Friday, June 30, 2006

GAME ON: The Dog Days of Summer

For my column this month I called out the Waaahhhbulance to complain about the lack of noteworthy games in stores this summer. Poor, poor pitiful me.

In the world of cinema, summertime is blockbuster time, when all the major studios release their big, expensive showstoppers.

In the world of video games, however, summer resembles a dry, parched desert, where gamers have precious few options to slake their thirst.

Welcome to the dog days of summer, when publishers and developers see fit to release as few games as possible, the bulk of those being dull budget titles or rushed spinoffs of popular film and TV franchises. "X-Men: The Official Game" anyone?

To be sure, there are a few notable high points among the otherwise lackluster calendar listings. A number of notable Xbox 360 games, such as "Dead Rising," "Chromehounds," "Ninety-Nine Nights" and "Prey," are scheduled for release this summer. A few anticipated titles such as "NFL Head Coach," the revamped "Valkyrie Profile" and Rockstar’s "Bully" also are scheduled to hit stores in July and August.

But by and large, this summer is a video game wasteland, with gamers forced to choose between titles like "AMF Xtreme Bowling" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."

The reason there’s such a dearth of big-ticket games right now can be summed up in two words: Christmas holidays.

November and December are when video game publishers make serious money, as every parent, aunt and other far-flung relative decides to pick up a game for little Johnny or Janey. That’s why Sony and Nintendo release their new consoles in the fall and not the spring or summer.

As a result, gamers can expect to get buried in an avalanche of titles as soon as September rolls by. Will a significant number of high-quality games get buried in the onslaught? You can practically bet on it, especially since this year also will see the release of the PlayStation 3 and the Wii.

Who’s going to have the cash for a title from a small developer after having blown all that money on a new console?

I know how expensive it is to put a video game together these days. And I know the potential to see serious cash by releasing a game at the end of the year, which is too good an opportunity to pass up.

But if you have a game that you think might get eclipsed by the hordes of more higher-profile titles (say, Capcom’s "Okami"), wouldn’t it be better to bring it out in the summer, when the competition is next to nil and you can garner more attention your way?

I mean, I’m sure there are tons of gamers looking to play something other than "Cars: the Game."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rockstar Games, for Xbox 360,
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

I love the fact that the game is titled "Rockstar Games Table Tennis," as if there were a slew of competing table tennis games out there flooding the market.

Of course, the title could also serve as a reminder that, yes indeed, the makers of "Grand Theft Auto" and other affronts to all that is good and decent, have made a game about something as benign as ping-pong.

I'll spare you the countless unfunny jokes about mafia bosses and dead hookers that other reviews of this game can't seem to shy away from, though, and cut to the chase. "Table Tennis " is a well-made, fun game that (surprise!) is suitable for the whole family.

The game is about as basic as you can get. After going through a training mode, you pick one of a handful of characters and from there, either enter a tournament, try on an exhibition game or play with friends, either at home or via Xbox Live.

The game makes a serious effort to show the actual sport and, yes, strategy involved in table tennis. Winning the game is determined not just by how hard you hit the ball, but by how much and what kind of spin you give it.

Thus, the four buttons on the controller correspond to differenttypes of spin shots (backspin, topspin, etc.). You use the left thumbstick to determine where you want the ball to land, but be careful! If the controller starts vibrating wildly, it means you're in danger of hitting the ball out of bounds.

You can also do soft shots or smashes, charge your shot for extra oomph or produce a "focus shot" to help you get the drop on your opponent.

Although the game is stripped down, it's not shoddy. In fact the game looks gorgeous on the Xbox 360, with a wealth of detail, from the player's expressions to the finish of the actual table .

This title really shows off the new console's abilities.

As I said, the game is pretty stripped down, perhaps in order to offer a counterpoint to other, overstuffed sports games that feel the need to throw in everything and the kitchen sink in order to make consumers feel they're getting their money's worth.

It's a refreshing change, and it goes along with Rockstar 's general nose-thumbing philosophy toward the gaming industry in general.

