Gravity Rush: Touched by the Hand of God

Gravity Rush is my favorite game from last year. It was the reason I bought a Vita, and it's the reason I still own a Vita. It gives a woman named Kat control over her personal gravity, and she slowly becomes a floating city's misunderstood resident superhero. The journey isn't entirely smooth for her or the player, but there's rarely a tepid moment. It’s incredibly fun just to mess with gravitational defiance, to send Kat hurtling across skyscrapers and racing along the underside of a metropolis that’s part Mobius comic, part Russian art deco. It’s a shame that the Vita’s limited success keeps Gravity Rush out of reach for many.

A certain part of Gravity Rush is troubling in one way or another. The game uses the Vita’s touch screen primarily for menus and one rather unnecessary sliding move, yet there’s a secret addition. If you touch Dusty, Kat’s pet cat and floating companion, he’ll disintegrate in a puff of smoke and re-materialize himself a second later. If you touch Kat, she’ll gasp in surprise and look around her.


Many of the Gravity Rush players who’ve noticed this assume that it’s some perverted joke, and they point out that Kat vaguely motions at her rear end as though to shield it. Sadly, this would fit with another unpleasant part of Gravity Rush. While the game takes the high road a good deal of the time, at least one scene subjects Kat to the sexualized nonsense that comic books often visit upon their heroines; a visitor catches her just after a shower, so she loses her towel and blushes. Haw haw. And since Kat’s an exceptionally likable and sympathetic heroine, this event grates even more than it would in a mediocre game. Gravity Rush, you are better than this.

But let’s give director Keiichiro Toyama and the Gravity Rush team the benefit of the doubt for a short while. Kat’s response is the same no matter where the player taps her, and her motions are identical to those she makes if she drifts too far from the city and warps back to safety. It suggests that she’s perplexed rather than harassed, or at least that the director left it purposefully vague.


Kat’s reaction is still disturbing, but for a much better reason. She’s felt the presence of some unseen entity, a being that exerts control over everything she does. Kat may be esteemed as the “Gravity Goddess” in her own world, but she now realizes that she isn’t the top of the pantheon. Unlike the player lending prayers to the final battle in Earthbound or fielding questions from the robot-girl of Wonder Project J2, there’s nothing comforting about Kat’s brush with her manipulator. She clearly doesn’t know what she experienced, only that it came from a place beyond everything she knows. As with all cases of omnipotent intercession, she can’t be sure it even happened.

Kat recovers quickly from her tinge of divine influence, and it leaves any reflection up to the player. Perhaps you, the meddlesome architect of Kat’s triumph and suffering alike, should feel bad about confusing her. You’ve dropped her off floating cities, crashed her into streets, and pressed her into service for both a scheming military and ungrateful citizens. Now you’re giving her existential tremors.


Dusty, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care about otherworldly taunts or the fragile curtain of Gravity Rush's reality. He’s a cat, after all.

The Evils of Ys

Falcom’s enduring Ys series was quite busy this week. The Vita received Ys: Memories of Celceta, a pretty extensive and extensively pretty remake of the fourth game (or games, because Ys is strange like that) in this long-running line of action-RPGs. To commemorate this, XSEED discounted all of their PSP-based Ys games, including Ys Seven and fan-favorite Ys: The Oath in Felghana. It’s a darn good deal even if you’re not a huge fan of Ys. And I’m not. We’ll discuss that later.

In the thick of all this modern Ys news, the fan translation of Ys V: Kefin, the Lost City of Sand finally came to fruition. Ys V is a strange study. Though it’s not the most wayward entry in the series (that’d be the original Ys III: Wanderers from Ys), Ys V was controversial when it hit Japan late in 1995. The Ys series touched just about every major platform by the early 1990s, but it loomed largest on the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16. That was where Ys games used new-fangled CD technology for impressively animated cutscenes and some downright gorgeous music. The first four Ys games received this treatment, and PC Engine/Turbo fans lauded them for it. Then Falcom, possibly wooed by the profusion of RPGs on the Super Famicom, decided to make the fifth Ys game a cartridge-based deal on Nintendo’s console.

