Games and the law #1: Nintendo et al. v. Soulja Boy (maybe)

Since I’m a lawyer and I like video games, I figured it would be a good idea to start a new series in which I analyze hot legal issues in the gaming world. My focus will be on American law, since that’s what I’m trained in, though I won’t ignore foreign law when it enters the picture.

This album sucks. I give it a 1. That counts as a full review, right?

In this first edition, we’ll be taking a look at a real gem: Soulja Boy. It’s long been an axiom that Soulja Boy’s music sucks, so much so that scientists are still working around the clock to determine how it hasn’t yet created a black hole large enough to swallow most of the inner Solar System. But this post isn’t about Soulja Boy’s music – it’s about his possible lack of knowledge of copyright law.

I don’t blame a guy for not understanding the ins and outs of US copyright law. It’s a complicated field. I do blame a guy, however, for not at least understanding that selling a console packed full of ROMs that are indisputably the intellectual property of first- and third-party publishers without a license to do would amount to criminal piracy under United States law. I assume Soulja Boy has attorneys to deal with the protection of his own intellectual property who are available to advise him of that. Maybe his legal team secured licensing agreements with every one of the copyright holders of the supposed 800+ preloaded games on his SouljaGame console and the supposed 3,000+ preloaded games on his SouljaGame handheld. That’s entirely possible, and I’m not saying it didn’t happen. But considering how defensive our dear Drako has been getting on Twitter… well, just read the following:

In a now-deleted tweet, Soulja Boy also noted that he’s “not afraid of Nintendo” nor of “faggot nerds” (his words, not mine.)

Not really the kind of thing you’d say if you had secured a licensing agreement with Nintendo, is it? Again, maybe he did and he’s just acting like a dick on Twitter for no reason.

Hey, to change the subject completely, were you wondering what the United States Code has to say about monetarily profiting off of someone else’s intellectual property without a license from the copyright holder? 17 USC § 506(a)(1)(A) states that “[a]ny person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain.” The statute requires a finding of willful behavior – basically meaning that the subject of prosecution knew what he was doing and intended to do so – but establishing knowledge and intent in a case like this isn’t too difficult. And what kind of punishment does section 2319 provide?

(b) Any person who commits an offense under section 506(a)(1)(A) of title 17—
(1) shall be imprisoned not more than 5 years, or fined in the amount set forth in this title, or both, if the offense consists of the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of at least 10 copies or phonorecords, of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $2,500;
(2) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, or fined in the amount set forth in this title, or both, if the offense is a felony and is a second or subsequent offense under subsection (a); and
(3) shall be imprisoned not more than 1 year, or fined in the amount set forth in this title, or both, in any other case.

The above-mentioned fine is set forth in 18 USC § 3571(b)(3) at not more than $250,000.  None of this counts the civil penalties that can be levied against the copyright violator in a separate proceeding.

Sorry for going off on a totally unrelated tangent like that. I just thought it was interesting.

By the way, these “SouljaGame” lumps of plastic dogshit seem to be pretty much identical to the myriad bootleg multigame consoles and handhelds that are manufactured and sold in Chinese and southeast Asian markets. Those systems are definitely illegal to sell, and the only reasons they continue to sell are the sheer number of different types of bootlegs sold and the difficulty of suing/prosecuting violators in the countries they flourish in. Hell, they even sell on Amazon. Like this fifteen dollar handheld containing hundreds of NES ROMs. There’s no way Nintendo signed off on this, but I can’t imagine they care too much about some podunk company selling crappy cheap handhelds with 30 year-old games on them, even if they are Nintendo properties. Soulja Boy’s products, on the other hand, have garnered attention all over the world. And if that sales figure of five million Soulja himself cited on Twitter is anywhere close to accurate, I can’t believe Nintendo (or SEGA, or EA, or Activision, or fill in the blank) is going to ignore them.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Soulja Boy is a pirate. I am legally allowed to call Soulja Boy a talentless asswipe, because that’s a statement of opinion and not a statement of fact or a legal conclusion. But I’m not saying he’s a pirate. Yes, it seems like he’s profiting off of the sale of what looks suspiciously like a pair of bootleg game systems containing a few thousand games, but again, it is entirely possible that he and his legal team ensured everything was legit by securing licensing agreements with each one of those games’ copyright holders. Here’s hoping they did for his sake.