But it also limits the experience for single players. After a few tournaments and unlocking some meager extras, there's just not enough of a compelling reason for players to continue on their lonesome.

If you have an extra controller and some friends, however, or an Xbox Live connection, the value of the game increases considerably.

Overall, "Rockstar Games Table Tennis " shows the same dedication to quality that the company has become known for. Just no dead hookers.

Arrrgh. And I was doing so well, too.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


This sort of thing happens all the time.

First, a company comes out with this stunning new device that, it argues, you simply must have.
Then, once you buy it, the company comes out with a new, improved version designed to make you part with your hard-earned cash all over again.

Nintendo has been especially guilty in this regard, as the initial Game Boy Advance was later supplanted by the GBA SP and the recent GBA Micro.

Now, Nintendo has produced a follow-up to its critically acclaimed DS (Dual Screen) handheld console. This time, however, the changes are more than just window-dressing.

Dubbed the DS Lite, this new console is an improvement on the original in just about every way. It’s smaller, slimmer, weighs less and is considerably more attractive.

Apple has been an obvious influence on Nintendo, as the DS Lite bears an uncanny resemblance to the iPod with its translucent white color and rounded corners (other colors will be no doubt be coming down the assembly line soon).

That new look offers more than just aesthetic appeal. The original DS, with its gray, boxy design, tended to be a rather cumbersome carry-on, especially when you were trying to stuff it into your pocket. Not so with the DS Lite.

A number of buttons and switches have been moved around to make the console as sleek and useful as possible. The power button sits on the right side, while the start and select buttons have moved down to the bottom. The microphone sits in the center hinge so you can hear your voice better.

The brighter screen is easily one of the most notable improvements; it is not only brighter, but also it’s now adjustable. A little square in the bottom corner of the start-up screen lets you dim the lights, which is nice if you’re playing outside (a dimmer screen can also lengthen your battery life).

The only larger things about the DS Lite is the stylus, which is now thicker and much easier to grasp in your hand than in the past.

Really, there’s not a single part of this console that hasn’t been rethought and redesigned for the better. And the device retains the same innovative touch-screen technology that has made it an attractive buy for gamers in the first place.

With an already impressive library of games, the DS is ostensibly one of the best consoles on the market right now. The arrival of this classy redesigned edition just further underscores that point.

If you’ve been sitting on the fence, waiting for the right moment to pick up a DS, now’s your chance.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Graphic Lit: Scott Pilgrim and Ron Rege

The first day of the Museum of Contemporary Cartoon Art’s annual festival in New York City hadn’t even ended, and already Canadian artist Bryan Lee O’Malley had completely sold out of his latest book, "Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness."

That fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those who follow O’Malley’s work. "Sadness," the third book in the projected six-volume "Scott Pilgrim" series, has taken the comics world by storm. It’s a bonafide sleeper hit in an industry where such things are hard to come by.

The success of the book has come as an especially pleasant surprise to O’Malley.

"I didn’t think anyone was going to read it, honestly," he said during a break in the festival. "Right before [the first book] came out I was agonizing, ‘No one’s ever going to read this.’ "

The Scott Pilgrim of the title is a somewhat dorky, somewhat cool twentysomething who plays bass in a Toronto band and generally lives a relatively happy if undistinguished life.

Things become considerably more complicated when he meets the stunning Ramona Flowers and falls head over heels for her. In order to earn the right to date her, however, he must first defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends, one of whom happens to be dating Scott’s own former ex, whom poor Scott’s still not completely over.

Oh, and this particular evil ex-boyfriend also has super psychic powers. Because he’s a vegan.

If this all sounds slightly goofy, well, that’s a large part of the series’ charm. Scott’s universe is a magical one, where save points and extra lives appear nonchalantly; where bands have the ability to "manipulate pure sound waves through hard work and willpower alone;" and where bargain basement stores have the power to drive you mad. Those hoping for a sober, dour literary work should head elsewhere.

Those looking for a funny, fast-paced and heartfelt comic, however, will be delighted. With considerable skill, O’Malley takes various tropes from video games, anime, indie rock, comics and twentysomething angst, puts them all in a blender and hits "frappe." The resulting mixture is nothing short of intoxicating.

