Obsessive video game miscellany, plus a comics review.

*Been playing plenty of video games lately - an obvious side effect of being near a working Playstation 2 for the first time in a while. Mostly I’ve been focusing on one of my favorite gaming genres, one present from near the very beginning of video game era: the shoot ‘em up, or ‘shmup,’ in which you control a small ship (or a flying person, or something else), and you use various brands of weaponry (many of which must be collected) to single-handedly repel hordes of enemies advancing from all fronts. The stage scrolls for you. You can power up your weapons by collecting things that drop from fallen foes or destroyed structures. Bosses regularly intrude. The screen often becomes thick with bullets and missiles and rays, and the player must enter a bizarre state of arcade zen to navigate their way through. Far, far more information can be enjoyed here.

These games have become something of an acquired taste in recent years, as the style has fallen from widespread favor across the current gaming scene. I still love ‘em, and I love to search for ‘em, especially when new examples are actually released in the US. This brings me to my most recent set of acquisitions, a semi-related series of titles that had the added bonus of exposing me to a level of alternate title confusion usually unseen outside of drive-in horror or exploitation films.

I made a reference in the title of my last post to a Mobile Light Force 2. I really did buy such a game on Black Friday. It was for the PS2, and cost less than $10. But the details behind this game deserve a nice explanation, if only to illustrate the fun and magic that games can sometimes experience on their journey from one nation’s shores to another.

Mobile Light Force 2, you see, was released in the US in 2003 by a company called XS Games. XS also, as one would expect, had released a first Mobile Light Force game. It was released the same year, for the original Playstation. The trick is, Mobile Light Force was actually a US Playstation port of a shmup called Gunbird, which was released in Japan on the Sega Saturn way back in 1995, following a 1994 Japanese arcade debut. There was also a Gunbird 2, which appeared in Japanese arcades in 1998, then the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, in both the US and Japan. Mobile Light Force 2, however, was not a PS2 port of Gunbird 2; it was a version of a totally different Japanese shmup titled Shikigami no Shiro (released to Japanese arcades in 2001, and ported to the Japanese PS2 in 2002). Both of these games were licensed, then re-titled by XS to make them part of a ‘series,’ complete with hilariously misleading cover art depicting a trio of leather-clad (and ethnically diverse) ladies toting guns in front of evil robots - no such characters were seen in any of the actual games. Indeed, Mobile Light Force 2 retains most of Shikigami no Shiro’s introductory screens, which depict the actual cast of the game, only to plop in an ad hoc title screen featuring the new US cast at the last minute - and the US cast never appears again, not even in the instruction booklet!

But wait - there’s more! In 2004, XS decided to snap up the license for Shikigami no Shiro 2 (Japanese arcade release in 2003, Japanese PS2 release in 2004). So, naturally you’d think they’d call it 'Mobile Light Force 3,' right? Well, such a title is mentioned occasionally in the instruction booklet, though the title on the box is now Castle Shikigami 2, despite the fact that no ‘Castle Shikigami 1' had ever been seen in the US - the actual ‘Castle Shikigami 1' was Mobile Light Force 2, which itself was offered as a sequel to a totally unrelated game, Gunbird, which had its own sequel, Gunbird 2, released in the US years ago on a different system, by a different company, under its real title. Got it?

Ah, the wonderful world of budget releases of semi-popular genres. I only own Mobile Light Force 2 and Castle Shikigami 2 (which was also under $10 - that’s no discount, that was the suggested retail price), and the localization jobs are simply fascinating to behold. From reading the manuals, I can only assume that English is not the first language of the persons providing the text; I also must presume that an alternate party handled the translation of the text onscreen in the game itself, since character names are often spelled differently between the two areas. Also, portions of the Mobile Light Force 2 manual had apparently been saved and pasted into the Castle Shikigami 2 instruction book - that would explain the repetition of already curious language, plus the occasional mention of ‘Mobile Light Force 2’ in the wrong booklet. As for the games themselves, all story content (including the ending!) has been excised from Mobile Light Force 2, and all in-round dialogue (battle cries and the like) has been dubbed into English. In Castle Shikigami 2, the between-level story scenes are retained, dubbed into English, with the spoken lines often merely paraphrasing the text displayed onscreen beside speaking characters. And all of the in-round cries are left in Japanese this time.

