It's really not easy to find a drummer. Most drummers who are worth having around want to hear your band's music before they'll join the band, which is okay. I can understand that. A lot of them -- the ones who aren't 100% certain -- want to hear a demo tape before they'll jam with you. It's really weird. People who aren't actually drummers, people in whose hands you place sticks, are normally all over the idea. They'll go anywhere. They usually suck; without a rhythm, rock and roll music doesn't work. Without drums, a band has no heartbeat. Usually, if you hear a drummer and say "Hey, that's a good fuckin' drummer", it's because he's in another band, and you're listening to that band, and if you're listening to a band, that means that they already have more music than you have because you don't have a fucking drummer. It's a disgusting cycle; it's a hell of a washing-machine to live in. To make matters worse, Tokyo: 60 million people within an hour's commute, and thousands of independent rock bands. It's a turf war; I suppose you could do what lots of bands in the past have no doubt done -- get out there and make some friends with bands, and then steal their drummers. That's pretty fuckin' low, though. That's like stealing a guy's girlfriend. Me and my once and future guitarist once kind of almost stole a drummer from this shitty punk band once; then, to the drummer dude's amazement, his band got signed to a short deal with a Japanese major label -- you know, single, EP, LP, like one of those $150 guitar/amp/tuner/picks/cables little Johnny's birthday present deals at a guitar shop. The label was Avex -- who produce a hell of a lot of shit-pop; they were buying up stock in punk-rock a couple years ago, and ended up kind of scrapping the operation. My friends' band broke up a month after the release of the EP, which sold maybe a thousand discs. He'd quit practicing with us because of his deal with Avex -- he said they'd forbidden the members of the band to play with other bands. This guy, though -- we told him we just wanted him to help us make songs, and, of course, that we enjoyed his company. It's hard to make songs without a drummer. He was the type of dude to sit there with a bored look on his face while we were talking about the structure of songs; he was the type of guy to say into the microphone, when asked his opinion, "Just let me hit the drums." He really loved what he was good at doing. He really copped out on us; his band was riding a setlist of basic shit and they didn't even need to practice anymore. He could have helped us out. He ditched us; and then when his band imploded, and we invited him back, he said he didn't want to get us "in trouble with Avex". There had been a contract, after all. He was a real sour-graped, flaky son of a bitch. He was a real lunch-breaker. He was the kind of guy who'd show up at the meeting at one PM, and then, when it was time for his long, slow, Powerpoint Presentation about paper clips at 2:15, someone would say to someone else, hey, where's so and so? "He's probably on his lunch break again." And there he is, sitting on the roof with a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, a Diet Pepsi, and a huge grin on his face, squinting into the cold wind.
You'll find, if you look hard enough, that many of the people who situate their lives so as to leave as much free time as possible in which to pound things with sticks tend to be pretty flaky.
During our long stint of trying to capture one such flake, we did a lot of weird stuff. I remember, once, standing behind the Drummania machine in the HEY (Hirose Entertainment Yard) arcade in Akihabara, analyzing the performance of each player. "Maybe this guy would be pretty good." We'd say. And that day there was this kid -- maybe a college student -- in a nylon jacket with a dragon and "YOKOHAMA" embroidered on the back, faded denim jeans, short hair. He came up to the machine with a pair of his own sticks. He put on a Blue Hearts song, which was a pretty good sign of something. He pounded the drums alright; he got a near-perfect score. He hit the drums pretty good for most of the songs. We debated for a bit which one of us should say something to him. What a great story this would be! We met our drummer playing a drum simulation game at an arcade! I ended up approaching the kid. "Hey, what's up?" "Uhhh, not much?" "You can play the drums, yeah? Are you in a band?" "Ummm, actually, no? I can't play the drums. I don't even like music." He let out a little chuckle. He was dead serious. He probably studied engineering and was as punctual as a paperclip. We figured, if not that guy, then nobody, probably. We tried a couple more guys -- and a girl. No luck. "It's just a videogame" was a common response. We tried to reason with a guy, that if he had the reflexes and penchant for pattern memorization that Drummania had drilled into him, he'd probably possess the attention span we needed to finish these songs and play a rock show. The guy looked furious one sentence in. He looked about to turn us into recycled paper.
