Kakuto Chojin -- Game Review

Kakuto Chojin didn’t get a fair shake from the video game press when it came out. It doesn’t come close to being the game that its developer, Dream Publishing, obviously wanted it to be. In fact, rumors persist that the game shipped more or less unfinished, and that it started as a tech demo to showcase the Xbox’s impressive graphical capabilities didn’t much allay that suspicion. The actual reviews are far more forgettable than the actual game, but one of the common complaints was that the game was simplistic. According to the websites that still have their old reviews of the game available, Kakuto Chojin is simplistic, derivative and boring; they usually compare it to Tekken -- the first Tekken. It's understandable if you look at the cover art.

It means little now to say that they by-and-large misunderstood the game. The really impressive combos require split-second timing (literally, they are frame specific, and the game runs at 60 fps) and generally accomplished through juggling. There are two methods of playing each character, the second being unlocked after completing the character’s story mode, which means another set of combos. Rather than being too simplistic, it is brilliantly simple, rewarding the skillful use of a few moves rather than including tons of moves to keep button mashers happy. It is the same approach of that many of Dream Publishing’s members used for the development of Tobal No. 1 and Tobal 2, when they were known as Dream Factory.

In fact, they would return to that name, developing various games based on anime and manga for the PS2 and a couple of UFC games for the Xbox. But Dream Factory is no longer a fanboy darling as they had been when “GameFan” trumpeted the virtues of Tobal 2 for months, and then lamented the lack of any publisher interest in the US. The landscape of gaming has changed much too, with a recent resurgence of interest in fighting games led not by the 3D gameplay of Tekken and Virtua Fighter, but tried and true 2D seen in Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue. Microsoft’s sharing a larger part of the console market actually coincides with console gamers’ new found appreciation for Western developed shooters and sports games and such. So why is it, when nobody is interested in such a game as Kakuto Chojin, that I cared enough to spend twenty dollars for used copy of it?

It’s because the Muslims don’t want us to play it.

Well, that and other stuff. Kakuto Chojin perfectly captures everything that is the early Xbox game library, in that it practically screams “we don’t know how to appeal to this market!” Its characters look like plastic (oily plastic, in this case) and the environments sport all sorts of now commonplace effects like lens flare, real-time shadows, and colored lighting effects as though they were the most interesting thing anybody had ever thought of putting in a video game. Furthermore, the actual aesthetics reek of trying-too-hard, as every attempt is made to make essentially rote character designs and environment seem “edgy.” The Bruce Lee clone looks emaciated, the Muay Thai fighter is a heavily tattooed Somali, and the American street fighter looks very much like a pink-haired Brad Pitt from Fight Club. Microsoft clearly wanted the game to appeal to the same players that liked games like Tekken and Dead or Alive, and Dream Factory’s usual style of anime style character designs probably didn’t seem fitting on the Xbox, which at the time already had a weird mix of platform games featuring mascot-characters, action RPGs developed from PC franchises or tabletop gaming, sports games, and shooters.

Just looking at Azurik should illustrate how strange the Xbox was for its first years. While you’re at it, look at Blinx: The Time Sweeper, Dead or Alive 3, Panzer Dragoon Orta, Halo, and Nightcaster. Microsoft either published almost all of those titles, or they were exclusive to Microsoft’s platform. Obviously, Kakuto Chojin belongs with Blinx and Azurik and Nightcaster as a game that exudes the stench of Microsoft’s desperation to bait the previously Nippon-centric console audience into playing with American toys.

Looking at Kakuto Chojin with the unfair authority of hindsight makes it even funnier. I popped it in after I bought it and looked at the character select screen, and saw that there was a Norwegian Tae Kwon-Do fighter, named Vegard. My brother, who was as amused by the ridiculous character designs as I was, thought that he was named Varg, which caused even more laughter as we now thought of a buff, anime helmet wearing, blue tattooed Tae Kwon-Do fighter as representing Varg Vikernes. I found out that I could actually play quite well with him, of which my brother observed “the CPU’s not having much luck against Varg.” To which I replied, “That’s because Varg’s opponents have nowhere to pray after he burnt down their churches.”

Another exchange: “Hey, what’re those pouches on Varg’s belt for?”

“Oh, probably material for arson, knives, pens that drip with the blood of Christian enemies. The usual.”

Much enjoyment was had by all until I fought against Asad, the previously mentioned Somali Muay Thai fighter. Varg was apparently so busy being a TR00 KVLT WARRIOR and burning down churches that he forgot all about Asad’s mosque, because Asad pretty much owned Varg’s face. And this is where the most amusing part of Kakuto Chojin’s history becomes relevant.

As many of you know, fighting games typically feature theme music for either the characters or the levels. Kakuto Chojin’s theme music for Asad, who is identified as a Somali and makes references to God in his pre-match speech, utilizes passages from the Quran that aren’t meant to be used lightly. In the defense of Dream Factory and whoever it was that wrote the music, it’s actually a pretty cool track. Nevertheless, it apparently caused the government of Saudi Arabia to protest, and the game was recalled, never reissued, and more or less stricken from Microsoft’s software release records.

I don’t intend rant about this issue. On the one hand, I might find it worthwhile to remind Muslims that many of us tread lightly around their culture out of courtesy, not obligation. On the other, Dream Factory should have known better, and Microsoft too.

But I’d like to finish this review smiling, not angrily pounding my keyboard. Thus I point out the silliness of the video game industry, and especially that of Kakuto Chojin. Has anything really changed for the game industry and the nerd-culture that surrounds it? Admittedly, certain elements are different -- there are far fewer ‘tude filled mascots than even the last console generation -- but the difficult questions of where games overlap with politics and religion and when such things become relevant to gaming persist. Recently, a game called Shadow Complex has renewed such a discussion over at Gamasutra. Frankly, I can’t believe anybody actually manages to take games seriously when the most polarizing issue gamers are dealing with is Orson Scott Card and his unfettered homophobia that said game has little to do with.


