Gentle jetpack

A debate has been raging in Talking Time over the presence of troubling content in Ground Zeroes and whether or not that’s OK. As with such complex debates, the conversation frequently sloshes over the edges and splashes onto topics that really aren’t a proper part of the discussion, most notably in this case creating some false equivalencies with Grand Theft Auto V‘s torture scene. It was with that conversation and my own thoughts on True Detective vis-a-vis Ground Zeroes that I sat down at PAX East to play the first three chapters of Wolfenstein: The New Order, which contains an interstitial sequence between two chapters in which you, the player, interrogate a Nazi captive with a chainsaw.

The New Order walks a tricky tightrope, thematically speaking, as I was reminded when I stopped by Bethesda’s PAX East party for the game, whose theme in turn centered around the game. The party was meant to take place in the game’s world, which is to say a Nazi-dominated 1960. That could have worked out to be pretty tasteless, but, the folks behind the game (a team from Sweden) have had the good sense not to use overt Nazi imagery in the game and its material. No swastikas, and any eagle imagery has been abstracted out (in a suitably ’60s-style Swiss design approach, very bold and geometric) to the point that it barely reads as a bird. What you end up with is something that definitely reads “fascism” but not specifically “Third Reich.”

It’s probably because of the trickiness of its material and setting that Wolfenstein doesn’t quite go through with the torture sequence to the degree that its contemporaries have. Publishers can only handle one potential public outrage at a time. Honestly, I’m not complaining. I found the way the game handles its torture scene quite interesting – it really leads you to believe you’re going to have to take an active part in dismembering some guy, but in fact you as the player only administer punches. And those are strictly defensive, as you’re being attacked with a stiletto. As the protagonist, you’re never (from what I’ve seen) asked to perform disproportionate acts of violence anywhere in the game; even in the scripted sequence when you have to stab a Nazi in the neck, it comes only after he’s emptied a Luger into helpless doctors and catatonic psych ward occupants. Granted, that’s troubling in its own manipulative way… but it still bothers me a lot less than being forced to simulate mutilating a helpless victim. No, I didn’t like Chiller, either, and Wild 9‘s advertising (“torture your enemies!”) prevented me from ever buying it.


As it happens, I was jotting down design ideas for Jetpack Goonies today, and one of the notes I made (and then circled) said, “NO KILLING.” It’s always seemed a little weird that Mikey in the NES Goonies games could only stun the Fratellis but straight-up killed tons of animals, and even Eskimos. But all the minor enemies just respawn after being killed on roughly the same timer as the Fratellis recover from being stunned. So why not just make Mikey’s attacks stun every enemy, regardless of their family affiliation? I actually wasn’t thinking of Metal Gear or Wolfenstein when I made that note, but it occurred to me as I was typing this it wasn’t a coincidence, either.

Saving the world, one IP violation at a time.

The Wheel (season one, episode 13)

In the history of man, the wheel stands for innovation and progress. It was mankind’s great, original invention. We discovered fire, and we figured out the utility of tools, but it was the wheel that allowed the creation of complex mechanisms: Rolling sleds, then wagons, then mills, then clockwork. 

For someone like Don Draper, who sells Americans dreams in an age of seemingly unbounded progress, the wheel represents the aspirations into which his work taps – the belief that the best is yet to come. That, as he said in the pilot, “You are OK.” Yet when Kodak asks his agency to pitch a campaign to sell a new kind of wheel, the company’s new rotating photo slide projection device, Don looks to the wheel in a more metaphorical sense: A symbol of rebirth and reinvention.

“Round and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.”

Don’s moving pitch leaves the Kodak executives speechless and sends faithless Harry Crane – currently separated from his wife for his election night indiscretion – rushing from the room in tears. And in this moment, the whole of Don Draper/Dick Whitman and his journey through the first season are laid bare, rendered in sum total.

Throughout this season, Don has repeatedly shunned progress. When his artists brought him a pitch for aerosol shaving cream depicting its “space age” technology, he dismissed astronauts as idiots who wet their pants. Some people find change frightening, he explained, and in truth he was talking about himself. He’s spurned the younger generation as being no better than his own. And here, he takes a great piece of home technology, which makes slide shows painless and simple, and rebrands it. This product isn’t a space ship, he explains, it’s a time capsule. A way to reopen the old wounds of nostalgia.


