Wednesday, November 29, 2006

VG REVIEW: Marvel Ultimate Alliance & Justice League Heroes

Activision, for the Wii, PlaySta­tion 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC
rated T for Teen (mild language, violence), $59.99 (360 and PS3), $49.99 (Wii) and $39.99 (all others).

WB Games, for PlayStation 2 and Xbox
rated T for Teen (fantasy violence, mild language), $39.99.

The Three Stooges vs. The Marx Brothers. The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones. Marvel vs. DC.

While some of us are more than happy to sample from both sides of the fence, there are die-hard fans who must emphatically choose one party over the other, especially where Marvel and DC are concerned.

Thankfully, there are two new games out that should satisfy both camps: “Marvel Ultimate Alliance” and “Justice League Heroes.” Both games are similar in approach and design, and both are enjoyable, though one edges ahead in quality.

The play structures and plots of each game are similar. In both, a group of villains has banded together, collecting strange items for some ultimate nefarious purpose.

In both games, you control a group of heroes in an isometric environment, looking down on them from above. In “Alliance” you have a group of four. In “Heroes” you have only two. You can unlock more heroes, costumes and other items as you progress in either game, however.

Each hero has his own collection of special powers. In “Alliance,” for example, Captain America can throw his shield at enemies, while Spider-Man can fire webs at them. In “Heroes,” Superman has heat vision, while the Martian Manhunter fires psychic blasts.

Both titles do a good job of keeping their individual characters distinct from one another. Zatanna the magician doesn’t play the same as Batman, nor does Thor require the same strategy as Wolverine.

As you progress in each game, your characters gain new powers and abilities as they level up, and you can boost their health and general statistics along the way, too.

The games bears a strong resemblance to the “X-Men Legends” games, which is not surprising, especially in “Alliance’s” case, as it shares the same developer.

The biggest problem in games of this ilk is the tendency to rely on hack and slash repetition, constantly coming up against the same types of enemies and mashing the buttons over and over again to the point of banality.

“Alliance” does the better job overall of avoiding that pitfall through its larger cast of characters, greater variety in powers and better overall level design.

That’s not to say “Heroes” is a shabby game — it’s not. It’s just not as polished as “Alliance.”

The best thing about games like these is they allow fans to enter into the shared superhero universe that both publishing companies have been actively structuring with finesse for years.

To their credit, both “Heroes” and “Alliance” do a good enough job of delving into those worlds to please their hard-core constituents. But if you’re not taking sides, then you’ll be perfectly happy with “Alliance.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Graphic Lit: "Ode to Kirihito"

“Ode to Kirihito”
by Osamu Tezuka

Vertical, 832 pages, $24.95.

In the world of Japanese comics, no author is held in greater esteem than the late Osamu Tezuka.

It’s for good reason that he’s known as the “Godfather of Manga” and the “Walt Disney of Japan.” While he may not have technically originated the medium, no other cartoonist did as much to popularize it in his native land as he did.

His influence is enormous, even to this day. Virtually every genre in manga or anime originates with one of his stories. A workhorse, his complete oeuvre consists of more than 700 manga comprising about 170,000 pages. And that’s not including the numerous animation projects he had a hand in.

Even Western audiences aren’t as unfamiliar with Tezuka as they might at first think. Anyone who’s thrilled by the adventures of Astro Boy or Kimba the White Lion has enjoyed his work.

Tezuka’s manga has been published sporadically in the U.S., with Viz and Dark Horse doing the lion’s share on titles like “Phoenix” and “Astro Boy.”

Now Vertical, who recently published an eight-volume set of Tezuka’s classic, “Buddha,” has released “Ode to Kirihito,” a sprawling, gripping epic that hopefully will draw even more attention to this skilled genius.

The Kirihito of the title is a doctor who travels to a small town in order to investigate a mysterious disease that transforms people into bizarre, doglike beasts.

It isn’t too long before Kirihito himself contracts the disease, and while he’s able to stave off death, he isn’t able to get his good looks back.

Betrayed by his friends and co-workers, Kirihito begins a global journey that finds him sold into slavery and bumping up against a variety of colorful and nefarious characters who either want to help or exploit the former doctor.

“Ode” deals with many of Tezuka’s favorite themes, including the notion of karma, man’s capacity for cruelty, spirituality, survival in the face of overwhelming adversity, and general medical know-how (Tezuka having been formally trained as a physician).

Sex also rears its head frequently, though this being something of a horror story, the issue is used more as a metaphor for deviance or mental illness, as one otherwise noble character is guilty of sexual assault.

The real reason to read this book though is not for the compelling plot and characters but to revel in Tezuka’s considerable artistic talents. A fearless experimenter, he seems to constantly be trying different ways to lay out a sequence.

