Sunday, September 20, 2009

Top 5 Suspect Homages in Videogames

"Suspect homages" are a fact in any medium. Sometimes somethings so good, the lightning in the bottle so crackling, that you must have it even if it means swiping the bottle when no one's lookin'. Here's my top five o' them.

5. Donkey Kong = King Kong

Right off the bat, you are thinking: "This is bullshit. It's a frigging parody; Donkey Kong 'steals' from King Kong as much as South Park 'steals' from Peanuts." And you and anyone else with a brain would be right. But tell that to arrogant Hollywood moguls.

In the early 80's, the original arcade smash Donkey Kong was making money hand-over-fist for a little company named Nintendo, with the latter planning incursions into the booming console and portable electronics markets. The success of videogames in general, and in particular Donkey Kong, was attracting the attention of a lot of Old Media, in the zenith of their power before they were to be humbled in the new millennium by little things like New Media and internet piracy. The mighty Universal Studios, owners of the King Kong property, dawned on an easy, all-American idea to enter the booming videogame market: sue Nintendo and friends for "stealing" their King Kong IP, demanding all profits and creative rights, and in return they "may" be allowed to work with Universal in the future. Don't you feel bad for pirating movies on the internet now?

Nintendo's licensors quickly folded under the threats, however, legendary Nintendo guru Howard Lincoln instead launched a legal campaign to fight back against this 800 lb. gorilla. Hiring the equally-legendary attorney John Kirby (of whom, it is said, the Nintendo character Kirby is named after), they proceeded to spank Unversial in court. The two companies together would essentially roleplay the "100m" level from Donkey Kong, with Nintendo as Mario yanking out the plugs and Universal as the doofus ape, stomping about, oblivious to its imminent doom.

Universal, it seemed, had argued in a case just years prior that King Kong was public domain, allowing them to swipe the character for a hideous retread. Now they were arguing the opposite, and on tenuous logic, no less. Universal's actions would lead to a loss of a good chunk of change and serious legal humiliation from a series of livid judges, one of them ruling that the gameplay of Universal's own King Kong videogame, in fact, ripped off Donkey Kong (King Kong = Donkey Kong!). The case would thus forever cement the legitimacy of videogame companies, and in particular Nintendo's prominence as One With Whom Not To Fuck With. It also gives us another reason to point and laugh at the movie cartel before we go back to torrenting. oh, that last line is in jest, I swear.

4. Limbo of the Lost = pretty much like all the games I own?

Since the days of Donkey Kong, the videogame industry has itself grown to be a huge, corporate behemoth. Despite this, there's still a trace of its old Wild West roots, sometimes showing up in scandals like this one: Limbo of the Lost from Majestic Studios. The development hell alone is enough to make it infamous. Low budget production values? Check. Ten years in development? Check. "Behind-the-scenes" clips made in YouTube amatuer-style? Check. A character named "Cranny Faggot"? Jesus Christ, check.

But what really made Limbo of the Lost the stuff of epic legends was that the game that was essentially a Frankenstein creation of stolen assets, images, even level design, particularly from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, of which they apparently didn't even bother to, say, remove references to characters in the art they stole from. Over a dozen titles have been linked to Limbo's thievery, and even footage from certain Hollywood films, such as Beetlejuice and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series, have been spotted in the game.

Majestic Studios had wound up pulling distribution while it investigated what went wrong. Judging from my prior experiences in this industry, I'd say that, like too many projects in this industry, this one was headed by management dickheads whose videogame experience is limited to Minesweeper and online poker, and thus couldn't recognize the very assets being looted from AAA titles released only a few years ago. At any rate, Limbo of the Lost certainly lived up to its goofy title: forever lost in a limbo of infamy.

3. Quick Man = Stevie B

Videogame music has had already a rich, creative history in the 30 or so years since the genre first came about. While, for example, the American corporate music industry remains mired in churning out celebrities, chasing down teenagers for downloading illegal music, and slipping into irrelevancy, videogame music continues to grow and thrive, even into actual orchestra (check out the Toyko Philharmonic's rendition of a couple themes from Populous).

