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Who's Your Main - Brendan Sinclair

Marvel vs. Capcom 2 | Dreamcast 2000 | Amingo, Guile, and Jin

Generally speaking, I like to get in close and pummel people in fighting games. It's especially satisfying in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 to rush down an opponent and devour their health bar in short order by swarming them with high priority normal hits backed by quick, effective helper attacks. So this was the team I used online. Amingo's jumping strong kick would hit multiple times on the way down, and combo right into his crouching weak kick launcher, which meant opponents had to switch from blocking high to blocking low at just the right time or risk a nasty air combo. Guile and Jin have great helper attacks that come out lightning quick (the flash kick and explosion helpers, respectively), making them great defensive options that would give me a chance even against good Magneto players. Guile has a bunch of great standard attacks that chain into his sonic boom super nicely, and Jin's flaming kicks and slide attack followed by a (optionally delayed) explosion command were great for making opponents feel damned if they did, and damned if they didn't. Every now and then I'd also substitute Gambit in there because his projectile helper attack has a slight delay on it, making it really easy to use to cross up the other guy.

Tekken Tag Tournament | PlayStation 2 2000 | Paul and Mokujin

I always looked at Paul as the choice of scrubs in the Tekken series. Between the ridiculously quick and powerful Phoenix Smasher, the ability to counter, and an assortment of effective combos mixing high and low attacks, he just seemed too easy to excel with. So to balance out my use of Paul, I would often pick Mokujin, the wooden training dummy who chooses a different character's fighting style every time the player tags him in. It meant lots of losing at first, but it was a great way for me to learn the ins and outs of the game, forcing me to develop a cursory knowledge of every fighter's move set, not to mention strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the quality of my opponent, picking Mokujin actually gave me a competitive advantage. They would never know what to expect, whereas I could usually figure out exactly which character's move set I had from the fighting stance alone.

Capcom vs. SNK 2: Mark of the Millennium 2001 | PlayStation 2 2001 | Terry Bogard, Blanka, and Kim Kaphwon

Much like with Marvel vs. Capcom 2, I insisted on fighters with high priority basic attacks. I'm not great with the super-technical combos in games, but I can hold my own in a clubbering match. And that means I'm a Blanka player. His jumping powerful kick has great priority and is silly powerful, and chains well with similarly powerful standing and crouching attacks. Throw in a variety of rolling attacks to keep the other player guessing and Blanka was a great character to use. Terry and Kim are mostly here as leftovers from my Fatal Fury days. Terry had good basic attacks, a couple easy-to-perform super moves (great for when the desperation meter started flashing), and a power dunk attack that apparently wasn't used much by others, as it always seemed to catch people off guard. Kim's basic attacks (especially jumping) weren't as good, but he had a bunch of different special kick attacks that made up for that.

--Dishonorable Mention--

Violence Fight | Arcade 1989 | Lick Joe

Lick Joe was my main man here. I didn't really have a choice, really. I mean, his name was Lick Joe. How was I not going to pick him in the struggle to become "No. 1 Quarreler"?

Stay off my lawn!

Stumbled on these DVDs while looking through Amazon's release lists and fell in love with the cover art. I like to imagine he's so mad because the Waffle House waitress just told him it cost extra to have his pork chops covered with sausage gravy.

Way of the Cantankerous Fist

I think my favorite is Vol. 2. Judging from the glassy-eyed expression on that no-good punk's face, the "sensitivity training" offered by Lamar M. Davis II is far different from that offered by CBS Interactive.

He's like an alternate universe Wilford Brimley, coping with a bitter divorce by punching people who look like the pool boy he caught his wife with. He also has a black belt in scowling.

Be sure to check out the full-size image here to really get a sense of this guy's fury.

My Top 5 Games of 2010

1. Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman--Without question, this is my game of the year. It wasn't among GameSpot's editorial selections for this year's awards, and it's sufficient to say that I strenuously objected to its omission.

On the surface, Z.H.P. is a pretty simple game. It's a JRPG grinder from Nippon Ichi where the player explores randomly created dungeon to build their stats and acquire loot. The immediate draw of the game is its bizarre sense of humor, which will be familiar to players of Nippon Ichi's biggest franchise, Disgaea. And while I love that sense of humor (I laughed out loud multiple times in the opening cutscene), I worry it will cause people to overlook the game's legitimate brilliance.