This did not sit well with the Ys faithful. In North America, much of the outrage was confined to pockets of fans, as Ys V was never localized and few magazines reviewed it. The exception was GameFan. Nick “Rox” Des Barres, Casey “Takuhi” Loe, and Dave “E. Storm” Halverson were ardent Ys followers, and they had much to say about Ys V’s direction.


GameFan’s review wasn’t my introduction to Ys, but it was my introduction to just what the series meant to people. Before this I’d known it only through the Super NES version of Ys III, and I had only a vague sense of how groundbreaking the early Ys games were in the way they looked and sounded. Nick's confession that Ys had changed his life and Takuhi's exclamations of “It’s EVIL! How could you sell out Ys?!” made more of an impact than pages of praise for classic Ys games.

The Five Greatest TurboGrafx-16 Games I Didn't Play

I never owned a TurboGrafx-16 during the system wars of the early 1990s. I doubt I was alone in this. The console was a constant third-placer in the market, and, to be honest, most of us didn’t want one that badly. Sega Genesis kids might’ve begged for a Super NES as their second system while Super NES kids begged just as doggedly for a Genesis, but the Turbo rarely entered the picture unless mom and dad spoiled you with three current game systems. Even when Toys R Us clearanced out the consoles for fifty bucks, I decided that a Super NES game was a better investment. I can't remember which game it was, possibly Alien 3 or Cybernator, but I preferred it to the poor ol' TurboGrafx.

No, I didn't have a TurboGrafx-16 back then. But I owned a TurboGrafx fold-out pamphlet, and for a little while that was almost as good. At some point in 1990, NEC reps showed off the console at the air-base commissary where my parents shopped, and I got to sample Bonk’s Adventure for a few minutes. My mother was adamant that I wouldn’t get a TurboGrafx, not when I’d just gotten an NES, but she couldn’t deny me some of the fine literature they were handing out.

A credible piece of marketing for adults and kids, the entire pamphlet is preserved at Chris Bieniek’s excellent Video Game Ephemera. The booklet does a good enough job of emphasizing the TurboGrafx’s capabilities while downplaying its negatives, such as the lone controller port or the asking price of the CD system. Yet the best part is the poster formed by the back of the entire booklet. It’s a huge panorama of TurboGrafx games presented like a slice of the Sears Wish Book and filled with adorably outdated taglines like “CD Challenge!” and “So-Real Sports!”

Some part of me must've known that I’d never get a TurboGrafx until nearly a decade later, when I paid an eBay charlatan twenty-five bucks for a stained system with a broken controller. The best I would get in 1990 was this free reading material, so I pored dreamily over the expanse of games. It didn’t take too long for me to pick out my favorites, the five ones I’d definitely try if ever I laid hands on a TurboGrafx of my own.

Now I can play them and measure them against my youthful expectations, and because I can’t leave well enough alone, I’m going to do just that.


R-TYPE
Then: In the dim, distant days when arcades still mattered, R-Type was a blockbuster, a shooter touchstone for anyone capable of grasping the intricacies of holding down a button to make an energy bullet larger. The booklet’s careful to show things any R-Type player would recognize: we all knew the hideous scorpion eye fetus from the end of the first level, and we knew those huge mechanical claws, the ones that looked like futuristic gynecological stirrups and always seemed ready to close in and crush unwary ships. They never did.  

R-Type was a highlight of the TurboGrafx-16’s first years. It replicated the arcade version very well, and it would stay an exclusive throughout the system wars. The Genesis never had an R-Type, and the Super NES had the slower, uglier Super R-Type and the superior-but-different R-Type III. NEC positioned their star prominently, and R-Type very nearly became the pack-in for the system instead of Keith Courage. No one really liked Keith Courage.  