Consider, for example, how he shows Kirihito’s initial descent into illness, breaking down the page into a series of small panels showing the doctor writhing in pain.

Or, even better, consider how he shows Kirihito’s colleague — Dr. Urabe — mental collapse, first with a tight close-up of his face, then, in a series of fractured panels, having his face vanish until only the glasses are left behind, shattered and split in half by a knife.

Then on the next page he freezes the moment, pulling back and showing Urabe in a black room, the other figures whited out in silhouette.

“Ode to Kirihito” is filled with wonderful moments like these. It’s a true virtuoso performance that any reader, not just those interested in manga, should check out.

The Train Man saga

A nerdy young man defends a cute young woman from an ugly drunk while riding on the subway. Going home, he posts about the experience on an online forum, garnering much praise for his bravery. Bolstered by their advice, he decides to try to woo the girl after she sends him a thank-you gift.

It sounds like a cute Nora Ephron film, but the supposedly true story of Densha Otoko or “Train Man” caught on like wildfire in Japan, resulting in no less than two films, one TV series, a play and several manga.

Now three of those manga have been translated for U.S. audiences: “Train Man: Densha Otoko” by Hidenori Hara (Viz, $9.99), “Densha Otoko” by Wataru Watanabe (CMX, $9.99), “Train Man: A Shojo Manga” by Machiko Ocha (Del Rey, $10.95).

All three are pretty identical in plot, but the Viz volume is far and away the best, as it adds a good deal of slapstick into the proceedings. The CMX series takes itself too seriously and is way too over the top (the poor sap is so inhibited he can’t even bring himself to pick up a dropped handkerchief).

The Del Rey book, meanwhile, tries to tell the whole story in one volume, and feels anemic and rushed as a result.

“Train Man” is more interesting as a phenomenon than a story, but the Viz volume is amusing enough to entertain those intrigued by the basic premise.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, November 24, 2006

VG REVIEW: Elite Beat Agents

Hope everyone had a good turkey day.

Nintendo, for the Nintendo DS
rated E10+ for ages 10 and up (cartoon violence, crude humor, lyrics, suggestive themes), $34.99.

Young baby sitter Jane wants to go steady with star quarterback Don but — oh no — a carload of kids has just been dumped on her doorstep without warning!

Who can help her settle the brats down so she can declare her love?

Why, the Elite Beat Agents of course! And how will they help? By dancing!

Such is the premise behind one of the most adorably goofy games ever to come down the pike. As are “Guitar Hero” and “Parappa the Rapper,” “Elite Beat Agents” is a rhythm-based game, though its personality and style are utterly unique.

The Agents are like an impossibly coiffed trio who, through the power of fancy footwork, are somehow able to make a difference in various people’s lives, whether it’s rescuing someone from a desert island or defending the planet from aliens.

Success in the game depends upon keeping the beat to pop songs such as “Sk8er Boi” and “Jumping Jack Flash.”

You do this by tapping the DS stylus on colored circles at the right moment and in the proper order. Occasionally you’ll have to drag and spin the stylus, too, but tapping is usually the order of the day.

It sounds easier than it is, as the circles pop up fast and furious, and it takes only a few missed chances to get a “game over” screen. My advice would be to start out on “Easy Mode” first.

If all “Elite Beat Agents” offered was its gameplay, it would be an appealing title in and of itself. But the winning, silly story line catapults the game over the top into classic territory.

Hands down, “Agents” is one of the best games for the DS this year. It makes perfect use of the handheld’s capabilities and is funny and addictive enough to ensure you’ll be playing the game for weeks to come.

After all, someone has to make sure Jane hooks up with that quarterback.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

VG REVIEW: Final Fantasy XII

Square Enix, for PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (alcohol reference, fantasy violence, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes), $49.99.

Eight hours into "Final Fantasy XII," I was no further along in figuring out the plot of the game than I had been when I started playing.

To an extent that's to be expected, as the "Final Fantasy" games, like most Japanese role-playing games, are epic in length and require hours upon hours of devotion to complete. I'm talking 40 and up.

And yet, this time around I found myself less satisfied as the story seemed to be stalled in first gear. The 12th game in the popular series boasts some nice features and impressive production values, but at the same time it feels curiously bloodless. The game takes place in the fantasy world of Invalice, where a ruthless empire has subjugated a neighboring, smaller country.

After a lengthy opening sequence, the game focuses on young Vaan, a street urchin who teams up with a pair of pirates (one of whom looks like a cross between a supermodel and Bugs Bunny), a disgraced knight and a princess in hiding.

Together they, well, wander around a lot. Apart from saving the occasional wayfarer there doesn't seem to be any larger plot.

Of course, the story is only half of any good rpg. The other half is the fighting system.

