So as the title implies, I’m still alive and well! It’s been something like 10 months since I’ve posted anything here, which in internet time might as well be a lifetime. So what you’re all probably wondering is “what the hell have you been up to”? Well, just under a year ago I was laid off from my office job. At first I did what all rational people do, and started looking for work within the same discipline. After going to a few interviews, I felt that I had almost no interest in the jobs I was applying for, and that life is too short to waste away at day job that does nothing to further your life goals. So, with this in mind, I decided to devote all my time to studying and working towards my biggest passion in life, which is to be a freelance illustrator.
Harvest Remnants – So I still like alien hives…
After looking around at various schooling options, I opted to forget school altogether, and devise my own learning regiment. The beauty of freelance illustration is that for the most part, no one cares where and whether you went to school; your value is almost entirely based on your output. With that in mind, I started learning from art instruction books and youtube video tutorials. The most valuable learning resource I’ve ever found was the Singaporean Concept Designer Feng Zhu’s youtube tutorials. His most important message is that if you want to create realist art, you have to master the fundamentals. In this case, the fundamentals are Anatomy, Perspective, Color and Light, and Composition. With that in mind, I researched the best books on each of these topics, and read and practiced their teachings. One of the ways I practice was by working on a (still unreleased) joint short webcomic with my friend William from Future War Stories. From there, I put together a portfolio that is now housed on my personal artist website: derekrestivo.com, and at DeviantArt. My plans going forward are to illustrate heavy metal album covers, and then later branch into doing work for book covers, board games, tabletop games, card games, and pretty much any other medium that requires sci-fi or fantasy illustration.
Floating Structure – A more colorful piece that was commissioned by a musician friend.
So what does that mean for Xenomorphosis? To be honest I’m not sure at the moment. My long hiatus was a result of feeling that the time I would usually spend writing should be used to improve my art. I still really enjoy writing, so I’d like to return to this, or something like this in the future, but at the moment I’m still focused on the early stages of growing my business. One idea I have is to write a blog on my site that would cover the sorts of books/games/movies/artists that are currently inspiring my art. For any of you out there reading this post, if you have any suggestions about me continuing to write, or if you want to see more of the content that Xenomorphosis used to feature, send me an email at contact(at)derekrestivo.com. I still get several people a day subscribing to this site’s mailing list, but for all I know most of those subscriptions are bots. So if you’re a real person reading this, and you feel strongly enough about the content I used to provide here, please send me an email; I’d love to hear from you!
In the meanwhile, I’d love it if you checked out my artist pages:
My Website: http://derekrestivo.com/ - This is where I house my portfolio and information on hiring my services. You can subscribe to my email mailing list here to be notified of my new paintings.
My Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/derekrestivoart - This is where I post updates about my day-to-day illustration stuff. This is where you should join if you want to hear more from me! Seriously I’m trying to post nearly ever day, at least, so this is my voice on the internet.
My DeviantArt Page: http://derekrestivo.deviantart.com/ – This is where I meet other artists and try to attract new fans. I’ve made some really nice buddies on here, and this is also a good place to see my latest paintings.
My Society6 Page: http://society6.com/derekrestivo – This is where you can buy prints of my work. If you have a question about the sizing or pricing, feel free to email me your questions at contact(at)derekrestivo.com.
If there’s one thing I’m ashamed of as a gamer, it’s that I didn’t jump on the indie bandwagon sooner. As you can probably guess, I’m a pretty materialistic guy, so it goes without saying that I like to own physical copies of games. For essentially that one reason, I avoided most indie titles for way too long. Sure, I played the odd game here and there, but my attitude was always: “my backlog of physical games is long enough as it is, why bother with digital releases”? Perhaps my other hesitation was that for the longest time, I associated the term indie with art games, which I was fairly certain were shallow and devoid of meaty game content. Anyways, a few months ago I finally upgraded my PC, meaning I can now catch up on the literal mountains of excellent games offered on platforms like Steam and GOG. As I explore this world, I realize that I was beyond wrong about indie gaming. Without the restraints of focus testing, enormous budgets, and arbitrary interests from money obsessed publishers, independent developers are free to innovate in ways that you rarely see with large releases. Of course, finding gems usually means traversing an enormous sea of mediocrity, but user reviews are fairly good at steering you in the right direction. Luckily for fans of Xenomorphosis, the number of sci-fi themed indie games are near infinite. One of these games, Capsized, is a great introduction to this world.
Capsized’s illustrations fit the in-game graphics perfectly.
Developer: Alientrap Games
Publishers: Alientrap Games (self-published), indiePub Entertainment, Inc. (iOS version)
Platforms: Steam, iOS (called Capsized+), XBLA
Release Dates: 2011 (Steam), 2013 (iOS), 2013 (XBLA)
Detailed environments like those in Capsized add such great atmospheric value.
Capsized was initially released for Steam in 2011, and was developed by Alientrap Games: a studio known for a sci-fi FPS called Nexuiz that was built on modified Quake engine tech. Initially developed by Alientrap’s Lee Vermeluen and Jesse McGibney as a university project, they later devoted their full efforts to the game after graduation. Lee’s role was as programmer, and Jesse’s was as artist. Although this was their first major commercial release, and they claim they had to learn a lot along the way, their inexperience is never noticeable when playing the game. Had you told me this was developed by a couple of ex-Valve employees wanting to experiment on their own, I’d have believed you.
Levels like this one have extremely floaty gravities, giving you an even more empowering sense of speed than usual.
Storytelling in Capsized is all told through short comic strips. Essentially, you play as a spacefarer who has crash landed on a hostile alien planet. You’ve been separated from your crew, so you must find them before you can rebuild your ship. Lee and Jesse felt strongly that there should be as little text as possible, so you’re mostly forced to learn the game’s mechanics on your own. I appreciated the freedom from tedious explanations, because at its core Capsized is a very arcadey game, and text would just serve to slow down the game experience. The developers are big fans of fast-paced FPS’, so they wanted to channel as much of that kinetic gameplay as possible.
The rocket in this image is being deflected by an object that you must destroy to beat the level.
I stumbled on Capsized when I saw a news story mentioning its imminent release on iOS. Captivated by its beautiful art style, I immediately searched for more details. After seeing that the game was described as an exploration-based sci-fi action platformer, visions of Metroid sprang to mind, and I bought Capsized almost immediately. Metroid is my favorite series of all time, so this was a no-brainer. Having now beaten the game, I now realize that Capsized bears a much more acute resemblance to a certain infamous European series. Whether the developers intended it or not (I doubt they did judging from interviews), Capsized feels very similar to the Turrican games. The game is split into separate missions, but each one feels like it starts where the last one ended, geographically speaking.
The night levels require you to use a flashlight.
Gameplay in Capsized is part exploration, but there’s never a dull moment. Enemies attack from all directions, sometimes in screen filling numbers. Throughout these levels you’re encouraged to explore every nook and cranny, because doing so will net you additional lives, shields, powerups, weapons, and secret collectibles. Each level has a different objective: some require you to defeat certain enemies, collect unique items, or simply traverse to an exit location. Because of the objective-based gameplay, the goals within Capsized‘s levels can usually be beaten in any order you choose. Generally, this means clearing every enemy from the screen to make the end-goal easily achievable, but there’s nothing stopping you from blazing straight from objective to objective and avoiding the majority of enemies. Bonuses and weapons don’t follow you from level to level, so there’s no disadvantage to expending all your firepower in each level. I’m one of those gamers who nervously saves all his good weapons until the end-game, so it’s a nice change of pace to not feel guilty about going Full Rambo at every possible opportunity.
Some of the chaos that makes Capsized so much fun.
Capsized has a healthy assortment of weapons to choose from. Other than the default rifle, there’s a rapid-fire gun, a missile launcher, a homing shot, a laser shot, a flamethrower, a grenade launcher, and a black hole generator. Ammo is plentiful, but should you run out, the default gun is still pretty useful. Some weapons also have an alternate firing mode, and the default gun even has a charge shot. To be honest, the regular firing modes were adequate enough that I never felt the need to rely on the alternates. In addition to the weapons, Capzised has an excellent grappling hook that can be used all times. This might actually be the best example of a grappling hook in a sidescroller that I’ve ever experienced. Before long, you’ll find yourself whipping around levels at lightning speeds, that is, until you fling yourself into a swarm of enemies. The grappling hook also serves as a sort of gravity gun, letting you pick up and fling objects at will. Should you need even more manoeuvring power, you have access to a jet pack with a finite supply of fuel. In some levels, fuel recharges infinitely when you’re touching the ground, in others, you must collect hidden fuel canisters. Strangely enough, there’s never an indication of whether a level has a finite or infinite fuel supply. I often found out about the infinite supply at the end of a level, which speaks to the usefulness of the grappling hook.
While capturing these screens, I noticed that the game adds a slight blur effect to your surroundings while you’re moving. This made it difficult to take dynamic shots that don’t look low resolution.
On paper, Capsized sounds like an oldschool platformer, but thanks to a realistic physics engine, it plays quite differently. Like in many modern indie sidescrollers, objects roll or bounce across the environment realistically when disturbed, so there are no canned animations. The benefit of this is that no two playthroughs feel the same, the downside is that platforming obstacles aren’t as meticulously planned as in older classics, and objects sometimes obstruct your path in annoying ways. You’ll often find yourself at odds with a corridor that’s obstructed by a misplaced object. On one playthrough, there was an object that I needed to complete a level, but it had managed to wedge itself into a wall. Consequently, I had to restart the level because the object was irretrievable.
The jet pack and grappling hook can both be used at the same time.
Other than the rare occurrence of objects getting sucked into walls, Capsized‘s difficulty is challenging, but reasonable. There are three difficulty levels: Easy, Normal (the default), and Hard. The controls will be instantly to familiar to people who’ve played their fair share of modern sidescrollers on PC. The WASD keys move your character, and the mouse controls the direction of your gun. Once you master these controls. the game becomes really fun. As long as you chip away at the enemies without pulling too many at once, chances are you won’t be presented with the Game Over screen, at least until you reach the final boss level, which is pretty difficult. Once you’ve beaten the game, there’s a rewarding ranking system that encourages you to replay each level. After each level, you’re given a rank out of 10 based on your completion time, secret items gathered, lives remaining, and difficulty level chosen. Should you finish a level really quickly with few to no deaths, you’ll get a high rank; there’s no need to kill any more enemies than absolutely necessary. In addition to the ranking system, Capsized offers replay value in the form of an Arcade option. In the arcade, you can choose between several game modes: a team death match against bots, a time trial where you collect oxygen canisters to stay alive, a horde-type survival mode, a mode in which you must survive with no weapons, and a deathmatch mode against human opponents. I still haven’t had a chance to try every one of these modes, but from what I’ve experienced, they’re both fun, and really challenging.
