Thursday, March 30, 2006

First Second books are here!

The wonderful publicists for First Second (thanks Gina!)were kind enough to send me their entire debut line, as well as their catalog and a CD-Rom press kit. I'll get around to posting full reviews of each book somewhere down the road, but in the meantime I thought I'd post some preview images along with some initial impressions.

Overall the books look great, though they're a bit smaller than I initially expected. Sfaar's work in particular seems a bit cramped compared to the larger pages of "The Rabbi's Cat." Still, these are handsome, expertly produced books that would look nice on any shelf. And if you don't care for softcover, some books are apparently available in a limited hardcover edition.

Originally I was going to cover all six books in one sitting, but it's late and I'm tired, so I think I'll split it up into two nights. You don't mind, do you? Good.First off, and easily the most eagerly anticipated book of the line is Eddie Campbell's "The Fate of the Artist." Campbell foregoes his ususual pen and ink work here to add color, photos, text and collage. Taking a page out of "Ice Haven," Campbell mimics classic newspaper strips and more to tell the story of his own "mysterious disappearance." It looks grand.
Next up is "A.L.I.E.E.E.N.," the new book from Lewis Trondheim. The catalog, as well as the ever-cute art style, suggest that this is a book for kids. IT IS NOT. This is a dark, dark, dark, very funny, dark work.

It all goes downhill from there. I suppose if your children are into Edward Gorey, they'd enjoy this book, but I can also see a good bit of nightmares coming from some sequences, not the least of which being the apocalyptic shit-storm at the end. I don't mean to demean the book; I just want to warn folks. It's really quite good and plays well to Trondheim's usual deadpan tone and wonderful black humor. Fans of his work will like it, but it is easily the most disturbing and unsettling work of his I've read yet.

And while we're all light and sunshine I'll move on to "Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda" by J.P. Stassen. This won the prestigious Goscinny prize and it's not too hard to see why, though it's about as cheery as "A.L.I.E.E.E.N." and obviously much less heartwarming.

A quick scan through the pages suggests this is the sort of book that will break your heart but leave you wanting more. I expect it to be a tough, but ultimately rewarding read.

Time for sleep. Tomorrow: Sfaar, Sfaar and Klein.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

GAME ON: PS3 delay and more

Time once again for my monthly gaming column. This ran in the Patriot-News last Sunday and focused on the recently announced PS3 delay. Have at.

By now, you’ve heard that the Sony’s next-next-gen console, the PlayStation 3, has been delayed until November.

Originally, the system was supposed to arrive in stores sometime this spring (at least in Japan), but finalizing the standards for the Blu-ray DVD technology buried inside the machine proved more time-consuming than the company expected.

As a result, the console will be released worldwide Nov. 11 at a price that Sony claims will not be "any less than $425."

No doubt there were many who were disappointed in hearing the news of the delay, but to anyone who had been following the PS3’s travails, the news only confirmed what was anticipated.

"I think it was kind of expected. We were being set up for it," said Kimi Matsuzaki, community manager for the gaming news Web site "It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody."

More interesting than the news of the delay is the fact that Sony plans to launch the console globally, even though it will have only one million units to ship initially. The company plans to pump out a million consoles a month thereafter.

There’s no way that supply can meet the demand with those few consoles, meaning consumers can expect a catastrophe of Tickle-Me Elmo proportions.

The shortage might actually be good news for Sony because, as Matsuzaki said, "a big shortage makes the console the big item to find this holiday season."

In other words, expect to see lots of news stories about long lines, irate parents, fights in stores and sky-high bids on eBay.

Of course, what’s good for Sony is not necessarily good for the consumer. Gamers bitter over last year’s Xbox 360 shortages — some of whom only just got their pre-orders filled — might be more than happy to hold off a PS3 purchase in favor of more titles for their Xbox 360 or Nintendo’s upcoming console, the Revolution.

Then again, hardcore gamers might be more than happy to play the waiting game in order to be the first on their block with a new piece of hardware.

"The mind-set of early adopters is to get it as early as possible," Matsuzaki said.

The key factor will be the PS3’s initial lineup of games. If PS3 developers can produce at least one or two compelling, must-have titles by November, then Sony could ideally divert attention away from Nintendo and Microsoft, who, by that point, should have a impressive list of 360 games in stores.

Judging by the launch line-ups of past consoles, however, that’s a pretty big if.

Other Sony disclosures

Sony also had some interesting revelations about its PlayStation Portable this month.

Last Thursday, the price of Sony’s hand-held dropped from $249 to $199, though the cheaper version doesn’t include such amenities as a memory stick, headphones and a slipcase.

The company also revealed it plans to release a snap-on EyeToy camera and an emulator that will allow owners to download and play PSOne games like "Final Fantasy VII."

Considering the dearth of PSP games out there, this is welcome news.

A new game site

Speaking of, it’s about to unveil a new site,, which went online last Monday.

In addition to the usual trailers of new and upcoming games, the site will feature interviews with industry insiders, walkthrough guides, tournament footage and user-submitted videos.

