I haven’t been to the Toy Fair in a long, long time, but I always like looking at the new trinkets it brings. After all, a good chunk of the toy market targets adults collecting new versions of their beloved childhood possessions. I usually abstain from actual purchases, but there’s no harm in looking at things you want and then coming up with excuses not to buy them. I do it all the time.
NECA’S ALIEN VS. PREDATOR
NECA makes dozens of toys based on Aliens, Predators, and the cinematic unions thereof, but these are different. They’re based on Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator game, a semi-obscure 1994 arcade brawler never ported to any home console. As the wrestling fans say, I marked out and marked out hard for these.
NECA announced Alien vs. Predator arcade toys last year, but they stuck to the actual Aliens and Predators, including the playable Hunter and Warrior predators, the Smurf-colored Mad Predator boss, and the vexing Razor Claws. The new addition is a two-pack of the game’s human heroes: cyborged-out Dutch Schaefer from the first Predator movie and technically original Capcom heroine Linn Kurosawa. Fifteen years ago, a Linn Kurosawa toy would’ve topped any far-fetched wish list I made.
But what’s the big deal with Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator? For my money, it’s one of the best brawlers around. It has that gorgeous spritework you’ll see in all Capcom arcade games of the 1990s, and the designers really make the most of the license: the environments are wonderfully grimy and bleak, the new xenomorph variants fit perfectly into the mix, and even the standard Aliens slink along the ground and creep out of the shadows with wonderful Gigerian flair.
Alien vs. Predator also dodges that common flaw of belt-scrolling beat-‘em-ups: repetition. Each character has a wealth of attacks, and the throngs of Aliens show careful variety. And just when you might get sick of fighting the creatures, the game pulls out that familiar Alien plot twist of the military exploiting the xenomorphs, leading you to fight off brigades of corrupt soldiers and their power-loaders. And then the Aliens come back for the finale.
For that last dose of mystique, Alien vs. Predator never appeared on any home systems. A 32X port and a Saturn version were rumored and canceled, leaving Capcom’s brilliant creation to arcades and emulation. Linn Kurosawa has recurring cameos in some later games, appearing in backgrounds in Street Fighter Alpha 2 and Street Fighter III while inspiring the lookalike Simone in Cannon Spike. For a brief time, she was my favorite video game character ever, and I’d hear no talk about how she was just a Capcom clone of recurring Alien vs. Predator comic heroine Machiko Noguchi.
Why I Probably Won’t Buy Them:
Neca figures tend to be expensive. Going by the pricing on similar two-packs, Major Schaefer and Lieutenant Kurosawa will run about forty bucks. That, and Linn’s waist is too high and her crotch is too big. Perhaps I shouldn’t be picky about a toy I’ve wanted for twenty years, but there’s money at stake.
If you ever want an audience to realize just how excessive video game magazines were in the mid-1990s, you don’t need to say a thing. Just grab a bloated holiday issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly and wave around all 3,781 pages of it. Then pull out an issue of EGM2 and show the crowd that it wasn’t enough for the magazine to publish just once a month.
EGM2, technically named with an exponent that I don’t care to recreate, doubled Electronic Gaming Monthly’s presence with its premiere issue in July 1994. It retains the layout and features of its parent mag, right down to the letters pages, the wacky What-Ifs column, and the unambitious middle-school reading level. The only thing EGM2 lacked at the time was a reviews section, so readers still needed regular EGM if they wanted to know what editor-in-chief Ed Semrad’s ghost writers and the mysterious Sushi-X thought of Contra Hard Corps or Art of Fighting 2.
Yet EGM2 had slightly different priorities. Semrad’s opening letter explains that EGM2 emphasizes import coverage and arcade-game guides (auguring the publication’s later switch to nothing but strategies). Indeed, the first issue has a robust import section by Nob Ogasawara, who details two freshly announced and rapidly doomed game systems that would never leave Japan: NEC’s PC-FX and Bandai’s Playdia. Of particular note are the aspirations for each console. Bandai envisioned over 200,000 Playdias flying off shelves, and NEC hoped to move half a million PC-FX systems. I hope no executives staked their careers on those numbers.