A year with no drummer passed. I squeaked in just under the deadline and scored a drummer right before New Year's Eve 2006. He's pretty great. Thinking back on it, I'm not sure I'd want a drummer who found his way to drums via a drum-simulating videogame; though those games' drum pads are real electronic drum pads, though those people own their own sticks, and though Drummania is a far better indication of a person's potential rhythm than, say, Guitar Hero is a measure of their ability to play the guitar, there's something unnatural about making music into a videogame. I get screamed at everytime I express this opinion, wherever I go: music is a form of pleasure, not an avenue to it. It's something that flows through you. Attaching numbers and flashing color-coded scores to it takes it farther from heaven. It pulls it away from its purpose. To wit: in a real duel between guitarists, the loser does not need a score to know he lost; the winner does not need a score to know he won. The audience certainly doesn't need a third party telling them which one of the guitarists rocked them the hardest. It's all about subjectivity; you make up your mind for yourself. Sure, though, yeah, people have fun with rhythm games, and I guess that's alright. To them, maybe, it's a different way of listening to music. In that case, more power to them.
Hell if the music doesn't suck, though. I'm sorry. The covers in, uhhh, every rhythm game known to man are terrible; worse if you've ever heard the original song. I remember when fifty percent of the White Internet was going nuts about Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan on the Nintendo DS; I remember a guy saying he traded his Nintendo DS in at a retailer just before DS Lite hit -- he was proud of how much money they'd given him. Thanks to the hardware shortage, they'd paid him in excess of the retail price for a DS with a screen "scarred from too much Ouendan." People dropping the name of a one-player rhythm game that you can't play in front of anybody because you have to constantly be tapping the screen, with a top screen with little animated graphics on it that you can't watch because you're too busy staring at the action on the bottom screen; it's basically an obstacle course for the fingers, set to music. Maybe it would work exceptionally well if the music was good, though I don't know. I reviewed the game as "I liked it better when it was called 'listen to J-pop on your iPod on the bus while beating an opened issue of Shonen Jump with a pair of disposable chopsticks from a Chinese take-out place", and man, I got a lot of hate for that. On a forum, I said how most of the reason the game didn't work for me was because the covers of the songs sounded god-awful, because I'd heard the original versions too many times. This assessment of the game got violently slammed on another forum (why it had been quoted, I don't remember), and I was called a braggart, a poser, and a fascist, among other things. I'm very sorry, sirs, if I'd heard these songs before they were in a videogame! I mean, you're not music nerds by a damn sight, and neither am I, for the most part, though let me tell you, in this country I will not apologize for living in, the songs in that videogame -- which sold like lemonade from a stand marked "Piss: $5" -- are quite ubiquitously popular. In each of their respected times, and beyond, they played in convenient stores and noodle shops all down the street. And the covers are jarring, and weird, if you've heard the originals; the cover of "Linda Linda", one of my favorite pop songs of all time, is especially atrocious. Dude sounds like he's singing out of his nose. That a thousand white men with neckbeards, who shave using cold water because no one tells them to heat the water up first, might hear the song for the first time in the context of a failing ramen shop setting in an obscure Japanese videogame and find the pairing of the word "Linda" with "Linda" (Portuguese for "Beautiful"; as sung in the song, it's something of a split repetition of "da-rin" the Japanese rendering of the world "Darling" ("rin da rin da, rin da rin da rin da")) humorous and elegant enough to repeat on messageboards and giggle while they wait in line for their Slurpees is a testament to perfect songwriting. Any cover of "Linda Linda" is still "Linda Linda", as long as it's "Linda Linda". It's just that if you'd never heard the song before, you might like the cover. Meanwhile, I heard the cover and, well -- well. Let's put it this way. Say you had a little sister, say her name was Linda, and she died in a canoeing accident when she was five. At your current age, she appears in your house again, preserved at age five, smooth as porcelain, talkative and cute as ever -- only now her teeth are black, rotted, huge, and dripping with mucus 24/7. Would you be able to kiss her goodnight? Really?
