Does the Auction House Sell a Windows 7 Compliant Diablo 2?

I don’t have to apologize for not having a movie review to post, or for that matter, a real review of anything, but I want to. And since I’m here, I also want to let the few people who care know why they won’t see GoldenPigsy wanting to join their game in Diablo 3.

I’m frustrated with the whole Diablo 3 situation for several reasons, the most trivial of which is that I’d still rather play Diablo 2 even though Blizzard will not release a patch to make the game stable on Windows 7. Granted, you can get it to run by fiddling with some settings – there are guides that show you how to do it – but I suspect that Blizzard will reissue Diablo 2 digitally sometime down the line, newly Windows 7 compliant, with heavy DRM and minor improvements, hoping to resell the game to customers who bought it twelve years ago.

But the fairly trivial reason ties into the very big problem I have with Diablo 3, which is the DRM. In order to play Diablo 3, the player must connect to Blizzard’s servers. And it isn’t as though this connection is a simple check-in; the connection must be maintained, even when playing single player. During last week’s launch, a seemingly large number of players had trouble actually playing the game they bought for sixty dollars. The servers were down entirely on Saturday.

I honestly cannot think of another industry that has such an adversarial approach to customer relations, and it is not strictly an issue of DRM. Diablo 3 is not designed for single player. Its single player mode is just a desiccated MMO; the game is meant to be played either with a party or with a NPC follower. The insistent solo player will find that the item drops and crafting provide only the occasionally useful item, and that it is far more sensible to buy powerful items through the online auction house, which will eventually implement an option to buy or sell virtual goods for not-virtual money.

In other words, the persistent online configuration is not only designed to prevent piracy, but to force the consumer into playing the game in a specific way, and with the hope that the consumer will continue to feed money to the developer.

Even the game mechanics are tightly controlled. The player no longer allocates stats, as it is done automatically, and the skill trees are quite linear. The “rune system” allows for a superficial amount of customization, but with the way they have structured the skill tree, Blizzard has done away with the whole concept of a unique character build in an attempt to nullify class optimization. The idea is that players no longer have to think about how to make the most efficient character. In practice, it means you can forget about making a unique build, like a singing Barbarian which buffs/de-buffs while hacking through hordes of enemies. From what I can tell, the Barbarian in Diablo 3 is a designated tank, and little else. Others have reported that the classes are poorly balanced – which was a problem even in Diablo 2, to be honest – which is telling of Blizzard’s priorities. They’ve spent several years and much capital in the making of this game and still not fixed a twelve-year-old problem.

And since stat allocation is handled automatically, and the skill system is mostly linear, the most effective decision making available to the player is in equipment – again, much like your typical MMO. And since the drops and crafting don’t seem especially helpful – and since level caps on equipment no longer seem to be a major part of the game – this leaves the auction house as the most viable way of building a character to your liking.

It’s like a free-to-play MMO, but you pay sixty dollars to play it.

So those are the reasons why I’m not interested in playing Diablo 3, at least based on the impressions I’m getting from watching RockManXZ24 while he plays it. As for the game itself, I will admit that it looks like fun. I like mindless hack-and-slash, loot-focused action-RPGs quite a lot, and, mechanically speaking, Diablo 3 looks like a compromise between Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and some of the MMOs that come out of South Korea and Japan. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. But I’m not interested in MMORPGs and the attitude that informs the new DRM policy is unacceptable to me. So that’s how it is.


This is not what David Gaider Wants

Last week I received an unusual e-mail from a reader. I call it unusual because its author did not want a) me to tell him or her where to find one of the more obscure movies reviewed on the blog or b) for me to send him or her a copy of the movie for free. (Seriously, people, do actually expect somebody to do that? Stop sending me your addresses.)

A portion:

I'm a BioWare fan. Not even gonna try to hide my fandom here. Relax though, while this email is coming your way because I read your reviews of The Calling and The Stolen Throne, I'm not writing to put your head on a pike. Quite the opposite actually. Basically, I'd love to write professionally. Preferably for video games but hey if I could do prose then I would not be complaining one bit. As silly as this may sound, I've always looked up to David Gaider immensely…

So where's the issue here? Easy. Up until today, Gaider has been... God. Well more or less, I have had several issues with parts of his writing but who can I read without having that? As many writing classes as I've had I'm frankly reading two versions of the same texts as my eyes dance them over - my own version and that of my education's mean eye. This man though has not set off that many red warnings in my head though. He has been who I want to be. Or at least, someone far along the ladder I want to climb, should I be able to go even further. But today I allowed myself to read quite a bit of his criticism, the final pieces of today being your two reviews (sorry, I'm leaving a turd on your doorstep almost by chance, I am really sorry =( ). Everything is changing.

It’s very easy to assume that people who enjoy tie-in fiction are stupid or lacking in self-awareness, but this isn't necessarily true (even if it often is). The young lady who sent me this very much wants to write fantasy stories for video games and fiction, and she feels let down now that she’s realized that her emperor’s ass is showing.

Her reaction is entirely normal – healthy, even. One of the more unnerving aspects of “fandom” is how it disconnects people from the broader scope. I don’t even mean, necessarily, from mainstream or higher brow literature, but from a broader scope of what might be within the fan’s interests. It’s also the sort of attitude that corporate interests try to foster.

