Monday, July 31, 2006

Graphic Lit -- MoCCA review round-up

Hmmmm. It looks as though years of folks complaining about the size and scope of E3 has finally hit home, as this story reveals. We'll see how well it actually works.

Last month I attended the annual Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art's (or MoCCA as it's referred to) annual show in New York City.

For those not in the know, the MoCCA show is one of, if not the biggest, alternative and small press comic book shows in the U.S.

Art comics publishers like Drawn and Quarterly, small press stalwarts like AdHouse and lots of folks with nothing more than a pen, paper and access to a copy machine all congregate during this weekend to offer their wares for an interested public.

Having finally made my way through the pile of books that teetered on my table, I thought I'd do a quick run-down of some of the more notable titles I nabbed at the show.

Since most of the books listed here might be a tad hard to find, I've included Web site addresses, as well.

"Drawing Comics Is Easy! (Except When It's Hard)" by Alexa Kitchen, DKP, 176 pages, $19.95.

This book was easily the most delightful surprise of the show. Only 7 years old when she penned this how-to book (she's 9 now), Alexa Kitchen, daughter of publishing mogul Denis Kitchen, seems to intuit more about comics than most of her much older peers. Yes, her art is rough and unpolished (to be generous), but don't let that fool you; her strips have a sense of rhythm and composition that is remarkable. I hope she keeps on drawing well into adulthood.

"Girl Stories" by Lauren R. Weinstein, Henry Holt, 240 pages, $16.95.

Weinstein masterfully relates just about every painful, cringe-worthy aspect of adolescence, from desperately trying to fit in with the cool kids to realizing your first love isn't as wonderful as you first thought.

Thankfully, she chronicles such rites of passage (most of them autobiographical) with incredible wit and good humor. Far from being any sort of mopey, dour affair, "Girl Stories" is a hilarious tour de force. The sort of book where you wince while laughing.

"Mine Tonight" by Alixopulos, Sparkplug Books, 104 pages, $10.

For his debut graphic novel, Alixopulos tells a multilayered story about a down-on-his-luck guy who is trying to recover money for a billionaire who wants to contribute to Kerry's 2004 campaign.

Convoluted? Yes, but never confusing, thanks to the author's spare, sketchy layouts and character designs. Alixopulos also conveys a wistfulness that helps undercut the political tone and keep the book from coming off as strident. Overall, it's a good first book and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

"Krachmacher Number Two" by Tim Campbell, $6.

I like this second issue of Campbell's irregular series better than the first, despite the lack of color. That might be due to the fact that the main story ("At the Shore") seemed less grating this time around. Also, the appearance of a zombie wearing swimming trunks and goggles is always a plus.

"Bugbear" and "The Beast Mother," by Drew Weing and Eleanor Davis, $6 and $5.

The super-cartooning team of Weing and Davis put together some breathtaking mini-comics, both together and on their own. Both of these two little books are well worth your time, but so is just about anything they make. Visit their Web site and buy something, won't you?

"Let's Do This" by Jeremy Arambulo, $4.

Arambulo handed me this mini while I was schmoozing at the show. It's full of the usual autobiographical, slice-of-life stuff that a lot of young cartoonists attempt, but I like his clean art style and self-effacing sense of humor. He's put a lot of charm in his drawings, enough to make me want to see him try his hand at something a bit meatier.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, July 28, 2006

FROM THE VAULT: Playboy the Mansion

But first, let's linkblog:

* If you decide not to purchase Lost Girls, you could always get this instead
* Konami has a new fan site up, devoted to their RPG properties
* And hey! Guitar Hero II will have a practice mode! Sweet!

Arush Publishing, for thePlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated M for Mature (nudity, strongsexual content, use of alcohol), $49.95 (PS2 and Xbox) and $39.95(PC).

I never thought I'd say this, but Hugh Hefner, you lead a pretty dull life.

At least the virtual version of you, as portrayed in Arush's "Playboy: The Mansion" does.

Sure, you get to throw wild parties featuring numerous celebrities, but you're far too busy schmoozing and hitting stars up for articles, interviews and cover shoots to spend time enjoying yourself.

Sure, you get to have "relations" with pneumatic beauties, but both you and your girlfriend of the moment stay partially dressed while engaging in your favorite pastime. Curious.