Now: R-Type is still an enjoyable shooter, but the TurboGrafx port’s fallen behind the times. You can get nice, arcade-perfect R-Type very easily on modern systems, and the TurboGrafx version suffers from terrible flicker as the system tries to process a game it was never built to handle. In fact, you can see this in that larger screenshot—a good chunk of the player’s R-9 starfighter is missing. That bothered us a lot less twenty-three years ago.

Might Have Been: Golden Axe: The Duel

Golden Axe: The Duel brings back fond memories. They’re not actually memories of the game; I’m sure I played it on the Sega Saturn in its day, but never with immense devotion or in notable circumstances. No, it just reminds me of a time when just about everything was a fighting game. Claymation dinosaurs? That was a fighting game called Primal Rage…and another called Dino Rex. DC Comics’ superheroes? That was a fighting game called Justice League Task Force. Spheres stuck together in humanoid shapes? That was a fighting game called Ballz, though it was rarely called that without a snicker or a roll of the eyes.

It made a great deal of business sense for Sega to make a Golden Axe fighting game. The barbarian-fantasy brawling of Golden Axe ruled mightily over arcades in the late 1980s, but those days were long gone by 1994. Belt-scrolling brouhahas like Golden Axe were rarities compared to Street Fighter II and many other one-on-one fighters. So if an executive stomped into Sega’s arcade division and told them that Golden Axe was going to be a fighting game, nobody could’ve argued for long.


Not that Golden Axe: The Duel is poorly made. The pulp-fantasy trappings of earlier Golden Axes fit into a fighter pretty well, and Sega dressed it all up with detailed characters, rousing music, and some backgrounds that remain impressive today. Mechanically speaking, however, the designers jumped eagerly on what came before. The special moves and six punch-and-kick buttons are Street Fighter boilerplate, with some Samurai Shodown complexity in the most elaborate attacks. To this they added one fine Golden Axe tradition: kicking blue munchkins until they drop potions. The little scamps, now resembling Dark Crystal muppets, scurry in and out of the fight, and belting them releases vials to fuel your super-move meter.

Sega didn’t try any harder in filling out the character lineup. The descendants of the original game’s Barbarian Guy, Amazon Woman, and Dwarf are on hand alongside a robed wizard, a hulking forest giant, a dagger-wielding elf in Clockwork Orange makeup, and a girl in beastly furs (who’s basically Cham Cham from Samurai Shodown). Like the play mechanics, the warriors are casually engaging but unmemorable. They’re not offensively generic or annoying. They’re just there, like co-workers you rarely even see in the hall.

Guilty Gear's Jam Session

You know what’s a good website? The Cutting Room Floor. It’s all about stuff hidden in video games: unused characters, deleted scenes, altered graphics, and even messages from irate programmers. I mentioned the site a few entries back, and it’s worth recommending again as the sort of place where you can lose an entire afternoon and not feel all that bad about it. You were going to waste that afternoon playing Paladin’s Quest or Skitchin' or Bullet Witch or Digger T. Rock: Legend of the Lost City anyway.

I’m dismayed that I don’t have anything to contribute to The Cutting Room Floor. The best I can do is to dig up something that’s easily noticed by the handful of people who played and remembered Guilty Gear: Dust Strikers.


Like Guilty Gear Isuka and Guilty Gear: Judgment, Dust Strikers is a small, irrelevant, and seldom-praised corner of the Guilty Gear landscape. It drops most of the franchise’s nutty heavy-metal anime warriors into chaotic, multi-tiered battlegrounds much like Super Smash Bros. Melee, and it attempts all of this on the DS. It’s cramped and unsatisfying, and I suspect the developers knew this. They tried to make it up to us with a bunch of really simple mini-games.


One of these bonus attractions finds Jam Kuradoberi, shrieky martial artist and restaurateur, balancing food and some unsanitary cats that fall from above. The retail version of the game uses a cheerful, pint-sized version of Jam, but this wasn’t always the case.


