Comics, Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Chaos! Comics Did A 9/11 Tribute Comic

My dear readers, I have failed you.

When I first (literally) stumbled across the fact that Chaos! Comics did a 9/11 tribute comic, I was thrilled, like a conquistador who accidentally discovered El Dorado.  But my initial excitement did not account for the fact that, well, riffing on a 9/11 tribute comic would be…difficult.  And that’s despite the fact that the cover itself pushes the laws of female human anatomy to the limits.

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Don’t get me wrong; it is amazing that this exists, although maybe not for the reasons you might assume.  Perhaps the first thing that will strike comics fans is that it’s actually written by Brian Augustyn of The Flash fame, who did a lot of work for Chaos! Comics in its last years.  The second thing is that this isn’t Chaos! in its wild, gory glory.  This is well after the flagship characters of Lady Death and Chastity have been toned down and made less…well, sociopath-y.  Lady Death isn’t even at this moment in continuity her normal white-skinned, ruling-Hell self, but was at the time a sword-wielding vigilante on the streets of New York (it’s…a long story, naturally).

Still, it’s not enough to riff on, despite my initial excitement.  Really, no matter who publishes it, 9/11 tributes – or tributes to any recent tragedy – are snark-proof.

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Its snark-immunity does not just derive from the fact that I’m an American and this is about the 9/11 attacks, although I have to admit that’s part of it.  No, it’s also that there really isn’t much to say, because frankly it takes conscious effort to botch these things.  Things like this are propaganda in the not-that-bad, pre-Goebbels sense, and as such there’s a definite, fairly simple way of doing them.  That’s not to say that they’re easy to write, per se, just that there’s a formula that’s carved in stone, and even more so than what you might expect in some genre fiction.  Start with some everyday characters right at the center of the tragedy, stir in some moral observations but do not under any circumstances make any references to politics, and show the main protagonists pitching in to help survivors without bringing in the baggage of their own personal stories, and voila, you have a tribute to a contemporary tragedy.

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Just as it’s very hard to screw up such a tribute, it’s also extremely difficult to make these types of stories great.  This is mostly for the same basic reason.  Genuinely the only way to make a 9/11 tribute really memorable for good or bad reasons is to break with the formula and bring in something that has the potential to offend a lot of people.  That’s not what Chaos! Comics’ Unity does, in spite of its publisher’s reputation.

I guess if you just automatically object to having characters like Bad Kitty running around the site of a national tragedy, you might find it offensive, but honestly is it really worse than having Spider-Man or Green Lantern at the site of 9/11?  Especially because here Bad Kitty, as well as Lady Death and Chastity, are portrayed as heroically as they are?  We exist in a pop culture-saturated world, and if you think there’s something wrong about having comic book superheroes meditate on the collapse of the twin towers, well, the argument was made and lost decades ago the second Donald Duck showed Americans what working for the Nazis was like.

Honestly, if you can get past the fact that both Chastity and Lady Death show up to 9/11 in respectable catsuits, the whole affair is (perhaps disappointingly) tasteful and even fairly well done in some respects.  Sure, like with most straightforward propaganda there’s plenty of cheese to be had, like Lady Death assuring the reader that the terrorists are in Hell while the victims are all in paradise, as well as this…

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…but there are a couple of nice touches as well.  The “ordinary person” character, an eastern European immigrant who wants to try to find her husband who was in one of the Towers for a job interview, isn’t overshadowed by the chestier heroines.  Also there’s a scene where a Sikh taxi driver tries to offer his help and ends up being attacked (and rescued by Lady Death, of course). Yes, it’s pretty – to quote TV Tropes – “anvilicious”, but it is an important point to make, especially considering the real life attacks on Sikhs and Muslims following the attacks. All in all, the comic really isn’t that bad for what it is, and on the whole isn’t much worse (or really better) than the Marvel and DC tributes.

For me at least, to get at the whole reason this comic is so noteworthy and strange is you’d have to know a little about Chaos!’s history.  See, in 1999 Chaos! rebooted its own continuity through a story called “Armageddon”, although essentially most of the characters retained their own personal histories and memories.  The reboot coincided with Lady Death becoming more of a traditional (if still hard-edged) heroine, so we get a Lady Death who empathizes with the lives lost and even holds up an American flag while giving an inspirational monologue.