Sure, you live in an extravagant mansion, but you spend more time settling squabbles between your lovers and staff than buying cool stuff to fill the place up. Not to mention that you have a magazine to constantly put out.

Good God, man, don't you ever have fun?

Such were the thoughts that raced through my mind while playing "Mansion," a "Sims"-like strategy game that puts you in the slippers of one of the most famous publishers in American history.

I say "Sims"-like, but the fact is that "Playboy" looks and feels nearly identical to that extremely popular simulation title.

The interface, the icons, the cartoonish people, even the gibberish the characters spout to one another recall Will Wright's franchise. You don't want to remind players of other, better games unless you're bringing something new to the table. And "Playboy" doesn't.

The goal of the game is to build the Playboy empire up from scratch, starting, of course, with the magazine. You also might be expected to throw lavish parties, mostly in the hopes of culling interviews from famous people or convincing nubile women to take their clothes off.

Which brings me to the fact that it's far too easy to get folks to do what you want. All you have to do is fill up their relationship meters by talking on various pleasant (or romantic) topics, andthen ask them for a favor. That's all it takes to get women to pose for the magazine, and, quite frankly, it's not enough to maintain interest. If you actually had to use your persuasive powers to get that starlet to bare all, you might have a more interesting game.

A good deal of "Playboy" feels repetitive, especially the creepy Stepford-style playmates who have identical bodies and features except for variations in skin tone and hairstyle. They all make the same poses and affectations, leaving you to think the mansion has been infiltrated by the clone army.

The repetition might not be so bad if there were any sense of urgency in the game, but there isn't. There are never any deadlines to get the magazine out or fulfill a particular mission, which leaves you to spend your time noticing all the little oddities and inconsistencies that mar the game.

Apart from the nudity, "The Sims 2" does just about everything"Playboy" does and better. And if you're really hot for pixelated nudity, the Internet will do a better job of satisfying your desires than this game ever will.

Copyright The Patriot-News

Thursday, July 27, 2006

I should probably post something

Egad but I've been busy this week. That's what happens when co-workers go on vacation I suppose. Still, I've been trying lately to not go too long without putting something up on the blog, so here's some items of note:

* Sony is offering a trial demo of LocoRoco, a PSP game that looks rather intriguing. To spur folks into trying it, they're offering free stuff like new sound and wallpaper files for your handheld. Go here to learn more. Offer ends Aug. 19.

* Knowing how many Table Tennis fans there are out there, I should also mention that a playable demo of the game is available for downloading over at the Xbox Live Marketplace.

* Let's see, what else? I'm pretty stoked about IDW's announcement that they're going to be reprinting Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. Next to Popeye and Peanuts, Tracy is probably one of my all time favorite comic strips, full of blood, violence and grotesque characters. It's quite amazing to see what Gould got away with considering most of today's G-rated strips.

Anyway, I'm about as unfamiliar with IDW's output as you can get, but I look forward to seeing how they handle the material. Fingers are indeed crossed.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

VG REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean

Bethesda Softworks, for PlaySta­tion 2, and PC
rated T for Teen (al­cohol reference, violence), $39.99.

The makers of the new "Pirates of the Caribbean" game got two things right initially:

1) They decided not to simply adapt the latest sequel that’s sweeping the cinemas but instead provide their own, ancillary tale involving Capt. Jack Sparrow and friends.

2) They got Johnny Depp to provide Jack’s voice for the game.

And there, they seem to have stopped entirely, as though nothing else was needed to make the game a success. It’s as if a cook, having laid out all of his utensils, decides he doesn’t need the flour, sugar, milk and eggs to make his cake.

The end result is a slap-dash, anemic title that sadly, remains firmly in the tradition of third-rate movie spin-offs.

The game begins with Jack and whoever the name of the guy Orlando Bloom plays (you can tell I’m really up on this franchise) about to be hanged.

Jack is able to stall their death at the noose, however, by regaling the crowd with tales of his derring-do, all heavily embellished by him, of course.

This device allows for some good humor, as Jack’s adventures, some of which come from the first movie, are all designed to make him look good. Characters frequently comment on the seeming improbability of his stories.

But the real meat of "Pirates" — the game play itself — is an utter failure. Ideally you should be able to use a variety of sword-fighting moves when in battle, but you can easily get by with hitting the same button over and over again.