As shown in early screenshots of Dust Strikers, Jam’s mini-game featured her with more conventional proportions, plus an expression indicating either confusion or RealDoll-like placidity. It’s pretty clear why this was changed: full-size Jam takes up too much space that would otherwise fit more falling objects. I have no doubt that the original sprites for mini-game Jam are hidden in the Dust Strikers ROM, but I also have no technical aptitude for finding them.

That’s my contribution to the detective work exemplified by The Cutting Room Floor. Yes, you can read much more interesting things there now. Go ahead. I’ll be over here with Digger T. Rock.

Star Quest: The Wings of Randy Wilson

We have an absurd amount of anime at our disposal online. Even beyond the numerous shows that companies stream for free, there are those devoted nerds who track down obscure releases and offer them for mockery and edification. You can see many of these relics on YouTube or at the anime convention panels that specialize in such things. Heck, we can even download an amazing Prince of Tennis fandub once suspected lost to the ages. That’s historical preservation for you.


However, there’s one especially mysterious release that, to my knowledge, never found its way online: Star Quest. Its story begins with Gainax’s uncompromisingly ambitious Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, which was a really big deal back in 1987. My opinion of the film is not entirely praise, but there’s no denying the imaginative vision that Gainax brought to the movie. It’s the tale of another world’s first manned spaceflight, and just about every scene gives off the fascinating air of a reality that’s not quite ours but every bit as flawed. Honneamise caught the attention of many fans when it debuted in 1987, and a North American outfit called Go East Productions snapped it up and renamed it Star Quest.

Star Quest involved more than a title change, of course. Go East dubbed the film with a noticeably different script, changing a good deal of the dialogue and most of the names into a strange mix of Westernized titles and fantasy neologisms. Honneamise avoids any obvious Japanese or American names, cheating only by nicknaming its protagonist Shirotsugh Lhadatt “Shiro.” The Star Quest dub dispenses with most of this. Shirotsugh becomes Randy Wilson, pious street preacher Riquinni becomes Diane, and General Khaidenn becomes General Dixon. Oddly, the planet itself gets a name in this new dub: Eeya. Eeya indeed.

According to esteemed anime historian Carl Horn, Star Quest premiered on February 19, 1987 at Mann’s Chinese Theatre (now known as TCL Chinese Theatre) and never again appeared in public. Longtime anime collectors reportedly have copies of the film, but no clips or other records are available online. Contemporary reviews of Star Quest are also hard to find, but there’s an interesting account in the second issue of Anime-Zine. An article by Toren Smith recounts the plot of Honneamise and spends two pages explaining some of the differences between the original script and Star Quest.


Smith’s examples reveal a considerably different tone to the movie. Star Quest breaks the film’s mood almost instantly, with the main character describing his planet of Eeya just before he gives his name as Randy Wilson. For a denizen of a planet with an unimpressive space program, he sure knows a lot about its astrogeographical location. Likewise, Randy’s orbital homily at the end of the film is a lot longer and preachier than Shiro’s speech in Honneamise.

Go East Productions is nearly as puzzling as Star Quest. Horn’s old Usenet post links the company to My Little Pony, but it’s hard to find any firm details about the group (which shares a name with several unrelated outfits). Both Horn and Smith credit the Star Quest script to Budd Donnelly, whose IMDB page links him to ‘70s B-movies like Cinderella 2000 but not Star Quest. It’s a forgotten film, and by all available accounts it deserves that fate.

Yet Star Quest seems an interesting relic in the history of bastardized anime. It’s not just a meddlesome dub. It’s a full-scale rewrite of a film that, in its original version, tries to encompass the whole of human progress and civilization. How did Star Quest handle that? How did it approach the attempted rape that, in my opinion, wrecks the movie? How did it translate scenes of a rival nation’s leaders, who speak in a subtitled fictional language? It may be that we’re all better off not knowing, and of course that’s why we want to find out.

