Someone Still Loves You, Bernie Stolar: My Time With the Dreamcast

Monday, September 9th, 2019
Official Sega Dreamcast Magazine issue #0 with Sonic the Hedgehog and Dreamcast launch date on cover

There was once a time where, if you filled out the right comment card inside a video game box or magazine, your mailbox would be wonderland of catalogs, magazines, and shit you didn’t know you signed up for.

I can still remember the day I decided I cared about the Sega Dreamcast.

I was a year out from finishing middle school and heading into high school, dealing with that familiar uncertainty about what I was supposed to be doing with myself. Part of this confusion led to me temporarily falling out of a number of my hobbies, including video games. At the very least, I wasn’t following the magazines and websites as voraciously as I used to, and as a result I missed out on some things here and there.

Until one fateful afternoon, a day or two before summer vacation was set to begin, I got a copy of the Official Dreamcast Magazine pictured above. I don’t quite remember how I got it; it either came in the mail because Sega had my address for years at that point, or it was given to me from a trip to FuncoLand or something. Even as a lifelong Sega fan that actually owned a Saturn (and I may have been the only friend I had at the time who did), I was completely unprepared for what lay within.

An actual three-dimensional Sonic game, back when we all believed every game should be 3D only? The perceived depth and realism of Shenmue? Weird controllers? The idea you could go onto the internet with a video game system, something I’d only recently started doing in heated duels of Quake 2 against my dad and friends? 

It seemed like the future was here, all in this magazine with Sonic on the front! I was so unreasonably excited for a game system I just found out about, I called a friend over to make him look at a magazine with me, which is a thing that basically only happened in the 90s.

Whatever little switch got flipped in my brain by seeing that screenshot of a whale chasing Sonic around a harbor, it clearly worked, because I’m still talking about the damn thing 20 years later.

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I Should’ve Played This Sooner: Metal Wolf Chaos XD

Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Metal Wolf Chaos XD Title Screen

The thing about myths is that they always have at least some basis in truth.

Any outside legend or myth seeks to either explain how a thing happens or exaggerate an event that took place or an object that actually existed.

And while we usually think of myths as larger stories like religious parables or cultural folklore, these days nearly anything can become a myth if you try. Things like unreleased movies or the behind-the-scenes story someone having a nervous breakdown while trying to finish an anime series everyone loves but doesn’t understand can become a myth all unto themselves, in some cases eclipsing the work itself in favor of a story everyone can get behind, even if it’s frequently misinterpreted.

Video games are particularly susceptible to this. Even in the days of the Internet providing immediate and accessible feedback on basically every game we can get our hands on, there’s still a ton of narratives surrounding games that didn’t get an official release, or games that were never localized outside of their home country. As though every Japanese game that doesn’t get an official release in the West is somehow an unheralded treasure worthy of our admiration, praise, and several hundred dollars on eBay for a copy still in its native language.

A lucky few of these games are actually worth our hype and obsession, and out of all those an even smaller number actually becomes readily accessible outside of the import market and/or emulation and piracy. So few games make it to an official American storefront and actually stand up to the test of time and expectation that it seems almost like a story unto itself when it happens.

A mythological game about deflating the American myth. Sounds like Metal Wolf Chaos XD to me.

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Splatoon 2 Is Still Here, But I Miss Splatoon 2

Friday, August 2nd, 2019
screenshot from final Splatoon 2 Splatfest

It was like knowing how the Rebels felt heading to the Death Star, and also like a going-away party at the same time.

Online games are usually a mystery to me, since I don’t have the time or attention span to put into getting good at them the way all my friends who play Destiny 2 without me seem to, but I’m always fascinated by seeing them ‘end’.

There’s something always bittersweet to me about seeing an online game close its doors, either by taking the servers dark or no longer releasing updates and patches, and so on. I watched footage of people playing the last few hours of Demon Souls before the PS3 servers were taken offline, I remember hearing tales about the last few days of The Matrix Online; heck, I was even there for the last few days of the Dreamcast version of Phantasy Star Online, which was maybe the only thing close to an MMO I ever really spent an appreciable amount of time in.