Capsized’s soundtrack, which I haven’t given its proper due, has a subdued ethereal quality that suits the game’s atmosphere perfectly.
As I mentioned earlier, the first thing that will likely draw most people’s attention are the beautiful visuals. The backgrounds have a detailed, hand drawn quality. Most levels feature a lush jungle setting rife with colorful flora and even harmless fauna. Although there isn’t much variation to the environments, you’ll fight at every time of day, so the lighting and colors change from level to level. In my opinion, rich environments are integral to exploration-based games, and in this area Capsized delivers the goods spectacularly. As I mentioned earlier, scattered throughout the environments are hordes of enemies. These consist of flying jellyfish, ferocious animals, and all manner of aggressive tribal natives. For the most part, individual enemies are relatively easy to kill, but put 20 together on one screen and the odds tend to balance in their favor. Their design is nothing you haven’t seen before, but they suit the game world perfectly.
Capsized is a game that I can see myself continuing to return to. The fast-paced action, non-linear levels, rank system, and arcade modes provide for a really fun and rewarding experience. After beating the game once, I re-beat it a month later and enjoyed the experience just as much the second time. The game is relatively short, but the length feels reasonable given the relatively low price point. Also worth mentioning is that in addition to the iOS port, there’s also an XBLA release, so the game is now available to most gamers. Here’s hoping that Capsized eventually gets a much deserved sequel.
Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Capsized-related images
For whatever reason, manga has been strangely absent from Xenomorphosis. This wasn’t a conscious decision, because I love (certain) manga. Unfortunately, my particular taste in manga accounts for maybe 5% of everything produced in the medium. Most of my favorite series originated in the late 80s and 90s, at a time when Japanese entertainment was considerably more infatuated with Western media than it is now. Franchises like Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Terminator, Mad Max, and Rambo inspired a generation of Japanese characters, settings, and stylistic conventions. Now, anime and manga seem to be largely inspired by other anime, manga, and video games. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it has led to the intensification of anime-centric tropes. Which tropes am I referring to? Well, to name a few: clueless, spineless male protagonists (and the girls who compete for them), angsty teenage heroes, plenty of fanservice (upskirts, bath scenes, perky boobs, etc.), lolis, otaku culture, pointless long-winded pseudo-philosophical speeches (sometimes in the middle of battle), etc. For the most part, I can’t stand these tropes, so I tend to choose series that have as little of them as possible. Of course, doing so is nearly impossible, so I’m usually forced to comprise. On the other hand, I love the creativity and incredibly skilled artwork found in manga and anime, so I’m happy to sort through the mountains of titles that don’t pique my interest for those one or two monumental gems.
As far as sci-fi comics are concerned, I think I can safely say that Japan has offered us more classic examples of the genre than the States has. One of the masters of sci-fi manga is a man named Tsutomu Nihei. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he loves Western media more than Japanese media, so the tropes I mentioned are mostly absent from his works. I don’t mean to imply that the only good manga creators are those that are influenced by the West; instead, I’m just suggesting that these days this is no longer the norm, so you’re guaranteed a different feel from the average series.
The series is much grittier than the covers imply.
Knights of Sidonia
Writer: Tsutomu Nihei
Artist: Tsutomu Nihei
Publishers: Kodansha (Japan), Vertical (USA)
Magazine Serialization: Afternoon (2009-Present)
Featured Chapters: 1-15
US Release Dates: February 5, 2013 (Volume 1), April 16, 2013 (Volume 2), June 4, 2013 (Volume 3)
Opening the first issue with tentacle body-horror is always a plus in my books.
Tsutomu Nihei is best remembered for the cyberpunk series Blame!, and Biomega, which were serialized in 1998 and 2004, respectively. Both of these series have a dark look, super violent content, and in the case of Blame!, sparse text and storylines that can be difficult to follow. Luckily, the art is so awesome in both series that you can pretty much enjoy them as standalone art books. Fast forward several years to 2009, which saw the introduction of Nihei’s latest, currently ongoing series, Knights of Sydonia. You’re probably thinking the same thing I did when first introduced to that name, “wait, isn’t that a Muse song”? The answer is yes; the Japanese sure do love to reference their favorite music.
Knights of Sydonia is definitely Nihei’s most accessible work to date. Compared to his earlier comics, the story is easier to follow, the characters are younger, the action is less violent, the art looks more streamlined, there’s more humor, and there’s a decent amount of fanservice. These choices might be enough to turn off hardcore Nihei fans, but let me assure you, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had from KoS. Despite this being more streamlined than his previous series, KoS has gorgeous artwork, a compelling story that’s much deeper than it appears at first glance, likeable characters, mechs, and best of all, gigantic body horror.
Sadly, there are only a few full color renderings.
Nihei’s sci-fi designs, including this pressure suit, are always a joy to look at.
In the year 2109, while exploring outside the solar system, humanity encounters alien life. They dub the aliens “gaunas”. Gaunas are composed of a core that creates organic tissue refered to as placenta. Gaunas can take on any form they absorb, which means they often have a grotesque human appearance. They can form energy weapons with the placenta, but mostly attack with tentacle appendages that subdue their enemies. Gaunas can only be killed by first exposing their core, and then piercing it with a spear weapon known as a Kabizashi (the origins of which are explained later in the series). This is much more difficult than it sounds, because the placenta can regrow faster than you chip away at it. Gaunas form together to create “cluster ships”, which are the vessels they use to traverse through space. Cluster ships are often thousands of kilometers in length, and are composed of thousands of gaunas. Over 200 years after the first encounter with the gauna, they myseriously reappear and destroy the Earth. Humanity survives by fleeing in massive seed ships that escape in separate directions. KoS’s story take place on the Sidonia, one of the massive seedships, over a thousand years after the destruction of the Earth.
As far as I know the Gardes are Nihei’s first attempt at mech design.
The protagonist, Nagate Tanikaze, in a simulated mission.
At the beginning of the story, we’re introduced to a teenager called Nagate Tanikaze, who lives alone in a hidden underground section of the Sidonia. His grandfather was his only companion, but has been dead for 3 years. Tanikaze decides to venture into the outside world, which is populated by hundreds of thousands of humans. He is immediately an outsider, but is mysteriously granted a spot in their pilot academy by the captain of the Sidonia. Humanity’s weapon against the gauna are mechs called “gardes”. Tanikaze spent most of his time underground in garde simulation chambers, so he is already an expert pilot. The story takes place through his eyes as he tries to integrate into society, and is tasked with aiding in the fight against the gauna, who have recently reappeared.
Apparently Nihei studied architecture, which makes sense given his impressive environments that often contain challenging perspectives.
As you can tell from the previous paragraph, KoS’s story is fairly atypical for sci-fi manga, which usually take place on Earth in either a cyberpunk or post-apocalyptic setting. The concept reminds me more of a 70s sci-fi novel than of any manga I’ve read previously. That being said, fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion will note some striking resemblances. Both series feature mech battles against an enemy whose true nature is very much uncertain. In both cases, a mysterious shadow organization calls the shots, and we’re led to believe that they know more about the situation and the nature of the aliens than they let on. Also, in both cases, the aliens continue to adapt to human tactics, meaning that no two battles are ever the same. One of my criticisms with KoS is that like in Evangelion, the battles against the aliens follow a pattern that is predictable to a tee. Essentially, the pacing of the story goes something like this: “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “fight aliens”, “recoup from aliens”, “rinse, and repeat”. Also, despite Nihei’s best efforts, I found the alien fights were almost always fairly dull. I’ve always wondered why mechs are predominantly found in anime and not manga. I think the answer is that mech action just lends itself better to film. When dealing with static images, the intensity of a mech battle is lost, and furthermore, it can be difficult to discern what’s happening on each panel. I don’t consider this a fault of Nihei, because I think he does the best job possible; it seems to be a shortcoming of the medium. Luckily, the series is scheduled for an anime adaptation, which I think will give the mech battles a better fighting chance.
Had I drawn this, I probably would have been tempted to just copy and paste the mechs in the upper panel. Nihei, on the other hand, drew each one individually.
Back to KoS’s story; other than the tedium of the battles, I love the way Nihei handles the pacing. Each scene is relatively short, but never fails to add a valuable tidbit to the overall plot. To Nihei’s credit, there’s very little filler. The nuances are subtle, meaning that nothing is overly explained. There are no monologues, and almost no captions. Instead, you’re expected to glean story elements from visual cues, or from small interchanges between characters. For example, the other students initially don’t like Tanikaze. How do we know that? Is it because Tanikaze complains about how nobody likes him? Instead, we glean it from a scene in which he opens his locker to reveal that someone has put an “odor neutralizer” inside. Turning around, he sees some students covering their nose, implying that they think he smells. Again, Tanikaze never openly asks “why does nobody like me”? We discover this ourselves by paying attention to the visual cues in each panel. I found this approach really refreshing, especially compared to some manga/anime series, in which nobody ever shuts up… As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer when a comic writer imparts information from visuals rather than text whenever possible. KoS’s story takes some time to get into, and you’ll undoubtedly be slightly confused at first, but give it time and you’ll start to feel really involved. After reading the first three volumes, I went back and reread them. Not only were they a breezy joy to read the second time, everything made perfect sense and “felt right”.
This looks much more like a page from Blame! than most of the art.
As with any story, especially in the realm of manga, the degree to which you get absorbed into the work is largely dependent on your emotional investment to the characters. KoS’s characters are fairly one dimensional, and to be honest, we learn very little about each one, but I still really like the cast. It could be said that Tanakaze is somewhat bland, but he’s a huge breath of fresh air compared to most anime protagonists. He’s strong and capable, but not cocky. He’s friendly and innocent, but not overly shy. And, best of all, he actually seems happy most of the time, rather than angsty! Essentially he’s the exact opposite of a character like Shinji from the similarly themed Neon Genesis Evangelion. His classmates conform to typical anime character tropes, but I still enjoyed them. There’s the cute reserved girl, the loyal friend, the super outgoing girl, the wise superiors, and the shady rival. Slight spoiler warning: people die in KoS, and when they do, it feels pretty crappy. As expected, there are several girls who are romantically interested in Tanikaze, and of course, he’s mostly oblivious. Back to the loyal friend: this individual, who goes by the name Izana, is a really progressive character. Essentially, Izana is a hermaphrodite, and seems to lean towards different gender norms based on the situation at hand. Mostly, he/she seems to lean towards the feminine side, and is romantically interested in Tanikaze. I’m actually really rooting for the relationship between the two; the LGBT community would be proud of his/her character. On the other hand, KoS contains quite a bit of fanservice that might annoy progressive communities. I’m not going to lie, I like the occasional T&A in my manga, but even I find it slightly sketchy that there are a couple of instances where when women get killed, their clothes get ripped off in the process…
Tanikaze and love interest Hoshijiro.