First impressions of Strange Journey Redux (and minor spoilers)

Apologies again for the long break. My life as a lawyer is so thoroughly soul-draining that it is hard to find the motivation to make an effort at anything else. Thanks to Atlus, I can at least find an escape into an apocalyptic hellscape with the recently released 3DS game Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey Redux, a remake of the infamously difficult 2010 DS title Strange Journey. Three dungeons in, I can say that I’m enjoying it so far – for the most part. Strange Journey Redux is a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game that plays as you would expect. You fight and recruit demons while trying to either save humanity, follow God/YHVH and create a world of light, or join Lucifer and plunge the world into chaos. (This is not a spoiler – it’s the plot of every SMT game.) Strange Journey and Redux both differ from other SMT games in that they take place in Antarctica with a cast of space marines rather than in Tokyo with a cast of students (or knights/samurai in SMT4.) SJ is also much more of a dungeon crawler than the other SMTs – the lower screen of the DS/3DS is dedicated to the map, which is filled in as you explore.

Redux features a new coat of paint and a bunch of extras – voice acting, improved graphics, new demons to fight and fuse, a few anime cutscenes, some DLC that isn’t worth buying. All that stuff (aside from the DLC) is great. What isn’t so great, at least so far, is the new character Alex, a young woman in a red coat who drops in on your player character and murders him. She is pretty aggravating. Not very interesting either, if she’s supposed to be what I think, which is a Sarah Connor type-“I have to kill these people to save the future” girl. Bleh.

The main character is revived in the Womb of Grief, a Labyrinth of Amala-style optional (I think) dungeon, by Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest and fertility. Why they decided to design a fertility goddess as a little kid is beyond me.  Someone should ask new character designer Masayuki Doi.

Anyway, Strange Journey Redux is good so far.  I hope I’ll survive my job long enough to finish it.

Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse to be released 9/20

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Just a quick one today, to alert my multitudes of readers to the fact that Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse is being released in three days.  This spinoff of SMT4 is getting excellent reviews all over the place.  I’m reading as little as I can about the story of Apocalypse in order to go in fresh, but the general consensus about the game’s quality seems to be that it’s not merely a spinoff, but a full game in itself, and that it corrects some of the shortcomings that the good but somewhat flawed SMT4 suffered from (see here for more on my opinions regarding the original.)  So needless to say, I’m excited as fuck about this development and have preordered a copy.  I encourage any and all fans of the Megaten series or of stupidly difficult JRPGs in general to do so if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, I’ll be playing Hyper Light Drifter, a 3D isometric action game released earlier this year that looks and sounds amazing so far.  Between these two games, I should be able to distract myself from my crushing depression when I’m not busy with work to think about it.  That’s something to celebrate, isn’t it?

Seven great video game tracks (part 2)

I love music and I love video games (well, some of it/them, anyway.) So how can I limit myself to writing only one post about video game music? Here’s another one.

1) Final Fantasy VII – Reunion

This is one of the most haunting tracks that ever came out of a mid-90s RPG.  If you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll know what event this track pairs with.  If you haven’t, it’s where the main character realizes that his whole life has been a lie.  Oh yeah, spoilers.

Honestly, the spoiler won't make any sense until you've played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Honestly, the spoiler won’t make any sense until you’ve played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Anyway, Nobuo Uematsu is a genius when it comes to video game music.  This is one of the most understated, quiet pieces in an FF game, but it’s effective as hell.

2) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Chemical Plant Zone

Sometimes you just want to play a game where you’re a blue hedgehog rolling around fucking everything up.  And not one of the god-awful fuck 3D Sonic games like Sonic 06.  I mean the real thing.  The old Genesis games had proper background music, and Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2 has one of the best tracks in the history of the franchise.  It’s a techno early 90s Sega Genesis track and that’s all you need to know.

3) Yume Nikki – Dense Woods A

Modern horror movies are garbage.  At least, the ones that are made and air in my country are garbage.  People go to the theater to say “oh no a thing moved in the corner of the screen” for 120 minutes.  But what can you expect from the same people who think Mamma Mia is worth giving money to a person to see.

At some point, anyway, you have to admit that our horror movies are garbage and to turn to video games, which keep the horror genre alive.  And among these games, old-school looking RPG Maker games such as Ib and The Witch’s House are surprisingly effective.   The great-granddaddy of these games is Yume Nikki, a freeware piece made by a mysterious man known only as KIKIYAMA.  Yume Nikki translates as “Dream Diary” and is about Madotsuki, a young girl who refuses to leave her 150th story apartment bedroom/balcony and lives her life through her dreams.  Her dreams happen to be mostly disturbing as fuck, and it’s your job as the player to guide Madotsuki through her dreams and to collect all the “effects” that let her use various powers.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Yume Nikki excels in creating a mood, and its background music adds to this effect.  The tracks are simple but incredibly haunting, and they’re extremely effective in the game itself.  Do yourself a favor and go play Yume Nikki if you haven’t already.  With the lights off at midnight.

