The Forsaken: Sweet Home (1989)

Except for the occasional RPG, the 8-bit/16-bit era in North America isn’t normally seen as a time rich with proof that video games are a valid storytelling medium.  Part of this is admittedly because of technological limitations, but there was also Nintendo’s draconian censorship policies.  If not for that, then we might have seen some more unique games that would have shown that the NES was capable of much more than paper-thin stories about Italian plumbers rescuing princesses from demonic turtle-people, like Sweet Home.

Years before Resident Evil and Silent Hill made interactive horror sagas a staple, there was Sweet Home, a haunted house yarn from Capcom that took some traditional RPG elements but made something very new and unique, especially in the context of 1989.  The story begins right away with five researchers entering the isolated and long abandoned mansion of Ichiro Mamiya, a famous artist who disappeared many years ago after the death of his wife. Their goal is to find and recover the rumored lost frescoes Ichiro painted shortly before his disappearance, but soon after entering their mansion the main entrance is suddenly sealed and they are threatened by a woman’s ghost, turning their simple search into a mission for survival.

At a glance, Sweet Home plays like a typical RPG of its time;  you fight zombies and monsters in a turn-based battle system, you explore the sprawling mansion with an overhead view, and you even gain levels.  However, it isn’t long until you start to see that the various traps the mansion has in store for you, from broken glass to falling chandeliers to ghosts that can teleport members of your party to other parts of the mansion, which are more dangerous than even encounters with monsters.  

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Sweet Home also demands a level of strategy that you wouldn’t see in something like Dragon Quest.  In a nod to one of the oldest horror movie cliches of all time, the game forces your party to split up.  You can call the other members of your party to you during combat, but otherwise you have to manage who is in what party and plan out how their various abilities can be used during exploration the mansion.  Each of the five researchers has a different ability that you will need – one can find clues in the frescoes scattered throughout the mansion through photography, one can vacuum up broken glass, one is armed with a lighter, another can unlock doors, and finally you have a party member who is a nurse and can treat wounds – but unfortunately…

If anybody dies, they die for good!  The game does have a small mercy by giving you replacement items for your character’s lost ability or special item, but it’s still a blow.  Worse, while it is possible to get through the game with everyone surviving, it’s not easy, and most playthroughs made without the benefit of a walkthrough will see one or two fatalities, at least.  Also don’t think the game gives you an empty bedroom or someplace where your characters can rest and restore your Health Points.  Like many of today’s survival horror games, the game only leaves you a finite number of healing items scattered throughout, so it’s up to you to ration your supplies.  In other words, it’s about as close to the experience of actually being trapped in a mansion full of murderous ghosts and undead as the Nintendo can recreate.

If I made it sound like the game is really challenging, well…it is, but never unfairly so.  It just demands more thought from the player than just the “So I need to make sure I have this many healing items and that my levels are this high” planning typical of 8-bit RPGs.  Then there’s the story itself, which takes some truly dark and tragic turns worthy of the more “sophisticated” games of the present day.  You won’t be surprised at why Nintendo never let this game reach US shores.

The game was actually released simultaneously with a TV movie adaptation, which happens to be up on YouTube.  It’s not…bad, but the game certainly comes across as the more engaging and unique experience, so it’s better to just experience the story that way.  Even if you’re just a casual gamer or you’re not really all that into retro games, give Sweet Home a try.  Even with changing technology, it still stands out as one of the best horror video games ever made.  You can find a fan translation of the game here.  

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on the New ‘Who’ Series: The Waters of Mars

I’ve been really down on RTD, so it’s probably good for me to discuss how I liked “The Waters of Mars,” even if enjoying rather than bitching does leave me with a loss for words.

Of course, dear readers, this doesn’t mean I can’t find something to dislike, as you’ll see, but I honestly do think it’s not only the strongest chapter in the “End of the Tenth Doctor” saga but one of the better Davies regime episodes.  It combines the best of classic “Who” – a bunch of people trapped in an enclosed space with the Doctor and an implacable monster – along with the new series’ greater focus on pathos and the Doctor’s fallibility.  Also coming right off of “Planet of the Dead” it feels like all the good characterization mojo that should have been in that episode winds up being used here.  The crew of the Mars station that the Doctor stumbles across are (almost) all obviously soon-to-be-cooling bodies, but they are given space to grow personalities.  Their plight isn’t as much of a focus as the passengers in “Midnight,” but they’re not treated like parts of the background as in “Planet of the Dead” either.

Anyway, the Doctor, acting the part of the tourist (something we didn’t see enough of in David Tennant’s tenure, even though he could really play the Doctor as an obnoxious tourist), busts into the first human colony on Mars.  His joy turns to horror when he remembers that the colony is supposed to be (or have been or would be) destroyed for mysterious reasons.  Worse, the event is a “fixed point” in history, perhaps because the death of the colony’s commander, Colonel Brooke, would inspire a descendant of Brooke’s to become a pioneer in interstellar space travel and change the course of human history.   When all hell breaks loose, however, the Doctor decides to stay…

That brings us to one of the most effective things about the episode:  the monster.  It’s described as a virus, sealed into water by the Ice Warriors (classic series reference for the win!), but practically it’s sentient water with a real hankering to leave behind the desert planet and come to Earth.