As I mentioned earlier, KoS’s art is cleaner than Tsutomu Nihei’s previous works. There’s less use of crosshatching and ink splotches, which overall results in a look that’s less dark and muddy. Shading is accomplished with solid black ink rather than hatching. In the end, KoS has a more calculated, less chaotic look than Blame! or Biomega, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your outlook. After spending some time comparing KoS to his earlier work, I think Nihei’s artwork has matured, contrary to my initial reaction. In particular, I love the way he’s able to impart scope using the occasional zoomed out shot. Nihei’s understanding of composition is excellent, which leads to plenty of beautiful panels that feature mechs as small specks compared to the enormity of the Sidonia. A quote on the back of Volume 2 praises Nihei for his ability to render the beauty of empty space; I couldn’t agree more. In addition, Nihei does body horror like no other. It was actually his depiction of the flood in Halo Graphic Novel that rekindled my interest in Blame!. The gauna are giant hulking monstrosities that gush tentacles and embody human characteristics. Nihei’s depiction of body horror is second to none.
Knights of Sidonia is a series that I would recommend to any fans of sci-fi manga. The content, which might seem off-putting to longtime Nihei fans, is very much a step in the “Japanese entertainment will only sell if it has a teenage school setting”, but the end result is much better than you might expect. Despite the initial school setting (which actually goes away pretty quickly), the story is hard sci-fi, and contains numerous interesting sci-fi concepts in additions to the ones I mentioned. The writing, art and characters are all great, so I definitely plan to continue reading the series. Japan is already up to Volume 10 (Chapter 42), so we still have a long way to go to catch up. Luckily, the American publisher, Vertical, has committed to translating a new volume every couple of months.
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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Knights of Sidonia
If I haven’t already stated this clearly enough, I’d like to remind everyone that I love Genesis/Mega Drive shooters. They harken back to a time when environments and atmosphere were an integral part of the shmup experience. As much as I enjoy bullet hell shooters, it’s hard to enjoy their backgrounds when 90% of the screen is filled with bullets, and breaking concentration for a millisecond means imminent death. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you that I prefer vertical to horizontal shooters. Now, I find myself leaning towards the latter. Because horizontal shooters force you to interact with their environments, I find they often create a more compelling atmosphere. The downside to this extra layer of complexity is that the ever-present danger of smashing into walls can get really frustrating. For me, the sweet spot is when a horizontal shooter has non-lethal walls; this gives me the best of both worlds. The Sega-developed Genesis/Mega Drive game Bio-Hazard Battle (called Crying in Japan) is a happy example of this compromise.
Not the best illustration, but it reflects the in-game content nicely.
Bio-Hazard Battle/ Crying
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Virtual Console, Steam
Original Release Date: 1992
A short opening cinematic shows your ship being dropped from outside the planet’s atmosphere.
Developed in 1992, Bio-Hazard Battle is the only Sega-developed horizontal shooter I can think of other than Fantasy Zone. As for why the game is called Crying in its native country, your guess is as good as mine. Typically, Western changes to a game’s branding feel odd and inappropriate, and yet in this case I think the Bio-Hazard Battle name and image make more sense than Crying. Looking at the box art and menu screen for Crying, it looks like a tech-based cyberpunk game, not a post-apocalyptic adventure set in deep space. BHB is often remembered for its visual style, which presents a planet where the natural world is overgrown and menacing. Instead of traversing gigeresque hivescapes (I just made that up), you explore areas that abound in organic life that looks larger and more dangerous than what we have on Earth. To make things even more interesting, the selectable characters are bioships that look similar to the enemies that you battle. BHB’s design and atmosphere exist in their own interesting vacuum, in the sense that I’ve never seen another shooter that looks similar.
No 16-bit shooter is complete without plenty of flying sperm.
In BHB, humans living on a planet called Avaron were attacked by a hostile alien force during an event called G-Biowar I. The aliens unleashed a retrovirus that exposed humanity to a plethora of hostile lifeforms. The humans were all eradicated, save for a small group that fled to O.P. Odysseus, an orbiting space station. After hundreds of years in stasis, the station’s computer woke the human crew. Probes indicate that certain areas of Avaron can potentially be reclaimed. Piloting a bioship, it’s your job to scout out these locations to see if they’re fit for recolonization. As a nice bonus, BHB’s English manual explains the conditions that the probes have anticipated for each area (level).
This lush forest from Stage 3 shows off the strange fauna and flora found on Avaron.
I respect that BHB’s story is a departure from the typical: “you’re the last jet fighter left, go get ‘em cowboy!” Instead of single-handedly saving the human race, you’re essentially involved in scouting missions. As you’ll soon find out, I love almost everything about BHB, and I think the story does a great job of explaining the environments you encounter. Because the planet has been overrun, you’ll sometimes find relics of civilization. As I explained in my Panzer Dragoon and After Earth reviews, my absolute favorite post-apocalyptic settings are those in which a planet has been so overtaken by vegetation or geological changes that it’s barely recognizable. In this sense, BHB actually shares a lot in common with Panzer Dragoon, at least visually. Given the nature of the virus that transformed BHB’s planet, the freakish organisms that constantly swarm your ship actually make sense. As you can probably guess, the bosses are a real treat to see, and feature oversized, distorted anomalies of nature. The Stage 6 boss is a giant airship that is part organism and part machine; its underside is dominated by a giant set of gills that are easily some of the best looking sprites I’ve seen in a Genesis game. Overall, the spritework is top-notch, as evidenced by the range of locales you explore. The game starts in the upper atmosphere of Avaron, and then proceeds to a ruined city, a forest, a cave, an ocean, an airship, a junkyard, and finally an industrial facility.
Luckily, walls don’t hurt your ship. Otherwise, this stage would be near impossible.
Accompanying the unique visuals is one of my favorite soundtracks on the Genesis. Anytime I’ve seen the music mentioned, everyone always emphasizes how much bass there is in the mix. There’s this constant tribal droning that accompanies you throughout your journey. It’s really unlike anything I’ve heard in a game, and it both embraces and transcends the limitations of the Genesis’ sound chip. The melodies match the pace of the levels, and are at times uplifting, mystical, and terrifying. I can think of few games whose soundtrack fits their mood so perfectly. In a game that I love on nearly every level, the soundtrack might be the strongest point.
Frying up some massive kalamari.
BHB gives you a choice between 4 bioships to commandeer: Orestes, Electra, Hecuba, and Polyxena. Aside from their visual differences, each ship has a different set of available shot types that are made available by collecting Energy Seeds. Energy seeds come in 4 colors, and are scattered liberally throughout the stages. By collecting an energy seed, you gain its shot type. Collect three of the same energy seed in a row and that shot type will become fully powered up. Because each of the four ships react differently to the various energy seeds, collecting the red seed as one ship will give you a different shot type than as a different ship. Although your ship always fires a forward-facing rapid shot, the special shots given by the energy seeds fire from an option that orbits your ship. As in many horizontal shooters, the direction of the option can be controlled by moving your ship from side-to-side. As you can imagine, it can be difficult to both dodge attacks and aim your option at the same time. Luckily, two of the energy seeds give you shots that don’t need to be manually aimed. My favorite of the shot types, the red homing laser, is a joy to use and can make certain sections much easier. I typically choose Polyxena for playthroughs because it is one of two ships able to use this attack. In addition to the homing shot are a green rapid fire, a powerful yellow double-helix laser, slow blue homing orbs, and a blue multidirection laser. This powerup system is really well implemented, and as you learn the levels you’ll know which shot type to choose for each situation. Originally, I used to play almost exclusively with the red homing laser, until I realized that other weapons were better suited to certain areas. Another strategy in BHB is that options will defend you from incoming fire, and the blue homing orb shot will absorb enemy bullets. That being said, in practice its easier to rely on your dodging skills than on these difficult manoeuvres. Finally, your ship has a charge shot that can be utilized at all times. This shot passes through enemies, making it essential when you need to clear an area of many enemies at once. Although its easy to assume that the charge shot is the most powerful weapon against bosses, the yellow double-helix laser is actually more deadly and less cumbersome.
I love the detail on this infected airship.
In terms of difficulty, BHB is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I was able to finish it on Easy with starting lives turned to max after a few hours, but of course the game becomes much trickier on Normal with default lives. After about a week of play, I can almost 1CC the game, but it’s definitely not an easy accomplishment. From the menu screen, you can choose between Easy, Normal, and Hard, and anywhere from 3 to 5 starting lives (3 being the default). The game becomes noticeably harder on higher difficulties, primarily because enemy bullets move faster, and certain bosses have slightly more challenging patterns. Thankfully, the game starts you off with 10 credits, which is pretty generous. Dying and losing your maxed out shots doesn’t hurt your groove too badly, so its easy to just keep spending credits on each new level until you master the enemy patterns. Additionally, extends are doled out at every 20 000 points, which amounts to about twice per level. If that wasn’t generous enough already, Levels 2 through 8 each have a secret 1UP location that require you to shoot an invisible location to render them visible. They’re relatively easy to find, so you’ll probably know most of their locations after a few plays.
One of BHB’s stranger bosses. I think it just burst from its cocoon.
BHB’s pacing starts out really easy, and then ramps up in difficulty with each level. The first level is essentially a short tutorial, because you can practically beat it without moving your ship. Personally, I find stages 5 and 8 the most difficult, mostly because they launch battalions of enemies into your ship. There are actually quite a few bullets to dodge in BHB, but the real challenge usually comes from avoiding collisions with enemies that swoop in waves. Most of BHB’s memorization involves knowing when to avoid these incoming enemies, which hassle you even during boss fights. As a result, boss fights can be milked, but I can’t imagine you’d last long without inadvertently killing the boss. Because I doubt you can milk bosses for very long, BHB’s scoring consists of shooting down as many enemies as possible throughout the stages. Energy seeds don’t give you points, and there are no bonus tokens or multipliers.
If there’s one point I’d like to stress about BHB, it’s that it’s really fun to play. I’ve tried (and failed) to 1CC it countless times, but I never get bored. Furthermore, the combination of unique visuals, incredible music, and unique powerup system mean that BHB is well-rounded in every way possible. My only gripe is that enemy bullets sometimes blend in too conveniently with the backgrounds. Regardless, Bio-Hazard Battle might just be my new favorite Genesis shooter. I would kill to see a sequel!
Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images
At risk of betraying my age, the Genesis was the first system I ever owned. Sure, I have early memories of playing the NES at other people’s houses (or my accurately, watching others play), but the genny was all mine. Many of my best gaming memories were from the system’s punishing games and deep bass. Unsurprisingly, when I was older, and started to purchase older games, the Genesis was the first system that I chose to relive. At first glance, the genny was home to countless licensed games, as well as about a billion bargain bin sports games, but dig a little deeper, and you’ll find an endless treasure trove of excellent Japanese titles, most of which were brought to the West thanks to a company called Renovation. Among these niche games, the dominant genre was undoubtedly shooters. When I started collecting games for the system, many of the “top games for the system” lists included plenty of shmups. Thus, I stumbled upon classics like Gaiares, Lightening Force (Thunderforce III in Japan), Fire Shark, and others that I can’t seem to recall at the moment.
Boss fights in Hellfire range from relatively easy to brutally hard.
Needless to say, my endeavour to relive my Genesis-playing youth played a big part in crystallizing my then-emerging love for shmups. At this point, I now own most of the Western-released shooters for the system. They might not be as pretty as other 16-bit shooters, and there are some people who avoid 16-bit arcade ports altogether, but I can’t seem to get enough of them. This was an era of immense creativity and experimentation, especially as far as visuals were concerned. The environments, enemies, and (especially) bosses in 16-bit shooters are all over the map, and feature the sort of visual risk-taking that you don’t see as often these days. Trains with giant deformed heads attached? Spaceships in the shape of fish? Flying pharaoh head ships? Sure, why not? Many of the Genesis’ shooters came out in the first few years of its life-cycle, and today’s game is no exception. Released in 1990 in Japan, and 1991 in North America, Hellfire was one of several arcade ports for the system from legendary shooter developer Toaplan (who you might remember from my Batsugun review).
Now this is some kickass cover art! Who wouldn’t buy this?
Publishers: Taito (Arcade), Seismic Software Inc. (Mega Drive), NEC Avenue (PC Engine CD-ROM)
Platforms: Genesis/Mega Drive (Featured), Arcade, PC Engine CD-ROM
Release Dates: 1989 (Arcade), 1991 (Japanese Mega Drive), 1991 (Genesis, European Mega Drive, PC Engine CD-ROM)
That transport ship looks quite a bit like Halo’s Pelican dropship.
In the year 2998, humanity has reached a period of prosperity, and has successfully colonized numerous planets. Suddenly, an entity known as Black Nebula appears and starts devouring stars until it eventually reaches one of man’s colonies. The Black Nebula is revealed to be a robotic dictator named Super Mech, who intends to eradicate all of humanity with his vast space armada. In the arcade and Genesis versions, the main character is a Space Federation member named Lance, who pilots the only space fighter craft, the CNCS1, against Super Mech’s forces. In the PC Engine version, Lance is replaced with a female protagonist named Kaoru. Generally I love the simplistic, far future settings of space shooters, but Hellfire story is about as far-fetched as they come. Only one space fighter craft left in existence? Seriously!? I get it, the society of the future is past the need for warfare, but keep at least… 3 space ships around for defense! Jeez.
The various directions of laser fire are color coded, which is really handy in tight situations.
Originally released in arcades in 1989, Hellfire was unique in that it was one of only two horizontal shooters ever developed by Toaplan (the other being the infamous Zero Wing). Toaplan are remembered for blazing new ground with their giant output of vertically scrolling shooters, but horis? Not so much. Most shooter usually have a gimmick, and Hellfire is no exception. In this case, the gimmick is the ability to change between one of 4 shooting directions on the fly. I say the word “gimmick” lovingly, because in the case of Hellfire, it’s implemented extremely well. At any time, you can switch between shooting forward-facing, diagonal, backwards, or vertical lasers. For the most part, this adds a nice layer of depth to the game. My only criticism is that you have to cycle through the shot modes one at a time, meaning that if you need to switch to a diagonal laser in a pinch, you may have to hit the “switch shot mode” button up to to three times. As I’ll explain soon, Hellfire has a brutal level of difficulty, so you’re often forced to know when to switch to a certain shot, even before a certain wave of enemies appears onscreen. Conversely, the various shot modes open up more possiblities than in your average shooter. When watching videos of other people playing the game, their way of clearing a certain area is often different from mine, and involves the use of a different sequence of shot modes. Either way, by the time you master Hellfire, you’ll look like a pro, because you’ll be switching to appropriate directions of fire even before enemies appear onscreen. To the game’s credit, the gimmick is pushed to its limits, meaning that you will be forced to not only embrace it, but master it as well. In my opinion, the sign of a poorly implemented gimmick in a shooter is when you can clear the game without ever needing to rely on it.
I love the Egyptian motif.
As I alluded to earlier, Hellfire is brutal as f**k. Your character sprite is fairly large, and has an equally large hitbox. Hitting walls will kill you, and as you collect speedups, you’ll be moving so fast that walls present a serious lethality. In the later levels, bosses spew out incredibly fast bullets, which wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to dodge if you didn’t move so freaking far every time you tap the direction pad, and if your hitbox wasn’t so ridiculously huge. Needless to say, one of my important survival strategies is to avoid as many speedups as possible. Two or three is the sweet-spot; any more and you’ll be smashing into all manner of enemies and walls. By far Hellfire‘s most punishing aspect is its continue system, which might be one of the most crushing I’ve ever seen. Dying at anytime in Hellfire means being sent back to a checkpoint, often fairly far back in the level (think R-Type). This will cause you to lose all your powerups, and won’t even replenish your smart bombs, should you have run out. Even worse, dying near the beginning of a checkpoint will send you back to a previous checkpoint! This is the video game equivalent of multiple choice tests where you lose points for getting the wrong answer. Being sent to a checkpoint with zero powerups means you’re pretty much screwed, that is unless you’ve memorized the game to a tee, which is imperative should you wish to finish it. In fact, I would almost recommend practicing levels without powerups, because doing so will ensure that when you do have powerups, the game will feel considerably easier. Luckily, powerups are relatively easy to come by, so starting a level without any doesn’t mean that you’re entirely screwed. Fully powered up, you’ll shoot 3 horizontal lasers, and 2 diagonal lasers. Don’t expect any screen clearing weapons of mass destruction. In terms of other upgrades, you can collect an option that flies around randomly and sometimes damages other ships, as well as a giant laser bomb that passes through every enemy, and clears the screen of enemy bullets.
Some of the machinery designs, like the one seen in this picture, are really well done.
By the time you’ve mastered Hellfire‘s levels, you’ll be able to (mostly) play through the entire experience without dying, which as you can imagine, feels really rewarding. The one saving grace in Hellfire‘s difficulty is that on the default “Easy mode”, you’re given 20 continues, which is more than you’ll realistically use. Most times, you’ll find yourself putting the game down in frustration well before you’ve blown through all 20 continues. The other available difficulties in Hellfire are Hard (which I really can’t comment on because there’s no way I was going to try it), and “Yea Right”, which is the difficulty setting you unlock when you loop the game. As hard as Hellfire is, it rarely feels overly cheap; most deaths usually feel warranted, with the exception of the ones where you run into walls as a result of the ridiculous speedups. Overall, Hellfire’s challenge is what kept me returning to the game, and you will feel like a pro if you can make it to the last couple stages. One last tip if you plan to stay alive past the first level: in the options menu, turn the fire mode to “rapid”. This is absolutely essentially considering the pathetic pea shooter you start with. Your wrist (and sanity) will thank you.
Tight corridors are a hassle when every time you click the direction pad you move a full ship length.
Scoring in Hellfire is relatively straightforward. Basically, you get points for shooting down enemies (duh), and collecting bonus points in the form of floating “B” tokens. Once your ship is fully maxed out, powerups will stop dropping, and will be replaced instead by B tokens. As you collect the B tokens, they will progressively give you more points, Eventually, if you collect around 10 without dying, their point value will max out at a huge bonus of 10 000 points per token. As you master the game, and are able to survive long periods of time without dying, you’ll collect enough of these tokens to continue getting extends. In the American Genesis version, the first extend is received at 70 000 points, and progressive extends are given at every 200 000 points. Should you play the game flawlessly, you can finish with around 12 or more lives. Although this sounds generous, remember that dying starts you back at zero, in more ways than one. Therefore, playing for score in Hellfire means not dying, ideally not even once, which is much harder said than done. I’ve played the hell out of Hellfire, and I still can’t beat the game, period. I can get to the last stage on a credit, but past that point it’s just too ridiculously brutal. Should you reach the final boss, his attacks are so fierce that I had a hard time surviving his final attack even with save states…
Hellfire’s soundtrack is mostly pretty bland and unmemorable.
Hellfire‘s visuals are competent, but far from the best you’ll see on the system. It holds its own compared to other early Genesis titles, but it looks pretty weak compared to later shooters like Thunderforce III and IV, M.U.S.H.A., and Bio Hazard Battle. The colors look too dark, the backgrounds are fairly bland, and there’s a general lack of detail. On the plus side, the graphics are really smooth, and are pretty much entirely devoid of flicker or slowdown. Although the environments are bland, I respect that they’re pretty varied. In particular, the second level’s Egyptian motif is really fun and original. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll explore a space station, an Egyptian-style temple, a pink organic planet, a swamp, another space station, and open space. The enemies are also fairly varied, other than a green mecha type that appears in waves in nearly every level. There are several larger enemy ships, which are nicely designed, and have weapons that animate independently.
Overall, I’d recommend Hellfire to any shooter fans that aren’t afraid of imperfect arcade ports, and any Genesis gamers that are looking for a challenge. The game is tough as nails, but it’s also really fun. If you step up to the challenge, you’ll find yourself spending countless hours on “one last try”. Everything runs really smoothly, and the 4-way firing mechanic is actually really well implemented. If there’s one thing I’d love to accomplish with this blog, its to convince sci-fi fans to give sci-fi themed shooters a chance. For newcomers, this might not be a great introduction to the genre, but considering that you can acquire it on the cheap, you can’t go too far wrong. So far I’ve been really impressed with Toaplan‘s Genesis output, and this is no exception.
Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Hellfire-related images
For people who read this blog, M. Night Shyamalan is a director who needs no introduction. Originally revered for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he later met mixed reviews for The Village, and was then totally lambasted for Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. My feelings on Shyamalan are mixed; on the one hand, those last two movies deserve all the scorn they receive, on the other hand, I still think his first few movies, even including The Village, are pretty great. For many people, a new Shyamalan movie is going to be bad, whether they’ve seen it or not. I’m not trying to forgive him for The Happening or The Last Airbender, but I think his early track record indicates that he’s still capable of making decent movies. If anything, I think his directing is actually fairly solid, it’s his writing that’s really hit or miss. When it was announced that Shyamalan would be directing a sci-fi movie, I was cautiously optimism. If there’s one thing I felt fairly certain about, it’s that Shyamalan was under way too much scrutiny to try anything too risky with a new movie. For the most part, that assumption was correct.
Contrary to this flyer, the movie has almost no old Earth ruins, which I thought was a huge shame.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writers: Gary Whitta, M. Night Shyamalan, Will Smith (concept)
Producers: Caleeb Pinkett, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, James Lassiter
Stars: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Sophie Okonedo
Studios: Overbrook Entertainment, Blinding Edge Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 31, 2013
The natural environments in After Earth are beautiful.
The original concept for After Earth was conceived by Will Smith, and was originally planned to take place in the present day in a remote mountainous region. At its core, After Earth is a wilderness survival movie, which makes sense given Smith’s original vision. After changing the setting to the future, Will Smith proposed the movie to writer Gary Whitta, who some people might remember for writing the sceenplay for Book of Eli. Whitta liked the concept, and fleshed it out to a full script. The two then approached Shyamalan to direct the movie, and he happily obliged. The final script was co-written by Shyamalan and Whitta, but I’m not sure to what degree Shyamalan altered the original script.
Cypher buckles his son in before the crash, but doesn’t think to recommend that the rest of the crew do the same….
In 2025, humans leave the Earth due to environmental catastrophe. They then colonize a habitable planet outside the solar system called Nova Prime. At some point, humanity is attacked by an alien species. This species creates a bioengineered organism called the ursa, which can’t see, but can sense the pheromones that humans release when they’re scared. Humanity is set to be wiped out, that is until Cypher Raige (Will Smith) develops a technique that turns the tide of battle. This technique is dubbed “ghosting”, and involves a human eliminating their fear, thus becoming blind to the ursa. Cypher leads humanity’s military force, referred to as the ranger corps. His son, a teenager named Kitai, seeks to become a ranger. Cypher is always away, and barely knows his son Kitai. At his wife’s urging, he takes Kitai with him on a trip to a human settled planet. On route, they encounter a meteor shower, and are forced to land at a destination that the ship’s computer selected. This location ends up being Earth, which is deemed totally hostile to humans. The ship ends up crashing, leaving Kitai and Cypher as the only survivors. To make matters worse, an Ursa was being held in a cage onboard the ship, and has gone missing. Cypher is injured, so it’s up to Kitai to make a long trek to the other half of the crashed ship, which contains a device that can emit a distress beacon.
The action in After Earth is sparse, but it’s always nicely choreographed. Most of it features Jaden wielding a weapon that looks like the combi-stick from Predator.
The story has a nice oldschool vibe to it. If you like Planet of the Apes’ theme of humans exploring a far future Earth, After Earth‘s premise will likely interest you. That being said, one of the movie’s biggest shortcomings is that there are a number of plot elements that are too convenient, or just defy science. First of all, when the ship crashes, Kitai seems to be the only person buckled into a seat, even though there is plenty of warning. The rest of the crew is jettisoned, other than Cypher, who miraculously survives. The fact that only father and son survive, for no decent reason, seems incredibly improbable. Another strange element is that apparently there’s isn’t enough oxygen in the atmosphere for humans to breathe without respiration aid, and yet there are numerous thriving mammals, many of which are larger in the size than today’s species. Additionally, the flora is more vibrant than ever, but everything freezes over at night. Also, life has somehow evolved to be harmful to humans, and yet humanity has been absent for 1000 years. Anyone with a basic understanding of evolution knows that a species won’t evolve mechanisms specifically to counter another species if the two aren’t in contact. Anyways, expect to suspend your disbelief when it comes to these plot devices. Shyamalan also has a way of being way to blatant with his foreshadowing. Not only does this not have his typical plot twists, you can see most events coming a mile off.
After Earth has a really cool prehistoric vibe, and what would a “land that time forgot” be without a volcano?
At risk of sounding too negative about After Earth, I’ll intersperese the negative with some positive. If you like sci-fi with planet exploration and survival, there’s a lot of fun to be had with After Earth. The environments are lush and interesting, evoking some of what people loved so much about Avatar. The vegetation and wildlife are really beautiful, and you get to see a range of locales. I love the concept of surviving alone in the wilderness, and to the movie’s credit, After Earth doesn’t skimp in this area; it pushes the survival theme to brutal lengths. Kitai deals with all manner of carnivorous wildlife, toxin inducing parasites, extreme weather conditions, and harsh topography. Central to the theme of the movie is Kitai’s journey to adulthood, and his desire to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father. Instead of giving us the archetypal “tough kid”, Kitai is very fallible, and very much afraid of his harsh surroundings. On the flip side, he also doesn’t veer too far in the wimpy, overly incapable direction.
This is the most serious we’ll ever see Will Smith, and I totally bought it.
The human technology and clothing designs in After Earth are interesting, but far from mind-blowing. Movies like Oblivion and Star Trek: Into Darkness have way more flashy visuals, and better designed sci-fi human environments. After Earth at least tries to be different, going for a slight retrograde theme, but ultimately it’s at a lower standard. Retro design elements in AE include spaceship interiors that have straw-looking doors and almost wooden support beams, civilians that wear loose robes, a sail motif in the city, and rangers that wear a 60′s/70′s style of spandex jumpsuit. Heck, even the term “ranger” sounds like it’s from a 60′s sci-fi book (Star Rangers by Andre Norton, to be exact). To the designers’ credit, I actually really like the look of the jumpsuit. It has interesting round edged patterns, and it changes color based on the environment.
I really like the design of the suit.
For most people, the make or break factor in After Earth will be the acting. In a risky move, Will and Jaden speak in made-up accents of the far future. Unfortunately, the accents ultimately come off sounding forced and awkward, and although they’re a noble effort, they’re likely to be really offputting for some people. Will Smith plays a hardline general with literally no emotion, which is really strange considering his typical roles. Some people might find his tone too stiff, but I personally felt there was a hidden depth to his performance. If anything it shows a range that I didn’t think he was capable of, and there’s plenty of subtle emotion hidden behind his rigid exterior. Conversely, my opinion of Jaden’s acting skills has lessened. I seem to remember really liking him in 2010′s The Karate Kid, but now I’m starting to doubt that memory. His performance in After Earth isn’t terrible, but he’s way too emotive. At any moment, he looks like he’s seconds away from breaking into tears. For some people, this facet of the movie might be enough to totally turn them off. In the pantheon of young actors, this is far from the bottle of the barrel; rather it hangs around the mid-ground. After Earth has several flashback sequences that serve to provide a bit more human drama to the film. They’re pretty unobtrusive, and do a nice job of adding depth to the relationship between Kitai and his father.
Overall, I had a pretty good time with After Earth. It has its flaws, but if you’re not too critical, and you like the theme of sci-fi exploration, I would still recommend giving this a chance. Shyamalan is one of those directors who has a mile long line of critics just waiting to say: “see, I told you so, this guy sucks”. Therefore, I don’t doubt that you will see plenty of reviews that are excessively harsh. Hating on Shyamalan is the hip thing to do, and After Earth is an obvious target. These reviews will not be written by sci-fi fans, which is why I hope I can still convince people who are interested in the premise to give it a shot. For sci-fi fans, this is at least worth a rental, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually gets something of a cult following. It’s not nearly as bad as the first flurry of reviews would have you believe.
Although it might be the nation’s capital, Ottawa isn’t especially well-known for its big attractions. Compared to the neighboring cities of Montreal and Toronto, Ottawa’s does a fairly good job of living up to its reputation of being a sleepy government town. That being said, one thing I love about Ottawa is that when we do get a big event, everyone gets really excited about it. In Montreal, giant festivals are a dime a dozen, so for the most part, it always seems like the average person has no idea what’s going on in their city. This was the Ottawa Comiccon‘s second year running, which is pretty surprising when you consider that there were over 30 000 attendees. There are so few major festivals in Ottawa, that people who wouldn’t usually be interested in cons go because it’s one of the few major events available. For a con, the crowd is fairly casual, but that’s fine by me. Personally I just like to meet guests and buy merch, so I couldn’t care less about the “nerdiness level” of the average attendee.
Ottawa Comiccon 2013
Dates: May 10 – 12
Location: Ernst & Young Centre
One of the few cosplayer photos I took. My hands were way too full to take photos.
Being that this is a sci-fi blog, I’m going to focus on the science fiction that was on offer. In terms of major guests, there were some pretty huge names from the world of sci-fi movies and television. Nathan Filion (Firefly), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: NG), Gillian Anderson (X-Files), Michael Shanks (Stargate), James Marsters (Torchwood), Levar Burton (Star Trek: NG), Billy Dee Williams (Star Wars), Jewel Staite (Firefly), and David Prowse (Star Wars) all made appearances. Actually, now that I see all the names together, that was a pretty damn killer lineup!Unfortunately, unless your name is Sigourney Weaver, I’m probably not going to pay $6o for an autograph… My friends and I were able to see the actors from nearby, but none of us paid to get up close and personal. That being said, at one point Billy Dee Williams left his booth and walked past us towards a cluster of vendors. According to one of my friends, Billy was pretty interested in a Bruce Lee t-shirt that was on display!
Dave Ross and a really nice woman who I assumed was his wife/girlfriend.
If there’s one bit of advice I would give to anyone who’s relatively new to conventions, try to avoid buying heavy stuff early in the day. I should’ve known better, but I ended up spending the majority of my cash in the first 10 minutes… There’s a vendor I’ve seen at several east coast cons that specializes in art books, most of which are Japanese. I almost stepped on the owner’s kid the moment I entered the booth. He had made a little home underneath one of the tables, and I nearly crushed the little guy. Personally, I love seeing kids at conventions. Thanks to my comic-collecting uncle, I used to be one of those con kids, so it’s always nice to see a healthy injection of new fans. Anyways, I ended up purchasing Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind: Watercolor Impressions, and an Arzach art book. Cumulatively the books must’ve weighed 60 pounds, which was way too much for my horribly out-of-shape body. To make matters worse, I didn’t bring a backpack or satchel, so I had to deal with plastic bags digging into my hands for several hours. Lesson number 2: if you plan to buy things, bring your own bag!
The man in the trench coat with the cane is none other than Billy Dee Williams.
