Ribs tickled? Check.

I was reviewing my bank account the other day and nearly died laughing when I saw this credit card payment entry:

(If you’re not aware, a merkin is a wig for your genitals.)

This came about because you aren’t allowed a ton of characters in a transaction description, so I often truncate it… this payment happened to be for Borderlands: The Handsome Collection and my ticket to The Merkin Sisters.

Monthend Video Game Wrap-Up – July 2017

~ Game Over ~

Mighty Gunvolt Burst (Switch) – I really adore this one. Played through twice now, as both Beck and Gunvolt, and then just kept playing. Also, the Ekoro DLC came out late in the month, so…

Vaccine War (PC) – I wrote a thing. Kinda meh.

Blaster Master Zero (Switch) – They’re releasing more DLC characters now so I opted to go back and play with the already-out DLC guys. Gunvolt is awesome and makes the game feel new!

Until Dawn (PS4) – I try not to use this word about video games, but I loved this one.

Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (NES) – The Netflix series and a nice My Nintendo discount inspired me to try one of the few ‘Vania games I’ve never played. Decent, but steeped in bulls**t.

Citadale: Curse of Darkness (WiiU) – Second chapter in the trilogy, solidifying the Casltevania “homage” by using an exact Castlevania subtitle. Perfectly average in all ways.

Super Mario 64 (N64) – I did something new this time and finished the game in a single sitting. Only to the requisite 71 stars, but hey, I’m not some kind of superman.

Tales from the Borderlands (PS4) – I wasn’t impressed with Episode 1, to the point where I was calling it Tales from the Snore-derlands. However, it got so much better once Gortys showed up.

BioShock Infinite (360) – A significantly more interesting tale than the original BioShock, but for some reason the gameplay still feels hollow to me, and I can’t figure out why.

Azure Striker Gunvolt (3DS) – Bought this in August of 2014 when it originally launched, haven’t played it until now. Massive oversight. It is excellent, but very difficult to actually be good at.

Resident Evil HD (PS4) – You know, initially I figured I’d do a one-sitting run of this. And then said run took nearly two months to complete. Damned distractions.

Red’s Kingdom (PC) – Quit playing after 20 minutes because I wasn’t having any fun.

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I currently have two albums pre-ordered, both of which release in August. That’s about the end of what they have in common. They literally could not be any more different.

Firstly, we have Brendon Small’s Galaktikon II: Become the Storm, which is a follow-up to one of my favourite albums of all time. The original Galaktikon is a masterful metal album that tells the story of a divorced intergalactic super hero who must rescue his ex-wife from his nemesis. It’s beautiful and unique and given the subject matter, a few songs hit surprisingly close to home. Most important of all, it knows that its premise is ridiculous and goes to great lengths to really ham it up. Oh, and also the music is terrific and every song on the album is a winner.

Galaktikon II has been said to have a somewhat different objective: to be a new Dethklok album, only without the Dethklok name. This is awesome because I love Dethlkok, but at the same time I also wanted a straight sequel to Galaktikon. Fortunately, Brendon Small seems to have split the difference, as the two currently released tracks from Galaktikon II each have distinctly familiar sounds. “Nightmare” is something that sounds absolutely like a Galaktikon song, but is wholly new and is actually pretty creepy. “My Name is Murder” on the other hand, you could easily mistake for a Dethklok track. I don’t know how to explain it properly, but I can absolutely tell you that without a doubt, we’ve got Nathan goddamn Explosion on vocals here. So yeah, Galaktikon II looks like it’ll be the best of both worlds, and that’s really the most that anyone could ask for.

Our other album is Rainbow, Kesha’s re-debut after being freed from the tyranny of… whatever that whole deal was. I know she was in a huge lawsuit with her old producer, but I didn’t follow it closely enough to be able to write about it with any certainty. And we all know that I’m not going to be doing the research. Anyway, I am absolutely in love with her last album, Warrior, which as you may recall is another one of my all-time favourites. So I’m looking forward to seeing what she’s got to offer with a little more freedom to do what she wants and (ostensibly) a lot less corporate meddling.