I picked up EGM2’s first issue during the summer of 1994, for reasons I’ll shamefully admit further down the page. Before that, however, I’ll pick out a few of the magazine’s most interesting sights.
1. A STREET FIGHTER BACKLASH BEGINS
Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat dominate the issue, of course, with huge previews of Mortal Kombat II and Super Street Fighter II, the latter of which actually uses art from Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie. It’s not all a cheerful parade of hadokens and bicycle kicks, however. You see, the fans are tiring of Street Fighter!
The letters section dedicates a page to readers complaining about Super Street Fighter II, the third iteration of Street Fighter II in as many years. Capcom asked a lot of kids and teenagers in the 1990s: a bunch of us paid over $70 for Street Fighter II in 1992, then $75 for Street Fighter II Turbo in 1993, trading in the older game and soaking up the difference just because Turbo let us play as M. Bison and throw Chun-Li’s fireball. We weren’t going through that again for Super Street Fighter II, not when it offered only four new characters and the only one we cared about was Cammy.
To be fair, some readers are a little off in their math. A Street Fighter II arcade machine cost thousands more than a mere Super NES game in 1994, and good luck beating back the arcade operators who wanted one. I’ll also admit that Capcom essentially won. Super Street Fighter II wasn’t nearly as successful as its originator, but subsequent games in the series, from the Alphas to Street Fighter V, went through multiple upgrades. And fans bought ‘em.
I mentioned my minor gripes with Gravity Rush 2 before, and I explained how trivial they seem to me. I’m bothered less by the game’s unreliable viewpoints or stealth missions than I am by something completely frivolous: the bonus costumes.
I will not argue that Gravity Rush is above pandering. It stars two women soaring around in relatively revealing clothing, after all. It’s always struck me as low-key in its sex appeal, however. Kat’s outfit is no more revealing than, say, an all-ages version of Wonder Woman, and if Raven’s getup is nonsensical…well, things could be worse.
Gravity Rush and Gravity Rush 2 present extra outfits for Kat, unlocked by regular gameplay and side missions, and most are disappointing. It’s not just that they’re sexy. They’re also the same vaguely fetish-driven getups forced on women in many other games: a maid costume, a nurse’s short-skirted fatigues, two different school uniforms, and so on. For a game designed with the sensibilities of an experimental comic, Kat’s wardrobe is mostly banal.
But I like some of the costumes. These three especially.
THE JAZZ SINGER
One of my favorite parts of Gravity Rush 2 has no flying, fighting, or major turns of plot. It comes when Kat sneaks aboard a military base and is mistaken for a singer. The player helps her assemble verses , and she sings them in that faux French language invented just for Gravity Rush. It’s a cute little interlude that tells Kat’s story in vignette: she’s insecure at first, but she finds her groove in no time.
And she gets to keep a long red dress for her trouble. It amuses me just because it’s the least practical thing to wear when combating cyclopean goo-monsters in floating cities. Much of Kat’s accoutrements are unrealistic (I still hate her high heels), but this red cocktail number pushes things to an absurd and hilarious apex. The game’s repertoire of poses also lets Kat sing wherever she wants. All she needs is strangers tossing change at her feet.
Raven fills several roles in the GravityRush series. At first she’s an imposing and vicious rival, a gravity shifter who’s already mastered the same powers that heroine Kat barely grasps. By the end of the first Gravity Rush she’s a reluctant ally. In between games she becomes such good friends with Kat that they’ll hang out and eat junk food together, though amnesia reverts her to a temporary antagonist by Gravity Rush 2.
Most of all, though, Raven is a big tease. She’s exactly the sort of character who should be playable, if only as a postgame extra. Yet Gravity Rush comes and goes without letting the player control Raven and her shadowy avian familiar, Xii.