But with every artform, there's always a bit of suspect homage that shows up now and again, and videogame music is no exception. The similarities between the soundtrack of the original release of DOOM and popular rock metal of the day have been oft documented, Konami was forced to drop the Metal Gear Solid theme from their own series due to accusations of plagiarism, and the Elec Man stage theme from the original Mega Man seems to have been inspired by Tina Turner. Videogame music these days has gone far enough to become even a little intramural, if the recent Bandai Namco scandal is any indication (What bonehead steals music from Chrono Trigger? That soundtrack is one of the most obsessed over on the internets).

But, and speaking of Mega Man, the one that always amused me was the stage theme for Quick Man in Mega Man 2, and its passing resemblance to this cheesy funk single from the 80's.

I'm torn. On the one hand, Quick Man's stage theme seems to be Stevie B's "Spring Love" with a few beats altered, the tempo increased, a unique ditty tacked in on the end. I even recall me and my friends jokingly singing "Spring loooooooovvve....come back toooo meeeeeee" as we dodged those silly lasers back in 1989. On the other hand, Quick Man's stage theme, was, is, and always will be the dope show. And it takes pretty good talent to swipe a bit of music using a MIDI library, as opposed to, say, the Auto-Tune humping, sample-whoring "musicians" of today. So, uh, consider this entry redacted. Oh yes, and: Mega Man 2 rules.

2. K.C. Munchkin = Pac-Man

The O.G. of the "pretty blatant clone/supsect homage of a popular videogame" set, K.C. Munchkin! (exclamation point included!) was a home console clone of the original Pac-Man with some subtle changes (like turning the iconic Pac-Man character into a happy, hairy testicle with a mouth). Atari would ultimately sue publisher and archrival Magnavox over the issue, partly in retaliation for their similar lawsuit regarding Pong years earlier, but mostly in fear that the latter's superior quality to the notoriously awful Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man could cause them to evacuate in their moment of triumph.

Despite the obvious flattery, K.C. Munchkin! did have some genuine innovations, including dots that move around on their own and even level editors/generators (and hey, the courts did posit that K.C. himself had "more personality" and consumed "spookier" ghosts. Take that, Pac-Man!). However, the courts ruled in favor of Atari anyway, their decision probably influenced by Magnavox's own precedent regarding Pong, as well as the legions of knock-offs that Pac-Man had already been plagued with (witness Hangly-Man). The result was the premature demise of K.C. Munchkin! and a court decision that essentially confuses gameplay innovation with copyright infringement. History has not been kind to the decision; blatant clones still persist, most of them avoiding litigation, and the case would become especially irrelevant once the industry realized it was more lucrative to bring improvements to established gameplay ideas rather than pay lawyers obscene amounts of money to try to hold monopolies on them.

Despite their defeat, Magnavox was ultimately able to enjoy schadenfreude against Atari anyway, for two reasons. For one, the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man was such a failure that it's often blamed, along with E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, for causing the Crash of '83, whereas K.C. Munchkin continues to be appreciated by retro gaming fans to this today. The other was their cheeky "sequel" to K.C. Munchkin!, called K.C.'s Krazy Chase!. In Chase!, K.C. himself makes a little more effort to distinguish himself from Pac-Man, such as rolling about as he travels rather than "gobbling" forward. He still eats things, though, including his main target, a bloated, greedy worm; wonder what that last one's supposed to represent?

