Monday, October 27, 2014

Top Ten Games: 10. Soukyugurentai

Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing an essay a week about my top 10 video games, starting with number 10 and working my way up. This week I start with number 10, Soukyugurentai.

10. Soukyugurentai/Terra Diver (Sega Saturn)

The game begins with a nighttime seaside view of a corporate colony city in 2058, with the planet Mars looming overhead. One after another, a team of three mercenary ships descends upon the corporate colony ships and attacks. The intro ends with the three mercenaries ascending the blood red sky of Mars.

Thus begins the story of Soukyugurentai, or Terra Diver as it is very infrequently known to the few who might have managed to run across an English version of the arcade PCB (short for “printed circuit board”). Most people who have played it know it as Soukyugurentai. It’s slightly more difficult to say but it sounds a little bit cooler and less Dio-inspired, which is perfectly fine by me.

Soukyugurentai came out during a time when the Saturn saw a huge run of amazing two-dimensional shooting games, or “shmups” as they are affectionately known. Soukyugurentai is often paired with Radiant Silvergun, another Saturn game that came out around the same time. Radiant Silvergun is the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band to Souky’s Revolver. Both games are shmups. But where Radiant Silvergun is epic, ponderous, innovative, and genre-bending, Souky is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll shooter. Like Revolver, it showcases a team of developers working at the absolute top of their game, using every trick they know how to use to make an unforgettable science-fiction shooty experience. Radiant Silvergun uses an explosion of colors and polygons and scaling tricks, to the point where it barely looks like a two-dimensional game. Souky uses a bunch of smart scaling tricks, but uses mostly a darker color palette. When the game does bring out its special effects, it makes it all the more breathtaking. Take this example from the third stage, my favorite in the game. The entire stage takes place in one continuous cut from 5000 feet above the ground, among the clouds, through a rapid decent, all the way to the bottom of the planet. The level boss is visible almost from the moment you begin the stage, just after you pass through the first layer of clouds. It scales into view, closer and closer, till it finally comes into view in its full monstrosity. Watch this YouTube video:

Another interesting point of comparison between Radiant Silvergun and Soukyugurentai is the soundtrack. Both games were composed by the same man, Hitoshi Sakimoto. Known best in the West for his work on Final Fantasy Tactics, Sakimoto has a baroque style, and likes to use a lot of theme and variation in his work. But once again, while his work in Radiant Silvergun is especially operatic and orchestral in tone, Souky’s soundtrack is much more electronic and artificial. But the stage music in Souky seems much more closely tied to the dynamics of each individual stage. Listen to the pace of the music in the stage 3 video as your ship races to the bottom of the planet, where the stage boss lies in wait. Contrast that with the stage 5 music (beginning at about 6:50), which takes place above a submarine outpost: slower, more methodical, with strange mechanical-sounding samples that burst out unpredictably. It mirrors the tension of the stage as you fly over the water, as the faceless submarines of your corporate enemy emerge to take your mercenary ship out.

I identify with the setting of Soukyugurentai. Like the game’s three main characters, I’ve been a mercenary for the majority of my professional post-collegiate life. I worked for a private criminal defense firm for a few years after graduating law school. I had a great girlfriend who I loved, and who loved me. And then she broke up with me and moved to the Netherlands. Then the next year I got laid off. While looking for my next job, I decided to start my own firm and take contract criminal defense work from local county offices. And I never really looked back. Since then, I’ve been a mercenary, taking jobs for money, not unlike the three young punks in the red, green, and blue ships in Soukyugurentai. We never get to learn much about the three mercs. If you play the Japanese version of the game, you’ll need to read Japanese to know anything about them. I’ve read the translations of their three backgrounds, but they don’t really add a whole lot. I know enough about the pilot of the red ship (the one I usually use) to know that her name is Rina Kunimura, she’s partly Swedish on her mother’s side, that she’s quarrelsome and independent, and that deep down she’s a very compassionate woman.

I’m sure she has her reasons for picking up these incredibly dangerous missions against a faceless corporate entity for…what, exactly? The game never exactly makes that clear. Did the corporation murder her partly Swedish family? Maybe she’s simply unhappy about the tax situation in the lunar colonies, and prefers to work “under the radar”, literally speaking. In any event, the final stage takes place on Mars, and the final boss is an enormous battleship that is many screens long.