(Ib and The Witch’s House both have really good BGMs too, and they’re far more horror in aim and theme than Yume Nikki, which is more of a surreal dream game.  So if you’re looking to actually piss yourself, go for those instead.)

4) Outrun – the whole BGM

outrun

All of it.  This is a pure nostalgia pick, because like many other people in their late 20s Outrun is one of the first racing video games I ever remember playing, in my case as a small child who could barely manipulate the Genesis controller in an effective fashion.  But that 16-bit music certainly got stuck in my brain, even if I couldn’t get past the damn checkpoints most of the time.  There are certainly better soundtracks out there – this one is really more “background music” than a soundtrack – but it’s a very dynamic set of songs that doesn’t wear on me with successive listens.

5) Digital Devil Saga 2 – Hunting – Betrayal

The two Digital Devil Saga games are worthy additions to the Shin Megami Tensei family of games.  They’re much more traditional JRPGs than the mainline SMT games and other spinoffs – DDS doesn’t feature demon recruitment at all – but they’re well-crafted and tell an interesting story.  They also feature the always fantastic work of Shoji Meguro, who fully deserves a place in the video game soundtrack pantheon along with Uematsu.  And “Hunting – Betrayal” is one of his best battle themes, maybe his best ever.  The pure tension in this piece is astounding.  Listen to it with the dial turned to 10.

6) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Dead Angle

Umineko-no-Naku-Koro-ni-7

I’ve already taken a look at Umineko, but it’s worth bringing up again that this visual novel series has an amazing soundtrack, and “Dead Angle” is one of the best tracks in the game.  For the unfamiliar, Umineko is a very long visual novel mystery series about a family that is almost entirely murdered on a private island.  The game mixes up mystery with supernatural elements, and one of the central themes of Umineko is deals with the existence of magic and the line between reality and fantasy.  The game is honestly kind of a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess and, in the end, a satisfying story.  And the music is fantastic.

7) Final Fantasy VIII – Force Your Way

Speaking of Uematsu – again – this is my favorite Final Fantasy battle theme.  I didn’t love Final Fantasy VIII.  It was a good game, but it also had lots of problems, and the soap opera-level love story was fairly balls in my opinion.  However, the gameplay is still classic FF at this point, and the soundtrack is excellent.

I don’t normally read Youtube comments, because they tend to be so stupid that you can’t understand how the commenter managed to remember to breathe for long enough to write the comment and send it, but some user on the site aptly observed that “Force Your Way” sounds like the composer wrote eight different intros to a battle theme and shoved them all together.  And it works.  Even if the story of FF8 kinda doesn’t.

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The new Nintendo 3DS: $200 better than the old Nintendo 3DS (I guess)

Maybe. Or maybe it really isn’t. It’s hard to say.

I earned the money for the new 3DS by writing articles about rehab centers in New Jersey.  That's not a joke.

I earned the money for the new 3DS by writing articles about rehab centers in New Jersey. That’s not a joke.

Something happened to my old 3DS. By “old 3DS” I mean the original one with the smaller screens, and by “something” I mean my now ex-girlfriend broke it in half, on purpose. All I can say is thank God I still only buy physical copies of games. I kept the box, because why not?

I haven’t played the old 3DS XL, so I can’t say how it compares to the new one, but supposedly the 3D on this one is a lot better than on previous versions. Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but it still gives me both eyestrain and a headache. Still, the incident that happened a few months ago gave me an excuse to upgrade, and this is a real upgrade: the larger screen alone is worth it.

The damn thing didn’t come with a power cord though. What’s that about? I still had my old one, but still, really. It’s a simple courtesy, Nintendo. Will you deny us that?

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The stuff next to the E rating is a little confusing. Mild Cartoon and Fantasy Violence? Is that a baseline rating for all 3DS games as a whole or something? Or these might refer to the built-in stuff that I haven’t tried yet. I instead played Fire Emblem: Awakening for a few hours, and it looked really nice.

I know this is pretty old news, but if you were wondering whether you should buy a new 3DS, I guess the answer is yes. It’s just a few dollars more than the old XL model, and it’s got a bigger screen than the original. It’s also going to host Fire Emblem: Fates coming out sometime next year, and if you don’t own a Vita, Zero Escape 3 is coming out on both platforms over a year from now, and the 3DS is probably just as good a platform to play it on. If you already own a 3DS, though, maybe consider whether you have $200 that you don’t need. Especially if you own the old XL model. Again, people are swearing by the new 3D system and the button in the upper right that apparently does something, but I’m not sure those are worth such an expensive upgrade. And again, the 3D effect still gives me a headache. Am I holding the system in the wrong place? Did I not calibrate it or something? Whatever.

