Photo of the Day (6/16)

An abstract photograph that captures the electrified energy of a rock concert. Photo taken from my book Depeche Mode: Spirit. You should buy a copy. Is anybody reading this besides the Google bots?

Photo of the Day (6/1)

A Colombian youth baseball team plays a friendly match in south side Chicago as guests of the White Sox. The teenagers on Reddit absolutely hate this photo, so I must be doing something right. Photo appears in my book Biotracer.

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Saturn)

Panzer Dragoon Saga for Sega Saturn

Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998, Team Andromeda for Sega Saturn)

And so we come to Sega Saturn’s crowning masterwork, the most beloved and revered title in its vast library, and a magnificent demonstration of the system at its absolute peak. 

Team Andromeda’s Panzer Dragoon and Panzer Dragoon Zwei were magnificent experiments in world building, in crafting a strange alien world filled with human tribes, mechanistic empires and strange hostile creatures. They transcended their arcade roots, offering more than Space Harrier with flying dragons. These games gave us hints at the vast world that lay just beyond the horizon. Panzer Dragoon Saga breaks free from the rails and brings us to those horizons, and the experience is everything you hoped it could be. It is not a shoot-em-up, but an RPG that takes the foundations of its predecessors and runs with it.

Panzer Saga was created by programmers and designers who were not fans of role-playing games, and so their work is infused with their own arcade sensibilities and a burning desire to stretch the genre’s boundaries. They had little interest in cliched plots about 1,000-year villains and kingdoms in peril and magic-empowered teenagers who look like they’re going to a rave party. They could care less about Tolkein-inspired fantasy tropes or conventions that go back decades. Their inspiration leans more towards dystopian science-fiction, of Moebius and Blade Runner and Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. The mood is somber, grim, disillusioned. This videogame is running with Soundgarden in its veins.

The story does not involve a hero who must “save the world” or conquer some ancient evil force, but instead must struggle to live with the world as it exists. The main character, Edge, is a hired soldier for an empire that is excavating ancient ruins and mountains in search of relics and technologies from a lost age. An advanced civilization created vast machines and bio-engineered creatures and weapons of unspeakable power, but they vanished from the earth. What became of their society? Did they destroy themselves in a nuclear war? Did they victims of a climate-induced catastrophe? Or did they simply fade away slowly over centuries? Such questions are never answered, and this mythic past hangs over everything. The present world is caught in a struggle for survival between nations and empires, to say nothing of the deadly creatures, to think about such matters.

Edge and his superiors guard an excavation site. After an attack by giant hard-shelled crabs in the caves, a mysterious woman is found embedded in stone, frozen in a suspended state. Who is she and how did she get here? Before such questions can be answered, the camp is suddenly attacked by a renegade imperial faction led by a man named Crayman. His henchmen shoot Edge’s superior officer without warning, and then shoot Edge, knocking him into a bottomless ravine. They escape with the entombed woman in their armored airships.

Then an interesting thing happens. An unnamed spiritual force assigns you as the avatar for Edge, and then revives him by lowering him into a pool of water far below the surface. There has been some debate among fans whether Edge has been fully revived and you are assisting him, or if he truly did die from his wounds and you are animating a corpse. This question will hang over the story’s ambiguous ending like a shadow over a tomb, and it is one that was deliberately left open to interpretation.

That subtlety, that willingness to avoid simple good-versus-evil melodrama and embrace moral complexity, lies at the heart of Panzer Saga, and it is that quality that I admire the most. As the story progresses, we meet tribesmen, merchants, soldiers, Crayman and the mysterious woman Azel, and loyalties, motivations and desires are rarely fixed. These are not “heroes” or “villains” but frail humans who are motivated by a morality painted in shades of grey. These people are not conquerers but simply struggling to survive. Everyone has their reasons.

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Shining the Holy Ark (Sega Saturn)

Shining the Holy Ark (1997, Sonic Software Planning for Sega Saturn)

Now we come to one of Sega Saturn’s marquee titles, and one of the great fantasy role-playing games of its era. Yes, Final Fantasy 7 stole all the thunder and Panzer Dragoon Saga has the most devout fans, but Shining in the Holy Ark offers a rich and enchanting experience that is the equal of any of its peers, and long enough to keep players engaged for a very long time.