It’s almost cult-like in its operation. Fan forums, especially those that are officially operated by the producers of large franchises (Bioware Social, Bethesda Softworks et al), cultivate insularity and reward fanatical obsession. Breaking away from all of the obsession and idolization can actually be stressful for the fan who once sincerely believed her or his favorite game developer or tie-in writer to be "God."

And that sort of cultivated myopia is what I’ve been railing at in the reviews of David Gaider’s fiction, and it’s what the sender of this missive is trying to cope with. She's quite right to be bothered.

David Gaider has done her no favors with his mediocrity, or with his half-hearted attempts to dodge criticism, or with self-important puffery – a trait which is consistent throughout Bioware’s public self-image. If there is one thing that Gaider sincerely does not want, it is for the readers of his fiction and the players of his games to actually educate themselves about decent story-telling and game design. Gaider (and the company that employs him) does not want for the majority of fans to feel the consternation that drips off of this e-mail.

Thankfully, it isn’t up to him. I wish my reader all the best.


Journey to the West (Chang Cheh, 1991)

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big fan of The Journey to the West in its literary form. And I’ve got a pretty wide ranging appreciation for the cinematic adaptations that visualize the story with varying degrees of fidelity. I did, after all, choose an internet handle from one of the principle characters in the story. I even played the part of the loveable porcine man-child in a student theater production in college.

I also love films by Shaw Brothers’ million dollar auteur Chang Cheh. Chang rose to prominence with the 1966 film One-Armed Swordsman, which not only tapped into the generational malaise afflicting Hong Kong youth at the time, but revolutionized Hong Kong’s approach to the wuxia genre, then dominated by Cantonese film makers and teenage starlets, with its combination of heavily masculine themes and imagery. Its cinematographic style was so heavily imitated that the only competition it has for the most influential martial arts film of all time is King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. And aside from being an epochal genre film, it’s also plain fun to watch, and has aged better than many other films of its vintage.

Chang went through various stages in his film-making career. He started as a critic and writer; experimented as a co-director and crafted a legendary lost film, Tiger Boy, before moving on to making the most profitable film in Shaw Brothers’ New Wuxia Century wave of Mandarin language wuxia films in the 1960’s; he worked extensively with David Chiang and Ti Lung in wuxia, kung fu, and historical spectacles before settling into a niche of manic kung fu films utilizing the talents of Taiwanese born Peking Opera stars Phillip Kwok, Lu Feng, and Chiang Sheng. I could go on about Chang’s accomplishments during each of these periods for several more paragraphs.

But towards the end of his career, Chang was no longer the same creative force as he was when he made One Armed Swordsman. His final Shaw Brothers film, The Weird Man, was neither well received critically, nor profitable. It’s so utterly farcical in some portions that the mind wanders from the film itself to contemplate the mental state of the man who made it. After leaving Shaw Brothers, Chang made three films in Taiwan, using many of the actors from his latter period at Shaw Brothers. These five films not only used some of the same actors, but Chiang Sheng and Lu Feng – often the action directors and assistant directors from his Shaw Brothers days – took over many of the directorial duties for films like Nine Demons and Attack ofthe Joyful Goddess.

Chang Cheh had always, if those who worked with him are to be believed (and there’s no real reason to doubt them), been a fairly hands-off director. By the mid-eighties, however, Chang’s eyesight was deteriorating. But even so, I think at least two of Chang’s films from this era, Shanghai 13 and Attack of the Joyful Goddess, are worth seeing.

After this brief excursion in Taiwanese film making, Chang Cheh headed to the Mainland, where he continued to “direct” in the capacity that he could. He found a stable of Peking Opera talent, dubbed by Western fans as “the New Venoms,” and set about either remaking or retreading his old films (Hidden Hero is a remake of Life Gamble; Ninja in Ancient China is like a remix of both The Weird Man and Five Element Ninjas).
Chang Cheh’s Journey to the West is new territory for him, although he was no stranger to fantasy films tinged with Operatic visual cues. It certainly takes the same tack as other low budget, low ambition adaptations though. The film covers the episode in which Princess Iron Fan attempts to kidnap the Tang monk with the help of her step-son, Red Boy, only to be foiled by Sun Wukong and company. In Chang’s film, the Bodhisattva Guan Yin sends her emissaries (including Na Zha), to aid in the battle against Red Boy and his magic.
The film starts with a synopsis of the story thus far, with the imprisonment of Monkey, his journey with Xuanzhang, the Tang monk, meeting Pigsy and Sandy, etc. Then there are some hijinks with a demon who accosts the travelling crew, followed by Monkey and company meeting with Princess Iron Fan. She’s annoyed with Ox King, her husband, who has taken a second wife. After a failed attempt at seducing Monkey (and a thorough rebuking of Pigsy, who is happy to fill in for Monkey after he abjures Iron Fan’s advances), Princess Iron Fan begins scheming to kidnap the monk.

But before that, Monkey and co. must help a small outpost which is besieged by demons pretending to be the Emperor, who has raised taxes to an unreasonable rate. This is where the film indulges in the long tradition of having Monkey disguise himself as various other characters with his magic, although none of the actors portray unique enough personalities make this fun, and only the inevitable jump cut between one actor and the other gives away the game.
It’s also where two supporting characters are introduced, who are in love and betrothed. One of them will later be killed by Princess Iron Fan, and the other never mentioned again.