The central aspect of "FF XII" is the Gambit System. It allows you to assign commands to the folks in your party, which they follow through in order of importance. For example, you can tell a character to cast a cure if someone's health gets too low, or attack the weakest enemy first and so on.

This micromanaging allows for more strategic play, as you'll frequently have to shift your tactics depending upon whom you're fighting. It also makes the game more of a spectator sport, as you'll often take a back seat during most battles and just watch your characters clash.

There also is the license system, which offers an interesting way to level characters up. You spend the points you earn in battles by purchasing licenses for armor, spells, weapons and so forth. You don't purchase any of the actual items, mind you; buying a license just allows you to use the items.

The upside to this system is you can make your characters take on any role you want. The little girl in your group could become a better swordswoman than your experienced knight, who could, in turn, become a pretty good healer.

"Final Fantasy XII" is convoluted and at times frustrating, but the game rewards those who have the time and willingness to see it through. Plus, it's one of the best-looking games I've ever played on the PS2.

But I can take only so much incremental plot devices before my mind starts to wander. It might be quite awhile before I muster up the courage to return to Invalice again.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Graphic Lit: "In the Studio"

“In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists”
by Todd Hignite, Yale University Press
320 pages, $29.95.

“Where do you get your ideas from” is probably one of the hoariest, cliched questions you could ask an artist, not that that’s ever stopped anybody.

Thank goodness Todd Hignite, editor of the acclaimed “Comic Art” magazine, decided to dig a little deeper.

His latest book, “In the Studio,” is an in-depth and richly rewarding collection of interviews with some of the most significant cartoonists working today. For the record, that’s Robert Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Jamie Hernandez, Charles Burns Seth and Ivan Brunetti.

More than just a simple fireside chat, Hignite visited the studio of each of these folks to talk to them about their influences and their insights into the creative process. The result is an insightful gallery tour into not just what’s on their walls but also what’s in their heads, at least when they’re drawing.

Hignite provides lengthy introductions for the artists that are, well, let’s be charitable and call them unnecessarily dense.

Thankfully, he largely lets the artists speak for themselves and their commentaries on their interests and feelings about their own work prove to be fascinating.

Brunetti, for example, takes us step by step through the creation of one of his biographical strips. Crumb talks about his upcoming adaptation of the Book of Genesis. Hernandez discusses how he lays out a page. And Seth shows off his collection of hand-made miniature buildings of a town he plans to incorporate into a future story.

The book is lavishly illustrated, with never-before seen sketchbook material and personal projects such as the mini-houses.

Special note must be made of the many ways the book offers glimpses into other works, other artists. I had never heard, for example, of L.B. Cole or Owen Fitzgerald, but reading people such as Crumb and Hernandez eloquently praise them has me wanting to find out more.

And perhaps that’s the best praise I can give this book — it whets your appetite for more. More information on these obscure influences. More books by these fabulous cartoonists. And more interviews with other, equally eloquent artists. A sequel is definitely in order.

Other scholarly tomes

“Comic Art” issue 8
edited by Todd Hignite
Buenaventura Press, $19.95.

“In the Studio” originated in the pages of this magazine, and while it doesn’t return in this latest edition, there’s enough quality material here that you don’t mind its absence.

Just about every aspect of cartooning is investigated here, with essays on everything from the origin of the speech balloon to the over-the-top sci-fi comic “Warlock.” There’s also an interview with the illustrator Richard McGuire, a look at the childhood sketches of S. Clay Wilson and a profile of German cartoonist Anke Feuchtenberger.

If all that’s not enough to entice you, the magazine also comes packaged with “Forty Cartoon Books of Interest,” a small booklet by Seth that delves into his collection. It’s the bargain of the year.

“Arf Museum”
by Craig Yoe
Fantagraphics Books, $19.95.

Yoe loves to mix up high and low culture, often pointing out intriguing and rather funny connections, as evidenced by last year’s “Arf Lovers.”

“Museum” is in the same rich vein, with Yoe riffing on gorilla-themed illustrations, Picasso’s influence on cartoonists and the work of obscure artists such as Charles Bennett and Reamer Keller. Like its predecessor, “Museum” is a fun, irreverent ride through pop history.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


Monday, November 20, 2006

Graphic Lit: The Fables phenomenon

Snow White. The Frog Prince. The Big Bad Wolf.

Just about everyone who’s ever cracked open a collection of fairy tales is familiar with these characters. Most of us have grown up reading their tales numerous times, to the point where they’ve become part of our shared heritage.

But what happens after “happily ever after?” Did Snow White get along with her Prince Charming?

What if they didn’t? What if they — and hundreds of other characters from folklore — somehow found themselves stuck in our own, considerably less magical world?