So I now have to pick up the pieces of my crap life, but the 3DS gives me a little solace.

Sometimes good things really do happen: Zero Escape 3 announced

Occasionally, life isn’t total shit. One of those occasions was a few days ago, when Zero Escape 3 was announced for release next summer on the 3DS and Vita.

Anyone who’s wondering what the hell that crowd is screaming about should play 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward. These two games (the first two in a planned trilogy) start to tell a story that is way to complicated to even give a hint about here. Both of them, and presumably the still to be titled Zero Escape 3, are essentially visual novels with strong puzzle elements. The characters are interesting, the twists are insane, and some of the puzzles are pretty damn challenging, generally involving or taking place during life-or-death situations. Kotaro Uchikoshi, the creator of the Zero Escape series, also wrote the cult-fan Infinity series, and those visual novels have a lot of the same elements (though they’re kind of long-winded and don’t feature much in the way of gameplay, being more traditional VNs.)

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999 and Virtue’s Last Reward are both must-plays for anyone who enjoys puzzles, drama, and intrigue. I enjoy all of those, and I played through both after being encouraged by a friend. One week later, I read an announcement that the third game in the series had been canceled, and I nearly cried. Well, not really, but I felt like crying. (This was all the more unbearable because VLR ends on a serious cliffhanger.)

So imagine my happiness today. I’m excited about this game. In fact, it is definitely the release I’m most looking forward to. To put this into perspective, I like Star Wars pretty well and I’m excited about the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars VII coming out in December, but I’m about 20 to 30 times more excited about Zero Escape 3. It might even beat out The Winds of Winter for anticipation value, though not by much.

Are you ready for crazy nine-way prisoner's dilemma backstabbing antics.  I hope you are.

Are you ready for crazy nine-way prisoner’s dilemma backstabbing antics. I hope you are.

Okay, enough talk. I don’t normally write posts like this, but I was too happy about this news to let it pass by without comment.

Breaking the fourth wall: A review of Contact (DS)

Contact_boxart

Have you ever wondered whether the characters on the other side of the screen knew you were there, controlling them, fighting with them? Have you ever played a game in which one or more of the characters knew they were being controlled by “the player”?

Well, chances are you haven’t, because Contact was a commercial failure. Published by Atlus and developed by Grasshopper Manufacture under the direction of famous weirdo game maker Suda51, Contact was released in 2006 for the Nintendo DS, which was still a new and fresh system at the time. This game has Suda’s marks all over it: weird story, surreal scenes that don’t make a lot of sense, puzzles with strange solutions, etc.

Above: the Professor and Mochi. Below: the primary game field.

Above: the Professor and Mochi. Below: the primary game field.

The element of Contact that really made it stand out, however, was the fourth-wall-breaking part. The game opens with the Professor, a really professorial-looking man with white hair and a lab coat, who is amazed to see you and starts asking you questions directly. He even addresses you by name (which the game presumably gets from the DS profile.) The Professor, and only the Professor, knows that you exist, and he talks to you throughout the game. Your participation in the game is pretty cleverly woven into the story and mechanics. The game even uses the unique (in 2006) split-screen DS in an interesting way, putting the Professor and Mochi in their lab on the top screen and the main part of the game in the bottom screen.

Oh yeah, and the Professor also has a cat named Mochi. Mochi also knows you exist because you can play with him (i.e. poke him with the stylus) in the save screen.

The player-controlled character throughout the game is “Terry”, a silent kid protagonist who has to help the Professor recover fuel cells to get his spaceship running again. There’s also a plot about evil astronauts, and Terry chases around a girl who may or may not be a villain, but she keeps disappearing for some reason. Despite having played Contact, I don’t really know what the game is about, although this is standard as far as Suda51 games go. Also, since Suda wrote the game, there are a few creepy and vaguely sexual parts in the game despite its E 10+ rating. For example, at one point Terry decides to caress a set of nightwear folded on a female NPC’s bed while he is alone in her house.

You didn't believe me?

Yeah, really

The game itself is pretty simple. It’s a basic adventure game: you move your character around on the field, hit enemies with swords and axes, talk to NPCs, run through dungeons, and find things. Contact also features a set of jobs Terry can take on, such as chef and thief, which modify his abilities. Combat is the weakest aspect of Contact, actually – it’s pretty much “run up again enemies and hit A until they die.” Special abilities and recipes for potions and dishes that modify your stats add something to this combat system, but not much.