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Although the world has been rebooted, she is for all intents and purposes the same character who turned a child abuse victim into an undead serial killer, Evil Ernie, and sent him on a mission to wipe out the entire human race.  In one Evil Ernie story, back way before the “gentler and softer” Chaos! Comics, this is what happens to New York:

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That’s just before we learn that for half a year Evil Ernie has been single-handedly killing everyone in Manhattan who survived the satellite he sent crashing into the city.  Oh, and he’s the protagonist of his series.  Old school Chaos! did not screw around.  And, of course, Lady Death is all but directly responsible.  That’s why I was more than a little amused to see this comic, although I guess it would have been much worse if we’d seen Ernie and his zombie friends rescue 9/11 survivors.

Still, if you’re a scholar of Chaos! Comics like I am, it’s the weirdness of Doctor Doom and Magneto rescuing 9/11 survivors in Marvel’s own 9/11 tribute, but times at least 7,500.

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Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual Warfare Part 7: Hell Awaits

So many months and a dying computer later…we’re almost done with Spiritual Warfare!!!!  But we still have to make one final push, isn’t that right, President Bill Pullman?

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We’re going to live on!  We’re going to survive!  Today we celebrate our independence from shitty attempts at cashing in on the insular paranoia of religious fundamentalists!

Right.  Well, last time NotLink barely survived his harrowing experience lost in the ocean (and this player’s efforts to murder him) and was inexplicably rewarded by God for his incredible stupidity.  Leaving the beach, NotLink finds himself in the Woods, where he’s terrorized by purple archers, chainsaw-wielding goons, lumberjacks (naturally), and…uh, dragon-men?

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Seriously, what are those things supposed to be?

It’s at this point I started to suspect the programmers were getting as tired of all this I was.  The Woods are pretty much a speedbump.  Even the dragon-man things, while unkillable even with the sword, move back and forth in very predictable patterns, making them just a nuisance.  There’s also almost nothing to do, except loot somebody’s cabin.

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Thou shalt not…eh, what the hell.

To be fair, maybe loot is too strong a word because the only thing to take from this minimalist and unfurnished cabin with the head of some kind of deer-insect hybrid is a railroad ticket.  Like I mentioned before, the railroad ticket is basically this game’s answer to the whistle in Zelda, only – of course – not as useful.  Just as I had foreseen it, the ticket comes so late in the game it’s really not all that helpful anymore, except to backtrack to pick up keys or healing vials.  Even then, you still have to trek all the way to and from the stations, one or two of which are definitely not in convenient locations (like I noted before, the station at the Shipyards comes after a long gauntlet of death!), so it’s not like it saves you all that much by way of time or avoiding enemies, unless you’re going all the way across Dawkinsville.

Once your Christian hero is done stealing the Ticket of Infinite Uses, you can enter yet another boss fight.  In contrast to the last one, this one’s a cakewalk, but even then it managed to aggravate me.

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The citizens of Dawkinsville don’t mess around when it comes to trying to murder prepubescent boys.

See, the man on the left runs around, tossing bombs at you, which you have to hit back at him using the jawbone.  His arsenal is limited, and once he runs out of bombs you win.  The problem is, he always aims the bombs directly at you, so all you have to do is stand there and throw the boomerang at each bomb.  It’s kind of like playing Pong when the paddles won’t move and the ball just bounces back and forth in a straight line.  Your reward for this is a helmet which is supposed to protect you from explosions, which would probably seem more impressive if NotLink hadn’t stopped running into dynamite as a regular obstacle quite some time ago.  Still, the helmet is the last piece of armor NotLink has been collecting that’s available in the overworld.  If you go to the church after getting the helmet, you see…

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Spiritual Warfare: The game where young boys are advised to look for gateways to Hell in a prison at a church.

To the prison, then!  For some reason, one of the ways to get to the prison is take an underground passage directly south to the Church.

Naturally, at the prison NotLink is inexplicably attacked by both prisoners and guards.  They move faster than any other enemy, which is expected this late in the game, but it’s a real problem when you walk into a new screen and suddenly three of them are right on top of you.  But at least it makes it more satisfying when you throw your Exploding Sword of Oblivion in their faces.  Like the Woods, once you get past what dicks the enemies are, the Prison area is unimpressive.  Rather than a maze like the Warehouses, the Prison is very straightforward.

