murdering people is fine, so long as the women aren't dressed inexplicably sexier than the male antagonists? Before we get too lost in the minutia here, let us also remember this is a game where you can murder people dressed up as the giant chicken from Family Guy. At that point, the D'amato Latex Nun Squad being involved seems like the least ridiculous thing about it.

At that point, though, a lot of talk pointed towards "Hitman Absolution itself isn't the problem." Well, thank fuck for that. Rather, many concerned people asked if this sort of blatant sexualization targeted towards females should be the norm in video games, and by extension, nerd culture as a whole. This was a fair enough moment for introspection, I guess, but to this day I don't see anything "wrong" with the trailer full of sexy nuns getting the shit pounded out of them by a mute man in an Armani suit. But again, part-time tentacle porn translator, not a trained expert on the double-standard of sexism in the 21st century.

As is so often the case I see it as stupid, and maybe even tasteless, but as is so often the case my reaction to charges of sexism don't quite ring true. Is it ridiculous that the all female goon squad clearly bought their uniforms in the same aisle as the ball gags and Astroglide? Well sure. But it's little more than a parody-infused extension that ladies "formal wear" is a sleevless, low cut dress and painful heels while men get to walk around wearing an especially comfortable suit. What we see in fantasy is often, to one degree or another, a reflection of the reality we already live in, and while I won't deny the notion that women are expected to be "sexy" in ways men are not, that same idea creeping in our pop-culture is largely a hyper-realized version of what we already know and see every day.

For me, though, the whole thing got out of hand when everyone started flipping out over the Tomb Raider reboot trailer, which was very clearly hemming closer to The Gray than it was Indiana Jones. The modus opperandi was clearly to knock Lara Croft down a peg and present her as a young, inexperienced adventurer who has to earn her place as a survivalist expert; it's a grim, gritty interpretation of a franchise that had always been about two pies in the face away from being a joke, and honestly, I thought it looked much more interesting for it... it's too bad the already sore anus of the gaming community let loose the hounds over about 10 seconds of footage implying that Lara has to fight back against some dangerous, desperate men that might want to put the rape-boots to her and her friend. Because they're the fucking bad guys.

Goodbye, polygonal breasts. Hello, badass motherfucker.

It's a terrifying concept, I admit. But how is this any more offensive than her fighting against a wolf trying to rip her face off, exactly? Aren't both instances the whole POINT of this game, to present Croft with all manner of dangerous, horrifying situations and overcome them with you playing the heroine? Well, according to the game's executive producer, Ron Rosenberg,  he thinks the player wants to protect Lara, not be Lara. Being a firm believer in the power of moe, I actually don't much disagree with him on this point, and while moe in general is looked down upon in the context of a Western pro-feminist discussion, that doesn't mean that the natural reaction isn't there in a large number of consumers.

Of course, just to be safe, the studio head Darrel Gallagher decided to undercut the whole argument, basically saying that any attempted rape in a mainstream video game doesn't really exist... even though it, you know, clearly does in the promo video they'd already shown us (if just implicitly). A number of critics and commentators basically snorted in disgust, and said that rape and violent sexuality has no place in video games. Personally, I disagree with this assessment; I won't deny that it's overwhelmingly an uncomfortable subject in any medium, and unlike novels and film it doesn't have a century or more to back up that it's a "responsible" or "valid" enough medium to tackle complex, hairy subjects with tact, but suggesting that there's no room for 'X' in any medium will stagnate any growth that medium might have to begin with, and quickly any possibility that a video game could have something worth-while to say about these subjects is dashed in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That's not to say that rape won't be handled poorly in video games, just like it is in every other story telling medium on the planet. Just to say that it can't handle it well is unfair to a medium that, intrinsically, has a different set of tools to immerse and communicate with the player than other forms of entertainment do. Oh, and speaking of which!

Y'all remembered that little 18+ tag on my site, right?
You're welcome. Now close this tab before your boss walks in!