The site will have original programming, including podcasts, and "classic" commercials for antiquated hardware like the Commodore 64.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Majesco, for Nintendo DS
rated E 10+ (mild violence), $29.99

Every gamer has one white whale. By that I mean a game that became their sole addiction. A game they spent every possible minute playing, often staying up late and skipping meals in order to get more play time in.

For most folks these days it seems to be "World of Warcraft." For me it was "Civilization II" (well, that and "Tetris"). Sid Meiers’ turn-based strategy game kept me up until the wee hours of the morning, building little empires and battling ancient armies.

I thought I had put all that behind me until I started playing "Age of Empires: The Age of Kings," a spin-off of the popular PC game, slimmed down for the Nintendo DS.

It only took a few minutes before that pure gaming rush came back. Very quickly, "Age of Kings" became my gaming drug of choice and any free moment I had was spent amassing my armies, building towns and crushing my virtual enemies into the dust.

The developers at Backbone Entertainment have done an excellent job translating Microsoft’s strategy franchise to the DS.

Where before you might have to page through countless menus in order to move your troops, now it can all be done via your stylus and the console’s touch screen. It’s just further proof that the DS’ unique interface can allow for a variety of games previously thought unadaptable for a handheld.

As with other games in the "Age of Empires" series, your job here is to amass armies and defeat your opponents. Through the game’s various missions, you play as Joan of Arc, Gengis Kahn and Richard the Lionhearted.

Each mission has specific goals, such as destroying a particular fortress or escorting a traveling dignitary, which does a good job of keeping the game from feeling repetitive.

Ensuring success doesn’t just mean having the best warriors. You’ll have to build mines and towns, grow farms and research technology to achieve victory.

The fact is, "Age of Kings" requires a good deal of strategy to win, which is a good part of the reason it’s such a compelling game to play. If, like me, you’re up way past your bedtime with "Civ II" or a similar game, "Age of Kings" will find you losing sleep all over again.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, March 27, 2006

VG REVIEW: Fight Night Round 3

For some reason Blogger won't let me post pics today, so no screenshots. Sorry.

Electronic Arts, for Xbox 360, Xbox and PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (blood, mild language, suggestive themes, violence), $39.99 (Xbox and PlayStation 2) and $59.99 (Xbox 360).

Video game snobs (and I probably qualify as one) like to make the claim that good graphics aren’t nearly as important as good game play.

It’s the controls and the interface and the overall aesthetic, they argue, that make a game succeed, not pretty pictures.

The horrible truth, however, is that graphics really do make a difference, at least some of the time. An excellent case in point is "Fight Night Round 3," the latest sequel in Electronic Arts’ ongoing boxing franchise.

The game itself is virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor. Aside from a few new punches and other minor tweaks, there’s nothing here that wasn’t around the last time. Particularly if you get the Xbox or PlayStation 2 editions.

Ah, but if you’re playing the Xbox 360 version, that’s a different story altogether.

The graphic overhaul for Microsoft’s latest and newest console does away with the need for health bars and damage meters. You can tell how much punishment your fighter is taking (or dishing out) because it’s plainly visible through the cuts and bruises on his face.

The improved graphics basically allow for a greater realism, a more immersive experience. You don’t realize how the interface gauges from previous games have built a wall between you and the game until you play without them.

As before, you battle other boxers in the ring by swinging the right thumb stick, mimicking an actual punch. Pulling back and then swinging around to the side, for example, can land a vicious haymaker.

It’s an ingenious system that makes you appreciate the sport of boxing a bit more. No longer is button mashing an option; players will have to learn to duck, block and use a bit of strategy to get a good punch in and knock their opponent to the canvas.

"Round 3" has all the features one has come to expect from an EA Sports title. You can "create a champ," replay historic rivalries such as Ali vs. Frazier and unlock a variety of special moves, clothes and even tattoos.

With so few solid titles out for the Xbox 360, "Fight Night Round 3" is sort of a no-brainer. If nothing else, the game proves that good graphics offer more than just a pretty face.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I almost forgot about this

In yet another blending of the video game and comic book worlds, Marvel announced this week that they will release a Halo graphic novel this July. The book will be an anthology of stories set within the Halo universe. Contributor list includes Mobius, Phil Hale, Ed Lee, Tsutomo Nihei, Jay Faerber, Andrew Robinson, Simon Bisley and Lee Hammock. There will also be a selection of gallery pages done by both professional comic artist and Halo's art team. You can see an initial breakdown of the contents and early art work here.

My prediction? Despite the talent involved this book will still suck.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A resounding "meh"

Spoilers abound. Oooooo. Beware.

So, yeah, "V for Vendetta." ... I'm sort of tempted not to post anything at all about the movie because most of my thoughts on it can be summed up as "it's not as good as the book." Which, I mean, no fucking duh. The book's always better.

Still, it's interesting to note the ways in which the movie falls down in comparison, at least to me. Certainly this is the most faithful and best adaptation of Moore's work yet, but that's not saying a heck of a lot now is it? If anything, V proves to me that Moore's comics are too knotty, epic and intricate to adapt to film. We're probably better off not trying.