Like Galaktikon II, I’ve listened to two tracks off of Rainbow already, and again, they showcase two different sides of the album. “Praying” is a song that obviously is very close to Kesha’s heart, as it is a half-jab at her old producer or whatever. It’s a mature response, though, as it’s more about she grew stronger through her trials, and how she forgives ol’ what’s-his-face for all that he put her through. “Woman” on the other hand, is a straight-up celebration of Kesha’s pride at being a strong, independent woman. And why shouldn’t she be? All women should aspire to that. All people should aspire to be strong and independent. It’s a bumpin’ track that gets me shouting along as Kesha belts out the “I’m a motherf**kin’ woman!!” hook. Love it. Rainbow is going to be more of a gamble than Galaktikon II, I think, but I’m still very optimistic about it, based on my historical adoration of Kesha and the tracks that have already been released. And, you know, I’ve already pre-ordered the damn thing, so.

Rainbow will be released on August 11th, and Galaktikon II follows shortly after on August 25th. Both are available for pre-order in digital and physical formats through various retailers.

On pube wigs

A couple days ago, I went to see my very first Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival show. It was called The Merkin Sisters and I have no idea where to even start.

While my immediate reaction upon being asked to go to the show was “ugh, not some hipster amateur-hour bulls**t,” I took a few minutes to think it over, and decided that it would be something new and different to do. If nothing else it would likely be something vaguely interesting to talk about, if by some chance another human were to engage me in conversation.

Then I learned that it was a comedy show, and I was 100% on board.

Now, comedy is… not an entirely accurate descriptor. There were many laughs during the show, for sure, but it was more like a series of weird performance art pieces that just happened to elicit laughter from the audience. This was a bizzare show, a strange combination of interpretive dance, puppets, giant wigs, and some sort of weird menstruation bit involving a pink sweater and a red scarf. It was like a cross between sketch comedy and a hallucinogenic drug trip.

A show more about physical comedy and just being weird, the actresses (is that the right word?) were weirdly robotic throughout the show, often moving in quick, stilted motions and barking out lines emotionlessly in that weird way that performance artists do on TV. It was somehow even weirder after the show when they dropped their stage personas and acted like regular human beings as they thanked the audience, recommended other shows, and presented their merch.

I think that the nicest way to sum up my feelings about the experience is that I’m not smart enough to have really “gotten it.” It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I just felt confused and bewildered more than anything. I was acutely aware that I wasn’t laughing as much as the rest of the audience, which makes me a little sad. I wanted to like it more than I did, but what can you do? I’d definitely recommend seeing The Merkin Sisters though, as it is absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Maybe I didn’t get all the lulz, but I’m still glad that I went.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I had the week off work last week, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I did enough with it. I mean, usually that’s how I spend my time off anyway because I’m poor and can’t afford to go anywhere on vacation, except for maybe a day trip to Selkirk. But for some reason I feel as though I should have “accomplished” more, even though I did get a handful of important things done, and had plenty of fun.

Monday was a good day, but not productive in any way. Edwin and I spent nearly the entire day clearing Super Mario 64 in a single sitting, and banging our heads against Syphon Filter. Not the usual write-off, because I spent the day playing video games with a friend instead of all by my lonesome. I also briefly visited with a number of out-of-town relatives in the evening, as there was a gathering and dinner at my grandparent’s place. Mmmm… delicious steak. Also I put gas in my car for the first time in probably two months. Closed out the evening by staying up too late after purchasing Citadale: the Legends Trilogy and hacking my way through the second chapter.