1. Squall Leonhart = this very metro J-Pop artist

There's perhaps plenty to dislike about Tetsuya Nomura, the popular character designer/artist of the new school Final Fantasy entries (and thanks to that popularity, now a high muckity-muck at Square-Enix). He's always had his detractors from the start, his by-the-numbers McAnime design (No sword too big! No hair too spikey! Never enough belt buckles and zippers!) in jarring contrast from the sumptuous and always recognizable work of series regular Yoshitaka Amano. Nomura was a mammoth hit with those millennials in the late 90's just beginning to experience these anime character design tropes for the first time. Those same fans wouldn't find out just how regurgitated these designs were until Nomura proceed to regurge all the way to around Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts, earning himself a fair amount of haters in the process. Speaking of Kingdom Hearts, when I heard of his role in the project, the first thing I thought was "He's gonna put a zipper and a belt buckle on Donald Duck's sailor cap". And sure enough, he did. (in fact, it almost looks like THREE zippers) Donald actually got off easy compared to poor Mickey Mouse, whose costume has, among other things, belt straps attached to the front of his shoes.

And speaking of his creations, there's perhaps plenty to hate about Final Fantasy VIII's marquee star, Squall Leonhart. Squall, in fact, can be seen as Nomura crystallized: for every one rabid idolater, there's a hater ready to stick in a shiv. Squall's game has been a victim of all sorts of excoriating reviews, the most legendary of which is a brutal, 7+ hour dismantling by Noah Antwiler of The Spoony Experiment. (On Nomura's designs, Antwiler wonders if there is a "'walking cliche' warehouse" the Final Fantasy VIII characters shop at) Often in the headlights for the game's creative failures is the ever-peculiar Squall himself; his cloying moodiness and sociopathic need to constantly prove he's a loner (even in the face of gorgeous women throwing themselves at his feet) is less Citizen Kane and more Anakin Skywalker, making Final Fantasy VIII that much more of a chore for some. Worse yet is that, in retrospect during this post 9-11/economic collapse/Bush clusterfuck era, his whiny pessimism about nothing looks all the more dated.

But one supposes that neither can be forgiven for stealing the look of one of Japan's most popular (and apparently most metrosexual) J-Pop artists.

Good grief.

Gackt is a musician/model/entertainer/human bishie based in Japan (whenever he's not torturing people with "crotch-splitting devices"). In the late 90's, right on the verge of launching his solo career, he would run afoul of this "homage" from Nomura and Square, and would later publicly deride the Squall character, according to this fan site, as "Gackt #2" . As you can see by the photo, Gackt is wrong; he only has one belt buckle in the pic on the right and zero on the left, whereas Squall has 8 buckles (including two on his shoes, unpictured). Case closed, go home Gackt.

Gackt would eventually forgive Square-Enix and Nomura, even himself crafting music for a later Final Fantasy title (the underwhelming Dirge of Cerberus). However, this suspect homage here will forever give haters of Nomura and Squall more ammo than they probably need.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

If Video Games were reliastic... has posted a hilarious photoshop gallery depicting what might happen if Video Games were more realistic.

There are some real Gems like this one:

And this one:

as well as a couple that I don't quite get, like this one:

and this one

You can check out the full Gallery here.

Source: Evil Avatar Forums

Monday, September 14, 2009

GDC 2009, Austin

Starting tomorrow in the heart of barbeque country, the Game Developers Conference, Austin will be underway. While it isn't likely that any major news will break from GDC Austin, keep your eyes open anyway. With keynotes from Sony Online Entertainment and Blizzard, you never know. The speakers list reads like a gaming red carpet list, but also includes a fair number of smaller studios and independent developers. The bulk of the conference gets underway on Wednesday, and I will certainly try to list here anything of interest that may break in Austin.

Monday, September 7, 2009

EyePet: The Tech Demo That Isn't

In 2008, Sony was showing off videos of something called EyePet, a digital monkey that would use the camera attachment for the PS3 to interact with gamers and their immediate environment. The demos showed the strangely cute quasi-monkey being petting by the gamers, learning to draw, and interacting with items digitally manipulated by the gamer. And just about no one took it seriously.