Even so, Contact is a good game. It feels like a very “small” game – it’s short (for an adventure/RPG game), the characters are bare sketches, and the combat is as simple as it could possibly be. These qualities might have been the reasons for Contact‘s failure to sell well. However, the game is also bizarre and weirdly fascinating, with a nice soundtrack, an interesting gimmick that doesn’t feel too out of place, and a plot that keeps you at least wondering what the hell is going on. It’s a strange trip into a different world and a pleasant break from my own. I’m happy I played it. Contact takes your morning coffee and puts a drop of fairy juice in it and messes around with your brain-wires a bit, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

So if you like Suda51 and you don’t mind a kind of crappy combat system, I’d highly recommend Contact. It’s not the greatest game of all time by any means, but it also didn’t deserve to be almost totally ignored. If you find a copy for ten dollars (probably without the manual and box, but such is life) give it a try.

What kinds of mushrooms are Mario and Luigi eating?

Disclaimer: I don’t know a damn thing about mushrooms, except that you shouldn’t go around picking them from the forest and shoving them into your mouth. The best thing to do is probably assume that every single wild mushroom will kill you and, as I write at the end, stick to the ones they sell at the grocery store. I’ve read “this white/brown/etc. mushroom looks just like this other really good mushroom but will cause all of your organs to fail at the same time” to be scared away from foraging.

If you’re a real mycologist and not just some asshole who looked at Wikipedia and Google (i.e. me) then I’m sorry about this post, because it probably looks pretty stupid to you.

Anyway, on to the post itself:

As you know if you know anything about video games, mushrooms are a common theme in the Super Mario universe. The setting for the original game was the Mushroom Kingdom, Peach was originally called Princess Toadstool, etc. And, of course, Mario and Luigi gain their powers of growth and extra life collection by eating mushrooms. But the key question is: what kind of mushrooms are they eating? This is the question all of the main scientists are now asking.

First, two assumptions: 1) they really are eating these mushrooms. When a game shows your character punching a box and absorbing the turkey leg that invariably springs out of it, it’s implied that he is eating it, and I’m going to say the same goes for the Mario games. And 2) that the mushrooms are ones that exist in real life on Earth, because otherwise the answer would be that the mushrooms are some mysterious alien species. That’s too easy of an answer and I refuse to accept it.

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First: the Super Mushroom. This is the very first powerup in the Mario series. Even your grandma got this one. This mushroom has the power to make Mario or Luigi grow in size, allowing them to take one hit from an enemy before getting killed. That’s definitely an amazing mushroom. But what sort of mushroom could have such an effect?

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Here’s the same mushroom in Super Mario Bros. 3. Here we can see that the mushroom has changed color from beige with red spots to white with red spots. It has also gained a face.  And starting with Super Mario World, the colors were reversed to white spots on a red cap, which is how the mushroom has looked since.

The Super Mushroom’s new look sheds light on its identity.  It has to be the amanita muscaria, a/k/a fly agaric.

Amanita muscaria is known for its psychoactive properties. (Source: Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Amanita muscaria is known for its psychoactive properties. (Source: Onderwijsgek, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Amanita muscaria is well known in popular culture for being one of those “trippy” mushrooms, the kind that make you have hallucinations. These particular mushrooms are full of muscimol, a psychoactive compound that causes “effects… from nausea and twitching to drowsiness, cholinergic crisis-like effects (low blood pressure, sweating and salivation), auditory and visual distortions, mood changes, euphoria, relaxation, ataxia, and loss of equilibrium.” (thanks Wikipedia.) Apparently Siberians have been eating these for centuries to have religious experiences. Eating the flesh of the amanita muscaria can also reportedly cause micropsia, a condition in which objects appear smaller than they really are, making the subject feel larger as a consequence (see also Alice in Wonderland.) hmmmm.

It should be noted that amanita muscaria is not advisable to eat, as it apparently causes a lot of unpredictable side effects and could potentially kill someone. It’s also not the “shroom” of popular recreational use; that’s a totally different mushroom that I know absolutely nothing about. No, nothing at all.

So, you know, don’t eat fly agaric, unless you really know what you’re doing (if you’re a Siberian shaman with fifty years of experience, in other words.) You’re not Mario, you won’t grow into a giant and gain brick-breaking powers anyway.

Second, we have the amazing…

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1-Up Mushroom. This white green-spotted mushroom gives Mario or Luigi an extra life, allowing him to return from the dead. This is truly a wonderful mushroom, the closest we’ll ever get to the root of immortality that Gilgamesh found and lost all those thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, though, this mushroom doesn’t actually seem to exist. Searching for “green mushroom” either leads to info about Mario’s 1-up mushroom or to such recipes as “green bean and portobello mushroom sauté.” Which admittedly sounds delicious, but it’s not quite what we’re looking for.