Tuesday morning was spent finishing off the final episode of Tales From the Borderlands, which was as excellent as the first episode was boring. In the afternoon, I had a very successful dentist appointment. No new cavities, and they showed me before and after photos so that I could see exactly how much crap was piling up between my teeth because I don’t floss. Also I finally made appointments to get a crown placed on my tooth that got a root canal two years ago, so that’s nice. Later on, watched The Bachelorette with my family, as we do. As for the rest of the evening? Probably spent watching Mike Tyson Mysteries or Game Grumps. I’m sure I stayed up way too late again, because I distinctly remember thinking “Welp, I’m definitely not going to feel like accomplishing anything on Wednesday morning.”

Wednesday came along, and much like Tuesday evening, I have no recollection of how I spent it. I know I played a few stages in Azure Striker Gunvolt, but where the rest of that time went is a mystery. ARMS, maybe? I had to take my brother to a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon, after which we picked up pizza for lunch and then I finally began playing Final Fantasy XV. That evening, like most Wednesday evenings, I spent hanging out with Edwin again. On our quest to find dinner, we discovered that the Freshii by my parents’ house was finally open, so we opted to try it out. Then came a notable amount of progress in BioShock Infinite, which I am so torn on. I am quite enjoying the world and the story, and almost wish that there wasn’t any combat, because it’s really more of an annoyance than anything.

Thursday was the day I feel like I really accomplished something. I woke up early and took my car into the shop, as it had recently become very loud. Turned out that it just blew a gasket, not the whole muffler, so it was a relatively cheap fix. I got some exercise by walking home after dropping off the car, and even made a belated phone call about getting free internet in my new condo on the way. Then I ran back once the repairs were done, which pretty well burned me out. I spent the entire afternoon with FFXV, though I did take a short break to go out for another half-hour run. Then, dinner and more FFXV. It was that night when I realized that FFXV was going to stop me doing anything productive until it was done.

Friday morning was very busy! Splatoon Day! Zack and I drove all over creation looking for amiibos and the fabled Splatoon 2 pro controller for Switch. We found most of the amiibos, but no pro controllers, although we did luck into stumbling across a good birthday gift for my dad. By the time we were done, we had been out shopping for so long that on the way home we picked up Fatburger for lunch. I took in a couple episodes of Bob’s Burgers while I ate, and then spent the afternoon playing Splatoon 2, which had easily been my most anticipated Switch game. Then a couple hours break to log some more time in FFXV, and then back to Splatoon 2. I played Salmon Run all evening, only stopping because my Switch’s battery died and the wi-fi signal in my room is spotty at best, so TV play is currently not an option for online games.

There were a number of other grown-up things I could have accomplished during my week, but put off in favour of having fun. Even a lot of fun things got sidelined. No movies, no reading, no drawing; all put off in favour of sinking more hours into Final Fantasy XV. In the end, though, I had a good week. I spent way too much money on junk food and amiibos, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I suppose. At least when you’re me.

8 Teenagers, 1 Ski Lodge – Until Dawn

*Please note now that Until Dawn is a story-driven game and I am about to spoil the hell out of it*

I have been meaning to cancel my PS+ subscription for several months now. Originally, I only signed up for it so that I could play Day of the Tentacle Remastered for free and get a deep, deep discount on TMNT: Mutants in Manhattan. Day after day in June, I kept telling myself to turn off the auto-renewal. And then July 1st came around and I got the email saying that Sony had charged my credit card for another month. Rats!

But this worked out nicely for me in the end, because one of July’s free PS+ games is Until Dawn. I had no idea what it was before seeing it in the PS+ menu, but the description sold it as a horror adventure game (which is 100% in my wheelhouse), so I decided that I might as well take advantage, as my $11 was already spent.

When I began playing the game, it immediately became clear what was going on: a bunch of sexy teens are for some reason caught in a secluded ski lodge and would be killed off one-by-one. Well, that’s maybe generalizing a little too hard. The game has plenty of surprises tucked away in its sleeve. Its gameplay, for instance. You wander around, waving your flashlight at things, occasionally stopping to look at a point of interest or pick up clues. Then spooky things happen, and you slowly unravel the greater mystery. Also you occasionally stop for brief interludes in which you are talked down to by an arrogant psychiatrist and asked to complete simple tasks that will vaguely influence things you see in the game. Sound familiar?