Anyway, Hugo Weaving is decent as V, though there were one too many hand flourishes to suit me. I can imagine how difficult it is to have to act without using your face, but the constant gesturing drew me out of the moment at times.

They attempted to make V more human also, and you get some "Phantom of the Opera" like scenes where he weeps in front of a mirror. That's not really in keeping with the icy character in the comic, but I understand the need to humanize him. I'm just not sure it works.

Natalie Portman is pretty good, so long as she isn't required to do anything too tricky. As soon as we come to THAT SCENE (you know what scene I mean) she stumbles, and I could sense her becoming all "actorly." I would think it would be a pretty impossible scene for just about anyone, so I will cut her a bit of slack. The rest of the cast is pretty good though, particularily the two Stephens, Fry and Rea.

One of my problems with Portman is the fact that she remains such a pretty thing throughout the film (not to mention a little too old for the role methinks). I mean, there she is, at her wit's end in prison and I'm thinking, wow, she looks good for someone who's just been tortured. If I were the director and she came to me looking like that for those scenes, I would have sent her back to make up, tout suite.

That Hollywoodization continues throughout the whole film. Everything's clean and precise, compared with the grubby, rundown feel of London in the graphic novel. Also, everyone seems to have digital tvs and the Internet in fascist Britain. You'd think those things would be the first to go, but I guess not.

As you'd expect with a film adaptation of such a rich work, many supporting characters are shunted to the side or forgotten entirely. John Hurt, as the fascist leader, comes off particularily cartoonish as a result and I wish they had spent, oh, five minutes more fleshing his character out a bit.

Ultimately, though, my gripes with the film tend to echo Moore's own derision toward the screenplay. In the original comic book series Moore set up two extreme political viewpoints -- fascism and anarchy -- and let them have at each other (while obviously rooting for the latter). The film just doesn't like those mean old jackboots and that's about it. It knows what it's against, but it doesn't have a single idea of what it's for. You didn't have to like or agree with Moore's ultimate thesis, but at least you knew where he stood.

I also agree with Moore in that it seems a bit of a cop-out to keep the story in Britain when what the film is really about is what's going on in the US today. The Wachowskis don't seem to have any real insight or even interest in British culture -- they lionize Fawkes, who was a religious zealot, and except for Big Ben and a few other landmarks, V could be doing his skullduggery anywhere.

All that being said, I didn't really hate the film either. McTeague does a decent job keeping the story moving along and there were a handful of sequences I liked -- the bit with the dominoes, Fry showing Evey his secret stash, even the ending with all the folks wearing V masks worked (but only at the end when they took them off -- you'll see what I mean if you see the film). The action sequences had a nice Matrixy thrill to them, and, as I said, most of the cast behave reasonably well.

So, in the end, your enjoyment of V for Vendetta is almost entirely dependent upon whether or not you've read the book. If you haven't, then you don't know what you're missing and will have a swell time. If you have, well, then you'll probably gripe about it in grumpy blogs like this one.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

VG REVIEW: Pursuit Force

Sony, for the PlayStation Portable
rated T for Teen (mild language, suggestive themes, violence), $39.99.
Rating: 3 stars

Remember the 80s? The makers of "Pursuit Force" sure do.

And not just the pixilated arcade classics of that era, either. No, this high-octane action title offers homages to the testosterone-fueled films that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and cheesy Saturday morning cartoon shows like "C.O.P.S."

Does it go without saying that this is a silly game? Good thing, then, that it’s a lot of fun, too.

In the game, you are part of an elite, futuristic police force, dedicated to taking back the streets from the criminal gangs who consider the city their playground. That one gang, named the Vixens, consists of a group of former Hollywood stunt women who have turned to crime, gives you an idea of the tongue-in-cheek attitude on display here.

Most of the time, your missions will consist of chasing down and stopping the crooks by car, boat or motorcycle.

The nifty catch is that you can hop from one moving vehicle to the next, slamming on top of an enemy’s transport and then commandeering it with a few quick bursts from your firearm.

Every few levels, you’ll be given a different mission, such as protecting an informant from attack, taking out a group of thugs on foot or manning a helicopter gun. These variations in the basic premise do a nice job of keeping the game from getting stale.

Apart from the single-player mode, which is extensive, there are few other options. Surprisingly, there’s no real multiplayer mode, which would enhance a game of this nature.

"Pursuit" controls easily, with most actions engaged with the simple press of a button. The game also looks good, featuring crisp colors and sharp details.

"Pursuit Force" doesn’t have any goals other than to entertain you. It’s an empty-headed, shallow bauble, yes, but considering the dearth of solid PSP titles out there, we should welcome a game that manages to so solidly offer fun for fun’s sake.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, March 20, 2006

VG REVIEW: Getting Up

Atari, for PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated M for Mature (blood, strong language, violence), $49.99.
Rating: 3 stars

This shouldn’t be a three-star review.

Considering all the promises and high expectations, "Marc Ecko’s Getting Up" should by rights have been a much better game. Certainly Ecko, the famed fashion designer who was the driving force behind the game’s conception, alluded to as much.

That it’s decent enough to recommend offers some comfort, but it’s still hard to ignore the feelings of disappointment and missed opportunities.