RIP Shing Fui-on

This has been hard year for fans of Hong Kong cinema. The passing of the legendary screen villain/character actor Shek Kin and director Ho Meng-Hua earlier this year was unfortunate enough, made less bitter by the knowledge that each lived long, presumably fulfilled lives. Their deaths were overshadowed by that of David Carradine, who died in the same week. As much as Carradine evoked mixed feelings from fans of Bruce Lee and kung fu movies, his death was another loss for fans of b-movies and cult cinema.

Now another actor's passing has been announced. Shing Fui-on, posessor of one of the most unique faces in Hong Kong cinema, died on August 27th at the age of 54. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004, but still made appearances in Oxide Pang's The Detective and Cheung Chee-keong's Bodyguard: A New Beginning. Shing appeared in well over a hundred films and probably countless television series. My first memory of recognizing him was in God of Gamblers, where he has a great comedic scene in whih he loses to Chow Yun-Fat. Indeed, I'd seen him in various films, from bit parts in Wong Jing crap like Legend of the Liquid Sword, Cat III sleaze like the silly Erotic Ghost Story III and the disgustingly exploitative Human Pork Chop, and as gangsters and criminals in various films throughout the eighties and nineties. Hong Kong audiences nick-named him "big silly head," which probably sounds less mean in Cantonese.

Shing was a real professional, clearly giving his best even in small parts or in large parts in small movies. Hong Kong cinema still has its stars, but it's difficult to point to anybody who could replace the unique screen presence of yet another artist who left us too soon. Rest in peace.



Earlier today, I decided to go and get some lunch, which is a challenge if I want to eat something affordable and also not too gross without having to drive more than a mile. My options include things like Whataburger (I live in Texas, for those of you who hadn’t figured it out yet) or Subway or Quik Trip’s hot dogs, or one of the various non-franchise (or at least local franchise) restaurants. Among these are an Indian restaurant, a pizza place, a couple of surprisingly bad Tex-Mex joints that are too pricey for their own good, and a Chinese food place that serves a number of Pan-Asian dishes.

It’s a hard choice, in the sense that it’s fairly rare that any of these sound good and I usually eat alone, so I can’t defer to somebody else’s opinion of what sounds good. Today, I chose the Chinese restaurant, which I usually eat at with RockmanXZ24, who in the spirit of raging video gamer assholery recently changed his Xbox Live gamertag to NINTEND0FTW. Instead of getting my usual (a Thai style curry and rice) I ordered the new “Salty Crispy Pork,” which is really just deep fried pork with diced onions and peppers. Still, it was surprisingly good. I decided to get a beer to drink while I finished my pork, a deliberate process, although honestly it shouldn’t be, since most any beer matches well with fried pork. I decided on a Mexican beer called Tecate, which probably seems rather incongruous to match with a “Chinese” dish, but bear in mind that it was Mexicans who diced the onions and peppers, fried the pork and the rice and put it in a box for me to take home.
It’s hard to photograph food in a Styrofoam container and make it look appetizing.


Satyr Monks (Ping Shek, 1994) -- Movie Review

It’s fairly safe to say that I wanted to see Satyr Monks more for the presence of the late Wang Qun than for the promise of erotic content. Wang starred in a handful of films from the eighties era of mainland Chinese martial arts films like Revengence Superlady (Yang Qitian and Chun Chuantao, 1986) as well as the blatant Once Upon a Time in China rip-off, Fist from Shaolin (Martin Lau and Zhang Xinyan, 1993), always showcasing impressive martial arts and a professional enthusiasm, if not actual talent for acting. He only acted in a few movies and he died early in 2008. The few reviews of Satyr Monks on the internet contradict on the point of whether it is an erotic film, but given my experiences with certain Cat III movies, I find such content can either make a bad movie worse or an entertaining movie into an entertaining smutty movie.

Satyr Monks is indeed an erotic film, or at least the version on a Hong Kong VCD that I watched is. It’s actually not as simple as a statement of fact, as the version I watched had the same dubious honor as many a Thai and Pinoy cop flick; Satyr Monks is an older kung fu movie spliced with extra footage in the same manner that Godfrey Ho used to do with uncompleted (and sometimes complete) martial arts movies from South Korea, as well as the previously mentioned Thai and Pilipino movies. Now, Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai, and Thomas Tang had nothing to do with the current condition of Satyr Monks -- as evidenced by the lack of ninjas or Richard Harrison -- but the sexual content is clearly not the work of the original crew, if for no other reason than it looks so absolutely different in terms of visual style, costuming, and just general quality.

The movie starts with a corrupt monk and his entourage looking around for women to sex up. He intends to increase his power by doing it with 108 women, whether they’re willing or not. Eventually, a swordswoman in red (Nadeki Fujumi) confronts the cadre of pervy clergy with wire work, colored smoke bombs, and some threatening postures with her sword.

At this point, I immediately think that this is a soft-core version of Temple of the Red Lotus, either the old novel that inspired so many wuxia films over the years, or perhaps the films inspired from that old novel were the critical impetus for the direction Satyr Monks takes. (The Pearl Cheung version is great, as many of her films certainly are) The fake Buddhist monks who rape women and bully peasants and the swordswoman in red are major players in that story, and so it was only a matter of time before the young man and young woman enter the story to set about the destruction of the Red Lotus Temple and the killing of all those nasty fake monks.