Sonic Software Planning began with Shining in the Darkness in 1993, a Sega Genesis “dungeon crawler” that incorporated many elements common to Japanese RPGs, and thus helped to raise its stature above the genre (I write this as someone who has never been fond of first-person dungeon crawlers). They followed up with the seminal Shining Force series, which moved into the realm of Strategy-RPG, a genre that plays out more like a chess match than the traditional dungeons-and-dice fantasy games. In 1995, the studio created Shining Wisdom, an overhead adventure game ala The Legend of Zelda that was rather cooly received (It began as a Sega Genesis project and was moved to Saturn late in development). In 1997, the series returned to its roots while continuing the continuity of the overall world, as well as serving as a prequel to the Shining Force 3 trilogy that soon followed.

Shining the Holy Ark begins with a trio of mercenaries hired by the king of Enrich to capture a rogue ninja for unknown reasons. They meet at the mouth of a mountainside, and proceed to explore the mines inside. After the confrontation with the ninja, the roof suddenly collapses and all the parties are either knocked unconscious or killed. A group of strange alien beings revive all four, inhabiting their bodies. One of the characters, however, is taken by an evil spirit and vanishes into the darkness. The remaining spirits implore the remaining three to join together to defeat a malevolent force before it revives a lost thousand-year kingdom and plunges the world into darkness. As the story progresses, allegiances and loyalties are questioned, the true state of the kingdom is revealed, and many new characters are brought together for the quest.

All in all, this is standard fare, but I enjoy the characters and the pacing of the writing, which is brisk and engaging without becoming overly complicated or self-absorbed, thankfully avoiding the bloat that was already consuming the Final Fantasy series.

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A Short Defense of Lou Reed’s Final Album Lulu

Lou Reed and Metallica, Lulu (2011)

The topic of the highly controversial (to put it mildly) 2011 collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica appeared recently on the Steve Hoffman music forums. Having written a lengthy essay in defense of Lulu, I thought I would share a few short thoughts on Reed’s final album:

Lulu is an excellent album that was unfairly mauled by critics who really, REALLY, hated the idea of Metallica making an album with Lou Reed. It all smacked of high school clique warfare. This group can’t hang out with that group, that sort of thing. I’ve always felt that if Lou made this album with, say, Radiohead, and every note was exactly the same, it would have been praised as a masterwork.

In addition, I think many people became used to this image of Lou Reed as a tame, safe “NPR” artist. He was remembered more for his poppier ballads and mellow songs, and not for the angry, abrasive, atonal and openly shocking music that he created. Everybody remembers “Perfect Day” but forgets “Berlin,” “White Light/White Heat” or “Metal Machine Music.”

To be fair, Lulu is an extremely abrasive album. It is scraggy, ugly, unshaven and angry, like an old gunslinger who just knocked down three shots of whiskey before the shootout. Much of the material is shocking, both musically and lyrically. This is not an album that you can play every day, or even more than once or twice per year. It’s an event, not a habit. It sometimes feels like an assault, and you come away in a state of stunned shock, almost like those first audiences who saw The Exorcist or Psycho in the theater.

Personally, I love this album and consider it one of Lou’s finest statements. As a farewell album, it’s absolutely magnificent and stands equal to David Bowie’s Blackstar. It will always be controversial and spark fierce debates, which is most likely what the author intended. What better way to go out? Say what you will, but nobody could accuse Lou Reed of going soft in his old age.

Oh, and Junior Dad is a beautiful song, especially the long cello outro. It’s the perfect farewell and you couldn’t ask for anything better.

Photo of the Day (5/2)

Onlookers gather to view panels of a 1989 Keith Haring mural in Chicago. Photo appears in my book Keith Haring: Chicago Mural.

Hyper Duel (Sega Saturn)

Hyper Duel for Sega Saturn

Hyper Duel (1996, Technosoft for Sega Saturn)

As a lifelong fan of Sega Genesis, I have always held a special place in my heart for Technosoft, the masterminds behind Herzog Zwei and the Thunder Force series. These were genre-defining masterworks pushed the 16-bit generation forward and raised the bar for everything that followed. When the 32-bit era ushered in the age of 3D polygon graphics, the studio attempted to adapt with the times but continued to stick with the arcade shoot-em-ups that made them famous. Thank Heaven they stuck to their guns.

Hyper Duel first appeared in the arcades in 1993. It was Technosoft’s second coin-op title after Thunder Force AC, but failed to become a hit and quickly disappeared into obscurity, known only to diehard fans. I played it many years later on MAME and came away slightly disappointed. The legendary science fiction designs were still there, but the stages too short, the pacing too streamlined, the challenge too light. Worst of all, the graphic design had an abnormal obsession with lime greens and tomato reds, which just seemed out of place. I blasted my through to the end in less than an hour and never returned again.