O’Malley’s original goals for the series were pretty simple.

"I wanted to write something that would entertain [my friends]," he said. "That was one of my big goals with Scott Pilgrim, to make my friends laugh. I guess my friends are more representative of the culture than I expected."

The story itself, O’Malley said, "is sort of based on my life situation at the time when I was that age. I lived in Toronto and I had a gay roommate, and I was dating an American girl and it sort of grew out of there."

The success of "Scott Pilgrim" has even led to a movie deal. Currently optioned by Universal Pictures, a "Scott Pilgrim" film is in the works, tentatively scheduled to be directed by Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead").

In the meantime, however, fans can look forward to at least three more "Scott Pilgrim" volumes, which O’Malley hopes to publish annually over the next three years, ending the series "by the time I turn 30."

Ron Rege Jr. offers 2 new books

It’s hard to think of a more idiosyncratic cartoonist than Ron Rege Jr. One or two artists out there might give him a run for the money, but that’s about it.

Last month saw the arrival of two new books in Rege’s ongoing "Yeast Hoist" series, a sort-of catch-all for Rege’s thoughts, drawings and weightier stuff.

This first book, "Yeast Hoist No. 12," (Buenaventura Press, $5.95) mainly consists of sketchbook art and other random doodles. It’s nice for fans of Rege’s work and provides some notable insight into the way he works, but it’s far from essential.

"The Awake Field" (Drawn and Quarterly, $7.95), on the other hand, is a bit more substantial. Here, heart-on-sleeve musings are tempered with a heedless energy.

Rege’s obsessively detailed universe is filled with pig-nosed people who always seem at the peak of some sort of spiritual ecstasy while mysterious spirits hover over the proceedings. "Awake Field" is about as far from your typical comic as you can get, but Rege’s work shows such awe at the wonder of the world that it’s worth checking out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, June 26, 2006

Graphic Lit: Female cartoonists

Gah. Finally able to breathe again. Here's the Graphic Lit column from 6/16

Gender has been a big issue in the comic book blogosphere lately.

The biggest news is probably DC’s announcement that the new Batwoman will be (according to the New York Times) a "lipstick lesbian."

Elsewhere, gripes have been heard concerning a new book on obscure cartoonists that it conveniently focuses on white males.

The good news is that’s not a claim you could make today. The past two months have seen some fabulous books from a variety of female artists, each one more different from the last. If anything, it proves that women cartoonists are no longer a ghetto unto themselves, but a thriving, vital part of the comic book industry.

Here’s a look at five of the more notable titles:

"Fun Home"
by Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin, 240 pages, $19.95.

Nothing in my little exposure to Bechdel’s previous work ("Dykes to Watch Out For") had prepared me for this stunning memoir detailing her strained relationship with her controlling, emotionally distant father.

What’s interesting about the book isn’t just the details, which are gripping, but how Bechdel lays it out.

All the major revelations — her father’s premature death, his double life, her own coming out — are revealed within the first few chapters. Bechdel then returns to these stories again and again, circling around them and adding more details until a full picture of how she and her father influenced each other is formed.

Autobiographical stories are a dime a dozen in the graphic novel market these days, but "Fun Home" easily rises above the rest through Bechdel’s unique and compelling storytelling abilities. Expect to see this book make a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.

"We Are On Our Own"
by Miriam Katin
Drawn and Quarterly, 136 pages, $19.95.

Speaking of great memoirs, here’s another one, by the relatively unknown Katin, who has worked mainly in animation and children’s books.

Here, she details her childhood around the last year of the Second World War, when she and her mother were forced to flee their home in Hungary and adopt a hand-to-mouth existence in the countryside, their lives entirely dependent upon the kindness (or cruelty) of strangers.

A very young child at the time, Katin portrays her confusion at their forced wanderings, which serves as a nice counterpoint to her mother’s desperation. She also effectively employs a loose, sketchy style that effectively undercuts the hardscrabble nature of the story she’s telling.

"The Ticking"
by Renee French
Top Shelf, 216 pages, $19.95.