The closest thing I found to an actual green mushroom is the mycena chlorophos, a bioluminescent mushroom that emits a pale green light. However, the mushroom itself is not green. Moreover, nobody seems to know if it’s edible, presumably because nobody has ever been hungry enough to try to eat a glowing mushroom.

Don't eat these. (Source: Anonymous Powered, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Don’t eat these. (Source: Anonymous Powered, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Finally, there’s the third, too often overlooked mushroom of the Mario universe. This is the Poison Mushroom. This first appeared in the Japan-only original Super Mario Bros. 2, in keeping with that game’s reputation as way harder and cheaper than the first.

mario2

This mushroom looks like it could be any number of types. In fact, the Poison Mushroom of the Mario universe itself has changed its look several times. This may be an acknowledgement of the sheer number and variety of poisonous mushrooms in the world. There are many species that amateurs and even experts are advised to avoid because of their similarities to poisonous species. One example is the family of white mushrooms known as the “destroying angels.”

Amanita virosa looks harmless, but if you pick and sauté this, it will kill the shit out of you. (Source: public domain)

Amanita virosa looks harmless, but if you pick and sauté this, it will kill the shit out of you. (Source: public domain)

The poisonous amanita mushrooms seem to be the most dangerous because of their similarity to plenty of other edible, even really good-tasting, mushrooms. It’s believed the Roman emperor Claudius was killed by his shitty fourth wife Agrippina in an assassination,* by a plate of destroying angels. Unfortunately for him, and for Mario if he ever runs into one, these mushrooms are packed full of α-amanitin, a compound that causes liver failure and death when ingested.

If there’s any lesson that the Mario series teaches us, aside from avoiding giant turtle monsters, it is that we should be careful about eating mushrooms, even the ones that might give us hallucinations or super powers. For my part, I’m going to stick with the boring regular mushrooms sold at the grocery store.

 

* Don’t feel too bad for Claudius, because he got his revenge in the afterlife: Agrippina’s even shittier son, the emperor Nero, killed her when he got tired of her griping. Then he was quite rightfully killed by the Senate later on (forced to commit suicide, which he would not have done if they hadn’t been threatening him with worse.) Roman history is pretty fun, isn’t it?

A review of Freedom Planet (PC)

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The love of indie game designers for retro-stylings is pretty understandable – it means way less in production values, and playing on the players’ love for the games of their childhoods is always a good bet. Still, most of these games have seemed to focus on the 8-bit era of the Famicom/NES/Master System. Which is just fine, but the video games of my childhood are more in the 16-bit SNES/Genesis category. So I’m pretty happy about Freedom Planet, an early 90s-style action platformer released in 2014.

Not that mere nostalgia is enough for a game to be good (see Retro City Rampage, which seems to try to survive on its nostalgic appeal alone and fails.) A game, even a pretty basic platformer like this one, has to have fun gameplay and some aspects that set it apart from other, similar games. Luckily, Freedom Planet has both.

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First things first: Freedom Planet obviously looks like a Sonic game. The level art and the sprites and character designs are really reminiscent of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Moreover, the characters play a bit like Sonic, Tails and Knuckles as far as speed and special moves go. Hell, the game even has half-pipes and loops that look like they were taken straight out of an old Sonic game. And the main character (Lilac, above) kind of looks like a redesigned and recolored Sonic character.

So big deal, you might be thinking: Freedom Planet is a fangame starring a modified Sonic sprite. However, it’s really more than that. Freedom Planet also takes influence from other 16-bit series like Gunstar Heroes, Rocket Knight Adventures, and Mega Man X. The player can make use of lots of different moves unique to each of the game’s three characters to take down enemies and bosses. The mix the developer used here ensures that this game feels not like a Sonic pastiche, but like its own game, which is important as hell (at the very least, it lets him claim a way broader copyright on his work without getting mixed up with SEGA’s lawyers.)

But this isn’t an article on copyrightability in video games, so let’s move on. Freedom Planet tells the story of Lilac, a dragon (yeah, she’s a dragon, somehow), her tomboyish cat friend Carol, and their new annoyingly hyperactive dog friend Milla as they help a mysterious stranger defeat an evil alien overlord who has instituted a coup in their country by killing the king and mind-controlling his son, the prince. It’s a lot more grim than a game from the time would have been (just imagine Dr. Robotnik doing something like this. You can’t, can you?) However, the game still manages to maintain a light and fun atmosphere. It’s colorful and fast, the level designs are varied and interesting, and Lilac, Carol, and Milla play quite differently, requiring a different approach to the same levels for each character. Despite the Sonic-looking-ness of Freedom Planet, the sprite and level art are all great, and it’s obvious that a lot of work went into putting the game together. There’s even full voice-acting. And the voices aren’t even bad! Try to beat that.