You should be able to switch back and forth between characters to add some variety to the game, but the characters are essentially identical and when you’re controlling one, the other tends to get in your way with alarming frequency.

There’s more. The camera is uncooperative. The graphics are poor and overly dark. The enemies are cookie-cutter characters that offer little in the way of a challenge. I could go on.

Hey, I love pirates as much as the next guy with a parrot on his shoulder and a tendency to say "Arrrr" too frequently. I long for a game that really taps into the pirate mythology and offers some serious fun on the high seas.

Having played "The Legend of Jack Sparrow," I’m still longing.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, July 24, 2006

Graphic Lit: Mome

Before you read this week's column, check out this New York Times piece by Clive Thompson, who is quickly becoming my favorite video game journalist.

Comics anthologies are a tricky beast.

Although they traditionally offer a large sample of material from a wide variety of artists under one cover, they tend not to do too well sales-wise.

What’s more, even the most ambitious anthology can frequently fall prey to mediocrity due to awkward or sub-standard contributions.

So when Fantagraphics publicity director Eric Reynolds and publisher Gary Groth decided to launch "Mome," a new, quarterly anthology focusing on up-and-coming cartoonists, it would be an understatement to say they were being a wee bit ambitious.

Reynolds had been toying with the idea of starting a new anthology for a while when, in talking with Groth, he found out they had been mulling over the same notion.

The idea, according to Reynolds, was to "spotlight people who didn’t have a regular venue," giving artists like John Pham, David Heatley, Paul Hornschemeier and Sophie Crumb (daughter of famed cartoonist Robert Crumb) the chance to develop their work to see print more often.

"[Artists like] Sophie Crumb needed a place to grow. Basically, I just wanted to give her a place to foster her talents a little bit." Reynolds said.

The other major editorial decision was to focus less on experimental works, as anthologies such as "Kramer’s Ergot" and "Non" do to great acclaim, and instead put the emphasis on storytelling.

"Everyone in [Mome] should be focusing on narrative and storytelling. We didn’t want abstract work. It’s an accessible anthology for better or worse," Reynolds said.

"Pham and Heatley have surreal elements to their work, but it is in service of a coherent narrative. It’s not a purely abstract experiment."

"Mome’s" fourth volume just saw print and readily confirms Reynolds’ and Groth’s faith in their project. Although the series had a few missteps at first, this latest edition is full of strong material with some surprisingly winning work by Martin Cendreda and Pham. The showcase of the book, though, comes from French artist David B. ("Epileptic"). His "The Veiled Prophet" is a hallucinatory, mind-bending tale of a caliph battling a renegade cult leader.

The initial idea was to keep the contributor list small so that you would see the same faces each volume. That plan quickly fell by the wayside as maintaining such a rigorous schedule proved too difficult for some of the participants.

"If one or two have to skip an issue, you’ve got to fill in 20 pages," Reynolds said.

Hence, the David B. story. That worked to the book’s advantage, as the story from a more experienced author gives the series an authoritative center it previously lacked.

Upcoming editions will see work from such relative (but highly talented) unknowns as Tim Hensley, Sammy Harkham, T. Edward Bak and Zak Sally.

More significantly, the lauded French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim will contribute an autobiographical series in which he grapples with the onset of middle age.

Overall, Reynolds seems pretty happy about the direction "Mome" is heading.

"Jeffrey Brown and Sophie are doing some of the best things they’ve ever done," he said. "It’s all working out. I’m pretty stoked."

Other anthologies

"Hotwire Comix and Capers"
136 pages, $19.95.

Almost a 180-degree difference in tone from "Mome," this oversized book is full of edgy, at times disturbing and definitely in-your-face material that calls to mind the heady "new wave" comics of the 1980s. There’s a ton of stellar material here, though, from such folks as Michael Kupperman, Tony Millionaire, Mack White, R. Sikoryak and more, putting the signal to noise ratio at an impressively high level. Check it out.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Saturday, July 22, 2006

I meant to post this yesterday

With all the foofoorah going on in San Diego, no one (except for Tom. Thanks Tom!) has made mention of this little announcement from Konami and Tokyopop (who, by the way, have finally updated their site). For those who hate clicking on links, it seems the former will start to develop mobile phone games based on the latter's properties, starting with Becky Cloonan's East Coast Rising.