No other cartoonist is able to creep you out and break your heart as eloquently as Renee French, often on the same page.

"The Ticking" is French’s latest work, and might just be her most emotionally resonant yet. The plot involves Edison Steelhead, a deformed boy who lives with his equally disfigured father on a remote island — presumably to avoid the stares of the general populace. When Edison decides to take his chances with the outside world, however, tragedy occurs.

What’s especially remarkable about the book is the way that small details that initially seem insignificant gain larger resonance while other mysteries are seemingly left unexplained. This is a book that rewards frequent readings.

"The Squirrel Mother"
by Megan Kelso
Fantagraphics Books, 152 pages, $16.95.

"Squirrel Mother" collects several of Kelso’s short tales accumulated over the past few years, and it’s interesting to see how she subtly alters her style — a bit more cartoony here, a bit more stylized there — in order to fit the emotions of each tale.

Like French, Kelso is an artist whose themes are often revealed in the minor details and background scenes. A scene of two girls learning the waltz, for example, takes on added resonance when you notice a "for sale" sign in the one girl’s yard.

Unlike French, though, Kelso’s work is more suffused with melancholy than dread. Her work is about the small moments in life that reveal a great deal about where the characters have been and where they’re going.

"La Perdida"
by Jessica Abel
Pantheon Books, 276 pages, $19.95.

This is probably the weakest of all the books reviewed here, but that’s not due to lack of ambition. "La Perdida" tells the story of Carla, who moves to Mexico to explore her Hispanic roots and so heedlessly tries to assimilate that she starts hanging out with a rather dangerous crowd. And things get worse from there.

Part of the problem with Abel’s story is that it’s hard to identify with any of the characters, so unlikeable are they. Carla in particular is so desperate and needy that you’re hard-pressed to believe she can’t see the obvious danger she’s putting herself into.

Still, Abel has proven herself to be a top-notch artist and there are moments where "La Perdida" sings. Perhaps it’s not the magnum opus Abel clearly wants it to be, but neither is it a utter failure.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Busy, busy, busy

Waaaaaaay too busy to post anything this week, sorry. I really shouldn't even be posting this right now.

Lots of posts next week, I promise.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Graphic Lit: Castle Waiting

Comics are for kids.

At least, that’s what the conventional wisdom used to be.

Nowadays, we know that’s not the case. Today, comics are rightfully regarded as an art form unto themselves, something that adults can partake in without feeling like they’re slumming.

But when even the formerly child-friendly superhero books start catering to older audiences, it can seem like younger readers are left out of the loop.

After all, when a general audience title like DC’s "52" features a character named Black Adam literally tearing a villain in two, with blood and guts flying everywhere, where can a comic-loving parent turn?

One good place to go is "Castle Waiting," the new graphic novel by Linda Medley. Her book is a charming, thoughtful and heartwarming twist on traditional fairy tales that will appeal to both children and adults.

The story focuses on a decrepit castle occupied by a handful of lonely and eccentric souls who offer refuge to those who seek it.

The first third of the book details how the castle came to be abandoned. The second involves a pregnant young woman who comes to the castle seeking shelter. The final section chronicles the history of Sister Peace, who is a member of an unusual convent.

The idea for the book came to Medley back in college, when she was studying folklore and fairy tales.

"I had always been interested in what was going on outside of the actual fairy tales. There must have been a whole lot more going on in [the characters’] lives," she said during a recent interview.

"Castle Waiting" has actually been around for a number of years, since 1996 in fact, when Medley self-published "The Curse of Brambly Hedge."

The series ran for a number of years under the umbrella of several different publishers. When one company canceled a projected trade collection, a frustrated Medley decided she’d had enough.

"I thought, ‘Somebody is trying to tell you something,’ " she said.

It wasn’t until Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth started inquiring about publishing the series that she decided to return to it.

The new book collects the entire run from "Brambly Hedge" onward. But that won’t be the end of the series. Next month will see the return of "Castle Waiting" in regular comic pamphlet format, picking up where the hardcover edition left off.