Such is the concept behind “Fables,” an ongoing monthly series courtesy of writer and creator Bill Willingham. Working with a rotating stable of artists, most notably Mark Buckingham, Willingham images the famous characters of folklore and mythology living an exiled life in a small pocket of New York City, having been driven out of their homeland by a nefarious, marauding force known only as “The Adversary.”

Here, Prince Charming is a bit of a philanderer, hence his marriages not only to Snow White, but also Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Here, Goldilocks is a dangerous revolutionary, a reformed Big Bad Wolf becomes the sheriff and Jack, of “Jack and the Beanstalk” fame is a ne’er-do-well who goes Hollywood.

The series has proven to be one of Vertigo’s most popular, mainly due to Willingham’s ability to create interesting, fully-dimensional characters. His stories might involve the fantastic, but they’re grounded in real human emotions.

“I’ve always been interested in these types of stories and characters,” Willingham said during a recent interview from his home in Las Vegas. “ 'Fables’ was really just admitting to myself that this is what I was interested in doing and dropping that other shoe.”

The series is so popular in fact, that it’s even launched its own spin-off series (“Jack of Fables”) and now has its own stand-alone graphic novel — “1,001 Nights of Snowfall,” a hardbound collection of short stories that offer some insight in the past of its more popular personalities.

The central plot of “Nights” involves Snow White, who comes to Arabia as an ambassador seeking aid but quickly finds herself in the Scherazade role, spinning tales in order to stave off her execution by a misogynist ruler.

Acclaimed artists like Charles Vess, John Bolton, Jill Thompson and Derek Kirk Kim take turns illustrating the various stories, which delve into the early histories of The Frog Prince and the Wolf and suggests what exactly happened with those seven dwarfs (hint: it’s not pretty).

According to Willingham, a good part of the fun in doing this book was getting to work with a variety of well-known artists to illustrate the individual tales.

“For the first time I’m feeling like a grown-up because my list of artists I would love to work with someday is getting smaller and smaller now that I’m actually getting to cross them off,” he said.

Though it’s designed for new readers and longtime fans, it’s probably the latter who will most appreciate the new book. The stop and start nature of the various stories rob the book of any real narrative flow. These tales would best be served on an individual basis. They don’t really compliment each other being jammed shoulder to shoulder.

Still, while newbies might be better served picking up one of the ongoing collections (I recommend starting with volume number three or four), longtime fans will get a kick out of discovering some of the oft-hinted secrets that have surrounded the cast.

For his part, Willingham is in no hurry to end the series, as there are plenty of classic characters he still hasn’t incorporated into the series.

“Most are in a lock box waiting to be used,” he said. “Lots of them are politely screaming for their chance to get on stage.”

“Absolute Sandman”

DC has been repackaging a number of its better-known works (“Watchmen,” “The Dark Knight Returns”) in a rather ornate manner with its high-end “Absolute” volumes.

Now, Neil Gaiman’s seminal fantasy series gets a kick upstairs with the lavish, slipcased “The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1” (Vertigo, 612 pages, $99). The immense book reprints the first 20 issues, with remastered coloring and script notes from Gaiman. Think of it as the comics equivalent of a special edition DVD.

When “Sandman” debuted in 1988, it helped launch Gaiman’s writing career as well as help give comics in general a certain literary cachet.

Many of the early issues see Gaiman trying on different genres, trying to get a feel for the series, and it’s not until about halfway through that it really starts to take off.

Still, for your hardcore Sandman fan, this would make a pretty nice Christmas present.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Friday, November 17, 2006

Bring on the Game Bytes

“God Hand”
Capcom, for PlayStation 2
rated M for Mature (blood and gore, language, suggestive themes, violence), $29.99.

Can a video game parody a particular genre? Because it seems to me that “God Hand” is nothing so much as an over-the-top send-up of classic brawlers such as “Final Fight.”

In “God Hand” you play a wandering drifter armed with, well, a magical arm. As you make your way through some Western-themed towns, you make hay with all of the local toughs using ridiculous martial arts moves such as the “Pimp Hand.” You’ll occasionally come across more colorful villains, such as the cigar-chomping, overweight demon and the flamboyantly gay, Las Vegas-styled duo.

Unfortunately, technical glitches dial down the fun a bit. The game’s camera in particular seems designed to drain the fun out of the game. As a result, “God Hand” comes off as intermittent fun, admirable more for its style and ideas than its execution.

“Mercury Meltdown”
Ignition, for PlayStation Portable
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

In the first “Mercury” game, you guided a small blob of liquid through a perilous maze that floated in space. Lose too much liquid or fall off the edge and it’s game over.

“Meltdown” continues the basic premise of the first game while adding a few challenges, such as being able to solidify your blob.

Not every addition is a winner, and though the difficulty level has been dumbed down a bit (there’s no longer a time limit to complete a puzzle, for example), certain puzzles can be mind-bendingly frustrating.