Once you complete the final stage, your ship docks with a waiting mothership and the game ends, as some mournful music plays. Unlike most games of this nature, which suggest that you have somehow saved the world or the galaxy or the universe through the destruction of some incomprehensible foe, Soukyugurentai merely suggests that this entire expedition is just one more day in the life of a mercenary. Once you finish the game, you begin again, and try for a better score. There’s some comfort in that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Castille reignites dispute over Pennsylvania death-penalty appeals | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/16/2011

Castille reignites dispute over Pennsylvania death-penalty appeals | Philadelphia Inquirer | 05/16/2011

Federal habeas petitions have been receiving some national press lately. The New York Times ran an op-ed about federal habeas reform a few weeks back. And now the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue at the state level in a very big way, even going so far as to accuse the federal habeas unit in Pennsylvania of malfeasance.

It's important to note first of all that the Hoffman editorial from the Times and Chief Judge Castille raise very different issues. And Hoffman's criticisms, while severely misguided, are on a much different level than Castille's outright hostility toward the federal defenders.

But both Hoffman and Castille argue essentially that the capital habeas process is an expensive waste of taxpayer resources. In the case of Castille, this criticism is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it is extremely unethical and unbecoming of a judge to level this sort of broadside against the indigent defense community. Castille is also using his office to lend an aura of judicial authority to what is explicitly a political, partisan argument. (It should be noted that Pennsylvania supreme court judges are elected positions, and that Castille, a Republican, ran in 1994 on a "tough-on-crime" platform that touted the 45 death penalty verdicts he obtained as a prosecutor.)

Finally, and most significantly, Castille's argument completely misrepresents the motivation behind the federal defenders' efforts in state court. The defender's exhaustive practices in state court are motivated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") passed by Congress in 1996. The AEDPA imposed a host of stringent jurisdictional limitations on federal habeas corpus petitions, one of which is "exhaustion": any claims raised in a federal habeas petition must be raised first in a state proceeding, either on direct appeal or in a post-conviction relief petition, or they are barred. So by necessity, federal defenders are forced to raise every colorable legal argument at the state level by whatever means available (usually by post-conviction relief petition) before they may be heard in federal court.

So the blame for all this costly death penalty litigation lies ultimately with Congress, not the federal defenders who must comply with its dictates. If state courts feel themselves burdened by the responsibilities placed upon them, perhaps they should take up the issue with Congress itself. Or perhaps they might simply outlaw the death penalty itself.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Favorite Interactive Media Experience

I enjoy watching movies for their own sake, but I also particularly enjoy watching them with other people. Certain movies I remember as much about the people I experienced them with as much as I remember the movies themselves: Return of the Jedi, Au bout de souffle (Breathless), the Phantom Menace, the Star Wars rerelease, the Matrix, L'Ascenseur pour l'eschafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), Knife in the Water, The Hudsucker Proxy, Independence Day, The Shawshank Redemption, and La Lectrice (The Reader -- not the Kate Winslet one) are but a few examples. I could tell a short story about the first time I saw each of those movies, and the people I saw them with.

But it's even more fun sharing interactive media with other people for the first time. Mostly 'cause, well, it's interactive. And if it's something like Chrono Trigger, it reminds you of how excited you were the first time you played it when you see someone else enjoy it for the first time.

I was thinking about this when I picked up Chrono Trigger again last night. A friend of mine just got into video games, and now we want her to play Chrono Trigger to further stoke her interest in RPGs. And I was reminded just how immediately engaging the first half hour of the game is. Just a crazy mix of the giddy enthusiasm of Back to the Future mixed with the earnestness of Dragon Quest all thrown into the fun atmosphere of a county fair.

What's interesting about it is that the game gives you quite a bit of freedom right from the get go. You wake up in your bed and then your mother suggests that you check out the Millenial Fair where your friend Lucca is going to debut her latest crazy invention. But you can take your time, talk to your cat, bet on the races, earn some Silver Points to spend on events at the fair, play some minigames, enter a soda drinking contest, talk to people, help a little girl find her cat. You (literally) bump into the heroine, who asks you to show her around the fair. By the time you check out Lucca's invention, about fifteen to twenty minutes in, the game's big plot hook drops, and the adventure begins. It's so much more engaging than simply watching some overheated CGI cutscene. Plus, the game's already filled you in on the main characters and given you a taste of its intuitive controls and unique sense of humor.

So, this is all a roundabout way of me asking you:

Do you have a favorite interactive media experience? One that you enjoy sharing with other people?