So imagine my consternation when the movie seems to switch channels on me and I’m watching a fairly down to earth kung fu flick from mid-eighties mainland China where Wang Qun is punching people in the face in a restaurant brawl. It’s a pretty impressive scene, and the effect of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s films clearly seems to have reached whoever directed this part of Satyr Monks, as several stuntmen take dangerous fall without the slightest bit of padding or safety restraint. It’s also notable that the villains in this film also appear to be monks, or at least dress as monks, perhaps echoing the ambivalence (some would say hostility) displayed towards Buddhism in other mainland Chinese kung fu movies, particularly Arhats in Fury (Wong Singlui, 1985) and to a lesser extent, Shaolin Temple, (Zhang Xinyan, 1982) better known as Jet Li’s debut feature.

And just as one might expect after such an abrupt shift in visuals and tone, Satyr Monks changes the channel back to the other movie, where the perverted monk is once again in engaging in sex, this time with a pair of women. It eventually goes back to the more enjoyable movie, where we finally see Wang Qun’s female counterpart, and they attempt to escape from a group of thugs, at least a few of whom wear button downs and ties. Further betraying the cut-and-splice nature of the film, the older kung fu movie is set in the early twentieth century, the Republic, while the costuming and setting of the soft-core scenes at least looks Ming Dynasty era. When the film goes back to the sleaze, a couple of the nasty monk’s kidnapped women are pleasuring each other, and another joins, and another, and I tried hard not to fast forward through the surprisingly boring scene. Yeah, Satyr Monks actually contains a boring orgy scene.

The rest of the non-erotic content includes a brief training scene with Wang Qun and his lady friend learning from an old master and the final scene, shots of Nadeki Fujumi’s swordswoman looking along inserted in a half-hearted attempt to tie her killing of the perverted monks from the sex scenes in with kung fu movie, which just happens to have people fighting other people dressed as monks who are offhandedly said to have raped in the past by one of the other characters. Lots of killing; some nice choreography in spots.

I don’t really know what to make of a soft-core Temple of the Red Lotus movie, especially when it isn’t even an actual Temple of the Red Lotus movie. Kung fu movies are often said to be pornographic in their depiction of violence, which really seems to be the case when it’s actually juxtaposed with extended footage of people pantomiming sex. As with many Cat III movies, there will be some who enjoy the inanity of this low-budget, sleazy excuse for genre entertainment. Even with Wang Qun and fight scenes that are actually more fun to watch than the badly filmed, badly performed sex scenes, I can muster little fondness for Satyr Monks.


Gawain and the Green Knight (Stephen Weeks, 1973) -- Movie Review

For a very long time, Stephen Weeks’ Gawain and the Green Knight stood atop the list of movies I desperately wanted to see but assumed I never would. The medieval poem upon which it is based is favored reading for me around New Year’s, and Weeks’ other, more readily available attempt at adapting it, the 1984 embarrassment to Sean Connery known as Sword of the Valiant, really led me to believe that the first try would prove prime material for homebrewed MST3K sessions. The fact that Murray Head, best known for the ‘80’s pop song “One Night in Bangkok,” plays Gawain only added to what I describe as the film’s allure and most sane people its repugnance. Really, I should have kept my expectations in check, as Gawain and the Green Knight manages to only be so not good as to be bad, rather than so-bad-it’s-good.

The film starts out more or less as the poem, with a feast in the court of Camelot, and the appearance of a Green Knight (Nigel Green) looking to play a game. He will allow any knight to strike at his unprotected neck with an axe, provided the knight offers his own neck for such a blow. The only knight to take him up on the offer is the young Gawain, who chops off the Green Knight’s head only for the Knight to pick up the head and reattach it. The Green Knight then allows for Gawain to live for one year to seek him out, at which point the game will end with the blow that he has coming.

So far into the movie, I have a few problems. First of all, why is the King (not to my recollection named Arthur in the film) so old and frail? I see no textual evidence for why film makers so often cast oldies for King Arthur. The other thing that really stands out is the cheapness of the production. Ren-faire goers often manage more authentic and certainly more visually pleasing attire than what the costuming department stitched up for this movie.

The movie takes a disastrous turn as soon as soon as Gawain embarks on his journey, wherein he finds a damsel in distress named Linet, and soon he is adventuring to save her from all of the expected kidnappings and castle fires and attempted rapes that one expects out of a lazy sword-and-codpiece production like this. The majority of the film is lost in what one might think a subplot designed to fill out the feature-length running time, (the source material makes mention of Gawain’s adventures before reaching the castle of Sir Bertilak without providing anything in the way of detail) but the subplot eventually invades what one should expect would be the crux of the film. The scenes preceding Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight -- the greater portion of the narrative in the source material -- lack any thematic weight and Linet’s relationship with Bertilak obfuscated by Bertilak’s lack of any relation to the Green Knight. The green sash still saves Gawain’s life, but the film’s denouement makes clear that the purpose behind the quest is the maturation of a young knight, very much unlike the poem. It doesn’t sound any more like a bone-headed deviation than any of the other deviations, (Linet, Bertilak, the entire middle act of the film) but this one not only subverts the central themes of the poem, it exposes the laziness of Weeks as writer and director. Really, how cheap can one be to turn Gawain and the Green Knight into a bland coming of age story?

Particularly egregious if one reads the poem with a religious interpretation in mind -- either the green sash forced upon the knights of the round representing a reminder of their shared failure or as an inelegant symbol of pragmatic syncretism -- Gawain and the Green Knight mentions the round table’s uniform adoption of the girdle in a brief coda that dismisses any spiritual or moral symbolism. The same could be said for the whole movie.

