Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kekal - 8

"Oh, how the mighty have fallen."  This is a common expression, and one that in metal music circles (or perhaps niche music circles in general) gets used a lot.  Some might speculate that it is used too much.  Fans of some bands or musical styles have little tolerance for change, even though artistry is all about growth and change within the context of one's art.  Having said that, I understand the penchant for fans to decry a new album from an old favorite, especially when the band in question sounds little like the band of old.  Anyone even remotely familiar with rock music will know all about Metallica's "sellout" accusations, and many other groups who pioneered a specific sound or genre are often lambasted when they put out a by-the-numbers album years later that lacks the vitality of their early material.  Fans tend to forget, however, that at 40+ years of age, you can't really recapture the exuberance of youth or even replicate it.  The best you can hope for is for your art to continue to be vital and interesting.

In the case of Kekal, many fans were upset when they shifted in 2002 from the black metal sound they had on their 1st 2 releases to a much more experimental and "avant-garde" sound with their album "The Painful Experience".  They continued that trend with 2003's "1000 Thoughts of Violence" and the 2005 release "Acidity".  By that point, very little evidence of the earlier black metal sound remained.  2007 brought "The Habit of Fire", and then 2008 saw the release of what most thought would be the last Kekal album, "Audible Minority".  The release itself was fraught with contractual and other issues, which led to the cancellation of the planned special edition digipak, and the eventual dissolution of the band.  This was unfortunate, because although "Audible Minority" was not the group's best effort, it was a bold move forward away from the more metallic sounds of earlier records, and into a far more electronic-based sound that was interesting and layered.  I was a bit taken aback the first couple times I listened through "Audible Minority" at first, but found it to be a logical and worthy follow-up to the brilliant "The Habit of Fire" release.

So after "breaking up" in a sense, the Kekal camp went dark for a couple years.  2010 saw information coming to light about a possible new Kekal project, though they weren't a "band" in the classic sense.  Now, Kekal was calling itself an "entity", merely a group of people collaborating and making music together in some fashion.  Sounds fairly pretentious to me, as many "bands" are truly just collaborations, often overseas and via email, etc.  Still, I was excited to hear that the Kekal name and sound would live on.  However, I was hoping that with some downtime and introspection, they would come roaring out of the chute again with an album that would knock my socks off, or at least give me a lot of listening enjoyment like the rest of their discography has.  Sadly, it's not all I was hoping for.

I have no problem with Kekal's continued move into eletronic music territory because they still base a fair bit of the sound in the guitar world, and the layering they use is part of what Kekal has become over the last 10 years, so I'll get that out on the table now.  What has always drawn me to Kekal, since I discovered them post-black metal, is their ability to layer the various elements together to form an interesting and cohesive sound.  Over the last several albums, Kekal has continue to evolve and morph their sound in interesting ways, but with "8", I just don't feel like they're progressing.  Many of the electronic elements feel like re-treads of 1990's industrial music, but not in a particularly exciting way.  I don't have the same joy in listening to these elements as they're presented here that I did when I first heard Nine Inch Nails or Circle of Dust.  Instead, the electronics come across as very rote.  There are some good ideas present, and there is creative use of electronics here and there, as well as some bits that remind me of video game company Taito's "house" band ZUNTATA (in a good way).  Unfortunately, these flashes of brilliance and real interest are not the dominant pieces.  Instead, the CD contains a lot of filler also-ran electro beats and drone-like industrial noise elements that go nowhere.  Rather than building and layering, which is a cornerstone of the techno/EBM and industrial styles, this stuff often sort of meanders aimlessly, never really climaxing into any sort of useful culmination of elements or effective movement.  This is disappointing, because I know Jeff and company are better than this.