This same fate recently befell the only online shooter I’ve really cared about in the last few console generations, Splatoon 2. With the final Splatfest having come and gone (and those jerks on Team Chaos ruining my dreams of a neat, orderly world where everything is as it should be), Nintendo has promised to roll out one more balance patch and an update to allow players to form their own small-scale Splatfests, and…that’s gonna be it.

Splatfests, for those unaware, were weekend-long festivals where everyone who signed up had to pick a team, generally representing one side of a friendly debate – for example, I proudly stormed the battlefield for the victorious Team Mayo during the Mayo vs. Ketchup Splatfest – and would tally up how many matches one team won to decide a canonical ‘winner’. The final Splatfest offered a choice between Team Order and Team Chaos, with the implication that the final victor would influence the plot of the seemingly-inevitable Splatoon 3, the way the final Splatfest in the original Splatoon became the backbone of Splatoon 2’s single-player mode.

splatoon 2 town square after final splatfest

Picked a heck of a time to start playing, kid.

As bitter as I was that Team Order lost – and not by very much, I need to add – I was probably more struck to realize that it was the final Splatfest. And that represents the sort of weird in-between ground Splatoon 2 sits at right now: a game that’s still going to get another update and will be available to play online for the foreseeable future, and yet one that’s no longer as…organic as it once felt. After that final patch, there’s literally nothing new to look forward to until Nintendo announces they’re finally taking the whole thing offline, whether that’s when the new game launches or when they discontinue Nintendo Switch Online for whatever comes next.

Playing the game is still as fun as it was on launch day, when I took it to my dad’s house to dog-sit and did nothing but level up for six hours, but knowing there will never be another Splatfest (and that the plot of the third game has probably already been decided) the whole thing feels sort of…hollow. Like walking through a mall you used to go to all the time, except a bunch of the stores closed and you don’t recognize anyone. I’m having a great time playing the game, but between the constant butt-kickings I’m being handed by high-level Japanese players (as, in my experience, there seems to have been something of a drop-off in Western players sticking with the game) and the sense that nothing is going to be unique or different in the game ever again after a certain point, it’s going to start feeling more like an exercise in pre-emptive nostalgia while we all wait for Splatoon 3 to drop.

pearl and marina mcdonald's splatfest art from Splatoon 2

I just hope we can all be friends now that our differences were put aside, even if you monsters let McNuggets win over french fries.

Of course, as a way to get me excited for Splatoon 3, everything is going exactly as planned. Of course I’ll buy the new one on launch day. Maybe I finally do know how MMO players feel.

It’s a unique feeling, this, and not one that people used to deal with back in the days before live updates and multiplayer-focused titles. But now that so many games can be considered living, breathing organisms, it’s strange to know that eventually the shiny new adventures will stop coming.

I better go play Doom or something to cheer myself up.

Some Star Wars Toys I Bought at a Garage Sale

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

It’s probably no coincidence that my biggest interest in Star Wars took place during a short span in the late 90s, between the Special Editions and the prequels.

While I remain a Star Wars ‘fan’ to this day, it would be inaccurate to say I’m anything more than the most casual of causals. Back between the ages of 10 and 14 or so, I was unstoppable. I’d watch the movies endlessly, read whatever books and comics I could find, and perhaps most importantly buy all the related toys and video games I could.

Thanks to the Special Editions and Kenner reviving the action figure line, Star Wars has been a merchandising juggernaut that never really slowed down but those years post-Return of the Jedi and pre-The Phantom Menace (even including Phantom Menace, because I have a big soft spot for that movie), but those years were the most important to me. I was obsessed with nearly every Star Wars game that came out after Dark Forces and X-Wing, and I owned a ton of the various action figures, light sabers, and toy blasters that littered store shelves.