Z.H.P. tells a story and conveys a message in a way few other titles even attempt, much less achieve. In most games, the story is divorced from the actual gameplay. The player spends an hour lining up cross-hairs with enemy noggins, then watches an unrelated mini-movie for a couple minutes before going back to target practice. Maybe if the developers are feeling particularly ambitious, they'll kill off a character to classical music (that's how you know the game is epic).

But Z.H.P. is different. In Z.H.P., the themes of the narrative and the themes of the gameplay are interwoven such that each reinforces the other. Every moment you are playing the game, it is hammering home a simple, beautiful message: losing builds character. To be more precise, accepting adversity as a necessary and sometimes painful path to growth can coax greatness from the most modest of beginnings. The story begins with the protagonist, a bystander saddled with the mantle of the Unlosing Ranger, facing off against the villainous Darkdeath Evilman with the fate of the world at stake. Contrary to his new moniker, the Unlosing Ranger gets crushed, and goes off to train. Then he comes back, and gets crushed again. And again. And again. The entire game plays out like this, with each training session seeing the hero help one or two people through a major personal crisis before returning to get creamed by Darkdeath Evilman.

The gameplay mirrors the themes of the story on several fronts, most obviously that you will regularly pick fights you have no hope of winning. It's not uncommon to start a dungeon crawl knowing full well you won't survive to face the level boss (much less beat him), but you do it because you recognize the value in it. While you'll always start each dungeon as a pathetic weakling, every foray (successful or not) improves your base stats and the rate at which they increase. It might amount to baby steps, but it's a progression that inevitably pays off, like water wearing away a stone.

Just like the protagonist, the player must learn to accept failure and adversity as the cost of growth. As a result, your actions as the player and those of the protagonist are functionally the same. When characters in the story mock the Unlosing Ranger for his repeated thrashings at the hands of Darkdeath Evilman, they are mocking you for the same. And when the Ranger's recurring sacrifice eventually wins over those same people, it's more meaningful because they could just as appropriately be reacting to your own perseverance.

Even when examined apart from the gameplay, Z.H.P.'s story is substantial, thought-provoking, inspiring, and touching. It's also hilarious, which is what you'll probably hear about it if you go poking around for reviews and impressions. What you might not hear is that the distinct Nippon Ichi brand of absurdity pervades an anthology of stories dealing with suicide, child molestation, terrorism, the horrors of war, broken families, and other often sobering subjects, all of which Z.H.P. addresses with upbeat idealism.

The result is a work that evokes a spectrum of emotions wider than any game I've ever experienced, a work worthy of more study, respect, recognition, and financial success than it will ever receive. In short, Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman is the perfect answer for a creative medium too often driven by skepticism, pessimism, and fear.

2. Dead Rising 2--Blue Castle's sequel to the 2006 original is a five-star effort all the way, but the fundamental things that make it great were already present in the original Dead Rising. The mission structure, the save system, the social satire, and the feeling that there's always something else you need to do or discover were all faithfully retained from the first game. I'm really impressed with Blue Castle and Capcom as a result, because a lot of that stuff was divisive, and could easily have been scrapped in the name of playability due to focus group-driven design. The game is also genuinely hilarious, whether the comedy comes from things developers scripted into the game (some of the weapon combinations, the Borat thong) or more emergent, sandbox-style humor (reviving a co-op partner with a spoiled hamburger to get him back on his feet, but vomiting profusely).

3. Vanquish--Vanquish exceeded my expectation more than any other game this year. Despite the involvement of Shinji Mikami, I was deeply skeptical after seeing the original trailer. It looked like a generic sci-fi shooter to me, a pale imitation of Halo with a Japanese twist. It turns out the game is actually a brilliant take on the cover-based shooter that flips the genre's conventions on their head. In Vanquish, the fun starts when you leave cover, zooming around levels to take on enemies from all angles and hopefully making it back to cover (or clearing the area of enemies) before exhausting your energy. There's a good bit of thinking on your feet involved, something I find more common in fighting and action games than in cover-based shooters.