The part that makes this particularly frustrating is that the good songs on here are some of Kekal's standout tracks, such as opener "Track One", the interesting "A Linear Passage" with it's 80's Transformers-esque "Soundwave" voice, and the album's de-facto single "Tabula Rasa", which is quite possibly one of the most brilliant things Kekal has ever released.  But promising tracks like "Gestalt Principles of Matter Perception" start great and have real flow to them, but then half-way through drift off into the meandering electronics I mentioned earlier, never truly "going anywhere" but ending unceremoniously and without any real or logical conclusion.  It could be said that Kekal is trying something new and pushing the envelope, but why push the artistic envelope if the song leaves the listener unsatisfied?  The instrumental-only segments also tend to drone on without purpose, again, failing to truly captivate or go anywhere musically.  That's not to say the album fails completely, because there is good material here.  But I feel as though there's not enough strong material to overlook the songs that just don't hold up upon repeated listens.  The distinct sense of atmosphere isn't as strong here either, so with as electronics-focused as this album is, also brings down the overall feel of the release.  "End Unit of the Universe" only serves to highlight this, as it closes the album out with nearly 9 minutes of mostly directionless white noise and distortion.

Anyone into Kekal also knows that Jeff's clean vocals are an acquired taste, but they work perfectly with the sort of "uneasy", almost Voivod-esque weirdness that abounds in their material.  To be fair, Jeff doesn't sound any better or worse here than on any previous Kekal release, but when the material is less exciting, the flaws in his vocal sound and style are more apparent, and there is nothing left to mask his limitations as a vocalist.  That said, he still gives a good overall performance, injecting enough emotion into the material to (at times) help overcome the limitations of the music he's singing along with.  There are moments (like in the aforementioned "Tabula Rasa") where Jeff really sounds great in context with the material, but overall, his limitations as a vocalist are more plainly shown here, which makes the weaker material all the more evident.

I have to say that as much as I was anticipating this release, I feel letdown by the end product.  If they had streamlined this into an EP instead, or perhaps waited and refined the songs a bit more, it could have been a stronger album.  I almost wish that they had picked the 4 or 5 really strong tracks here and maybe waited and added "Futuride" from the follow-up EP, and that would have been a strong 6-song release to announce Kekal's return to recording.  I would have been quite satisfied with that, because it would have presented a much more cohesive release with a better overall sense of direction than what the album ultimately became.  It's a shame, really, because Kekal is, and has been, a near-continuous fountain of creativity and interest.  This album partially sinks under the weight of its own ambition, because they're unable to generate enough interest with the tracks as they're presented to truly sustain the listener through the entire process.  At least, that was my experience.  I must also note that I held off in writing this review for a LONG time, listening to the CD quite a lot and ensuring there was ample time for the material to "sink in" before I just dismissed it outright.  While my initial disappointment has been slightly abated by subsequent spins, this still isn't up to the standards Kekal have set for themselves.  I am confident that Jeff and company can move past this and create something more musically interesting and fulfilling, because this is truly the only misstep in an otherwise blindingly brilliant catalog.  I can only recommend this to the Kekal faithful, or to those who appreciate electronic music so much so as to overlook some rather glaring flaws in its construction.


Game On! Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins (1992, Gameboy)

Nintendo did something right when they released the original Super Mario Land early in the life of the Game Boy.  While they may have faltered at releasing high quality, timeless Mario titles early in the life of all their consoles (Gamecube, anyone?), no one can fault them for what they brought to the Game Boy at launch.  Curiously, however, it took over 3 years to bring the sequel to market.  Nintendo only allowed 2 years between the first NES Super Mario Bros title and it's pseudo-sequel, Super Mario Bros 2 (the full saga of that game can be seen elsewhere on the web), and it's follow-up, the incomparable Super Mario Bros 3.  But the longest wait for a Mario sequel during the 8-bit era was on the Game Boy, with this title.

Now THAT's a title screen.