“It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child does.”

And here we have the contradiction of Don Draper writ large. He’s a man who left behind his past, who runs from danger, who would willingly leave behind his career and his family to escape the consequences of his own actions. Never satisfied with what he has – which is bountiful – he’s always restless, looking to the next thing. The next campaign, the next venture, the next extramarital dalliance. He shunned his own brother. He abandoned his upbringing. And yet he pines for the childhood and the past he was denied; he clings to a past he never experienced.

The Carousel pitch demonstrates Don’s habit of using ads as therapy, of talking through his own problems and neuroses with pitches. His peers see him as a genius, because he always comes up with unexpected angles for his campaign concepts, but in truth he doesn’t draw on any unusual font of inspiration. He’s just creating ads that speak to his needs – it’s only because he’s so guarded and private that the results seem to come from nowhere. No one but the omniscient audience gets to look at both sides of Don’s life, so we alone have insight into the mundanity his supposed brilliance.

As he clicks through a series of personal slides – photos of himself courting Betty, their wedding, holding their infant children – he gives a mesmerizing, emotional speech. Yet his monologue draws its potency not from his innate skills as an orator but rather from the fact that, unbeknownst to his coworkers and clients, he’s placed his personal regrets and sorrows on display. The Carousel pitch isn’t Don speaking for the every man, it’s him contemplating his own short-sightedness and the sudden realization (perhaps prompted by his near-brush with exposure and Rachel Menken’s breakup) that he’s nearly lost his family.

Betty has gone from a trembling (literal) wreck in “Ladies’ Room” to a woman who’s grown increasingly willing to face up to the realities of her life and Don’s infidelities. She’s still pretty screwed up, as the fact that she desperately confides in secret to young Glen for lack of anyone else to speak to will attest, but she no longer pines for Don or silently accepts the way he treats his family almost as a part-time amusement. His refusal to accompany her and the kids to Thanksgiving, not because he can’t afford the time off but rather because he simply doesn’t want to be bothered if it means spending the weekend with his in-laws, drives a dangerous rift between them. As he spins through the slide show of his intimate memories, he seemingly resolves himself to self-betterment. He pushed his brother Adam away with tragic results, and the Carousel, it appears, inspires him not to want to make the same mistake twice.

The wheel has religious connotation, the concept of being trapped in a cycle of failure and the aspiration to break free and escape his destructive behavior. It’s this reading that drives Don in the end. Galvanized, he rushes home to surprise his family and join them on their vacation. Yet in the end, he’s too late. They’ve left already without him, and the season ends mournfully as Don sits alone in his dark, empty home, a man without a past and without a family. It’s a strange ending – not a cliffhanger, yet offering no resolution, either. The audience experiences the wrenching emptiness of Don’s hollow pursuits.

Of course, he still has his family, but in the end he is the wheel to which the episode title refers: Spinning forever around and around, trapped in his rut, unable to break free. The “perfect” life he seemed to lead at the beginning of the season is circling around as well, spiraling ever downward. The Don Draper of “In Care Of” isn’t a particularly changed man from the Don Draper of “The Wheel,” and the show’s most recent season ended with him grinding through the same routine we see here: Estranged from his wife, rejected by his mistress, wearing the same grey suit and skinny tie, presenting an impassioned and deeply personal pitch to a client. However, while Don Draper hasn’t changed in the show’s eight years of chronology, the world around him has. The raw emotion of his Kodak pitch inspires clients in 1960, but it horrifies Hershey’s in 1968 and loses Don a job – a change of status equally motivated by years of his unchanging, impetuous, selfish behavior.

By contrast, consider the role of Don’s foil-née-protége, Peggy Olson, in these episodes. Here, Don promotes her almost carelessly to full-time copywriter, in part as recognition of her skills and in part as a means to annoy Pete Campbell. Where Don regrets his abandonment of his own family, Peggy is horrified to realize her recent weight gain is the result of an unknown, unwanted pregnancy. She rejects the concept of family both subconsciously and (we’ll see) directly. Eventually, she’ll become Don – but a better Don, one from a sometimes rocky but nevertheless loving home, one capable of making clear choices between work and family, one who pursues her desires with far less human carnage trailing in her wake, one eager to embrace a better future rather than cling sullenly to the past.

