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Easy Setting Gamer

Easy Setting Gamer

A few weeks ago, I bought the Playstation 3 classic Bioshock Infinite. After a few marathon gaming sessions, I managed to bound through the game, and as I write this, my position is on the final airship, locked in an epic battle against other airships which procure soldiers and robots onto mine. The object is to make sure the power source on my airship stays up and running while blowing up the other airships. That would be easier if the enemy airships weren’t slamming me with some of the most dangerous and difficult enemies the game can throw at me.

The irony is that I’m playing Bioshock Infinite on the easy setting. Does anything about the scenario I just described sound easy? For a point of comparison, I also bought the original Bioshock, which I’m playing on the normal setting. Now, I should point out in fairness that even though these two games bear the same series name and several common elements, they are two totally different games. Bioshock is done in the first person, but it otherwise has the feel of a common survival horror game – the challenge is in the many ways the game deprives players of the equipment they need to stay alive. The atmosphere is one of suspense and dread, and the player has to learn to maximize every available resource or they’ll be dangerously underequipped at points when it counts. Bioshock Infinite is a true shooting game; enemies are everywhere, ammunition is expendable, and the primary challenge is in not getting hit with bullets. But even so, I’ve only just entered the second area in the original Bioshock. It’s nearly as awesome as Bioshock Infinite, but with the difficulty up a little, I’m more like slowly hacking through it. I keep getting stymied in the same place.

I’m an easy setting gamer. I find nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately, a lot of gamers seem to disagree. And that line of disagreeing gamers runs right up to and includes the people developing the games. Easy-shaming is a video game trope that’s been around for quite a long time. Easy-shaming is a way game developers mock gamers who play through a game on the easy setting in some way. Some games are more blatant about this than others; in Art of Fighting for the Super NES, the reward for beating the game on the easy setting is the word “CONGRATULATIONS!” displayed on the screen as it echoes on the soundtrack. That’s depriving gamers of the real ending. Back in the 16-bit Era, it would take on much nastier forms. Streets of Rage 3 only let easy setting gamers play through the fifth level. If a gamer got that far, it gave an ending which mocked them. Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi simply cut back to the intro screen after a victory and told gamers to try the next difficulty level. Shadow Dancer is an extreme case because you didn’t get the real ending until beating the game on its hardest setting.

Some games don’t even wait that long to make fun of gamers. They’ll have an easy setting named “wimp mode” or “wuss” or something equally as degrading.

I tend to prefer to believe that this way of psyching gamers out is a way for developers to make up for their own shortcomings with making the game. Veteran gamers all know that an increase in challenge levels means the developers have to come up with a way to jack up the challenge, and that they sometimes suck at this. Sometimes enemy attack patterns change, sometimes the game speeds up, sometimes the levels get flooded with more baddies, and sometimes enemies have more health and do more damage. Increasing the challenge is more than just flipping some code switch. That means that developers tend to run low on creative ideas for how to do it themselves. The Madden series is famous for its catch-up speed. One of my favorite role-playing strategy games, Shining Force II, didn’t do anything except make the enemies far more aggressive on higher settings. Fighting games are probably the worst about driving the challenge high. They get cheaper, and the computer is faster and suddenly equipped with an array of techniques the game’s physics don’t ordinarily allow. Mortal Kombat II, for example, let the computer throw the player when the player tries to hit it with an uppercut. That’s a move which just isn’t allowed with two players.

I’ve never gotten along with easy-shaming. The core idea which surrounds it seems to be that gamers play games strictly for a challenge and should do everything in their power to make the games as hard as possible. That’s a philosophy that I disagree with. One reason is that back in the 16-bit Era – which, should you need reminding, is the one I grew up with – the idea that games should be as hard as possible was little more than an excuse for developers to pad games. It meant being lax on real creativity in favor of jacking the challenge up to a bruising level, so even good gamers wouldn’t stand a chance. Essentially, it was a way to make a cheapo.

A good challenge is a nice thing to have in a video game, but it’s not something I consider a requirement. In fact, if the game gets too difficult, I frequently get frustrated with it. This isn’t the 70’s anymore, and no one plays video games to run up a score counter. Since the onset of the NES Era and Super Mario Bros. changing everything about the way we view games, they’ve been good for transportation. Escape. Imagination’s fertilization. And the onset of 3D games has only emphasized that. When we play 3D games, we want the freedom to run off and explore vast, complex worlds to our heart’s content. When developers try to limit how far a gamer can get or what they can do just because they don’t agree with the difficulty the gamer is playing on, it makes them look like a bad football coach complaining about the refs. It’s outright infuriating if one particularly difficult object or enemy is blocking you from a section of the game.

Furthermore, part of that escapism is trying to cope with real-life frustrations. Easy-shaming is a mindset for kids, but all the people who were kids when easy-shaming started grew up long ago. They’re adults themselves now, and they have everyday stressors which get the better of them more often than they would like to admit. As anyone with any rudimentary psychological knowledge will tell you, stress is about control, and adults worry a lot about control over little things in their lives. We feel stress whenever things start to fall out of our control, and we react in different ways. Video games are a good way to deal with stress in a safe and fun fashion. If the player is forced to ramp up the difficulty in a padded game in order to open something up, they’ll turn into one of those walking cliches about people who keep getting stonewalled. They’ll start to feel a loss of control in their video game as well, at which point their stress-coping mechanisms will switch over to beating up the controller… Or something else that happens to be in the vicinity.

Games have also been accepted as an art form now. The only people left who oppose that idea are talking Helen Lovejoy heads. (“THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!”) The last real, notable critic of video games being art was Roger Ebert, who died some four years ago. And Ebert, one of the classiest people and smartest interpretive thinkers to put pen to paper, backed off a couple of years before his death. He never accepted video games as art, but a time did come when he admitted that he was in over his head and no longer knew the subject the way a critic should. In any case, forcing gamers to play at higher difficulty levels detracts and distracts from a game’s artistic value because it mutes the feelings being telegraphed by the artists. Where the real emotion when a game is too busy conveying frustration, confusion, and anger because of an asshole developer? There’s little to be appreciated in art if the artist is clouding the emotions they’re trying to convey in more conflicted emotions. If the gamer quits, there’s no point. If they push through anyway, what they’ll feel more than anything else is a sense of relief.

In short, I play video games to see different realities. I want to see the magic of a good story unfolding. I like a well-made piece of art. I don’t think I deserve to be condescended to just because my desire for those things overrides my desire to get angry with a form of entertainment.

 

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If There was a Classic TurboGrafx-16 Mini…

If There was a Classic TurboGrafx-16 Mini…

It was a year or two ago that Nintendo introduced a(nother) really cool idea: They released a miniature version of the old classic NES, the console that turned the middling toymaker into a worldwide phenomenon and household name. The game selection was programmed right into the console. You wouldn’t be able to buy new games for it, and the game selection was good, not great, but it was a great idea and fans wanted more. So in September, Nintendo is giving us more! They’re doing the same thing with their shining beacon to video games, the Super NES, and they’re doing it with a far more impressive game selection than the NES had. The NES edition had a strong selection; there were expected titles like Mario and Zelda, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventure, Ninja Gaiden, and Castlevania, and occasional odd choices like StarTropics, but there were a few clunkers as well: Mainly old arcade dime classics like Donkey Kong, Excitebike, and Ice Climber with a few love-or-hate games like Zelda II and Mario II and a couple of things there just to mess with gamers’ heads. The Super NES selection is far stronger. Provided the never-released-in-the-United States Star Fox II is as good as its reputation, the weakest game in the bunch will be Donkey Kong Country. Donkey Kong Country was a solid platformer which is overrated today due to the crime of not really being innovative enough.

This piece isn’t about that, though. My first video game console was NEC’s short-lived entry into the console market, the TurboGrafx-16. I loved the thing, and today it’s a rare console and a sought-after collector’s item. So being a former Turbo owner, I wonder that if NEC were to ever try this, what games should they include on the Turbo? Well, here’s my list of suggestions. I haven’t played all of these games – the Turbo was a difficult console to get games for even when it had something resembling a commercial peak, and today it’s just damn near impossible. But I know my video game history well, and will be making these suggestions based on a combination of personal experience and knowledge earned through my years as a game reviewer.

Bonk’s Adventure

The obvious first pick. Bonk’s Adventure was the game that gave the Turbo a name and face, especially in Japan, where the PC Engine (the Japanese version) outsold the Famicom (the Japanese NES). This is probably the most unheralded platformer ever made. The story of a caveman whose primary weapon is his oversized noggin, Bonk stretched the Turbo to its limits with a variety of ways to literally use Bonk’ head. The deep and diverse array of unique levels: One level takes Bonk through a dinosaur’s GAT track. Another places him in a cave with multiple layers. Others have him riding walking trees across desert quicksand, climbing a really tall tree, bouncing through the clouds, and entering a castle. The grand mother of Bonk’s level design, though, takes you on an incredible near-psychological trip up a waterfall and on a circulatory path where you’re made to watch Bonk’s friends get brainwashed before taking a trip to the moon. The little graphic quirks and touches of humor – a large dinosaur wears a baseball hat, Bonk climbs with his teeth – make this a fun and quite memorable play for those fortunate enough to have played it.

Bonk’s Revenge

The sequel to Bonk’s Adventure is a little disappointing. While Bonk’ Adventure took extra pains to stand out amidst other platformers, Bonk’s Revenge tears down the formula and rebuilds it with something much closer to a Mario game. Revenge more or less leads you down the primrose path, encouraging and rewarding players who stop and smell the roses, in the same fashion we’ve come to expect from any Shigeru Miyamoto game. Even the chikkun army – Bonk’s most prevalent foes from the first game – can be seen lazily lounging around in a lot of different places. So no, Bonk’s Revenge isn’t exactly blowing you through with white-knuckle intensity. What the new approach does, though, is open up each world to new exploration and allow gamers to create their own paths to the finish line. Bonk’s Revenge even introduces that great mechanic of exploratory games, flying, which allows gamers to do that… And it pulls it off. In most games where flying is an option, it’s a novelty which is there strictly to make getting through a level easier. Bonk’s Revenge, however, has the most fully realized usage of flight since Mario, which means there are alternate platforms, paths, and rewards waiting for gamers who take to the skies.

Neutopia

There are two rules of game design engraved in stone with lighting bolts from Mount Olympus:

1 – Never, ever, EVER try to be a blatant ripoff of another game.