So was a 3 and a half year wait worth it?  I would say overwhelmingly yes.  This game is not without its flaws, but it's a quality title that plays well and has a lot to offer.  Where the original game played much like the original Super Mario Bros, but in different worlds and slightly different mechanics, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins plays like a scaled down version of Super Mario World for the SNES, mixed with Super Mario Bros 3.  The game has a large map that stretches out over several areas, with several large "landmarks" that contain their own small game maps with several levels to complete.  Each of these landmarks is a separate "zone" that is based around a specific theme.  The "Mario Zone" plays like you would expect, with traditional Super Mario platforming elements and a variety of enemies, some familiar, and some new.  The "Macro Zone" sees Mario platforming through areas where everything is larger than he is - giant Lego type blocks, giant books, coffee tables that are taller than he is, and more.  The "Tree Zone" has Mario jumping around through trees and hanging leaves in the sky, jumping on large ants and ladybugs, and jumping from one small cloud to another.  In all, there are 6 zones to complete, each corresponding to one of the 6 golden coins you need to open the door to the large castle on the tall hill, inhabited by Wario, a now familiar character that was first introduced by this title.  Each zone has roughly 3-4 stages to complete, and some zones have a middle stage that has more than 1 way to exit the level.  If you find the secret level exit, you are taken to another level outside that stage where you can earn extra coins and complete more of the game, though these side stages aren't necessary to beat the game.

Apparently, Sasaraland has Shark Week too!

Graphically, this game is far and away superior to its predecessor.  Much like SMB2 and SMB3 trounced their predecessor in terms of graphic design and bright colors, SML2 takes Mario from a small sprite to the large, detailed and animated Mario we all know and love.  He shares that same smiley look as he had in SMB3, and appears pleased as punch to be taking on the task before him, as always.  Koopas and Goombas are well done, and the other enemies introduced are well animated too, with that typical 8-bit Super Mario look and feel.  Scenery is nice and recalls some of the SMB2, SMB3 and SMW flavor to it, but because each zone has its own theme, also has much of its own nuance as well.  The bosses, being separate from the typical Koopa motif, are also nicely drawn and animated, having a very cartoonish look about them.

Ring that little bell instead of just going through the door, and
you'll get a chance to score power-ups or 1ups in the bonus game.

Musically, the game takes a page from Super Mario World, in that many of the themes are recycled, in slightly different ways throughout each zone.  The music is done well, overall, with typically bouncy, happy themes reminiscent of other Mario adventures.  And these tunes are catchy too.  Fair warning: some of the songs will be stuck in your head hours after you've turned off the Game Boy.  Sound effects are good, having a familiar Mario vibe to them, but done in a way that the Game Boy sound hardware can handle.  The short ditty that plays just before a boss battle is just spooky enough to put you on your toes, and there's even a spot where the "underground" theme from the first Super Mario Land is recalled in sort of a "remixed" fashion, similar to how the original SMB underground theme was remixed for some underground spots in SMB3.  Overall, the Game Boy sound hardware is utilized well.

That's a lot of territory for Mario to cover...

Gameplay is as you would expect from Nintendo and for a Mario game.  Control is pretty good overall, with a fair bit of precision and responsiveness.  You'll find yourself quite at home with this title if you've played any other Super Mario adventure, and the learning curve is pretty low.  There is one new power-up introduced here, which is the bunny ears.  Collect a carrot, and you'll have bunny ears you can flap by repeatedly pressing the jump button.  This will help you to float over large areas of spikes or pits.  Fireballs are powerful as well - some blocks can be destroyed by them.  You also get the spin jump made famous in Super Mario World, which can also destroy some blocks, and which you'll need to use to clear some spots or on certain enemies.  There is a fair bit of upward platforming, and a lot of left-to-right platforming, but the stages don't have the kind of size and scope of their NES and SNES brethren, as can be expected.  There is more depth with the stages than the first SML, however.

Mario's not digging this level.