You could write them off as “zombies with water powers,” but the idea behind them is, like all good Doctor Who monsters, horrifying in its simplicity.  After getting two encores from the Weeping Angels, I wouldn’t mind seeing them (it?) appear again.

But really the focus isn’t so much on the monster but on the Doctor’s dilemma and what it means for Colonel Brooke.  While Brooke does occasionally come close to tipping over into the territory of the “military woman who has to act butch to cover a heart of gold” cliche, she still manages to come across as a genuinely compelling character whose gender is more or less incidental, in refreshing contrast to our Catwoman expy from last time.  Also, without (for once) spoiling it for people who may not have actually seen the episode, her ultimate fate may be somewhat predictable but it still comes across as a genuinely powerful  moment, in no small part because it does represent some of the most interesting exploration of the implications of time travel and the Doctor’s ethics of intervention the “new” series has done.

Okay, so I mentioned that I do take issue with one big chunk of this episode, and that comes down to the whole “Doctor declaring himself the Time Lord Victorious” thing.  Especially in hindsight, it’s hard not to ask, “Where the hell did that come from?!”  I think we’re supposed to see this as the end-result of his guilt over what happened to Donna (and what happened to Rose, like getting only 99.98% of what she always wanted is still Hell for her, but I digress), but even with that interpretation it honestly still doesn’t make much sense, especially since the last adventure gave us the Doctor in full happy-go-lucky mode, not blinking an eye at an entire heavily populated planet being completely wiped out.  It’s especially confusing since the whole climax of “Journey’s End” was about the Doctor lecturing…well, himself on playing God.

It’s not that the “Time Lord Victorious” declaration isn’t a bad turn for the character.  In fact, it makes a great deal of sense, and at the very least it’s another much needed angle on how the Doctor reacts to being the last of the Time Lords, different from and – dare I say – much more interesting and richer for storytelling than the Doctor as the guilt-ridden survivor.  Frankly, this is what the entire “End of the Tenth Doctor” saga should have been about;  individual stories all building to one large arc of the Doctor giving in to his hubris and rage and nearly becoming what his one-time Time Lord adversaries, The Rani and The Master, represented:  the capability to play God with the universe married to the will.  In that sense, “The Waters of Mars” should have been only a prelude, or at most the first act.  Instead the whole issue is only suddenly introduced, and then just as abruptly for the most part resolved.  So it’s not just that it’s wasted;  it’s not even really earned.  

It’s still not enough to bring down one of the best episodes of the Tenth Doctor era…but it comes close.

Non-Nostalgia Review: The Cinema Snob Movie

“You want to know what happens when people with exploitation on their minds make an art film?”  Brad Jones in the guise of Craig Golightly in the guise of Vincent Dawn asks the would-be director of his would-be epic, Neil.

“What?”  Neil responds.

“You get the fucking Doom Generation,”  Brad/Craig/Vincent explains, exasperated.  “Do you want the fucking Doom Generation?”

The Cinema Snob Movie is in some ways the ultimate culmination of the trend unleashed by the success of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the “discovery” of Ed Wood in the ’80s:  a low-budget film glorifying b-movies that is itself a spin-off of an Internet show that riffs on low-budget b-movies.  However, Brad Jones goes one step further, by poking at the barrier that separates “quality” cinema from “trash” cinema, and pointing out with glee that movies like Salo and A Serbian Film are practically exploitation films as sleazy as anything to pour out of the gutter of the ’70s Italian film industry, but through the magic of promotion or the power of the director’s name they nonetheless get labelled as “great” (albeit “daring”) cinema.   In short, the only difference between your controversial, edgy art-house film and a Bruno Mattei or Herschell Gordon Lewis flick is a dash of pretension here and there and the choice of wrapping.

The whole joke behind The Cinema Snob – and it’s a joke so successful that it’s sometimes lost even on fans – is that it’s a show about a standard issue, Roger Ebert-esque critic mysteriously condemned to watch the grungiest of exploitation flicks, from ultraviolent slashers to quasi-professional porn parodies.  The joke gets most blatant, so blatant you can feel the genuine outrage behind it, with the Maniac episode where the Snob reacts with horror and outrage that a movie about a serial killer be…violent.  The movie spin-off takes things a bit further by giving fans an actual origin story for the Snob.  An aspiring exploitation screenwriter, Craig Golightly, and his director friend Neil just want to make a blaxploitation movie titled Black Angus about a roller-skating black guy who “wants his vengeance.”  They even get a wealthy producer to back it, but the vindictive president of a local film club, Dan Philips, intervenes to stop Craig and Neil from getting permission to film in public.  In a last ditch effort, Craig Golightly infiltrates the film club as “Vincent Dawn,” a born-and-bred film snob.  While he does charm Dan’s wife, Nancy, a fellow exploitation and horror buff, his timing proves spectacularly bad, as one by one the film club’s members are brutally murdered giallo style.