Videogames fucking suck! That's what we determined. Games fucking blow! Was another conclusion. We're not sure how correct either of those conclusions was. In 2006, Nintendo released a game called Rhythm Tengoku -- "Rhythm Heaven" -- that was really cool, though. It was like Wario Ware only it didn't have scrotum-ugly characters and and it didn't try to be retarded. It was made by the Wario Ware team, you see, only it actually had some focus. Yeah, Wario Ware, while we're on the subject: I'm sorry, man. I really am. Saying it's good for a party makes me wonder what you do for a job -- stand around and punch yourself in the testicles all day? The whole thing about constantly reinventing yourself every five seconds, playing by new rules and all that, it sounds nice on paper, and maybe it's a fun kind of videogame if you consider premature ejaculation "winning" at sex. Really, though -- oh look! There's Link! Let's guide him into the cave before the time runs out! It's so nostalgic! Yeah, whatever. I prefer sustained periods of proficiency. Like Rhythm Tengoku; its exercises aspire to perpetuity, and seldom require more than the push of a button. The movement of the images on the screen and the resulting sounds of the actions being performed fuse together to create one experience. It doesn't even need arbitrary scores; you get a buzz out of simply keeping the rhythm going. It's that pure "groove" experience, like a traditional top-down shooter. It's total self-immersion. You don't care if the game you're playing is entertaining anyone else; it's massaging your brain and you feel alright. As far as I'm concerned, if you're good at one of these games -- one of these groove games -- you probably have the reflexes and the pattern-memorization skills to play some drums in a rock and roll band.
However, you might not necessarily have the love of the music, or the physical prowess. I found this out kind of the hard way. I have a friend named Stabo, who can one-credit Ikaruga with two joysticks at once, who can bash the hell out of some Pop'n'Music -- man, Pop'n'Music! you're pressing giant colored buttons as flicks of light jump up on the screen! that's a videogame with all the bullshit taken out if there ever was one! it's not even simulating an instrument and you almost can't even hear the music! that most of the time it's the dwarfiest little girls playing it is amazing, and kind of says something not-flattering about the Nintendo Wii. Yeah, Stabo can play Pop'n'Music, and he can even play Under Defeat: aiming and piloting and shooting and turning. He even liked rock; as a drummer, though, it just didn't work out. He just wanted to keep playing videogames.
And likewise, in July, 2006, when Sega released Virtua Fighter 5 to Japanese arcades, I -- well, I won't say I was first in line or anything, though yeah, I bought a card and jacked myself into the matrix. That game is the fuckin' bomb dude. The 1080p HD monitors, the steel-based sweet joysticks, the booming speakers, the black edgy styling, the "Virtua Fighter Channel" monitor at the end of the row of cabinets: standing there with a Coke in hand while warriors sit duking it out on back-to-back cabinets, viewing nationwide matches being replayed while another man sidles up beside you with a cigarette and a couple of kids in track outfits, maybe carrying soccer balls, burst in conversing and then fall dead silent to survey the action -- it feels like you're dead in the middle of some slumlord drug-dealer's underground after-school pleasure dome, wherein kids are introduced to other kids who will peer-pressure the whole goddam world if they have to. Smokin' and drinkin' and everything. Loud music; sure, the year 2006, seven years after the last year of the century, is here, and the loud music is normally chirpy anime bullshit being enjoyed by some guy beating a toy Japanese traditional drum thirty feet away, and the drinking is usually Dr. Pepper, though yeah, Virtua Fighter 5 as an arcade enterprise assures us that the dreamlike future our childhoods strived for wasn't a fantasy -- it was just taking its time. We stand, and partake of beverage, and blink, and nod, and note techniques, and we are starship captains, and we are time-travelers; we think, man, I wish I had a time machine and I didn't hate children, so I could go back in time and bring my eight-year-old self to see this. Still! We can love Virtua Fighter even if we've forgotten what it's like to be eight. You can enjoy it as a man, as a sport. Yu Suzuki had told us, long, long ago, that one day, Virtua Fighter would be a sport, and now it's getting pretty damn close. You can go home and download replays of matches you played at the arcade; you can scrutinize these, and learn to play better. Sega is throwing all the money they have into the servers for this game. If you'd thought Sega was dead -- yeah, you're just one of those unfortunate people who hears "Sega" and thinks "Sonic Team". My condolences. Sega is very much not dead; one might even say Sega is very much alive. Virtua Fighter 5 is its beating heart, the rhythm section in its rock and roll band standing on the North Pole of a minature world globe. It's tight and it's polished and it's insertcredit.com fighting GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006 and it's gorgeous and it's . . . it's . . . something I had to give up shortly after starting it, actually. The thing is, it's too perfect; it's a game that looks good enough in motion to please people who are only watching; miraculously, playing it, too, requires a flair for performance. You can pour your life into it, and what does it get you? Ready for Virtua Fighter 6, is what it gets you. In 2006 -- I tell you -- I had to make a choice, and it was one I made sooner than I could snap my fingers. I could either keep playing Virtua Fighter 5 until people weren't lambasting me, or I could give it a rest and work on playing the guitar instead. I chose the guitar.