Sega, Strider, and Sex

It won’t be long before academia and pop culture expand and entwine so much that courses are taught in video-game history. When the lecture turns to the great System Wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, professors will detail the numerous reasons Sega pulled ahead of Nintendo for a few years. The Sega Genesis had several things the old Nintendo Entertainment System didn’t, they will say. The Genesis had sharper graphics, games astonishingly close to the arcade versions, and compellingly aggressive advertising. If they’ve done their research, they’ll also mention that the Genesis had sex appeal.

This was considerably important to Sega’s target market: the teenage boys who had outgrown Nintendo and didn’t know it yet. Their hormones stewed in secret disdain for the largely sanitized NES library and the kid-safe pages of Nintendo Power. Young gamers might see something suggestive on the NES covers of Battle Chess or Swords and Serpents, but those were rare finds in the Nintendo-bordered aisles of Toys R Us or Kay-Bee. Nintendo defined more childhoods than Sega ever could, but Nintendo rarely pushed things past the level of a PG-rated movie.


Sega possessed no such scruples. The covers of Genesis games embraced sexuality whenever they could, and Sega proper led the charge with the Vallejo adornments of Golden Axe II and Alisia Dragoon, the horror-movie luridness of Night Trap, and whatever was going on with Altered Beast. Like the comics and imported anime that youngsters embraced in the 1990s, Sega’s games strove to show that they were not kid stuff.

Yet there’s one piece of Sega packaging more sexual than any other: the back cover of Strider.


There’s no need for literary analysis. Strider's pitch quickly casts both hero and player as “a crunching hulk of muscle.” What’s Strider crunching? That’s not clear, but he’ll stiff-arm his way through enemies that end up “shuddering heaps.” Next come the "alluring Amazones” who will “turn your mind manic,” and then it’s on to the snarling musclemen, grappling with our hero in a biceps-bursting embrace. My hat goes off to the writer of this, as it snuck risqué material into an innocent product even more slyly than the cover of Disney’s The Little Mermaid.

Amusingly enough, Strider itself isn’t a very suggestive game. It’s a weird one, to be sure, but the closest it gets to sexuality is a cadre of jungle amazons and their half-German battle cries.


There’s a story behind that, in fact. According to the ever-informative The Cutting Room Floor, Strider’s amazons at first walked around with one breast uncovered, as consistent with ancient Greek depictions of their kind. Capcom quickly changed this, of course.

Capcom’s solution was to affix leaves over the exposed breasts, and the whole thing seems really obvious once you know the story. The leaves don’t really fit with the amazons’ palette, and they actually disappear during animation frames that wouldn’t reveal anything in the first place. The Genesis version makes it even more apparent by giving the women slightly redesigned outfits instead of leaf-tops.

I find it amazing that someone, perhaps even Strider director Kouichi Yotsui, considered showing this in the first place. Strider ended up in arcades around the world, and I can only imagine what would’ve happened if the first round of cabinets had shipped with actual nudity in the game. Cynical conjecture suggests that the game would’ve sold better, perhaps prompting Capcom to make Strider sequels a little more often. Yet it would never have made it into the Genesis version. Even Sega’s sex appeal had limits.

Pandora's Despair

[What follows spoils pretty much every ending in Pandora’s Tower. If you want a more even look at the game, you’ll find my review here. I also agree with IGN’s take, but I think we’re supposed to pretend that nothing worthwhile ever comes from IGN.]  

Pandora’s Tower sets its tone quite early. Timid farmgirl Elena and her reticent soldier boyfriend Aeron head into a wasteland, hoping to revoke a curse that’s turning Elena into some tentacle-sprouting nightmare. Their hunchbacked guide Mavda lays it all out: in other to get better, Elena must wolf down the flesh of the creatures who dwell in a ring of towers suspended above an ominous chasm. So Aeron heads out to slay some monsters and bring back their purple innards. Elena, shakily recovered after her first taste of monster spleen, says that she wants to come along. Aeron shakes his head. Off to the kitchen Elena goes.