"Getting Up" is similar in some respects to games such as "The Warriors" and "Jet Set Radio Future." As in those titles, you play a rebellious urban youth obsessed with laying down graffiti and sticking it to "the man."

This time you’re Trane, an ambitious youth living with his grandmother in squalor, who dreams of becoming a big-time underground artist. To realize his dream, he must deal with rival gangs and the jackbooted thugs that make up the police force to get his "tags" up and around the city.

Along the way he finds himself going up against the tyrannical and corrupt government that rules New Radius, the futuristic city he resides in. Thus, his spray painting turns from simple egotistical vandalism into political expression.

For a game that’s so focused on graffiti art, the actual act of laying down paint in "Getting Up" proves to be an overly simplistic affair. You simply walk up to the appropriate spot (discovered through your "intuition" powers), pull the right trigger and press the appropriate button.

That’s it. No tricky maneuvers to remember, no colors to change. Just pull and push (though you can’t stay in one area for too long or you’ll get drips).

Normally, I’d applaud such stripped down design, but here it’s simply too easy and I hungered for a bit more interactivity. Trane’s art can be striking, but you wish the game allowed you to aid in its creation a bit more. Worst of all, you can’t create your own tags.

The fighting system, too, feels oversimplified, considering the amount of time you spend battling cops, thugs and subway workers. Any fight can be won by merely dodging, then hitting or kicking your opponent until they stay down. A variety of combos and "insult" moves are offered, but they feel extraneous.

Neither the lackluster fighting nor the painting is enough to derail the game. Both play well enough to keep you moving, it’s just that it seems terribly unambitious considering the potential.

To get attention and increase his "rep," Trane must put graffiti tags in large, hard to reach places, such as subway trains, billboards and the tops of buildings. That involves a good deal of "Prince of Persia"-style acrobatics on Trane’s part, and one of the high points of the game is exploring an environment, trying to find a way to get to a spot that at first glance seems unreachable.

The one thing the game does is give you a solid appreciation for graffiti as an actual art form. Whether through Trane’s own artwork, or via the striking tags created by various real-life legends for the game, players should come away with an appreciation for what is usually seen as ugly defacement.

Perhaps part of the problem with "Getting Up" is it tries to do too many things. Between the melee fighting, painting, acrobatics and whatnot, the phrase "jack of all trades, master of none," keeps popping up.

"Getting Up" boasts a strong story, solid voice acting (by folks such as Talib Kweli, Rosario Dawson, George Hamilton and Adam West) and a striking, gritty look and feel. That the game play is average is a shame, but not necessarily a deal breaker.

Ecko’s brainchild attempts to offer something a little different from what passes for most video game entertainment these days. That it succeeds at least partially is something we should be grateful for.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Sunday, March 19, 2006

So far behind

I went to see V for Vendetta this weekend. Hopefully I'll get around to posting my thoughts on it though no cries of "well duh" if I note that the book was better please.

Speaking of Alan Moore, there's been a flurry of interviews with him in the wake of the film's release. Heidi at the Beat contributed this rather impressive two-part interview. The New York Times did a piece here. And even MTV got into the act.

Last week was a particularily good one for comics interviews. Over at the Comics Reporter, Bruce Chislip interviewed Carol Tyler. And Dark Horse has an interview with Lone Wolf And Cub co-creator Kazuo Koike.

In the video game side of things, you've no doubt heard by now about the PlayStation 3's push back from "spring" to November. I was talking with one of the editors over at for my column next week, and she was basically saying that it doesn't really matter if there aren't enough PS3s for everyone, or if they are defective or if the initial run of games suck ass. Sony will release the console in November because that's the holiday season and there will be massive hype and stories everywhere about how it's the toy of the year and absolutely impossible to find. So no one will fault you if you decide to wait until 2007 to buy one.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 3/12

"The Best of The Spirit"
by Will Eisner

DC Comics, 192 pages, $14.99.

Fans of Will Eisner’s seminal 1940s crimefighter will no doubt quibble over what was left out of this collection (a lot of good pre-World War II material is neglected), but it’s hard to argue with the stories that are included here.

From "Ten Minutes" to "Gerhard Shnobble," this is all high-caliber Eisner. For curious readers wondering what all the fuss over this work is about, this is a fine place to begin.

"North Country"
by Shane White

NBM, 96 pages, $13.95.

Even with its limited page count, White’s autobiographical tale of his abusive childhood feels like it could have used some editing.

Too many of the anecdotes feel apocryphal, and offer little to the central focus of growing up with an alcoholic father. What’s more, White’s need to draw "meaning" into every memory weighs his book down with ponderous narration and dilutes some potentially powerful scenes.

That being said, there are some stunning sequences, such as a friend’s birthday party that goes horribly awry, that almost make me want to recommend the book. Almost.

"Night Fisher"
by R. Kikuo Johnson

Fantagraphics Books, 144 pages, $12.95.

The early buzz on Johnson’s debut graphic novel compared it to the arrival of the Hernandez brothers’ seminal "Love and Rockets" series back in the 1980s. Very few books could live up to that sort of hype, and "Night Fisher" is no exception.