It’s a strange experience, these confusing, dirt-cheap packages, but I love the gameplay so much that it doesn’t really matter. The Shikigami no Shiro series (a third entry just hit Japan’s arcades this year) can withstand all manner of localization brutishness; they’re short, punchy shmups, possessing a neat ‘level-up’ system for weapons upgrades as based on the manner in which you defeat your foes. You even get added blasts of shooting power the closer your character comes to being struck by an enemy or their shots; thus, the game rewards daring, celebrates the dance through burning fields of doom that all of these games present in one way or another (in Mobile Light Force 2, there’s even one boss that literally cannot be harmed - you simply have to dodge all of his shot patterns until he burns himself out and self-destructs). Bliss.

Jack Cross #4

For the record, the ‘Next In...’ box in the back of this issue assures us that Jack Cross will be returning “in a few months,” so DC hasn’t pulled the plug just yet, despite the title’s absence through February.

It’s with a modicum of enthusiasm that I report this issue isn’t quite as fall-out-of-your-seat awful as issue #3, in that the action at least flows logically from one panel to the next. Artist Gary Erskine’s characters, when locked in combat, do seem to look like they’re fighting instead of rehearsing for their roles in an upcoming off-Broadway adaptation of the same material. Not that the visuals in this one are flawless; be sure to keep your eye on the CIA operative with the blue jacket and the cell phone - his hairstyle, hair color and shirt color refuse to remain constant throughout the action. Were this still issue #1 or #2, I’d be holding out hope that this is all meant to reflect the continuing deterioration of Cross’ grip on reality; alas, I fear the book is just plain old sloppy, through and through, leaning heavily on big fat action scenes that it just doesn’t excel at.

But at least the basic flow of reading isn’t impeded. Indeed, there’s actually a pretty nice bit of narrative misdirection pulled off here, though I must confess I haven’t gone back through the whole storyline to make sure it all synchs up; I’d really rather not experience this material all over again. Suffice to say, this concluding issue sees Cross whisked off to San Francisco to prevent an octet of CIA operatives from blasting a batch of anti-war protestors with a mind-melting complacency device once used by Saddam Hussein. Insert ‘US operatives resorting to the methods of our enemies’ comment here. In earlier issues there was also some stuff about a rogue DHS agent/CIA mole’s being manipulated by the same forces via his ill-fated efforts to spring his lover from Guantanamo Bay, but that stuff’s pretty much over by now - it basically served to feed the book’s running theme of US operatives creating their own problems, then creating new problems to cover for the old, all of it tied to domestic politics and covert squabbling. An interesting action piece (or even a slyly satirical action piece) could have been produced from such material. Not here, though.

Even when not focusing on action, the book remains broad and booming, relying on only the most unsubtle motions to sell its themes. As if to throw the flaws behind this story’s execution into even sharper relief than expected, writer Warren Ellis slows things down a bit this issue to make room for a little political debate; unfortunately, this only serves to give Cross room to bluster at a hapless opponent, herself prone to lines like (in reference to persons of certain ethnicity) “I never want to be a racist. But any of those people could be one of them,” and (in reference to anti-war protestors) “[t]he only way you keep a herd safe is to fence it in, guard it well, and make sure none of them cause a stampede,” whilst Cross delivers sterling oration on protecting the rights of Americans, at one point standing against a backdrop of the smoke-engulfed Twin Towers. Can there be any doubt that Cross will soon shed the blood of villainous US operatives and manfully carve up his skin afterwards, one notch for each death, thus placing both American and foreigner on equal footing in the metaphorical cemetery of his skin?

No, it all goes according to plan, including my own plan to drop this book as of right now. But I do have to admit that a smile was raised by the resoundingly self-important penultimate story page, utilizing a BBC news report to mix strand-tying plot information with scenes of Amnesty International identifying wrongfully-imprisoned Gitmo detainees and DHS agents mistaking children’s toys for bombs. It’s here, for me, that the whole affair ventures remarkably close to high camp, though I think many readers will find the subject matter a bit too raw to chortle at. Plus, it’ll probably never beat an across-the-aisle wonder like Liberality For All, so it looks like a wash on all fronts.