That is no real exaggeration. For most of the game, Elena stays at an outpost that she and Aeron find near the chained-up towers. She does the laundry, cooks the meals, sweeps the floor, sews the curtains, and generally keeps house while her man is off killing lizard-knights and giant barnacle cannons. Each beastly organ he brings home is devoured by Elena—reluctantly at first, and later with alarming rapacity. On top of fetching these grotesque cures, Aeron helps keep up Elena’s spirits with compliments and gifts. She responds with childish extremes, her anime-mannequin face brightening at the sight of a new dress or recoiling in horror if Aeron presents an animal fang or something else mildly unpleasant. Elena seems an embarrassing and simplistic stereotype of femininity, a coquettish phony girlfriend for the insecure young man. It’s not helped by her actress, who was apparently told to play the character as though she’s not a person but rather a half-blind kitten.

This chauvinism dominates most of Aeron’s interactions with Elena, and developer Ganbarion evidently intended some of that. Company director Chikako Yamakura states that she thought up Pandora’s Tower as a game for male players ages thirteen to twenty-ish, and the central idea became “a woman who was pure being somehow spoiled or corrupted and then becoming pure once more.” The game bears this out time and time again, repeating positioning Elena as a delicate country blossom in need of constant tending. Her relationship with Aeron is measured by a glowing line of links at the edge of the screen, and it can be raised by any insipid kindness and lowered by even mild setbacks. Poor Elena. Thank heavens she has a man to fend for her.


Yet there’s more to Elena and Pandora’s Tower. At first her affliction is just a nasty bit of body horror; if she’s left without monster flesh for too long, she’ll sprout tendrils and degrade into some barely human aberration. At her last stage, she’s melting into some legless creature and seeping ichor all about. She’s broken down to the last shred of her being, and watching her fight for it is the most disturbing scene in the game.

It’s also the most intriguing. It reveals Elana’s curse as more than just a gruesome motivator or pitiable flourish. It’s a degrading affliction she faces every moment. From there the game easily becomes allegory for something far more understandable than a distressed damsel. It could be the slow agony of cancer treatments, with Mavda peddling lengthy and uncertain remedies. It could be some other illness that leaves Elena fragile and domestic. Or it could be the vaguer bindings of depression.

Flash Hiders: Safety First


Flash Hiders and Battle Tycoon rarely draw notice in the history of fighting games. The two titles were the now-defunct Right Stuff’s attempts at snatching a piece of the genre’s sugary and super-saturated pie in the 1990s. Neither succeeded, but I suspect they were ahead of the curve. Every modern fighting game has a console-oriented story mode with RPG-ish customization, and Right Stuff explored that territory with the original Flash Hiders in 1993. More can be read in this GameSetWatch piece I wrote years ago, even though I now see some typos and at least one factual error: Patchet is a were-polar-bear, not a werewolf.

I like Flash Hiders, and I also like its manual. Game instructions usually include guidelines for handling a cartridge or CD, and every so often the publisher might add little comics of the game’s characters failing to heed such advice. This is a lost art today, but it was common in the Japanese market of the early 1990s, when CDs were a new technology and there was always the chance that some consumers would try to play a game by breaking the disc apart and picking their noses with the shards.

My favorite game-safety guides are the ones from Phantasy Star III and IV, but the last page of the Flash Hiders manual is also very helpful. It offers plenty of illustrated advice for first-time CD-ROM owners.

Little Things: Sylphia

Well, that’s kind of rude.


Sure, the title heroine of Sylphia, a 1993 Compile shooter for the PC Engine, may not seem all that socially active. She’s not exuding charm from every pore or delivering bon mots that leave the bourgeoisie in stitches. But let’s give her a break.


Women in Video Games: Earlier Correspondence

There’s a good deal of talk these days about how video games depict women, from the latest Game Developers Conference scandal to that Feminist Frequency series that’s enraging idiots all over the place. The subject’s gotten more and more attention over the past few years, and I really think it’s long overdue. In decades past, the game industry’s misogynistic attitudes were periodically brought up, hemmed over, and then either neglected or dismissed with specious mockery.