I’ve purged or inadvertently lost most of my collection over the years (save a lone “Obi-Wan Force Ghost” that I got as a kid from eating too many potato chips), but these things have a way of crossing my path again. There’s a house near my office that, at least every year since my employer moved into that particular office, has had an exclusively Star Wars-themed garage sale, and every year I get suckered into buying a few more toys from it.

It happened again this year, sure as heck, and I walked off with a few Star Wars toys from various eras that I’d either owned, wanted, or was close enough to one I wanted that I could convince myself to get it. Here’s my latest haul, and how I justified each one to myself:

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More Shows Should Be Like SSSS Gridman

Saturday, June 29th, 2019

Opening sequence to SSSS Gridman series

Properties that deal with the past, either directly or indirectly, go one of two ways – the sincere revamp or the deep/ironic deconstruction.

Sometimes you get stuff like the 2016 Ghostbusters or The Man From UNCLE, wherein a beloved property is brought back with some nods to the original but mostly played straight and updated to meet the demands of the current era. Sometimes you go the route of things like Watchmen, Neon Genesis Evangelion, or even the original Scream where it’s a metatextual deconstruction of the tropes of a media format that the author has had too much time to think about and is trying to shine a new light on. 

I recently finished watching SSSS Gridman, and I’m happy to say it’s somehow both of these things but in a surprisingly sincere and joyful way.

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All Disco Dance Must End In Broken Bones: Devil May Cry 5

Monday, April 8th, 2019
Please stop praying for my grandpa, he's too powerful!

I wouldn’t have known about this without my friend Bob F. and I can’t stop laughing at it

I just finished Devil May Cry 5 and it made me think about how I don’t think about Devil May Cry as much as I should.

On the surface, it feels like something I might not like. Sure, third-person action games are great, but the Devil May Cry series has a lot of stuff I normally wouldn’t like such as “difficulty” and “button combos” as opposed to just leaning on the X button until your problems go away. (Strangely, I basically just described God of War and I’ve never really gotten into those other than the first one.)

And yet boiling it down to that takes so much away from the series. Devil May Cry has a sense of weirdness and personality that most other game series strive for, and as opposed to a lot of other titles that want to inject some humor into the proceedings, it never feels forced. Not a lot of game characters could pull off an entire fight scene with a slice of pizza in their mouth, or use an electric guitar as a weapon without looking like a total doofus, and yet when Dante does it everything feels right with the world.

If nothing about this image inspires you, I don’t think we need to know each other.

I think this is why I liked Devil May Cry 5 so much, especially compared to the previous reboot DmC. The ideal Devil May Cry game is supposed to hit a balance between Gothic weirdness, anime melodrama, and dorky exuberance, and 5 does this better than any game in the series other than 3 so far.

At various points in the game, you encounter a magical cowboy hat for a projectile weapon that’s accompanied by a cutscene of Dante learning how to disco, a set of elemental nunchucks that forces Dante to make embarrassing Bruce Lee noises with his mouth, a special robot arm that shoots fists out and controls time (among other things), an indestructible conversion van with a built-in jukebox that everyone lives in, and a demonically powered motorcycle that can be used as a melee weapon.

Your enjoyment of this game depends strongly on your reaction to that last sentence.

Devil May Cry 5 almost wants to challenge you more by being deeply unashamed and unafraid of itself than it does through actual gameplay.

I think the thing that jumped out most to me about 5 is its focus on mechanics. Character action games usually take one of two approaches – either go the Bayonetta route and create increasingly outlandish setpieces that require you to use your existing skillset in new ways to stay on top of the challenges you face, or the Devil May Cry method of introducing new weapons and mechanics along the way to broaden your toolset and give you more options, frequently hilarious ones.