Continuing onwards, I got into a discussion with a guy who plans to start an Aliens USCM outfit in Ottawa, kind of like the Star Wars’ 501st Legion. I overheard him mentioning the new Neca series of Aliens figures, which is how the conversation started. He works at a local comic shop, so I’ve actually bumped into him once since then. If his endeavor ever happens, I’d love to be a part of it!
Dave Ross posing for a photo with me. Take note of the Xenomorphosis t-shirt!
For once, I actually prepared a list of the guests that I wanted to meet. First on my list was Dave Ross, who penciled the Aliens: Xenogenesis comic, as well as many Star Wars comics. On the plus side, the lineup to meet artists are almost always nonexistent, on the downside, the number of people interested in meeting talented comic artists is mostly nonexistent… It’s a real shame, but there was essentially no one waiting to meet Dave Ross… He was a really nice guy and was happy to oblige me wanting to talk on and on about his work on Aliens. At one point, he mentioned that he had done a Darth Vader vs. Aliens commission for a fan, and told me that he’d love to work on a full version of this crossover. I’d hazard a guess that there’s a fairly large audience of people who’d love to see this happen. After talking to Dave for a while, I decided to ask him for an Aliens commission. His memory of the xenomorph’s details was pretty foggy (I don’t blame him), so I actually managed to find him a cheap set of Aliens figures to use as a reference. He ended up spending at least an hour and half on my piece, which I though was well worth the $60 price. Personally, I love how it turned it out! To me, it looks pretty similar to the cover of the Alien: The Illustrated Story from 1979. Obviously he had no idea what I was talking about.
The xenomorph commission that Dave Ross did for me. I think it looks great!
Arthur Suydam in what was definitely the most attractive artist booth.
Next on my list was Arthur Suydam, the well-known cover artist responsible for the Aliens: Genocide covers. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that his Aliens covers are easily some of the nicest renderings of the xen0morphs I’ve ever seen. I actually told Suydam that I thought his xenomorph depictions were second only to Giger’s. This was his exact response: “yes, I would agree with that”. I guess when you’re as talented as Suydam, there’s no point in being overly modest. It turns out he’s personal friends with Giger — there’s something ridiculously cool about being two degrees of separation from the legend. I asked Suydam if he could tell me anything about Giger that isn’t commonly known. The best response I got was: “well, he likes to get baked and make art.” No surprises there. I managed to get Suydam to autograph my copies of Aliens: Genocide, but not without having to purchase one of his (thankfully inexpensive) sketchbooks. Of everyone I met, he definitely seemed to revel the most in his fame, and although the lineup to meet him was basically 4 people, that was more than for any other artist.
Aliens Genocide Issue 1, signed by Arthur Suydam.
Ben Templesmith showing me his sexy face.
The last artist on my list was Ben Templesmith, who some people might remember for the first Dead Space comic’s art. Templesmith was actually really fun to talk to, and definitely knows his sci-fi horror. In fact, he told me that he’d love to work on another sci-fi horror comic. He’s also got a great sense of humor, and wasn’t afraid to tell me what he thought of comic artists that charge for signatures *cough Suydam*. Apparently he got really well paid for his Dead Space work. As he explained to me, video game publishers like EA are able to flaunt a lot of money, and pay what he called “video game money”, which is much more than your average comic publisher. Pro tip from Ben Templesmith: if you want to make money in the world of comics, try to work on media tie-ins. Along with Dave Ross, he liked my Xenomorphosis t-shirt design, so he was an instant winner in my books! Also, free of charge, he drew the most adorable necromorph on my Dead Space trade!
The necromorph sketch that Ben Templesmith drew for me. I LOVE it.
Expect to see some Elephantmen coverage sometime in the future.
Having met everyone on my list, and feeling pretty happy with myself, I nearly called it quits, that is until I saw Richard Starkings’ booth. Richard is respected for his innovative comic lettering, and recently made it big for writing the series Elephantment. I’ve never read the series, but I’ve always been really impressed by its incredible artwork, which often features some of the nicest coloring I’ve seen. Although I’m not usually interested in anthropomorphic animal characters, Elelphantment handles them tastefully, and has a really interesting sci-fi setting. Anyways, I ended up buying the first two trade paperbacks, which happen to have the nicest packaging and presentation I’ve ever seen in a trade. There are no less than 30-something pages of concept art at the back, and the pages are thick and glossy. It was money well spent, and Richard did some quick sketch signatures for me. Later that day, I read the forward in the first trade, which was written by none other than Dan Abnett. I personally consider Dan to be the best living military sci-fi writer. Apparently Dan used to work for Richard in the 80′s, which I wish I’d known when I was talking to Richard.
Overall, I had a great time at Ottawa Comiccon. Diehards might consider it a small appetizer to larger cons like Fan Expo, but I still had just as much fun as at any larger con. It’s really impressive to see what a huge show they put on, especially considering it’s only their second year in existence. No less than five years ago, I went to a comic convention in Ottawa that had maybe 1000 attendees, nearly all of which were purist comic collectors. To see such a massive con five years later, in Ottawa of all places, was pretty surreal. Even compared to last year, the quality has jumped noticeably. Anyways, I can’t wait to see the guest lineup for next year, and I might even apply for a press badge!
Star Trek Into Darkness is a movie that I didn’t expect to review on this site. Although I was brought up by a trekkie mother, and I’ve always enjoyed watching the shows, I didn’t think the tone and appearance of Star Trek were a good fit for the site. Xenomorphosis’ origins are rooted in the darker side of sci-fi, and frankly, Star Trek presents nearly the polar opposite of that aesthetic. Again, I’ve always enjoyed the shows, but they’re just not my preferred brand of sci-fi. Everything from the costumes to the feel good humor and drama are just slightly too clean-cut for my liking. Furthermore, Star Trek essentially ruined sci-fi television for someone with my tastes. For forty years now, most sci-fi shows have mimicked my least favorite aspects of Star Trek: silly looking humanoid characters, daytime television-level drama, and cheesy humor. Now that I’ve essentially alienated all my fans, lets get back to Into Darkness. Suffice to say, I’m really glad I chose to see it in theatres, despite being fairly turned off by the first couple trailers. Star Trek Into Darkness is one of the prettiest sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. Does it accurately reflect the feel of the shows? No, but to be honest, I almost prefer J.J. Abrams’ take on the franchise. Into Darkness has a lot going for it, regardless of its place in the franchise, so I’m going to look at it on its own merits.
Star Trek Into Darkness
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Producers: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Jeffrey Chernov, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Tommy Gormley, Tommy Harper, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, Michelle Rejwan, Ben Rosenblatt, Paul Schwake
Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch
Studios: Skydance Productions, Bad Robot
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Country: United States
Release Date: May 16, 2013
The Enterprise has never looked better.
Following the events of 2009′s Star Trek, Into Darkness opens with the crew of the Enterprise being sent to the planet Nibiru to monitor a primitive humanoid species. In an effort to save the species, Spock puts his life at risk. Kirk manages to save him, but violates the prime directive by exposing the Enterprise to the alien race. Despite Kirk having saved Spock’s life, Spock feels obligated to report the incident. Kirk is demoted to first officer, and Admiral Christoper Pike resumes command of the Enterprise. Meanwhile, a top-secret Starfleet weapons facility is destroyed by a former Starfleet agent named John Harrison. Harrison then attacks the Starfleet’s top brass, and flees to a Klingon home world. For reasons that risk exposing spoilers, Kirk is given permission to kill Harrison, and sets course for Klingon space. Although the basic premise sounds relatively straightforward, Into Darkness has a really interesting plot that takes a number of unexpected turns. Every time I though I had cleverly guessed a surprise outcome, I found myself having guessed totally wrong.
I actually managed to choose some of the few images I captured that aren’t drowning in lens flare.
For anyone who saw the 2009 Star Trek, you’ve probably already made up your mind about the quality and accuracy of the Enterprise’s new cast. Personally, I think they do a great job of mimicking the characters on which they’re based. Chris Pine feels like a younger version of the old Kirk. He’s slightly more brash and cocky, which makes sense considering he hasn’t fully matured. Zachary Quinto plays a great Spock, although I couldn’t help but feel that his blank stare made him look as if he was utterly confused at all times. Zoe Saldana does an amazing job as Uhura, and provides some of the most emotionally stirring performances in the film. Simon Pegg, one of my favorite comedic actors, provides some really funny comic relief as Scotty. Karl Urban plays a great Bones, and has a never-ending repertoire of strange anecdotes. The cast fit really well together, and the writing is actually pretty hilarious at times. The most critical new role is played by Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison. I was mixed on his performance. On the one hand, he’s clearly an amazing actor, and is downright chilling at times. On the other hand, I just couldn’t buy him as an uber-villain; he just looks so… Dweebish. There’s a showdown between him and Spock, and I couldn’t help but think I was watching a fight between two really nerdy looking dudes (no offense to us nerds).
The movie’s environments, whether they be sets, or in this case CG, look fantastic.
As I mentioned earlier, Into Darkness definitely doesn’t feel much like the shows. I’m sure a more qualified fan could tell you exactly why in precise detail, but I think the major difference can be chalked up to Into Darkness‘ pacing. J.J. Abrams is a director who likes to keep things moving. Everything from the plot points to the camera shots are quick. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a strong contrast when compared with the relatively slow pacing of the shows. In the same time that it would take Picard to ponder the political correctness of an encounter with an alien species, the Into Darkness crew has wined and dined the race, and then warped off to another star system without paying the bill. Although Abrams handles the fast pacing as expertly as possible, I can’t help but think the movie would’ve benefited from a less frantic story, especially in the later half. After the movie’s midway point, it veers into a steep rollercoaster descent, and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. In fact, the movie almost felt like it had 5 acts (rather than your typical 3), each more tense than the last.
I’m sold on Zoe Saldana. She’s a really strong actress.
In my intro I boldly stated that Into Darkness is one of the prettiest sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned in my review of Oblivion, in terms of visuals, sci-fi media has really matured in the last decade. As evidenced by last year’s movie Lockout, even recent B-grade sci-fi films have had great design. In the A-grade realm, we’ve been graced with Prometheus and Oblivion, both of which were fantastic looking. In Into Darkness, this style of design has been sent into overdrive. From casual clothing to space suits, the costumes are incredibly slick, and evoke the aesthetic that was perfected in Mass Effect. In addition to the costumes, the sets are even more impressive. In particular, the interior ship environments are beautiful. Imagine taking the best of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and upgrading it with dozens of intricate UIs and HUDs. Without sounding overly dramatic, I couldn’t stop gawking at how great everything looked. There are ships and buildings that only get a millisecond of screen time, but rank among the best we’ve seen from the genre. Into Darkness supposedly had a budget of $180 million, and it shows.