2 – If you’re going to ignore rule number one, know what the fuck people loved about the game you’re ripping off.

The way Bonk’s Revenge played made it an affectionate shout-out to the Mario series. Where it was ultimately content to stand with its own persona, though, is where Neutopia goes a lot further with another cherished NES classic: The Legend of Zelda. Neutopia ignores that first rule up there, but it OWNS the second. Neutopia one-ups The Legend of Zelda in one way – it has four ginormous overworlds to explore as opposed to Zelda’s one – and the rest of the gameplay mechanics make it a smoother game overall. Am I saying it’s up to the level set by The Legend of Zelda? No. I’m just saying that its imitators don’t come any more solid than this.

Bloody Wolf

The requisite muscle commandos that had to appear everywhere back in the 1980’s were the stars of this game. Most reviewers seem to like comparing Bloody Wolf to Contra, but the closer comparison is Heavy Barrel. Bloody Wolf manages to do it all one better, though, because it has a little bit of weapon depth and comes with a fully fleshed-out story. There’s even a big unexpected twist right in the middle of the game! This is another game where the levels have more depth than games in similar molds are usually allowed; one level doesn’t end until you rescue all the hostages, another takes you on a wild raft ride,and yet another makes you stage a daring escape from enemy grounds with only a knife. The action is white-knuckle, intense, and never-ending. Rambo would be proud.

Cadash

Maybe you love RPG’s but just don’t have the time to sit down and enjoy a full-time epic adventure? Cadash is the game for you! Just take an ordinary side-scrolling action game and add a few common elements in RPG’s, and you’ll have a full-fledged RPG that can be played in its entirety in under three hours! Yes, there’s a story here, and there’s magic spells and a distinct fantasy world. But the thing is, even with some of the common RPG elements pulled out, you still have a tight and developed story in Cadash. That’s not to say Cadash goes all out with its RPG characterization, though – the combat is straight action and requires reflexes.

Ninja Spirit

Have you ever wondered what you would get if you threw Shinobi or Ninja Gaiden into a blender with a common shooting game? Ninja Spirit feels a lot like the result. Ninja Spirit’s level design isn’t going to challenge your perception of a good video game, but what that lacks, it makes up for in its ability to overwhelm you with bad guys every step. Although Ninja Spirit’s main character, Moonlight (yes, that’s his name), comes equipped with the standard ninja sword, he comes equipped with three other weapons too: The shurikens, plus a powerful and unlimited long range bomb and a sickle and chain. Only the sword there is short range. Plus he can pick up a pair of alter egos which are spirit clones that walk alongside him and can damage enemies just as easily. Fast and intense, Ninja Spirit is a sort of spiritual successor to the old-style arcade games where the object was less to win than to survive. The only difference is that Ninja Spirit has a level structure.

Parasol Stars: The Story of Bubble Bobble III

Yeah, I know: This game is unapologetically cutesy. Parasol Stars looks and plays like a colorful smorgasboard, but it comes off as a wild action/puzzler combination. Although this game is fun enough with a multi-layered combat system, thousands of hidden items to uncover, great bosses, and multitude of challenging levels and strange enemies, it really comes to life in its two-player mode. The second player can add a new element of both offense and danger because the extra help comes in handy, but players can stun one another. Parasol Stars may look like it’s for little kids, but don’t let the cutesiness fool you; it can be chaotic and reckless when you start to really get into it.

Air Zonk

Unfortunately, my Turbo library wasn’t a large one. My exposure to Air Zonk was limited to playing demo booth samples for extended lengths of time, but they did let me get a respectable length into the game. Air Zonk was Bonk reimagined as a futuristic shooter, and it was a great one. It had Bonk’s trademark quirkiness and humor to go with an unpredictable weapons system which included the ability to fly with friends who lanched missiles, and to combine with those friends.

Here are some games I haven’t been able to play, but which are often listed on underrated and underplayed classic game lists:

TV Sports Football

The Turbo wasn’t a good sports console; every sports game released on it lacked a license. This one seems to have been some sort of gaming breakthrough when it came to video game football, though. It featured up to five players and announcers calling every move.

The Legendary Axe Series

The first was the Adventure Game of the Year when it came out. People don’t seem to have taken quite as well to the second, but it has its fans.

The Crush Series

Alien Crush and Devil’s Crush are considered THE two greatest pinball video games ever made.

Military Madness

This was the awesome Advance Wars series before Advance Wars was a thought in its creators’ minds.

Blazing Lazers

Often seen first on lists of the Turbo’s best games, this is reputedly damn near the perfect shooter.

Gate of Thunder

Ditto, but on the TurboGrafx CD.

Splatterhouse

An action game, but it was the earliest forbearer of what is now the popular survival horror genre. Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and the others all owe a debt to the original Splatterhouse. This one received a couple of Genesis sequels before being rebooted decades later on the Playstation 3.

Y’s Book I and II

Another game in the mold of Zelda, but this one includes more traditional RPG elements and abilities, plus the Zelda shout-outs are a lot less obvious.  I HAVE played this, but only the Nintendo DS remake.

 

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

Video Game Level Progression According to the Bad Guys

So this is a random, weird thought, but if you’ve been following this blog, you should be accustomed to such by now. I’ve lately been giving a lot of thought to what’s in the head of a video game super villain as they lay out their obstacle course of doom for the hapless hero tasked with navigating wind, rain, and big dudes with powerful fucking weapons to save generic Cool Planet.

Start with the first level. There’s not a whole lot there. To the gamer and the designer, this makes perfect sense because you don’t want to throw your entire weight in the gamer’s direction right in the first level. It’s the training ground, there strictly to give the gamer a feel for the game. Obstacles don’t ask for very much beyond jumping short gaps to wide targets and enemies are all taken out in one shot. But think about this from the villain’s point of view: It probably makes good sense to them, too. It’s the beginning of the game, and the villains aren’t out to conquer more territory because they’ve gotten ahold of everything in sight. Right? Why else would every area a gamer visits be overrun with enemies? Now, if you’re the good guy, you’re probably not privy to announcing your presence with the deck stacked high against you. That makes the good guy some sort of rebel, or secret agent, or some sort of non-threat – if not a nonentity altogether – who is trying to go about the business of killing everyone in sight and slaughtering the bad guy real quiet-like.

From the game’s point of view, that’s why the first level is so easy. No one knows the good guy is there yet. If they’re on the main villain’s radar at all, they’re a blip that can be disposed up easily. Not everyone in the game’s world liked having the enemies take over, so its conceivable that many people in there tried to rise up at some point. Hell, the bad guys may have even taken out whole groups of better-armed good guys. What’s one more person going on a jaunt with a gun? The bad guys stationed on guard at the first level are probably feeling pretty confident because they’ve probably knocked off a few rebels already, and even if they didn’t, they’re trained, armed, possibly have better equipment and vehicular support, and the backing of the entire enemy organization. So if you were the main villain, what would be the point of throwing your entire arsenal at this one person? It’s barely worth making the effort to vocalize the orders.

Well, this new good guy comes in and defies the odds. They leave a bloody and hubrisful trail behind in that first level and have found every safe spot and weakness on the way through it. But… There’s barely any concern. Sometimes people get lucky. The good guys go into the second level, which is more often than not everything they faced in the first level, just expanded. And again, there’s not a whole lot to worry about. They’re a little closer to your evil lair, but your minions are still capable of stopping them. Right?

Apparently not. The good guy blazes through the second level, and word of their little one-person rebellion by this point is starting to get around. You’re not thinking of it as a significant thereat yet, but after cleaning your guards and sentries out of two different places and taking back what you stole from them, it’s starting to turn into a movement. It’s time to take some sort of action, but you’re too busy ruling and keeping the territories you still have to give the good guy any more than a cursory resistance. The third level is the wake-up call, and things start to get a little more serious and challenging. Enemies are better-equipped and can take more punishment before going down. From the grunt point of view, the time for guard duty is over, and it’s now time to begin a real fight against the insolent up-risers. They start counterattacking instead of just defending.

By the next level, word is starting to get out about the unexpected rebel running roughshod over the minions and taking over the outskirts of your stolen land. The ground officers are now seeing it fit to get involved and are running from one strategic location to the next, making sure there are traps and barriers being rigged up strictly for this rebel. The sentries who were around for the first couple of levels are still there, but they’re also scared to death because they all know they’re going to be fodder, so they’re being used more sparingly. And it isn’t helping that whatever mass resistance movement is starting to form behind the good guy is now occupying their retaken territory and capturing whatever’s left of their rank.

Good guy manages to get through that, and now that they’ve gotten this far, you’re starting to realize something: If – and you now know that the “if AND when” of getting rid of them has turned into a legitimate “if OR when” – you manage to successfully kill this rebel, there’s going to be some fallout. No one made it this far before, a large chunk of your forces have been wiped out or captured, and you’re starting to give in-person suggestions to your officers for dealing with them. This is becoming a full-blown war, and that head rebel who you thought was a gnat is going to become a martyr if they get killed. Fortunately, the good thing about depleted territory is that you can condense the remains of your military and launch a real offense at the good guy. And you’re not deluding yourself by now. This one is now a special case and will need to be dealt with through more direct means. (Red Faction for the Playstation 2 illustrates this gradual buildup better than most – it starts with a scuffle between a miner and a guard, and you start to see wanted posters for your character halfway through the game.)

The head rebel is also starting to anticipate the many types of troops, vehicles, strategies, and artillery you’re able to throw at them. It’s starting to give them a sort of mental edge against your own loyal people, so it’s time to start bringing out the stuff you didn’t expect to have to use. Omega Attack Formation using the flying gunships? Isn’t that overkill? The more they run around, the less it looks like it.

But by now they’re past the halfway point and have retaken over half what you took when you moved in. The people are rallying to the cause, the retaken territory is mopped up, and it’s starting to look like your victory – should it happen – will be a pyhrric victory at best. At this point, it’s time to break out the heavy-duty units. Special forces are in, and you’re probably hiring private mercenaries and bounty hunters too just in case. Something is going to have to work, and it has to be soon; most of your lower-end officers are now captured or killed. A couple of your high-end officers are groveling before you, begging for a second chance, and even though these are guys who have come through for you in tough situations in the past, you’re still reluctant to give them another chance because you’re not sure they can pull it off. You reluctantly give those guys their last chance, and give them your strongest equipment and troops to get the job done, but you’re now scared to death because they just failed again.

