VPN is digital importing

I’ve been importing games since the NES days. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project was supposed to get a full-blown PAL region release and was even advertised to get one, but the looming SNES probably was the reason they cancelled it. Too bad, TMNTIII is best of the bunch, even better than Turtles in Time. It’s been an easy time overall for importers. Region circumvention has been a thing since day-one and relatively easy. Sometimes you just need two pieces of wire, sometimes you need an extra in-between cart, and sometimes all you need is a boot disc that does the job. However, with the further digitalisation of machines, importing became somewhat an issue with the Xbox 360 and 3DS. The 360 was a semi-region free machine and it was up to the developer/publisher if their game was to work on different region machine. 360’s online store was also region bound to the console’s region, meaning you couldn’t access out-of-region stores and their exclusive titles and content. Sometimes a release of a game would work in two regions, sometimes in all three, but it’s really a toss of a coin without some resources on the ‘net, and not all of them are complete listings.

Importing machines is an adventure and a half unto themselves. With older hardware you’ll come across with stuff like having to get a separate power converter if the power leads are physically connected, or buying a new power cable at easiest. The hardest thing I’ve seen people doing is modding the power components or modding the cables to feed the proper volts and ampere. It would of course solve all the problems with the game compatibility, considering mixing NTSC and PAL software and hardware always produces mixed results, especially if your television doesn’t support both standards (though I know a Russian method to introduce colour to NTSC signal via extra lead on a PAL telly that can’t understand it) , importing consoles really solves a lot of problems in regards of the games and their online stores. The question just is if you’re willing to dish out several hundreds of your local squirrel skins to get one. Chances are that you’re not, and will resort to modding your machine and just use other ways to obtain the games for play.

Why am I talking about importing like this? Importing has been in a breaking point for some time, at least from a personal perspective. Yes, this post is a bit out of character, as you guessed. With the constant and further digitalisation of titles, you’d think unifying the regional availability would not be much of an issue. That’s ultimately hubris, considering everything from regional currency and legislation will step in to block this. You can’t appease everybody, and if you are adamant to attempt to do so, you’ll find yourself offering the same titles in different forms in different regions, which is already what they’ve been doing, or you’ll have to use the tightest and most draconian rules as a whole. I’ve discussed China’s policies to some extent and the whole thing with Sony now practicing global censorship is one of the end results you can get in the end. I would still consider censorship a service failure like this. Hell, it’s a brand failure, as it directly fights against PlayStation’s image as the console of choice for more adult and refined console. Censoring your games just shows how easily the brand is swayed by politics and ideologues outside the market’s wishes and demands, especially when kicking the developers nuts.  What’s the point in importing, if all the titles are the same across regions? One of the many reasons to import titles in the first place was to get uncensored version of the games, or games with extra content that were cut out or added in for whatever reason. The proverbial drive to find the purest version of the game out there usually takes some research, but with older titles you can bet religious and sexual themes, and gore, usually got cut on Nintendo consoles. Things change with time, for better or worse.

With the further digitalisation, using a VPN will end up being a modern way to import things. That is, to gain an access to region specific variety of goods that would not be available to you otherwise. This doesn’t work on consoles that have the region hardcoded into them, but increasing amount of machines allow cross-region stores to be accessed based on the account information. It’s not too uncommon to find a Switch or a PS4 with multiple accounts simply because they serve as a way to access multiple regions. Nevertheless, things like Amazon Prime, Netflix and even Steam can be access out-of-region with a VPN, and get that access protection while you’re at it. VPN, as much as I’d dislike to say it, is more or less a modern way to import in the digital environment that is the Internet. Not as much in ways of how it works, but in the principle of what’s the goal; access to materials that are not available in your region. Is there an echo in here?

This will become more and more relevant as companies want to downsize their physical output. Preaching the inevitable death of physical media has been around for good decade now, but the death has been extremely slow if it is going to happen, and the chances are it will never truly go away. There are too many collectors out there, and Japan still loves their physical media. This will also go in cycles, I bet your ass, where a new generation will begin to appreciate then obsolete way of having a physical copy you yourself own rather than have an access of bits and bytes on a server somewhere via your subscription to a service.

To be completely honest with you, I’m tired of importing, or considering to use a VPN in order to access sites and goods that I can’t otherwise. Some of these breaking legal boundaries without a doubt, especially when it comes to console modifications, and even after importing physical machines to access games sometimes isn’t enough. There are so many hoops and loops to get across, that straight up piracy is simply the best option. The provider won’t lose a sale anyway, because there is no way I could even make a purchase to begin with. You’d think that someone who’s game collection is 41% of imports and 60% with DVD/BD media, all this would be easy and nothing to worry about. I don’t have time for that anymore. Life has become so hectic that I’m late on every project I set up two years ago, not to mention the time I spend socialising with friends has dropped. Readers probably have noticed how my posts have gotten later and later due to this, and I might have to cut blogging to once per week, something I don’t want to do.

If physical goods has one edge over digital, it’s they’re available in online stores to purchase across the globe. As long as the seller is willing to ship outside their own nation, and there are always options, you can procure yourself an item without any hassles. Sometimes you might need a proxy service, but that’s a whole other post I probably will never type out.