Taken on its own merits and not as a poor adaptation, Gawain and the Green Knight is served well by its location shooting, which is quite authentic and attractively muted. The acting from Murray Head and Nigel Green is serviceable. The plot is appropriately structured to the theme of knightly maturation, symbolized by the changing seasons. There are, however, a number of elements that work just as hard in the opposite direction. The musical score is often intrusive, sometimes cheesy (dun-dun-dun-dunnnn when the Green Knight appears); the fight scenes seem un-choreographed more out of general lack of expertise than an appeal to verisimilitude; Stephen Weeks’ direction is weak, and many of the visual techniques he uses are badly dated. The number of times I can watch the camera zoom into Nigel Green’s face with that stupid musical cue before I feel the urge to watch something else is, I assure you, quite limited.

As I end this review, I find myself about to say something that might appear rather contradictory to my general philosophy on entertainment. Gawain and the Green Knight suffers for its earnestness in a way that Sword of the Valiant’s campiness mitigates. The earnestness of the performers, writing and direction of Gawain and the Green Knight actually means that those who made this film genuinely believed that the narrative would benefit from bowdlerization of the courtly love and medieval, chivalric ethics that make the poem so rich with symbolism and even ambiguity. At least Sword of the Valiant could not, even for one in his most critically furious mode, provoke a reviewer to write so dense a sentence. Thus the worse film is actually more enjoyable.

Incidentally, the most interesting film to have been adapted from "Gawain and the Green Knight" is an animated feature made for British television, in which the animators attempt to mimic the features of stained glass windows. Easily the most lyrical (and therefore appropriate) film version, it also happens to be the most faithful. You can see it on youtube to boot.


Beauty and Warrior (Sukma Romadhon, 2002)

For the inaugural review of an animated feature for this blog, I had to pick out something that really captured the spirit we’re cultivating here at the Gilded Trough. There were a few options, like Alakazam the Great, the English version of an early Toho animated feature, and A Chinese Ghost Story: The Tsui Hark Animation, which is about as silly and garish as any Hong Kong movie regardless of its medium. I even thought about Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice, being that it is the most eighties movie ever made and it would provide me with many opportunities to joke about Frank Frazetta’s fascination with big-assed women. But I picked a movie that’s far worse than those, an animated movie from Indonesia called Beauty and Warrior. But there’s a very particular reason why...
How could anybody pass up an animated movie from Indonesia when it’s presented by Joseph Lai and IFD Films?

Beauty and Warrior opens with a princess in a realm of gods being banished to the earth for marrying a mortal. Her handmaiden follows her, and after a protracted conversation in which each avers a mystical truth that is countered by the others mystical truth until both of them decide to part, the handmaiden flies around some caves and into an underwater kingdom with five gnarly demon-beasts to serve her. Bear in mind that this little sequence -- the young woman I suppose is the “beauty” referred to in the title taking her place as a queen of the underworld -- takes several minutes while consisting mostly of only a few frames of animation looped over and over again, much of it involving a flight through a cave tunnel that will be repeated no less than three times over the course of the forty-four minute movie.

At this point, two brothers pop out of nowhere, and after a brief physical fight with a couple of the beasts, one of the brothers decides to meditate in a cave while the other, more loquacious and aggressive brother keeps watch so that the monsters don’t sneak in and eat while his brother is astral projecting. The meeker brother floats along that previously mentioned tunnel as a blue line until he winds up in the underworld kingdom, where he fights it out with all five of the demon things. Once he does so, he gets busy with the new underworld queen, which is represented by the two of them turning into hearts, colored pink and blue (so we can tell them apart, obviously) and then the two of them reappearing holding a newborn baby while hearts shoot around them.
Truly, sexier sex has never been animated.

Returning from his mediation (again, the tunnel) the nicer of the two brothers now has a magic sword that appears out of thin air, which the meaner brother wants for himself. They fight. It lasts for the remainder of the movie. The meaner brother, after being defeated, is given the sword by the nicer of the two, for reasons as inexplicable as any other in this movie. When the good man’s mate shows up carrying his newborn son, he decides to chase after his brother, who left with the sword and ambitions of world conquest.
Is there anything weirder than this movie? The mere fact that it saw release on Region 1 dvd and used to be easy to find at Wal-Mart makes the whole thing even more bizarre. The company responsible for this, Digiview Entertainment, is a major provider of dollar bin dvd content, generally of the public domain. Aside from Beauty and Warrior, they also released a dvd of Thunder Prince, another Indonesian animated feature with lots of martial arts and also presented by Joseph Lai’s IFD. Digiview doesn’t just sell IFD releases of Indonesian animation; they also sell animated versions of classic literature, like Ivanhoe and The Odyssey, which were made by Australians and Eastern Europeans and nearly as poorly done as the Joseph Lai presentations. Obviously, if you’re buying a dvd for one dollar at a Wal-Mart or Dollar General, you ought not to be expecting quality.

Much like the live action films that IFD released, the dubbing team for Beauty and Warrior either doesn’t care, or didn’t bother to translate the actual dialog and doesn’t care. I think, based on the design of the titular beauty, that this might be a tale about the South Sea Queen of Javanese folklore, albeit one of very lax fidelity. But not knowing the original language of this production, nor if an original language version is even available, it isn’t possible to say that the intended product makes any more sense. Even then, the interminably long fight scenes lack any visual interest and consist of only a very few frames of animation and lots of key-framing. It’s a bad, nearly unwatchable, interminable forty-four minutes.