Medley said she regards "Castle Waiting" as one long novel, with different "chapters" focusing on each of the castle’s residents.

She said that, though this is a fairy tale that takes place hundreds of years ago, it deals with issues and themes that people have to deal with today. Particularly, the idea of displacement, and forming a family outside of your own lineage.

Medley sums up her central question as: "How do you go to [a new place] and find a way to make it your own and fit in?" concluding that, "You can find family outside of your own blood relatives."

Other great comics for kids

"Billy Hazelnuts"
by Tony Millionaire
Fantagraphics, 100 pages, $19.95.

No other cartoonist shifts with such whiplash effect from the sublimely poetic ("Sock Monkey") to the obscenely vulgar ("Maakies") as Tony Millionaire. This book is decidedly planted in the former category though, and may well be his best book yet.

The plot involves a mouse-made golem (the titular Billy), a brilliant girl scientist, a spurned poetic suitor, a graveyard for worn out planets, robot alligator men and lots of over-the-top dialogue ("I’m a barrelful of Hate! Come open me up!")

It’s perhaps a bit too dark at times for the very young, but "Hazelnuts" offers enough madcap whimsy, to say nothing of the gorgeous art work, to enchant anyone over the age of, say, 7.

"Carl Barks’ Greatest DuckTales Stories Vol. 1"
Gemstone, $10.95.

Barks’ stories were the inspiration for the Disney cartoon show from the early ’90s, hence the title of this new volume, which collects a number of notable Uncle Scrooge stories from the 1950s and ’60s.

There’s a reason why Barks’ work is lauded as much as it is by hard-core comics scholars. He was able to combine high adventure and goofy humor with seemingly effortless aplomb. Parents owe it to their kids to include this book on their shelves.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, June 15, 2006

VG REVIEW: X-Men: The Official Game

Activision, for PlayStation 2, Xbox, Xbox 360 and GameCube
rated T for Teen (violence), $39.99 and $59.99 (Xbox 360 only).

I wonder if at any point during the development of "X-Men: The Official Game," the folks at Activision turned to one another and said, "You know, maybe we shouldn’t release this."

I mean, they had to know this was a horrible game. It’s clunky, dull, buggy and frustrating to play. There is no way they could have thought this was anything even halfway resembling a good title.

And yet they released it anyway, which once again proves that in the video game industry — like most other entertainment industries, I should add — pushing out products is far more important than producing anything of quality.

"X-Men" is, of course, the game tie-in to the new "X3" film, now playing at a theater near you. Rather than being just an adaptation of the movie, the game’s story is sandwiched between the last film and the new one.

In the game, you play as three characters: Wolverine, Iceman and Nightcrawler. Iceman rides on a never-stopping rail of ice and shoots ice beams. Nightcrawler can teleport short distances and take enemies by surprise. Wolverine can just slice apart anything that gets in his way.

So far so good, but here everything starts to fall apart. The story, despite the best efforts of voice actors Hugh Jackman and Alan Cumming, makes little sense. The characters are clunky and offer little to distinguish them from one another. And the enemies are dense, dumb and mind-numbingly repetitive.

I could go on and talk about the lack of interesting combo moves, the stupefyingly dull boss battles and the way the game confuses quantity with quality by throwing 50 versions of the same villain at you. But suffice it to say that everything about this game tells you it was slapped together as quickly as possible in order to come out at the same time as the film.

In fact, "X-Men: The Official Game" isn’t a game at all. It’s a cog in the ever-grinding promotional machine that is the "X-Men" franchise.

That it doesn’t make the slightest effort to be even remotely engaging tells you something about how little regard its makers have not only for you, the consumer, but of their profession. A Burger King tie-in glass displays more pride in craftsmanship than this game does.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

VG REVIEW: New Super Mario Bros.

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone (comic mischief), $34.99.

This is how you update a classic franchise.

After recently playing "Rampage: Total Destruction," the latest in seemingly endless revamps of classic games, I began to wonder if anyone knew how to take an older game and make it fresh again.

The answer is yes. Nintendo has taken a by-now familiar formula with "New Super Mario Bros." and made it feel, well, not new, but certainly not tired either.

