The Designer’s Drugs: Samurai Warriors: Chronicles

 

Medium: Game – Nintendo 3DS

Stimulus: Samurai Warriors: Chronicles

Anno: 2011

 

 

I’m a big fan of the tactical warfare disguised as button mashing idiocy genre that Koei’s Warriors series pioneered a decade ago with Dynasty Warriors 2 (for the record, number one is a lackluster-looking ancient Chinese history-themed street fighting game that isn’t recognized as part of the series in Japan).  With this 3DS installment of the offshoot franchise Samurai Warriors, the rampage through Asian history finally feels as fun and functional on a portable system as it does on a console.  Here, there’s no punching one’s way through a stage the size of my bathroom and into a loading screen fifty times per mission.  Each battlefield in Chronicles is complete, and one can run around at will, which is nice.

There are a few drawbacks to the game, most of which I feel exist because Chronicles is a first-year game for the 3DS and was obviously rushed out the door to get a jump on the homesteading.  The game’s menu and special features are very bare bones and don’t explain much of anything, for starters.

Yet the biggest weak point is a total lack of voice work in English.  Every voice in this game is speaking Japanese whether you like it or not.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if the player wasn’t too busy dodging swords and arrows to read the dialogue bubbles at the bottom of the screen, but as it stands, English would have been a big help.

Another awkward issue in the language department is that whoever set up the printed dialogue in said bubbles was kind of a schmuck.  More than once there were bizarre uses of the enter button where a word would be cut in half to end one line and begin another.  I’m not talking between syllables, either, but within one syllable.  D-on’t?  Don’t.  The game’s Dan Quayle-like usage of two different spellings of the word heroes is also a nice touch.

Translation issues aside, Samurai Warriors: Chronicles brings a lot to the table.  The action, as always, is furious and strategic, but I really liked the addition of four character team-based gameplay, where one can tap the 3DS touchscreen and direct and switch between heroes on the fly.  This beats the hell out of the old model of playing through a stage with one person and having to fly off to the other end of the board whenever some jerk ambushes your leader.  It’s also wonderful not having to play through with each character individually, though the friendship system in Chronicles does require you to buddy up with the dozens of other fighters one at a time to unlock certain features.  The repetition is thus lessened but not eliminated.

Still, tactical button-mashing has never been done this well on a portable system, and that eclipses all shortcomings.

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The Designer’s Drugs: The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo DS

Medium: Video Game – Portable

Stimuli:  The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo DS

Annos: 2007, 2009

 

I don’t like touchscreen video games.  Playing a game with imprecise wipes of one’s greasy fingers or clutching a pen to write one’s way to victory is to me way too gimmicky and usually not very fun.  As the years have passed I have grown to really like the dual screen setup of the Nintendo DS, but I stick to the games that run on d-pads and buttons.  Any game that primarily requires me to poke that tiny bottom screen gets nothing but distance from me.  For example, Metroid Prime: Hunters was a crappy first person shooter that was almost as unplayable as it was bland, and Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword was another severe franchise disappointment that had none of the superninja excitement of the rest of its family.

Yet I’ve always had a morbid interest in playing the DS entries of the Legend of Zelda series, two games which run primarily by poking that bottom screen.  My loathing of the style kept me away for a long time, but I finally decided to give them a try.  While Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks didn’t come close to converting me away from d-pad gameplay, they largely convinced me that good touchscreen games could be made – or at least one of them did.

They’re basically the same game, the cartoon visuals of The Wind Waker mixed with the top-down 2D gameplay of A Link to the Past.  Young Link rides around the land, enters a dungeon, gains a magic item, and uses that item ad nauseum to clear said underworld.  Side quest, wash, rinse, search for heart containers, repeat.  The action was fun but extremely unsurprising.