Joseph Lai, Godfrey Ho and Thomas Tang were the triumvirate of cut-rate entertainment at one point. But Ho now teaches film making at a University in Hong Kong, and Tang is not (to my knowledge) involved in producing films anymore. Perhaps it is a step down for Lai, to have gone from the premier purveyor of cut-and-splice epics like Robo-Vampire and the Thunder Ninja Kids series to the distribution of animation that actually makes less sense than the live action films Godfrey Ho used to assemble out of five hours worth of independently shot footage from abandoned film projects, Filipino and Thai B-movies, footage of Hong Kong stuntmen in ninja costumes fighting each other and Richard Harrison... being Richard Harrison. He shouldn’t feel bad, though, because of this image:
Is that a very bright yellow nipple? I don’t know what I’ll do in return, but if anybody makes me a quality “GoldenPigsy’s Gilded Nipple” banner out of that, there’ll surely be some karma coming his or her way.

By the by, this movie sucks.


The Dark Spire -- Game Review

Most of the younger gamers I’ve known tend to think of Japanese RPGs entirely in terms of Final Fantasy 7; as though it were the bench mark every developer uses to decide whether or not they’ve made a quality role playing game. For Japan, the sort of colossal impact FF7 had in America was felt a decade earlier on the Famicom with Dragon Quest (released in the US as Dragon Warrior with an awesomely quasi-Jacobean English translation), a series still played by college students, business men, housewives, and others who supposedly reached a stage in life at which video games no longer matter.

But a very select RPG fan will recall a little game from the early ‘80s called Wizardry, the product of the sorely missed Sir-Tech. Translated into Japanese even before JRPG progenitors like Namco’s Tower of Druaga or Falcom’s Dragon Slayer made nerds of young Japanese boys, Wizardry fostered such a following in Japan that their developers continued to produce games even after Sir-Tech’s demise. One of these Japanese made spin-offs actually saw release in the US. (Localized by Atlus, of course) Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land debuted on the PS2 in 2001, and Electronic Gaming Monthly (issue 151) asserted that, “Everything is built upon a rotted foundation. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone really wants an endless dungeon crawl in this vein anymore…” Ouch. The game didn’t sell.

Why all the video game history? Because people who started playing RPGs with Final Fantasy 7 need not apply to The Dark Spire -- I assure them all that they will not like it. Bear in mind that Dragon Quest became the model for JRPGs (including Final Fantasy) specifically to get away from the first person, dungeon obsessive model of Wizardry. Since many younger players find the Dragon Quest games too difficult or “old school,” they ought to know that Dragon Quest was an antidote to something even less beginner friendly. And The Dark Spire is, for all intents and purposes, a Wizardry knock-off. If EGM were still around, they’d probably give this one a bad review too.

The Dark Spire starts the same way any computer RPG starts: simulated dice rolls. After picking your characters races (human, dwarf, elf, and Halfling, naturally) and rolling their stats, there’s a brief and rather vague training sequence, after which you’re free to buy equipment and then go to the titular spire, where the random encounters will likely kill you pretty quickly if you don’t know how to set up a party, equip it, and put it in proper formation. I’m guessing that means that a considerable portion of the twenty-and-under set is going to have a difficult time starting out this game. I’ve actually played various computer RPGs over the years and I had a bit of trouble with it myself, thrown off mostly by the lack of numerical data provided in item descriptions and a leveling system with intricacies that aren’t readily apparent to the untrained eye.

I persevered, however, and find myself progressing in the game. Making it to the third level in the seven tiered tower felt like quite an accomplishment, if only because making my way there felt so counter-intuitive I was never sure if I was doing the correct things. The constant need to check every corner and wall of the spire, the total lack of direction on how to play the game, and the intentionally obfuscated statistical value of equipment and items and the like all recall the older days of the genre, which were well before my time. Granted, it is possible to figure it out by reading and thinking carefully, but you’ll be face palming pretty hard when you realize how badly you’ve screwed up on character creation and equipment. Here’s a hint: physical attackers suck past the second level of the tower. I think a lot of veteran PC RPG fans probably already knew that.

Many are the older RPG fans that have beaten The Dark Spire in a week or two of buying it, telling me how easy it was for them and how nice and simple it was to play a game developed by people who really knew what they were doing. Hearing that pretty much confirmed that no matter how many NES and SNES RPGs I’ve played, no matter how many pseudo-roguelikes I’ve enjoyed, no matter that my first Bioware game was Baldur’s Gate and not Knights of the Old Republic, I am not old-school or hardcore the way these guys are.

Retro gaming always appealed to the nostalgic gamers and poseurs. I am neither. However, the recent trend of pseudo-retro games like Mega Man 9 and Final Fantasy IV: The After Years (originally a cell phone game, blech) intrigues me, if only because so much of its emphasis is on stripped down graphics. The Dark Spire boasts impressive, highly stylized graphics reminiscent of the comic book art of Mike Mignola, which matches well with its unsettling musical score. But if you switch to the “classic mode” you get wire frame graphics with adorably pixilated sprites and tinny, digitized versions of the creepy themes found in the contemporary mode. It actually does Capcom and Square one better by being one of the coolest looking games on the DS as well as the most retro at the same time.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before one of these games too closely recreates old-school gaming and sets off a wave of anger and frustration. I await the day when fifteen-year-old boys stop clamoring for a return to the “good old days” that they didn’t really experience. If anybody had played The Dark Spire, it probably would have been the game that slapped some sense into these kids, not only with its design, but with the DS’ aggravating control scheme. Bottom screen stylus control would have actually alleviated the annoying need to use the right shoulder button to switch characters on the bottom screen during item/spell use.

Even thought it’s kicked my ass so many times, The Dark Spire draws me back invariably. I think there’s a sense of accomplishment there that other games don’t give me. There seems to be a growing audience for this type of thing too. This game was released on the heels of Atlus’ in-house developed dungeon crawlers, Etrian Odyssey and its sequel. They also recently released Class of Heroes for the PSP, another first person, turn based RPG that looks much like a later entry in the Wizardry series except for all of the drippy anime character designs and school setting, which The Dark Spire thankfully lacks. But despite the recent releases of newly developed games, dungeon crawlers are not really back in style. Frankly, they’ll never make enough concessions to the current audience to achieve lasting popularity, and I think the pseudo-retro thing is a passing fad. The actual fans of these games are fairly few, and many of them are content to play the genre's classics. You can currently buy The Dark Spire at Gamestop, brand new, packaged with a soundtrack CD, for $10. That does not bode well.