It's a funny thing, about the guitar. I was given an acoustic long ago, and never did more than beat on it; then my friend Doug Jones gave me a gorgeous acoustic and all I did was beat on it, too; I had a rock band where I sang, and I sang pretty good, though I never touched that acoustic guitar much, and the guy who did touch it ended up putting his foot through the bottom of it because of how it was positioned against a wall, lying flat, and because of how he was drunk and needing to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. He later got it fixed, though by the time I asked him to give it back, he'd stomped on it, also accidentally. Before then, a dude had given me a Fender Japan Telecaster with a kind of warped neck -- which is too thin for my long fingers, anyway -- and when finally the band seemed to be not making us millionaires and I got a job in a huge office full of sexy people, and I got an apartment, I suddenly found myself in the possession of more than one pair of shoes, and then actual motivation to learn to play the guitar. I had a guy whose given name (not really) is Zazen Joe Hardpuncher, sleeping on my sofa for a bit, and that guy was a god who was growing up, I tell you. He showed me some stuff on the guitar; this was around July. I'd bought running shorts and shirts and I'd been building up my lungs outside in the heat. I went from zero to -- well, let's say about 35 miles per hour, on the guitar, in about five months. I can play a pretty decent country rock solo, right about now. Playing guitar, as a guitar, isn't a videogame, because, say, if I stare at the wall while playing the guitar with headphones on my ears, nothing my fingers are doing changes anything about the wall. Then again, if Silent Hill is a videogame, maybe playing the guitar is a videogame, I don't know.
I had this girl back in July -- after the girl I kind of liked and got confused about moved to Egypt, I ended up somehow dating this girl who was something of a model. She was a "gravure idol", most technically. I wrote about her on my blog and got maybe 500 emails telling me I should fucking die; one guy said gFace the facts: you donft speak Japanese and you never will. Ifve been in this country for ten years and I still canft make heads or tails of the language.h Another guy called me a "disgrace to all the white people who have ever lived in Japan." What, for having sex with a girl you'd have had sex with, yourself? Come on, seriously now. Anyway, this girl was a model of sorts; she had really large breasts and she appeared in colored pages of comic magazines. At first I thought it was amazing that such a girl would associate with me. Then again, when you think about it for half a second, presuming one's self unworthy of fraternizing with a swimsuit model is, basically, kind of racist. I'd be denying her the right to be a normal human being. To begin thinking about it abstractly (and then quit), no matter how good those girls might look in the photo shoots, it's still quite possible that they also possess the personality poison to, say, pay $200 for tickets to see Bon Jovi. So we can say that in a battle of being able to not buy $200 tickets to see fucking Bon Jovi, I would win; I would be this girl's superior. We take what we can get; this girl was a real taker, though, if you know what I mean. She went everywhere and anywhere. The DVDs she made -- where she danced around, squeezed her juggggs, and talked to the camera, where the unseen male "character" would occasionally ask questions via subtitles the viewer was encouraged to read aloud ("This makes me as much of a videogame as Kingdom Hearts II," she'd said) -- were apparently not selling well enough to afford her a life of luxury, so she had a job at a kyabakura, which is short for "cabaret club", which no, in Japan, does not feature dancers. Basically in a kyabakura, girls sit at tables and guys talk to them. She'd come over to my house late at night smelling -- never stinking -- like whiskey and baby powder, in a simple black dress, her sturdy hair cascading into her cleavage like it was running away from the sky. She'd sit on my sofa in the dark and stare at the high-definition television. I'd put a pillow under her back and for some reason I'd start rubbing her feet. She'd tell me about the guys -- I imagined their tans as being canned -- who'd come in and paid in excess of a thousand US dollars to sit and drink with her. And they'd patronize her as she patronized