Some people have said this just feels like Gears of War, but I don't think I could disagree more strongly. For me, Gears (like most cover-based shooters that came after) was methodical. It was about choosing a defensible piece of cover and popping up from it just long enough to kill one enemy before the hail of incoming bullets wore down your recharging shield (repeat as needed). Dramatic movement in a firefight was discouraged because you were too slow (even in roadie run, which also limited your control and awareness of the battlefield). And even if you were to survive a blind charge on the enemies, the actual process of splitting them from groin to gullet was time-consuming, leaving you open to enemy fire. It wasn't so much a viable tactical option as a cool finishing move to dispatch the last remaining opponent.

Vanquish is different. It's about suicidal charges on 40-foot-tall mechs, rocket-sliding between their legs, taking them down with shotgun blasts to the back of the knees, and then slo-mo diving behind cover, taking parting shots at their now exposed weak points with a heavy machine gun as you go. Stay back there just long enough to grab your breath and recharge the meter, then go do something else rash and ill-advised. You'll die a lot. A whole lot, even if you're doing it right. But when everything clicks and the Audie Murphy routine comes together, it's exhilarating in a way no other game this year could match.

4. Dragon Quest IX--The first role-playing game I ever really got into was Final Fantasy Legend on the Game Boy. I'd toyed around with Wasteland and Ultima before, but just to see what kind of crazy stuff I could get away with in those worlds. Final Fantasy Legend was the first time I got acquainted with The Grind. It was the first time I spent an hour killing sand beetles in the desert so that I could afford a sword, the first time I had to consider whether it would be better to turn back from a dungeon and fight my way to a save point to keep my progress or forge ahead and hope I had enough supplies and stamina left to polish off the boss. As much as I loved that game, I grew tired of the formula after Final Fantasy III (Final Fantasy VI for the purists) on the Super Nintendo, and I almost never play old-school Japanese RPGs now.

Dragon Quest IX is undeniably old school, but it's also undeniably different. The grind is still there, and the story features many of the same staples of JRPGs past (the entire world is threatened, you're the chosen one, and there will be a supposedly shocking betrayal along the way), but the game has tweaked everything just enough to keep things fresh. There's a punishment for dying in the field, but it's not overly harsh (you lose half your gold and resurrect at your last save point). There's a definite formula to most of the story (find a city, solve its problem, move to next city), but each section stands alone as an engaging episode all its own, often with full and rewarding character arcs.

I haven't actually finished the game yet, as the last boss is proving a bit tough for my crew, and a bit of grinding is in order. However, the 40+ hours I've already spent with Dragon Quest IX were enjoyed to the hilt. Level 5 deserves praise for breathing new life into a formula that has been done to death, simply by doing it better.

5. BioShock 2--Disclosure: I've counted BioShock 2's lead level designer among my closest friends since I was a freshman in high school, and that could easily be coloring my assessment of the game.

So I think 2K Marin was given a pretty thankless task here. BioShock was a fantastic game in a unique world with a truly wonderful twist near the end, and a self-contained story. In short, it didn't need a sequel at all. 2K Marin had to not only make that sequel, but to justify its existence as well. I think the game not only has a reason to exist, but surpasses its predecessor in a few important ways.

First off, BioShock 2's gameplay is better than that of its predecessor. The dual-wield system that lets you equip a plasmid and a weapon simultaneously makes it that much easier and more intuitive to try out a variety of combinations, exploring the various ways you can kill off splicers. The Little Sister harvesting segments also add a second rewarding layer of opt-in boss fights to go along with the standard Big Daddy encounters. Instead of going in with the biggest guns blazing, the harvesting sequences encourage you to use more of the otherwise neglect-able weapons and plasmids to cause indirect damage and limit the number of places an attack could come from.

I not only had a blast playing the game, but I dug the story as well. With the original BioShock exploring the downfalls of a supposedly objectivist society, it was somewhat natural for the second game to swing the pendulum in the other direction and see what happens when you put Andrew Ryan's opposite in power. Like the original game, the story has its share of flaws upon close examination, but it at least provides plenty of food for thought as you play. Too often in games, the story and cutscenes are used as places for the player to shut their brain off and watch stuff explode. In BioShock 2, you digest the story over time, as you play. Audio logs provide a steady drip of story as you run around shooting things in the head, giving you ideas and notions and possibilities to turn over in your head slowly. I love when movies keep me doing this for an hour and a half (see Sam Rockwell in Moon. No seriously, go see Sam Rockwell in Moon. It's awesome.); I'm especially impressed when games have me doing it for 10 hours at a time (as with Z.H.P. and Dead Rising 2).