Face it, Dear Leader: You’ve lost. You now have your hired mercenaries and strongest minions holding on to your base, and any hope you now have of beating the good guys is strictly in the interest of your escape. What’s to do? Retreat, get out, build a new army, and try again. But just when the last vehicle out is ready to take you away, the good guy bursts in. If you were smarter, you would offer them your recently-vacated spot as your right hand, but it’s not like you have anything left to rule. So out you go to answer for your crimes against humanity.

And THAT is why video game levels progress in difficulty the way they do. Make sense?

Game Over

Game Over

My latest video game purchase was sometime in the middle of last year. It included the rare Suikoden III for the Playstation 2, one of the most acclaimed video games that came out during the PS2’s console generation. Everyone who ever played Suikoden III loved it, with the exception of a particular staffer at Netjak who believed the customization system overhaul was hellspawn. So I took it home and threw it into the pile with Fable II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and all those other RPG’s I was hacking through with every intention of beating in my spare time. I bought the game just before my graduation, which meant I wasn’t swimming with the extra time an experienced gamer needs to commit to a 50-hour-long RPG. Someday, though… One of these days, I’m going to find that time and play through it. One of these days, I’m also going to buy that Xbox 360 so I can finish Fable II and Knights, both of which I abandoned just when school started.

Wait now, was that the Xbox 360 or the Xbox One? I always get the two of them confused. I’m also a little unclear on anything that’s going on with the Playstation 4 and the Wii U. Are they even still things? I’ll get to them one day between my bicycle excursions, writing, work, and the school I’m trying to get into. I can’t do everything at once and, aw, fuck it, who am I kidding? I’m a video game nut and an aficionado. I always will be. But in the last year, I’ve turned into a world-class liar in trying to call myself a gamer. Tabletop games have made a surprise – and quite welcome – comeback in my personal life, but I haven’t picked up a video game controller in over a year. It seems hard to believe now, but here I am, barely even thinking about the hobby that spent decades defining my life. All that time dished out exploring every aspect of video games and then going to Netjak to write about those games is in the past. And for those minus-three people who read this blog and were familiar with Netjak, you now know why Netjak hasn’t existed in the last seven years. The staff – mostly in their late-teens and 20’s – grew up and wasn’t able to keep up.

Video games were always a fluid medium. They grew up, evolved, and changed from an outcast hobby for delinquents into an art form acknowledged by academics all over the world. They also embraced better technology to turn from minute-long coin munchers into interactive epics which let the people engaged with them to go at their own pace, exploring the virtual world or uncovering the story as they see fit. Unfortunately, that draws out the length of games to the extent that only outcasts are the ones with the time of day to make a deep run on today’s machines. And time is just the first problem. There’s also the weird business of having video games hooked up to your account; searching everything and trying to blow up every wall for the 100 percent completion rate; online hookups so I can get my ass kicked by someone in East Outer Jahunga; downloadable content; open-world games where travel takes up 50 minutes of an hourlong mission; and padding through eight-piece fetch quests. That’s to say nothing of the aspects of gaming that I was happy to do in games of my own generation: Level grinding; games that shame players for playing on lower difficulty levels; reading box after box of inane text; tutorials; solving surprise puzzles in games that aren’t supposed to have puzzles; and searching for the lost missing items that will let me continue through the final three levels.

I’ve run out of both time and patience to do any of it. If I don’t like a video game right away, I no longer even have the willpower to fight my way through the first four levels in three game hours to see if it gets better. Life is too short and there are good bicycle trails I haven’t explored yet. I no longer care about having ultimate domination over a video game that spent five months kicking my ass in the second level. Simply getting through the game once is accomplishment enough, because with 206 bones in the human body and me needing to know every single one, I don’t want to expend the mental energy trying to memorize layouts and patterns. There’s too much effort in trying to keep track of everything.

Yes, this is me, everyone’s favorite amateur video game historian. This is still me, saying I’ve lost touch with video games because I’ve replaced them with different hobbies and interests. And it’s also me saying that I realized awhile ago that, as an adult, I’m allowed to play video games to two or three in the morning and have, the vast majority of the time, just didn’t. Okay, well, I did have a few Star Wars Battlefront marathons in Buffalo that ran until the early morning after a bad day, but even then I put the games away when too much fatigue set in. I’m not reading about them very often, I’m barely writing about them at all, and when I do keep up with video games, it’s to visit the local used game store to see if there are any rare novelty games that could make a leap in value or to find out what kinds of deals exist. There’s no point to trying to buy the latest game right when it arrives in the store anymore. New games are expensive, and there’s a planet of good games available for under five bucks, so why kill myself over a near-day of wages when I can wait a year for all the new purchasers to get bored?

Portable games have the attraction for me these days, but I don’t yet have my DS and Game Boy Advance so I can play when I go out and am forced to wait for something. But even that attraction is limited, because the evolution of video games has managed to push them to the point where they’re getting to be more than games. There are games now where you pay real, physical money straight out of your bank account to developers who reward you by giving your in-game avatar a new T-shirt. I don’t want to sound like I yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, because if gaming is something they’re into, that’s okay. But the new wave of video games being sold as 100-hour interactive experiences stopped my gaming dead in its tracks. It’s a little ironic for anyone who liked the games that I did growing up: We’ve come to the point where unlimited role-playing is normal and stories run for months. When I was a kid, I dreamed about what video games could be when the technology got to the point where it was that good. But as I get older, the only games I can enjoy with any depth are the simpler games I first played when console gaming was introduced to my generation. It’s not that I wouldn’t be enthralled by the experience; it’s that I don’t have enough time in a session to make a serious dent in one sitting. Everything I did would be hacking through in snippets that were an hour long at best.

The new technology is overwhelming me. Video game irritants used to be limited to what happened in the game’s world. Now they’re showing up in the very act of trying to play the games. We have pay-to-play, wherein developers are basically forcing the gamers to pay by the level. Games are coming with bank account hookups and subscriptions to new content. I don’t care about multiplayer games if I can’t watch the stupid look on the other player’s face when I crush him after performing the super move that caps an incredible comeback; I also don’t like the wave of online bullying the internet’s anonymity included for free. I don’t care about setting up some sort of avatar for the console’s weird little hub.

It’s a little odd to think that one day, people will be wishing tomorrow’s games will be more like today’s games. When I play video games, that’s what I want them to be – games. Nothing fancy. Perhaps this explains why I went to the retro extreme and have embraced the tabletop again.

Bad Movies: Pixels

Bad Movies: Pixels

Daenerys Targaryen: “I’m not going to kill you.”

Tyrion Lannister: “No? Banish me?”

Daenerys Targaryen: “No.”

Tyrion Lannister: “So if I’m not going to be murdered and I’m not going to be banished…”

Daenerys Targaryen: “You’re going to play a supporting role in an Adam Sandler movie.”

Movies based on and around video games have existed in Hollywood now for over 20 years, and so far, popular consensus has judged only one of them to be worthy of true greatness. That movie was Wreck-it Ralph, which came out just a few years ago and was well-received by just about everyone, tipped a top hat and winked to those who love video games. Although Wreck-it Ralph featured popular characters from the video game universe, it did so clearly as reference points to watching gamers and spoke to us rather than blatantly pry our wallets open. It understood the appeal of gaming. If I was going to try to deduce a second-place winner, it would be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but that’s only arguably a video game movie. Maybe Mortal Kombat if you’re in that school of thought, but Mortal Kombat sucked, and in any case this is only a very distant second anyway.

Even though gaming jumped into a mainstream hobby and art form in the last couple of console generations, gamers still have to contend with the old juvenile delinquent stereotypes that resulted in atomic wedgies and wet willies back in the day. Whenever we think we’re making progress in the anti-stereotype march, though, something like Gamergate walks in and decides to reinforce all the anti-social, woman-hating bullshit we still have to contend with whenever we tell people our hobbies include playing video games. The latest offender is Adam Sandler’s latest movie, Pixels, and gamers aren’t the only ones who are going to be dragged down with it. Dan Aykroyd makes a short feed-me cameo. Martha Stewart and Serena Williams are in here too. Toru Iwatani – the creator of Pac-Man – has both a cameo and an actor who plays a fictionalized version of him. Hall and Oates, Dan Patrick, Robert Smigel, and Steve Koren all cameo while Billy West has a short voice role. Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean, and Brian Cox all play small supporting roles while Michelle Monaghan and Peter Dinklage are both in large, important roles. That’s a hell of an impressive talent heist, and you have to wonder who lost what bets to end up appearing in a Happy Madison movie.

While you could make the argument that Pixels could potentially damage the whole Gamergate thing by virtue of portraying the avatars of what most of its followers probably are, that damage is easily nullified by the movie’s attitude toward women: There are three characters without a Y, excluding the cameos, and all of them are basically used as prizes for the men. Yes, even Monaghan, who plays a military Colonel that loves to create and toy around with weird weapons. It’s so bad that one of the characters – a hopeless, socially stunted dweeb named Ludlow – has a shrine built to Lady Lisa, a warrior woman from a fictional game. When Lady Lisa pops out as one of the pixelated bad guys, Ludlow is able to make a grandiose speech to her which results in her immediately switching sides.

Adam Sandler hates his audiences. That much has been clear for some time. Maybe the Sandler who broke through in the mid-90’s could have made Pixels into something worthwhile, but current Sandler is badly out of touch with everyone old enough to remember when he was making good movies. Sandler used to play to the better parts of humanity, but lately he’s begun to morph into an odd comedy version of Robert Altman. If you’re anything close to the film aficionado that I am, that might seem like a bit of a distance, but hear me out: Altman is the patriarch godfather of the mosaic drama movie, but that’s about the only split between him and Sandler. Other than that, both Altman and Sandler’s movies are driven by stereotypes highlighting all the worst aspects of their characters. Plot takes a backseat in both their movies – both of them basically wrote out their plots on their coffee break napkins because they wanted characters to drive the movies. Then they went about creating their characters by writing out the worst archtypes they could think of and drawing them out of a hat. Both catered movies about low-class people at their worst. Ask some pretentious film asshole about Altman, though, and you’re likely to hear farfetched explanations about the great web of humanity, or looks at the worst of… And I always block them out right there because these people are dicks who are lying to everyone, including themselves, and sometimes well enough to even believe their lies. No. Anyone who likes Robert Altman – or at least thinks of him as a great filmmaker – simply hates poor people and is looking for justification to avoid them.