Modifying Panzer Dragoon to attract modern players, they say

So Sega and Forever Entertainment are doing Panzer Dragoon: Remake. No, I haven’t heard of this Polish developer either, but apparently they’ve made some Teddy Floppy Ear games and that’s pretty great. Teddy’s pretty good children’s franchise. As usual, doesn’t really matter who makes what as long as the end result is fine and dandy, but reading the official announcement for the remake, I’m not entirely convinced. Their claim that The entire Panzer Dragoon series has been repeatedly remade and released on many platforms is dubious at best and completely incorrect at worst. The original Panzer Dragoon has been released and remade few times around, mostly based on its PC port, because Sega has lost all Saturn source codes. No, not just theirs, all of them. They wanted to house all of them and then lost them all when their company was moving offices, meaning no Saturn game can ever get a port without reverse engineering the machine and getting the data out from the published discs. This means all Saturn games’ ports that are around, like Princess Crown‘s PSP port, is running on emulation, and considering emulating the Saturn accurately is one helluva task that’s still a far cry form the original, they’re pretty bad ports. Xbox One being backwards compatible with Panzer Dragoon Orta is not it being re-released or should be considered as a franchise relaunch either. When your initial announcement for a remake is incorrect about the nature of the series like this, it makes you question whether or not they’re familiar with the series, or whether or not they have their priorities right. I asked Forever Entertainment about that lil’ detail just to see what they’d respond, but seeing I’m just a gnatshit small blogger among an ocean of others, I doubt I’ll get a response. [edit] They did respond, replying that they meant the series overall is available on multiple platforms with remakes because the first game has ports and that Sega Ages version. I always forget that single entry in a series makes the whole series available on a platform when it comes to things like this, rather than a single entry.

The new version of the game will be characterized by a completely new graphics compatible with today’s standards and several modifications of the game, making it more attractive to modern players, while remaining faithful to the original in terms of story. This is more than expected. As said, the original Saturn sourcecode are lost, so the PlayStation 2 Sega Ages release is most likely based on the PC version, with Orta having the PC version as one of its unlockables. Any sensible company would just do a straight up remake rather than try to being reverse engineering the original games, but this is where we hit the snag with that sentence, making it more attractive to modern players, while remaining faithful to the original in terms of story. Forever aren’t elaborating what modifications they’re making to the core gameplay. Considering Panzer Dragoon as a series stands on its own in regards of gameplay, the only true modification needed to make would be polishing the first game’s mechanics to match that of Zwei’s and Orta‘s. Panzer Dragoon games have an arcade heart at their core, which is a major factor in their charm and success. Certainly, Panzer Dragoon Saga is a role playing game, but it was devised as one from the get go rather than modifying an existing title. It’s useless to try and guess what this means at this point, but seeing most remakes of this kind and with this sentencing don’t have the best track record out there, it does raise some worries.

Especially when their main concern seems to be staying true to the story. Sure, Panzer Dragoon‘s post-apocalyptic setting with dragons as biological weapons and lost-world technology is pretty neat in all, but saying you want to stay true to the story is is like buying chocolate for wrapper rather than for the taste. Just like Virtual-On, the story’s incidental at best, an overall framing device for the great gameplay which still stands today. Staying true to the story is easy, but staying true to the gameplay and mechanics, especially considering the first one is sparser compared to Zwei and Orta, is far more challenging. With the lack of sourcecode the results can become very much a different beast, as we saw with the Crash Bandicoot remake collection, where applying the third game’s physics across the board made the first two games very different kind of games to play thanks to the stage geometry still being accurate to the originals. Jumps you used to be able to make easily now are now more challenging due to this, and can lead into easy deaths. Not that making extra lives in the game is hard or anything, but shows how little concern the developers ultimately had this these little things that majorly affect the games’ play.

All fans of the series, and long time players alike, are  probably asking the same thing in their heads; please stay true to the game’s play. The concern of remakes mangling and dumbing down the games’ play for modern players is relevant. It shows the lack of trust towards the customers, especially towards their ‘modern’ audience. Consumer born in this millennium were born and raised during a retro game boom and are far more than capable at handling games of their nature. Hell, despite so many of us who have been playing games for three decades or more, we’re still part of that modern player group. What is even the division between a modern and older player? Age certainly does not define it. This is a start of poor customer service experience I tell you.

Maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic. The announcement naturally can’t expand on anything because they’ve got jackshit to showcase. The announcement is standard PR speech aiming to appease different sections, but it seems wholly amateurish. These are the same concerns everyone has towards every remake that has been coming out, and truth to be told, remakes overall don’t tend to have all that great track record, especially when there are explicit changes to the game’s play. Granted, we don’t know what modifications there are going to be in Panzer Dragoon: Remake, but all we can hope is that they amount polishing the originals further without much additions or removals. A better name for the remake compilation would be nice as well, but I’m sure the current one is just a placeholder and they’ll come up something far more impressive that suits the series’ nature.

All we really can do is sit tight and wait for proper information to come forth. No use to speculate too much on nothing.

To be a fan

Fallout 76 has split opinions, some really wanting to defend the game while others trash it to hell and back. Then you have the whole bag controversy, with Bethesda throwing a sixty five cent nylon bag instead of proper canvas bag as advertised, but to be fair, they did drop canvas versions to people with influence. That in itself should really tell a lot about the company, their priorities and how little they ultimately care about the common end-user, or about the core fans who aren’t million sub Youtubers or writers. In relation to this, I glimpsed a Youtube comment I can’t find anymore, telling a true fan wouldn’t leave a corporation or a series just because there are bad times, that being a fan means you’re there through the good days and bad days. Effectively describing a one-sided marriage where the other partner can abuse the other whatever way they want.

In a way, this comment is correct, as fanatical behaviour rarely follows common sense. There is some form of obsession in there, that keeps the fan tied to the product, person or corporation. In case of computer and video games, it’s a combination of all three. Companies want their consumers to be emotionally attached to them in order to secure stable profits. The product itself serves as the end-goal for the provider, which makes them money. In modern gaming, it helps if the consumer is attached enough to the franchise and characters to drop few hundred bucks to buy some DLC left and right, or microtransaction. That Fate smartphone game is making insane bank just by being a Fate product and having stupidloads of characters that serve as great wank material. The gameplay’s supposedly pretty good too, taking cues from Super Robot Wars if a developer interview I read long time ago when the game was released is to be believed. Similarly, you can accuse me of being âge’s fanboy for supporting shows relating to Muv-Luv and Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, but even then I recognize how the quality has dropped alongise the sales with the franchise, and have argued that Muv-Luv is in need of franchise relaunch, especially now that we’ve got aNCHOR and Avex holding the reins in the end. We all are emotionally connected to something we for whatever reason, be it the people around it or just because you’ve grown up with it.