Honorable Mentions:
Red Dead Redemption
Bayonetta
Pinball FX 2
Super Meat Boy
Army of Two: The 40th Day

Brendan Sinclair Ornament

This blog is a part of the scavenger hunt.

Share a couple of items on your Christmas wishlist this year.
A decent Xbox Live headset for chatting, Dead Rising 2: Case West, World Peace.

What games will you play during the holidays?
Replaying Vanquish, Bayonetta, and ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman

What are the kinds of food or drinks you must have during the holidays?

Regional fast food chains of wherever I'm travelling.

ORNAMENT HUNT ANSWER - CLUE 37

Gears of War poetry

So on last week's HotSpot, Tyler Winegarner was unmoved by our gaming haiku assignment, and thought a gaming sonnet too simple as well. So he challenged listeners to write a gaming villanelle, which it turns out is a poem with a fairly rigid structure (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5796). One listener rose to the challenge, and found inspiration for his poem from Gears of War. So thanks to Ran Harpaz for going above and beyond the call to learn what the hell a villanelle was, and not only write one, but also submit it for public appraisal by a community full of gamers (presumably not all poetry buffs). So without further ado, I give you the Gears:

Gear / by Ran Harpaz

Do not, now, weep, nor cry in cheer,

Though flower sprouts from sodden bud,

Now, watch this path of mine, the Gear,

This town, so dipped in ash veneer,

Its denizens, beneath the mud,

Do not, now, weep, nor cry in cheer,

I wait a beat, 'till coast lies clear,

And to the wall ahead I scud,

Now, watch this path of mine, the Gear,

I look ahead, and see, I fear

A Fallen friend, a withered bud,

Do not, now, weep, nor cry in cheer,

From hail of bullets, now I veer,

To light the fuse, and call the flood

Now, watch this path of mine, the Gear.

The echo of a shot I hear,

I fall, my vision fills with blood

Do not, now, weep, nor cry in cheer,

Now, watch this path of mine, the Gear.

The worst thing you'll see all day

Dear game industry,

I'm having trouble processing and putting into words all the ways this video disappoints me. Some days, I absolutely understand why the Supreme Court would deny you free speech protections. If all you aspire to be is a heartless beast that sells an unending stream of pointless widgets, then you don't deserve to cloak yourself in the First Amendment when someone gets in your widget-selling way.

[video=6281697]

NHL 11's shocked and frightened box art

So my copy of NHL 11 arrived, and I'm only now noticing how bad the cover art is. I'm all for choosing Jonathan Toews to front the game, of course, but the pic on the cover makes it look like he's in a junior high health class watching video of someone giving birth.

Here's hoping the game draws a better reaction from me. I should be on this weekend. My gamertag is Brendan, hit me up for a game!

What to sell, what to keep?

I've started selling my games on a second-hand media site, and it's been interesting to see what parts of my collection I'm willing to part with. Basically, I separate my games into a few categories.

Games I didn't like:

Self-explanatory. I bought a game, and it didn't do anything for me. These ones are goners, no matter how little I can get for them. (Brain Age 2, Nintendogs)

Games that are obsolete:

I might love these games just fine, but sequels and updates have made them things I'll never need to go back to. (Street Fighter IV, NHL 09)

Games that were great, but disposable:

I enjoyed Gears of War, God of War III, and Resident Evil 5 a bunch. But they're blockbuster popcorn entertainment, and there probably won't be a need to return to them once the next bit of blockbuster popcorn entertainment comes along. And in the rare case I do regret selling them, I should have no problem finding a used copy on the cheap since they sold so damn well. When I was younger, these were the sorts of games I made sure to hold onto. When Mega Man 2 came out on the NES, it thrived by being the height of visual appeal and production values. And for me, nothing came close to equalling it (except other Mega Man games) until I got a Genesis. These days there are plenty of great looking, well-made games coming out all the time. The bar is constantly being elevated, or at least matched, so the attributes of production values mean less to me as time goes on.