Don is trapped forever in the rut of the wheel, but it’s Peggy – who learns from his example what and what not to do – who transcends.

Old-fashioned superstitions

The least exciting Anatomy of a Game to date is now complete! I know hardly anyone cares about Konami’s The Goonies, for obvious reasons – it’s a fairly forgettable game that was never released in the U.S. except in a limited optional arcade iteration – but I was surprised how much I had to say about it.


I’m still trying to figure out the ending. I thought Steph got snubbed, but after counting the figures on the beach here I think they just mistook her for a little boy. Man, Martha Plimpton can’t catch a break.

I don’t foresee having much blogging time for the next few weeks, but once I get my free time back under control I’ll likely delve into The Goonies II. Just in time for… The Goonies II (the movie).

A review years in the making


I’ve finally published a legitimate, justified review of a U.S. release of an Umihara Kawase game. The game’s been out for a few weeks, and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to review it sooner, but between it landing during the week of GDC and the publisher not sending out advance codes – I’ve found that Nintendo is super flaky about third-party eShop codes, sometimes providing them to publishers a month in advance and sometimes not giving them out until after launch – well, here we are. Late, as in the late Dentarthurdent.

I’m really happy that we’ve finally seen Yumi’s Odd Odyssey in the U.S. at long last, even if Nintendo kind of sent it to die – the week it came out, it was given a parenthetical aside in the weekly eShop update email. And realistically speaking, ain’t no one going to buy it on a whim for $30.

Sadly, its arrival coincides with the disappearance of my DSi XL, which had in its cartridge slot my precious copy of Umihara Kawase DS – the best and most complete version of the previous games. And annoyingly hard to come by now. So, I guess I have to go on a murderous rampage of anger now. Yay!

Tiny publications

Eh, so I finally sucked it up and got the rest of the Anatomy of Games books into compact black and white format. Each one is priced at $12.50, which brings them in line with my original philosophy (from, gasp, five years ago) of making sure every book published in relationship to this site is available in some version that costs less than $13.

So altogether, the mini volumes available are:

Yeah, someday I’ll do second volumes for some of those other series. Someday…

Now… I need to find a layout for this site I don’t hate. I’m still looking. It’s a sad search.

Journey into capitalism

I announced this yesterday on Anatomy of Games, but no one reads that site unless I specifically post an article about a game they love, so… here’s the cross-post.


The Anatomy of Metroid, Vol. II: Super Metroid is live on the GameSpite Blurb store. Here’s the page for it. You can get it in all your favorite formats:

Yes, I still need to make pocket editions of Super Mario and Metroid, Vol. I. I know.

On the plus side, the coupon code TAKE15% is worth a 15% discount on Blurb purchases through the end of April.

The PDF version is also up on the GameSpite Gumroad Store. While I was over on Gumroad, I finally added cover images for all the books on that storefront, so you have pretty images to look at while browsing. I also took a page from Scroll and threw together four different PDF packages of the various offerings up there:

These collections represent a huge discount, especially the first two collections. If you hate a la carte ordering, well, here you go.

And that is quite enough capitalism for now, thank you very much.

The greatest unlocalized DS game is no longer unlocalized

There are two interesting facts about this screen shot:


1. Whoa, OS X has a functional DS emulator!? I guess I hadn’t been paying attention.

2. Whoa, is that 7th Dragon in English!? I thought that would never happen.

But yes, it’s true. OS X has a decent DS emulator, and it can run an English version of 7th Dragon, despite that having been treated as something of an impossibility over the years. Several publishers looked at localizing the game a while back, but everyone decided it was just too gosh-darned hard for the U.S. market. Several fan translators looked into it, but declared it impossible due to the quirks of the script encoding. And yet here we are, all these years later, when a single enterprising fan translator has managed to put together what appears to be a really solid English patch for the game. It even addresses the difficulty issue by integrating an optional “USA mode” that makes a few small balance tweaks to sidestep some of the game’s more frustrating elements.