So enjoy The Dark Spire for what it is, because even with a Japanese company planning to revive Wizardry yet again, this is likely the most interesting rip-off we’ll ever see localized for the United States.


Duel with Samurai (Gam Sing-Yan, 1971)

The “evil Japanese ronin/ninja/samurai screws with righteous Chinese martial artists just for the funsies” plot deserves a long retirement from the employment of Chinese film makers. It’s been used to good effect in films like The Valiant Ones (King Hu, 1975) and Heroes of the East (Lau Kar-Leung, 1979), but the unqualified vilification of the Japanese also motivates films like the spectacularly silly Ninja: The Final Duel (Robert Tai, 1986) and the spectacularly bad Great General (Ting Chung, 1978), a movie so bad that I’ve owned it for years without ever making it through more than thirty minutes of its ugly blandness. Needless to say, the disparity between quality and crap gets pretty wide between movies with this plot/theme.

Gam Sing-Yan’s 1971 film, Duel with Samurai, deserves credit for being one of the earlier films with this plot, following The Chinese Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1970) but released before the most widely seen example of the Chinese-vs.-Japanese plot, Fists of Fury. In Duel with Samurai, a ronin played by Chan Hung Lit shows up more or less unexpectedly in China and starts killing off the usual assortment of kung fu movie stock characters. In fact, the first thirty minutes consists of nothing more than Chan Hung Lit in a kimono stabbing and slashing people in traditional Chinese costumes and then doing his best evil Japanese laugh, a few times helped by his sister (Kong Ching-Ha) who is a feisty little kunoichi with disappearing/reappearing jump cut magic. We don’t even see the hero played by Kong Ban until about fifteen minutes into the movie, at which point it settles into a more routine training, dueling, and double-crossing affair.

While watching Duel with Samurai, I couldn’t help but think of Duel of the Seven Tigers (Richard Yeung, 1979), mostly because they each feature the same anti-Japanese premise and a protagonist that learns multiple special techniques in order to defeat the invader. After eight years of trial and error, it’s clear that the latter boasts more intricate choreography, and that the highly trained and skilled martial artists like Phillip Ko Fei, Cliff Lok, Sharon Yeung Pan-Pan are more able to perform such choreography than Kong Ban, Chan Hung Lit, and Kong Ching-Ha. Duel with Samurai frequently undercuts its marginally credible fight scenes with wire work and practical effects that feel unusually out of place for such a flick. But at least it does the good deed of including some female nudity, courtesy of Kong Ching-Ha’s body double.

If anything, it’s interesting to see just how little changed in Hong Kong movies of this type. The Chinese women (represented here by Lee Shu, a generally agreeable actress playing a regrettably boring character) in such stories are almost inhumanly chaste, the Japanese women are sluts. Need proof? Take a look at Chang Cheh’s first take on this theme in Chinese Super Ninjas, where the only woman present in the entire movie is a kunoichi spy who uses her sexuality to distract one hero, later throwing herself at his brother who kills her without much in the way of emotion.

The costuming, the settings, the actors, and the production/technical methods might be considerably different, but the heart, and one assumes the purpose of such movies remain largely the same. They provide cultural revenge for the Chinese against the Japanese for atrocities that remain very fresh in the minds of many Chinese people, just as the acts of the Germans in the 20th century have not escaped the memories of many in the Occidental entertainment world. There is possibly something cathartic in seeing a Chinese hero destroy the icon of Japanese warrior culture after said icon heaps tremendous abuse upon the Chinese people with whom he comes into contact -- the Chinese hero getting revenge that those genuinely victimized by Japanese military in recent history were denied.

Granted, it’s Chan Hung Lit's angry, self-centered ronin who comes off as a badass. I don’t think that the audiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China much cared, though.

It reminds me of Stephen Sommers’ recent G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, in which the most competent members of an international military force funded and founded by the USA are all foreigners, yet the annoying American military guys save the day through some combination of luck/deus ex machina/confusing lapse of internal logic/manifest destiny. The flag waving doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t need to.

As an early seventies sword flick, Duel with Samurai is passable. The fighting is decent, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. If you like such movies, you’ll like this one well enough. There are people who will watch this one just because of its relative obscurity, but they should occupy themselves with the search for the director Gam Sing-Yan's more obscure and wacky movies, like Fairy, Fox and Ghost (1970) and Sea Gods and Ghosts (1978) which are infamously strange fantasy kung fu films.


Tomoe Gozen by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

Every blogger with even a smidgen of taste bashes generic fantasy. It’s one of those things that you can pretty much expect from nerds that are trying much too hard to pretend that they have taste. I don’t want to seem like another in the digital mob of self-consciously snarky voices that decry the same things, in the same manner, for the same reasons. It gets tiresome reading yet another essay about how Christopher Paolini sucks (he does) or how much Christian allegory kills otherwise enjoyable fantasy novels. (I’m not sold on that one)

But it is a shame that some people are in print when I have to hunt to find books written by more deserving authors, and I acknowledge that wholeheartedly. I learned about Jessica Amanda Salmonson from her web page of movie reviews, Weird Wild Realm, which I eventually stumbled upon while looking for information on the Japanese film, The Lefty Fencer, a female version of the venerable one-armed, one-eyed Tange Sazen character. Salmonson won a world fantasy award for a collection titled Amazons, and in her review of the Roger Corman produced sword and sorcery film of the same name, related some anecdotes about talking to Corman on the phone and her personal interaction with Charles Saunders, whose story, “Agwebe’s Sword,” was the basis for that terrible/entertaining movie. Sufficiently amused and intrigued by her web site, I felt certain that I wanted to read one of her novels.