Finally, the film meanders into the major fight between the Red Boy and the heroes. Monkey, Sandy, Ne Zha, and two other characters whose names I can’t remember (if they were ever mentioned) have it out in a ten minute brawl with Red Boy and his demonic cohorts. We get to see Monkey use his magical hair, which turns into monkey fighters, along with a bevy of pyrotechnics, poorly done wire work, and some genuinely good fight choreography.
Although credited to Chang, much of the direction was likely on the shoulders of Dung Chi-Wa, Du Yu-Ming, and Mu Li-Xin, who also handled action direction and play Monkey, Sandy, and Red Boy, respectively. The camera work occasionally resembles Chang Cheh’s better films from Shaw Brothers, utilizing slow motion and overhead angles when large crowds fight in formation, but very often looks utterly awful with people flitting in and out of frame, or the frame being too close to capture all of the movements during one-on-one fight scenes. Lighting equipment makes a split second cameo in one shot.

So it isn’t the best looking film. Locations are re-used; there is little visual continuity – how exactly can the heroes journey through a desert and somehow come across the same leafy outpost time and again? But it does have nice fight choreography. And the finale threatens to wander into Yuen Clan territory with fighters on rocket propelled roller skates and bladed, flame throwing go-carts.
There’s also some of Chang Cheh’s trademark gore on display, including visible intestines.
This was the penultimate film of Chang’s career, with the much better Ninja in Ancient China premiering two years later in 1993. In some ways, it’s a shame to see the once brilliant creative force stamping his name on such a lacking product. At the same time, you almost have to respect Chang for cranking out a movie when he was nearly blind. A lot is made of the sexual politics and sanguine aspects of Chang Cheh’s films, but the man loved making movies – he made them as long as he could. That’s pretty awesome, even if most of the later films are not, or are for unintended reasons.

And that finale is worth seeing at least once, if only to get a glimpse of Dung Chi-Wa in action before Stephen Chow rediscovered him and cast him as the spear wielding master in Kung Fu Hustle.


Still Alive and Learning to Enjoy the SHMUP

I'm still here. For reals.

But I’ve been busy. And when I get busy, I stop doing things, even things that don’t require that I leave my home or put on pants. Hence, I stopped watching movies, and once I stopped watching them, I stopped writing about them. And now I have not yet begun to write about movies again, mostly because I haven’t actually watched one in, like, three weeks.

So, what have I actually been doing in the spare time I have? Mostly whittling it away. I developed something of a habit, recently, of sitting in a chair across from my only television that picks up a digital signal and playing video games on one of my analog TVs, situated nearby, which now serves no other purpose. This usually means that I blaze through a few rounds of Samurai Warriors Xtreme Legends while listening to the local news broadcast before turning in for the night.

But recently I decided to actually try playing something a bit different from my usual selection of JRPGs and Koei brawlers – specifically, I decided to try to reacquaint myself with the scrolling shooter. Once among the most popular genres in arcades, the seemingly simple scrolling shooter had fallen out of favor during much of the late nineties and oughts, with few developers (Treasure comes to mind) bothering to make them, while fans became so desperate that they would praise even mediocre games – see Dave Halverson’s gushing over Silpheed: The Lost Planet in Gamer’s Republic for an example. Recently, iOS ports of Japanese arcade shooters (the genre still enjoys a profitable audience in Japan) helped rejuvenate the interest in this very noble style of electronic game.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPhone. I do own a PSP, so rather than paying for old games on a new platform, I downloaded a Turbografx-16 emulator and a Sega Genesis emulator and a few roms so that I could enjoy old games on relatively old platform, without paying anything at all.

Of course, I had to choose which games I would try to play – I say “try,” as I had not actually played a scrolling shoot-em-up since the DOS days and Raptor: Call of the Shadows – which lead me over to Hardcore Gaming101. I eventually decided on trying out some Compile shooters, since I rather like Puyo Pop for the Game Boy Advance.

The first one I tried was MUSHA for the Genesis. It’s a vertically scrolling shooter where the player controls a giant mecha robot in a vaguely Sengoku era Japanese setting, which is exactly the sort of silliness that contemporary gaming eschews to its own misfortune. The technological/mythological/historical mash-up is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. I mean, you’re a giant robot in ancient Japan shooting electrified arrows and shurikens at giant Japanese castles on tank treads which shoot flaming oni demon heads at you. That’s definitely something.

The other thing that I liked about MUSHA was the weapon system. The player can collect three types of weapons and get two satellite units, which is more or less conventional. What is unusual is that the player can actually order the satellites with the press of a button. The two smaller ships that fly next to the giant robot can home in on enemies, or aim themselves next to the ship to spread gunfire across the screen. The support units are vulnerable to enemy fire, though, so it is best for the player not to simply set them to homing and leave them to get slaughtered by incoming enemies.

It’s a hard game too. I’ve still not managed to get past the third level, but that’s two levels farther than the first time I played. One of the things I like about scrolling shooters is that they’re genuinely skill based, and time spent with them is time spent learning the skills it takes to play them. Granted, a person with exceptional hand-eye coordination is going to be better than somebody whose fingers get tangled up when they try to type a six word sentence, but for being simple games based on a simple concept (shoot the enemies; don’t get shot), the best games of this type actually have a lot of depth that the uninitiated will not see.
The other game I’ve been playing recently is a Turbografx-16 title called Blazing Lazers in the West, although in Japan it was released as Gunhed, a tie-in product for a live-action film based on a manga by Kia Asamiya. I haven’t seen the film and the manga doesn’t seem to be available in English, so what relation they have to a more-or-less stereotypical space-shooter, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that the Blazing Lazers is good simple fun.