I'm particularly interested in video games, but stretch the definition in whatever direction you like. It could be movies, or music, or whatever.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Roasted Chicken and Penne in Vodka Sauce

This week at Safeway there was a big sale on Select-brand pasta sauces. So I grabbed a jar of their vodka sauce and added it to this week's Roasted Chicken Challenge. I started with some onions and garlic and tossed in the chicken. Then, I poured in a glop of vodka sauce, mixed a cup of water, and reduced. Next, a tablespoon of vinegar and some red pepper, and then I added the penne. Last step: some salt, pepper, and arugula.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Quick n' Dirty Kung Pao Chicken

I threw this together as a part of my week-long Chicken Experiment (inspired by this blog): roast a chicken on Sunday, and then make cheap, experimental meals throughout the week.

I never made kung pao chicken before, so I started with a roux, some oil and butter, and onions and garlic. I added a tablespoon of peanut butter, about a teaspoon of sugar, and a few pinches of kosher salt. Then I splashed in some soy sauce, added a cup of water, reduced, then tossed in the chicken and vegetables. It came out pretty well.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Defining "victim" in the Arizona Victim's Bill of Rights

Article 2.1 of the Arizona Constitution, better known as the Victim's Bill of Rights (VBR), has a strange quirk. Take a look at its definition of "victim":

"Victim" means a person against whom the criminal offense has been committed or, if the person is killed or incapacitated, the person's spouse, parent, child or other lawful representative, except if the person is in custody for an offense or is the accused.

(emphasis added)

A plain reading suggests that people "in custody for an offense" are not victims, and thus have no rights under the VBR. Which would mean they have no right to criminal restitution, no right to be present at hearings, and, of course, no right to refuse interview requests from criminal defendants. It was generally accepted that Stapleford v. Houghton, a case involving a prisoner-on-prisoner assault, seemed to support this general interpretation.

Until now.

State v. Ergonis, a part of the high-profile Kumari Fulbright case from a few years back, just came back from the Court of Appeals. The Court sharply circumscribes the reach of the VBR's exclusionary clause with respect to people in custody, to include only cases in which the victim is also the accused and when the crime occurred while the victim is in custody.

The Court seems to ridicule Ergonis's position -- that the VBR excludes anyone in custody, regardless of whether the offense happened while the victim was in custody or not -- but frankly, its own reasoning doesn't appear to be that strong either, except that to rule otherwise would bring down the perceived status quo.

Will we now see a resurgence in interest in the VBR on the part of in-custody defendants? Perhaps victims currently held in other states, or in federal custody, will demand to be transferred to Arizona court? How will Arizona courts handle these requests?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2

The American people are isolated from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a manner unprecedented in the history of warfare. Technology makes it possible for us to wage war in two theaters simultaneously, and yet still commit fewer troops then the number used in the first Gulf War. Instead, we rely on unmanned Predator drones and chopper crews to do the dirty work. And because so few of us have any real connection to the wars, we rarely see moments of horror such as this video released today by WikiLeaks (WARNING: extremely violent and NSFW):

What is so horrible about this video? Certainly, the fact that innocent people are being slaughtered, to the seeming amusement of the helicopter crew, is difficult to stomach. The element of technology makes it especially hard to watch; it is shocking to see how one person can cause such rapid destruction. But this video shows only the type of violence that happens in Iraq and Afghanistan every day. The U.S. military has done an admirable job of shielding the public from the reality of constant warfare, but now WikiLeaks has shown us a glimpse of the truth. If this video achieves nothing else, it will help the American public understand the human cost of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Videos like this one will reach a greater percentage of the public, and perhaps ultimately shift public perception on those wars.

In light of this news, it would seem in poor taste to play games like Modern Warfare 2, which allows the player to operate the very same 30mm Apache machine gun turret used in the above video:

And perhaps in the context of MW2, the Chopper Gunner (and similar killstreak rewards, such as the AC-130, Predator Missile, and Tactical Nuke) are in poor taste. However, I think that these gameplay elements might be used to create an educational game in which players are encouraged to engage in a dialogue about the use of these weapons in modern warfare, as a means to better understand the frightening (and often secret) means by which the United States perpetuates its hegemony over the world. Perhaps if people were encouraged to play a game in which they were viscerally exposed to the horrors of a Predator missile barrage, they might become more opposed to the war effort.

I plan to write more about this in the coming days, but I thought that the release of this video would be a good occasion to start a conversation about how video games like Modern Warfare 2 might be used positively, to expose people to the horrors and true human toll of modern warfare.