I think what's interesting about this is the fact that it's the OEL line that's Tokyopop's pushing into the game market and not any of their manga or manwha titles. Which makes sense of course, since most of these Asian creators could have an easier time of it spinning off their works into games by going directly to the companies themselves (Konami is a Japanese firm after all). All TP really has in their little bank are the OEL titles, and, as the flare-up over their creator contracts showed last year, they're going to do everything they can to leverage it into as many money-making ventures as they can. That's not necessarily meant as a criticism, it makes sense that they would go down this road, just an observation (though, in a perfect world, I would like to see all cartoonists own 100% of their work and not just 20 or 60 or whatever).

Of course, Konami isn't going to bet the farm on any of these titles, which is why these games will be coming out on mobile phones and not, say, the Xbox 360. I don't know how you adapt Cloonan's pirate adventure onto a small cell phone screen, but I don't hold high hopes for the venture. Unless they turn into a rhythm-dance game. That would be cool.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

VG/COMIC REVIEW: Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel

When PlayStation Portable debuted last year, Sony swore up and down that the portable console would not only play games, but offer new ways to watch movies, view images and listen to music.

Sadly, aside from some movie releases, that aspect of the machine was quickly ignored by most developers, leaving PSP underutilized.

Now, Konami has stepped up to the plate with "Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel," an interactive comic that, according to the official press release, "pushes the boundaries of video games and traditional comics." It doesn't do anything of the sort, of course, but it does suggest ways you might be able to do so.

This "digital graphic novel" is basically a multimedia version ofMetal Gear Solid comics published by IDW in 2004 and drawn byAshley Wood. As such, it recaps the main storyline from theoriginal "Metal Gear Solid " game.

It all looks pretty, but it's not comics. At least, not as it's presented here. Comics (to my way of thinking) involve following a sequence of words and pictures. Images need to be juxtaposed, on paper or a computer monitor, and flow in some sort of readable order to be called comics.

What we have here is basically an animated film. It's one with word balloons and very limited motion, but the end result is still closer to film than it is to comics.

Wood's art is nice but highly derivative of the work of Bill Sienkiewicz ("Elektra: Assassin," "Stray Toasters"). The main problem is the storyline, which was rather convoluted to begin with.

Konami attempts to add a level of interactivity by allowing you to search individual images for "memory elements." These consist of factoids concerning the main characters that can be mapped out in a matrix-like mode. It's a cute feature but far from essential, and it has the nasty habit of pulling you out of the story.

Why not allow players to stage the scenes themselves, moving the characters, text and backgrounds around as they see fit, like electronic Colorforms? Why not use the basic "Metal Gear" story as a building block for players to create their own Solid Snake tales?

"Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel" is inoffensive but anemicand somewhat dull. If nothing else, it got me thinking about intriguing and better ways to present this sort of material.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


EA Sports, for PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

"NFL Head Coach" is what is known in some circles (namely my own) as "niche publishing."

To put it another way, this is a video game that’s best appreciated by a select few. Specifically, the football nerd.

This isn’t a football game for casual fans or devoted supporters of a particular team, no sir. This is a game exclusively for hardcore armchair quarterbacks: those who pore over charts, quote statistics and spend their free time drafting their own fantasy league. You know who you are.

For those folks, "Head Coach" must sound like a dream come true. Here’s their very own chance to take the reins behind a major NFL franchise and tweak just about every aspect of it.

The main section of the game is the Career Mode, where you start from the ground up, designing the look of your coach and then interviewing with several teams.

Once someone’s hired you, you follow the coach’s odyssey from the re-signing period to postseason, fussing over every niggling little detail along the way.

Should you, for example, trade with the Bears for their cornerback? Listen to your scout’s draft picks or choose your own? Chide your players during training camp or give them specific strategies for each play? Design your own plays or stick with the ones provided? And so on and so forth.

The problem with "NFL Head Coach" is that it assumes you already know quite a bit about football and have no problem retrieving annoyingly specific facts from your memory. Besides needing to know every rule and what every position does, you’ll be expected to remember who plays what on your team.

For example, during a game you’ll see a list of who the most tired players currently are. You can thus make a substitution, but only if you remember that Joe Mucinfutz is the defensive linebacker, since the game won’t remind you of his position or number.

I confess the game left me lost in its morass of menus and statistics. But then, questions about finding a proper position for your tight end is more likely to get sniggers from me than anything else.