It’s another vertically scrolling shooter, and it also has power ups that the player can collect. There are four types of weapons, spread shot, waves, a wide electrical current that mows down anything in its path, and a spinning balls that protect the ship. This is about as conventional as it gets, except that secondary power ups will change the range and spread of the weapons. My favorite is “field thunder,” which makes the third power up shoot out in waves that make patterns around the screen.
I didn’t think Blazing Lazers was as difficult as MUSHA, but it’s hardly as easy as your average platformer (for me, at least, being rather new to the genre). The sci-fi theme is not nearly so striking as MUSHA’s – no Noh theater mask gunships to be found here – but the weapon system is quite to my liking. Comparably simpler, but the sheer number of different combinations makes up for not being able to customize satellite support.

Compile is one of those interesting Japanese developers whose games I have read about more often than I’ve played them. They were extremely active on the Japanese MSX computer scene, releasing disc magazines and games in all sorts of genres. They’re still around, sort-of, in the form of Compile Heart, a team made of former Compile employees whose games are published by Nippon Ichi. Compile Hearts most notable games in the US market are Record of Agarest War and Hyperdimension Neptunia, which…

Okay, the less said about those games, the better. Still, if they ever decide to stop pandering to creepy otaku types, there is hope that the development team formerly known as Compile could still craft games like MUSHA and Blazing Lazers. I may use them to whittle away my free time because I’m too tired to do anything else, but the level of craft that went into these games is both apparent and highly respectable.

And hopefully, I'll get around to watching some movies some time soon.


Apparently, I am the Genre Police

Funny how it’s only been a week or so since I wrote a little bit about how it isn’t my job to correct people who are wrong on the internet and an article shows up on a blog I enjoy which makes me want to publicly raise my objections.

There’s a lot to love about Black Gate’s blog. They’ve done admirable work with articles about authors who deserve more attention. I particularly appreciate their retrospectives on Leigh Brackett, Manly WadeWellman, and Clark Ashton Smith. Their three part retrospective on the originsof the fantasy genre as a whole is highly worth reading for the fan of fantasy fiction, which many of Black Gate’s editors write quite well.

Among these editors is John R. Fultz, whose recent novel, Seven Princes, has attracted much positive attention. I read a post on a forum which compared it to Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy, which is high praise to say the least. And if it’s an apt comparison, I have to give Mr. Fultz a tip of the hat; it takes guts to publish that sort of mythic fantasy when the current trend in the genre is “in the grim darkness of… there is only grim darkness.”

So it is not personal when I say that Mr. Fultz’s “DANGEROUSBEAUTY: The Kung Fu Fantasies of Zhang Yimou,” is a presumptuous, wrong-headed, almost contemptible look at the wuxia genre as a whole, and a bland, uncritical paean to a mistake so big that Zhang Yimou had to make it over three movies.

I will not bother with a critical examination of Zhang Yimou’s films here; they, and the enamored western public, exhausted my patience when they were new. Needless to say, I have a number of aesthetic, political, and ethical bones to pick with Zhang and the critics who championed his films in spite of their less than savory political underpinnings. But Mr. Fultz seems to enjoy them primarily for their aesthetic qualities, for their evocation of “the China of Legend, where martial arts is a magic all its own.” (His words) Aesthetics are subjective, and personal; I disagree that Zhang’s films evoke this vision of China particularly well, much less better than many of the films of such directors as King Hu, Chang Cheh, Chu Yuan, and Pan Lei. But to each his own. If Mr. Fultz enjoys these films, I will not begrudge him his enjoyment.

I do take exception, though, to his myopic view of the genre as a whole, as I do with certain statements that betray unfamiliarity with the subject of not only wuxia in both its literary and cinematic forms, but with Chinese film as a whole.

The first real red flag comes from his mistaking wuxia films for kung fu films. This is, to some degree, like speaking of spaghetti westerns as though they were the same as Poliziotteschi. To acknowledge overlapping themes and visual conventions is one thing, but to mistake the one as the same as the other is a fallacy. I also find it hard to swallow that he refers to them almost uniformly as “flicks.”

After summing up what he believes to be the artistic triumph of recent wuxia films (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Zhang Yimou’s trio of genre excursions being the only ones he mentions), Mr. Fultz informs us that “there’s nothing wrong with the ‘grindhouse’ style of kung fu movie,” which makes me what he means by “grindhouse,” given that these films were mainstream entertainment for their intended audience and home region. Compared to Chang Cheh’s The Five Deadly Venoms and Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Master of the Flying Guillotine, we are told, Zhang Yimou's films have “[taken] this type of action-based movie to a whole new level of excellence.”

This illustrates precisely the problem I have with this piece. More apt comparisons for Zhang Yimou’s films might be found in the highly influential, elegiac work of King Hu, or the literary adaptation of Li Han-Hsiang at his best, or even the thoughtful tragedy of Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time. But Mr. Fultz has, either through ignorance or genuine equivocation, written off the breadth of a nearly century old film tradition. To read his article, one would believe that until the advent of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the genre contained not a single thoughtful meditation on the cycle of violence and revenge, not a single critical examination of the xia code and the jiang-hu, not a single film that was not a “grindhouse” style action film.