And, yes, we do have countless rape simulators available from Japan, but the market for those has mostly dropped out in favor of games in which you build your ideal girlfriend, and then stick things inside of her when you're done. Due to a number of factors - government classification pressures, changing tastes, and an increase in the level of interactivity these sorts of games offered - they simply don't top the charts anymore. They still exist, sure, but saying that films like The Brown Bunny, 9 Songs and Baise Moi exist doesn't instantly mean that unsimulated hardcore has become a commonplace in "mainstream" dramatic cinema. That said, the general shift of virtual pornography in Japan is a huge matter unto itself that'd take up a lot more time than I've got to dedicate to it here, so, maybe later...

I won't defend the massive glut of virtual rape simulators in the context of Modern Feminism in Popular Culture, I'll only point out that Japan is different. Here, geeks get their collective panties in a wad over Firefly and The Walking Dead, pseudo-intellectual fantasy adventure that strikes a fun balance between wacky action and character development, allowing the American to consume something inherently silly without feeling they're engaging in something outright stupid. In Japan, it's often enough something like Strike Witches, a show about teenage girls who use a combination of science and magic to fight aliens in WWII in their underwear. Because this is just how Japan rolls. It's like trying to convince Germany that David Hasselhoff isn't cool, or that India really needs to can it with the cinematic musical numbers: It's just not going to happen. It's an innate cultural thing that we'll never understand because we're not really a part of it. All we can do is accept it, and try to deal with it on its own terms, whatever that might entail.

$90 for 2 episodes. Average of 12,000 copies per volume.
I'm talkin' fat stacks, bitches. Fat. Stacks.

I'm not saying Japan isn't sexist - far from it! It's probably the most sexist first world nation out there, and on levels far more important than cartoon driven geek subculture. I'm just saying that bring upset at Japan's take on gender roles and presentation probably isn't going to matter if those discussions aren't happening in Japanese. That puts incidents like Sheva Alomar's somewhat infamous (for racial as well as sexual overtones) Tribal Bikini, and the utter mockery of Samus Aran's legacy of heroism in Metroid: Another M outside the reach of our general influence. Not to say you can't have a discussion about these things, but that Japan will start to give a shit when Japan itself gives a shit, not when Americans are offended that they're a decade or two behind America's concept of gender equality.

I mention this because, to this day, a large number of video games are made both by, and for the Japanese market, and they continue to produce gonzo bizarro stuff focused on cute girls like Disgaea, Neptunia, Atelier, and a variety of other absurd and, sometimes, perhaps inherently sexist/sexualized games. And as the Western market for these games tend to only make up a small number of tales to begin with, they couldn't give a fuck if we, as a culture, don't like it. They move a few thousand units on a game that didn't have a huge production budget to begin with, they crunch the numbers, and if all went well we still get Atelier Ayesha the next year. World keeps on spinning.

This all got me thinking... do we even have recognizable, admirable, iconic heroines in the video game sector? I'm honestly not certain. The majority of video game protagonists are written, intentionally, to be blank slates that the player can project themselves onto. Perhaps the best example of this is Commander Shephard of the Mass Effect trilogy, an avatar so malleable that the player can literally pick a different gender without effecting anything central to the game's core plot. Another great example are the covers of the Call of Duty: Black Ops games, which present little more than a generically rugged masculine shadow with no explicitly obvious features, but plenty of artillery. He is whatever the player wants him to be, nothing more, and nothing less.

So what of our game heroines - honestly, who are they? The closest thing we have to an iconic, modern day heroine the player controls that immediately jumps to mind is the aforementioned Lara Croft, but trying to done down the glitz and sexiness for a darker, more realistic take has only backfired. Samus Aran is similarly a beloved and respected heroine held over from the dawn of the 8-bit era, but her status as a strong, independent character not ruled by the whims of a man she barely knows was wiped away in Another M. Princess Peach is another potential contender, but she's always played second fiddle to the squat plumber who rescues her, and after this many years I'm not convinced that she's not meeting Bowser on some clandestine annual BDSM meet that poor Mario has never been informed of. What else do we really have that wasn't a one-hit wonder? I'm looking for bankable game heroines here, the kind that weren't dropped after one title - so goodbye Mirror's Edge, Heavenly Sword and Bayonetta, relevant or not. Well, there is Bloodrayne who holds the honor of being the first non-real woman to appear nude in the pages of Playboy magazine... so yeah, there's that.