And the loading times! Have I mentioned the loading times? Oh, I simply must. Even when being generous, the load times are excruciatingly long. How long? Well, let’s just say I got to get quite a bit of reading in.

"NFL Head Coach" is designed for a specific group of people and is downright unfriendly to anyone who doesn’t fall in that category.

If you’re the sort of person who gets the most out of micromanaging sports teams, then this game will make you immensely happy. But woe betide you if you aren’t.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Art Out of Time"

by Dan Nadel
Abrams, 320 pages, $40.

Just about every art form, from film to macrame, has its collection of "great lost artists" — folks who, for one reason or another, never were able to gain any sort of acclaim commensurate with their obvious talents.

Or, perhaps worse, time has dimmed their fame and relegated them to obscurity.

Comics in particular have had more than their share of these sob stories, mainly because until recently they have held a pretty low position on the totem pole of entertainment.

Thankfully, there are people out there like author Dan Nadel, who in his new book "Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969," attempts to shine a light on some of the long-forgotten talents of the industry.

While there might be one or two names here that ring a bell (Milt Gross, Harry Hershfield), it’s a safe bet that the bulk of the art in these pages will be completely unfamiliar to you. Within the pages of this coffee-table tome lie a wealth of astonishing discoveries. It’s the cartoonists’ equivalent of finding a trunk of jewelry in your aunt’s attic.

Nadel organizes the book by subject matter. Artists are grouped according to their "interests." One chapter, for example, focuses on "slapstick." Another deals with storytelling, another with art for art’s sake and so on.

The text is minimal. Nadel provides a short introduction and some biographical information on each artist, but that’s about it.

It’s all for the best, though, as it gives the reader lots more room to pore over the strips and stories provided.

And what stories these are! I was floored by the work of Fletcher Hanks, an almost indescribably bad comic book artist whose work nonetheless has a primal urgency that works in spite of itself.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Walter Quermann’s delightfully detailed funny animal strip "Hickory Hollow Folks." Then there’re the inventive layouts of Charles Forbell’s "Naughty Pete," a turn-of-the-century strip that could easily run in any contemporary anthology. And Dick Briefer’s decidedly loopy take on Frankenstein.

There are artists whose work I’ve seen once or twice in the occasional historical anthology but never at length. I have a much greater appreciation now, for example, of C.W. Kahles marvelous "Hairbreadth Harry" and Charles M Payne’s "S’Matter Pop?"

Of course, some nitpickers (like myself) might question just how obscure some of these artists are. Fantagraphics, for example, just reprinted Milt Gross’ classic parody "She Done Him Wrong." And though Gene Dietch’s "Terrible Thompson" strip is now largely forgotten, the artist himself met with much success later on in the field of animation.

But these are minor quibbles. The only real problem with the book has to do with its size. The book is large enough that comic book reprints and more modern strips are easily understood, but older, larger comic strips from the early part of the 20th century are virtually unreadable.

Herbert Crowley’s "The Wiggle Much," for example, is one of the strangest strips I’ve ever come across, but you’ll need a magnifying glass to read the text.

That complaint aside, there’s not a single artist here who doesn’t deserve to be in this book, let alone deserve his own retrospective. (Indeed, Fantagraphics will be publishing a Fletcher Hanks collection sometime next year).

Whether you’re a scholar of comics or a casual fan, "Art Out of Time" is an absolutely essential volume.

Also in stores

"Sex, Rock & Optical Illusions"
by Victor Moscoso
Fantagraphics Books, 146 pages, $34.95.

Speaking of cartoonists not receiving their due, here’s an impressive coffee-table aggregation of work from Moscoso, whose work usually gets overshadowed by his fellow "Zap Comix" contributors — namely Robert Crumb and Rick Griffith. Let's hope this collection of strips, rock posters, sketches and other drawings will go a long way toward a reappreciation of the artist’s work.

Monday, July 17, 2006

I'm back, here's Graphic Lit

Alas, my vacation, pleasant as it was, is at an end. Time to resume blogging. I imagine most folks will have the big San Diego con on their minds right now, but here at P&P, we'll be mostly playing catch-up. Here's the Graphic Lit column that ran 7/7:

Back in 1976, Jack Kirby, comics genius and co-creator of the Fantastic Four and Captain America (to name just a few), began a new series at Marvel titled "The Eternals."