So how does this all stack up?  Well, I'd love to say this was the 'perfect' Mario adventure in portable form, but I'd be lying.  There are a few minor annoyances that keep this from being a perfect 10.  Namely, once you've collected all 6 golden coins and you can enter the castle, if you die enough times and lose all your lives, you also lose all 6 coins, which means in order to re-enter the castle again, you have to beat all 6 bosses and re-collect all 6 coins.  Now, I understand that in older Mario games you had to play straight through from beginning to end with no saves, but this game's structure is modeled after Super Mario World with the expansive map, multiple zones and automatic game saves.  Making you re-conquer all 6 bosses again because you couldn't complete the last area is a bit excessive, considering this is a portable game.  In addition, Wario's castle is much harder without the bunny ears through the bulk of the level, so if you don't learn how to perfect each spot in the castle, you'll find yourself replaying several stages just to earn coins to play the slot machine where you can win power-ups so you can win bunny ears again to go back to the castle.  This is more a personal gripe, because the castle itself is somewhat unforgiving, but it's worth mentioning.  And even though I felt a deep satisfaction after beating Wario at the end, I didn't feel as though the reward (the credit roll) was as nice or rewarding as that of this game's predecessor.  Your mileage may vary, so keep in mind, these are somewhat personal issues.  More troublesome is that 4 years after the introduction of the hardware, there's a fair bit of slowdown on the screen when even just 2 or 3 enemies are present at once - couldn't Nintendo have found a way to optimize the code a bit to help alleviate such a thing?  There are more fast-action games on the platform that have less slowdown than this title, so it's definitely disappointing.

All in all, however, this is still the premier Mario title for the original monochrome Game Boy, my personal love for Super Mario Land notwithstanding.  It's an absolute must-own for any Game Boy owner's library, and a must-play for anyone interested in the roots of portable gaming's modern era.  If you haven't picked this one up, it can be had relatively inexpensively.  I've seen listings (cart only) from as low as $3 up to around $15.  I'd recommend not paying any more than that unless you're getting the manual, or a complete copy, as this game sold well (upwards of 11 million worldwide) and is not rare by any stretch.  Don't get bamboozled into paying $20 or more for a dirty, cart-only copy!  But no matter how much or little you pay, this game is one you'll want to have in your Game Boy library.  Essential!


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Game On! "Earth Defense/The Earth Defend" for Sega Genesis

Many are the chronicles of bad games.  Between the myriad websites reviewing games of any kind, to the more specific sites that drill down to a certain console or era of gaming, there's no getting around the fact that every single game console has had its share of truly awful software.  Some games make you feel ashamed of being a gamer after you play them, others just cause you to marvel at what the programmers were thinking when they allowed their names to be stamped on such a pile of garbage.  The Angry Video Game Nerd has made a name for himself purely through playing, reviewing, and endlessly mocking terrible games.  And rightfully so - many of these titles were ones we either spent $3.50 to rent over a weekend (that sadly, we'd never get back), or worse, $40+ to purchase, only to discover that our newly purchased game was actually worth about as much as the rocks in the alleyway behind our house.  Either way, bad games are a part of every gamer's journey.  But truly bad games?  Those are special.

The Sega Genesis was not known for unlicensed titles like the NES was, but it had a handful of games that should have never made it out of the development stage.  I'm not sure if the folks at Realtec thought that they had a real winner on their hands, or if they were just trying to cash in on the shoot-em-up craze of the early 1990's, but whatever the reason, this game just defies all logic and reason as far as design, choices in game mechanics, sound design, graphics, and overall presentation.  First things first: if the box art didn't put you off, consider yourself lucky.  Maybe I'm being harsh, but it looks like a fleshed out version of what some 8th grader might have drawn in 1990 during a boring class.  And while it's reasonably colored and shaded, the perspectives are goofy, the art style overdone (and underdone, really), and it's just very amateurish.  Sure, Realtec tried to keep the two-tone red stripe motif Sega had going by that point (1993), but it doesn't do them any favors alongside that dreadful artwork.  Flip the box over and you're treated to the worst kind of low-rent hyperbole that makes it obvious when adults are trying to pander to "kid sensibilities".  If you're an adolescent in 1993 reading this box, you're not getting excited about this 'awesome' game, you're rolling your eyes at the marketing ploy because you've already been duped during the NES and Master System days - you know what you're getting yourself into and you're not falling for this nonsense.