Still, “Meltdown” is a pleasant enough time-waster to be worthy of recommendation. If you’re looking for a game to play on your way to work or school, this is a safe bet.

“Rainbow Islands Revolution”
Codemasters, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone, $29.99.

In this arcade-styled game, you use the DS stylus to direct a little boy trapped in a bubble through a maze filled with treacherous hazards, such as toy tanks, evil birds and whatnot. Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me either.

It also doesn’t play very well. You can knock enemies aside by swiping them with the stylus, but trying to do so while guiding your bubble boy can prove to be difficult. Plus, the game doesn’t always respond to your swipes.

Considering its simple premise, “Rainbow Islands” is a rather lackluster title. Gamers looking to travel down the “classic arcade” route would do better elsewhere.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006


Thursday, November 16, 2006

I hab a code in by dose

Sorry for the lack of posts. Blame it on an cold that refuses to go away, a mountain of work and just general ennui.

Rather than put anything resembling actual content up here today though, I thought I'd just point your browsers toward this story I wrote for today's paper on the debut of the PlayStation 3 and Wii consoles this weekend. There's a sidebar here if you like that sort of thing. My thanks to Chris Morris (go visit his site, he's got some nice write-ups on the two consoles) and all the nice folks who took time out to talk to me. And no, I'm not camping out tonight. I'm sick enough as it is.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


A quick explanation re: this week's review. The little bit at the bottom after the second photo is a sidebar that ran with the main story on the current kissing controversy surrounding the game. Thought I'd include both this time around.

It was while defending myself from an oversized attacker, pummeling him quickly and helplessly to the ground in a fury of fisticuffs, that I did something I never did before in a video game.

I apologized.

Then I helped him back up, admonished him about picking on defenseless kids and let him go on his way.

So it goes in “Bully,” the latest game from the company that brought the infamous “Grand Theft Auto” series.

If anything, “Bully” has created an even greater amount of controversy, drawing ire from anti-bullying groups and video-game haters.

“This game will glorify bullying,” protesters claimed. “Minds will be warped. Children will be hurt. This game is pure evil incarnate!”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, “Bully” stands quite emphatically on the anti-bullying side of the fence. It’s not a shining tower of moral rectitude, nor is it a pit of cruel and insidious amorality.

In the game, you play Jimmy Hopkins, a troubled teen who gets dumped by his mom and worthless stepdad at Bullworth Academy, the worst prep school ever erected.

As the new kid, Jimmy quickly finds himself having to maneuver around the cliques and social groups — preppies, jocks, nerds, bullies and greasers — most of whom see him as easy pickings.

Learning fighting skills taught by a drunk, homeless vet, Jimmy quickly decides to fight back and slowly starts to put an end to the constant harassment that goes on at the school, becoming something of a big man on campus in the process. And if he has to enforce the peace with a baseball bat, so much the better.

Despite the large amount of fighting in the game, it should be noted that there is no blood or gore to speak of. No knives or guns, either. Bottle rockets, itching powder and slingshots are the weapons of choice here.

Of course, Jimmy’s noble intentions don’t make him a star pupil. Throughout the game you’ll engage in such antisocial activities as breaking into lockers, egging houses, vandalizing property and, of course, leaving flaming bags of dog excrement at someone’s door.

Yet for every time you break the law, there’s a mission where you’re called to protect the weaker students at the school, such as when you have to escort the incontinent geek to his locker without getting beat up, or get the nerdy girl’s chemistry notes back from the mean cheerleader who stole them.

Consequences loom large in the game. Picking on girls will immediately draw the wrath of the school’s prefects, who are more than happy to knock you flat. Steal a bike and expect to see the police pull up next to you in seconds. In fact, learning to maneuver around the adult authority is one of the trickier aspects of the game.

But while “Bully” may be ethically and thematically different from the “Grand Theft Auto” games, structurally it’s quite similar. As with “San Andreas” and its ilk, you play on a vast landscape, picking missions at your leisure. There’s lots of minigames to play and tons of unlockable items such as clothes to discover.

The gameplay itself is varied but never feels cheap or by the numbers. At various times I raced bikes, delivered food, started a paper route, mowed lawns, found someone’s lost dog and (how meta!) played video games. None of the tasks felt tacked on or poorly designed.

“Bully” resembles the GTA series in a more notable and important aspect: its sense of humor. Like its brethren, “Bully” is at its heart a satire, a funny, but dark critique of the brutality and cliquishness that pervades most high schools, and indeed, most of adult life.

“Bully” isn’t a terribly difficult game — you’ll get through the main story without any trouble — but is a highly engaging and entertaining one.