Fortunately, Sandler hasn’t been allowed to get away with this. This is perhaps because Sandler is more straightforward and honest about his hatred. It took all of five minutes for him to establish his character, Sam Brenner, as an antisocial slob who couldn’t get a handle on his life because he lost a video game competition as a teenager. If you make it through the first five minutes of adult Sam’s introduction without feeling a gut urge to punch him, check your pulse. He is working as an installer for a team like the Geek Squad. Sam’s buddy Ludlow is a different kind of antisocial, with his basement shrine to a video game character and his conspiracy theories. Eddie Plant, a gaming champion who gave himself the nickname “Fire Blaster,” the appropriate soul brother of real-world gaming champion Billy Mitchell here. Only Will Cooper managed to detach himself from the contest that ruined everyone’s lives, but Will is played by Kevin James, and Will is also the President of the United States. Most critics have been complaining that James isn’t believable as the Prez, but I don’t think of it as playing the Prez. I think of it as James playing his usual role as an incompetent boob, which he does as well here as anywhere.

During the big 1982 competition that brought these four together for the first time, the government took footage of the games and sent it out to some random grouping of stars in space, hoping to make contact with an alien race. It worked a little too well. See, the aliens did stumble into the footage, and they sort of took it the wrong way. Instead of “let’s be friends,” the message the aliens took from the probe was interpreted as “let’s have a pissing contest for keepsies.” So they found their way to Earth, in the form of late-’70’s and early-’80’s-era video game characters, rudely issued their challenge, and started knocking down everything in sight. The Army has been preparing odd weapons which could be used to ward off such an invasion, of course, and what those weapons were originally going to be used for is never explained.

Explanations are perhaps not the point, though. Maybe I’m just thinking too hard about Pixels. But I did find the inconsistency of the video game scenes a little odd. During one attack, the aliens are attacking in the form of the bad guys from Centipede while the good guys stand on the ground, firing away. The next attack revolves around Pac-Man, and Pac-Man is the bad guy. The good guys drive cars based off the four ghosts that chase Pac-Man through the maze. The final act is a splurge of references that director Chris Columbus places onscreen but can’t seem to quite be able to field marshall.

That brings me to one of the major problems: The video game references are nothing but references. This is Sandler directly lifting pages right out of The Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer Book of Filmmaking: References don’t have to be anything but references! All they have to do is get the audience to say “hey, look what it is!” The game references don’t do much that’s creative or original with the material. To reference my favorite video game movie again, look at Wreck-It Ralph. It turned the classic video game Root Beer Tapper into a bar where video game characters met and chatted after hours. Tapper’s bar came complete with a lost and found which contained a mushroom from the Mario series, a warning exclamation point from the Metal Gear Solid games, and a pair of Zangief’s briefs. Ralph met up with a group of popular video game villains who were having trouble dealing with being the fall guy all the damn time. The contrast is used perfectly with Q*Bert: In Wreck-It Ralph, Q*Bert was a sympathetic character whose game got taken away from the arcade. We felt for him because he got placed into a bad situation, but later he was the one who clued Felix in to what Ralph was up to. In Pixels, Q*Bert is given away by the aliens as a prize. He’s more or less a MacGuffin, and Pixels movie laws can’t figure out what to do with him. He gives the good guys some useful information after the bad guys give him away, only for the bad guys to refer to him as a traitor after he does so. Um, hey aliens, you do realize Q*Bert was simply playing by your own rules, right? Then he turns into a permanent version of Lady Lisa for Ludlow at the end, a creepy turn of events which even the movie calls itself out for!

This isn’t to denounce Pixels completely. By any measure, the special effects are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They rank right up there with Tron Legacy, Transformers, and those all-time barometers of movie special effects, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Wars trilogy. They become the star in the final leg of the movie, and for a few brief shining moments, Pixels becomes tolerable. And despite my opening mocking Peter Dinklage’s casting, Dinklage is one of the few actors in Pixels who really throws himself into his part as Eddie Plant. Dinklage is delightfully over the top, and his performance – which channels the charismatic egomaniacism of the real Billy Mitchell – is such a joy to watch that it’s almost enough to rescue Pixels from being unwatchable. More moments with him and Pixels could have been elevated from bad bad into fun bad. Also, Sandler’s buddy, the insufferable Nick Swardson, isn’t in here to obliterate it. Unfortunately, it’s too little, and you’ll get more out of the two-minute short from Patrick Jean.

Playing with Ultimate Power: Super NES vs. Genesis

Playing with Ultimate Power: Super NES vs. Genesis

This is another one of those great 90’s arguments. It seems a moot point right now, sure; today’s kids will never have the pleasure of growing up standing by their favorite video game console, warding off its attackers. In the 90’s, console ownership was like being a fan of a sports team: You picked, you stood by it no matter what, because it was YOURS. If someone attacked, you took it personally, and gunned for the attacker with a barrage of Your Mother insults and shots at the console itself which frequently included the words “crap” and “suck” as well as a bunch of other, much more creative things you could think up that involved more explicit terms. You didn’t care what the objective truth was – all you knew is that an attack on your chosen console was an attack on you, your family, your lifestyle, your religion, and whatever else you held close to your heart.

Time marched on, though, and multi-console homes began becoming the norm. Those of the 16-bit Golden Era shook hands and called our uneasy truce. However, the objective question at hand was never properly answered: Which console, exactly, was the superior console? While others might like to throw in bids for personal favorites like the TurboGrafx-16, Neo Geo, 3DO, CD-I, and Jaguar, those are all being thrown into the wind these days because we all know it was really about two consoles waging a fierce war against each other: In the first corner was that eternal Goliath of video games, Nintendo, which brought what is still arguably its crowning console achievement: The Super NES. In the other corner was Sega and its trailblazing Genesis, which was able to successfully play the David for a couple of years and make itself into a household name. So let’s do this! The Super NES vs. the Genesis. One day, I’ll learn.

Hardware
The Genesis came along a couple of years sooner, and when it did, it was the most powerful console the discerning gamer could buy. After all, its only real competition was NEC and its TurboGrafx-16, which critics kept accusing of being nothing more than basically a pair of eight-bit consoles duct-taped together to emulate 16 bits. The Genesis was released in Japan in October 1988 before being dropped into North America ten months later to capitalize on Nintendo’s apparent laziness and/or inability to admit they probably needed to evolve their hardware in order to keep up in the video game market – after all, Sega was able to get by for awhile on a marketing campaign which showed the Genesis as the embodiment of cool while showing the original NES as a console which kids played. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Nintendo got the point; when they released the Super NES in Japan in 1990 (North America in 1991), they had created a monster bigger and badder than anything the video game demographic had ever seen. The Genesis had a faster CPU speed (7.67 MHz as opposed to 3.58 on the Super NES), a better internal ROM (One compared to a nonexistent ROM on the Super NES), and a synthesizer. The Genesis One had a headphone output and the Genesis in general had backward compatibility with an adaptor. In every other respect, the Super NES swamped it: More colors, better resolution, could show more sprites at once and in higher resolution, and twice as much RAM. They tied in sound processor bits – eight – and in CPU bits – 16.
Winner
Super NES. Yes, the Genesis had a two-year head start, but the problem with a big head start is that the competition quits worrying about timing if it has a machine developing in the wings which is capable of kicking your ass. You can make the argument that it’s not about the equipment so much as how the equipment is used, but this argument is entirely about the equipment. When used to its full potential, the Super NES could do more than the Genesis, and that’s not even bringing the controllers into the debate. The Super NES wins this round.

Mascots
When Nintendo released the NES in 1985, the idea of video game characters was fairly new – Pac-Man had been a massive hit with a song and a Saturday morning cartoon, but he was more or less a novelty which no one thought would ever come along again in a fad industry which, courtesy of Atari, was on life support. Nintendo introduced a certain plumber by the name of Mario, packed his game in with the console, and within five years more American schoolkids were familiar with Mario than Mickey Mouse. After that, Nintendo did it again by introducing Link, Samus Aran, Mega Man, and eventually, Kirby. Thanks in large part to those characters, video games became a cultural force which could no longer be ignored, and lord knows other developers tried to follow Nintendo’s lead. NEC introduced the wildly underrated Bonk on the TurboGrafx-16 while Sega found some success on the Master System with Alex Kidd and Shinobi. NEC bowed out, and Sega carried Alex Kidd and Shinobi to the Genesis while also bringing a memorable duo of hip hop aliens, Toejam and Earl, into their first party line. But it was in 1991 that Sega found a winning formula when it introduced a zippy little blue hedgehog by the name of Sonic, and the console war became a real console war. Nintendo’s mascots were so good that they were able to keep going on their strength, especially when placing them in new 16-bit games like Super Mario World, Super Metroid, Mega Man X, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. They also created another new character to add to their pantheon, Star Fox, and reinvented Donkey Kong as a good guy. Meanwhile, with no familiar names, Sega got to work finding their own exclusive characters which could help propel the Genesis along: Ecco, a dolphin in search of his lost pod who fights aliens that are endangering the time/space continuum; Vectorman, a robot made entirely of orbs; and Ristar, another underrated mascot developed by Sonic Team whose appearance served as the curtain call for the Genesis.
Winner
Super NES. The fact that Sonic was the character that introduced, embodied, and influenced the entire idea of in-you-face XTREME!!! ATTITUDE!!! in the 90’s can’t be understated, and the games in Sonic’s core series in those days are some of the best ever made. That, however, can’t hold a candle to Mario, who basically created the template to an entire genre of video games which is still very popular; another character – Link – who served as the template to the pseudo-3D action/RPG’s which were popular throughout the 16-bit era; and Star Fox, which turned Mode 7 shooters into viable commodities instead of interesting novelties. And while most people blame Sega’s advertising department for their eventual fall out of hardware development, their first party developers certainly didn’t do the company any favors, either. Toejam and Earl were given two popular games, released to sensational reviews, and never seen again until they showed up on the Xbox; Vectorman had a similar fate, but without the next-gen console update. Shinobi and Ecco were placed on ill-fated consoles before disappearing completely. Ristar was never seen again. Ecco and Sonic both suffered severe quality downgrades when their gameplay mechanics didn’t translate very well into 3D. Nintendo’s mascots have all suffered too, but the Mario and Legend of Zelda series continue to churn out regular Game of the Year material, and Nintendo will always be just fine as long as that’s the case. If you can get away with pitting your first party characters against each other in an acclaimed series of fighting games (Super Smash Bros.), you’re good no matter what.