them. They'd say, "Oh, my job was very difficult," and she'd say, "Oh, you poor thing! You work hard, huh? You're a hard-working man!" And he would say, "Yes, yes. Now, let's not talk about my job Of course that wouldn't interest a girl like you." And before an actual topic could bubble to the surface, hey there, the guy would be face-on-table drunk. FOTD. Shortly later the train of his consciousness would exit the tunnel of face-on-table drunk and cross the border into the country where the face rises from the table and begins to mumble. Somehow, over the course of a year or a half, a single conversation, or two, would materialize. These guys really plunked away some serious money to talk to a girl that I was having sex with for free! They were like tired office men plunking away money to play Virtua Fighter 5 in the arcade; only, really, how gorgeous do you have to get, that you treat 100,000 yen like it was a dollar? It kind of interested me. These guys who would go to the clubs -- holy hell, they must have been loaded, and they must have been gorgeous. I'd probably shit in my pants to look at one of them. I'm not even kidding. A lot of the guys work at male host clubs, even -- clubs where girls paid twice the money to drink with men that men would pay to drink with girls -- so their patronization of the hostess clubs is something like inbreeding. Lots of yakuza-run businesses are like that. Anyway, this girl would be on my sofa and I'd be rubbing her feet and she would talk about the presents she'd refused. Once a guy gave her a chihuahua, and she had to give it away, because her apartment had a no-pet policy. Diamond rings, necklaces, shoes, dresses, fur coats, Louis Vuitton prosthetic skins -- everything she turned down. One night she came over and told me a guy was trying to buy her a car. I asked her what kind of car, and she said, "Does it matter?" And I said, "Not really. Just making conversation."
There was really nothing despicable at all about the way the two of us knew one another. She had a pride about her; I figured she and I would go far. I ended up making a couple mistakes by thinking that one thing, though. World, please forgive me for possessing the gall to presume that because a girl showed up who was gorgeous and breasty that she also had the right personality.
In the end, she left me because a customer bought her a condo and a BMW. It was the cinder block that broke the Pomeranian's back, so to speak.
I really liked her; I'd be lying to myself and to you fine people if I didn't at least nominate her for insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006. And I don't just mean the sex -- those were some white-hot graphics and some scorching gameplay; it was like Rez on ecstasy if you know what I mean (touchy-feely-ness); and to be quite honest, the difficulty wasn't as high as I'd imagined it would be. I'd always imagined -- perchance to daydream -- that if I'd been nudely involved with a woman for whom beauty was a profession I'd turn into one of those sputtering bastards who can't keep his hands out of his pockets. Here I was, though, twenty-six years old, having sex with a model and ejaculating quite perfectly on schedule.
She was really patronizing sometimes, and it was a better riddle than a mystery novel trying to figure out, sometimes, if she was being sincerely or insincerely patronizing. She was a mainstream entertainment with critical approval. She was a darling. She liked me because I happen to quite coincidentally know everything about her favorite band on earth, The High-Lows; the difference between me and her in this incidence would be that I also knew a great deal about other music, whereas she did not. She has a BMW and a condo now, though, so look where music knowledge got me. I'm not bitter, of course. I'd like to be, though something is holding me back. Anyway, what sealed the deal and convinced her to, even if only momentarily, consider me gorgeous was the fact that I owned a guitar. It was April of 2006 when I first held that guitar, plugged it into an amp, and plinked on it in front of her. I was showing her, "See this guitar? It's real." She clapped her hands together and said "Sugoooooooi!!" Which is kind of like "Wowwwww!" in Japanese, except someone saw fit to make it three syllables. You have to be dilligent to be impressed in this language; it's a nice effect. It's a mellow buzz. This was her being patronizing again, yes. Just two or three plinked chords before a "Wowwww!"