For those of us who were picked on in school, “Bully” often seems hilariously and cringingly familiar. Despite his more mean-spirited moments, I wish I had had someone like Jimmy Hopkins to escort me to the bathroom.


When “Bully” was announced, detractors feared the game would be a mindlessly violent, morally abhorrent “Columbine simulator.”

It turns out the violence might be the least controversial aspect of the game.

In “Bully,” you can woo female students by offering them flowers or chocolates. They, in turn, will give you a kiss or two, which can raise your health level.

But the girls aren’t the only classmates willing to pucker up for some pretty posies. There are a few boys eager to lock lips as well.

Apparently one boy from each clique at the school “plays for the other team.” If you can locate them and offer them some sweets, they’ll utter something like “You’re hot. I’m hot. Let’s make out.”

The kissing itself, as with the girls, is pretty G-rated, with only the occasional impassioned moan raising so much as an eyebrow.

Last year, Rockstar came under fire for a hidden sex scene, dubbed “Hot Coffee” in their game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”

Is all this some sort of smart-aleck reaction to the “Hot Coffee” incident? (one pundit has already dubbed the new sequences “warm tea.”) Or is Rockstar attempting to incorporate more diversity and real-life situations into their games?

Either way, the scenes might generate more media attention than outright violence would.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Graphic Lit: Kramer's Ergot

Every decade has its definitive comics anthology — a regular (or semi-regular) collection of work that defines the cutting edge for that particular era.

In the ’60s it was “Zap Comix.”

In the ’70s it was “Arcade.”

In the ’80s it was “Raw” and “Weirdo.”

In the ’90s ... well, let’s skip the ’90s for now, OK?

Now, in the dawn of the 21st century, there is again an anthology series that stands head and shoulders above its brethren: “Kramers Ergot.”

The oddly-named treasury has become the go-to book for discovering avant-garde work from up-and-coming or little-known cartoonists.

The latest volume, number six, is in stores and, as with the previous compendiums, it’s a whopper of a book, both in terms of size and aesthetic merits.

At 300-plus pages, “Kramers” features a dizzying array of different artistic styles and methods. Straight, easy-to-follow narratives bump up against surreal, formalist experiments. Obsessively detailed art follows minimalist, almost childish, sketches. Disturbing, apocalyptic tales follow heartfelt, slice-of-life stories.

Somehow, editor Sammy Harkham keeps the book from feeling schizophrenic. Despite the jarring contrasts in style, the stories flow one from the other naturally.

There is an abundance of riches to be discovered, but special mention should be made of the stories by the late Mark Smeets and Suiho Tagawa, two cartoonists, rarely, if ever, seen by Western eyes.

Smeets’ work is typified by cartoonish characters parading through the Dutch countryside, complete with crumbling castles. The individual panels don’t make a lot of sense, but there is a melancholy beauty there that is hard to shake.

Tagawa, on the other hand, made his comics in pre-WWII era Japan, and his work is filled with disturbing propaganda. Armies of cartoon dogs take arms against slow-witted Chinese pigs, with phrases like “It would be an honor to be shot” thrown out every other panel. It’s simultaneously a stunning and unsettling work.

But watching cute doggies do battle shouldn’t be your only reason for reading “Kramers.” It’s chock full of impressive work from people you likely haven’t been exposed to yet. Boost your hip quotient and pick up a copy today.

Other anthologies

"Kramers” isn’t the only recent anthology of note. Here are a few other collections that have hit stores recently:

"An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and True Stories”
edited by Ivan Brunetti

Yale University Press, 400 pages, $28.

Brunetti (best known for his self-loathing comic “Schizo”) has compiled an impressive “greatest hits” collection. Just about every significant cartoonist from the past 30 years and then some can be found here, from Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb to Lynda Barry and Mat Brinkman.

There’s little here that’s unfamiliar to the devoted comics fan — I think there were about three stories I hadn’t read before — but it’s a perfect book for a neophyte. If someone were to come up to me and ask what the deal was about all this graphic novel stuff, I’d hand him a copy of this book.

“The Best American Comics 2006”
edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore

Houghton Mifflin, 320 pages, $22.

As nice as it is to see Houghton Mifflin extend their “Best” series to comics, if I were in a cranky mood, I would probably quibble over some of the selections. Not because there's anything bad here, but just because there’s other work I would rate higher. That being said, all of the stories found here are of the “very good” to “excellent” quality. And any book that gives Jessica Dart’s “Rabbithead” and Jesse Reklaw’s “Thirteen Cats of My Childhood” a shot at a wider audience deserves to be praised to the skies.

“Project: Romantic”
AdHouse Books, edited by Chris Pitzer

256 pages, $19.95.