Gravity Rush 2 almost does the same thing. We’re given minimal opportunities to control Raven in the main drag, but a bonus DLC quest (offered free, no less), explores Raven’s backstory. As we saw in Gravity Rush, she was one of several children marooned when their aerial bus crashed on isles further down the giant pillar at the center of the strange little world of Gravity Rush. Raven managed to escape and return to Hekseville above, and she grew up while the rest of the kids, her brother Zaza among them, stayed locked in the pillar’s timeless purgatory.
The Ark of Time: Raven’s Choice gives her a chance to set things right and Gravity Rush a chance to finally get Raven under the player’s control.
Gravity Rush and its sequel offer forthright ideals. Some harsh decisions arise in the inscrutable powers behind the strange world Kat and Raven protect, but their choices are usually clear. Even if they’re not entirely understood or appreciated, our heroines do the right thing.
That’s refreshing. We tend to favor morally opaque tales, but there’s something to be said for characters who know what’s right and a story that lets them pull it off. After the Pyrrhic bloodshed of Nier: Automata, Gravity Rush 2’s themes are a comforting wraparound.
A problem arises with Kat’s new enemies, though. Unlike the inhuman Nevi that glare and swarm like shadowy Scrubbing Bubbles, the oppressive troops of Jirga Para Lhao are people. Kat’s free to fight them with any of her techniques: kicking them, smashing them with objects caught by her gravity field, or hurling them off the floating city aisles…to an apparent death or endless fall.
Gravity Rush has an appropriate heroine in Kat. She’s gifted with unique abilities, devoted to protecting the people around her, and all too often marginalized and misunderstood. So too is Gravity Rush shuffled aside, and it only deserves that fate in a small measure. It’s not polished to a triple-A gleam and it’s not cautiously encoded for mock-ironic subculture fetishes. But it’s fascinating and unlike anything else out there.
I never tire of playing Gravity Rush, and I never tire of talking about it. Not even in that desperate, convenient list format the kids seem to enjoy these days.
These aren’t the only reasons I like Gravity Rush, but I can’t overload these daily entries.
1. THE WORLD Gravity Rush presented a strange picture: cities floating on partly natural, partly man-made islands, all orbiting a strange stone pillar and cloaked in endless, frequently clouded sky. The game dropped Kat into this realm without memories or direction, but before long she and her cat, Dusty, found their way from one section of Hekseville to the next. Questions never stopped, though. What is that giant column, and why does time creep slower further down? Where did Kat come from? And just what keeps this little archipelago afloat in the air?
Gravity Rush 2 doesn’t answer all of these. It doesn’t have to.
Instead, Gravity Rush 2 drops Kat in new places. A ragtag fleet of sky barges is home to merchants and misfits. The tropical spread of Jirga Para Lhao brings bustling markets and buzzing airships. Skyscrapers floats like bees. Mansions and elegant terraces lie above. Kat plunges into stranger places: she’ll mine crystals in the murky depths, float through dimensional rifts, and dash about a ruined city just as it’s ripped from reality. And then she’ll head back to Hekseville.
Exploring it all is marvelous. The game never explains or connects too much, and thus it leaves a little edge of uncertainty, that dreamlike sense of forces powerful and incomprehensible churning just beyond the world. When Gravity Rush 2 pulls back the curtain, it only reveals more mysteries, sending Kat on a slide through a glittering world of mirrors and asteroids or a foray through a starlit sepulcher where ammonite shells hang like enormous tree ornaments. Thank goodness.
I didn’t write about Gravity Rush 2 nearly enough. Yes, I talked it up a great deal before its release and even ran a contest about a ridiculous note pad, but I was silent about it after it arrived.