The emotional attachment the consumer makes and has with the product is of course enforced by the corporation’s own PR department. More often than not, you’re going to have someone to function as the face the consumer can relate to. Keiji Inafune, Shigeru Miyamoto, Todd Howard, Masahiro Sakurai and Satoru Iwata are all faces that people are or were connected with. Inafune might have fallen out of favour after Mighty No.9, but people where throwing boatloads of cash at his Kickstarter just because he had a face associated with Mega Man. Iwata might be dead, but his mannerism and enthusiasm sold Nintendo products to fans even outside fan circles. However, they’re all corporate men. The face is quite literally a mask that’s put on sell you the product you have an attachment for, and by that extension, an attachment to the corporation. Coca-Cola’s Santa ads have a strong nostalgia for some, and that’s a powerful emotional connection in itself. Hell, nostalgia has always been used as a strong tool to make profit. Just look at the 80’s nostalgia with colours and design we went through, and slowly moving towards 90’s. In twenty years, we’re going to have 00’as nostalgia and return of Apple’s terrible and plain black/white designs.

I’ve prattled enough on the side. Should a fan really stick to a company or product through everything? Well, that’s up to the individual, isn’t it? If they feel like they’re doing right by pitching money for everything a company puts out, good for them. You’re keeping that company afloat, but not giving any real feedback with your purchasing habits outside that you’re willing to buy anything they make. That’s how you get shit in a can, but I guess fanatics don’t really care about what they ultimately get, as longs as their emotional attachment is fulfilled. Some goes for politics in here, simply wanting to purchase products in order to showcase support towards a company, which again is like buying a pig in a sack. I’m looking at myself with this, being guilty of this kind of bad consumerism.

However, I would argue that a fan should also be critical of goods their favourite company pushes out into their favourite line. What use it is to buy sub-par products only to gain sub-par or worse on the long-term? I’d imagine a fan would care about the quality of the product as well, and would vote with their wallets or make their voice heard in a strong, clear way of their dissatisfaction, but seeing how Battlefield V‘s dev didn’t respond kindly to criticism and told people not to buy if they don’t like it, this doesn’t seem viable in all cases. It’s like some corporations, despite growing off from cult following, don’t exactly want to listen to their core audience. A million dollar corporation ultimately cares more about the profits than the fan feedback, mostly because they do have fans out there who keep them afloat. Imagine that.

I’m throwing this as a guess based on stuff I’ve read decade ago, but nobody becomes a fan through logic. It’s always a positive emotional connection consumers make with a product that drives them. The personality of the brand, the faces that sells you the product, the personal emotions towards the product, all these make a fan. Emotions, more often than not, tend to blind us.

Music of the Month; Enormous Penis

Guess what’s theme for the month? Beats me, I was originally gonna put something from Senran Kagura on, but seeing I’ve been talking a lot about sexual themes being censored, I might as well go all the way in and put last month’s music in a theme song. People who like to over-analyse everything, you’ve got two balls’ worth of ammo. Anyway, lemme get some steam out, willya? I pity the poor bastard who thinks this the standard this blog usually goes for. You have standards? So I might argue.

I’ve posted a lot about censorship in video games as of late, partially because I personally have a strong bias against any sort of censorship, but also because it ties to the whole video game culture aspect the blog is partially about. However, discussing the censorship out in the open has been somewhat a challenge, as most of censorship we see nowadays is specifically targeting sexual themes. Tumblr just announced porn would be banned on their site, but we’ll see how long that’ll hold.

Sony’s stance on the censorship they’re practicing right now is supposedly based on global standards, which is all sorts of bullshit as the savvy reader you are knows. There are no global standards they speak of. The US has the ESRB, Europe has PEGI with each nation adding their own standards and rules to the mix, Australia has their own, South Korea has its own and China’s draconian as hell when it comes to how they set standards. Furthermore, the regulations and standards Sony has been applying have been widely inconsistent, with titles like Sengoku Hime 7 being more or less completely unaltered, passing their standards. There is no one accepted global standard, and I hope there never will be. Homogenization of cultures across the world would only diminish the richness we have, and assuming one sales region, or even a nation, shares the same standards as the one next to them, is utter nonsense and insanity.

Sony knows they have a PR bomb in their hands, and the less they say or put information out is better for them. Better keep things hidden and silent, because the modern era of constant news barrages and outrages will sweep these away until the year rolls over. You’ll hear these news from time to time, but just like everything else, Sony’s censorship will be treated as a passé topic and something you just have to live with.

Atsushi Morita’s statement about balancing between freedom of expression and safety of children is absolute horse shit. If you take it by face value, it means Sony regards their consumers, especially the parents no less than idiots who can’t look after themselves or their children, allowing free consumption of all media content. If you don’t, you know it is about money and politics, just how much and in what ratio. Sure, Sony wants to be a hit in the Chinese market and that market wants pretty much everything to conform to their standards, just like the American extreme left with their utter nonsense. I hate to bring politics into this blog like this, but even my dumb ass can see that the American modern left has become more and more like what the religious right used to be. If it’s not one extreme being puritanical about content, then it’s the other. Being in the middle is almost suffering, trying to balance things.

It doesn’t help that discussing about sexual materials have become harder with time. My family wasn’t ever really open about sexual topics, but my mother’s mother was. The key moment where I realised that sex and sexuality was completely natural was during a boat trip, where I was laughing at a couple buying condoms. My grandma told me to shove it, and asked why I was laughing about something so natural and mundane thing as sex. Her reaction of me telling how shut things were at home surprised her, as she never had been close minded about human sexuality. She told me to ask questions, and she answered straight up, in a grandmotherly way. That realisation that if we lack that kind of everyday sexuality in our daily lives, we’ll begin to handle it the wrong way and grow up as skewed individuals and as a society. Otherwise you’ll get people wanting to screw animals and those who want to spread STDs to other people, outright screwed bees and flowers concepts. Sex and sexual themes in Western society almost became a thing that we didn’t have to hide from not too long ago, but now we’re pulled back and every single thing with sexuality of men or women are being called out. Follow the advice of EA when it comes to content; If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.