Later this year, EyePet will come out. And according to reviews popping up around the internet, it will deliver. Just about everything Sony showed, the EyePet does. The quasi-monkey can learn to draw. And he interact with objects you draw. If you draw a car, he may well drive away. You can pet the quasi-monkey, or feed him. Presumably, if so inclined, you could beat him like a drum. Take just about everything we saw in the Milo demo at E3 for Microsoft's Project Natal, and the EyePet is slated to deliver it on a smaller (and cuter) scale later this year.

Now we are still a long way from Natal-style purely motion gaming. The PS3 camera is not Natal. It isn't close to Natal, and no one, including Sony, is billing it as Natal. Regardless, Sony has put together an entertainment package that brings game elements with real-time motion capture and player-game interaction via controller gestures. This will be just about the first time the average (PS3 owning) person will be able to play with this type of set up first hand. As a result, this will be one the first indicators as to whether controllerless gaming is something that gamers actually want. An early indicator, but an indicator to be sure. Since motion-controlled gaming seems to be the wave of the future, it is an indicator well worth watching.

Friday, September 4, 2009

8-Bit Vinters creates wine for game nerds!

The Schulemeister is on record that my obsession with 8-Bit games is threatening our friendship. But here's something that he and his Geek Wine buddies can definitely understand.

As part of it's PAX coverage, Wired has posted up a quick tid-bit on a new wine maker named 8-Bit Vinters.

Acording to their about page they are up in the Walla Walla Washington "wine country".

There first vintage is called "Player 1" ('natch), here's what the website has to say about it:

The inaugural vintage of Player 1 displays the quality and diversity of fruit that is being produced in Eastern Washington. Player 1 is blended from various vineyards throughout the Columbia Valley, Wahluke Slope, and Walla Walla Valley. 2007 was a moderately warm growing season with long, dry, sunny days that allowed for extended hang time during harvest. This wine shows an accessible and approachable style that is both fun to drink now and has the acidity and tannins to hold up for 5 years plus.

Appellation: Walla Walla Valley, Wahluke Slope, and Columbia Valley
Blend: 50% Syrah, 30% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Carmenere, 5% Malbec
Harvest Date: August and September 2007
Bottling Date: July 2009
Cooperage: French, American, and Hungarian for 18 to 22 months
Alcohol: 14.1%
pH: 3.74

As it happens, my brother lives up in Walla Walla (he's a former "Whitman" alum who could never leave). I'm going to see if he can score me a few bottles.

If I can I'll post an "un boxing / un corking" video for y'all to enjoy. If you can't wait that long, you can always order a few bottles for yourself from the companies website.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Video review of the Zizzle home pinball machine.

There was some discussion of the new Zizzle home pinball machine on this month's Retro Gaming Round Up so I had already had a little background on these machines. UK Mike and Subaru Brat described these games as being halfway between a toy and a true Pinball machine. Scott even talked about some people taking these and retheming them or updating them with high grade pinball components.

Well, I didn't have to wait long for additional information. Bill Loguidice over at Armchair Arcade has posted a nice little video review of the "Marvel Heroes" table. Seems like a pretty solid pinball experience:

Data East arcade classics coming to Wii thanks to Majesco.

A character named "The World" from Data East's Magical Drop

Game Set Watch has been doing some digging around the ESRB's rating information site and discovered that several Data East arcade games have been recently rated for release on Nintendo's Wii.

According to the ESRB listing the games included in the collection will include the following:

Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja, Burger Time, Caveman Ninja, Street Slam, Secret Agent, Magical drop

I'd buy this collection for Burger Time and Bad Dudes. I've never heard of some of these other games, I think Secret Agent was called Sly Spy, but I'm not 100% sure, One thing I can say is that the ESRB's description of Magical Drop is intriguing:

A puzzle game called Magical Drop III depicts female characters wearing provocative outfits that expose underwear and deep cleavage. When players score points or make successful combos, the background figures cheer or move in ways that cause their breasts to jiggle.

If they put that quote on the box, they should secure an additional 100k in sales.