If Mr. Fultz is under the impression that Zhang Yimou’s films have set a visual bench mark for the genre, I have to again disagree. Although the gaudy visuals of his films appeal to western sensibilities, visual experimentation -- whether with slow-motion, special effect, or wonky cinematography -- has long been a staple of the wuxia genre. If he means that there is a technical proficiency present in Zhang’s films that is lacking in the rest of the genre, I have to once again point him to the work of King Hu, and to Wong Kar Wai’s lone contribution. Visually arresting wuxia (and kung fu) films existed before Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Mr. Fultz gives us no indication that he has actually viewed them.

And as a fan of Jet Li who has long championed his ability to, y’know, actually act, I have to wonder at the statement that his one-note role in Hero “is arguably the greatest role of Jet Li’s career.” What about his deft handling of a non-action role in Ocean Heaven? What about his Golden Horse winning performance in Peter Chan’s Warlords? What about his role as the Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, where he managed, with aplomb, to fill the shoes of the legendary Kwan Tak Hing? In the comments, there is some discussion of the melodramatic nature of Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which Fultz compares to Shakespeare, oblivious to the fact that it is a loose adaptation of Cao Yu’s “Thunderstorm.”

I am reminded of the brief furor caused by HBO’s “A Game of Thrones.” Various television critics – critics unfamiliar with the fantasy genre, its history and current trajectory, its diverse audience, and the current enthusiasm it enjoys – made a number of statements about what it meant as a product of its genre. Many of those critics actually enjoyed the show, but fans took umbrage at their myopic view of fantasy, quite understandably, and rightly. Fantasy fans are more numerous than (English speaking) wuxia and kung fu fans, and their displeasure was made quite well known. I only hope that they will remember their displeasure when they decide to write about subjects that, though perhaps related, are not within the purview of their fandom.

So yeah. Apparently I am the genre cop. Also: please stop perving over Zhang Ziyi.


I'm not the Genre Police

It’s not so much that Lightwing23 and I have a bad relationship so much as we have a great love-hate relationship that manifests itself, in practical terms, as mutual annoyance. If you have not read his overview of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series, I can give you an idea of how he appraises it by telling you that I gave him the final book as a Christmas gift. He gave me a copy of David Gaider’s latest opus, Dragon Age: Asunder.

Lightwing23 was also present for a number of pivotal events in my life, like my discovery of Asian cinema, kung fu and wuxia movies particularly. One of the things he enjoys is making me rage by telling stories about people who spout off things that are completely wrong about subjects that interest me, and he knows that few things interest me more than my favorite genre films.

So when he e-mailed me a link to an IGN article titled, “AsianCinema's 20 Greatest Fight Scenes,” I expected to rage. He expected me to rage on my blog for his amusement.

Of the list, I have a few things to say. I find the listing a bit odd. Lacking entirely in Japanese cinema – the author excluded the region for the “purposes of focusing more on martial arts battles,” which is about as perplexing as it gets – the list is hardly a good representative of Asian cinema as a whole. It was nice to see a couple of Korean films make the list, although I would not have chosen the two that made it. I was even happy to see Invincible Armor, which has an expertly choreographed and performed finale. That almost made up for the lack of attention to the films of Lau Kar-Leung, Ching Siu-Tung, Chang Cheh, Kenji Misumi, and a great number of others I could rattle off were I up to it.

But I’m not up to it. I cannot really even get worked up about the assumption that all of the best fight sequences in Asian cinema would be “martial arts battles,” or that fairly recent films comprise the majority of the list. I cannot even be bothered to go off on a writer proclaiming with certainty that the finale to Drunken Master 2 is “the very best depiction of Zui Quan (a.k.a. Drunken Boxing) ever caught on film.”

I can’t get myself in a tizzy over this because it really is not that bad of a list. Granted, it is not a particularly good list; I can think of a number of people who could compile better, more comprehensive lists, myself included. But I was not asked to write it, and the audience for whom this article was written would likely have no truck with many of the films I would pick. It is easy for somebody who subscribes to a historical view to want to discuss the influential aspects of the finale to Zatoichi Monogatari, or the tea-house scene in King Hu’s Come Drink with Me. For the student of martial arts, there is probably a desire to highlight the very carefully constructed depictions of Hung Gar in Lau Kar-Leung’s Martial Club. For the fan of spectacle, it would be hard to top the finale to Ong-Bak 2, or the chaos of John Woo’s Hard Boiled.

But for the average reader of IGN, whose interest in Hong Kong cinema likely extends no further than what is readily available on DVD, and whose knowledge of Asian cinema likely does not extend beyond martial arts movies, this is probably a series of excellent recommendations. Not everyone is likely to become a collector, let alone a historian, critic, or aficionado.

I’m not the genre police. None of us are, really. And while there is a presumptuous edge to this list that I do not appreciate, I can actually get behind the author’s enthusiasm for lesser seen films, like the Indonesian film Merantau. You still cannot spell ignorance without IGN, but for even mentioning a few underappreciated films, I have to give the writer props.

Oh, and, for the record, I actually got all of my rage out the way in the e-mail I sent to Lightwing23 yesterday.