This was by design. I didn’t want to review it in the traditional sense, because that would mean rapid playthroughs and quick impressions and a patina of hasty accomplishment that would nag at me. I wanted to savor Gravity Rush 2 in the traditional sense, which involves settling in and taking a month or two to finish a game instead of hurling through it for nothing but the warped obligations of social media.
And Gravity Rush 2 was worth it.
I know it wasn’t the best game of 2017 when put under merciless critical scrutiny. It lacks the spacious worlds of Super Mario Odyssey or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the bleak turns of Danganronpa V3 or Persona 5, and the wonderful narrative knife-juggling of Nier: Automata. The Gravity Rush formula is still flawed, after all. Technical problems are inevitable when you send a superheroine flying through the sky, walking on the undersides of floating isles, and fighting monsters with unfettered aerial freedom. Gravity Rush 2 even makes some less excusable missteps by including a few mandatory stealth missions, never realizing that it’s the worst possible game to host them.
I loved it anyway. Gravity Rush 2 may not cohere the best, but it’s my favorite game of the year even with its inbuilt advantages. Kat her companions are endearing, their world is a lovely blend of Mobius-manga cities spread atop a marvelously surreal cosmology, and I never tire of visiting it. Soaring through a skyscraper archipelago. Plunging into the toxic mists of bizarre city ruins. Sending Kat off a building, watching her plummet, and then reminding her that she can fly the second before she hits the ground. I could play it forever.
There’s a problem, however. Sony plans to take down the Gravity Rush 2 servers this January 18, which leaves us only a week and change to enjoy the game’s online features.
This may not seem a great loss. The online element offers no multiplayer battles or vital interaction. It just lets you leave hints and challenges for other players, with Dusty Tokens for rewards. The single-player storyline will remain intact, minus a few of the bonuses available only through online tasks. It’s not as grievous as, say, a Street Fighter game losing its netplay.
Yet it’s unfortunate all the same. Gravity Rush is a series forced to fight for any scraps of attention, and losing any piece of it is a shame. One gathers that Gravity Rush 2 didn’t sell up to Sony’s standards, and it probably won’t get a sequel. Perhaps it was lucky to exist in the first place. That’s all the more reason to save every bit of it, especially a bit that lets Gravity Rush fans share the game.
Those fans will not endure this in silence. There’s a small campaign making the rounds under the Twitter hashtag #dontforgetgravityrush, and you’ll find the usual pleas and protests. I doubt it’ll do any good, but I’ll plead right along with them. Surely the tide will turn once Kid Fenris himself tells Sony to keep the servers up.
In fact, I’ll dedicate this week to talking about Gravity Rush. Each workday will see a new entry about the series, even if it’s just a list of merchandise I’d like to see for it. Space pens and balancing toys are the keys to Gravity Rush’s future, I swear.
Most of us know all about Kirby. He’s the puffy pink hero of a popular Nintendo series. He’s a smiling, rotund creature who swallows foes and gains their powers. He’s a fixture of excellent games, stuffed toys, and comic strips about how it’s subtly disturbing that he’s eating his equally cute enemies.
The insatiable, adorable monster first appeared in 1992 with Kirby’s Dream Land, the creation of HAL Laboratory and Masahiro Sakurai. It’s a breezy, bouncing side-scroller littered with cartoonish effects and whimsical details. It made Kirby a star, though it wasn’t Hal’s first attempt at spherical heroes. The Adventure of Lolo series preceded it, of course, but less well known is a shooter that arrived just a year before Kirby’s debut.
Trax is a brave little creation, attempting a fast-paced overhead shooter on the Game Boy of all places. Nintendo’s handheld may be a wonder of late-1980s engineering, but its small screen wasn’t friendly to the speed and visual complexity that a traditional shoot-’em-up needed. In visual terms, however, Trax plays it simple: you pilot a round proto-Kirby of a tank with round wheels, spew round bullets, and hover through stages of frequently round enemies. Your craft fires in eight directions, with one button launching shots while other rotates the turret. It sounds far too ambitious for a compact Game Boy outing.