Devil May Cry 5 is absolutely that second thing, but I was impressed at the sheer amount of fighting styles and weapons that you’re given along the way even fairly late into the game. There’s three playable characters, all of which play completely differently from each other and each of them equally fun – Dante encourages you to rapidly juggle weapons and change tactics to improve your score, Nero had to replace his one magic demon arm with a series of different robot arms with different abilities and benefits (not to mention making him look a little like Venom Snake from Metal Gear Solid V, which considering these are both the fifth sequel in a beloved series had to be slightly intentional), and newcomer V uses demonic familiars to do his fighting for him from a distance like he’s a mage or some shit. Everyone rules, and surprisingly enough I had the most fun playing as Nero and his arsenal of exploding robot arms, although I remember liking Nero a lot better in Devil May Cry 4 as well so maybe the problem is me? (The problem is always me.)

Without giving anything away, the ending does seem like a fine place to end the series in case we don’t get another Devil May Cry, or at least not one for a long time, in the sense that it doesn’t leave a lot hanging while still not closing the doors entirely. Given how fast the series sold a few million copies, even on PC where I played it, I don’t think Capcom is gonna say no to another one even if it takes forever like the last one. Between the ending, the revelations along the way, and how the game itself even handled, 5 might be the ideal Devil May Cry game and is probably the most fun I’ve had with an action game in a stupid long time.

I find the idea that Dante is out there fighting for humanity while continuing to be a giant fucking doofus to be weirdly comforting, and most people that enjoy this game will too.

Manufactured Nostalgia, Megatron, and Me

Friday, March 15th, 2019

 

Toxic Crusaders toy collection

Remember when toys looked like this? I do, and I think of it fondly.

It’s strange what you can find yourself being nostalgic for.

I would love to say we live in a time of endless nostalgia bait, and while that’s not untrue, it’s not like we recently invented it. People have longed for an imagined ‘good old days’ since around the time we had enough human history to be nostalgic for, and there’s plenty of ways to capitalize on that.

Old movies get new HD transfers, video games get ported or remade for newer systems, fashion trends come back every 20 years or so, and the vicious cycle continues. I’m not complaining, and would have no real room to complain given the contents of this blog, but it is worth considering exactly how much pop culture is recycled and reused in a modern context to remind us of our pasts.

But what if something gives you nostalgia that didn’t exist then? I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of “hiraeth”, a Welsh term regarding a general sense of nostalgia, and more specifically referring to a “longing for a homeland that you’ve never visited” (and, full disclosure, I only found out about this word because I spent two years listening to nothing but vaporwave).

There’s a lot of ways to unpack this term, but think about the last thing you saw that reminded you of your childhood. Sure, it may have been an embarrassing high school photograph or an old commercial you watched on YouTube, but more often than not these days it might be something that didn’t exist beforehand.

An awful lot of content exists to try and document and re-create something the creator remembers from childhood but can’t express concretely. Movies like mid90s and
The Magnificent Ambersons, video games like Shovel Knight and Dusk, blogs like this one (and much better versions of this blog like Dinosaur Dracula and Broken Chains) – all of them attempt to explore a memory from earlier and presumably simpler times in the creator’s life using whatever means and emotions they have in front of them. It’s a fascinating way of seeing a past brought back to life using whatever resources they have today, all with the goal of making you feel it too even if none of us were there and this particular thing didn’t exist at the time.

Pretty flowery so far, right? The punchline here is that I was recently made to feel this because of a toy robot I bought on the internet.

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If You Don’t Already Love Travis Strikes Again, You Never Will

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Key art for Nintendo Switch video game Travis Strikes Again featuring main characters Travis Touchdown and Badman

Auteur theory, for all its convenience as an artistic and cultural shorthand, has some flaws.

The idea that any one given person behind a creative work informs the entirety of the project may not be fully accurate in many (if not all) cases, but it also tends to affect discussions of someone’s greater bodies of work.

For an immediate and relevant example, let’s take Hideo Kojima. Due to the fact he’s mostly famous for the Metal Gear/Metal Gear Solid series, a lot of people out there don’t like Metal Gear and, as a result, are not interested in his older works like Snatcher. In their minds, they’ve already got an idea of what a ‘Hideo Kojima game’ is and have decided, rightly or wrongly, that his other games will be more of the same no matter the genre or the series.