If Sony really wanted global standards to apply, they’d open a global shop and allow the global market to decide. That’s how you get standards, not by decided by some committee. If there is such a thing as gaming culture, people who take part in that culture belong to that loose society of people, and it’s global by all means. That global force is the only one that should allow standards to be determined as they are the only ones that are affected by them. Mostly. Am I making a stretch? As much as any of these yahoos trying to justify their own views and practices, included that one guy who wrote the Game Manifesto despite ignoring the core history of electronic games and solely concentrated on the existence of digital games.

I hope during this Christmas, as always, parents will take time to be with their kids and buy their gift on time. If you’re buying a game as a present, please make sure that your kid can handle it. I don’t want to hear the Nth time how a mom buys her son GTA or the like and then bemoans the violence in a game intended for adults.

I don’t even know what I’m going to do this month. You’re gonna get that Top 5 games of the year on the last day of the year, which will count as a review. I’m not even going to amuse myself guessing if I’ll manage to do any Muv-Luv related posts or anything like this, because holy hell I’m already missing some good night’s sleep. I hope, hope, that I won’t have to talk too much, if at all, about censorship this month, because I’d really like to return talking about design stuff.

But goddamn Sony, you fucked service design like a limped dicked asshole.

Also, remember to sharpen and oil you knives. Cooking is safer with sharp knives.

Sony’s (possible) China connection

I’ve talked about Sony censoring games recently more than I’ve intended to, in addition with how DoA6 has been more or less a PR disaster (though they’ve turned that a bit around), but that has never been my intention. Talking about censorship in this manner has not been in spirit of the blog, but the latest twists and turns with Sony’s censorship lead me back into this rabbit hole. That said, this won’t be a usual post, and I’ll drop the author persona and try to gobble together something cohesive I’ve been reading around lately.

In an event held for Dies irae some time ago, the developers discuss how Sony has been moving towards disallowing ports and titles that would be R-18 or up, as it would be in case of certain nation’s rating systems. They go further into how these titles are being inspected with a magnifying glass with scrutiny. The developers are then presented with a questionnaire about their product’s content and are required to reply in English. This of course raises a language barrier between any developer who do not have staff with English skills, like most Japanese studios. Dies irae at the time of the event was completely finished and ready to go, but had been sitting on the waiting shelf, waiting for Sony’s approval on the content. Similarly, Nekopara Vol.1 sat on the approval list for the longest time to t he point of my previous post on the subject already thinking it was stealthily cancelled. However, turns out the developers had to spend extra time censoring the title. Interestingly enough, the Switch version has become home for Japanese console titles that have less censorship across the board than the PS4. I talked about the English-only bit previously, but it begs to be repeated as it was just edited in afterwards.

Why would Sony enact these policies relatively suddenly on what seems to be on a global scale? While virtue signalling around probably has something to do with it, seeing practically every company has jumped that ship and have enacted policies across the board to cover their assess just as globally, misaligned intentions from California probably wouldn’t pass at this scale. The reason why I’d argue this is because there is no money in there, and no other company has enacted similar policies. It’s not too often when Sony does something that is not following Nintendo’s example, like with the PlayStation Motion controller, but when they do, it’s always about the money they perceive to be possible.

China, of course, is where a lot of untapped console market might exists.

While China has seen loads of consoles throughout the years, they’ve been mostly pirated copies or heavily modified versions for their market. I’m sure most of my readers are old enough to remember how Chinese products were almost always guaranteed to be complete and utter garbage if they weren’t branded in a certain way or produced in a particular place. That applies nowadays too, but to a lesser extent. Piracy is still a problem, as is rampant IP infringement that the Chinese government themselves mostly ignore, as it brings them revenue. Chinese government is very self-centered and favours in-house competition over any fair and free market, but that is because they are a communist nation. They may not practice pure communism, but Chinese communism nevertheless colours the way business and market works there.

China has argued that video games have harmful effects on their users, and probably were the force that ultimately pushed ICD-11’s video game addiction through, on which I’ve covered in two occasions. ICD-11 regarding video game addiction has weak basis at best, and with official representative admitting Asian governments pushing for its acceptance would jive with how certain Asian nations like China and South Korea. China has become more and more influencing power as their economy has grown, though that bubble might burst sometime in the near future as it has no real basis. Related to their negative view on video games can be found in China’s social credit system, which views video games as harmful and buying too many games within an allotted time will impact a citizen’s credit negatively. None of this has been the first time Chinese government has dabbled in disallowing video games to an extent, as a complete game console ban existed form 2000 to 2014. However, the ban was not lifted because Chinese government deemed game consoles as worthwhile entertainment, but to allow the Shanghai Free Trade Zone to produce these consoles. The government’s attitude towards these consoles and the sheer amount of regulations and censorship they enact on the games require specific modifications to be made just for the market, something that costs resources. Developers of course are less interested in making region specific titles, but rather simply enact the demanded censoring globally. I guess that’s one result of game regions meshing together more and more, and both Sony and Nintendo allowing access to their cross-region stores on any console. That, of course, is one thing the Chinese would not like. For example, when interviewing foreigners they are demanded not to speak of Japan or Taiwan in relation to China. If you follow Western Youtubers like ADVChina or StrangeParts, you can pick certain parts here and there where self-censorship is practiced in order not get in trouble with the local police. The old communist practice of informing another to the government is still in place.

Nintendo did attempt to break into the Chinese game markets in 2003 with a localised variation of N64 named iQue Player with the help of Wei Yen, a Chinese American developer. At the time iQue got some press in the West, but was fast forgotten due to low sales. This Dreamcast controller-lookalike was essentially a plug-n-play console-on-a-chip deal, and was advertised to be beneficial for children’s growth in terms of cognitive thinking and hand-eye coordination skills. What sort of loophole Nintendo and Wei Yen used hasn’t been expanded upon, but some have guessed it being related to the N64 being a console before the ban was put into effect, but it is more probable that the letter of the law banned consoles in a very specific manner, where consoles had separate cartridges. The plug-n-play nature of the system, like that of many Famiclones, circumvented it altogether by not having any separate games, though you could download new games from an iQue Depot or Fugue online. None of the games on the system were exactly offending, with all the text and spoken language were translated into Chinese.