"New Super Mario Bros." is the first official Mario title since "Super Mario Sunshine" back in 2002 (that’s assuming you don’t count spin-offs like "Paper Mario" and "Mario Party").

It’s not really a fresh take on everyone’s favorite Italian plumber as it is an updated version of the classic formula. "Super Mario Bros. Remixed" may have been a better title.

Even the plot is overly familiar. Once again, Princess Peach has been kidnapped. Once again, it’s up to our hero to traverse a variety of hazardous landscapes in order to set things right.

A number of familiar powers and items, such as the flower that lets Mario hurl fireballs at his enemies, crop up here, but some new abilities have been added as well.

The Mega Mushroom, for example, allows Mario to grow to Gulliverlike proportions and step over anything that gets in his way.

Conversely, the Mini Mushroom lets Mario shrink down to minuscule size, enabling him to fit into tiny pipes and narrow corners.

There’s also a special blue Koopa shell that, when nabbed, lets him crash into his enemies, knocking them off the path entirely.

Other new features include a two-player version and a loose collection of touch-screen minigames, but those are more afterthoughts than anything else. It’s the single-player mode that will drive consumers’ interest.

So it’s a good thing that single-player mode is so utterly engrossing and challenging. Combining all the elements that have made the series so enjoyable in the past, "New Super" manages to evoke nostalgic memories of past games while at the same time feeling like a different sequel.

That’s no small feat. Especially in the world of video games.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, June 12, 2006

Some more MoCCA thoughts

One thing I didn't mention in my CR report was that I was able to preview a number of upcoming books. First Second had samples of the upcoming Fall line out for perusal. I have to confess I'm very excited about Kampung Boy finally being made available on these shores, but other titles in their line-up, like American Born Chinese and Missouri Boy, looked good too.

Elsewhere, Mike Dawson showed me a copy of the as yet uncompleted Freddie and Me and hints were dropped that AdHouse might be publishing it. Chris Pitzer also had a galley of the upcoming Project: Romantic on display, which looked to be quite promising.

The cherry on the sundae, however, was checking out the proofs for the upcoming Kramer's Ergot 6. Good golly miss molly but this anthology just gets better with every edition.

I know I promised more photos, but looking them over I realized the best ones were posted yesterday. All the rest are too dark or are of the ceiling or my ugly mug. No one wants to look at that.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Despite Amtrak's best efforts, I managed to attend the MoCCA Festival in New York City this past Saturday. My official report/impressions can be found at The Comics Reporter, if not by the time I post this, then soon. Here then, are some pictures I took:

When I first got there, the line was nonexistent.
By 3 p.m. it snaked out of the building.

Surprisingly enough, no one seemed interested in this

Low Road blogger Ed Cunard hides behind some Fantagraphics books.
He's the shy, retiring type.

With a successful launch, First Second
editor Mark Siegel had plenty to smile about.

I interviewed Bryan Lee O'Malley for an
upcoming Graphic Lit column.
That's not me holding the microphone though.

Two incredibly talented cartoonists:
Mark Burrier and Zak Sally

Top Shelf sold their books from behind an actual bar.
I thought that was pretty cool.

Miriam Katin was one of the speakers at the festival.
Sadly, not nearly enough people treked upstairs
to hear her talk.

Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld: Together at last.

Chris Pitzer hawks his AdHouse books with flair

PictureBox had some lovely books

That's not my camera. It really got that dark at certain points of the day.

The one extremely depressing part for me was when I got home and realized that about 10 of the books that folks had kindly given me as review copies had mysteriously vanished from my bags. If you were at the show and saw a book or two lying on the floor enscribed to "Chris" please do drop me an email and let me know.

More pictures tomorrow, if I can find the time.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

VG REVIEW: The Da Vinci Code

2K Games, for PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated T for Teen (blood, language, violence), $39.99 (con­sole) and $29.99 (PC).

Sometimes, you just know.

Without even opening the book, watching the film or playing the game, you just know it’s going to be really, really bad.