Controllers
When it comes to actually being able to control your games, both Sega and Nintendo acted on a startling realization which others hadn’t yet envisioned: They were both aware of the fact that video games were evolving, and the standard one-button-to-jump-and-one-button-to-shoot format would soon be outdated. Sega countered by adding an extra action button, so they ended up with three instead of two. Nintendo placed six on the Super NES controller, which was unnecessary and incredible at the time, but it proved to be a great long-term move. Soon after the release of the Super NES, two-dimensional fighting games reached their apex, and the Super NES was better equipped to handle the wide range of moves. Developers struggled to work six-button schemes into Sega’s three-button layout, and after awhile, they just stopped trying altogether. The Genesis adaptation of Mortal Kombat II was missing an entire move, and Streets of Rage 3 had a couple of non-essential attacks cut. Sega rectified the situation by releasing six-button versions of their standard controllers, but the three-button controllers continued to be prevalent until the Genesis went defunct. I’m not sure if it ever became the default pack-in controller. But while the Super NES controller was the more functional, it was also much harder to hold; the Genesis had a nice pair of grips that stuck out on the bottom ends and said, “Grab me!” The Super NES controller had the look and feel of an oversized pill, and it introduced an innovation that became a bane: The shoulder buttons, which felt weird and misplaced. It was very difficult to get at the shoulder buttons because it never felt like my hands were at the proper angle, and how good is a controller anyway if you can’t play a game for more than ten minutes without your hand cramping up?
Winner
I’m going with the Genesis. Maybe you don’t share my opinion of the shoulder buttons, but those poorly-placed innovations made it too difficult to play games. You’ve only forgotten that, or maybe you’re looking at them through nostalgia goggles, but the things were a hassle that never got fixed until an entire console generation later, when Sony’s Dual Shock introduced the pistol grip. I don’t know why people raved about the thing so much. Maybe they were fooled into thinking that boxy old controller with the original NES was still the greatest controller ever, or something. Also, the Genesis had disc-shaped d-pad while the Super NES had no diagonals. There’s some consideration of the gamer for you.

Innovative Games
Part of the reason the Super NES and Gensis are considered the infallible Kings of the Golden Era is because developers started getting bold, and we started seeing them take gaming risks they never would have taken before. Innovation of both consoles ended up challenging all gamers and unleashing their imaginations as they were encouraged to think outside the box. The Genesis had games like Shining in the Darkness, a turn-based RPG played in the first person; Ecco the Dolphin, and exploratory puzzle-based game which boasted digitized graphics motion-captured from footage of real dolphins and immense gameplay rewards to those who stuck it out; and Comix Zone, literally a panel-by-panel brawler set in a comic book. The Super NES brought Star Fox, with its Super FX chip and nonlinear level paths; Chrono Trigger, the legendary RPG which gave us the tech system; and Uniracers, a 2D racing game where you raced unicycles around roller coaster courses. Nintendo introduced pre-rendered 3D graphics with Donkey Kong Country; the Genesis countered later with Vectorman. The Super NES could use scaling and rotation and the Genesis was capable of animated cutscenes. Both of these consoles had a lot going for them in this department.
Winner
Genesis. Yes, the Super NES certainly had a huge share of innovative games that worked, but it also had the option of falling back on established characters. While the Genesis may have spent its early years adapting the invincible game library Sega had in American arcades, Sega had ran out of them by the time the Super NES hit stateside, and after that, they were forced to take chances because they had nothing to ride. The Genesis used celebrity licensing – Michael Jackson and Joe Montana were noteworthy signings – and had to make the Genesis appeal to people who weren’t kids or the parents of kids who needed video games to be safe. So we saw games like Mutant League Hockey, Phantasy Star II, and the blood code version of Mortal Kombat. Retro Gamer said this about the Genesis: “It was a system where the allure was born not only of the hardware and games, but the magazines, playground arguments, climate, and politics of the time.” Exactly. It was born, in other words, of the things that necessitate innovation and invention.

Action/Adventure/Platform Games
Um… Wow. It’s tough to figure out just where to begin with this one. These genres produced so many games and overlapped so much that it almost doesn’t seem worth debating. Mario against Sonic is a fight to the death. Both had access to third party attempts at new characters, like Earthworm Jim and Rocket Knight Adventures. Sometimes, the Genesis versions were better and the Super NES owned better versions of other games.
Winner
Look, there’s nothing that can be said about one console’s collection of these genres that can’t be said for the other. Certainly Nintendo can harass Sega people about having The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but the Genesis was fully capable of taking on that challenge: Sega released a pair of outstanding adventure games, Landstalker and Beyond Oasis, which were as deep and rewarding as any Zelda adventures. Nintendo could throw Contra and Castlevania at Sega, but the Genesis was given mid- and late-life games in both series: Castlevania: Bloodlines and Contra: Hard Corps hold up as well as any of their namesake games on the Super NES. Nintendo threw Donkey Kong Country – with its new-fangled graphics technique – at Sega, only for Sega to counter with Vectorman which, today, is almost universally considered the better game for miles. Mega Man had to contend with Gunstar Heroes. In other words, if you’re not willing to write this off as a draw, it’s time to get off your fanboy throne.

Role-Playing Games
You would have thought Sega would be just fine wandering into the 16-bit era in the role-playing department. After all, they had released the classic Phantasy Star on the Master System, which had a first-person view through the dungeons and was considered one of the most unique games available back then. With the introduction of the Genesis, Sega fleshed out the idea of a first-person RPG when it introduced Shining in the Darkness, the first game – and still the game many gamers consider the best – in a loose series of games affectionately termed the Shining series. Shining in the Darkness eventually paved the way for a pair of sequels, Shining Force and Shining Force II, both of which are more traditional RPGs with serious elements of strategy. A bunch of other great RPGs also popped up: Light Crusader, Landstalker, Beyond Oasis, Sword of Vermillion, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, and Shadowrun all stood out. Likewise, when Nintendo entered the 16-bit world, they were coming in on RPG strength too: They had a successful series on the NES called Dragon Warrior, which proved to be another template series, so with that alone Nintendo looked all set to go up against the juggernaut Sega had become. And then Dragon Warrior’s developer, Enix… Stopped exporting the series, which in Japan was called Dragon Quest. That didn’t mean Nintendo was down for the count, though; they went about releasing a new Zelda game, and they also had this second party developer called Squaresoft which had released an amazing little RPG on the NES called Final Fantasy. Although the full compliment of available Final Fantasy games didn’t make it to the United States, the Super NES did get Final Fantasy IV – which was Final Fantasy II here – and FFVI, which was FFIII here. Both were considered groundbreakers, and Final Fantasy spent the Golden Era going toe-to-toe with Phantasy Star. Beyond that, Nintendo really got to work churning out classic after classic: Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Earthbound, Breath of Fire… Hell, Nintendo even teamed up with Squaresoft to make Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
Winner
Super NES. Let’s face it: Sega gets royally stomped in this category. I know this is the second time in a row I brought up The Legend of Zelda and pit it against certain Genesis games, but that was for two reasons: One is because the RPG elements of them are toned down to the extent that you can make a case for them all being either adventure games or RPGs, and the other is because I wanted Sega to have a fighting chance here. I was a Sega person during those days, but even I can admit this: Outside of Phantasy Star, Shining Force, and the action RPGs, there weren’t a lot of RPGs that buffs of the genre got excited about. Most of them are best remembered these days as excellent cult games: There were some damn fine games in the Might and Magic series, and the collection also includes The Faery Tale Adventure, Exile, and Warsong; but if you brought any of those games into a room to throw at the likes of Actraiser or Chrono Trigger – which is in the discussion for the greatest RPG ever, an opinion I tend to concur with – you’ll be laughed out. The entire genre is basically one of Sega’s legendary missteps, especially seeing as how Sega pretty much outsourced its RPGs to the Sega CD after that came out. And no, I’m not awarding points to the Genesis here for the Sega CD or 32X because their games weren’t compatible with the Genesis; therefore, I’m not giving any points for the introduction of the Lunar series, harsh as that is. The cancellation of a Genesis version of Lufia and the Fortress of Doom doesn’t help either. If you like RPGs, you’re a Super NES person, and that’s that.

Sports Games
Although it’s barely brought up today, the 16-bit era was a golden age of endorsement deals from real professional athletes for sports video games. Joe Montana had Sports Talk Football. Jerry Glanville (!) had Pigskin Footbrawl. Evander Holyfield had Real Deal Boxing. Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Deion Sanders (who endorsed games for two different sports), Troy Aikman, Ken Griffey Jr., Pete Sampras, Jack Nicklaus, and so many other professional sports people had so many game endorsements that it’s impossible to list them all. Hell, things got so out of hand that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal both managed to sign endorsement deals for games that had virtually nothing to do with basketball – Jordan signed his name to an action/adventure game called Chaos in the Windy City and O’Neal went down in history for one of the most notorious gaming blunders in history, a fighting game called Shaq-Fu. This resulted in a massive market for sports games; so much so that sports games became game series which released new versions every year. Of course, the NES had started out giving gamers a handful of classic sports games, including Tecmo Bowl, so Nintendo had momentum going into the Golden Era. Then Tecmo suddenly started producing games for both the Super NES and the Genesis. Nintendo also had Punch-Out, which their fans could brag about for years before Toughman Contest appeared on the Genesis and arguably was the better game (the reasoning was because its boxers were real and didn’t use patterns to let gamers know when and how they would strike). The 16-bit years saw the comic sports game genre reach its apex with Mutant League Football and Mutant League Hockey for the Genesis, while Electronic Arts emerged as a go-to giant in simulations. More arcade-oriented sports games also came out – NBA Jam was very popular. The emergence of sports gaming makes sense – after all, sports has been an eternal theme in gaming, from the time of the first-ever video game – Tennis for Two – to the first hit video game in an arcade, which was Pong. The Golden Era allowed deeper and bigger games than ever before, and the licensing created a sense of realism which didn’t previously exist.
Winner
This is where the Genesis truly shined. Yes, the Super NES had many of the same sports games as the Genesis, but it was never quite able to one-up the Genesis the way Nintendo would have liked. Hell, the Genesis versions of EA Sports’s popular NHL series are considered to be the outright superior – especially in the case of the iconic NHL ’94, for which the Genesis version is the defining hockey game of all time. As if that wasn’t enough, Sega had an entire wing of first party developers right in their own offices simply called Sega Sports, and those guys weren’t just trying to ride the tide to the bank; they produced a series of NFL games capable of holding their own against EA Sports’s mighty Madden series. They also produced World Series Baseball, the defining baseball series of the time, with its groundbreaking, dramatic plate view. The greatest testament to how good Sega Sports was is in their legacy. When Sega went third party, Sega Sports was turned into 2K Sports, and in 2004, they released ESPN NFL 2K5, which is still considered the greatest football game ever made and which scared EA Sports shitless to such a point that Electronic Arts had to run out and snatch up the NFL license for itself. 2K Sports’s basketball games are considered the best available today. (And frankly, Madden football was never that good in the first place. Had sports gamers not been brand loyalty sheep to it, 2K Sports could have fleshed out its potential and Electronic Arts wouldn’t be playing Monopoly.) Furthermore, Nintendo’s attempt to stay on their kiddie image is what probably kept the Mutant League series off the Super NES, and there’s a distinct possibility it kept them from trying to get certain athletes licensed, although that’s just my own hypothesis.