Like a lot of Kirby's work during the '70s, it was heady, epic stuff involving an immortal offshoot of humanity, genetically enhanced by a race of mysterious, skyscraper-sized creatures known as The Celestials.

Sadly, like a lot of Kirby's '70s work, it didn't last long. It was canceled after 19 issues.

Now acclaimed author Neil Gaiman ("Sandman," "American Gods") and John Romita Jr. have taken up Kirby's baton and run off in their own direction with "The Eternals," a six-issue limited series that pays homage to Kirby's vision while modernizing the concept.

As an added bonus, Marvel has also collected Kirby's original "Eternals" series into a hardcover, $75 volume.

The first issue sees the godlike Eternals living quiet lives amid the rest of humanity, apparently suffering from amnesia about their true identities.

Only Ike Harris (or Ikaris if you prefer) remembers anything about their past, and he spends much of that first issue trying to convince the skeptical Mark Curry ("Makkari") that he's not a student doctor but a super-powered immortal.

Gaiman's dialogue is as clever and nuanced as ever, but the plot is as old as cliches get. Gaiman doesn't really do anything noteworthy with the premise, at least not yet (admittedly, it's still early).

Still, if the story has trouble shifting into first gear, Romita's art is nothing short of marvelous.

Romita has justifiably garnered a name for himself with his work on books such as "Spider-Man" and "Daredevil," but here, along with inker Danny Miki and colorist Matt Hollingsworth, he pulls out all the stops. His impossibly broad-shouldered characters combined with his feather-light lines help ground the comic, even in its more fantastic moments.

Part of that excellence might be because he likes working with Gaiman.

"Neil is amazingly eloquent and writes such quality dialogue. I enjoy just reading his scripts," he said during a phone interview.

Romita, son of famed "Spider-Man" artist John Romita Sr., said that Gaiman's scripts allow for a lot of back and forth between the two.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Romita's work here is how he's able to echo Kirby without coming across as an imitation -- something several other cartoonists have attempted and failed.

"There's enough Kirby in the book to flatter him but not enough to say we stole the whole nuance," he said. "I can't copy his style. I couldn't intentionally take Kirby's stuff and re-create it. It's so embedded in my subconscious, it's easy to evoke it."

Also out recently

"A Nut at the Opera" by Maurice Vellekoop
Drawn and Quarterly
96 pages, $19.95.

Vellekoop indulges in his love for musical drama in the handsomecoffee-table parody, featuring phony biographies of "notable" operastars.

Vellekoop is a masterful cartoonist, and the book looks lovely, but it feels slight, which is surprising considering the book's size and packaging. Really, it just made me want to see him try his hand at something more challenging, like, say, a book devoted to real opera history.

"Scrublands" by Joe Daly
Fantagraphics Books
128 pages, $16.95.

South African cartoonist Daly's work pays serious homage to the underground comics of the 1960s and '70s, both in its surreal narratives (the silent, enigmatic "Prebaby") or in the oddball humor ("My Beach Community").

Daly is no mere slave to the past, however. His work has a delightful, twisted energy that's all it's own. It's something I'd like to see more of.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Where the heck am I?

Oh, that's right, I'm on vacation.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Hey, it's more Game Bytes!

There's a very interesting discussion going on here about people's "rules for gaming." That is, what they specifically look for in a video game. It's a good discussion and well worth your time, even if you're one of those folks who come here exclusively for the comics content.

And now, for some Game Bytes:

"Ys: The Ark of Napishtim"
Konami, for PlayStation Portable
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (fantasy violence, language, use of alcohol), $29.99.

If you've ever played a Japanese role-playing game, even if it wasonly for 10 minutes, you know exactly what you're getting with this PSP version of a PS2 game.

Game-play and story-line surprises are nonexistent. Combat rarely rises above tiresome button mashing. What's more, getting a hit in can be frustrating because the collision detection is awkward at best. "Ys" isn't a bad game, but it is decidedly average.

"Rumble Roses XX"
Konami, for Xbox 360
rated M for Mature (mild language, partial nudity, sexual themes, violence), $59.99.

I could forgive the in-your-face sexism of this all-female wrestling game more easily if the fighting system were good.

Sadly, it's not. It becomes instantly apparent that the developers at Konami were concerned with making sure the voluptuous characters look really hot and not so much with making a compelling game.