Open the box and you'll see another bad sign: the cartridge is too small for the spot it sits in.  Yeah, it sorta stays in place, but when the box is obviously for a standard size Genesis cart, and you have a short stumpy version of what Electronic Arts was doing with Genny carts, you know corners were cut.  Realtec obviously bought some stock cart boxes and completely discounted the fact that the game cart they were producing was not the right size for the case they intended to put it in.  I realize this is a minor point when looking at the overall picture, but it's just another in a multitude of sins committed here in the name of gaming.  Slide your vision to the left from the cartridge compartment to the manual, and you'll see an even bigger atrocity.  The game is no longer called 'Earth Defense', but now the manual says it's 'The Earth Defend'.  THE EARTH DEFEND?  Could it be any more obvious that this is the product of some cheap, Taiwanese backroom operation?  In addition, the plane depicted on the manual is different than that on the cart and box art, and suddenly we've switched from a drab, lifeless color palette to bright vibrant colors, and from crude hand-drawn art to what appears to be digital art done on a computer of some sort.  The nail in the coffin is the fact that the manual is TOO LARGE to fit in the vertical space provided by the box.  Yes, it's about a half-inch too tall, so instead of making a couple design tweaks and re-printing, Realtec simply left the manuals "as-is" and squished them into the box.  Disgraceful.  And here's the best part: I haven't even got to the game itself yet!

Stylin' boxart, dude!

Uh, Houston, we have a problem...

I love this manual.  It's so bad.

So if you're brave enough to put the cartridge in your system, as I was some 10 years ago when I bought this abomination, you're treated to a super-cheesy intro with overly simplistic music, a giant plane on the screen that gets WAY too much screen time, a horribly under-cooked musical bit, and a very underwhelming overall first impression.  If this was on an NES, I'd be impressed, but I've been enjoying Lightening Force, Elemental Master, and other top-shelf Genesis shooters for years, so this falls short of expectations right away.  However, not being a first impressions guy, I forge ahead.  The title screen once again shows the plane as depicted on the manual (not the box/cart), and says 'The Earth Defend' with some Kanji characters above it, clearly indicating that this was pretty much a straight conversion with no frills.  The title screen's theme is probably the most catchy tune in the whole game, and that's another bad sign.  Feeling brave, I pressed Start, only to be greeted by a large map screen showing me my first destination.  Of course, the map is not indicative of my ship's trajectory or path like that of Ghosts 'n Goblins or something similar.  No, this map is purely utilitarian, to show me that my ship is actually flying somewhere, not just randomly blasting stuff along an aimless flight path.  Thanks for clearing that up, Realtec, I thought I might be mowing down civilians or taking out everything in my path, but now I know that I have specific targets.

At least they're asking 'Please', right?

Dude, have you ever seen an intro so cool?  I didn't think so.

If my first impressions were underwhelming, then my second impressions are downright tepid.  Control is reasonably tight, but with goofy enemy attack patterns and relatively cramped area to work in, tight control is not exactly a saving grace.  The music playing in the background is banal, and never grabs your attention long enough to do anything but make you glad it's not grabbing your attention.  Graphics are 'serviceable', but little more, as the pixelated, less than interesting scenery scrolls by in the background, content to be nothing more than a backdrop for the shoot-em-up action going on.  No parallax scrolling, no layers or even effects going on?  By 1993, this should have been a requirement to make a quality shmup on the Genesis, but Realtec threw the rule book out the window.  Your pea shooter is sufficiently under-powered when you get it, like many early weapons, but you quickly discover that the only road to success is to either choose the 'wave' weapon due to its forward fire and relatively destructive power, or to be brave and go for the 3-way shot, which is pathetically weak until it's powered up about 2 or 3 times.  If you die, you lose that weapon and go back to the pea shooter, and usually it happens when you need it most.

Apologies to the random gaming site I took this snapshot from.
Graphically, I think Fire Shark had a leg up on this game 3 years earlier...