Fighting Games
Ah, a category you were all waiting for because it covers another one of those great 90’s debates: Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat! So, everybody already knows both consoles were homes to some stellar ports of Street Fighter II and, to a lesser extent, Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat has kind of an odd track record on home consoles: The Genesis version of the first game was better, and the Super NES had the better version of the second game before they leveled out at the third and fourth games. But what about the fighters that didn’t have those names? Well, both consoles had very good renditions of the Fatal Fury series which, in the grand pyramid of fighting games, ranks just below Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Both had renditions of the criminally underrated Samurai Shodown, but while the Super NES had all of the original characters, they were compromised by small sizes. The Genesis version axed the least popular character, Earthquake, but made the sprites a lot bigger while making the final boss a playable character in the two-player mode. Both had notable exclusives of popular arcade games: The Genesis introduced a fine conversion of Virtua Fighter 2 in its twilight, and the Super NES got an awesome version of Killer Instinct. Both also had several fighting games which are largely unheard of, and both had home exclusives like Clay Fighter, Weaponlord, and Brutal. Of course, they also both had to contend with the atrocity that was Shaq-Fu blighting their reputations too.
Winner
I really wanted to pick a winner for this one, but I can’t. As with the Action/Adventure/Platform category, the respective output of both consoles is too similar. It’s even more similar that that, in fact, because so many fighting games were made by third party developers, and the exclusives flat out sucked half the time. I know there will be people whining about how I should give this one to the Genesis because it had Eternal Champions and the bloody version of the original Mortal Kombat, but here’s the thing: Eternal Champions was a lousy game. As for the bloody version of Mortal Kombat, don’t give me that shit. The Genesis version was every bit as bloodless as the Super NES version. The inclusion of a code that inserted blood into it doesn’t count, because the thing about video game codes is that they’re not meant to be discovered! There’s a difference between a bloody version of the game and a version which had a blood code; even though everyone knew the fucking code, it still required a set of actions not mentioned in the manuel or alluded to anywhere in the game. I know people want me to give this to the Super NES because its controller had twice as many buttons, but that doesn’t work either because both consoles offered the same range of alternative controllers, and all but about two of Sega’s alternates had six buttons, plus that disc-shaped d-pad the Super NES controller lacked.

Shooting Games
There’s little in gaming more fun than hopping on a spaceship and blowing everything in sight to Kingdom Come, and once again, both consoles had whole sets of shooters created strictly to oblige you. As far as the more multidirectional overhead shooters go, both consoles had Electronic Art’s great Strike series and the whacked-out bit of comic genius that was Zombies Ate My Neighbors. As far as exclusives went, the Super NES had the Pocky and Rocky series while the Genesis had the innovative Red Zone. When it comes to rail shooters, though, the selection couldn’t be more different, and this is a big deal because rail shooters were one of the most dominant genres of video games in the early 16-bit era; they were so popular that even the TurboGrafx-16 built an army of rail shooters which included several all-time greats. Once again, the Super NES was stacked with a list of name games; its list included games from the Gradius, Raiden, and R-Type series. The Genesis had to rely on innovative development, and so it had a list of shooters that included games like Sub-Terrania, MUSHA, and Steel Empire. Both had great shooting games with behind-the-player viewpoints: The Super NES, of course, had Star Fox while the Genesis had Space Harrier II and After Burner.
Winner
I’m giving this to the Super NES. Konami made third party games for both consoles, but they clearly seemed to prefer Nintendo. After all, it was Nintendo that got the Gradius games and a sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors – called Ghoul Patrol – which never came out for the Genesis. After Burner and Spare Harrier II were great games, but Star Fox introduced the idea that a shooter didn’t necessarily have to be linear. Although the Genesis did get a Raiden game, had a solid shooter lineup, and introduced Sub-Terrania, it’s very difficult to persuade me that its general quality wasn’t more hit-or-miss than it was on the Super NES. The problem with shooters is that they exemplify a particular ethos about game design: The way shooters are done is so stupidly, insultingly simple that everyone knows exactly what to do and how to do it; but on the other hand, doing it well takes time and practice, and even with that, it’s still very, very easy to suck at it. Although innovation is normally a wonderful thing, in shooting games, you usually want to stick with name brands because doing it well is automatic for them at a certain point, and you want something you know will be good rather than taking a risk on something which, even if it’s not bad, still has a huge chance of feeling like a worse version of something you’ve played before.

Arcade Conversions
It’s hard to believe these days, but once upon a time, the arcade was the place where you could play the newest, biggest, most advanced game available. Arcade games weren’t limited by console technology, so programmers went nuts. If an arcade game made a lot of money, it would inevitably find its way to the Super NES and Genesis, where it was up to the developer to try and cram all the advanced circuitry in those mammoth machines into a 24-meg, 16-bit cartridge. Naturally, conversions could be hit or miss. This was most obvious in fighting games: Street Fighter II carried over pretty well to both. Mortal Kombat Genesis mopped the floor with the Super NES version, and Mortal Kombat II Super NES returned the favor. The Super NES got the superior version of Art of Fighting, and Samurai Shodown was better on the Genesis. NBA Jam survived almost fully intact on both. Sometimes, developers did weird and unnecessary things to arcade conversions: When Capcom brought Final Fight to the Super NES, it axed the most popular character, Guy, the two-player mode, and a whole level. Later, Capcom basically retracted by creating a version with Guy, but it was still a single-player game with two selectable characters and a missing level. Acclaim cut the ducking punch from the Genesis version of Mortal Kombat II. Both consoles also tried to adapt games which were way out of their league: The Super NES gave it a go with Killer Instinct, while the Genesis used Sega’s acclaimed Virtua Fighter series, and they both turned out well – they kept the fundamental aspects of the games while scaling back the technology.
Winner
Genesis. I give Nintendo all the credit in the world for how the Super NES debuted – it started out by giving people Super Mario World straight off, and that proved to be a sign of the times because it meant that Nintendo was, after years of holding out, recognizing and adapting to the changing nature of video games. They showed that by presenting gamers with an epic specifically tailored to their new console. This isn’t about epics or what’s suited to do what, though – it’s recognition of how good developers did in bringing the arcade experience home. And in that respect, Sega is the undisputed King, albeit on the strength of the early Genesis library. It’s not a coincidence that Sega first advertised the Genesis by playing up adaptations of its arcade library, or that the first pack-in game for the Genesis was Altered Beast; Altered Beast was a weak game, but it was popular and people liked it. Sega then set off on an arcade conversion streak which also included Strider, Golden Axe, Gain Ground, Atomic Runner, and Air Buster. Sega also created a whole new version of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and Shadow Dancer. In the early days, if you wanted a certain arcade game to bring home, you bought a Genesis, because if Sega made it, you knew it would show up on the Genesis, and frequently be damn good.

Well, holy shit: My second tie. Oh well. My loyalty was with Sega throughout the era, but this just shows that in the Golden Era, there were no losers in the Super NES/Genesis war. It doesn’t matter by now, though. This fight has been over almost 20 years now, and nearly every serious gamer who was a member of the 16er Generation has – no matter which console they prefer – conceded that both were excellent.

The Ultimate Battle of the Stars: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

The Ultimate Battle of the Stars: Star Trek vs. Star Wars

A short time ago in a galaxy very, very near, a young writer made the treacherous decision to boldly go where many have gone before.

Universes of geekery are very abundant. They tend to spring up from stories which already take place in their own expansive places with their own laws and rules of physics and magic: Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, and even Firefly – a show we got half of one season and a single movie out of – have all churned out amazing expanded universes. But the defining universes and calling signs to all-time geeking are still the two Star franchises: Star Trek and Star Wars. And with the new trailer for The Force Awakens out now, there’s no better time to write about this.

Actually, that really isn’t fair to those franchises. Except for the fact that they involve big spaceships, regular interaction with alien races, and the word “star” as the first word in the titles, they have virtually nothing in common. That makes it perfectly possible to have a deep love and appreciation for both of them at the same time, and boosters of both franchises tend to get along just fine and have a lot in common with each other. Unfortunately, the only things people seem to notice if they’re not into either one are the levels of devotion fans have to Star Trek and Star Wars, and that’s all the onlookers need in order to start making their geek jokes and comparing the two to each other. This mindset has become so popular that it managed to leak into the Star Trek and Star Wars fanbases themselves. Its managed to infect a lot of people who should know better, and so we get a lot of comparisons making the case that one is better than the other. And now I’ve decided to jump into these murky, dianoga-infested waters myself in another one of my popular Ultimate Battle series.

While deciding which – if either – is better, I’ll also be trying to explain a lot of the differences between the two which make them separate and unique. Also, I’ll be taking as much of their universes into account as I know about – and, being raised by one Star Trek parent and one Star Wars parent, I know quite a bit. I’ll be using every iteration of both, or at least trying to – let’s face it, I don’t know everything about either of these franchises. So let’s do this! Star Trek vs. Star Wars. One day, I’ll learn.