This brings us to our subject today: Suda51. More specifically, his most recent game, Travis Strikes Again. Travis Strikes Again has a lot of weight to carry on its shoulders, both as an interquel set in the No More Heroes universe designed to specifically try to drum up interest in a potential new entry in the series, and a 20th anniversary celebration for his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture.

For reasons we’ll get into more later, this game absolutely succeeds at being both of those things. This is, however, where it might start to lose the more casual fans. The game is so packed with references both in plot and in gameplay to the previous No More Heroes games and other works in the Grasshopper canon, that it’s likely going to be difficult for anyone not already familiar with (or at least interested in) these works to really care what’s going on.

This has always been a problem with Grasshopper since their games are universally so weird and insular, but with Travis Strikes Again making this idea more or less the point of the game, you know it’s going to double down on the various insanities.

And I love it as a result. Read the rest of this entry »

I Wish More People Liked New Super Mario U

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

New Super Mario Bros U art

It’s weird to think of a Mario game being ‘underrated’, isn’t it?

The series is so ubiquitous and well-known that it’s difficult to conceive of a Mario game being anything less than universally beloved and heralded. Except maybe in the case of Super Mario Sunshine (which is awful and doesn’t deserve the weird reappraisal it’s been getting lately), basically every mainline Mario platformer, 3D or otherwise, is talked about in reverent tones.

Sure, people may debate over which is the best, or which their favorite is – I’m a Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario 64 guy myself – but even the ones people don’t like are considered to be outstanding in their field.

At least, this was the case until recently. Nintendo’s shifting fortunes over the past two console generations meant that a lot of WiiU games (and even a surprising number of 3DS games) have gone largely unplayed by the general public due to their lower-than-expected adoption rates among gamers as a whole. The people that DO play them tend to like them a lot, particularly in the case of the inventive 3D Land and 3D World titles, but they’re not held in the same regard as previous games, even the two Super Mario Galaxy titles, simply because nobody got to play them.

In my mind, the biggest victim of this ignorance has been New Super Mario Bros U. Read the rest of this entry »

I Should’ve Played This Sooner: Mega Man X5

Saturday, August 25th, 2018
Mega Man X5 box art

Everybody get it out of your system now – this is the Guns ‘n Roses one, not the “WHAT AM I FIGHTING FOOOOR?” one.

If I had to succinctly describe my relationship with Mega Man X, it would be “casual acquaintances”. We met through a mutual friend (the original Mega Man series), we hung out a little back in the day (as I’d only ever really played X through X3) but lost touch after that, and every once in a while I’ll see something about it on Facebook. Sounds like a lot of adult friendships, right?

It’s all true, though. For some reason Mega Man X never quite held the same sway over me that the original series did. Part of it may have been timing, as the original series were part of my formative gaming memories – Mega Man 5 being the second video game I ever played in my LIFE, for instance – whereas Mega Man X would come along much later and kind of just be “Mega Man again, but better this time”. To that point, while I owned (and very much enjoyed) Mega Man 8 for PSX, I never bothered with the X series after 3. I had vague memories of renting one of them and not being very impressed, and otherwise I was just sort of aware of the later games by reputation. Not a good reputation, mind.

It was with that reputation in mind that I bought the Mega Man X Legacy Collection for my Switch. Having purchased the original Mega Man Legacy Collection on no less than three platforms because I’m a giant sucker (and partly out of a desire to support Frank Cifaldi), I figured this was a good chance for me to actually play and finish one of those Mega Man X games I never bothered with. Despite my disappointment at learning the initial hideous translation that resulted in everyone having Guns ‘n Roses and/or anime-pun themed names (literally, I want to meet whoever thought of the name “The Skiver” and just ask them why) I knew Mega Man X5 was considered one of the better ones, and since it was at one point positioned to be the final game in the series, I figured that was the safest one to go with.

And you know what? It was fine! Not…great, but fine. Read the rest of this entry »