Forging the Swords (Zhang Huaxun, 1994)

Forging the Swords is one of the least appreciated films that Tsui Hark produced in the eighties, at least in part because it is the rarest and therefore the least viewed. The Hong Kong Film Archive screened it years ago as part of a Tsui Hark retrospective, and a single English review by YTSL appeared on the web.

The description provided in the review was enough to pique my interest, but the combination of its scarcity – the film was not screened in Hong Kong until 2001, nearly seven years after its premier in Mainland China – and my having read the short story by Lu Hsun from which it was adapted made my search for it all the more desperate, as did the fact that Ding Shanxi’s rather dull fantasy film, The Magic Sword, is apparently based on the same legend.

Lu Hsun’s story initially appeared in Old Tales Retold, a collection which featured old legends and folk stories processed through Lu’s sensibilities and modernistic literary style. I am less than prepared to discuss any of the social commentary that Lu undoubtedly hid in his tale, but I can attest that the film by Zhang Huaxun follows the same plot, albeit in something of a roundabout manner, although according to his own vision. This is Lu Hsun’s story, but it is most certainly Zhang’s film.

The film is set in the early days of the Zhou dynasty, in the kingdom of Chu, where the king has placed his faith in an idolatrous religion based around the “spirit bird.” He orders a master sword smith to create the best possible sword from an iron deposit. The sword smith’s wife suspects that nothing good can come of an order from a debauched ruler, and when the sword smith finishes his masterpiece – twin swords, male and female, forged with the essence of the sword smith and his wife (their hair is used in the smithing process) – hides the more powerful “male” sword.

And sure enough, the kind not only kills the sword smith, but orders the destruction of his town and family. But a soldier who had befriended the sword smith allows his wife and newborn son to escape. Years later, when his son has come of age, he receives his father’s masterwork, and leaves to seek revenge.

But the boy is meek, and cannot manage to kill the king himself. His benefactor, the soldier who spared his life when he was an infant, seeks him out, takes his sword and his head, and proceeds to use both to depose the king.

For those who know the story, it will come as a surprise that the film renders the soldier’s revenge against the king quite faithfully. It is easily one of the most bizarre sequences to be seen in Chinese film. In fact, the visuals in general reach for a sort of mythic resonance quite unlike the typical wuxia or historical films made in China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The arid desert landscapes immediately call to mind the disenchanted wuxia films made by Hong Kong film-makers at roughly the same time, like Billy Chung’s The Assassin or Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time. But Forging the Swords evokes something almost apocalyptic with its visuals, where dream and myth and brutal reality all seem so closely entwined that they cannot be easily separated.

And in a manner similar to Ashes of Time, or Tsuir Hark’s own disenchanted wuxia film, The Blade, Forging the Swords tells its story out-of-order. The temporal distortions, combined with strange dream sequences and even stranger fantastical events, makes for a sort of grotesque baroque. Forging the Swords is somewhat puzzling for a viewer so far removed (geographically, temporally, and socially) from its intended audience. I have no doubt that there is political commentary here that flew over my head like the King of Chu in one of his fever dreams, just as it likely did in Lu Hsun’s story.

It would be tempting to place Forging the Swords in context as a film in the Tsui Hark oeuvre, or as part of that short lived wave of disenchanted wuxia pictures in the early nineties, or as the continuation of the relatively less fantastical Mainland Chinese action films started by He Ping. It’s all of those, but none of them exclusively. It is firstly a visualization of myth, even if it is at least partially invented myth. And it is one of the most gloriously brutal films made in Mainland China. Worth watching, certainly – its rarity is unfortunate.


Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land

I know that I posted this little piece of “criticism” on my review of The Dark Spire to illustrate the view that game journalists on the console end of the industry held of dungeon crawlers. I’m posting it again, here, because it is both fitting and because it shows just how much has changed over the past decade or so.

From EGM 151: “Back in the old days, there was a certain sub-genre of RPGs that has all but died out – first-person dungeon crawls. Dispensing with years of progress, [Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land] ascribes to this timeworn tradition. Thankfully, there are a lot of touches that elevate the game above its ancient kin… [But] the truth is, though, there’s a reason this sub-genre has all but perished. All Wizardry really has to offer is a lengthy maze… Everything is built upon a rotted foundation. I find it difficult to imagine that anybody wants an endless dungeon crawl in this vein anymore…”
There are so many bad things about this review. Back in the old days, dungeon crawlers were hardly a sub-genre; they were all that was available as far as computer based RPGs were concerned, and Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, was the progenitor in both the West and in Japan. And as for the reviewer’s doubts as to whether anybody wants games of this type, the recent success of the Etrian Odyssey games on the DS begs to differ. The fact that Atlus even bothered to localize Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is a testament to the staying power of the sub-genre wrongly assumed to have died out.

And that is all to ignore the relative presence of dungeon crawlers on the PC made by American and European companies when EGM published their review of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land in 2001.

Granted, it would be six years before Etrian Odyssey made its way into American stores, and even then, the gaming press was underwhelmed. Not whelmed at all, if Game Informer’s review (written by the evidently incompetent Joe Juba) is cited. And even then, games in this style appeal only to a niche, a tiny minority of gamers who either do not like the direction of mainstream RPGs from Japan and the West, or who willingly play anything so long as it is actually good.