Good Guys
The good guys of Star Wars are known to everyone. You’re counting them off on your fingers now that I’ve said that, aren’t you? Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, Darth Vader… It’s a very significant list which also includes bit role players like Boba Fett and Qui-gon Jinn. The world of Star Trek introduces us to a bunch of different characters as well, and most of Trek’s iterations are designated by their ship Captains: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer. Most Trekkies narrow the fight exclusively to Trek’s defining Captains, Kirk and Picard, while arbitrarily dismissing the others. This eagerness to fight over the best Captain unfortunately leaves onlookers with no information regarding many of the other characters. They forget Star Trek has interesting characters like Sulu and his litany of interests: Botany, gymnastics, and old weapons. There’s Spock, whose people place empirical logic above all other virtues; Deanna Troi, who has psychic abilities; Data, a robot who had difficulty understanding human concepts; Quark, a slimeball who still managed to show compassion by the standards of his culture and was often at odds with it; The Doctor, a hologram with all the capabilities of a real doctor; Phlox, a doctor with an interest in many different cultures; and Seven of Nine, a reformed member of a hostile race. Star Wars characters include Han, a smuggler turned good guy; Luke, a farmboy turned into a great warrior; Yoda, an 800-year-old Jedi Master; Jabba the Hutt, an evil gangster; and Boba Fett, a big-name bounty hunter. All of these characters have ticks and quirks of their very own as well, and many of them are ably developed through the course of the movies. The seven movies which are out so far, in fact, revolve around the life, fall into evil, and redemption of their main character, Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader but eventually betrays the Dark Side.
Winner
I’m giving this to Star Trek. Yes, Star Wars has its share of awesome, interesting characters, but too many of the main characters lean too much on cliche. The smuggler with a heart of gold has been done a million times. The young, eager small-town learner has also been done a million times. But almost all of the main characters in Star Wars – that’s main characters, not secondary characters, so no Yoda, no Admiral Ackbar – are human men, which is an absurdity in a universe that expansive. Seriously, there are about two women of any consequence between the two movie trilogies, and while it’s better in the expanded universe, it’s difficult to find prominent non-human characters. Also, Star Wars falls back into tropes pretty often. There are wisecracking rogue heroes, comic relief characters, badass royals, and even the main villain cackles at times. (Not Darth Vader. Emperor Palpatine.) Star Trek has a much more diverse and interesting array of main heroes. Also, while every good guy in Star Wars is based strictly off their fight against the Galactic Empire, Trek’s heroes are not as single-minded; each one is different, and has culture outside of Starfleet, which means they all look into their universe and interpret something different out of it. Part of it is because Star Trek’s universe is based in the idea of exploration, cooperation, and learning rather than a fight between good and evil. It’s in Trek’s mantra: “These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Yes, Star Wars fans may counter with the strength of Han Solo as a character, but that doesn’t work out as well as they’d like to think. After all, Star Trek has James Kirk and Will Riker.

Bad Guys
Like the heroes, Star Trek fans can easily pick out their personal favorites from a long list of villains in the Trek universe. From Kirk’s iconic battle with the Gorn in The Original Series to the futility of resistance in The Next Generation, The Wrath of Khan, The Dominion, and Nero acting independently from the Romulan Empire in the 2009 reboot, Star Trek has a galaxy of colorful villains giving life to the idea that all good guys are the same, but bad guys are all bad in their own way. Every villain is unique in their methods and motivations, and through the course of five series, the relationships between Starfleet and the various other worlds of Star Trek evolved. In The Original Series, the Klingons were the bad guys. By The Next Generation, they had reached a truce with the United Federation of Planets. By Voyager, there was a converted Borg. All the enemies of the Federation also had different methods of attacking as well. The Klingons attacked with a directness which was honest in its brutality, while the Borg learned the way their foes functioned in order to immunize themselves against any counterattacks. And when it came down to the individual, Star Trek made out with characters like Khan – who was so awesome, they gave The Wrath of Khan an update which was the second JJ Abrams movie – and Q, whose malevolence was more subdued and refined. Star Wars has one Galactic Empire, but one is all it needs – nothing in any universe encompasses and dominates everything quite like the Empire. The Empire is the command of everything in the Star Wars universe, except for a few backwoods outposts which answer to crime lords. It’s run by a single Emperor who is hell bent on becoming immortal and who is so powerful, the forces of darkness themselves are at his beck and call. The Empire builds everything it has on every form of oppression you can imagine, including slavery, kidnapping, and executions. If you don’t want to follow Emperor Palpatine, he’ll send his right hand, Darth Vader, in to force you to obey. And Vader talks you into it at the point of his lightsaber.
Winner
This is where Star Wars shines. Yes, Khan was one of the all-time legends of villainy. Q’s mind games with Picard were things to behold, and the fact that he let himself be foiled just because he thought Picard was interesting gave him a dose of panache; and the Borg were downright scary. But none of that matches the pure evil genius, unrelenting chessmaster tendencies, and indomitable will to rule that define Palpatine. He used two different identities to mastermind both sides of the Clone Wars, using his power to get the Galactic Senate to consolidate its power into an all-encompassing empire and then exterminating the Jedi, the only fighters in the universe capable of challenging his rule. That’s some serious evil right there. He tricks the Chosen One who was prophesied to destroy him into joining him and is so convinced that he’ll become immortal that he doesn’t bother to appoint a successor. Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious is the very manifestation of evil itself, and if Star Trek and Star Wars are in the same universe, Khan, Q, the Borg, and everyone else are going to be answering to him.

Annoying Kids’ Character Everyone Hated
Sometimes, mass media creators tend to forget their audiences, and that results in the creations of weird, out-of-place elements of the series canon which were made strictly to appeal to outsiders in attempts to expand the audience. And when they try to expand the audience to little kids, the results can be grating. Both Star Trek and Star Wars have done this. Trek: TNG gave us Wesley Crusher, the son of Enterprise doctor Beverly Crusher. Wesley was a child prodigy, which in TV parlance translates to “annoying know-it-all who sometimes acts suspiciously grown-up.” Throughout The Next Generation TV series, Wesley is a deus ex machina character whose purpose appears to be getting the writers out of technological jams by being the solution. The official count of times Wesley saved the Enterprise is seven, even though he had trouble getting into Starfleet Academy. Star Wars introduced a few things that might count: Chewbacca is arguably one of them, and there’s no question the Ewoks are another. But the most blatant attempt is easily Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar was meant to provide comic relief and to be an appealing character to younger members of the audience, but he ended up becoming symbolic of everything that went wrong with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy. With a clumsy nature, interruptive presence, and odd speaking dialect, Jar Jar’s introduction in The Phantom Menace was so disastrous that George Lucas phased him into greatly reduced roles in the following prequels. Jar Jar had two or three scenes and maybe ten lines of dialogue in Attack of the Clones, and by Revenge of the Sith, he was just a background character in a single, silent cameo.
Winner
Star Trek. Wesley Crusher might have been a much more effective character had he been used in a different fashion – the big complaint against him is the fact that he is a Mary Sue character, a criticism that even Wesley’s actor, Wil Wheaton, agrees with. Jar Jar managed to steal the spotlight even at a lot of times when he wasn’t supposed to, but how could it be avoided when the character was an animated klutz with a wacky accent? More to the point, Wesley Crusher didn’t offend anyone outside the Star Trek loop. He didn’t piss off three different races of people. Despite the criticisms of Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton seems to have a terrific sense of humor about it. He sporadically pops up on The Big Bang Theory as himself, game to mock his time on The Next Generation.

Weapon of Choice
Despite the nature of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise sometimes need to apply force in order to defend themselves, and in self-defence they’re equipped with phasers. Phasers are the defining weapon of Star Trek. They don’t look like a whole lot, but even the small phasers issued to Starfleet personnel can be deadly. Phasers are direct energy weapons with settings everywhere from stun to disintegrate. Phaser beams can be adjusted in both their width and output, and they can also be adjusted to a point where they’re capable of hitting a bunch of targets at once or evenly destroying large objects or amounts of material. Creative people are also able to use them to weld, cut, or even create heat sources. Lightweight and versatile, phasers are always handy in a pinch. The Star Wars universe has the lightsaber, a thin loop of plasma affixed to a metal handle. Like the phaser, the lightsaber can be adjusted for the length and power of its beam. Like the phaser, the lightsaber is primarily a defensive weapon, but creative people can use them for other purposes – they can pass as knives. The lightsaber, though, is much more of a skill weapon. They’re made strictly at home by the Jedi, who wield them exclusively because the crystal alignments which give lightsabers their power are very tricky to get exactly right, which means they also symbolize one’s mastery of The Force.
Winner
This one is controversial, but I’m giving it to Star Wars. While the phaser is definitely the more useful and practical of the two, I also appreciate the idea of skill development. If someone develops their skills to the extent of being able to properly wield a lightsaber, that person will probably be the more powerful fighter, and even with range, a plebe with a phaser isn’t going to stand much of a chance against a master with a lightsaber. While Star Trek fans in this debate like to play up the wide beam of the phaser, they also leave out a crucial detail: The wide beam is merely a stun weapon. Besides, Star Wars has its blasters as well, making the lightsaber a more unique alternative while the phaser, despite its iconoclasm, still comes off as just another laser gun among a million.

Politics
Okay, by this, I mean how politics are portrayed inside the franchises’ universes. Star Wars has a Galactic Senate where representatives of the various worlds go to fight with each other, but while the Senate Chamber was used extensively in The Phantom Menace, it played a reduced role in Episodes II and III and didn’t exist in the Original Trilogy. Star Wars, to paraphrase Anakin Skywalker, likes to keep its political negotiations aggressive: That is, with blasters and lightsabers. The Jedi Council is also a political entity, complete with petty bickering and so many in-house disagreements that I’ve frequently wondered if the Galactic Republic would just be better off with the Sith running it. Star Trek is a polar opposite – a lot of the stories and themes of Star Trek are driven by politics. Although Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is overwhelmingly about the politics of the Federation, the most political figure in Star Trek is arguably Jean-Luc Picard. Picard is known best for his cool rationalism. While he’s certainly willing to throw down a gauntlet, he waits until he has no other choice, and he’s always at his best trying to find common ground with whoever he’s talking to.
Winner
Star Trek. Star Trek, Star Trek, a million times Star Trek. Politics is something that runs with the theme of Star Trek: You know that if Galaxy-Class starships are ever invented, we’d be idiots to try to send them out on exploratory missions with a Captain who couldn’t broker a truce in the event of a misunderstanding. Deep Space Nine introduced moral ambiguity to Star Trek – it was the first Star Trek series to really confront the idea that the United Federation of Planets might have been an unwanted aggressor without the best interests of its worlds in mind. The factions between good and bad in Star Trek always exist, but they’re almost always political or arising from misunderstandings. Star Wars is a direct tale about the fight between good and evil, and it’s always at its best when the Light Side and Dark Side are duking it out in traditional fashion. In the movies, Star Wars’s tries at political and moral gray areas were disastrous; politics were the biggest reason The Phantom Menace was considered the worst movie in the series. While the EU books portrayed political factions much better, there’s still the little matter of the Jedi Council and its petty bickering – and they’re the few select people in the Star Wars universe who are supposed to be above that.