Which is not to say that it’s bad. Far from it. Johnson’s story of a bright high school student drawn into abusing crystal meth while living in Hawaii has a number of things going for it.

I particularly enjoyed Johnson’s use of visual shorthand — hornets buzzing around the ears to suggest a drug high, for example. I also liked how he portrayed the main character’s isolation from the rest of the community.

Yet the story feels a little slight, too many intriguing characters are left unexplored, too many relationships are left only hinted at, for this book to reach the high watermark it’s obviously aiming for.

Nevertheless, it’s a good debut, and I’ll be sure to check out what Johnson does next time around.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

VG REVIEW: Full Auto

Sega, for Xbox 360
rated T for Teen, $59.99.

Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery where video games are concerned. All it takes is one successful game for a host of other publishers to start working on similar titles.

Case in point is Sega’s "Full Auto." Five minutes with the game will be all you need before the phrase "Burnout clone" springs to your mind. It’s not that "Full Auto" is a bad game, mind you. It’s just that it falls short when compared to the game it’s so obviously aping.

Like the "Burnout" series, particularly the last iteration, "Burnout Revenge," "Full Auto" is all about wrecking vast amounts of destruction with souped-up cars. The catch this time is that your vehicle is equipped with weapons like machine guns and grenade launchers.

The goal in most of the races is to be first across the finish line while vandalizing anything in your path, particularly your fellow racers.

Doing massive amounts of damage (measured in dollar figures, naturally) fills your "unwreck" meter, which, when full, basically allows you to rewind the clock for a few seconds. It’s a rather handy feature that saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

Alternatively, doing special trick moves like catching air or taking sharp turns fills up your boost meter, which gives you a much needed burst of speed when you’re near the finish line.

As you’d expect for an Xbox 360 game, "Auto" looks very nice, though not as nice as some other 360 racers, like "Project Gotham Racing 3."

The levels themselves are nice, if a bit too reminiscent of "Burnout." Players will race through urban areas, crash through docks and rumble through mountain trails. Sadly, that’s about it, as the levels repeat themselves far too quickly.

That lack of variation proves to be "Full Auto’s" biggest problem. There’s just not enough weapons, tracks or cars to vary the basic premise and keep your interest up.

If you own an Xbox 360 chances are you’re starved for games. "Full Auto" is frenzied and fun enough to fill that need for a while, but ultimately it’s far too shallow a game to justify a purchase. Rent, don’t buy.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Anyone who is a regular reader of the New Yorker should be pretty familiar with the work of Jean-Jacques Sempe, one of the greatest gag cartoonists and illustrators around today. Back in January, Tom Spurgeon gave a little preview of four new collections of Sempe's work that Phaidon Press was planning on publishing. I thought I'd take the time to add my voice to Tom's and let readers know that these books are now officially available (or at least should be very soon), and that you should purchase all of them with undue haste.

The books titles are: Everything Is Complicated, Nothing is Simple, Sunny Spells and Mixed Messages, and just about cover Sempe's entire career. It is also worth noting that Phaidon is also publishing a collection of Sempe-styled note cards, all of them dealing with bicycles and cycling in one respect or another.

Basically, Sempe is a genius. I remember pasting his sumptious New Yorker covers up on the walls of my room as a kid, enthralled with his mastery of color and line. This is probably one of the most notably comic events of the year, though no one apart from Tom seems to have noticed. Bottom line, you owe it to yourself to check these books out. Perhaps some more art samples will convince you.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 3/5

"The Push Man and Other Stories"
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Drawn and Quarterly, 208 pages, $19.95.

Those who think that all manga consists of Japanese schoolgirls with big eyes and spiky hair will be surprised by this collection of bleak, naturalistic tales, the first in what will apparently be an ongoing series of Tatsumi’s work.

Highly regarded in Japan, Tatsumi tells stories of down-on-their-luck folks — pimps, prostitutes and blue-collar workers whose desperation and/or frustration push them headlong into tragedy.
Few of the tales here end happily, but they reflect a social milieu that Westerners can easily identify with. Tatsumi’s flat, low-key style goes against the grain of what most folks think of as "manga," but it’s no less captivating and, in many cases, much more emotionally rewarding.

"The Dreaming Vol. 1"
by Queenie Chan
Tokyopop, 192 pages, $9.99.

Twin sisters discover mysterious doings afoot at a creepy Australian prep school in the first volume of this gothic horror series. Just about every cliche you’d expect to find in this type of story is included here, which makes it a double shame that the characters are so paper-thin. The sisters themselves, are almost impossible to tell apart. Later volumes may offer more details, but few readers will be willing to continue on.

"DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore"
DC Comics, 304 pages, $19.99.

This collection of self-contained tales is notable solely for the inclusion of three stories: the Superman tales "For the Man Who Has Everything," "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow" and "Batman: The Killing Joke." Few of the other works included here would ever be considered among Moore’s best.

Unfortunately, in the case of the "Man of Tomorrow" story, a good part of the introductory text is missing for some odd reason, marring the book considerably. If you can’t locate the original comics these stories appeared in, it’s a decent collection, but there’s no reason to pick this up otherwise.