The matches become repetitive quickly. First, punch or slap your opponent to get her off balance. Then grapple her into a nasty hold. Repeat until she's worn down, and then pull one of your super-special moves and pin her down. Now do that for every character in the game.

The lack of a compelling story mode, anemic online play and more add up to a game that fails to capitalize on its (somewhat sleazy) premise. But boy, those chicks sure do look hot in that skimpy clothing.

Nintendo, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone, $34.99.

I enjoyed this game back when it was on the first PlayStation and called "Ballistic." I enjoyed it when it was online and called "Zuma." And I like it now that it’s available on the DS, where the touch-screen features add a bit more challenge to the game.

The core concept remains the same, however. Shiny balls of different colors wind their way down a spiral path. Your job is to make sets of three or more by firing your own balls at the procession, thereby destroying them. If the balls make it to the end of the line, it’s game over.

It’s a compelling premise that, in the spirit of games like "Tetris" and "Bejeweled," proves to be utterly addictive. Even if you played this game in one of its earlier incarnations, it’s still fun enough to be worth another go-around.


for PlayStation Portable
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

There was a time when you couldn’t step three feet in any direction in a video game store without bumping into a "Lemmings"-themed game. Now the popular puzzle series has arrived for Sony’s PlayStation Portable, though there’s little here that’s new.

As before, your job is to get as many of the little creatures from point A to point B as quickly as possible. They’re more than a bit mindless, however, and will quickly immolate, end up flattened or otherwise perish if you’re not careful. Assigning them specific tasks, like building steps or digging through walls, is the best way to ensure survival.

The PSP version does a nice job of translating the original game, but this version is pretty much identical to the original, although there are some new levels, online multiplayer and the ability to create your own maps.

If you’ve never played "Lemmings" before, then this game will be a welcome surprise and a happy addition to your PSP library. If you’ve played the series before, however, this game might feel a bit too familiar.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Thursday, July 06, 2006

VG REVIEW: Steambot Chronicles

Atlus, for PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (alcohol reference, crude hu­mor, fantasy violence, mild lan­guage, suggestive themes), $49.99.

The poor little town of Neuborg has been taken over by the vicious Killer Elephant gang. It’s up to you and your trusty trotmobile to take the dirty thieves down, free the city and save the day!

But wait, what’s the rush? Perhaps you’d like to indulge in a game of pool first? Or go dig up some fossils for the town museum? And don’t forget, you wanted to spend some time practicing your harmonica. The Killer Elephants will keep.

So it goes in "Steambot Chronicles," one of the most leisurely games I’ve ever played. It’s more interested in letting players quietly explore the world it presents than wowing them with smash-bang visuals.

The fact that I found myself waiting at stoplights while traveling through the city was perhaps my first clue.

Ostensibly, "Steambot Chronicles" is what is known in certain circles as "steampunk." That’s a rather popular subgenre of science-fiction where 19th-century society rubs shoulders with modern technology. Here, everyone dresses in Edwardian outfits but rides around in large mecha-like machines called trotmobiles.

You play Vanilla Bean, a young amnesiac found washed up on the shore by a girl named Coriander (yes, everyone here has food names). After surviving an attack from a mysterious villain, the two head off for the nearby town, where they begin a romance.

Or not. The game offers several branching dialogue paths, in the best "choose your own adventure" manner. What that means is you can be as nice or as rotten to the folks around you as you like, with your behavior affecting storyline developments.

"Chronicles" contains a wealth of entertaining mini-games and diversions.

In addition to the fossil hunting and pool playing, you can try to defeat other souped-up trotmobiles in the battle area, try on costumes and earn odd nicknames, and play instruments including the piano and the pipe organ.

Unfortunately, the main part of the game, operating your trotmobile, is one of the more glaring flaws. While you can trick your machine out in a variety of ways (right down to the color and license plate), operating it, especially in battle, is awkward and at times frustrating.

Still, despite some regrettable problems, "Steambot Chronicles" is so delightfully odd, it’s hard not to enjoy it. When you load the game, a happy voice intones, "Steambot Chronicles: A relaxing nonlinear adventure." I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Monday, July 03, 2006

Graphic Lit: All-Star Superman & More

Before we move on to last Friday's column, two quick items of note:

1) In last month's Esquire, bon vivant Chuck Klosterman wondered why there was no Lester Bangs of the Video Game World. Over at Collision Detection, Clive Thompson explains why (courtesy of Kotaku).