The one thing I didn’t address in the review, due to space, was the soundtrack. It’s really good, and provided some great background listening while I worked on this review.
Complimenting the design are the equally impressive special effects. There are a number of really technical action scenes involving CG, and they all look fantastic. One scene, in which we see ship-to-ship combat at warp speed, is ridiculously cool. The CG cityscapes are also of the highest caliber; imagine Blade Runner tall skyscrapers, but with more vegetation.
I’m not sure I understand the intense adoration of Cumberbatch. Sure, he’s a good actor, but to me he comes across as a creepy dork. And now everyone will hate me.
In Into Darkness, Abrams has mastered the bombardment every frame with lens flare. Although the lens flare is probably way overdone, I totally loved it. The environments look so great that the lens flare is like an extra later of candy coating. Also, it doesn’t hurt that every scene is excellently lit. Expect plenty of predominantly white spaceship interiors lit with pinks, blues, and purples. Abrams is truly a master of style. As you can tell from my gushing, the visuals alone sold me on the movie.
The dreadnought class starship is an amazing sight to behold.
Star Trek isn’t a franchise that I’d typically associate with strong action scenes, but Abrams has clearly done his best to change that assumption. I’m sure that plenty of fans are pissed at the abundance of action, but to the movies credit, it’s handled really well. There are no dinky phasers to be found here. Battles in Into Darkness are fought with fully automatic laser weapons. There are also a number of hand-to-hand combat scenes, as well as some excellent spaceship battles. The choreography is strong, but as with most modern action movies, Into Darkness suffers from overly quick camera cuts. Hollywood directors are finally starting to get the memo that everyone hates blurry incomprehensible action scenes, but we still have a long way to go.
Star Trek Into Darkness will likely be a divisive movie. If you’re willing to accept that this isn’t the Star Trek you remember, there’s plenty of value on offer. If this didn’t have the Star Trek name attached, it would be remembered as a really solid sci-fi action thriller. Hardcore trekkies may hate it, but everyone else will probably have a great moviegoing experience. I will admit that it’s sad that in today’s movie climate, we can’t have a more introspective Star Trek movie that’s heavier on ethical concepts, but this is still a really good substitute. I would recommend this to every sci-fi fan; this might be the best movie we get this year. If there’s one thing I can say for certain, I am really, really excited to see how Abrams handles Star Wars. Into Darkness sets the bar really high.
Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Star Trek Into Darkness-related images
As anyone who’s aware of my taste in gaming can attest, I’m a huge shooter/STG/shmup fan. For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, shmups (shoot-em-ups) or STGs (shooting games) are the “space shooters” you remember seeing in arcades. Back in the 80′s, shmups were all the rage, so nearly everyone, regardless of how hardcore they are, has at least some experience with them. For the last decade and a half, shooters have become fairly niche, but live on in a fairly strong way thanks to companies like Cave and G.Rev that continue to churn out shmups of the highest caliber. Companies like Cave have wisely embraced iOS, so shmups have gained a certain amount of popularity recently thanks to their accesibility on smart phones and tablets. Meanwhile, shmups, like fighting games, are one of those genres that all video game collectors eventually stumble on. The beauty of them is that they age really well, so they provide many of the best old school gaming experiences. Furthermore, shooter fans are willing to pay top dollar for a really quality game, so shooters often place near the top of the most valuable games on any system. Thus, the increased popularity in video game collecting as of late has led to many new shmup fans.
Witness Batsugun’s legendary firepower.
Since this is my first shooter review on this site, I should probably let any any shmup fans know what kind of shooter player I am. I’ve spent the last 6 years lurking the shmups.com forum, so I know just how important it is for me to show off my penis size before we get down to business. Like many more recent shooter fans, I played the odd shooter as a kid, but I got sucked into the genre in a big way after playing the GameCube release of Icaruga. Since then, I’ve gone on to purchase maybe 100 or so shooters. As far as genres go, they definitely dominate my collection. That being said, I don’t typically go for 1CCs. Other than the odd easier game, I’m just not patient or skilled enough to 1CC most games. Instead, I’ve developed my personal “3-credit rule”. My feeling is that if you limit yourself to 3 credits, you still have to memorize a game, and will definitely get your money’s worth, but you won’t be constantly pulling your teeth out over an end boss that just won’t quit. Also, if I was trying to 1CC each game, I’d have a lot less time for this site! Essentially, I’m fairly knowledgeable about shooters; my Saturn and Xbox 360 are Japanese, but don’t expect me to impress you with any amazing strategies or high scores. Also, my favorite part of shooters are the incredibly detailed, usually pixellated visuals, which don’t require any particular skill to enjoy.
Released in arcades in 1993, Batsugun was the final shooter developed by the now defunct Toaplan. For anyone in the know, Toaplan used to create some of the best shooters around. Of particular note to sci-fi fans were Truxton (Tatsujin in Japan), Hellfire, Grindstormer (V・V in Japan), Vimana, and the infamous Zero Wing, which was responsible for the “all your base are belong to us” meme. Along with Konami, Irem, and Technosoft, Toaplan‘s shooters rank near my favorites from the 16/32-bit era. Batsugun could be considered the final swansong to Toaplan‘s line of shooters. It exemplifies everything that was so excellent about their games: fast gameplay, a balanced difficulty progression, badass powerups, a reasonable but fair challenge, really smooth programming, and solid visuals.
As all good shooters should be, Batsugun is plenty colorful.
Batsugun is remembered for two reasons: it was arguably the definitive game that inspired the bullet hell/danmaku sub-genre, and it has some of the most gratuitous firepower of any shmup. To address the first point: in my opinion, the regular version of Batsugun doesn’t feel like a bullet hell shooter. Your hitbox is way too big, there aren’t enough bullets onscreen, and almost all the enemy bullets shoot really quickly, and are aimed directly at you (kind of like in a Raiden game). That being said, you can definitely see the framework being established. Compared to other early 90′s shooters, there are hell of lot more bullets being fired by bosses, and your giant firepower means you spend an equal amount of time dodging as firing.
This is the only shooter I can think of where you start underwater and then make your way above land.
Speaking of your firepower, Batsugun has a really innovative powerup system. As you collect powerups, an experience bar at the bottom of the screen slowly charges up until you gain a level. There a maximum of 3 levels, each of which increase the spread and power of your weapons. When you die or use a credit, you still maintain your level, which is refreshingly forgiving. Any experience that you’ve accrued within your current level improves your firepower to a small degree. When you die, you lose this experience, so there is a small penalty for death. Each of Batsugun’s three ships fire a completely different, but equally impressive, wall of bullets or lasers at the highest powerup level.
The excellent Beltiana. Notice the characters on the right side of the column? Those can only be selected by player 2.
Being that Batsugun‘s console version was never released in North America, its plot is difficult to discern for non-Japanese speakers. Forgive me if this isn’t accurate; I’ve had to rely on translations from various internet sources. In the distant reaches of the universe, a man named Renoselva Gradebaran has plans for a project that will transport humans away from their motherworld, which he’s certain will soon face environmental catastrophe due to overpopulation. The government rejects his plans, so Renoselva retaliates by revolting. His revolutionary army, dubbed the “Epsilon Project”, slaughters 10 million civilians, and overthrows the government in 9 days. Unbeknowst to the Gladebarans, an undersea hanger of state-of-the-art jet fighters has gone unnoticed. Six courageous pilots take to the skies to overthrow the oppresive Gladebaran regime. The six pilots are: Jeeno and Schneider, who pilot the Type-A ship, Beltiana and Alteeno, who pilot the Type-B ship, and Iceman and Olisis, who pilot the Type-C ship. Schneider, Alteeno, and Olisis can only be chosen by player 2, meaning that to select them on the Saturn version, you need to plug a controller into port 2. The Type-A and Type-C ships have a massive spread fire, whereas Type-B has a powerful but narrow beam. Personally, I play as Type-B (Beltiana), because I find I’m able to take down enemies much faster than with the other ships. The disadvantage is that because your bullets cover less surface area, you need to have enemy patterns better memorized so that you know where you need to be at any one time. From looking at high scores lists, it seems that the overwhelming majority of players also choose Beltiana.
This starting area exhibits the most detail you’ll see in the game.
Scoring in Batsugun is typical of the relatively simple systems of the early 90′s. There’s no chaining, bullet grazing, or whatever other conventions are now commonplace. Instead, you need to manually collect medals that appear when you shoot down enemies and buildings. If you complete a level with a bunch of collected medals, you get a nice bonus. That being said, you lose all your medals every time you die, so getting a good score in Batsugun requires that you survive each boss without dying. If you plan to beat the game without using many credits, you’ll want to get the medal bonus on each level so that you reach the first extend. Extends are fairly rare in Batsugun; even without dying once, you’ll likely only get the first extend in the second last level. As far as I can tell, the only other scoring mechanic involves milking bosses and larger enemies for points. As in any shooter, watching a video of someone actually accomplishing these milking tactics is really impressive, because it requires you to expose yourself to danger for an inordinately long time.
These screens are all from the arcade version, which looks essentially identical to the Saturn game.
As far as difficulty is concerned, Batsugun‘s arcade mode sits somewhere near the middle of the shooter spectrum. It’s not as easy as some of Toaplan’s earlier games, like Fire Shark, but it’s not nearly as hard as the games it inspired, like Dodonpachi or Battle Garegga. Essentially, the number of bullets on screen is fairly reasonable, but a lot of them are lighting fast, and tend to be aimed directly at you. Like in later shooters, there are waves of popcorn enemies that fire directly at you, but you’ll never feel as overwhelmed as in the previously mentioned games. The bosses are challenging, but their patterns are relatively easy to memorize. Overall, I find Batsugun‘s difficulty to be perfectly suited to my skill-level. Within a week, I was able to beat the game on two credits, which is unheard of for me when it comes to newer bullethell shooters. Another thing worth noting is that although Batsugun has several difficulty settings to choose from, I couldn’t figure out the difference between Normal and Easy, they seemed almost identical.
One of my favorite tropes in shooters: the gigantic flying fortress.