I had that strong, sinking feeling about "The Da Vinci Code." Not the movie, mind you, but the new video game adaptation of the book by Dan Brown. It’s a bit of an obscure title, but maybe you’ve heard it mentioned here or there.

Anyway, I had strong hopes that the game would surprise me, that the nagging voice in the back of my head would turn out to be wrong and the game would turn out to be decent.

But "The Da Vinci Code" turned out to be just as awful as I had expected.

In the game, you play as both Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu (who look nothing like Tom Hanks or Audrey Tatou).

As anyone who’s even read a newspaper clipping about the book knows, the story opens with a murder at the Louvre. The innocent Langdon is fingered for the crime, and he and Neveu start a globe-trotting journey to find the true culprit.

Along the way they come across "the greatest cover-up in the history of man," which just goes to show that Dan Brown didn’t follow the whole Reuben Studdard/Clay Aiken controversy.

But I digress. There are basically three aspects to "The Da Vinci Code" game: puzzle solving, stealthy sneaking and fighting.

The puzzles veer wildly between blindingly obvious and stunningly obtuse. The stealth sequences are pretty much useless. And the fighting — must I really discuss the fighting? Oh, all right.

Rather than have some sort of real-time combat mechanism, you battle mad monks and torpid cops with a button-mashing sequence that resembles "Simon" and most rhythm-based games. I suppose the idea is to make a fighting system simple enough that your "Da Vinci"-loving grandma can handle it.

You just mimic the pattern on the screen while grappling with an enemy and watch a cut scene of your character performing some martial arts moves. As game play goes, it’s a formula that quickly grows stale after about the third fight.

Sadly, "The Da Vinci Code" is yet another rushed movie tie-in that fails to add anything either to the franchise or to gaming in general.

In fact, the game has pretty much destroyed my interest in all things Dan Brownish so that I have no desire now to read the actual book or see the film.

But then I knew it would.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Graphic Lit: Hodge-podge time

Time for a speedy rundown of some notable graphic novels that hit stores in recent months.

Quickly now, and with feeling:

"Mom’s Cancer"
by Brian Fies
Harry N. Abrams, 128 pages, $12.95.

Fies chronicled his mother’s battle with brain and lung cancer online, as a weekly Web-based comic. The collected result is a somber but touching look at how a family deals with a life-threatening event. Fies’ use of visual metaphor is particularly striking, such as when he portrays himself and his siblings as battling superheroes to show their frequent infighting, or shows his mom walking a tightrope while describing the various side effects of her medication. Fies’ narration tends to overemphasize the point at times, but this is still a powerful little comic, recommended for anyone who’s ever had to deal with a major family crisis.

"Jimbo’s Inferno"
by Gary Panter
Fantagraphics Books, 48 pages, $29.95.

Art-comix icon Panter deconstructs and reconfigures Dante’s "Inferno," with hell turned into the "vast gloom-rock mallscape" Focky Bocky and punk rock Jimbo taking Dante’s role.

Panter’s faux primitive style is always a delight (and the production value is stunning), but there’s no question that your enjoyment of this book is invariably determined by your familiarity with Dante’s original poem, despite what Panter might claim in the preface. It’s a rewarding book for literary scholars, though, and those who’d like to try something a bit out of the ordinary.

"Every Girl is the End of the World for Me"
by Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf, 104 pages, $8.

Brown continues chronicling his romantic tussles with members of the opposite sex with the usual self-effacing humor that longtime readers have come to expect.

"Girl" is a decidedly better book than his last (the disappointing "AEIOU") perhaps because it doesn’t focus on one relationship but several potential ones that, naturally, never really come to fruition. Anyone who’s ever sighed afar at the girl/boy who works at the coffee shop will appreciate this slim book.

"The Abandoned"
by Ross Campbell
Tokyopop, 192 pages, $9.99.

I haven’t cared much for a lot of the books in Tokyopop’s OEL (i.e., "manga" made by Westerners) line. Nor am I particularly fond of zombie stories. Campbell’s grisly tale, however, captivated me. I really enjoyed his lush art, his use of red to heighten tension, and the way he lets his characters interact between disembowelings. "Abandoned" stays firmly within its genre, but it’s a sharp, smart little horror story that will thrill fans looking for a good, bloody scare.