"The 90s sucked." - Randy the Ram, The Wrestler

Getting away from digitally rendered mamaries and back to Anita Sarkeesian... honestly, I'm still a little fussed as to why she's gotten so goddamn much attention to begin with. I've watched the majority of her work posted to YouTube, and find that while some of it is legitimately interesting (particularly the shift in advertising Lego products that occured in the 1980s). But of far more importance to me are the rather harsh and seemingly reasonable CRITICISM OF HER WORK - not the unfiltered 4chan trolling, mind you, but an honest to God catalog of what she tends to do, and why it harms her credibility as a critic. Granted, I'm hardly an academic myself - let's just say my combined experiences with higher learning were a joke without a particularly satisfying punch line - but I'd like to think I can spot bullshit when I see it. And Sarkeesian having posted exactly one video about a video game character, only to pull it without a word some time later - presumably when she realized that Bayonetta was, as a concept, a parody of the adolescent sexualization those unfamiliar with the actual game all thought she was merely yet another part of - speaks to a lack of confidence in her own views. Which is odd, since that's literally all the Women Vs Tropes videos are.

The most troubling issue is the fact that she doesn't actually discuss anything; her supposed "conversations with pop culture" are monologues almost entirely focused on her, rarely cutting away to the material itself in question or allowing any other commentators to expand or even question the viewpoints she presents as undeniable fact. As the above criticism explains better than I plan to here, she appears to be - intentionally or not - a master of manipulating feedback, allowing the sloping-browed hate speech to flow when it garners outrage, but she tends to not show any posts that have a more well thought out argument over whatever her subject du jour might be. Feminism isn't science, it's a philosophy - or rather, a number of differing philosophies with the unified goal of wanting to see women treated equally to men. As a somewhat easy example, there are "Sex-Positive" feminists who believe that pornography, BDSM and gender identity can be positive and self-affirming actives for women to engage in. Meanwhile, Sarkeesian posts a video complaining that The Pirate Bay has porn advertisements. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and assume she's not one of those...

With some of the passing mentions I've made above, I don't doubt that there are some very nuanced, important questions that we should be asking about the presentation of women in pop culture... I'm just not convinced that Sarkeesian is the one to make that conversation happen, at least not in a way that isn't tailored specifically to what she decides it should be. I'd love to be wrong come Friday, but my guess is we're going to get a lot of angry soap boxing and half-truths to make a point, and the fact that she's pulling all the way back to the second Zelda game on the NES suggests that this research is going to cover a time when games were much simpler than they are now. That's not to say that The Legend of Zelda doesn't continue an eternal cycle of a young hero saving a princess in danger, but for crying out loud, those games didn't even have actual characters until the SNES iteration. There's a whole lot that can be said about Zelda's role in Ocarina of Time... and I'll be honest, how she reacts to that will tell me a lot about how I'll probably feel about her summary of this exploration as a whole. But I have no idea what she'll cover, or when - I wasn't a backer, just another schlub who was positively gobsmacked by how 4chan trolls turned a YouTube academic into a bona-fide threat to the normalcy of video gamer subculture being a rowdy boys club with no sissy girly cootie shit to get in the way.