The game magazines of the 1990s rarely challenged the issue of video-game sexism on their own, instead allowing the occasional letter from a reader to explore the matter. One such letter ran in the October 1995 issue of Nintendo Power.


As I mentioned in The X Button this month, I'm struck by how the letter's complaints still resonate today. Now, the “favorites” listed aren’t exactly bastions of sexual equality; Earthworm Jim features a largely helpless princess, and Killer Instinct’s lone woman is…well, B. Orchid. Yet LaBrie’s letter raised an important question, and it drew a few responses in the February 1996 Nintendo Power.

Toren Smith and the Right Words

Toren Smith passed away on March 4. Many remember him as a pioneer in the manga-translating world, and there’s a lot to his story: how he scraped by while living in Japan, how he made friends with the Gainax crew, how his name was affixed to a Gunbuster character, and how he brought all sorts of manga to North America, starting with Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed. You can read more about Smith’s illustrious career in Jonathan Clements’ writeup and Mike Toole’s recent column, so I'll just concentrate on one small thing.

I was introduced to Smith’s work in the very first manga I ever bought: volume two of Appleseed. In those days I took for granted all of the colorful and coherent dialogue rendered into my native tongue by Smith and his fellow translator Dana Lewis. It was only after I’d digested some manga from other sources that I appreciated how much effort Smith and Lewis put into the process. It was all the more amazing that they'd handled something as technologically dense as Masamune Shirow manga.

Smith and Lewis did excellent work all around, and yet there’s one particular panel that comes to mind whenever I think of their output. It shows up in Shirow’s original Dominion Tank Police manga. Our spitfire heroine Leona has once again destroyed property and endangered lives in her pursuit of justice, and once again she expects a chewing-out from the chief of police. That doesn’t happen.


It’s one little exclamation, but it captures the way Smith and Lewis could find the perfect word for a situation. Oik. Not “huh?” Not “eh?” Not some drawn-out “Say what now?” Those would be adequate, but they fall short of the simple sputtering “oik.” It's pure bewilderment crystalized in three letters, and it fits Leona’s look in a way that no other interjection could.

Finding the best possible phrase is very hard. It’s a ubiquitous challenge for anyone who writes, edits, translates, or, in my case, babbles childishly about old Sega Genesis games. Most of us compromise. To paraphrase Mark Twain, we settle for the lightning bug instead of the lightning. Toren Smith didn't, and a great many manga titles were all the better for it.

1up and Me

You most likely know that 1up is closing. The site endured numerous layoffs and cutbacks in recent years, and it was just sold to Ziff-Davis, the company that started it in the first place. Things have come full circle, and now we're losing something great.


For most of 1up’s life, I was just a reader. I remember when the site launched back in 2003, debuting with that cool little logo and a staff from all corners of the gaming press. It had names I knew from Electronic Gaming Monthly, IGN, GameSpot, The Gaming Intelligence Agency, and just about every other website I followed. It was like watching that glorious multi-character crossover game you and your friends always lied about on the playground. You know, the one with Mario and Sonic and Simon Belmont and Chun-Li.

I started freelancing for 1up in 2011, well after the site was sold to UGO and the layoffs took their toll. I was in some grindingly dull staff meeting at work when a Twitter message from Bob Mackey popped into my phone. He wanted to know if I was interested in writing for 1up. And there I was, typing out YES YES YES and being rude to my coworkers. Oh well, it was more important.

By this time 1up wasn’t chasing the same news-and-reviews rabbit that just about every other site pursues. The remaining staff focused more on features, and the next year saw them switch over to running week-long cover stories, with multiple articles about the same topic. This worked wonders. So much of the video-game press is fixated on the latest, the shiniest, and the quickest-and-dirtiest way to cover it all. It results in ephemeral things, previews and news bits irrelevant within weeks. The features at 1up were more than that. They were about such subjects as the history of the Atari VCS, the portrayal of women in games, and, in this very week, the relationship between movies and the game industry. They’re all interesting reads, and as long as someone backs up the website, they’ll be just as interesting years down the road.