Video game sales, while stronger than what they were a decade ago, don’t seem to sate Sony. Much like in gaming, China has become the main audience and revenue area for Hollywood to the point of China being incorporated into the movies in hamfisted manners, .e.g. including Chinese characters and locations in order to cater to the market. Something like Star Wars could not be a success there, as it can’t be directly made to cater to the Chinese audience without intentionally making it fully transparent and degrading the brand itself. Chinese design mentality has also affected video game character and environmental designs, as they are extremely keen on perfect and beautiful characters. Whole King of Fighters XIV was lambasted for its visual style and design, but that was an intentional design choice in order to appeal to the Chinese market. It is a prime example how a franchise can lose certain kind of ruggedness and down-to-earth designs on their characters and be cleaned, polished and waxed for an audience that wants that sort of visual ‘perfection’ from their entertainment. This is the reason why some Japanese actors, AV, porn or other, have found some success in the Chinese market as they have a chance to sell their looks first and foremost while downplaying their nationality, like Sora Aoi.

However, just as I’ve covered, Chinese market is not easy to access. The 2016 Ghostbusters bombed like no other, and Sony lost more money after it turned out it wouldn’t get a Chinese release due to it having a supernatural element. Numerous games have been censored for the same reason, with violence probably being the largest offender in the eyes of the Chinese, with nudity following as the runner up. The Censorship wikia has some examples listed, but it is woefully incomplete. If a company is intending to enter the market, they have to abide to the rules. It should be noted that despite China pushing censorship on loads of foreign titles across the board, but the same does not apply to their own products, at least not to the same extent.

Sony entering the Chinese market is nothing new, this was news in 2014 when the ban was lifted. The PlayStation 4 has been in China about three years now, and according to Sony their largest challenge has been localisation. Not only the high price of the consoles have curbed the sales, but so has the strict regulation. Last year, only 52 titles were approved to be on sale on the system. That’s 52 out of 1 837. That is less than two percent of the library, and its growing constantly, while the approval rating is stagnating in comparison. This means if a Chinese video game consumer wants access to larger library or certain games, they are required to import or use the system’s digital stores to get off-region sales. That is, if the system or their Internet allows that. China is the biggest single market for games, though the vast majority of it is taken by PC and mobile phone titles. Console gaming, however, doesn’t seem to be all that hot. The China Hero project isn’t dead yet and is entering its second stage, all the while Sony’s pushing both Spider-Man and Monster Hunter World as their killer titles. It should be noted that MonHunWorld‘s Steam version got pulled from the store in China, despite Tencent, the game’s publisher there, had already made changes needing those approvals. Tencent is a company we’ll have to talk some other day.

Sony has tried to push through the market with their China Hero project, which aimed to produce games by Chinese developers to the Chinese consumers. However, that seems to have been a bust. Sony has put lots of money into trying to become a success in the Chinese market, both in and out of gaming, but only their movie division has seen some success. Even then, they’re more or less bleeding money and haven’t had a breakthrough. This leads to the natural idea of simply enacting the demanded limitations and regulations to the games even before they are published on the platform, netting Sony credit both in the eyes of the Chinese government and the fringe political left that demand similar censorship across the board. Saving money all the while ensuring more titles will be available in China seems like a sureshot bet, though whether or not China actually wants these games is a matter altogether different.

All this is just conjecture and a conspiracy theory, I hear you and little voice in my head say. It’s true that there is no solid leads to with and all we have is what we’re presented with. China probably is part of the puzzle as is Sony’s North American section demanding the censorship. However, in business things coincide with each other within one company more than you’d think, and running after a region with little direct competition seems appetising. Considering Sony hasn’t exactly been the leading model for market expansion, their attempt in China should be followed with keen eyes. We’re not talking a company like Nintendo tapping a market with specific products designed to expand the market, but a company putting regulations that would turn all products viable within a market into effect, if I’m even close with all this. This is also why no petition will work, like the one on the change.org. This isn’t just ideological, but also because Sony seems to think PlayStation is a strong brand enough with quality titles to make similar big bucks in Chinese game market. I doubt they expect smartphone game level income, but considering what sort of expectations some of these corporations have, I wouldn’t put it past them altogether either.

All that said, this is probably the best argument against games as art. They’re made into a mould to be pressed and sold, damned be the author’s or authors’ original intent. Sony can deliver whatever flowery PR speech about high art, when they’re effectively stabbing the core idea of free expression.

ALESTE; a short series introduction

If there’s one genre of games that defines the arcades, it has to be the the shooting games. Be it space or otherwise, the genre has been there since Computer Space and kept evolving from title to title under different developers and publishers. The simple perfection of Space Invaders is a far cry from the modern bullet hells. Before the genre essentially became just all about the bullet patterns it seems to be now, the growing period of the 80’s was more pure to the form. Hudson’s Shooting Caravan games like Star Soldier and Starship Hector even had nationwide tournaments in Hudson All-Japan Caravan Festival, and had special versions of the games produced. Later on, Hudson would include Caravan mode in their games just for these events and as legacy after the boom was over. In retrospect, you could even call Hudsons Caravan events as one of the earliest form of eSports. After all, shooting games are all about scoring, mostly.

One of the series that competed in this highly saturated genre of time was Aleste. With the 30th anniversary of the series (and an upcoming revival) I’ve decided to take a moment and have a short coverage of the series.

Aleste‘s, by all intentions, is a sequel to 1986’s Zanac, a game that was famous for its adaptive AI, fast paced action and dynamic music that matched the pace of the game. This still keeps Zanac as one of the more interesting and unique shooting games out there, as the AI doesn’t just adapt to player’s weapons, but also to how well they are doing. Certain enemies and waves are triggered how much the player is shooting, moving, scoring and such. Considering how the game can be relenting, the AI ultimately encourages methodical approach and situation-by-situation basis gameplay that can, and often will, result in a completely different kind of playthrough each time. Bosses were also timed, and failing to defeat them would throw the player back into the stage with the penalty of higher number of enemy waves. Considering the original Zanac ran on the MSX, a machine known to have sprite and scrolling issues, it’s a game that shows that Compile was a company that knew how to code. I’d even go as far to say that at one point Compile was a company that made one of the best coded games around.