"Now, come on, that's hardly necessary." I wanted to say something to this effect, and just couldn't. Sometimes, if you catch yourself squinting, you imagine she could be enjoying the whole insincerity thing.
The guy who decided to play bass in my band -- I gave him a bass that was worth about $1,000, which I'd bought off Andrew Vestal for about $100 -- named Brendan: the first time he met her, he said "Nice to meet you" in Japanese accented as thickly as I like French toast, and she clapped and gave him the "Sugooooooi!!" thing. She'd never congratulated me once on my Japanese; she just took it for granted. I figured I'd figured out what kind of girl she was. I don't know; somehow I'd come to like that kind of girl. That, and it made me want to play the guitar well enough for her to take it for granted.
Flash forward a couple months. Me and her and my friend Stabo were in Ikebukuro, and we stopped by a large Sega arcade called GiGo. Up on the second floor, they were location-testing what would later be hailed (in this piece right here) as the insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2006, After Burner Climax.
Here's what I wrote of it for a feature:
"Here is a game that cuts to the heart of what's fun. Here is a game that absolutely does not mess around. It pulls no punches. Released in the same year as the horrifyingly disappointing Sonic the Hedgehog for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, one might say that After Burner Climax is Sega Pride. It is Sega Spirit. Sega is not dead. They are merely like the mesmerized painter who makes beautiful work, yet fails to eat more than one meal a day, and dies from lack of dairy. (Replace "dairy" with "Sonic" if you will.)
After Burner Climax is a game fixed in very much the same groove as OutRun 2 -- also made by AM2. Only there's more to it, if that's possible. It's more organic. You're moving in all directions. You're soaring over beautiful oceans and under brilliant blue skies. You're going so fast it is, quite frankly, frightening. The cabinet rocks and tilts and spins, much like Sega's [the one-and-only insertcredit.com GAME OF THE YEAR, 2003] F-Zero AX did. The enemies come at you quickly. You lock on and shoot missiles. You dodge. You get shot down. You explode.
At the end of each segment, you face a fork. Go left, or go right. Just like in OutRun 2, where you decide to go left and suddenly the beach has become a landlocked casino town, or else you're drifting past pyramids. When did this change occur? What country are we in, anyway? After Burner Climax presents you with a similar shifting world; only there's the vaguest menacing undertone: here we are in a world where someone wants someone else dead. We're shooting down planes that look real. The original OutRun was about getting chased by the police; OutRun 2 is all freedom, all the time. In After Burner Climax, there's no hiding the conflict. Only it's so over the top and in your face that it's surreal. It's so hard as a rock that it feels random. It's so impossible that it feels real. It's the biggest adrenaline rush to come out of game-making in what feels like decades. You play it once, and you can't help thinking about throwing out your sofa, your TV, and maybe your coffee table to make room for the monolithic cabinet.
There's a two-player co-op / versus mode, as well. Whether you're competing or cooperating, who knows? You're flying together, and shooting together. You can crash into one another. These planes are set only to go very fast.
In a year full of sweeping industry changes and two major console launches, it's wonderful to fall in love with an arcade game that's simply about moving forward, going fast, and shooting. Which also has amazing graphics. And is, by the way, just plain perfect. If they were to make a home version, that'd be just swell."
This was for a top-ten feature that would eventually be reduced to a top nine for space purposes, so this portion of the article was cut. What a shame.
Anyway, me and Stabo plunked down some credits to play this wild'n'crazy loop-de-looping aerial adventure! And the girl stood there and clapped and said "Sugooooi!!" every time I or he shot down anything. Man, I really sucked that first time. It was like ripping a Band-Aid off. I almost wanted to tell the girl I didn't feel like being patronized right now. Hell, if I'd have done that, I'd have taken my eyes off the screen.