"Noble Boy"
by Scott Morse
AdHouse Books, 32 pages, $12.95.

Morse pays a loving tribute to his mentor, Maurice Noble (best known for his work on several classic Chuck Jones cartoons), in this slim volume, gussied up to resemble a children’s board book.

Morse’s art is as lovely as ever. Less pretty, however, is the forced poem that accompanies the drawings. Considering that for the same price you could get a copy of "Mom’s Cancer," "Noble Boy," though made with love, is such a slight affair that it’s hard to justify a purchase.

by Neil Kleid and Jake Allen
NBM, 208 pages, $18.95.

Kleid and Allen look at Depression-era Brooklyn, N.Y., when Jewish gangsters ruled the city, using a fictional up-and-coming thug as a tour guide through the times.

There are so many characters, however, and the book speeds along so quickly that the reader never has a clear sense of who is who or why he should care. Allen’s art carries a placid weight to it that robs a good deal of the book’s drama as well. Together, Kleid and Allen do something you wouldn’t think possible: They make a crime story that’s not only confusing but also boring.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, June 05, 2006

I almost forgot to mention

I'm going to be at MoCCA in New York City this Saturday. I'll be the one in the Castlevania T-Shirt. If you see me wandering around, please do stop and say hi.

I'm not too good at this self-promotion thing

I should probably have mentioned the other week that I have two reviews in the latest issue of The Comics Journal. That's issue number 276 for those of you keeping score at home. Please do pick up an issue and see me take cheap shots at Penny Arcade and Rose is Rose. Some fun!

Currently reading: Some really great books, including "Fun Home" by Alison Bedchel, "We Are on Our Own" by Miriam Katin, "The Squirrel Mother Stories" by Megan Kelso and "The Ticking" by Renee French.

Currently playing: Some really crappy video games, including "X-Men: The Official Game" and "The Da Vinci Code" (review to go up later this week). Only "New Super Mario Bros." is keeping me from tearing my hair out. "Rockstar's Table Tennis" isn't bad either, but it's way to difficult for a putz like me.

Last Friday's Graphic Lit column will go up tomorrow. Fer shure.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

VG REVIEW: Rampage: Total Destruction

Midway, for PlayStation 2 and GameCube
rated E +10 for ages 10 and up (violence), $19.99.

Older gamers tend to feel a strong nostalgia for the arcade titles of years past, like "Pac-Man." Hence, the number of renovated and revitalized versions of older franchises, like "Pac-Man World."

But not every moldy arcade game has aged so well that it deserves a rebirth. The monster destruction game "Rampage," for example, should probably have best remained a distant but happy memory in gamers’ minds. As the new sequel, "Rampage: Total Destruction" proves, it’s not a game that warrants a second trip to the well.

Despite the flashy 3-D graphics, "Destruction" is pretty much identical to the original. As before, you are a giant monster, a la King Kong or Godzilla, and your job is to smash up the city and anything else that gets in your way. That’s about it.

There are a number of different monsters to choose from, and more are unlockable within the game, so you can wreck havoc either as a big ape or a very large octopus. Each monster, however, operates basically the same, with only a few minor variations, making the diversity much less impressive.

The game’s formula is simple: Destroy a city block using the limited moves available (punch, kick, etc.), smash any tank or helicopter that attempts to stop you, eat the people and power-ups to regain your health, and repeat ad nauseam. After about 10 minutes, the problem becomes obvious — "Destruction" is too repetitive and, ultimately, too dull to be worthwhile.

Had the developers added more variety — a few more specialized powers, larger levels, different enemies — then "Destruction" might have been more fun. By simply updating the original, it proves how shallow it was to begin with.

That’s fine if you’re playing in an arcade, designed to pump as many quarters out of you as quickly as possible. But if you’re playing at home on a console, something with more depth is needed.

Even at $20, "Destruction" is too slight to warrant purchase. Rent it if your hazy memories of the original are too strong to be overcome, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning it the next day.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006