In a way, though, it doesn't matter what any of us think; by having been so thoroughly and publicly brutalized by the anonymous masses of gaming culture itself, seemingly concerned that a feminist commentator was going to look at their hobby of choice*, she's already become something of a martyred saint. Will her upcoming video series have some valid points? Probably... but that doesn't even matter anymore. The moment she was treated like an internet punching bag and earned the Paypal based sympathy of strangers was the moment she went from being an obscure pop-culture commentator - one of thousands, easily - to having every eye in the world of video games on her. We're all her captive audience now, and whether she's right or wrong, she's still going to be seen as a trail blazer for presenting research on a digital medium in the digital age, focusing on aspects that have largely been ignored to this point (in no small part because gaming is still both a young and constantly evolving medium - more so than any other form of storytelling I can think of, at any rate).

It strikes me as vaguely reminiscent of how C. J. Clover's academic study the American horror film, Men Women & Chainsaws, was one of the first books to seriously tackle the notion of gender roles in modern horror films with a feminist slant - and yes, before anyone asks, I read every damn page of it. I certainly don't AGREE with Clover on all of her points, and find some of her readings into my all time favorite films as a bit shallow - even at times downright crazy... but she gets props for having taken the time, done the research, and publicly tried to take it all seriously and look at what has always been a boys' club with a different view point. When we settle on how we see the world, we stop trying to understand and merely accept that some things are, not that things might be what we see in them. Culture can be studied and popular culture is absolutely worthy of anthropological value, but we need to approach these subjects from more than the angle of the fanboy if we hope to get anything substantial out of it. Again, I think large passages of MW&C are a big plate of misguided bull, but I won't fault Clover for having done the research and come to a totally different point of view on it all than I did. Hell, she's the one who literally wrote the book on Leatherface's sexuality, and I respect the hell out of that - it's just my personal enthusiasm to disagree with her about it from time to time.

In summary, Anita Sarkeesian has become so much larger than herself by way of her despicable story having eclipsed any of the work she might actually produce, and it's earned her a 15 Minutes she never would have gotten without /v/ waving their collective taints at her. At the end of the day, I'm damnably curious to see what she'll do with it.

Alright, that's enough outta me on all of this crap. In short, I'm all for more interesting and nuanced female characters in video games... though to be honest I'd argue that the majority of male characters have most of the same problems, just in different, less female-offending ways. Avatars of macho-murder like Marcus Phoenix and Kratos aren't exactly subtle portrayals of complex masculine entities either, and the fact that both male and female characters tend to be targeted towards adolescent male fantasy doesn't bother me enough to be upset about it. But maybe if any of you give two fucks what I think on the matter I'll talk more about it in the future.

*Truth be told, "fear" is rarely the motivation behind 4chan trollings. Sure does make for a snappier headline than 'Anonymous Shits on Obscure Academic 4 Teh Lulz' though, doesn't it?

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Half-Dubbed Alchemist of Dusk

Just a fair warning to everybody who likes these elegant little fluff games about smacking wolves in the taint with enchanted staffs and collecting scattered woodland ingredients to Alchemy up pies. Mrs. Kentai really loved the last game in the series, so I was ready to pull the trigger on this one to keep the good times a' flowin... but two unexpected things kept me from sealing the deal.

NIS America is no longer the US distributor due, as I understand it, to Tecmo-Koei having purchased GUST outright back in Japan. Lost in the shuffle were both the extravagant artbook Limited Edition, and the original Japanese voice track. The former was a great incentive, but at the end of the day I can live without it. The latter, however, is the line for me; even if you're more forgiving of this omission on principle than I am, the fact that what we're getting is being described as a "Partial English Dub" smacks of penny-pinching, the major side effects of which could have easily been avoided by doing quite literally what they've done for every single other iteration in this franchise and include the original language track.

Plenty of games are only available dubbed into English and other anglicized languages made from that. I've grown accustomed and expectant of it for franchises like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear. But you know what they didn't do? Dub the "big" cut scenes and then remove dialog from the rest of the game.

Apparently Tecmo Koei is already talking about restoring the Japanese audio for the next game in the franchise. Maybe we'll see this as free DLC or something down the line? These games are closer to visual novels than most "big" AAA titles, and as such programming mouth flaps is a non issue (at least if the last game was any indicator).