And no, I don’t feel bad about playing this on emulator. The Japanese retail version of the game and its accompanying strategy guide have been a precious part of my library for several years now. I’ve done my part to support the game, darn it.

So what’s the big deal about 7th Dragon? Simply put, I consider it the single best DS game never to leave Japan. (You could argue that honor belongs to Retro Game Challenge 2, which is fair enough, but that already has a fan translation in the works. Or SaGa 2, but again, already fan translated.) 7th Dragon brings together Kazuya Niinou, the original designer of Etrian Odyssey, with Reiko Kodama, the original designer of Phantasy Star, and combines their talents for an RPG that plays like a hybrid of Etrian Odyssey and Dragon Quest III. It brings very Etrian-like skill trees and classes out of the first-person view and into a more standard top-down RPG format. It’s an expansive, challenging RPG with an intriguing premise. It’s gorgeous and has a great Yuzo Koshiro soundtrack. It’s basically a must-play game.

So mosey on over to Pokeytax’s site to download the patch, find yourself a Japanese copy of 7th Dragon on eBay or Rakuten or something, and play the crap out of this fantastic RPG. I’d be playing it right now except, you know, I’m drowning in work obligations. Like always. In an alternate reality where I picked a career that actually pays well and don’t have to work all day every day just to break even, I’m like 12 hours into this English version already. Man, that alternate reality sounds so cool.

True Detective and knowing when enough’s enough

Just my luck that immediately following my publication of that Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes editorial last week, my wife finally talked me into watching True Detective with her. (“Talked me into”: Not for lack of interest, just lack of time.) I really enjoyed the show, but it was frustrating – the timing, I mean. Specifically, True Detective features a key plot point that would have made a perfect counter-example for the troubling material in Ground Zeroes had I known about it a day before.

Again, the issue I have with Ground Zeroes isn’t that it takes a dark turn or contains unsettling material; that kind of content, difficult as it may be, can have merit in the right context. It’s just that Ground Zeroes – and Metal Gear in general – handles that material so poorly, so inelegantly, with such artless vulgarity that it undermines both the material and the game around it.

Meanwhile, over in True Detective we have an example of a remarkably similar plot thread done well. Spoilers ahead, OK?


The entirety of True Detective‘s first narrative arc concerns two men’s search for the people responsible for a string of ritualistic murders in rural Louisiana, often with women as the victims but frequently involving children of either gender as well. There’s a sexual undercurrent to the killings, along with elements of mutilation.

Eventually, a key piece of evidence comes to light: A tape recording of one of the murders. It’s a video tape rather than audio, but the idea is the same as the tape cassettes in Ground Zeroes. The VHS tape contains a ritual killing in its entirety, all the way to the gruesome end. The thing is, though, the audience never sees the full extent of the tape’s contents – nor do we need to. We see just enough (the killers in their bizarre animal masks, glimpses of a young woman in a nightgown, quick hints of the wooden fetish constructs that always appear at the ritual sites) to confirm that, yes, this is all tied to the murders that drive the plot. And then we see nothing more, only glimpses of the characters as they watch the silent cassette.

That doesn’t lessen its impact, though. Everything else we need to know about the tape is told through characters’ reactions. Hart, visibly rattled, leaps up and switches off the TV before it ends. Cohle, ever unflappable and insensitive, turns his back to the video as it plays, later admitting with a weary tone that he sat through the entire thing once already just in case anyone removed their mask and revealed their identity. And the corrupt sheriff the detectives force to watch the video screams in horror at what the tape contains.

The audience doesn’t need to see an atrocity committed to know that it’s happened, or even to understand the enormity of the act. In the making-of piece for that episode of the show, the show runner says (pardon my slight paraphrasing here), “Despite the darkness of what True Detective covers, we’ve taken care not to be gross about it, or to hit the viewer over the head with it.” And he’s right on the money. The show doesn’t need to go all the way to shock the viewer. The narrative holds up perfectly well through omission of gratuitous information; in fact, it arguably becomes more effective, because it forces the audience to contemplate what the nature of the material might ultimately be. It draws the viewer into the story as a participant, inviting them to fill in the unsavory blanks.