Months later, last I saw her, she could one-credit the game on the intermediate path. I . . . guess she wasn't being patronizing. I guess I lost that round.
Eventually, though -- yeah. What a wonderful game. What an amazing game. What a tightly-put-together incredible piece of software; what an insane-o, spinning, vibrating, screaming cabinet. What a solidified piece of virtuoso. Even as I write this, the sun shining on the water in my memories calls to me; the glint of the plane body echoes like a whisper of love. I might play it tonight, on the way home from my desk job. I just might! It wouldn't hurt to go have a run-through of it. I used to do this with OutRun 2 for a bit, though eventually that game started to give me the cold shoulder. I'm proud to say that I've been seeing After Burner Climax for over four months now, and we still don't hate one another. It must be all the shooting; I like shooting. I like blue skies as well. I particularly like games that are very straightforward, and don't necessarily involve opponents. In this way, I can justify wasting a little bit of time and a little bit of money on After Burner Climax whereas Virtua Fighter 5 is a thief of my love of life. After Burner Climax, if not art, is music; Virtua Fighter 5 is a musical instrument. I already have a steady musical instrument in my life, and it's a Telecaster. I will not allow the hemispheres of my brain to erupt into a turf war. Not while I have a drummer.
And then there's the Sega game that made the biggest splash in 2006 -- a ten-ton bomb dropped in the middle of the lake, like shat out of the moon itself, Sonic the Hedgehog for Xbox 360. Oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me. It's got Sonic the Hedgehog and realistic humans, which are creepy as shit and totally diggable, if they'd been done right. The back of the Japanese box describes it as "A retelling of the classic story". Which classic story? The classic story about Wesley Willis trying to stab the lead guitarist of The Fiasco in the neck with a screwdriver? It's a fucking blue hedgehog versus an army of robots commanded by a mustached villain who wants to collect the magic emeralds to rule the earth; from the beginning, all those years ago, it was too many degrees removed from love. The character was cute, if you consider Felix the Cat "cute". Sonic was a case of the right place at the right time and nothing more; his first game won Electronic Gaming Monthly's "Game of the Year" for 1991 because it was like Super Mario, only it was fast. Sonic was successful because it was an analysis and then slight reinvention of the games around it, at a time when the average game-console owner was too dumb to want too much more than that. The later games would hammer away at what Sonic had attempted, until the world around Sonic had changed, and Sonic's creators came to wield the mistaken notion that maybe Sonic was the world. And so all good things that once breathed will rot. The new Sonic the Hedgehog games are unplayable jumbles. You fall through the floor at random times. The stages are set up like rollercoaster hills that stop in the middle of nowhere. I could sit here and pick apart the hundreds and hundreds of things wrong with just the first stage, though really, is it necessary? This is the age of the downloadable demo. Play the first stage yourself, and then ask yourself if you really like it. If you think you do, you probably shouldn't work anywhere where someone might ask you if you think this font looks okay.
Japan's gaming bible Weekly Famitsu scored the new Sonic game 8, 8, 8, 7. Every once in a while, or, uhm, every week, when these game scores are announced, kids get on the internet, look at the numbers, and then complain. I remember when Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence got scored 10, 10, 10, 9; some commenter on GamesAreFun.com immediately lashed out, "That one guy must REALLY HATE KONAMI." Man. Man, what the fuck? Famitsu gives a game a 39 when it's really good, and when, if they gave it a 40, people would complain about "It's just a remake / special edition of a previously existing game!" The perfect score from Famitsu has become something far too holy. Kingdom Hearts II got a 39, resulting in fans on GameFAQs' bleating bloody murder and insisting they should crash a plane into the magazine's offices for their obious hate of a masterpiece -- which they hadn't played yet. When The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was given a score of 8.8 by GameSpot.com, readers of GameFAQs (a website owned by GameSpot) went ballistic and planned ways to threaten the writer of the review via email.
Likewise, I remember my brother, once, long ago, when kids would still touch newspapers, reading the top ten highest-grossing movies of one summer weekend. Some movie that girls liked had slipped from #5 to #10. My brother cackled: "Number ten! Loser movie!!" I would have explained to him that there are actually more than ten movies out at any given time if he would have understood my meaning.