In this game, one or two players fly a spaceship that also transforms into a robot at the touch of a button. You can also choose between three different spacecraft that have their own unique weapons and abilities. Power-up icons can increase your firepower, but the most valuable upgrades are additional ships or robots that join in the battle. They don’t follow after you as in Gradius, but fight on their own like the soldiers in Herzog Zwei. You battle over eight stages through space stations, colonies and alien worlds before reaching the enemy’s home base and win the war.

There are many examples of classic videogames that required multiple drafts before they could fully blossom into greatness. Contra, Tecmo Bowl and Ninja Gaiden on NES are three examples. Here lies another.

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Thunder Force 5 (Sega Saturn)

Thunder Force 5 on Sega Saturn

Thunder Force 5 (1997, Technosoft for Saturn)

What a sensational thrill ride! I can’t think of a better or more exciting roller coaster ride for the Fifth Generation than Thunder Force 5. Like a great rock band at the peak of their powers, Technosoft demonstrates a true mastery of their craft while making it look easy, leaving everyone else in their dust. This is probably my favorite arcade shoot-em-up on Sega Saturn.

As with the previous entries in the series, you fly a futuristic spaceship that can be equipped with a variety of weapons that can be switched on the fly. You also have rotating orbs called “craws” that add to your firepower. In TF5, the craws also enable a second-level attack for each weapon, at the expense of draining their power. The ever-reliable hunter cannon returns once again, along with a forward shot and reverse shot. New to this series is the free range gun, which locks lasers onto any targets that fall within its sensor range, as well as an updated wave shot that functions like an infrared ray.

The story is presented in a stylized, fragmented opening sequence, involving a captured alien technology called Vasteel and an artificial intelligence called Guardian’s Heart that achieves consciousness and rebels against humanity. Most of the details are cryptic, emerging in bits and pieces during boss fights, and are almost deliberately mistranslated “Engrish” that only adds to the charm. In layman’s terms, you fly a spaceship and shoot everything that moves.

Now here’s what I think Technosoft does better than anyone: they are masters of the set-piece. Their stage designs are not built around endless waves of identical enemy spaceships or flowery bullet patterns, but in constructing dramatic showdowns against enemies of varying sizes and strengths, threats that come from every conceivable direction, and even environmental obstacles. Sometimes there is a slight break in the action before the next frantic assault, a momentary pause before you are hurled into the next attack.

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Photo of the Day (5/1)

An evening crowd gathers around the Tribune Tower along Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Photo appears in my book Blacklight.

Madden NFL 98 (Sega Saturn)

Madden NFL 98 for Sega Saturn

That Madden 98 is the best American football game for Sega Saturn goes without saying; it wins the contest by default. The real question for gamers today: how well does Madden NFL 98 play two decades later? The answer: surprisingly well.

We really shouldn’t be surprised by this. The dirty little secret about sports videogames is that all of the major franchises have perfected their gameplay formulas years ago. Want to play a full season, own a franchise and enable player trades? Perhaps you’d like to play classic Super Bowl teams? How about offensive and defensive plays taken from real NFL teams? Do official league and players’ association endorsements interest you? Motion-captured player animations? Authentic recreations of all team stadiums? Fantasy draft? “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game,” as the saying goes.

Madden 98 feels like a culmination of everything the series had built to that point since it the Sega Genesis glory days (Madden 92 is still my series’ favorite). The controls are still somewhat simple and are still based on that old A-B-C control scheme. Players can sprint, spin, jump and dive with a single button press. Plays are selected by formation and grouped in thirds. Audibles can be selected on the fly. Kicks and punts are performed with the classic dual-bar system. Tackles play out like car crashes where knockdowns are instant. And, yes, you can perform late hits for cheap thrills, one of those silly guilty pleasures that never gets old.

The graphics feature 3D polygons that faithfully recreate all NFL stadiums, while all players are rendered as 2D sprites — “dynamically loaded, light sourced super-sprites” to quote the back cover. This would be the final year before EA finally caved in and switched to polygon players, but let’s be honest to ourselves and admit that polygon football players didn’t begin to look great until NFL2K exploded onto Sega Dreamcast. The super-sprites in Madden 98 can hold their own against their peers, and perhaps they have aged more gracefully. The animation is more natural and captures more exciting moments like toe-dragging catches or one-handed grabs.

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