Alien Designs
Well-designed aliens help create the illusion of different worlds, and that helps viewers get into the story. The problem with most alien designs, though, is that so many of them are humanoid. It’s a constant in science fiction: Aliens get designed, and everyone watching and writing creates a lot of basic features which we just assume aliens are going to need because humans have them: Eyes, nose, mouth, proper limbs, trunk. They get created with human values and ideals in mind, no matter how different their world is. Star Trek actually takes this to an extreme: Most of its prominent races are created not only with humanoid forms, but also with humanoid features. Nearly all of them walk upright, have human facial and body features, and many of them tend to think along the same lines. This aspect of Star Trek has gone so far that the language of one of its races, the Klingons, has a properly developed language which millions of fans take the time to properly learn. (The Elven language from The Lord of the Rings is getting to this point.) Star Wars is catching up to Star Trek in linguistics – there is a phrase book and travel guide with a lot of languages and phrases in it, and one of the more recent re-releases of Star Wars featured writing in a language called Aurebesh. But as far as designs go, Star Wars still brings humanoid basics…. And that’s frequently about it. With a lot of the races, the proper humanoid features are a lot more muted, so while the basic forms are there, they still look a lot more like aliens from the far end of the galaxy. Remember that guy in the Mos Eisley cantina with the slanted head? Or Lando’s co-pilot during the Battle of Endor? Or that cloaked anteater-like alien which clued the Stormtroopers into Han’s location on Tattooine? Or that weird cadre of sentients in Jabba’s palace? Yeah. Still humanoid, but only in basics.
Winner
Star Wars. There are times when Star Trek comes off not as a show about explorers, but as a show about people evangelizing about the one true path of the Federation. On those occasions, the human-like appearances of the various alien races takes on a much more disturbing undertone: They’re different from us! Clearly they’re not civilized! Also, Star Wars shows us that aliens could come in a lot of different shapes, even when it’s restricting itself to humanoid forms. Star Wars gets the idea that alien races could be completely different from humans.

Types of Media
Both franchises have transcended their original mediums. Both of them have managed to invade the world of science fiction literature. They’ve also crossed into each other’s mediums – William Shatner credits Star Wars for studios being willing to take a chance with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while Star Wars began with a show about the movie’s droids before later moving into fare with storytelling truly worthy of Star Wars: Two shows based on the Clone Wars, and more recently, Star Wars Rebels. They’ve even both gotten into the world of video games. Now, Star Wars is a natural for the video gaming world because so many games revolve around the concept of you being a one-man army and taking on the world. The games are nearly ready-made when the title of the franchise has the word “wars” in it. Star Wars is a very action-oriented franchise. Star Trek also made its way to video games, but with considerably less fanfare. You can probably guess why: There’s very little action to base a Star Trek game on, so a lot of the games churned out based on Star Trek were pretty weak. Granted, Star Wars has been one of the weakest licenses ever given to video game developers – it’s like the developers are coasting on the Star Wars tag alone. Large aspects of Star Trek games are based on mental dexterity, which isn’t a bad thing, but people don’t seem to remember Star Trek ever being a video game franchise.
Winner
Star Wars. Its been naturally integrated into more kinds of media, and has been more prominent in other forms of media. Although Star Trek has been dazzling in many forms of media, most attempts to turn it into a video game have fallen flat because programmers have trouble compromising the elements required of a good video game with the elements which make up Star Trek. Star Wars hasn’t had many of those problems, although to be perfectly fair to Star Trek, Star Wars hasn’t gotten along the best with gaming either. Yes, there are strong points like Knights of the Old Republic, Rogue Squadron, and Lego Star Wars, but Star Wars as a whole has produced far more trash than diamonds. Do I have to bring up Masters of Teras Kasi?

Overall Themes
It’s the themes of Star Trek and Star Wars that really resonate with people, inspiring them and keeping the fanbases connected. Calling Star Wars science fiction is a little inaccurate; it’s really more of a genuine science fantasy because it has a basis in mystical elements. The mystical elements of Star Wars is embodied in The Force, an omnipresent entity that connects all life in the universe. Its most notable aspect is the fact that it grants incredible, superhuman powers to anyone who is able to tap into it. It has a Dark Side, though, which tempts good guys into self-corruption. Both the Original Trilogy and the Prequel Trilogy revolve around characters who are learning to master it. The Prequel Trilogy is about how its main character, Anakin Skywalker, was trained to be a prophesied Chosen One who would destroy those who used the Dark Side – known as the Sith – but was tempted and corrupted, falling to the Dark Side himself. The Original Trilogy is about Anakin’s son, Luke, learning to use The Force, become a Jedi Knight, and eventually facing the Galactic Empire and redeeming his father. Star Trek is more science based than Star Wars, and most references to the idea of any sort of higher power are mostly there for cultural contrast. That makes a dominating theme of Star Trek that of humanism – or really, being-ism in the Trek universe – and the exploratory and political nature of the franchise brings on the virtue of open-mindedness. Most of the characters running the various incarnations of the Enterprise, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine are full of intellectual curiosities and willing to peace and diplomacy in the name of avoiding a serious conflict a shot.
Winner
So, here are the themes of both franchises reduced into very short, simple, easy-to-write sentences. Star Wars: Don’t turn away from something just because it’s hard, and you may discover a talent you never knew you had. Star Trek: Keep an open mind, and you can discover a lot of interesting people and places. Both are equally virtuous, and following just one would make you a better person; and more power to you if you try to follow both. (As I do.) Therefore, I’m calling this a draw.

Iconic Spaceships
A good franchise with the word “star” so prominently featured better have some awesome star-hoppers, and in this respect, both Star Trek and Star Wars have obliged us in spades. Star Trek, of course, has the USS Enterprise. The Enterprise has been designed and redesigned many times, but the basics are always there: A large saucer, large impulse engines, phasers, and photon torpedoes. The Enterprise is over half a kilometer long and comes equipped with a method of faster-than-light travel called a warp drive. The Enterprise is an exploratory vessel, and therefore it tends to come off as a giant galactic luxury cruiser; but while it wasn’t really built for combat, the Enterprise has saved the world on numerous occasions. Jean-Luc Picard managed to save the Earth twice from the Borg using two different versions of the Enterprise. There are a lot of ships in Star Wars which might qualify as standout icons, but the most prominent one is probably Han Solo’s personal vessel, the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon is basically a converted freighter which may look like a hunk of junk, but with the capability to jump to .08 past light speed and make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, definitely has it where it counts. Like the Enterprise, the Falcon has a world-saving pedigree – Solo rescued Luke Skywalker during the Battle of Yavin in Episode IV, allowing Luke to deliver the payload that blew up the Death Star. In Episode VI, Lando led the Rebel Alliance in the Falcon during the Battle of Endor and delivered the killing shot himself. Although best known for its speed, the Falcon is no pushover in combat; it’s equipped with concussion missiles and three different kinds of laser guns. It’s large enough to have a significant range, but small enough to be a versatile and dangerous dogfighter.
Winner
I can’t decide. I tried, but I can’t. Both spacecraft are so different and so useful that it seems a moot point. The Enterprise would provide luxury and comfort to its crew members, as well as long-term sustainability for a long voyage. If there’s a rescue mission which requires large pickups, the Enterprise can hold several thousand passengers comfortably, with every nice living luxury necessary and all the latest technology available for use by everyone aboard. The Millennium Falcon has more of a brass knuckle feel – it has the design patterns of an old World War II bomber, rife with jagged, sharp edges built more for functionality than comfort. There room for the crew and maybe a handful of passengers, but it’s a tough, reliable ship which can get you much further than any of the small transport shuttles from Star Trek while still providing the firepower and maneuverability of a single-person starfighter. My own ideal would be to simply lodge the Falcon into the Enterprise’s docking bay.

Movie About Fanbase
Both franchises have received a rare designation: They’ve had theatrical features made about their fanbases! Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans, probably shouldn’t be labeled as a feature. It’s a documentary about the fanbase itself and the way Star Trek has influenced their lives in positive ways. I’m not sure if its director was a Trekkie himself, but at the very least, Trekkies does a very Star Trek-like presentation by trying to shed a new light on a group of people, and the director seems to have some level of respect for them. There was a movie called Fanboys which was completely fictional, and about a group of hardcore Star Wars fans trying to rush their terminally ill friend to George Lucas’s home so he could have his last wish fulfilled: See The Phantom Menace. (Fanboys takes place in 1998 or 1999.) While intended to be a lighthearted, irreverent take on sci-fi fandom, Fanboys is just insulting. It revels in every geek stereotype imaginable, and if anyone behind Fanboys cared about Star Wars in the slightest, it doesn’t show. Plus, there was the obligatory shot at how bad The Phantom Menace was in the end, which sort of takes the movie out of its era – there was a time when The Phantom Menace was the most eagerly awaited movie ever, and the thought of it being bad was outrageous.
Winner
Trekkies, the movie about Star Trek fans. Trekkies wants to show its audience how Star Trek inspires people to be their best and go further than they ever thought they could. Fanboys was an insult through and through, and not only did it spend 90 painful minutes picking on Star Wars fans, it got its jabs in at Star Trek too. William Shatner makes a cameo – which is really the best part of the movie – and hey, if you insult one group, why not insult them all? There’s a group of Trekkies in Fanboys who get into a scuffle with the main characters. Hilarity, as you can probably guess, ensues.

Well…. This is a first! We have a tie! My personal preference remains loyal to Star Wars by about a hair, but here we have definitive proof that one of these franchises isn’t better than the other. Live long and prosper, and may The Force be with you!