2) Also at Kotaku is
the news that the folks behind the upcoming Bob Ross game will be hosting an art contest. The contest starts tomorrow and entries must adhere to the patented Bob Ross Rules of Paintings. Hit the link for details.

"Superman Returns" opened Wednesday, and naturally, DC Comics is pulling out all the merchandising stops to celebrate the big-screen return of what is easily its most iconic franchise.
There are the inevitable movie adaptations, of course, as well as countless graphic novel retrospectives and collections. "Superman: Cover to Cover," for example, is a coffee-table tome that collects more than 270 classic covers from various comics.

"The Superman Chronicles" meanwhile, is an ongoing trade paperback series designed to reprint every Superman story in chronological order. Or you could get a cheap fix with the phone book-size "Showcase" collections, which reprint classic, sometimes downright goofy stories from the 1950s and ’60s.

For my money, though, you can’t do any better than "All-Star Superman," a new ongoing series from the creative team of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely ("New X-Men," "We3")

Like Frank Miller’s "All-Star Batman," this is a slightly revisionist take on the character, though it’s much more invigorating and thoughtful than Miller’s depressing, one-note effort.

The series begins with Superman pulling off an outer-space rescue near the heart of the sun. Unfortunately, the proximity gives Kal-El an overdose of solar radiation, increasing his powers but also condemning him to a slow death.

Faced with an untimely demise, the Man of Steel decides to come clean and reveals his secret identity to Lois Lane. Naturally, of course, she doesn’t believe him. Why should she, when, as she notes, "that would mean you’ve been lying to me for years, wouldn’t it?"

Lest this sounds like some dreary, overly sincere soap opera, I should note that the series practically fizzes over the top with half-crazed notions and throw-away gags.

Superman, for example, not only has the original Titanic in his Fortress of Solitude, he’s got a pet baby Sun Eater! That eats tiny suns! Samson and Atlas compete with Superman for Lois’ affections! Jimmy Olson must turn into a monster to battle a Superman turned evil thanks to black kryptonite!

In many ways, the series is an affectionate mash note to those goofy Superman stories collected in those "Showcase" volumes. Said tales always bordered on the surreal, with Superman or one of his friends turning into some odd creature or worse.

All of this heady mix of the thoroughly absurd and utterly sincere is perfectly suited to Quitely’s artwork. His obsessively detailed characters seem to border on caricature at first glance (just look at that chin Superman’s sporting) but Quitely is able to wring a surprisingly wide range of subtle emotions out of the characters.

As with the best of Morrison’s work, "All-Star Superman" combines far-out sci-fi and fantasy concepts with a grounded humanism, a concern for its characters and their emotions that you don’t usually get in superhero funny books.

As a result, "All-Star Superman" isn’t just one of the best superhero comics this year. It’s one of the best comics of the year, period.

And now for something completely different

Still, if you’re looking for a funny book that’s more, say, mature, you couldn’t do much better than two new, excellent books from the French team of Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian.

Dupuy and Berberian are a rather unique team in the field of comics. Rather than divvy up their chores, with one solely doing art, say, and another writing, they work on the whole thing together. After hashing out a plot, for example, they’ll take turns drawing different pages and switch them around when it’s time to do the inking.

Their best-known work, at least on these shores, is probably the M. Jean series. Now Drawn and Quarterly has collected the first three M. Jean books in one handsome hardcover titled "Get A Life" (144 pages, $19.95).

The M. Jean of the title is a semifamous Parisian author, nearing 30 and being dragged into maturity kicking and screaming. The book deals with the minor calamities of his life such as bumping into an ex-girlfriend, staring down a deadline or dealing with a troublesome old friend.

Far from mundane, Dupuy and Berberian use such moments to convey how the passage of time can change and shape our attitudes, thus achieving an elegance and visual poetry that few "adult" comics can match.

The other book, "Maybe Later" (120 pages, $19.95), is even better, perhaps because it peers into the authors’ working relationship. Here, the pair separately recount the trials of putting out an M. Jean book, as well as their family troubles and anxieties about their artistic abilities.

Dupuy and Berberian hold little back and their honesty is at times as shocking at times as it is invigorating. In it’s own way, it’s even more powerful than "Get A Life," though it helps to be familiar with the first book in order to fully appreciate the second.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006