Freedom Planet's trio chilling out between stages.

Freedom Planet’s trio chilling out between stages.

I’m gushing over the game at this point, so let me tune it down just slightly: along with the old-school stylings of the art and the gameplay, Freedom Planet also features plenty of old-school cheap difficulty, and some of the levels are long and drag a bit. However, even the pacing and difficulty aren’t really an issue, because Freedom Planet gives Lilac and friends unlimited continues and mid-level checkpoints to start from. Moreover, unlike an old Sonic game, which capped the player’s time in each level at 10 minutes, Freedom Planet imposes no time limit at all, letting you explore and find new ways to get through a level. Finally, the game tries hard to mix things up with new level mechanics in each part of each stage. Some level sections require the player to solve a puzzle to open a door further back in the level. Others feature Indiana Jones huge boulder escape parts. It’s easy for these sorts of games to get dull after a while, but Freedom Planet succeeds for the most part in keeping gameplay fresh throughout.

Oh yeah, the story is also kind of stupid, but I don’t remember a platformer on the SNES or Genesis that had a story worth caring about, so who cares? Nevertheless, there is plenty of story in Freedom Planet, complete with long cutscenes (long for this sort of game, anyway) but if you don’t care to watch them, the game lets you cut them out by choosing “Classic Mode”, which takes you from stage to stage without interruption.

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first.  Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

The game features lots of powerups and shields that go more or less unexplained at first. Also notice the nice graphics (again.)

So: the verdict on Freedom Planet. It’s sometimes frustrating, but basically a really good game. I could even say it’s great, though that might be too much praise. In any case, I basically enjoyed Freedom Planet, even though some parts of it are way too god damn hard (specifically some extra-long parts of later stages and boss fights.) If all of the above sounds good to you, you might consider buying the game on Steam: I’d say this game is worth the $15 price tag.

I should disclose that I might be biased here because, as a kid, I really enjoyed the old Sonic and Mega Man series and some of the other games Freedom Planet cribs from, and I still do, so I naturally took to this game’s approach. I also appreciate the fact that, unlike a lot of modern 2D action/puzzle platform games, Freedom Planet doesn’t seem to take itself all that seriously or have pretensions to being meaningful all-capitals ART. For the most part, it really feels like a game that could have been released in the early 90s on the SNES or the Genesis. There’s a place for serious art in video games, and even in platformers, but sometimes you just want a good time, and Freedom Planet delivers that.

Retrospective: Prince of Persia

prince

When I was a kid, I had a big book with selections from the One Thousand and One Nights. It was naturally filtered for a kid’s consumption, though not totally – some of these ancient tales are seriously bloody, and as a six year-old kid I distinctly remember reading about villainous bastards getting boiled alive in pots (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; seriously, look it up.) I also read about some great adventures that didn’t involve death by boiling oil, though: the tales of Sindbad the Sailor, Ali Baba (minus the boiling part) and Aladdin. I imagined what it would be like to be carried away by a giant bird to a distant land or to discover a magical cave full of treasure.

I think Jordan Mechner must have read the 1001 Nights as a kid too, because Prince of Persia feels a whole lot like one of them (specifically Aladdin) compressed down into game form. It features a vizier-sorcerer guy who is evil (because the vizier is always evil) and wants to marry the young princess, who is in love with the player character (you.) You are the Prince of Persia and your mission is to rescue the Princess from being forced into marriage to a creepy middle-aged magician. You must escape from the dungeon the vizier has thrown you into and make it into the palace, where the Princess is being held.

There are even cutscenes!

There are even cutscenes!

You might know the Prince of Persia franchise from the reboot series it got in the 2000s. If you were curious about where it started, here you are. Jordan Mechner designed this PC platformer to appeal to the newly computer-addicted kids of the early 90s, a group that I belonged to. And it absolutely worked, because Prince of Persia is a great game.

The first screen of the game.  You'll get used to seeing this screen.

The first screen of the game. You’ll get used to seeing this screen.