While longplays are terrible way to showcase a game as they’re often played with perfection, they are also a good way to showcase the whole game and get an idea of their overall length. The games just look easier than what they really are.

All this carried in 1988’s Aleste. To make it stand out from Zanac, parts of its weapon system was changed, but the core of AI being the player’s main opponent, both in gameplay and story, remained. The first Aleste is more or less forgotten in favour of Zanac because of this, but also because both Sega Master System and MSX versions suffer from massive amounts of flicker and slowdowns for whatever reason. Power Strike, the English title for the US and European SMS release might be something some readers might be more familiar with.

Compile set in stone how their weapon system overall works, reworking nine standard weapon types from Zanac. These include standard multi-directional shot, missiles and lasers. However, some more tactical weapons have been introduced. A Charge-shot weapon that functions as a shield directly in front of the ship before shot ranks among one of the best, which is further emphasized in a weapon that creates rolling balls around your ship. A controllable wave beam allows a more creative use of the weapon pool, and each of the eight weapons the game offers have their own use, but are all powered-up by grabbing floating P capsules. Be wary though, since the AI decides if you’ve been having an too easy time with your current set-up.

As a sidenote, Aleste is pronounced as Alesta [アレスタ] , because Japanese and English mix like crude oil and water sometimes.

Between Aleste and Aleste 2, Compile released some of their most famous titles of the time; Guardic Gaiden and Gunhed, known as The Guardian Legend on the NES and Blazing Lazers on the Turbografx-16 in the West.

Considering the shooting game genre is more or less about constant evolution of some kind with each entry (though we see how things degrade with others), 1989’s Aleste 2 is essentially what Aleste should have been. It might be more of the same, just better. Spanning three disks, Aleste 2 is probably the best vertically scrolling shooting game on MSX, having extremely smooth scrolling for the system, a pressing soundtrack and the return of Compile’s dynamic AI system. The difficulty’s been ramped up few notches as well, with Oni and God difficulties being absolutely maddeningly impossible.

The two first Aleste games tell more or less a complete story, both justifying the AI system in-universe. Aleste sees biological computer DIA 51 rebelling against mankind and extends its tendrils across the planet in plans to destroy all life. Ray Wizn is tasked to fly in and destroy DIA 51, something he is very much determined to do after DIA 51’s rampage sends his girlfriend Yuri into hospital. It’s not Shakespeare, but gets the job done. Aleste 2 takes place twenty years later, with appearance of Vagant, an alien species intending to destroy humanity. Ray, now a ranking officer, loses his life in the initial barrage. His daughter, Ellinor steps up to opposite Vagant’s techno-biological rampage on Earth, and sees herself being transported to sub-space dimension during her fight to destroy what seems like the final boss. With a revelation of this being a trap, she breaks out back to Earth, with three months having passed there due to time dilation. After the final assault and freeing Earth, Rosa, one of Vagant generals, recognises her leader’s mistakes and thus makes peace with Earth.

 

Aleste Gaiden was released two months after Aleste 2, and as the name implies, is a side-story. Released in Disc Station Special magazine, this minigame sees the return of Ray in a cybernetic ninja armour, aiming to defeat DIA 51 in a post-apocalyptic setting. The game’s intention was to create the vertical shooting game with the character walking on ground. Obstacles must be walk around and crevices need to be jumped over.

The title’s shorter, easily beaten in half the time the two previous games, and simpler in terms of weaponry and overall design, limiting the weapon options stage count. It’s more a curiosity, if we’re completely honest, probably the weakest entry in the series. However, it’s take on the visual design and robotic armours was the launch point of Compile’s most famous Aleste title aftewards, as well as for a whole series of games using the said robots over fighters.

 

 

Toaplan published Compile’s Musha Aleste in 1990 for the Sega Mega Drive and it has been considered a system classic and as one of the best shooting games to date, especially if you believe Classic Game Room. Musha Aleste started out as a project to port Aleste 2 to the MD, but at some point during the development they went into a completely new direction, meaning classic Aleste was more or less abandoned. Taking place in an alternative timeline in Tenryaku 91, the game’s setting is Ellinor jumping into her giant robot to take down the super computer Dire 51. We see her squad being taken down in the first seconds of the game, leaving her as the only one to tackle the enemy. Much like with Aleste Gaiden, Musha Aleste drops the standard formula with Compile’s weapons and opts for three sub-weapons of bombs, lasers and rotating balls. Emphasize on supplementary firepower from options named Arms is given, as as the player can change how they function on the fly. They can rotate the player, fix them into a position or fly around the screen with auto-shot enabled.

While much smaller game in scale compared to previous full-fledged Aleste titles, Musha Aleste comps this by being extremely fast paced and having overall great design. It’s not balls to the walls punishing in difficulty either, being optimised for a more relax play session. This makes Musha Aleste a title that’s easy to get into and have a blast with.

 

Galvanic Gunner Aleste hit the Game Gear in 1991, and takes the series back to its fighter roots. Between this Compile had done another semi-fantasy shooting game with NAXAT, Seireisenshi Spriggan, for the PC-Engine, which was essentially Musha Aleste 2 in design and play. Ellinor has become the series’ main character by this point, whichever kind of setting the game happens to take in. The standard weapon set returns with a vengeance GG Aleste and the game doesn’t stray too far from the comfortable framing the series is known for. However, it is somewhat hampered by the small screen, though this is made up for by the fact that the Game Gear’s screen is in colour. While I’d like to give some sort of idea what’s the game about, I’ve yet to see manual scans about, and the game itself mostly throws Ellinor against the enemy, only to showcase her coming out in a busted hip and almost gone in the end credits.