"Rocky Vol 1: The Big Payback"
by Martin Kellerman
Fantagraphics Books, 116 pages, $12.95.

If nothing else, this Swedish comic strip about a sad-sack twentysomething and his group of friends proves that pitiable slackers know no borders. Rocky is in many ways a typical young hipster, in that he’s frequently unemployed, irresponsible and completely unlucky in love. It goes without saying, then, that this collection of strips is a laugh riot, full of moments that will instantly ring true to anyone who’s ever been 23 and desperate for affection. Kudos to Fantagraphics for bringing this series to American shores, and for doing such a nice job with the translation.

"Tag, You’re It"
by Sook Kim
CPM Manga, 176 pages, $9.99.

Going to the dentist and getting bad girlfriend advice are about as dramatic as the short stories in this collection get. The stories are cute and will no doubt appeal to young readers, but there’s no getting around their shallowness. I like Kim’s art style — her characters have a rubbery, cartoonishness about them that’s appealing. It’s just that the stories themselves are too superficial to warrant any repeated readings.

Copyright The Patriot-News 2006

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Capcom, for the PlayStation Porta­ble
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (violence), $29.99

Capcom, for the PlayStation Porta­ble
rated T for Teen (violence), $39.99.

Capcom, for the Nintendo DS
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, in­tense violence), $34.99

Ah, Capcom. The company that never met a franchise it couldn’t milk into the ground.

That’s a bit unfair, of course. There are plenty of videogame publishers who are more than happy to repackage and regurgitate their most popular licenses ad infinitum.

Capcom, however, seems particularly adept in this regard. There must be as many iterations of "Street Fighter" or "Resident Evil" by now as there are stars in the sky.

Add a few more celestial bodies to the heavens, though, because three more titles — all repackaged versions of classic Capcom games — have recently arrived for the hand-held market.

The best is probably "Mega Man X: Maverick Hunter." A slightly revised version of the 1997 Super Nintendo game (much beloved by fans of the series), "Hunter" pits super robot Mega Man X against a series of renegade automatons, each with their own special power.

The game is your basic platformer, with Mega Man gaining a new ability each time he defeats a boss. While the graphics have been upgraded considerably, the game still plays virtually the same as it did in 1997, which I think is one of its biggest problems.

The fact is, many of the things that made the game so challenging nine years ago were due to technical limitations. Today these limitations seem more frustrating than anything else.

Why, for example, can’t Mega Man shoot upward or diagonally? Why does he seem so stilted?

Fans of the series (and there are many) will no doubt be pleased with this release, but others will find it needlessly difficult and pass on it long before they get to the first big battle.

Similar criticisms can be levied against "Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max," long regarded as the best title in the fighting franchise.

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with most of the "Street Fighter" games. Namely, that I’m horrible at them.

I’m no gaming genius by any standard, but I can reasonably hold my own in "Soul Calibur" or "Dead or Alive." Not so here.

That’s largely because success at "Street Fighter" is determined by one’s ability to memorize the many special moves and super combos that result in a knockout. I don’t have the patience for that sort of nonsense.

Add to the fact that the PSP’s controls aren’t ideal for this type of game, and you once again have a title that only fans of the series will love.

Which brings me, finally, to "Resident Evil: Deadly Silence," the latest RE spin-off and the first for the Nintendo DS.

"Deadly Silence" is essentially the first "Resident Evil" game, shrunk down for the small screen and with a few touch-screen additions thrown in for good measure.

Most of the unique DS innovations, however, feel like superficial and unnecessary add-ons that bring nothing extra to the game. And the game itself does not show its age well.

Almost immediately, I remembered everything that grated my nerves about this series. The tanklike controls, the limited saves, the out-of-place puzzles — everything that "Resident Evil 4" was supposed to fix is on display here.

With the GameCube version of "Resident Evil," not to mention "RE 4" easily available in most stores, there’s no real reason to pick up this title.

Even if you really are a hard-core fan of the series.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, March 06, 2006

Electronic Arts, for PlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (language, mild violence, suggestive themes), $29.99.

Like jai-alai, bocce and curling, arena football is one of those sports where most people are aware of its existence, but couldn’t — if their lives depended on it — tell you how it’s played.

Thank goodness for Electronic Arts.

If they hadn’t come out with "Arena Football," the official video game version of the sport, I might have spent my entire life unaware of the deep intricacies and delights that the AFL regularly provides.

Yes, I was being sarcastic.

Arena football, for the many of you who don’t know, is basically regular football as overhauled by a hyperactive 8-year-old.

The playing field is only 50 yards long. The goal posts are much narrower to make field goals more difficult. And the sidelines are padded off, so players can’t run out of bounds.

As you might have guessed, "Arena Football" is designed to be fast, furious and to keep the scores high. Anyone hoping to rely on their defensive team to help carry the game will be disappointed. Only throwing long bombs, and lots of them, will result in a win here.

EA’s rendition of the sport comes off as a pretty bare-bones affair. While all of the official AFL teams are represented here, the players all look pretty interchangeable. The arenas, too, are virtually impossible to tell apart, whether you’re playing in Philadelphia or New York.