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Follow-up: Blaster Master Zero

I wrote many, many nice words about Blaster Master Zero a few months ago. Between then and now, Inti Creates has released a Hard Mode update and three DLC characters, with at least one more on the way. I think you can see where this is going; I’ve been playing Blaster Master Zero again.

The nicest thing about the DLC characters is that while they are paid content ($2 a pop), they were all free for the first two weeks that they were available. Nice! The three currently available characters are Gunvolt (from Azure Striker Gunvolt), Eiko (from Gal*Gun) and Shantae (from Shantae), and coming next month is… Shovel Knight! (From Shovel Knight.) That’s a pretty outstanding lineup of crossover characters!

I’m not going to lie, what I hope most is that this means that Shantae and Shovel Knight will also be DLC characters for Mighty Gunvolt Burst. But that’s besides the point.

I am still a little bit afraid of Hard Mode, but I recently took up the challenge of playing through BMZ as Gunvolt. I didn’t quite get how he was supposed to play at first, and was getting awfully fed up that his dart gun took twenty shots or so to take down monsters. And then by chance I realized that the dart gun is for tagging enemies, not causing damage. Once you’ve tagged a foe, you can use your Flashfield ability to blast them with lightning. And if you’ve got the energy, Gunvolt’s prevasion skill will have him automatically avoid taking hits. Of course, I would have known all this already if I’d bothered to play either of the Azure Striker Gunvolt games.

And that’s just in the top-down sections. Where Gunvolt really amazes is in the side-scrolling areas. For one, he doesn’t take fall damage. That’s already reason enough to never play as Jason again. Gunvolt also has a better jump in general, and can wall-jump infinitely, which can be a major sequence breaker on its own. Lastly, you can trigger the Flashfield mid-air to have Gunvolt drift more slowly to the ground, making tricky landings much easier to pull off. Of course, the dart/Flashfield combo is also your offensive bread-and-butter here, but I don’t think prevasion works on the overworld. Needless to say, Gunvolt’s amazing extra mobility makes him an absolute blast to play as, and the dart/Flashfield combat style is very cool and makes you feel like a real badass. The only drawback, really, is that the darts don’t piece through walls. Boo.

In the final areas, Gunvolt begins to feel a little bit out of his league, but it was a nice challenge bump, as his unique abilities completely broke the bulk of the game. In the end, I think that playing as Gunvolt actually made the game more fun than playing as Jason, and I’d consider that the mark of some really great DLC!

I haven’t bothered to try our Ekoro yet, but I was chomping at the bit to try out Shantae, so I started a new run with her next. My impressions so far (I’ve only played through the first area) are that Shantae is going to require a lot more finesse than either Jason or Gunvolt. For one, her main attack is still the hair whip, and you can imagine that a short-range melee attack isn’t especially great in a game designed for a character with a gun. Shantae has a slew of magic attacks and transformations to round out her arsenal, though, and so far the Elephant transformation has been my go-to when I need to muscle my way through a stage. I’ll likely have a more detailed write-up when I’ve finished the game again, and when I finally bother to give Ekoro a chance.

Vania Mania

Last weekend, I went a little Castlevania crazy. Firstly, I read that Nintendo had put up some discounts for the Virtual Console versions of the original NES Castlevania trilogy on My Nintendo. Having nothing better to do with all the My Nintendo coins or tokens or whatever that had been piling up in my account, I got myself a nice 40% discount on Castlevania III and loaded ‘er up on my 3DS. Then, because I often forget about things even when I am incredibly excited for them, I read that the Netflix Castlevania series went live on Friday. So I watched all of that in a single sitting.