Ground Zeroes‘ content, on the other hand, doesn’t know where to draw the line. In presenting so many of the awful details of Chico and Paz’s prison abuses, it forsakes both good grace and good sense. Even if the Metal Gear franchise had dealt with this sort of material so unflinchingly in the past – which it most assuredly has never done – this would still be a misstep if only for its artlessness.

What makes it worse is that despite existing as in-game pick-ups, the audio logs clearly aren’t meant to be treated as diegetic. Unlike the True Detective tape, which informs the characters’ actions and helps strengthen their case, Ground Zeroes‘ audio logs don’t make sense as diegetic material. They exist for the audience’s information, not the characters’; if the characters had heard the logs, they’d have known about both of Paz’s bombs, for example. That being the case, there’s even less reason for the audio tapes to exist in the form they do – unlike Metal Gear characters, we’re not obtuse dimwits and don’t need to have information drilled into our heads.

God knows True Detective isn’t perfect, despite being smartly written, but its writing and direction are light years ahead of this supposed banner franchise for video games. I can’t think of another back-to-back experience in my life that has better demonstrated the difference between creators respecting an audience and knowing when to leave details ambiguous and… not doing those things.

Anyway, enough griping about Ground Zeroes. Sooner or later I’ll have a chance to write about all the stuff it does right, which is considerable! Honest. It’s just that story, sadly, isn’t one of those things.

I wrote another thing about Metal Gear yesterday

You know, something besides another dumb joke about how much it supposedly borrows from Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe comics.


Ground Zeroes includes some really dark supplemental material that has turned off a number of people from the game and the series. The material in question is pretty awful, but it honestly does offer a realistic look at some of the depraved atrocities that take place in war. The problem, though, is that a series as goofy and preposterous as Metal Gear has no business taking a sudden left turn into unflinching realism. Hideo Kojima hasn’t built the proper groundwork for this sort of content; remember, the game to which Ground Zeroes serves as a direct sequel had you battling a giant singing robot powered by a digital simulation of Big Boss’ mentor, shooting dinosaurs, and airlifting people out of heavily guarded enemy bases by slapping balloons on their backs. The audio content in Ground Zeroes betrays the series, in a sense – the implicit contract with the player that serious topics would be couched in abstract, fantasy-inflected terms.

I’m not angry about it or anything, but I do think it was a major miscalculation. There’s a time and a place for an unfiltered discussion of war crimes, but… maybe a silly cartoon of a video game isn’t it.

Big Boss: Still a real American hero

I finally had a chance to play through Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. Typical to my tendency to play stealth utterly meticulously, my play time for the infamously brief main mission was about two hours, while everyone else is clocking in at 80-90 minutes – but, I had zero alerts and zero kills, which is how it’s done. I have some minor quibbles with the game’s design (and some heavier concerns about its writing), but it was solid overall. Still, the one thing that made me happiest is that Hideo Kojima is still basically just writing the world’s most extended G.I. Joe fan fiction.

Spoilers ahead, I guess:

This time, we have the creator’s favored character, Snake, being horribly maimed in an explosive mid-air helicopter collision as he attempts to protect a woman. Just like Snake-Eyes!


Yeah. I think my all-time dream interview would be to get both Larry Hama and Hideo Kojima to sit down to talk to me at the same time. They’d probably just be confused, but I’d be entertained.

Mega Man’s contemporaries

I’ve been writing about Mega Man over on Anatomy of a Game, and while it’s all well and good for me to say, “Hey, this was a pretty great game,” that all gets a little fuzzy in the blur of history, you know? Mega Man arrived in Japan in December 1987 under the title Rockman, a venture by the generally underwhelming home console division of Capcom, and it marked a massive departure for the company. Not only was it hands-down superior to everything Capcom had developed and published on consoles to that date, it put the company’s internal studio on equal footing with the best developers on Famicom. For comparison, I’ve picked out the most comparable games released within three months of Rockman on either side. In this context, I really think the game stands out – only a couple of games come close to its level of control precision, the speed of its action, the depth of its mechanics, and its graphical finesse.