 

Super Aleste is the series’ only entry on the SNES, as Compile seemed to be comfortable with Mega Drive after Puyo Puyo became their greatest hit and Sega opted to publish load of their games. Known as Space Megaforce in the West, Super Aleste is removed from the other games in setting. A gigantic spaceship named Sphere attacks Earth. Earth’s only and last hope are Raz, the pilot of the fighter, and Thi, Sphere’s mysterious ex-prisoner with psychic powers. The manual goes deeper how all ships, including Aleste, were shot down. Raz however survives (hence the cover) and frees Thi, who uses her powers to repair and enhance the ship. Not that you’d know much about this, the Western release cut all of the scenes out with some extra stuff from the Options menu as well. It is very de-Japanised. The Cutting Room Floor has an entry on the game. If you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned the AI for some time, that’s because Compile more or less dropped it and concentrated on designing the enemy waves in a traditional way. Nevertheless, there’s something sombre and relaxing about the game, especially for a 1992 title, which allows the player to zone in in a relaxed manner, even during the more hectic moments.

This design shows itself in the game, as it is pretty much the opposite of Musha Aleste. It’s slower, more methodical but in no way just has you sit doing nothing. Weapon options have been increased and all weapons have more than one fire mode, making tackling the stages more interesting with each playthrough. It is also much longer game, taking about an hour to beat, but there’s a Short Mode that is only four stages long. There are multiple difficulty levels, each with their own endings. The SNES was never the go-to machine for shooting games, but Super Aleste should sate that craving more than the more famous titles like Axelay.

If you ever wanted to play as one of Nobunaga’s ninjas, Dennin Aleste has you covered. Hitting the Mega-CD the same year Super Aleste hit SNES, Dennin Aleste follows in the same steps as Musha Aleste and Spriggan, effectively solidifying Compile thematic split between historical fantasy with robots and futuristic shooting games when it came to the series. As usual, the game was renamed as Robo Aleste in the West. The player character Kagerou pilots the titular Electric Ninja Aleste in order to defeat Astaroth, the mysterious shadow figure controlling the rest of the warlords warring against Nobunaga.

The overall system is lifted from Musha Aleste, with an additional weapon thrown in. A charging mechanic was introduced to the game, though how useful that ended up being is up to question due to the raised difficulty ceiling. The game is also fast, but lacks polish compared to the previous entries. It’s also slower compared to Musha, and as usual for Mega-CD titles, has large amounts of cutscenes to tell the story. A sequel was planned, but ultimately abandoned due to the declining sales.

And here we are, 1993. GG Aleste II was the last song of the series. The title’s very much by the beats at this point, concentrating on a new protagonist fighting against an overwhelming enemy, now with 3D stages akin to Space Harrier. At this point, there’s not much that can be said that isn’t repetition from previous Aleste titles.

It pains not being able to say much about it, outside that it is the best shooting game on Game Gear, and the aftermarket prices are about as high as you’d expect.

 

 

 

 

While Aleste started out as a game series with fast paced and dynamic gameplay thanks to the AI, the series ultimately dropped that element and concentrated more on the setting and story. Compile pretty much ceased developing shooting games in 1993, with part of the staff still wanting to develop shooting games moved to Raizing. Puyo Puyo had the spotlight to no end, but ultimately the constant fall of sales and changes in the market that they couldn’t keep up, Compile’s last game was on the PlayStation in 2001, Zanac X Zanac, a direct sequel to the franchise that kicked Aleste off.

Zanac X Zanac consists of two games; the port of the original and Zanac Neo, which starts with the last stage of the original and directly kicks off from there. Neo has all the then-modern takes on the genre while staying true to the core; multiple ships to choose from, expansive arsenal of 32 weapons and extremely well polished gameplay and visuals, and a combo scoring system. However, the genre was done by that point, and bullet hells had taken over as the genre-defining standard. The story takes place right after the fist game, where the AI Zanac foresaw its destruction and moved itself to a new core, forcing the player to venture forth again to fight against it. It is much of the same as original Zanac, just more polished.

 

Compile folded in 2002, and saw the rest of their staff moving elsewhere, some putting up their own companies like Compile Heart and Milestone, while others joined Raizing, while others simply quit the industry. I hope that the upcoming revival will not be a remake, but a proper, full-fledged release with effort and resources behind it. Hopes for a Zanac X Zanac type release that would compile previous entries in the series into one, complete package alongside with Aleste 3 are far-fetched at best, but we can only sit tight on our asses and wait for Summer 2019 for the news.

Review: Mega Man 11

It’s been about eight years since we got a proper Mega Man game, though I’d go further back to pin point a true “new” title in the series. This isn’t the first time the franchise has been revived either, with the 8-bit throwbacks essentially serving the role and Battle Network being a kind of total reboot that essentially allowed a new generation to enjoy a Mega Man branded product. However, Mega Man 11 might be closer to the throwbacks, but thematically and in intention it leans more towards reintroducing the franchise to the field. As such, there’s three takes I could use to review the game; developer intention, as a Mega Man game and as a standalone title. However, splitting or choosing just one felt awkward. So rather than overthinking how to make this one stand out or be something special, I’ll just go in without much worries and say this straight out of the gate; Mega Man 11 is a good Mega Man game, but ultimately runs short compared in this modern era of games.

If you’ve played any of the NES Mega Man games, you know what you’re getting into, and MM11 is best argument against MM9 and 10 in that you don’t need to use throwback bit-graphics in order to make a “true” Mega Man game. The controls are tight, responsive and work exactly as you’d expect. The amount of control over Mega Man is perfect and pretty much everything can be put on the player in damage and death department. The PS4 version has the most control lag, with Steam and Xbox versions coming at top, which can only be blamed on Sony wanting to add too much post-processing on their games on PS4 Pro. Switch is somewhere between, closer to Xbox’s and that’s fine. Unless you’re crazy over NES-CRT level responsiveness, you’re more or less boned and should go for the Steam version. That’s probably the only significant difference between the versions, outside Switch’s Amiibo support that gives you items mid-game. It’s a nice idea, but really sucks when you realise how haphazardly it’s been implemented, much like in every other game out there.