It all turned out to be a beautiful coincidence, because the animated Castlevania series is loosely based on Castlevania III. I had no idea!

So let’s talk about the show first. Straight up, I loved it. It’s got plenty of flaws, but I thought that it was still a fairly strong show. It was cool, violent, and sometimes funny, though truth be told, a lot of the humour was a little more adolescent than it probably should have been. Trevor Belmot is a massive jackass that I expect we’re supposed to eventually like, but he hasn’t quite gotten to that point yet. Maybe in season 2. Sypha and Alucard are awesome right from the word go, and it’s a massive tragedy that the season ends just as things are really getting good.

And I think that’s my biggest gripe with Castlevania: season one is only four 30-minute episodes, and only tells about a third of the story. Which, I suppose is right on target, as the upcoming second season is going to be eight episodes. Don’t get me wrong, they wrote in a lot of great supplemental material to flesh out the world and characters, but it still feels like this was just a test to see if there would be interest enough for the real story. Imagine if season two hadn’t been given the green light! We’d be left with nothing but an elongated prologue! Forever wondering what could have been!

The absolute best parts of the show were in fact the opening and closing scenes. The series begins with a very long cold open that serves to give Dracula personality and motivation. It’s a bit misleading because this part of the story is pulled more or less from Symphony of the Night, so I was double-surprised that the rest of the series followed Castlevania III instead. It makes perfect sense, though, as they’re telling the story in chronological order (though they did skip right past Lament of Innocence). The final scene is a -and I hesitate to use this word- epic battle between Trevor and Alucard. It was brilliant and incredibly cool. It also served to increase my hype levels to maximum and then slapped me right in the face with the hard truth that I would be left waiting for an indeterminate amount of time for this series to continue.

In a stunning turn of events, I enjoyed playing Castlevania III much less than I did watching it. I am fairly certain that it’s one of only two Castlevania titles that I hadn’t ever played (the other being Lords of Shadow 2). All the classic-style Castlevania are tough as balls, but none of them have ever felt quite as insurmountable as Castlevania III. It’s ridiculous how hard it is. So difficult, in fact, that I got frustrated to the point where I would put down a save state after every monster I defeated. It didn’t even feel that cheap, because you basically need a full life bar to have any hope at all against the bosses in the last few stages.

I’ve done a little reading up on the game in the meantime, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I should not have played the North American version. Apparently, in a stunning reversal of the usual “dumbing-down for Americans” trope, the Japanese version of Castlevania III is significantly less difficult. Fewer monsters, more generous checkpoints, and at least one character that has a useful long-range attack.

The biggest, and what I believe is the most important change, is the way your characters take damage. In the Japanese version, every monster deals a set amount of damage. So a medusa head that hits you for 1 HP in the second stage will still hit you for 1 HP in the ninth stage. However, in the North American version, all monsters hit for the same amount of damage based on how far you are in the game. So in the first stage, you’ll take 1 HP damage from every hit, while in the final stage, you’ll take 4 HP damage from every hit, regardless of monster type. This is crazy and significantly upsets the difficulty balance.

I can’t in good conscience say that the game is bad, because it’s mostly just that the difficulty level is broken. If the game was just a little friendlier, I probably would have really liked it. I found myself on more than one occasion amazed by the visuals (it’s a beautiful NES game), and it retains the tight, methodical Castlevania gameplay that made the series so popular in the first place. Let’s not forget the incredible soundtrack! It’s a huge game with ten stages and a number of alternate paths, and you can pick up several partner characters along the way that can tag in for Trevor at any time. The only game design part that I thought was actively terrible is one section where you have to climb a tower of falling blocks. It’s incredibly slow and long, easy to get killed on, and is boring as all heck. Plus there’s no checkpoint after it, so if you get killed by monsters afterward… enjoy slogging up that section again. It must have been my seventh or eight climb up that tower that I decided to start abusing save states.