Of course, I theorize that someone, somewhere, was offended by Famitsu's "low" score of Sonic the Hedgehog. What I've noticed in my time reading Famitsu is that, nine times out of ten, the reviewers are only telling the readers what they want to hear. There's never "Payola" involved; Famitsu is merely, stoically confident that their analysts are correct when they say "This game will sell bucketloads" and their accountants say "Some of those bucketloads will go to people who purchase our magazine weekly". You look in a review with 10s and 9s, and the reviewers are sure to mention positives and negatives; lately, reviews with 4s and 5s are getting common, and let me tell you, those are all negative comments. 8s or 7s get only base, flavorless descriptions. If Famitsu wanted to please all fans of Sonic, they would have given it 9s. It's proof that they indeed do possess conscience -- even if it's a little patronizing -- in order to give the game a far higher score than it deserves. I have theorized that 8, 8, 8, 7 means "2, 2, 2, 1". I am confident in my reading.
Really, though, a blue hedgehog? A cartoon blue hedgehog who can break the sound barrier? He's a cartoon sham; he's a husk, a shell. Sonic's creators were aspiring to silent films and noisy cartoons; they were in love with sci-fi cityscapes and underspoken evils. The more and more they've tried to attach words (and puzzles, and "side-quests") to the games, the farther they've gotten from the joy. And then there's Shadow the Hedgehog, in which Sonic's archnemesis awakens with amnesia and two pistols. He's a good guy now, et cetera. First Knuckles -- though he's an "echidna", he's also red, which basically makes him an anti-Sonic -- becomes a good guy, and now Shadow. And then there's the sinister-looking Silver the Hedgehog, who I think is just Sonic. They could have made him a bad guy, though they figured they'd save themselves the trip, and just make him a good guy from the beginning. His schtick is that he moves really slow and gets stuck on walls.
And now Sega is releasing downloadable content for the PlayStation 3 version of the game. Pay 300 yen to "unlock a super-hard mission pack for Sonic!" A word of caution is that you'll need to have completed 100% of Sonic, Shadow, and Silver's quests in order to access this content after downloading.
I made myself a promise that I'm not going to talk much about this game. I'm on the verge of breaking the promise. It doesn't deserve to be talked about. That some guy gave it like a 9.5 and called it the "best Sonic game ever, period" or whatever isn't even worth talking about. That load times will occasionally extend what should be a thirty-second segment into ten minutes -- that's not worth talking about, either. Just leave the game alone. Ignore it. At this point, sending games companies the message that quality matters is top priority. Even the people who don't "get" quality, the people who slog through terrible games, the people with no competence for judgment -- even those people would appreciate high quality, even if they couldn't quite quantify it. Why not reward those people? Their love for a game is as simple as love ever is for anything: they want a plush of the main character to cradle in their arms night after night. Why not connect their hugely appealing character to, you know, a game with the right quality, with the right personality? Why not give these people something they deserve?
I actually have a good friend at Sonic Team; we have curry monthly. He was on the level design team. Last time I saw him, he was getting back from a year-end snowboarding trip to Canada. He gave me some amazing information. Some serious choice quotes.
I'm not going to talk about it.
I will tell you this, however -- two weeks before Sonic's release, this guy emailed my cellular phone on a Friday afternoon:
"Yo! I'm in Akihabara right now. I have two Fuji film canisters that are completely full of one-hundred-yen coins. Wanna go to HEY and play After Burner Climax?"
My reply, typed furiously under my desk, was "I'm at work right now. You know, doing my job. Shouldn't you be at work? Isn't Sonic wrapping right about now?"
He has fast thumbs: "That shit's been out of my hands, dude."
So yes, if you want proof that Sega is alive, After Burner Climax is it. The fact that an actual member of Sonic Team was in love with it enough to take the afternoon off work to play it should tell you one thing. Hell, it should tell you a whole lot of things. Least of all that maybe AM2 should make the next Sonic game. I mean, if anyone still wants Sonic games, anymore.
[next: stand up if you want to live]