I loved pitching stories to 1up.com, and I dare say the results are some of the most rewarding stuff I’ve written about video games. I researched doomed game systems, covered the concept of video-game afterlife, and studied the symbiosis between games and those Japanese cartoons. I’m not sure if any other site would’ve let me write about long-abandoned mascot characters like Wonder Boy and that hideous Asmik thing up there—and then let me take on another round of them. Looking back, a lot of my features were about failure and regret: forgotten characters, faded companies, canceled games, and the paths not taken. Maybe I have a problem.

Yet I have just one regret when it comes to 1up: I didn’t write more.

Little Things: Alisia Dragoon

Alisia Dragoon was overlooked quite often in its day. The game's North American cover, with its bikini-armored amazon and gawking orcs, lumped it in with Blades of Vengeance, Sword of Sodan, and other routine medieval-fantasy outings on the Sega Genesis. The Japanese box art, promoting a less aggressive sorceress and her dragon menagerie, didn’t get Alisia much attention either.


Dig past either cover and you’ll find a standout of the 16-bit era. It’s a side-scroller, yes, but Alisia’s outfitted with a selection of four different flying beasts, plus lightning magic that behaves much like the auto-targeting lasers in Thexder. The game’s scenery also hides numerous surprises; hidden items abound, and Alisia’s journey unfolds in unexpected tangents. She begins by storming temples and braving swamps, but later stages launch her aboard a fish-like blimp and plunge her into the long-buried wreckage of a spaceship. It’s all presented with magnificent style, even if entire stages steal quite blatantly from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It’s evident even in the opening crawl of an ancient relief that shows the devastation of millennia past. Of course, Alisia Dragoon was a co-production between Game Arts and anime studio Gainax, and some of the latter’s founders worked on the Nausicaä movie. So perhaps Alisia comes by Miyazaki's material more honestly than other games.

Alisia Dragoon doesn’t spoil the atmosphere by explaining too much of it. Alisia herself never speaks, and the only in-game dialogue is delivered by Ornah, the priestly servant of an ancient horror named Baldour. The game’s introduction spares only a few lines setting things up: Baldour’s prison has fallen in the shape of a “silver star” (sound familiar, Lunar fans?), and someone has to stop him before he awakens. It doesn’t even mention that Alisia’s avenging the death of her father. You’ll have to read the manual for that.


Upon blasting her way into the first level’s underground ruins, Alisia confronts Ornah and the cocooned form of Baldour. This leads to two small details that I appreciate.


For one thing, Alisia immediately attempts to fry Ornah with her lightning spells. She needs no introductory palaver, no stoic entreaties to cease the evildoing, and not even any anguished cries about how Baldour’s cult killed her father and she’ll never forgive them and whatnot. Alisia may be a voiceless (and faceless) cipher in need of sensible outdoor pants, but she’s apparently seen enough video games to know that there's no point trying to reason with the bad guy.

This being the initial stage of the game, Ornah evades Alisia’s attack and rockets off with that big bundle of Baldour. And there’s the second little touch. Baldour is a giant sealed monstrosity, with only two eyes visible inside the gray carapace of his prison. It’s a neat glimpse of what will be the game’s final boss, and players are free to imagine just what nightmare from beyond space might lurk inside the cocoon. Intentionally or not, the first round of Alisia Dragoon follows that old Lovecraft dictate: never show too much of the monster.


Unfortunately, Alisia Dragoon can’t obscure it forever. Tradition demands a climactic battle to end the game, and so Alisia's raid on a floating fortress leads right to a reborn Baldour. Game Arts and Gainax tried their best to make him a chimerical mass of mouths and limbs and horns and wings, as though Alisia interrupted him halfway through regenerating. That’s a neat idea in itself, but it doesn’t quite match his introduction. Nothing compares to what you might imagine attached to those eyes.