Games others want more:

I enjoyed Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor, Infinite Space, Jeanne D'arc, and Knights in the Nightmare just fine, but I don't have the same affection for them that others do. But I'm done with them, and I suspect other people would enjoy them more. I also suspect they aren't readily available new these days, and they're fetching the best prices of anything that didn't just come out. Again, when I was younger, I would hold onto these. But that was just a vestige of an early '90s comic book collector mindset. "Someone else wants it and it's in limited supply? In that case, I want it." Yeah, I was a big jerk. Well, a bigger jerk.

Keepers:

These are games I just won't part with. They're the games that blew me away (Metal Gear Solid 4), the ones I think could be looked back on as significant milestones in the industry (Dead Rising), the ones I don't think I'll be able to find again easily if I ever part with them (retro compilations like Samurai Shodown Anthology, Culdcept Saga), and the ones I'll want to introduce people to, whether it's because they're awesome (House of the Dead: Overkill) or there's just one or two memorable bits I think are great fun (Ninja Blade).

In the process of doing this, I've been surprised to see where my Keepers are. My Xbox 360 library is now a fraction of its former size. Same goes for the DS. I had far fewer PS3 games because Xbox Live made the 360 my system of choice for multiplatform games, but most of what I had survived the culling. The Wii also fared well, but just because I'd been more selective with my purchases on the system in the first place.

The surprise for me was that my collection of PSP games came out the closest to unscathed. A lot of them are retro compilations. A lot of them wouldn't be easy to find again because they never sold well in the first place. A lot of them would be obsolete on consoles, but they either never received portable updates (NHL 07) or are still the best example of the genre on a handheld (Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee, Burnout Legends). But there's a reason for me to hold on to dozens of them, which is more than I can say of any other system in the current generation of consoles.

The Resistance 3 teaser is awful

I love Insomniac Games for Ratchet and Clank, but I hate hate HATE the teaser trailer for Resistance 3.

[video=6273733]

That music you hear in the background of the trailer? That's a blues cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," a folk song with a powerful, scathing, and articulate anti-war message, robbed of meaning and used to sell an unabashedly commercial product about shooting alien dudes in the face. It's like using Neil Young's "This Note's For You" to sell beer, or the Rolling Stones' "Mother's Little Helper" for a Vicodin commercial.

The blues-y cover version of the song fits the fatalistic tone of the trailer well, but I don't see any good reason that the marketing people responsible for the trailer needed to use a cover of "Masters of War." It just seems like they wanted the fatalistic tone of a blues song, and a few words like "guns," "bombs," and "masters of war" that will sound badass to gamers fed a steady diet of military shooters year after year.

Crap like this is why games aren't taken seriously by so many people, gamers included. When you pull a well-established bit of culture into your project, you can't pick and choose what meaning comes with it. It's a little like All-Pro Football 2K8. Even if 2K Sports just wanted OJ Simpson in there for his football fame and jersey number, they were getting the whole OJ Simpson package, Ford Bronco chase, murder trials and all. The context--whether good, bad, or neutral--is inseparable from the whole.

So when Insomniac and Sony use a song whose first connotation is its vehement anti-war stance to promote a franchise that has no discernible message about war (anti- or otherwise), they come off looking like juvenile fools unable to perceive even the simplest of artistic messages, much less create them.

There's more than enough room in this industry for games that are art and games that are product. I buy and enjoy both all the time. But trying to divorce something with legitimate artistic merit from its meaning and slap it on something with no aspirations beyond "sell millions of copies" is just insulting.

Need help with Starcraft 2

I didn't get very far into the original Starcraft before my complete inability to wrap my head around real-time strategy cut short my unpromising career as a Terran general, but I've got a question about Starcraft II's story mode, and I was hoping some of you long-time Starcraft fans could help me out.

Was the story always this dumb? Seriously, I can tell the gameplay gets pretty deep here, but the story so far (five or six missions in?) is interchangeable 'roided out space marine claptrap. It's a hair above Gears of War, and a very thin hair at that. I don't remember the original having this focus on a single badass dude with tattoos or his buddy who's so uncomfortable with bring vulnerable in front of another dude that he can't get out of his power armor.

(I know what the actual story reason is, but I find this too easily recast in fratboy terms to resist, much like Gears of War.)

So what's the deal? Is my memory failing me, or have they changed the tone of the story dramatically since the original game?