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Besides picking up a hidden Heart Container, the only thing to do here is find an entrance to the final area, the “Demon Stronghold,” but let’s call it what the programmers were clearly thinking of:  Hell.  And let’s ignore the unfortunate implications in making the entrance to Hell a part of the Prison, hm?  I mean, it’s not like this game is supposed to be about a religion founded in large part by people who were imprisoned for their beliefs.

Now it’s probably no surprise to anyone if I claim that the best part of the game is getting to go to Hell, but…it’s true.

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I don’t know if programming this area fixed the game designers’ malaise, or if they just recognized that this one part of the game had way more potential than throwing fruit at atheists in a park, but, honestly, this is the closest the game ever gets to feeling like The Legend of Zelda by far.  There are no half-assed “puzzles” that just slow you down for a few minutes.  There is a maze, but it’s challenging instead of just frustrating like the maze in the Warehouse region.  While the designs won’t win any prizes for 8-bit originality, they do show a little more thought than what we’ve seen before (although there is the occasional touch of laziness like seeing the generic door graphic right in the middle of Hell) and the designers did go through the trouble of splitting up Hell into several distinct regions.  And even fighting the enemies, which include flying demons that spawn at random in certain screens and “invisible” demons who are marked by their footprints, just feels more fun than it had at any previous point of the game.  There’s another boss fight with a demonic claw that throws fire enemies at you, but even then, it’s not yet another “puzzle fight” but an honest-to-God dodge-projectiles-and-other-enemies and fire-at-the-boss-until-it-dies confrontation.   

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Before I fall into the danger of becoming a Wisdom Tree apologist, let me point out there is a serious flaw here.  The last piece of armor you need, the shield, is in Hell itself.  That wouldn’t be an issue, except you need the shield.  It makes you invulnerable to fireballs, and almost all the enemies – including the fast, randomly flying demons – throw them. It takes a while to get to the boss room holding the shield, even more so if you haven’t figured out how to navigate the maze yet, and I think it’s possible to accidentally skip the shield altogether (I didn’t do another playthrough to check to be sure, however, because…well, I don’t get paid for this!).  Until then you’re probably going to take a lot of damage from the randomly appearing demons belting you with fireballs alone, even if you’ve become something of a Spiritual Warfare master (and God help you indeed if that’s the case).   Maybe it’s a legitimate challenge, but for me it does feel like the programmers aren’t playing fair.  At the least, it does make the God of the game into a sociopath who really is just getting his kicks off torturing this poor kid.  “So, there’s this shield you need that will increase your chances of surviving Hell immeasurably.  Oh, where is this shield?  Buried deep in the bowels of Hell, of course!”

Oh, there is one more big problem here too.  The music doesn’t change.  It’s still the same cheerful, awful track that’s been playing throughout the rest of the game.  Please tell me at least they put in new music for the final boss fight (spoiler: they don’t).

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Just imagine millions of people who didn’t happen to believe in exactly the right version of Christian dogma in that lava.

Then there’s the fact that there really isn’t even a build-up to the final boss.  Hell’s sub-boss gets an intimidating entrance to its lair, but he doesn’t.  It’s like they just ran out of room to keep designing Hell and dumped the final boss’ lair in.

So who is the final boss?  The god Odin, fighting for the pagan cause?    Christopher Hitchens’ soul, driven insane by fury at the knowledge that there is an afterlife after all?  Or…

That’s right!  It turns out God really is stacking the deck with this kid, sending him up against the Prince of Darkness himself.  Okay, so the game never actually names its final boss as the Devil, but come on, it’s kind of obvious.

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So how does a small boy stand up against the First of the Fallen?  Satan fires flying demons at you constantly while a moving rock in a river of lava blocks your attacks.  The necessary strategy is to try to stun the rock shield with blasts from your sword and when Satan stops, laughs, and changes color, you hit him with your fruit.  It’s…actually not a bad challenge, and certainly more enjoyable than the tedious boss fights that came before.  The one odd spot is that if you land a hit on Satan his arms and claws fly around chaotically.

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The Devil really hates fruit.

Okay, I get that this whole game is an allegory about saving souls by converting people to Christianity, but, seriously, by ending the game with you fighting the Devil himself, NotLink is kind of topping Jesus here.  How dare you have such a subtle yet outrageous message of  blasphemy, Spiritual Warfare?

Anyway, what do you get for beating the Devil?