Before Rockman


Air Fortress (HAL): A simple shooter that doesn’t play as well as it intends to, Air Fortress has its moments – its structure isn’t entirely different from Wario Land 4 – but never quite reaches classic status.


Castlevania II (Konami): Recurring theme here: The only titles that really stand on par with Mega Man come from Konami, who for my money were the single best third-party developer for NES. I’d even argue that they were better than Nintendo in some respects. Less revolutionary, but more consistent. How many truly great NES games did Nintendo develop? Konami didn’t hit as hard, but it hit more steadily, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of constancy. Simon’s Quest has its problems, but it looks and sounds great, and its design demonstrates a lot of ambition.


Faxanadu (Hudson): A legitimate action RPG, Faxanadu has high-minded goals but its repetitive graphics and imperfect design keep it from achieving all it aspires to. Big world, moderate exploration, RPG leveling  almost but not quite offset weird collision detection, easily exploited design, and a pervasive sense of mediocrity.


Rambo (Pack-in Video): I like this game, but I also recognize that it’s kind of terrible. Exploration and wilderness survival thwarted by some really stupid design decisions and incredibly vague objectives and stage layouts.


Star Wars (Namco): The weirdest Star Wars game of them all, this platformer isn’t as terrible as it looks. But it plays awkwardly and isn’t particularly fun, either.

After Rockman


Karnov (Data East): This game feels like a relic of 1986, not an early 1988 release. Janky, confusing, and poorly controlling, it’s a mess.


Konami Wai Wai World (Konami): A surprisingly clumsy effort from Konami, the multi-character swapping and sloppy mechanics make it feel like a spiritual predecessor to the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a lot of ways.


Contra (Konami): A legitimate masterpiece, this shooter took a solid arcade game and made it amazing. Top-notch level design, a brilliant set of weapons, great graphics and music – Contra totally spanked Mega Man.


Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (Vic Tokai): Kind of a disaster of a game, it combines a lot of modes (side-scrolling action, sniping, horizontal shooter, first-person maze exploration) and does them all pretty poorly. But, you get to shoot cybernetic Hitler clones at the end, so that’s kind of neat.

You can never go back

I’ve been all aboard for Viz’s recent Ranma 1/2 revival; they’re both reprinting the manga in double-length editions read in the proper right-to-left orientation and releasing the anime on restored Blu-ray. I have no idea what prompted this initiative, but Ranma was a moderate obsession for me in college. The ludicrous web of relationships and ribald sense of humor really worked – and it helped that, being Japanese in origins, it could provide takes on the subject of a gender-flipping martial artist that would never pass muster in American humor comics.

That was literally a lifetime ago, though. Now that I’m twice as old, I’m finding the series a somewhat harder sell. And it boils down to one thing, basically:


Naked 15-year-olds everywhere.

When I first read Ranma, I was a teenager, so I just kind of shrugged and said, “Yeah, OK, cool. Girls.” Now that – god forbid – I’m old enough to have a teenage child, though, the nudity makes me a little uncomfortable.

Not in a prudish way. I don’t mind the presence of nudity in the series, not at all. Rumiko Takahashi doesn’t strip her characters to be sexy or salacious; any time the clothes come off, it’s to set up a punchline or, later down the road, a dramatic plot point. As it turns out, the character who appears in the buff most frequently is Ranma him/herself, in both gender forms, and generally to drive home a sense of humiliation for his curse and the situations it leads to. (The role of gender in this series is a whole separate topic, though I’m willing to give it a pretty broad pass given its nature as a product of a culture with very, very defined roles for men and women.) Ranma‘s nudity is never presented as sexual, and compared to the presentation of similar material in contemporary manga, it’s totally chaste and innocent.

But… none of that changes the fact that it’s a bunch of 15-year-old kids running around with their fine details on display for the world to see. Comedic or otherwise, it still leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable. I’ve always wondered if there really is a point at which you outgrow comics, and apparently that point is, “When you get old enough to see a female character in a state of undress and think, ‘If that were my daughter, I would not be pleased.’”

It’s still a hilarious manga, though.