Either way, the players who enjoy this sub-genre, such as it is these days, should look into getting a used copy of Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land, as it is one of the best of its kind, and, from my perspective, even one of the best games on the Playstation 2.

Game starts with character creation. The player’s character is quickly pared off with three other adventurers, a human warrior and ninja, and an elvish priestess. You can choose to create your own party members and leave these behind, but you’ll miss out on some melodramatic, if rather amusing, dialog if you do. I kept them in the party, and added a hobbit thief and human mage to round out the team.

After creating the party, a nameless swordsman leaning on a broken sword leads the player into the dungeon, a deep tunnel created after the flash, a cataclysmic event that killed a large portion of the local town, and reduced the castle to a heap of rubble on top of deep labyrinth. He instructs the party to make it to the bottom of the dungeon, to figure out the cause of the flash, and to utilize “allied actions,” tactical movements that utilize multiple members of the party, by building trust between the members of the party. After introducing the basics of the game, the player is then on their own in the labyrinth, free to accept quests at the local inn to bring in money, equipment, and experience, fighting in turn-based battles and leveling up the party as he or she proceeds down the labyrinth.

In other words, it’s a typical dungeon crawler, but its novelties add a great deal to an otherwise rote genre excursion, the “allied actions” in particular, as they make battles into strategic puzzles. Say that the player encounters a mob with multiple spell-casting enemies and a tank-like physical attacker. If carefully selected, the allied actions can end the battle early, with minimal damage to either the front or back rows of the party. By utilizing the “spell cancel” action, the “double slash” action with two characters capable of critical hits, and an individual spell from one of the party’s mages, all three of the enemies can be taken out in a single turn.

The mobs seem to have been carefully planned out in advance to allow the player to find the right combination of allied and individual actions. This makes almost every encounter a “puzzle battle” so to speak, usually a convention that the Japanese developers only employ for boss battles. It does not mean that the battles are always easy. Aside from some trial-and-error in finding the best strategy for dealing with a particular enemy group, the enemies in Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land actually pose a consistent threat. Ninjas, particularly high level groups of them, can decimate the party with instant kill critical hits, and, when throwing projectiles from the back row, can hit every member of the party, regardless of their placement. Ghosts can de-level a party member with a special attack, and large groups of spiders (as many as twenty, by my count) can throw enough poison to status-effect the entire party.

So along with battle-by-battle planning with the allied actions (not to mention taking into consideration the available spell points, hit points, item inventory, and player statistics), careful pre-dungeon planning also proves considerably important. It is important to gather materials and find special recipes so that spell-casters and priests have access to the abilities that will save a party from being completely poisoned or paralyzed. It is equally important to make sure that at least one of the warriors has an enchanted weapon to deal damage to undead enemies who are resistant to physical attacks.

And just as the battle system is a complex of moving parts, so too are the dungeons. Most of the dungeons are pre-planned mazes, usually with traps or secrets or events of importance, although there are randomly generated floors of the labyrinth. Usually large and containing (only slightly) hidden short-cuts, each segment of the dungeon can become dangerous if the player tarries, as the grim reaper will appear, hunt down the party, and kill one of its members, who can only be revived at the town’s sanctuary.

This is the sort of challenge and complexity that aficionados crave (and I have not even mentioned the party trust and moon-phase systems). More than an “endless dungeon crawl” it offers a great deal of customization, optimization, and challenge that was all but absent in the majority of JRPGs on the Playstation 2 at the time, and just as absent in the Bioware developed games that were developed for, or were eventually ported to the Microsoft Xbox.

One thing I find particularly irritating about that EGM review is that it implies that the game has no story or characterization. This is incorrect; expository sequences and dialog are sparse, and somewhat overwrought, I admit, but they are doled out appropriately and, when combined with the graphics and presentation, add quite a lot to the experience. While the graphics themselves are nothing special, the expert art direction helps to create a distressed atmosphere. The town covered in fog and snow (or ash), the warm and earthy colors of the inn and the pub. Even the art style strikes a healthy balance between googly-eyed anime and a more western fantasy aesthetic, for the information of the Nipponfobic out there.

Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land is an underrated gem from an underrated developer. Racjin (aka Racdym – they changed their name to “be more pronounceable.” Lol) also developed the charming Snowboard Kids (and its sequel) for the Nintendo 64, as well as the excellent Trap Gunner for the Playstation. Recently, they made the Nintendo DS remake of SaGa 2, better known here as Final Fantasy Legend 2, which was sadly not localized for the English market.

With the release of a new Wizardry game for the Playstation 3 and IOS, and with the whole of the dungeon crawling genre gaining renewed interest and respect, hopefully a little bit of retroactive appreciation will be given to this unfairly maligned game.


Return of the Bastard Swordsman (Lu Chin-Ku, 1984)

At the end of Lu Chin-Ku’s previous film, Bastard Swordsman, the titular bastard swordfighter, Yun Fei Yang, had rescued the Wudang clan from certain doom, won the heart of the lovely Lun Wan Er, and made a promise to the wicked Dugu Wu Di that they would fight using their signature styles – Yun’s Silkworm Skill against Dugu Wu Di’s Invincible Palms – in the inevitable sequel.

Return of the Bastard Swordman picks up where the first film left off in the manner of a television serial (fact: the two films are adapted from a television serial). Wudang is in trouble again, with both Dugu Wu Di planning to attack the Wudang temple and an interloping group of martial artists from Japan waiting in the background to take on whichever martial clan remains intact after the ensuing battle between the Invincible Clan and the Wudang.