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That’s it;  just this one static scene.  The game does reward you also by finally playing a different music track, but if you pause the game, it will revert back to the original infinite song of death.  You don’t even have the option to restart the game from there.  It just freezes on this screen.  To be fair, though, it’s really not any worse than a lot of endings from licensed Nintendo games.  Hell, this is poetry compared to the ending to the NES Ghostbusters.

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Well, let’s end by thanking God for giving us Wisdom Tree and proving that pandering to demographics rarely does anybody any good. Also I sincerely thank God that this game didn’t take another page from Legend of Zelda by giving us a second quest.  Hallelujah!

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Video Games

Final Fantasy Retrospective: The Girly Show

At last, we come to the first direct sequel in the franchise’s history (well, unless you count the obscure anime Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals…), Final Fantasy X-2 or, as I like to call it, Fanservice: The RPG.

Taking place two years after the events of X, we find that Yuna and Rikku have teamed up with an ex-soldier named Paine to become “Sphere Hunters,” treasure hunters who specialize in finding spheres, which store the memories of  people from the past and even have the potential of granting users those people’s training and skills.  Yuna’s drastic change in occupation is motivated by her quest to find “him,” despite his disappearance at the end of X, but her mission becomes much more than personal when Yuna, Rikku, and Paine are caught up in an escalating conflict that may lead to a civil war, and stumble across information about an ancient tragedy that might very well have repercussions that will cause the total destruction of Spira.

X-2 is, in one word, bizarre.  It’s a complete tonal shift from X, opening with a now infamous cutscene showing Yuna performing in a fancy JPop concert:

While there are mature and even dark elements that surface, although usually late in the game, for the most part X-2 is a light-hearted adventure story with almost none of the pathos that defined X – or, really, the entire series as far back as II.  It isn’t just because the game has a team of three women as protagonists that the game has an obvious Charlie’s Angels motif.  Even the game’s (apparent) antagonist, a rival sphere hunter, Leblanc, is treated more like an excuse for constant comic relief rather than an actual threat.

The weirdness seeps even into the structure of the game itself.  Unusually for a J-RPG, much less for a Final Fantasy installment, the game is more or less a wideopen sandbox.  In complete contradiction to series tradition, you start the game with an airship, although in one of the game’s “minor” yet more noticeable flaws flying it is represented by just selecting a destination on a static screen.  You have a set number of missions you can go on, and accomplishing certain ones will open up further missions.  Depending on your point of view, this is either a refreshingly open-ended RPG experience or it means a J-RPG where most of the game is made out of sidequests and mini-games.  There is a plot to the game, and it does turn out to have depth especially once the forgotten tragedy underlying the game’s story comes to light, but it doesn’t really become all that evident until after quite a bit of padding.  So even though the game’s story does hit some right notes, it still comes across as unusually shallow for a franchise famous for pioneering storytelling in console RPGs.

This is almost tragic, mostly for two reasons.  First off, X-2 is not only one of only (now) three games in the series to have a female protagonist, but the only one where all the playable protagonists are female.  Now for some this element might be watered out, if not negated totally, by just how stuffed full of blatant fanservice this game is;  not just with the skimpy clothing of the female leads (especially Rikku who, let’s remember, is supposed to be sixteen at the oldest!), but scenes like the three heroines having a water fight in a hot spring while wearing bikinis and a mini-game where you basically massage a woman into what’s implied to be an orgasm.  Plus there’s the more subtle fact that Yuna’s entire initial motivation in this game isn’t self-sacrifice like in X, but to try and find the guy she loves.  I’m not saying that this in of itself should be considered offensive – in fact, you could see it as a nice gender-reversal of the age-old “Save the princess” storyline – but it is a disappointing contrast to Yuna’s complex and tragic motivations in X – or, indeed, the treatment of the franchise’s first female protagonist in VI, Terra, who didn’t even have a male love interest.

Second, X-2 does have fantastic gameplay;  I’d even say it has some of the best in the whole series. Instead of the sphere grid system from X, the game simply revives the traditional leveling system.  The job system from is once again brought back and used in a way that’s simple to learn but opens up a pretty complex potential for strategy.  It’s also the first time in a long time we’ve seen it possible to customize the abilities of the playable characters so much,a refreshing change.  It’s just a shame that it’s not in service to a much deeper – and better – story.

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