Ah, here’s some new material. This is the third in Pitzer’s “Project” series, and, as the title suggests, focuses on romance and love. Usually, themed anthologies fall flat on their face, but Pitzer has a knack for getting the most out of his contributors, or at least selecting A-list material. It’s a shame this is the last in the series. I wouldn’t mind seeing more.

“Drawn and Quarterly Showcase No. 4,”
Drawn and Quarterly, 102 pages, $14.95.

Gabrielle Bell, Martin Cendreda and Dan Zettwoch contribute to this annual anthology devoted to (relatively) new cartoonists. Bell and Zettwoch’s contributions are the stand-outs here. Bell’s story in particular, involving an insecure art student who attempts to teach the son of a famous sculptor, is the best thing she’s done yet and well worth the price of admission.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Some PS3 impressions for you

Didn't get to go to Diplocon until Sunday, and by then it was all over but the shouting. Still, hope everyone there had a nice time.

Anyway, let's move on with our thoughts on the PlayStation 3, or PLAYSTATION 3, as it apparantly insists on calling itself. As I mentioned in the post below, I went to a special Sony-sponsored media event in New York City last Thursday. Six-eight hours on the train to spend three hours playing games may seem a bit silly to some I imagine, but

Keep in mind these are initial impressions based on a very limited amount of play time. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

So then:

The console
As I'm sure you've read elsewhere, the PlayStation 3 sports an interface similar to that of the PSP, with a horizontal menu allowing you to move from games to video to music to digital photos without any real hassle. As with the Xbox 360, you can copy your CDs to the PS3's hard drive, though I don't know if you can change the soundtrack in any of the launch games.

Since Sony hopes to conquer at least a sizable portion of the online gaming world, it's no surprise a Web browser is included. It struck me as perfectly functionable, though rather bare bones, with the ability to have up to four different Web pages up at once.

The new motion sensitive controller, dubbed by Sony as the "Sixaxis," has generated some controversy. (hmmmm, what other console is coming out with a motion-sensitive controller?) The controller seemed pretty intuitive to me however, very similar to past Sony controllers, though much lighter and more comfortable. The only real notable difference is that the L2 and R2 buttons are actual god-honest triggers now, and not just buttons to press. That was a little wierd at first.

The good
"Resistance: Fall of Man" -- This aliens meets World War II FPS is slated to be the must-have PS3 game this season, and with good reason. It looks fabulous and controls really well for a console shooter. The only difficulty I had was that it's too difficult; I kept dying within five minutes of playing. Let's hope there's an easy mode.
"Lair" -- Designed to make full use out of the console's Sixaxis controller, this game has you flying a giant dragon and breathing fire on monsters and opposing armies. You control the dragon simply by tilting the controller. It takes some getting used to -- I kept reaching for the thumbstick and oversteering by tilting the controller too far in one direction -- but there's definite promise here, so long as the levels are varied enough to make the game seem like more than a gimmick and they include an in-game map.
"MotorStorm" -- Think "Flat Out," but much more fun. This is a racer where you pilot a variety of off-road vehicles across rocky terrain. The vehicles handle pretty well, and the levels, at least the one I played, seem well thought-out and entertaining. I'm looking forward to playing this one more fully next year.
"Tony Hawk's Project 8" -- Believe it or not, this seemed like one of the best games for the PS3 out of the handful I played. I love the way Activision integrated the Sixaxis into the gameplay, where tilting the controller can do everything from help keep your balance during a handstand to finessing your tricks. Very smart. Plus, it looks fantastic.
"Marvel Ultimate Alliance" -- I spent a good deal of time talking to one of the producers of this game (thanks Chris). Apart from some limited Sixaxis integration (shake the controller to escape Galactus' clutches!) and enhanced graphics, I doubt there's anything here you wouldn't see on any of the other versions. Still, this is a really fun game and I imagine it would remain so on the PS3.

The bad
"Sonic the Hedgehog" -- Man, why can't Sonic Team get their act together? Just about every problem I've had with recent Sonic games -- sloppy camera, awkward controls, too easy to plummit off the side of a cliff -- are here in spades. I'm crossing my fingers that this was an early version and that most of the problems will be rectified when the game comes out.
"Mobile Suite Gundam Crossfire" -- No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't figure out how the heck this game was supposed to work. Worse yet, neither could the PR rep. I did finally get something resembling a big robot game up, only to quickly perish. Looked a lot like "Chromehounds," but less colorful.

The meh
"Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom" -- Pleasant enough dungeon-crawling fare. A lot like past "Legends" games. Nothing here that screams "Spend upwards of $500."
"Genji: Days of the Blade" -- I liked the first Genji game and I liked what I saw here, though there doesn't seem to be any real difference between the two games. Those cut scenes look pretty sharp though.
"Call of Duty 3" -- Again, perfectly respectable WWII FPS title, but I didn't see anything here that would make it stand out from the other incarnations on the Xbox 360 and PC.
"Formula One 06" -- Apparently you can use your PSP as a wing mirror on this F1 racing game. I had my PSP with me and should've tried to connect it, but by this point I was bleary-eyed from my train ride and needed some fresh air. Looks like a fun racer though.