Tomoe Gozen is the first in a trilogy that follows the journeys of Tomoe as she quests to regain her honor after the manipulations of an interloping sorcerer leave her a disfavored hero. This first book collects the story of Tomoe’s fall from favor and a couple tales of her wanderings across the land of Naipon, a fantasy of old Japan, where Japanese gods and monsters exist in an otherwise accurate recreation of feudal Nippon. While each part of the book could work well enough as a stand alone story, they were clearly written with a chronology in mind and there are overarching plot threads regarding Tomoe’s former comrades and the general state of Naipon and the intrigues of its upper castes of nobles and warrior elites.

I was not surprised that I ended up liking Tomoe Gozen, but the loveliness of Salmonson’s writing, which retains a consistently engaging style. With the recent popularity of Asian culture and martial arts, it really seems like these would be ripe for a reissue, or at least that they would have something of a following. Perhaps there’s a fantastic orientalist lesbian fiction book club where these books are highly regarded and discussed, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And that’s too bad, as Salmonson’s blend of a credible vision of historical Japan with bakemono, kappa, sea dragons, and magic wielding ninjas seems like the sort of milieu that would appeal to an audience that regularly consumes anime and movies that self-consciously imitate Asian action film techniques, like Kill Bill. Even the most generic fantasy novels have been more commercially successful lately than they probably deserve to be. Why wouldn’t Tomoe Gozen receive any new attention?

There are a few particular things that make Tome Gozen less than appealing to certain readers. Tomoe herself is of ambiguous sexuality, attracted to both men and women; her honor -- the social currency of warriors in a feudal society – motivates her in every situation and decision, rather than the innate moral code or romantic feelings that often drive the protagonists of some popular examples of heroic fantasy. From a prurient author, an honor bound warrior woman who loves women would equate to a formula for fetishistic writing that these days tends to get published on the internet rather than in magazines or story collections -- a blood bath interrupted by pornography. This isn’t that.

That the narrative contains numerous sequences of violent battles, ninja attacks and decapitations -- and that among the characters are at least a few lusty tribades -- is largely incidental. It’s the stylish, dreamy prose that stands out in Salmonson’s fantasy, perfectly capturing both the otherworldliness of the setting while describing some truly strange and bizarre sequences. (In a particularly trippy passage, Tomoe births herself out of her own head, more or less) The characterization is lovely, particularly in the second part, in which a clash between Buddhism and Shintoism perfectly captures the personality of their exponents, poking fun, in a sweet natured way, at the silliness of religious debates between people already convinced of their own beliefs.

All of that quality is precisely what makes Tomoe Gozen not commercial. It’s not prurient enough to capture the attention of thirteen year old boys and people who like awful stuff like Gor. Its sexual content makes it unsuitable as teenage girl empowerment. The lush prose would probably seem too demanding or too obtuse (the term "yoni-light," for example) to those whose only experience with fantastic fiction is video games, novels adapted from video games and R. A. Salvatore. The readers who will appreciate Jessica Salmonson’s writing are probably those most willing to seek it out, a fact comforts that part of me that finds it a great injustice that she doesn’t seem to receive the attention she deserves. This fantasy is unique, and therefore to be valued.


My Shame: Quik Trip Hot Dogs

There's a dieting maxim that applies to pretty much everyone, regardless of whether they're trying to lose weight: You should never get a meal at the same place that you fill your car with gas. I have a hard time with that one. Over the past couple of years, Quik Trip's provided me much late night/early morning sustenance, and I've grown rather fond of their selection of supremely junky, nasty food. Particularly appealing are the hot dogs, or more specifically, the jalapeno sausage dogs which, because of their jalapeno and cheese content, are both more awesome and actually more unhealthful than regular hot dogs! The convenience store/gas station as a restaurant: what a wonderful world we live in.

Not too long ago, I was returning from a short trip to a friend's home. While She lives only an hour away, we tend to lose track of time while watching movies, and I usually don't leave until after Craig Ferguson's monologue on CBS' "The Late Late Show." I was nearing home at that really weird time of night when you really want to do really weird shit. There's a reason why late night programming that isn't paid advertisements for phone sex, Girls Gone Wild, or get-rich-quick scams consists of stuff like Dave Attell's "Insomniac" and all those non-sequiter-a-minute shows on adult swim. Those of us who are up that late like to do weird shit, and if we can't do weird shit, we'll settle for watching it. For me, it's around midnight to four in the morning that I want to engage in or be engaged by stupidity, bad behavior, or just genuinely strange stuff. It's also the time when Quik Trip's jalapeno dogs start to sound really delicious.

On this occasion, I planned to get a couple of jalapeno sausage dogs and eat them in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart before I went in for some good old fashioned people watching. (There's few things more amusing than a Wal-Mart that late at night, and probably not for any of the reasons you would think) But my plans were ruined when I walked into the Quik Trip and found no sausage dogs, and in their place some unnaturally red colored weiners turning over in the hot dog rack. Apparently, this was the new "spicy red dog." Hot dogs by themselves are nasty, especially if you know what they're made of. Even the all beef hot dogs are mostly comprised of scraps, fat, and stuff that likely isn't supposed to be in there, but the FDA has determined won't hurt you any more than the absurd levels of saturated fat of what is supposed to be in there. Take that and give it an outer casing that looks like glowing plastic doused in red 5, and you have yourself one of Quik Trip's new products that you're intended to put in your mouth, chew and swallow.