It’s also a hard, unforgiving, hit-your-fist-against-the-wall-and-cry kind of game. Prince of Persia is a platformer from the age of hard as fuck platformers. The Mega Man series on the NES is a classic example of this sort of game: lots of easy deaths, pitfalls, and traps to kill you, even when you think you’re playing carefully. Prince of Persia follows a similar pattern, only here the obstacles are spike traps that extend from the ground when the Prince approaches them and floor-to-ceiling snap traps that will cut the Prince in half if he’s caught in them.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy?  Are there many blonde people in Persia?  Maybe there are a few.

Why is the Prince a blonde guy? Are there many blonde people in Persia? Maybe there are a few.

Expect to see this a lot. Prince of Persia is a trial-and-error sort of game; you’ll try jumping from platform to platform and hanging onto ledges, and you’ll fail often and fall off ledges and die, fall into traps and die, etc. You’ll also face sword-wielding guards waiting for you in almost every level. Fortunately, the guards are also susceptible to spikes and huge metal teeth. You can use the level’s treacherous nature to kill off guards more easily by pushing them into said traps.

Every guard dreads the "just in front of the spike pit" posting.

Every guard dreads the “just in front of the spike pit” posting.

Thankfully, the game offers continues that are unlimited in number, though upon each death you’ll have to start at the beginning of the level. There’s a catch, however. Remember that beginning cutscene with the hourglass? The vizier/sorcerer/whatever bad guy has given the Princess one hour to decide whether to marry him or TO DIE. So you have an hour to save the Princess. No, not an hour in fake video game time – an actual hour. Sixty minutes.

As you can imagine, this really puts the heat on the player to blaze through all the obstacles in front of him. However, rushing forward without a plan is probably the worst playing method here – you’re guaranteed to constantly fall into the successively more difficult death traps the dungeons and palaces have in store for the Prince. This time pressure is compounded by the many time-limited gate-opening puzzles throughout the game. The later stages demand that the player think creatively to get around some of these obstacles. There’s even a great twist near the end of the game in one of the final boss fights – let’s just say that it’s not a normal boss fight in any sense. The solution to the fight is simple, but it’s nearly impossible to guess your first time out.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level - you needed the game manual to proceed.  This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn't an option.

Another interesting thing about Prince of Persia: it used an early form of copy protection to prevent people from playing pirated copies beyond the first level – you needed the game manual to proceed. This was also before the Internet existed as we know it today, so looking the answer up on Google wasn’t an option.

Prince of Persia was deservedly a big hit, and as a result, an SNES port of the game came out a few years later. The SNES version isn’t just a port, though – it adds 8 more stages to the game for a total of 20 and gives the player two hours instead of one to make up for the extended length. It also adds background music to the previously soundtrack-less game and throws a lot more detail into the graphics.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

The Prince also looks more like an actual Persian now.

Unfortunately, the SNES version also removes something from the original PC game: the blood. You and the guards you kill can (and will) still fall and die on spikes, snappers and so on, but there’s no blood involved. This is a weird sort of censoring that Nintendo was performing in the early 90s in an effort to be seen as family-friendly. More famously, they did the same thing with the Mortal Kombat SNES port. I never understood this. Your character was still committing violence against other people and getting impaled by spikes – what difference did a little blood make?

No, it's not a violent game.  See?  There's no blood in it!

No, it’s not a violent game. See? There’s no blood in it!

But enough of that. Both Prince of Persia versions are good games and well worth your time. I prefer the PC version, probably because it’s the one I played as a kid. The SNES version might be easier to get running, though, if you can install an SNES emulator and find a rom.

A historical note: The vizier in the original Prince of Persia is clearly based on the sorcerer guy from the original Aladdin (I know what you might be thinking, but no – Disney’s Aladdin came out two years later.) The game refers to this guy as “Jaffar”, however, just like the villain of Disney’s Aladdin. Ever since, Jaffar has been the first character to come to mind when the term “evil vizier” comes up.

There was a Jafar ibn Yahya al-Barmaki who was a vizier to the 9th century Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and he’s believed to be the basis of this character. He wasn’t originally portrayed as a villain, however: Jafar shows up in a few of the 1001 Nights tales as the protagonist, and the historical Jafar was known as a proponent of the sciences and of learning during the Islamic Golden Age. Jafar did end up losing his head as a result of allegations that he was boning the Caliph’s sister, but whether this was true or simply a result of a court intrigue is an open question. The closer you are to the throne, the more danger you’re in. See Game of Thrones for more on that theme.

edit: As it turns out, the timing of this post is pretty good, considering that it’s the second day of Ramadan and lots of Persians – along with millions upon millions of others around the world – are celebrating the month with fasting during the day and feasting at night. I didn’t actually intend it to turn out this way, but since it did – happy Ramadan, whether you’re taking part in it or not. May you successfully avoid spike traps and horrific crushing metal teeth.