And so ends my Castlevania craziness for now. I actually find myself wanting to play Lords of Shadow again for some reason, but I just can’t be bothered to unpack and hook up my Xbox 360 right now. Perhaps in a month’s time when I’m moved and settled into my new home. But hey, by that point, my Castlevania fever might have already subsided.

The Vaccines are at War

Vaccine War is very much unlike the bulk of indie PC games I play. See, it has an actual story that someone put time and effort into writing. Maybe not a whole lot of time and effort, but it shows that someone was actually interested in telling a story in this one.

As the tale goes, The Great War has ended, and your veteran main character (Daniel) moves his family from Prussia to Spain so that they can live a quiet life on a farm. But then a band of rogues bomb the nearby town, killing Daniel’s wife and abducting his daughter. You are then sent on a zig-zagging tour of the game world, hunting down the leaders of assorted military/paramilitary groups to find said missing daughter. Turns out the whole thing was because some secret society planted a “cure” for human cruelty into Daniel, and they wanted to extract the refined version of it form his daughter.

No, it doesn’t make much sense. But at least the developer tried. The developer whose name I didn’t bother to learn and probably will not bother looking up. (Spoiler: I didn’t.)

This weird story is told through many cutscenes, which are slow and not skippable. You can mash the button to speed the text along, but when every cutscene is placed right after a save point, you begin to yearn to be able to skip them completely. Also there are at least a couple typos in the walls of dialogue, which are semi-forgivable because based on the credits, I’m reasonably certain that English is not the developer’s native language.

So what else does Vaccine War have to offer? Well, the visual style is certainly… unique. It sort of reminds me of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, but not quite as stylized. I didn’t think it looked very good at all in screenshots, but when the game is in motion, it really does come together. The illustrations for the cutscenes are fairly horrible, though.

Okay, so. Gameplay. How does it stack up? It’s fun enough, I’d say. It’s a left-to-right kind of affair, but the game uses its 2.5D visual style to let you move along the depth axis as well. So, I guess it’s technically 3D then? But you aren’t allowed full 3D movement. You’re entirely restricted to the game’s set paths. Still, it’s a nice touch that both literally and figuratively gives the world a little more depth. The drawback here is that because of the way the combat works, level design is otherwise very flat and samey throughout the duration of the game.

Speaking of which, the combat seems at first blush to be of the typical run-and-shoot variety. You start with only a knife, but quickly get a gun and are thoroughly taught to use cover to keep from being shot. Because you can’t see enemy shots to jump over them like in the average side-scrolling action game, it essentially becomes a side-scrolling cover-based shooter. Which renders it slow and underwhelming.

That is, until you realize that in almost every case, it’s much easier, faster, and more effective to just rush every bad guy and stab him to death. You’ll take plenty of hits, but enemies drop enough healing items to keep you alive, and the save point mailboxes also heal you fully. This strategy is also the best way to deal with bosses, the only difference being that you will occasionally have to stop stabbing them for a moment to dodge their attacks. That said, the final boss is terribly cheap, and it’s not at all clear how you’re supposed to deal with him. It’s such a bad fight, in fact, that I nearly gave up. But stubborn as I am, I banged my head against that brick wall long enough to figure it out and claim victory.

Should you play Vaccine War? Not really. It’s decent enough that I finally feel justified in my purchase of the bundle it came in, and it’s nice to look at in motion for a while. But it’s so simplistic that it never offers anything new or exciting besides the boss fights, and even they’re not that great. Although if you are interested in seeing the whole game, you will need to play it yourself, as the two Let’s Plays on YouTube petered out halfway and four-fifths of the way through, respectively. Still, I wouldn’t really recommend it, unless you absolutely need to burn two hours by stabbing fools that you are supposed to be shooting. And even then, Resident Evil 4 is much more satisfying way to get that fix.

*NB: This game costs a whopping $8.79 CAD on Steam. I paid $5 for the 10-game Indie Gala bundle it came in. $5 is closer to the “correct” price for this one.