For those who haven’t played a Mega Man game, the formulae is simple and solid. You’ve got eight stages, each with a Boss you have to defeat in order to advance to the final stages. You gain each Boss’ weapon and they have rock-paper-scissors mechanic going on, one being weak to another. Back when games were more or less strict on the progress, Mega Man was a breeze of fresh air, and modern stage-selecting was more or less inspired by the franchise. The franchise is famed for being difficult, but this has always been hyperbole at best. The six NES titles are easy enough for a five-years old to beat. The right word would be challenge, where the game offers some obstacles you to tackle, but with some try and experience, you’ll beat them in no time. The stages are overall designed to have a combination of environmental hazards combined with stage enemies, sometimes moving and sometimes stationary, which also gives all the stages their own little gimmick to work with.

The stages, of course, are the main meat themselves. Sadly, the game’s design did not escape the usual fire-water-grass thematic that has been overused in the series far too often. This time we’re getting both spikes-in-water and an ice stage, which shows that despite the series having almost a decade long hiatus and thirty years of history to learn from, the new dev team ultimately had to resort to recycling some old ideas. We’ve seen pretty much everything at this point in the franchise, from water purifying facilities to cityscapes, from forests to ancient stone temples and even space stations, thematically Mega Man is all spent. It doesn’t really offer anything new, and veterans feel it. Each stage offers their own challenges, like the aforementioned spikes-in-water stage that emphasizes on careful control. Each of their gimmicks should drive the player skills higher in order to beat the final fortress levels, but ultimately these stages don’t take all the advantages the eight main stages offer. The difficulty and challenge doesn’t exactly ramp up drastically, especially now that there is a total lack of Capcom gauntlet. A Capcom gauntlet is an old term for stages that come at a later stage in a game, where the player is unable to return or retreat to recover items, having to resort with whatever limited resources is found during the gauntlet. Boss Rush has always been part of this, with an additional twist or two in the mix. Mega Man games excelled in this by the natural design. However, Mega Man 11 allows the player to access the previous stages and create items between each of the fortress stages, making the gauntlet completely neutered. The ramping up element is now gone.

This of course begs the mention of the game’s gimmick, the Double Gear system. The stages have been designed so that there is no need to use use either Speed or Power function to beat them. Speed is naturally the more useful of the two, as its slow-down effect makes everything much more easier. The Power in itself is largely useless outside few situations, and is mostly used to use the powered up versions of the Special Weapons. However, because of all this the system works more or less as a build-in cheat, which can be further powered up with purchasable items. The game meanders between trying to appease people who want a more pure Mega Man experience and people who go all out, and ultimately doesn’t exactly fulfill the necessities to use the Gears. Even the speediest or smartest sections of the game are easy without the use of Speed Gear, and Power Gear makes some of the Special Weapons just absolutely bonkers, being able to wipe the screen of enemies, shield or not.  That said, the weapons themselves are pretty well designed and balanced, again fitting pre-existing moulds in the series e.g. utility weapon, movement option attack, full-screen weapon, a barrier and so on. Their powered-up versions, as mentioned, are overkill in most places, and make mid-stage bosses a laughing stock.

This means the game ends up being very easy to beat through the use of cost items rather than skill, but perhaps this is more or less about personal challenge than anything else. Mega Man games have always been welcoming, though the game does seem too accommodating rather than trusting the player to build enough skill to beat it. Resources are readily available for anyone to buy if the game puts a wall against you. The stages have some elements designed around some of the Special Weapons use, but their limited scope and length don’t make much use of them. The fortress levels even less so, and you can rely on Tundra Storm to wipe enemies off from distance.

Visually speaking, the game looks very much for the part. Colours are well used and detail can be found everywhere. There is a definitive Mega Man flavour to things, just aptly cartoony with clear and defined lines. It may not be the cutting edge of graphics technology, but it doesn’t need to be. The game stays true to the NES era’s designwork almost to a flaw, where certain amount of detail is lost on the designs. Backgrounds get the most detail overall, with some referencing past games. There is a definitive charm to everything, the same charm Mega Man used to carry. This carries to the Robot Master designs as well, with the Gallery mode expanding on their characters more than the game can properly convey on-screen. While pre-battle quotes have been around for a time now, the Gallery entries really make them shine even more. Mega Man & Bass’ CD Database gave a nice insight to all of the characters, but not to this extent.

The music, however, is t he game’s weakest point by far. It goes all techno on the soundtrack, with synth bweaaaing being the main instrument. It all ends in almost a cacophony, most stages ending up sounding the same and unmemorable. This is a far cry from previous’ games’ soundtracks, which made the songs stood out, either due to the more limited sound samples or simply because the songs were that superior. The pre-order downloadable soundtrack is not much better, opting the techno for nondescript jazz that sounds worse. Acid Man comes out the best in this, mostly due to the instruments working better with his theme, but overall you’d be better just muting the BGM and putting something better on. Rock and rocking kind of instruments have always sit the series much better, more so in the X-series. That said, sound effects are pretty much spot on and have an oomph to them, though Mega Man no longer makes a noise when he lands. In the NES games, there was a small te-det sound, which is absent here, but it’s something that isn’t all essential.

This review reads like a ramble, because trying to say anything definitive how it is fails to a point. The Mega Man 11 doesn’t innovate on the formula of the series and is a step back in terms of length and game design. However, on the other hand it is well made and intentionally open for everybody, concentrating on the core building blocks what makes a Mega Man game. However, that’s all it really is. We’ve seen this before. While there is a need for smaller games like this one the market now, retreading things once more like this works only once. Just as with Mega Man 9. If there is going to be a Mega Man 12, it must innovate, expand and push the envelope on Classic Mega Man as much as possible. As a standalone title, the game doesn’t exactly stand well against the swamp of other 2D action titles, but its sheer polish and execution ultimately lifts it just enough above the surface.