And there you go. I walked out of the building impressed with the PS3's potential and looking forward to titles like Resistance, Project 8 and MotorStorm. At the same time, there wasn't anything there that made me feel the need to wait outside my Best Buy in the freezing cold on Nov. 17. While some of the games look very, very nice, it's still nothing you haven't seen before. In other words, you're not missing out if you wait a bit longer.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Something to do this weekend

Back from New York, but too busy playing catch-up/tired to post about the trip right now. I'll post my impressions on the PS3 and some of the games I played later this weekend.

While I'm typing, I thought I'd draw your attention to an event of note. If you happen to be in the Lancaster area this weekend, you may want to consider stopping by Diplocon II, an anime/gaming convention that's being held this weekend at Franklin and Marshall College (my old alma mater). Highlights include Halo, DDR, Counter Strike and Guitar Hero competitions, board games like Settlers of Catlan, HeroClix and Magic the Gathering, and and lots and lots of anime showings (all the usual suspects). Guests include Webcomic artists Dr. McNinja and Michael Poe.

The fun starts today at 5 p.m. today and continues nonstop until 5 p.m. Sunday. You can see a full schedule of events here. If I get a chance to tear away from the household chores Saturday I'm goint to try to check it out. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Game Bytes are coming! The Game Bytes are coming!

I will be in New York City tomorrow, if all goes well, getting a sneak peek at the PlayStation 3. No post tomorrow, therefore, but I'll try to put my impressions up of the event some time this weekend if time permits.

Killzone: Liberation
Sony, for PlayStation Portable
rated T for Teen, $39.99.

Rather than attempt to transfer the original “Killzone” directly to the PSP, Sony’s developers decided to do something a little different and moved the camera upward about 80 degrees, transforming it from a first-person shooter into a real-time strategy game.

It’s a smart decision, as the PSP’s controls really aren’t ideal for the average FPS game. “Liberation” contains a few other noteworthy additions, including the ability to command squadmates and drive tanks.

The game is tough — really tough — so tough that average gamers might become frustrated early on. Those looking for a smart strategy title to add to their PSP collection should pick this game up, though.

“Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime”
Square-Enix, for Nintendo DS
rated E for Everyone, $34.99.

Oooooo, I liked this game. It’s colorful, cute, clever and just challenging enough to entice older players, while not being so difficult as to discourage younger ones.

In “Rocket Slime,” you play a little blue gloop who must save his town from destruction and rescue the inhabitants from a gang of marauding platypuses (at least they look like platypuses). You do this by bashing into objects, carrying them on their head, and then either throwing them or sending them back home for storage.

Storing items becomes significant later when you acquire a rather odd-looking tank and have to fire whatever you’ve got in storage at the assorted other tanks that challenge you.

It’s a silly, fun feature that keeps the game from getting stale.

Really, this is a fabulous game, perfect for those DS owners on the go, so long as you don’t mind being seen playing something that wouldn’t look out of place on PBS Kids. I certainly don’t.

“Dance Factory”
Codemasters, for PlayStation 2
rated E for everyone, $39.99.

One of the bigger complaints about the popular “Dance, Dance Revolution” series is that while it gets your blood pumping, the music provided is little better than inane pap.

“Dance Factory” seeks to overcome that problem by allowing you to add tunes from your own CD collection. Just load up the game, pop the disc of your choice into the PS2, copy over the songs you want and voila! Instant dance track.

The game worked reasonably well for just about any disc I put in, proving that you can indeed, dance to John Coltrane and Frank Zappa as easily as Jessica Simpson. Sadly, that’s about all there is to the game, which could have used some variety in animation and overall design. Still, if the uninspired techno music is the only thing keeping you away from games like “DDR,” then “Dance Factory” might be just the thing for you.

“Super Monkey Ball Adventure”
Sega, for PlayStation 2 and GameCube
rated E for Everyone, $39.99.

Whatever train of thought led to this game being developed should have been left at the station. The “Monkey Ball” franchise is best served as a simple puzzler — guide the little monkey down the narrow ramps to the finish line without him falling off — end of story. Transforming it into a platform game removes a lot of what made the series so enjoyable to begin with.

Of course, it doesn’t help when the monkey itself controls so clumsily that it’s almost impossible to maneuver it with any degree of accuracy. Or that the individual tasks are pointless and tiresome.

There’s absolutely nothing here that you wouldn’t find in any other generic platform game, which makes one wonder why bother putting the monkeys in balls at all. Bring back the puzzles, please.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006