Nearly indestructible enemies are present in the first level as well, in the form of these armored soldier suits that look like they were left over from M.U.S.H.A. or maybe Robo Aleste.  Powering up several times will allow you to take them out, but don't count on being able to do so enough in the first level, let alone keep those power-ups.  Add to this, the aforementioned goofy attack patterns, and the fact that sometimes the enemies and bullets filling the screen make maneuvering more than a challenge.  This is common in shmups, to be sure, but this game just doesn't execute it well, as tight spaces and inescapable situations are far too common.  On top of that, the Genesis is somehow pushed to the limit by the number of simultaneous on-screen sprites, which means that slowdown abounds.  This is often helpful in some games, giving you a bit more reaction time to move into a safe area, but here it just means you watch your death more slowly and painfully.

Apologies to Sega-16 for this screenshot thievery.

Bosses in the game are a joke as well - with your pea shooter they take forever.  If you're powered up 2-3 levels it's not quite so bad, but the best option is to use the special attack, which basically puts up a 'fire forcefield' around the ship and allows you to move around for several seconds unharmed.  It doesn't appear that this forcefield does much damage however, so the best way to down bosses with this tactic is to get up 'in their face'.  This exposes another major flaw of the game: the fire rate of the ship.  Your ship's fire rate, based on the strength of any non-popcorn enemies, is woefully slow, and even though Realtec included autofire, they didn't make it fast enough to make you feel like you're gaining much.  Using a joystick with a variable turbo/autofire control can help this, but out of the gate it's not very balanced.  The real flaw, however, is that your ship fires faster as you approach the top of the screen.  I've seen this in many shooters, though generally the rate of fire coincides with both the proximity to the top of the screen AS WELL AS the proximity to incoming enemies.  This can be a very helpful tool when enemies are bearing down on you, or when you can kamikaze attack a boss to get more shots in.  However, when the fire rate increases ONLY when you approach the top of the screen, it makes boss fights more frustrating/annoying than they need to be, especially if you have no forcefield activations left.

Music and sound are just as laughable.  Despite the fact that there are 4 different weapon types, the shot sound is the EXACT SAME THING for all of them.  What is this, 1985?  Adding insult to injury is the fact that it's a high-pitched annoying sound as well, rather than something satisfying to hear when shots are fired like you might expect from a good Genesis shmup.  All the music is so basic, and the tunes are highly repetitive.  That's okay when the tracks are good and you enjoy getting them stuck in your head, but these songs just aren't well composed, nor are they catchy or memorable in any way.  They're totally forgettable.  The sound effects otherwise are basic - explosions sound like crumpling of cardboard, your ship doesn't blow up in a blaze of glory but in a tinny little pop, and sound otherwise is incredibly sparse.  Graphically, if you haven't figured out by the screenshots already, it's a pretty boring affair.  Bright colors don't count for much when the scenery isn't interesting, and when you fly over mountains and plateaus in level 2 that are as pixelated as they come, you know you're playing something that should have been a launch title, not a game released during the apex of the console.  Your plane has exactly three frames of animation - left turn, right turn, and head-on.  Not much development effort for the actual character sprite, despite the fact that it's so huge that the hitbox is massive.

This game just reeks of poor design, under-developed ideas, low production values, no proper translation of the game's title and manual before hitting the Western market, and the list goes on.  When you add it all up, it equals a frustrating game that isn't much fun.  There's fun to be had when playing with another person in the "Let's play this terrible game so we can laugh at it and see how far we get" kind of Saturday afternoon mode.  However, I've only ever seen fit to subject one person to this mess, and he was a willing participant in the aforementioned methodology.  However, I'm hoping that I won't have to do so again, and that my review is enough of a warning sign to ward off those who might be looking to pick up a shooter they don't have in their collection.  If you're looking for a copy merely to own as a curiosity, knock yourself out.  If you actually want to play it, I pray that shmup fans everywhere will be strong enough with the force to avoid this steaming pile known as Earth Defense.  I mean...The Earth Defend.  I mean...nevermind.  (Waves hand).  This is not the game you're looking for...