The game itself is easy to grasp. Anyone who’s taken a turn at "Madden" shouldn’t have too much trouble here. The only difficulty resides in kicking the ball, which is done by swinging the right analog stick forward and back.

Move the stick to the left or right, however, and watch your ball go out of bounds.

Many of the games I played were much closer than they should have been because my thumb twitched ever so slightly, and my field goal kick was no good. Thus, what at first seemed like an interesting innovation quickly became a major annoyance.

"Arena Football" is a fine rental for fans of the sport and the curious, but ultimately it’s a bit too shallow for anyone to delve into for any lengthy period of time. There aren’t enough plays, there’s no running commentary, the stadiums seem empty of fans, and the few animations are repetitive and dull.

If EA were to put a bit more muscle behind this license, it could come up with a game that actually captures the frenzy of the sport. As it stands now, "Arena Football" compares to most folks’ regard of the AFL: second rate.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Oh please

From AP reporter Lou Kesten's "News Bytes":

In a profanity-laced tirade against Roger Ebert, who recently declared that video games are not “art,” “Silent Hill” director Christophe Gans told Electronic Gaming Monthly: “It’s simple. Most people who despise a new medium are simply afraid to die, so they express their arrogance and fear like this. He will realize that he is wrong on his deathbed.”

Feeling a wee bit defensive there Chris?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Graphic Lit -- 2/26

These ran in last Sunday's edition of the Patriot-News:

"Off*beat Vol. 1"
by Jen Lee Quick
Tokyopop, 162 pages, $9.99.

Teenager Tory Blake, who’s too smart for his own good, becomes obsessed with his mysterious and somewhat reclusive neighbor across the street in the first volume of this manga-influenced trade paperback.

A book like this could go wrong any number of ways, not the least of which in the rather homoerotic overtones as the main character’s interest veers dangerously into stalking territory.

Yet rather than come off as immature or awkward, "Off*beat" is surprisingly well done. I especially appreciated Quick’s effort to give minor supporting characters, such as Blake’s mother, some substance. It doesn’t break out of its narrow genre niche, but it’s more entertaining than it has any right to be.

"Tree of Love"
by Patrick Atangan
NBM, 48 pages, $12.95

"Tree" is the third volume in Atangan’s ongoing collection of folk tales from the far East. This one deals with an Indian prince who falls in love with a beautiful flower girl and his dogged pursuit of her after she accidently loses her memory. The lovers do end up back together again, but not without some collateral damage. Atangan uses Indian art motifs to strong effect here, though the story feels a little slight considering the price and handsome packaging.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Game On: Games that got missed

First off, have you seen GamePolitics lovely Video Game Legislation Tracker yet? Find out where in the U.S. The Man is planning to stomp on your First Amendment rights to kill hookers in Grand Theft Auto via this excellent resource.

For those of you who don't know, I have a column on games and gaming that runs in the paper at the end of every month. For February, I thought I'd take a look back at five games that came out at the end of '05 that, for one reason or another, I never got around to checking out. Here's the result:

Oh, how I hate the Christmas holidays.

It’s not the merrymaking, peace on Earth stuff that bothers me, it’s that it’s the time of year when video game publishers deluge the stores with their products. Between the end of October and early December, there is a veritable mountain of titles recklessly competing for consumers’ attention.

The result, of course, is that a lot of good games get buried under the big-name blitz. This month, I shall attempt to rectify that by looking at five solid games that for whatever reason passed me by last year.

If you know of a game you think got short shrift, drop me a line and I’ll add it to the list in a future column.

Activision, for PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, Xbox 360 and PC

rated M for Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol), $29.99.

There have been a number of Western-themed games in recent years, but few have actually managed to hit the bull’s-eye. Kudos to "Gun" then, for actually managing to entertain despite
some control issues.

The story will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a John Wayne film. In the game you play Colton White, a young gunslinger who, while trying to discover his true identity, finds himself up against a ruthless railroad baron, not to mention the usual assortment of bandits, renegades and other Wild West cutthroats.

While the main story is short, there are a number of side missions and minigames to try out, including poker games and hunting down wanted criminals. I found aiming and shooting my
six-shooter a bit awkward at times, but the missions themselves are challenging and varied enough that I didn’t mind too much. Those looking for a good interactive oater will get a lot out of "Gun," despite its brevity.

"Soul Calibur 3"
Namco, for PlayStation 2

rated T for Teen (suggestive themes, violence), $49.99.

The first "Soul Calibur" game was one of my favorite titles for the Dreamcast console, and possible one of my favorite games of all time, so it stands to reason that I would be eager to check out the latest sequel to this popular fighting franchise.

The highlight of this new iteration is the character creation section, where you can build an outrageous-looking fighter from the ground up. Sadly, you can’t use your character in the main story section, but he or she is available in other modes, including the new, not terribly interesting "Chronicles of the Sword" mode.

"Soul Calibur 3" maintains the same good looks and fluid game play of its predecessors. The game desperately needs an online competitive mode, and it would be nice if the basic storyline
made some sort of sense. Still, all the basic building blocks for a solid fighting game are in place here, and fans of the series should enjoy this iteration.