It was so depressing that I ate at Jack in the Box instead. I ate at Jack in the Box! My head hangs in shame at the admission.

I've a few idiosyncrasies, I admit. I enjoy listening to the local classical music station's "Romantic Hours" program. I loiter at Wal-Mart late at night when I'm bored enough. I actually enjoy games developed by Nihon Falcom, and nothing gets me more excited than a really obscure kung fu movie. But my greatest weakness is those jalapeno dogs. I eat those while I'm listening to "Romantic Hours," and when I people watch at Wal-Mart; I eat them when I play Vantage Master and when I watch movies like Young Flying Hero and Kung Fu Cult Master and Thrilling Sword. Hell, they're what I eat when I'm watching Lolita or Venus in Firs. (that was on Turner Classic Movies a couple of weeks ago, wtf?!) They are the calories I burn to fuel the majority of my shameful, geeky pursuits. In a lot of ways, they're responsible for much of the content on this blog.

I was about to give into my despair, resigning myself to either try and like the new spicy red dogs or just settle for the regular variety. Yet to my great surprise, they're back. The sausage has returned. Granted, it shares space with the awful red dogs, but at least they're available again. In fact, I'm eating one right now. It's processed cheese and saturated fat is filling my belly with more or less the same warmth as the canned taste of the jalapeno chunks in my mouth: The same feeling of warmth and satisfaction I get when I PK somebody in Diablo 2, or when I tell my brother that I have the remastered Mei Ah dvd of Days of Being Wild, but he can't borrow it because I know that he'll make a dvd-r, and I don't approve of theft. Thank you, Quik Trip, and please don't ever screw up so badly again. Kthnx.


Game Review --Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime

I bought Rocket Slime for the DS a few days ago to have something to play as I wanted to take a break from playing The Dark Spire (another DS game) which I was playing regularly because I wanted to take a break from watching dumb movies and writing about them here. That’s a reason that would be particular to a blogger, no?

I’m aware that I don’t write as many video game reviews as I probably could. That’s at least partly because I don’t really know what to write. With Rocket Slime, all I wanted was something to kill time for a couple of days. It did that quite well. So what more do you want? You want a blow by blow explanation of how the game plays, the graphics, the music, the story, et cetera? Those sorts of game reviews bore me. They bore me when I read them, thus I have no doubt if I try to write one, it will bore me even worse. It feels like you’re reading or writing about a grill or a truck or some product that is little more than a set of parts that should all work in tandem to provide for whatever wants or needs the product supposedly intends to fulfill. Some kids on youtube do this in video format, and it sucks there too.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “New Games Journalism,” which tries to relate the experience of playing the game rather than just describing the game’s more technical elements. Taken to its furthest, the result of this approach ranges from infuriatingly vague to unnecessarily personal, revealing in both cases more about the reviewer than the game. That reviews tend to give some insight into the person writing them is true for everything -- movies, music, theater, what have you -- but with games it becomes especially noticeable, because unlike film and music and literature, games are not art. That isn’t to say that some games are not artistic or even capital “A” Art. That’s to say that, with few exceptions, most games boil down to time wasters: a little program that gives a graphical reward for the right set of inputs. Taken too far, this “personal” approach to writing about games, and the fervent belief that they are of the same stuff as actual narrative art results in Action Button Dot Net. Seriously. Look up their review of Diablo 2.

I don’t write like that, do I?

By the end of that pointlessly long and rambling screed, I knew more about the reviewer than I ever cared to. All that over Diablo 2? Really? I have no reason to even attempt that sort of writing with a silly little game like Rocket Slime.

I’m not going to, either. Rocket Slime can be summed up as a pleasantly brainless experience. There’s no challenge to its overhead, Zelda-esque exploration sequences, and everything in the game can be attained so long as you look for it -- there’s little need to actually use your brain with this one. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to play. While the majority of the game involves stretching the blue slime protagonist and launching him like a taut rubber band at enemies or items that can be combined through the game’s alchemy system, the real draw of this game is its tank battles in which you walk about in your giant tank, collecting ammo and launching it at an opposing giant tank.

Not that the tank battles require any real thought either, at least not against the CPU, which can be beaten quite easily by just launching things indiscriminately until it’s over. But against a human opponent, it could probably be pretty amusing. This is one of the few times in which I really wished that Nintendo had made the DS a more capable online platform. Without this, Rocket Slime is a walk in the park. As a Zelda clone, it’s competent, although it doesn’t really capture the same feeling of a wide open world that the better games in that series always conveyed, neither does Rocket Slime feature the cleverly arranged dungeons or puzzles of its inspiration. In fact, aside from the tank battles, its most memorable attributes are its script’s awful puns -- S(ub) lime, Chrono Twigger, Don Clawleone, The Plob Father, etc. -- and indulgence in inventing Teutonic sounding names.

But what it does well, it does well. I bought a used copy for ten dollars last Thursday, and beat the game with everything unlocked by the end of the weekend. It did exactly what I wanted it to do: it provided enough of a distraction in my off hours that I was able to play it without either getting completely bored or wanting to go back to plugging away at The Dark Spire. This is the very definition of a game that gives you simple visual rewards for doing the right thing: a game that would probably thrill me if I were fifteen years younger, although with the sort of games kids play these days, I don’t feel confident saying even that. It’s a wholly inoffensive, yet simultaneously mind-numbing game.

What else is there to say about it? Does casting the player as the punching bag of the Dragon Quest series say something deep about the human condition? Does the stretching of the slime represent the strain of the Japanese relationship with the self, and the destructive force of the elastic shooting an orgasmic release of the id? Does writing as if I knew anything of substance about Psychology or game design make me look like a huge ass?

Well, yeah. But I don’t write like that, do I?