The main difference in gameplay is that Phantom Hourglass uses a boat as transportation while Spirit Tracks squires Link around in a train.  The train sucks hard.  Really, this brings up a larger point.  Despite the fact that Phantom Hourglass is the earlier game and has rougher controls and a time limit dungeon the player must complete multiple times, it is far better.

The elaborate train controls of Spirit Tracks, which grossly interfere with getting where one wants to go and defending against enemies along the way, are the most obvious point against it.  On the other hand, one draws a line on a map in Hourglass, and the boat goes on its merry way.  Oh, and that game also features teleportation at will, which doesn’t appear in its successor.  I don’t like overworld traveling in any game, but Hourglass is about as good as it gets.

The gameplay sins of Spirit Tracks don’t end there.  They also include the forced use of the DS microphone which one must blow into to use a gameplay item and a plot-advancing musical item.  One is also treated to such joys as having to control two people at the same time and the subsequently unplayable dungeon puzzles that come with that clunky setup.  Best of all is the horrible, horrible end boss sequence, which brings all those clunky train riding, flute playing, simultaneous two player elements into one titanic clusterfuck with the additional bonus of having to play meteor tennis with a giant behemoth – and if you miss one ball, you must start, all, over, again.  I ended up swearing heavily at my DS at this low point in my gaming history.

A game should be difficult because a player sucks.  It shouldn’t be difficult because the controls suck.  Spirit Tracks unfortunately takes from both columns.  Phantom Hourglass is much better, though the more solid and careful nature of its gameplay also kept it from blowing my mind.

I don’t regret playing these games, but I think I’ll stay off the touchscreen for the time being.

The Designer’s Drugs: Albert Brooks – 2030

 

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Albert Brooks – 2030

Anno: 2011

 

I’ve recently developed a fascination with American declinist literature, stories taking place not far in the future which predict the end of America’s run as king of the mountain.  In reading Albert Brooks’ excellent account of the wane of one more empire, I drew immediate parallels to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, though as soon as I did so the differences also presented themselves.  The destination of both books is the same, but the focus of each is the polar opposite of the other.  Shteyngart’s story is concerned with the clutching desperation for youth in a hyper-networked world.  It describes, almost by necessity, a more absurd, idiotic place (I hesitate to say that it is more self-obsessed).  In contrast, the world Brooks describes is being wrecked by the old, who have become an undying, retired ruling caste with no regard for the Social Security slave state it has created.  Here, the young are not venerated but marginalized and then feared as hopelessness boils over.

The colors Brooks paints with are much more sober and human.  Leaving out the flying cars and neo-Facebook crackheads, the only technology that’s really fetishized in his story is medical technology.  The cancer cure that turned 60 into the new 30 was just the beginning of the immortality industry that both elevates and plagues this world, but Brooks doesn’t have his characters speak in Internetese or act hip and futuristic.  Both the old and young are gathered together and presented as terrified, self-interested, conflicted, and most of all familiar characters.  This point is precisely what gives 2030 its power.

This wide scope also leads to some weird changes in perspective in which the reader gets into the thoughts of multiple people at the same time.  This pinball narrative isn’t unreadable, but for those conditioned to read and write a certain way, it is noticeable.  Also noticeable is a thin political vagueness that seems to indicate a desire to make the issues of 2030 beyond politics.  This is best seen in the American president, a central character who is buried under his nation’s rubble, as well as his own.  He isn’t explicitly labeled a Democrat, but his team is pretty obvious.  One of his rivals is painted as a corporate opportunist who plays the field, but his business interests in a chain of retirement homes would seem to make him an ardent anti-Kevorkian Republican.  As opposed to the contradictions and asymmetry of the characters, I don’t think this lack of definition in the big picture completely works.

This is a pretty amazing work of future world building which has easily become my favorite story of the end of the United States as we know it.  The characterization amidst the deep examination of an impending and severe social issue makes clear that Albert Brooks wasn’t simply interested in creating an American grave to dance upon.  What’s most gripping about 2030 is the possibility that he might be right about everything.