Arcade games are unappreciated Halloween decorations. True, they’re harder to arrange than plastic severed zombie feet or cheap, potentially toxic spider webbing, but I maintain that they’re worth the trouble. Whether you run MAME on a laptop or actually have a basement full of original cabinets, nothing sets apart a Halloween gathering or mood table like some appropriate old arcade games.
Why old arcade games? A few reasons. They’re easy to grasp, they’re often visually striking, and they display generous game footage when no one’s playing. That’s the beauty of it: even if they go untouched, these games look great just running in the background, as fitting as Addams Family episodes or every Sleepaway Camp movie.
I picked seven lesser-known examples of Halloween-friendly arcade games. Ghosts ‘N Goblins, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, and Splatterhouse are the first-round choices of just about everyone, so I don’t need to extoll them here. I also left out anything that requires a light gun or other proprietary hardware to truly appreciate. House of the Dead isn’t the same without big plastic Wicked City revolvers, Crypt Killer loses something without a massive shotgun to pump, and a full Golly! Ghost array is probably beyond the price range of the average Halloween shindig. I went after games easy to appreciate in any form.
DARK ADVENTURE Released: 1987 Aka: Devil World
It’s tempting to stick Gauntlet in your arcade lineup and be done with it. After all, Gauntlet is a reliably entertaining race through top-viewed dungeons. Yet there’s a more seasonal alternative available: Dark Adventure, Konami’s unabashed 1989 knock-off of the Gauntlet ideal. Three players control two archeologists and an unlucky reporter in a realm of mazes full of skeletons and minotaurs and…well, evil rats. Yet mundane rodents are forgivable when the first stage has giant mud swordgolems chasing you.
While you’re at it, throw in the Japanese version of the game, Devil World. No mere language swap, it differs a great deal: only two players can join, but the characters get projectile weapons instead of melee attacks, power-ups are more complex, and the expanded arsenal includes a rocket launcher that beautifully demolishes everything. You won’t find that in off-the-shelf Gauntlet.
Last month brought the first trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One movie, based on Ernest Cline’s book about a virtual-reality treasure hunt in a dystopian future. This prompted me to finally read Ready Player One, and it convinced me that the future of profitable literature is all about nostalgia: pure, vacuous, unreflective nostalgia that namechecks as many childhood fascinations as print allows.
Well, I want a piece of that. I’m now at work on a science fiction novel called Mission One Start, and I know it’s bound for the best-seller lists. Here’s a sample.
I always liked Critical Mass Eisley. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of clubs across the OMNIWAY based on the Cantina from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but this one went beyond rote imitation. The layout echoed an alien version of the classic sitcom Cheers, and tonight a Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal tended bar, wearing mirrored cyberpunk shades while mixing a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here they knew the difference between a Trandoshan and a Gorn.
Even the patrons were a more eclectic mix. As I grabbed a Romulan Ale, I ducked around a winter-camo Robocop, a gaggle of teenage girls dressed as the Bangles in Voltron pilot outfits, and an impressively well-rendered Destro from G.I. Joe wearing Ghostbuster gear. It was great.
I slipped behind a table styled like the monster checkerboard from the Millennium Falcon and tapped my line open.
“You sure she’ll be here?” I asked.
“Totally,” Rhodel said in my ear. “The Minicons may be weird, but they always follow through. Besides, they need our passcodes, and we need their access.”
“I think I see her.”
She wove through the crowd like a ninja about to kidnap the president. Her avatar was a slim, sharp-featured woman with long red hair and just an adorable hint of anime around the eyes. She wore a Dune stillsuit that glowed with subtle crimson highlights, topped off with a visor and yellow trenchcoat right off Jubilee from the X-Men.
“Quit gawking and talk to her, man!” Rhodel piped up through my ear. I’d forgotten that he had a link to my visuals. “And don’t get caught up talking about that awful Dune movie.” Read more »