Friday, August 5, 2016

Friday Night Rentals: ClayFighter (SNES)

It's likely my continual brutal losses of quarters on countless rounds of Mortal Kombat made me more open to renting a fighting game from the local video store than seeing more of my money go to another Fatality soaked loss to Scorpion. I wasn't that good at fighting games I rented, but hey, at least I wasn't losing quarters. Well, combine that fact with the fact my folks weren't exactly keen on me renting the bloodfest that was Mortal Kombat and you came to a time when I was renting fighting games that I was both not that good at and had a variety of non-bloody themes. Cue ClayFighter for the Super Nintendo:

No fatalities, brutalities, or even baby-al-ities; just screwy sculpted figures stretching and slamming themselves around. It was bizarre, crazy, even creepy at times (clay Elvis? Really?) but it was a fighting game, and one that I had, over the course of a weekend, learned to "get good" at playing. Of course, that was then, this is now. When I grabbed this little gem from a local video game store a while back, I was reasonably sure that I wouldn't remember the first thing about how to fight. At least those expectations were met. What about my other expectations though? Was Clayfighter as crafted and sculpted to perfection as I remembered? Or was I play-duped by my nostalgia?

Graphics and Style:

In a time when digitized fighting figures was the cool new thing for fighting games to do, I felt like Clayfighter really stood out because...well, it was clayfigures. I mean, sure, games like Pit Fighter and Mortal Kombat had done it, but something about the added cartoony-ness of the clayfigures and their goofy look really grabbed my attention. That and MK was pretty violent so my parents were more for goofy figures than demonic fighters who shot spears out of their hands.

And what did Scorpion and Sub-Zero have on Taffy and Bad Mr. Frosty? Well, as it turned out, there was a difference. I mean, I recognize the characters easily, but get their names confused easily, I think partially because when you have a game where all of your characters are wacky and screwball they tend to blend together a little.

Music and Sound Design:

Let me start by saying you won't believe how quickly the cutesy catchphrases get tiresome. Each character in the game has a set of goofy sayings, reactions and the like, that it spouts off during gameplay. As is the case with too many games of this era, what starts as a "Hey, that was cool! He said 'Gumball!' when he shot that gumball out of his mouth" rapidly turns into, "I think if the Elvis clay guys says "Uh Huh!" one more time I'm gong to scream."  I mean, I do like the fact we were starting to get decent sound chips in the games of the 16 bit era. At the time it was pretty awesome to hear characters yelling, talking, or making little grunts for various actions. But, I think it was too novel to the programmers as well because they used it way, way too much. And because you tend to focus on the annoying voices, you end up forgetting what the music sounds like. In fact, I don't even feel like linking to some music this time around because you'll likely forget it the second it finishes playing, but here music from the game:

"Clayfighter Complete Soundtrack"

It's neat that they have actual voices singing a song. Shame that most of the lyrics consist of the game's title getting repeated over and over and over and....yeesh. Did I mention the voices get annoying? Aside from the annoying voices, the music, much like the game, tries to hard to be a madcap calliope of sound. When it isn't forgettable, it can get downright annoying. 

Gameplay and Control:

You exist in a world of living clay, brought to life via meteorite. Naturally the sentient sludge citizens want to do nothing more than battle to the death over who will rule all of clay-dom, or some such thing. Really though, stories for games like these are irrelevant. You're less interested in the story than what moves the cast of characters can pull off and how cool or funny they look doing them. For all the goofiness and screwiness that the game tries to sell you on with whimsical settings and clever characters; it falls short in the control department.

I thought it was just my controller at first, but after several change outs, it really does seem like the movement feels sluggish and stiff. Not that the game sinks into unplayability, just you get the feeling that with a bit of tweaking it wouldn't feel like you're fighting the controller as well as your opponent.

Memories and New Thoughts:

While I still don't do that well with fighting games, I have improved. When I was a kid, I was certain that any difficulty I experienced was entirely due to my lack of skill. As it was the quirkiness of Clayfighter resulted in me renting it several time, each time I would learn how to play a different character more thoroughly and how to pull off their signature/special moves. I still had problems though. Well, as an adult I'm almost sorry to say that it wasn't as much me as I thought. Unfortunately, with control being a core mechanic of any good game and Clayfighter falling short, it leaves me wishing there were more to the game.

Other people have noted that digitized characters just didn't look good back in the day and look worse now. Well, I actually liked the digitized graphics. I never was fooled into thinking that, "Wow, it's like I'm controlling a real person! However, there was a certain charm to it all. But I would say Clayfighter is the exception to that rule. I want to enjoy the figures, but I just don't get the same sense of flow from the figures that I do from a game like Mortal Kombat. Ironically, Mortal Kombat manages to look more cartoony and flow more smoothly than Clayfighter which is supposed to look that way. Nowadays when I play I feel like I can see each frame of animation and it makes the game feel even more stiff.  I still pop the game in from time to time, but it definitely has lost the charm, for me at least, that it had when I was a kid.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Midweek Music Box: Threshold (8-bit version from Scott Pilgrim vs the World)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World flawlessly fused so many different aspects of slacker culture, the indie music scene, pop culture, and most especially video game culture; it's still a wonder to me that the movie under-performed at the box office. It had natural chemistry among the leads, great cameos, walk-ons, funny and instantly quotable lines--and that's just for starters. I'm glad it turned into cult classic and now makes the rounds of various midnight screenings and movie quote-a-long nights around the country because more people need to experience this awesome gem of a film. Well, I could wax on further about how great of a movie it was, and perhaps one day I will, but we're not here to talk movies, we are here to talk music!

So let's take a moment to listen to the track of the week, shall we:

"Threshold (8-bit)"

Translated to 8-bit-midi-music glory by Brian LeBarton based on an original composition from none other than Beck; this music melody not only was a great send off as the credits rolled on Scott Pilgrim, but it also arguably sounds better than the original version.  Naturally I can't insert that opinion without sharing the original:

"Threshold (original)

With incredible overdrive and a rocking, defiant sounding riff, it's hard not to picture the Evil Ex battle when you hear this track. The tonal shift midway through still makes me smile and wish that I was watching this film in the theater again. Still, I lean towards the 8-bit version more heavily when I want to have the soundtrack on in the background or need something to jam to while I write. Yeah, I know that's my gamer nature coming through, but Bryan Lee O'Malley wrote the original stories that way so it's hard not to feel that the 8-bit version also captures the spirit of the film a bit more. Scott Pilgrim is already littered with references and shout-outs to video games. Heck, it's like Scott and the gang are in a video game. 

I've heard songs given the 8-bit treatment before, and while they sound fantastic most times, you are still left feeling like the experience was "quaint" more than cool. Not so with Threshold. Hearing "Threshold" in an 8-bit style doesn't just feel like a revamp, it feels like the song finally gets to inhabit it's natural form and breathe in the way that it should. While I like the overdrive in the original, hearing it in the 8-bit style makes the sometimes scratchy sound feel less unpolished indie band and more like someone really trying to push as much music as they can from a classic console like the NES or Genesis.

I know that technically the song "Threshold" didn't originate from a game, but LeBarton and Beck did such a great job capturing the spirit of the characters and the story that it feels like the track was ripped straight from a retro system.