"Genji: Dawn of the Samurai"
Sony, for PlayStation 2

rated M for Mature (blood and gore, violence), $39.99.

The creator of the popular "Onimusha" samurai vs. monsters series returns with a new slam-bang action game from his new development company, Game Republic. It’s another samurai vs. monsters game, but it’s so polished and smart that it avoids unwelcome
comparisons rather nimbly.

You choose between two warriors, one a deft swordsman, the other a big bruiser. Most of the time you can deftly take on a group of enemies with a few quick button presses, but when things get really hairy, you can slow time down and take out an army of ugly foes with impressive ease.

Complaints have been lobbied about the game’s length, which is rather brief. But I’d rather
play something short and sweet than something that overstayed its welcome. "Genji" definitely doesn’t do that.

"Legend of Kay"
Capcom, for the PlayStation 2

rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (alcohol reference, cartoon violence), $29.99.

It’s rare that you find a cartoonish platform game that makes sly asides to WMDs and "terrorist training camps." That’s not to suggest that "Legend" is some dreary political satire — it’s not — but to show that the game’s developers had more in mind than just churning out

The game pits the surly cat warrior Kay against a horde of ignoble gorillas and rats that have invaded his country. The game blends its cutesy cartoon look with a martial arts philosophy and feel to create a surprisingly deep and captivating game.

"Legend of Kay" got somewhat sidelined last year by the "Jak"/ "Ratchet"/ "Sly" trifecta. It’s not as pretty or as polished as those games (the voice acting in particular is pretty bad), b
ut it’s a satisfying platformer all the same, and one that will easily please fans of the genre.

"Viewtiful Joe: Double Trouble"
Capcom, for Nintendo DS

rated T for Teen (cartoon violence), $29.99.

Often when a lot of big console franchises get translated to the DS, they feel like paltry afterthoughts. Not so with this latest chapter in the "Viewtiful Joe" saga. It manages to capture the thrill of the original while adding enough flavor so that it doesn’t feel like a retread.

The game sees the movie-styled super-hero once again being called to action, this time with powers that make good use of the DS touchscreen.

You can, for example, "scratch" the screen to bring items down upon your foes’ heads. You can also split the screen in half to move obstacles or drag it up to zoom in on hard-to-reach puzzles.

"Double Trouble" does a really good job of incorporating the DS’ unique abilities into what is already a pretty solid action game. Whether you’re a fan of the series or just looking for a nice addition to your DS library, you should check this title out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Tired, sick, here's the sidebar

Ugh. Couldn't sleep last night. Don't really know why. Let's move on.

Below is the side story that ran alongside the main manga/anime story I posted yesterday. There were also a number of short sidebars, including a timeline and some recommended picks, but I don't think I'll post all that crap unless I hear a huge clamor for it.

No, tomorrow we shall get back to video games. Anyway, here t'is:

It’s easy to assume that the popularity of manga and anime has translated to strong sales for most of the comic book stores in the United States.

An easy assumption, but a wrong one.

Despite its growing popularity, the manga revolution is happening in major bookstores and not in comic shops. This is ironic considering many shops were among the first to nurture an early interest in the medium.

"Today, manga comics and trades sales make up maybe 2 to 3 percent of our overall sales, whereas Marvel and DC comics and trades probably make up about 75 percent," said Bill Wahl, owner of the Comix Connection stores in York and Mechanicsburg.

Ralph Watts, owner of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra, concurs.

"Manga just does not sell as well as superheroes do," he said, adding that manga probably accounts for only 10 to 20 percent of his sales.

Convenience could be a reason why that’s so, as it may be easier for most fans to get their latest volume of "Inu Yasha" at Borders in the mall rather than the local comic store.

"Right now there are about 3,000 to 3,500 comic shops in the U.S.," said Comics Journal editor Dirk Deppy. "That equals to about one shop for every 30,000 miles. It’s as if American comic shops don’t count almost."

Competitive pricing, however, is another, perhaps more significant problem. Wahl, an early supporter of anime and manga, discovered quickly how hard it was to contend with Barnes & Noble.

"What we found was that online sellers and then ... the big chain stores, up to and including Target and Wal-Mart, would have retail prices substantially lower than ours, due mostly to their enormous purchasing power," he said.

Deppy, who derided the U.S. comic industry for failing to capitalize on the success of manga in a recent issue of the Journal, said American comics publishers like Marvel cater to such a niche market that they might have alienated folks who would otherwise frequent their local store.

"American comics went into retirement," he said, "catering more and more to hardcore fans. It’s a one-genre medium, and the books have become more arcane."

But if local comic stores aren’t seeing the sort of traffic that the big chains are pulling in, neither Wahl nor Watts is willing to dump manga and anime from their shelves.

"I think that manga has incredible potential for growth, particularly amongst young females," Wahl said. "I think that manga is here to stay and is in its foothold stage. Good stories and characters will keep the fans coming back and create new ones."

"I love having it. It’s good to have a mixture of customers," Watts said. "I still have a lot of faith in manga. There’s so much good stuff."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006