The Wudang clan dispatches a student to find Yun Fei Yang, who has retreated to a life of contemplation and companionship with Wan Er, so that he can set everything right. Illiterate and lost, the pupil contacts the fortune-teller Li Bu Yi, who foresees a great deal of turmoil in the martial world. And sure enough, the Japanese fighters ambush Wudang while they host the leaders of the other martial sects, killing them all, and framing Dugu Wu Di in the process. Angry and bereaved, Yun Fei Yang decides to duel Dugu Wu Di before the appointed date.

Dugu Wu Di, seeing one of the Inivincible Clan’s strongholds in ruins, with a corpse signed in blood by Yun Fei Yang, agrees, although his advisors warn him that the perpetrators of the assault were likely foreigners and not Fei Yang, a suspicion later confirmed when one of the Japanese warriors attempts to ambush the Invincible Clan in disguise.

The duel takes place. Animated rays, wire-work, and blistering fast fight-choreography take flight. And the duel ends inconclusively with Yun Fei Yang injured and Dugu Wu Di coughing blood. Li Bu Yi sees his fortune, and warns Wu Di that he will die unmarried and childless, at which Wu Di scoffs. Given that the film has established the efficacy of Li Bu Yi’s divinations, this seems like a bad move. Sure enough, the Japanese fighters ambush Wu Di while he is ill and kill him.

Meanwhile, Li Bu Yi and Wan Er transport the incapacitated Yun Fei Yang to receive treatment from the legendary physician Lai Yao Er. But Lai Yao Er needs a ginseng root that has aged for a thousand years to treat Yun Fei Yang, and the only person who has one is Ghost Doctor Lan Xin Zu, who had previously thrown his lot in with the Invincible Clan. They fight, and Doctor Lai gets the ginseng. So Yang Yun Fei and Li Bu Yi set out to right the wrongs committed by the Japanese fighters, facing off against the “Vital Skill” of their leader, Mochitsuki Soryu Han.

The fight against Mochitsuki is the showpiece of Return of the Bastard Swordsman, and given the chaos of the preceding fight sequences, it has a lot of show to stop. And it does. This fight showcases some of the strangest visuals in Lu Chin-Ku’s considerably strange career at Shaw Brothers. Mochitsuki makes himself invincible by controlling his heart beat, utilizes ninja tricks that involve costume changes, explosives and tumbling; and when he really gets going with his special skill, his whole chest begins to expand and contract with his heart beat. Li Bu Yi attempts to distract him by beating drums asynchronously to his heart beat, while Yun Fei Yang shoots darts and flies about on wires, conjuring animated silkworms.

The fight choreography in this scene holds up under the prodigious use of visual effects, and, like the film’s less fantastical set pieces, is well performed. If Lu Chin-Ku and Yuen Tak had set out to make a standard wuxia film in the style of, say, Chu Yuan, their action design would more than adequately compliment the film. As seen in the first film, as well as the same year’s The Lady Assassin, Lu Chin-Ku could easily utilize the classical style of Shaw Brothers martial arts films while synthesizing newer techniques pioneered in films produced by rival studios.

My review of Bastard Swordsman asked the question of why, with films like these, which bridged much of the gap between the staid and conservative production style which built the Shaw cinema empire and the wild creativity of the young new wave headed by directors like Tsui Hark, the Shaw Brothers studio eventually imploded. I think now, even more so than earlier this year, when I reviewed Bastard Swordsman, that the reason must be more complicated than somebody so removed from the situation can grasp.

But it is true that even with Lu Chin-Ku and Yuen Tak’s astonishing creativity in both shooting and choreographing their films, and even with the appropriation of editing and cinematographic techniques from the new wave, Return of the Bastard Swordsman still looks very similar to the old style of Shaw Brothers movies. It reuses the familiar sets and costumes; the principle members of the cast, like Chen Kuan-Tai, Norman Chu, and Lau Wing, were hardly fresh faces in 1984.

Even though I would rate the film’s fight choreography at the same tier as, say, Ching Siu-Tung’s Duel to the Death, Ching’s film simply looks, for lack of a better description, more real. Its location shooting outmatches the sometimes garish look of the Shaw sets, which had already appeared in countless films since the late sixties. Even the costuming in Duel to the Death, though hardly exemplary in this sense, is more authentic – particularly when it comes to the depiction of the Japanese characters – than that of Return of the Bastard Swordsman.

But if there is any real problem in the film itself, not as a symbol of where its studio failed to go, but in and of itself, it is that Yun Fei Yang is so powerful that the script has to sideline him until the finale in order to generate any tension. The first Bastard Swordsman was tightly plotted; Return of the Bastard Swordsman is bloated, first with the Wudang pupil wandering about, then with the flight to Doctor Lao, then with the conflict between Lao and Ghost Doctor Lai.

That said, it’s still coherent, at least, which puts it ahead of Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain on one account. And for its problems, Return of the Bastard Swordsman is still one of the looniest wuxia films that Shaw Brothers ever cranked out. Taken together with Bastard Swordsman, it is the perfect blend of fun characters, byzantine plotting, and old-school fight choreography mixed with then-new school special effects. Easily required viewing for fans of the Shaw Brothers and wuxia films.