In addition to the original arcade game, the Saturn release also includes the Special Version edition, which Toaplan developed at the end of their life cycle, but was never released in arcades. We’re able to play this version thanks to the Toaplan-offshoot company Gazelle, who coded the Saturn ports of both versions. Immediately, the Special Version looks different than the original because all the colors have been swapped. In addition, the gameplay feels fairly different because your hitbox is quite a bit smaller, your bombs are more powerful, and you get a one-time shield every time you die or level-up. If you’ve mastered the arcade version, the Special Version will feel quite a bit easier; that is, until you get to the second loop. I wasn’t expecting the game to continue after finishing the final boss, so the second loop truly threw me for a loop (*lame*). On the second loop, the enemies fire bullets more quickly, and release suicide bullets when killed. The suicide bullets make the game almost twice as difficult, and are downright ridiculous at times. Even inanimate objects fire suicide bullets when killed. After the finishing the second loop, you’re thrown into the third loop, which has even faster and more plentiful suicide bullets. Finish that, and you’ll face the final loop. Each loop contains one less stage than the previous one, so you don’t have to beat each stage four times to fully complete the Special Version. My hat goes off to anyone who accomplishes this feat. With the default 8 credits, I was able to make it to the third loop, but it was all too insane for me to try again. For anyone who calls Batsugun a bullet hell shooter, you’re totally right, but only if you’re referring to the additional loops of the Special Version.
Apparently the arcade version has more slowdown, meaning the Saturn game is slightly harder.
I’ve saved the video game element that I typically value the most for last: the visuals. Batsugun looks… Pretty good. The backgrounds and enemies are fairly detailed, and there’s plenty of attractive color onscreen in the form of your massive firepower. Perhaps my biggest gripe is that the environments are somewhat dull. The opening underwater level is interesting, but the next two levels feature boring washed out beach backgrounds. The fourth stage is one of your typical cloud levels, and has some really impressive scrolling, but visually it’s essentially the same repeating sequence. The bosses are mainly giant airships, and look really big and impressive. Also, their weapons are all nicely detailed and animated. The overall design of Batsugun is about as traditional as sci-fi themed shooters get, which isn’t really a bad thing. Don’t expect anything really creative like the underwater theme from Darius, the bio-metallics of R-Type, or the Moai head wastelands of Gradius. Even as far as traditional themes are concerned, other Saturn shooters (which in all fairness were released later) like Battle Garegga, Dodonpachi, and Soukyugurentai have more detailed art assets. Overall, Batsugun is still a great looking game, and definitely ranks among the medium to upper tier of Saturn shooters in terms of visuals.
Most enemies can be dispensed with quickly by using bombs, which are found abundantly. However, as with any shooter, finishing the game with a good score means conserving bombs.
I still haven’t mentioned Batsugun‘s music, mostly because it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s not bad, but compared to other shooters, it’s all fairly bland and not particularly memorable. One nice feature of the Saturn game is that you can choose to play with the arranged soundtrack, which is a nice improvement over the original.
In summary, Batsugun is a really important game in the history of shooting games, both because it was Toaplan‘s last shooter, and because it was a huge inspiration to the next evolution of the genre. Some of Toaplan‘s staff apparently still lives on at Cave (although I don’t know if this is still the case), which is really great, because the small teams that made these games had an insane amount of talent. If you have a Saturn that’s capable of playing Japanese games, you really need to own this in your collection. For everyone else, I hope you enjoy the pretty sci-fi sprites that I’ve included with this post.
Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of Batsugun-related images
Looking back, Panzer Dragoon was one of the integral series that solidified my identity as a “hardcore” gamer. Unlike many fans of Panzer Dragoon, I caught the bug at the end of its life span. Unfortunately, I never owned a Saturn back when it was current, so my early (and brief) memories of the series were from playing it at a friend’s house. Several years later, I got an Xbox, and a subscription to the Official Xbox Magazine. In one particular issue, there was a game that blew the writers away; that game was Panzer Dragoon Orta. The screens in the magazine looked incredible, and being in the midst of an obsession with all-things Japanese (which didn’t go away for a very long time), I knew the game was a must-have. Suffice to say, it was a religious experience. Although it was a mere on-rails shooter, I was in awe of the rich science fantasy universe. I say that Panzer Dragoon solidified my hardcore gamer status (I hate that term), because it was one of the first games I can remember where I actively sought out as much concept art as possible. Included as a bonus feature in Orta was the entire original Panzer Dragoon (albeit the PC version). Although the regression from Orta’s beautiful graphics to the original game was fairly jarring, the gameplay was similar, and as the years have passed, I’ve really come to really enjoy it in its own right.
If you have a choice, I recommend picking up the Japanese version of the game. It features artwork by the legendary Jean “Moebius” Giraud.
Developer: Team Andromeda
Platforms: Saturn (Japanese version featured), PC, Xbox (unlockable in Panzer Dragoon Orta), PS2 (Sega Ages enhanced port)
Release Date: 1995
This might look a lazy summer day, but in fact this is the most difficult stage in the game.
I have a real fondness for sci-fi that sets in the incredibly distant future. The reason for this is because it gives the creators carte blanche to throw any present-day taboos and moral norms out the window. Furthermore, creators are free to eschew modern design sensibilities; as far as the visuals are concerned, the sky’s the limit. Panzer Dragoon takes place thousands of years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic landscape that has been devastated by human-made bioweapons. Post-apocalyptic settings are fairly common in Japanese entertainment, and thankfully, they are rarely a mere copy of Mad Max, as is often the case in modern, North American post-apocalyptic settings.
This beautiful sunken city provides a great intro to the game’s mechanics.
In Panzer Dragoon, humans have started to form factions to rebuild society, but are constantly at the mercy of dangerous creatures that roam the Earth. One of these factions, the Empire, have found an ancient weapons stockpile in a large black tower. Harnessing the weapons, they create a militant regime that enslaves their populace. Meanwhile, in an FMV that appears at the outset of the game, a lone hunter named Keil Fluge gets separated from his hunting party, and witnesses a rider on a large blue dragon get killed by a black dragon. The blue dragon approaches Keil, telepathically telling him that the black dragon can’t be allowed to reach the black tower. Keil mounts the blue dragon, thus taking on the quest of the deceased rider. The Empire seeks to kill the blue dragon, meaning that as Keil, you spend the game’s seven episodes hunting the black dragon, while thwarting the Empire’s countless gunships.
Sega proving that it’s games are still the fastest in town. This corridor level is lighting quick.
Panzer Dragoon‘s graphics might be archaic by today’s standard, but in 1995, a console shooter that took place in a fully 3D environment was cutting edge. Those of us who were gaming when consoles made the leap from 2D to 3D remember how exciting the experience was. That being said, even at the time, the Saturn wasn’t known for having particularly impressive 3D visuals, especially compared to later games that were released for the PSX and N64. In 1996, Panzer’s graphics may have been impressive, but now, many of the game’s smaller enemies look like polygonal smudges. The large airships and other bosses look decent, as do the environments, which are fairly basic, but make nice use of the available color palette.
The Dune influence is pretty obvious here.
If you’re willing to look past the dated graphics, Dragoon’s visual design and mood are one of a kind, at least in the world of video games. Borrowing from classics like Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Moebius’ Arzach, and Frank Herbert’s Dune, Dragoon’s style wasn’t totally unique, but it was, and still is, quite different from most video game sci-fi design. The game presents a mix of primitive technology with super advanced tech. The bedouin-inspired clothing and turn-of-century airships juxtapose with the high-tech remnants of the pre-apocalypse civilization. Speaking of the airships, instead of looking like cylindrical zeppelins, they come in strange conical shapes. Takashi Iwade, the lead character designer, said in an interview that instead of drawing inspiration from typical sci-fi anime, he looked at things like industrial revolution-era mechanics, myriapods, marine mollusks, and ammonite for inspiration. This creative approach to design has always been my favorite aspect of the series. Every stage has its own unique environment, ranging from a sunken city, to an underground labyrinth.
The boss fights are really strong, and almost always transform through multiple forms.
In terms of gameplay, PD introduced an on-rails attack system that has been emulated by several games since (Sin & Punishment and Rez come to mind). Essentially, you can hold the shoot button down to lock onto several targets and fire homing lasers, or you can repeatedly tap the shoot button to fire rapid volleys of weak projectiles. The system sounds simple, but allows for a deep level of mastery. Although it’s tempting to mostly use the lock-on attack, the rapid fire is required should you need to shoot down incoming enemy missiles. Also, as any PD fan knows, you’ll deal significantly more damage to bosses if you alternate to rapid fire during the few seconds while your homing attack cools down. In addition to the duel firing options, Keil can be rotated to face any one of four directions (front, sides, and rear). This adds significantly to the challenge, because if you aren’t careful you’ll find yourself being attacked from multiple directions at the same time. Luckily, an onscreen radar shows you where to expecting incoming enemies, and the game is programmed such that if you time the location of your attacks, you’ll never be fired on from two directions at once.
The lock-on homing shot getting some play.
As with any shooter, the best defense is a solid offence. Surviving in PD means shooting down enemies before they can fire at you. Your character has a relatively small health bar, so you really need to stay on your toes to see the game’s ending. My biggest complaint with PD’s gameplay is something that was fixed in later entries. Basically, there are times when you’ll be facing the proper direction of incoming projectiles, but your aiming reticule is just out-of-reach. You can’t target the entire view screen, which is something I’ve found to be pretty annoying. You know a projectile is incoming, and you have plenty of time to react, but you just can’t seem to hit the stupid thing! Other than that, the game has a reasonable difficulty progression. Other than Stage 5, which is really difficult, the game is challenging, without being too punishing.
Expect plenty of cutscenes that flesh out the story.
Panzer Dragoon’s visuals might seem primitive to modern gamers, but if there’s one element of the game that hasn’t aged since 1996, it’s the incredible soundtrack. When I say incredible, I mean: “one of the best video game soundtracks of all time” incredible. Seriously, it’s that good. Composed by Yoshitaka Azuma, it was his first video game soundtrack. The title track sounds like an Ennio Morricone song, and is comparable in tone to the title track of a Miyazaki film. Meanwhile, the rest of the songs have a more electronic, proggy sound. I’ve heard that Azuma was influenced by Tangerine Dream, so if you like their brand of ambient electronic music, you’re in for a huge treat. I’m not someone who owns many OST’s, but I’d place this near the top of my list of must-haves. In a game where you’ll inevitably die several times on the later stages, it’s nice to have a good musical accompaniment to your failure.
Panzer Dragoon might not be the prettiest game in the series, but considering it was the first entry, it established a truly unique setting and gameplay system. If you like on-rails shooters, PD is a classic example of the genre. This is a game that’s long overdue for an enhanced remake, and would probably find a receptive audience as a digital download, or as a physical release on a system like the 3DS.
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Clicking any of the following thumbnails will open a gallery of images from Panzer Dragoon
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 1
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 10
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 11
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 12
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 13
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 3
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 4
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 5
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 6
Panzer Dragoon — Sega Saturn 8
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