While the giallo plot runs through the movie and dominates the last act of the movie, much of the movie’s action – unsurprisingly given the budget limitations, which of course the film itself comments on – surrounds Craig’s deception and struggles with fitting into the club.  My one complaint, though, is that the movie does in the first two acts dwell a little too long on the gag that the film club only enjoys movies to make convoluted interpretations.  The humor does delve into what makes The Cinema Snob stand out from dozens of riffing Internet shows, by pointing out the hypocrisy of rejecting sensationalistic genre movies while embracing movies like Salo just because it has a veneer of intellectualism over the sex, violence, and the gross acts with bodily secretions, but more screentime goes to the easier gag of mocking off-the-wall interpretations of symbolism.  That said, the humor still largely works, because it does the fine trick of tapping into the audience’s knowledge that they’re watching a very low-budget movie filmed by a group of friends and that fan base’s love of off-Hollywood movies, without becoming either Family Guy-esque pure referential humor or having an unending Tarantino-style didactic screed about pop culture.  The movie is obviously written in praise of “trashy” cinema, but it doesn’t need to get the point across with long monologues;  instead there’s only the subtle contrast between the elitist film club who lovelessly torture every movie for every possible interpretation and Nancy, who just loves Italian giallo films because they’re simply “fucking beautiful.”

Those who are already fans of Brad Jones and his fans obviously don’t need me to recommend this to them.  There’s no riffing here in the style of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, but the humor and the references are very much in the style of the show, so unless you really only watch The Cinema Snob for seeing sarcastic summaries of z-grade slasher films then it should be an easy sell.  Everyone else?  Well, obviously anyone who can’t tell their Tinto Brass from their Jesús Franco is cautioned, but really I feel I can recommend this movie to just about anyone who has ever had a conversation lasting longer than an hour defending the merits of ’80s slasher movies against a Gender Studies major.  Just be sure to check out the actual show.

The Cinema Snob Movie can be purchased here.

Final Fantasy Retrospective 10: Back to the Old School

Final Fantasy IXRecognizing that some fans were less than enthralled, Square threw a bone to their oldest fans.   What was originally meant to be a side project instead became the ninth installment of the series and a deliberate throwback to the series’ 8- and 16-bit era.  Final Fantasy IX unfolds in a medieval/early Industrial Age world, meant to invoke the first six games in the series while being a unique creation in its own right.  And after the dull present day environment of VIII, the world of IX is a much needed relief, a true return to fantasy.

Yet if Final Fantasy games were American Presidents, IX is the Zachary Taylor of the series.  It’s not disliked; just ignored or forgotten about most of the time.  It didn’t help that Square itself neglected it and allowed it to be overshadowed by a game that wasn’t even released yet:  Final Fantasy X.  That’s a tragedy.  While IX is a nostalgia fest to a fault, so much so that references from familiar place names to even recycled plot points pepper the entire game from beginning to end, it is still in its own right a strong installment that takes some of the best elements of the first six games.

In contrast to the brooding, complex heroes of the last two games, IX stars Zidane, a monkey-tailed thief whose involvement in an ill-conceived plan to kidnap a princess, Garnet, embroils him in said princess’ investigation of her power-mad mother’s ambition to build a massive empire.   Finding Garnet to be a surprisingly willing victim of kidnapping, Zidane meets up with Vivi, a black mage.  However, Vivi himself isn’t exactly what he appears to be, and his own existence points toward a sprawling plan by a mysterious (and flamboyant) arms dealer, Kuja, that could lead to the extinction of humanity.  Of course, despite the more cheerful protagonist, the story hits some pretty dark notes about mortality and being content with one’s lot, even if it is brutish and short.  (And don’t tell me you didn’t also tear up when Vivi watches his fellow black mages fall from the airship like dolls and goes into a despairing rage!).

The gameplay is perfect simplicity.  Rather than the convoluted and time-demanding system of VIII, you learn skills and spells by just equipping weapons and armor, and unique armor and weapons with new sets of abilities can also be created by combining earlier armor and weapons.  It’s fairly basic, but it still requires a certain degree of planning, strategy, and experimenting.  Likewise we go back to the diverse cast of IV and VI, where different party members bring different abilities to the table.  Then there’s the soundtrack.  It’s strangely low-key for a Final Fantasy soundtrack, which are usually known for classical bombast, but manages to be diverse and memorable.  The main theme, “The Place I’ll Return To Someday,” is downright haunting, and probably my own favorite theme out of the entire series.

In short, this installment does deserve a lot more attention than it gets.  It’s not exactly a return to the glory of the 16-bit era, but at the least it is a successful exploration of what made those games work.  Maybe it was hobbled in fans’ eyes by lacking the distinctiveness that had defined the series since at least VII, but perhaps by simply being a tribute to the series’ past IX was in the end an assertion of the franchise’s diversity.  Next time, we’ll get another controversial and experimental sequel, one that wasn’t helped by a genuinely crappy localization into the English-speaking world…