Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Year* in Games, or, Old Capcom Games are Probably Better Left Alone

Two posts in one night - imagine that!

One of the things I wanted to use this blog for was to post about my (forthcoming) life as a teacher in Japan. The other thing was to prattle on about games, TV, movies and whatever else grabs my attention. This is going to be one of the latter kinds of posts, where I talk about where I've been with gaming this year. I marked 'year' there with an asterisk because it's not quite over yet, but with leaving the country very soon, things have kind of gotten all turned around.

Right now, I'm playing Fable III (more on that another day, maybe), the Undead Nightmare DLC for Red Dead Redemption, just wrapped up playing the two add-ons for Left 4 Dead 2 with a friend of mine tonight, and recently finished playing the majority of the Resident Evil series, ending with RE4 earlier this week.

This year has been a bit of a mix for me, not too badly represented by that list of games above - a collection of new releases, and some, ahem, 'classics' that I perhaps never got around to playing at the time. I grew up mainly as a PC gamer, only really switching to consoles when the Xbox came out and started catching up with what a PC could do, graphically speaking. That meant I never even owned a PSOne, only played a few games on the PS2, and though I had a couple of N64 games I pretty much missed the entire Nintendo boat. That translates to never having played the majority of Final Fantasy games, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil - pretty big names that play a large part in console history, but I was busy on the PC at the time. Now, Final Fantasy (and J-RPGs in general) I don't really care for, though I may be persuaded to give 7 a go at some point in the future, but after plenty of incredulous "You never played...?" remarks, I finally decided to play Metal Gear Solid. Or should I say, I picked up a PSP, and one of the first things I got on it (after God of War: Chains of Olympus...) was MGS off the Playstation Network.


Apart from being a real bitch to control at times - I can't remember quite what the problem was, but I think it had to do with the lack of dual shoulder buttons on the PSP - which was in no way the original game's fault, I really enjoyed it. It's cheesy, sure, and I remain baffled by the noun-animal name combinations of the boss characters - but it's a good game. I was so enamoured with it, in fact, that I wanted to play the rest of the series.

 Oh shit.

I suppose the funny thing is, I never had a problem with Raiden being the replacement main character. I actually grew to like him. But man, MGS2 was... confused. Just an incredibly elaborate plotline that ultimately left me more confused than impressed, and some really strange dialogue at times when interacting with the 'briefing' characters over the codec. On top of that, things with the villains just got freaking weird. In fact, I'm only just remembering some of it right now, and it's making me cringe. Where in MGS I guess there was the fourth-wall-breaking Psycho Mantis and his ostensible psychic powers, things just hit new levels of strange with Vamp, and pretty much jumped the shark with Revolver Ocelot and his... new hand, but to say more would be to spoil it. And also, to say more would be to retell the story of one of the strangest, stupidest plot devices perhaps in all of gaming. Going into MGS3 then, I was a little wary of a repeat performance, but was happy to discover nothing of the sort. MGS3 is fantastic, and apart from maybe the original MGS, works best out of the series as a standalone story (I'd soon learn that MGS4 would be completely incomprehensible without prior knowledge of the series - and even then...). Plus by this point, and the third iteration of the "squad of special forces villains with esoteric callsigns and peculier powers", I'd stopped questioning it.

I then hit a bit of a wall, due to not owning a PS3. MGS3 though was enough to persuade me to risk it, and gain the ability to play MGS4 - as well as the (at the time) soon-to-be-released God of War 3. MGS4 was one hell of a strange game, pulling together plot threads both sane and ridiculous, duct-taping good ideas onto bad ones, all wrapped around a fairly compelling gameplay structure. After finishing it, I honestly have no idea what to think of it, or the series on the whole, though I think I can say I don't regret playing them - which is something, at least.

Some time - and an interlude with the Yakuza series - later, I dived back into the past to play Resident Evil. This is a vaguely funny story, closely related to why I played the original Metal Gear Solid. My good friend Sorrel, who is far more into retro gaming than I am, could not believe I hadn't played MGS, or RE, or half a dozen other older console games. Unfortunately, it somehow never came up that he was only referring to the original games in these series, meaning I ended up slogging through a lot of crap on the mistaken assumption that their sequels might be worth playing too...


But back to Resident Evil. I actually played the GameCube remake first, and liked it well enough, but playing the 'original' on the DS actually showed just how much extraneous stuff had been added in the remake, both in an effort to add more to the, ahem, story of the series, and I guess just to pad out the puzzles even more unnecessarily. Once again though, I liked the first game, and so went on to play RE2, which turned out to be ok, still, but not as good. Then it kind of all went downhill from there, with RE3: Nemesis just being sort of a chore, with the titular Nemesis character just being a real pain in the ass. In retrospect, though, Nemesis was actually the last 'good' RE game before the turnaround in Resident Evil 4. In Code Veronica, the story - throughout the series, wafer thin and with truly horrific dialogue at the best of times, and amazing spelling mistakes or inexplicable sentence structure most of the time - just goes insane. Gone is the admittedly-clichéd faceless corporation only interested in profit-through-weaponry and always attempting to cover up its mistakes, now personified by a succession of utterly ludicrous villains (voiced, at least in English, appallingly). It's the point in the series where evil is then represented almost entirely by the villains laughing psychotically. Any attempt at believabilty just goes out the window. Wesker, dead in the first game, reappears with zero explanation beyond a throwaway reference to being dead, and starts springing about like a character from a Twilight movie, all bad wire-work and hilarious motion blur - not to mention, sporting a new voice actor, somehow even worse than the famously, magnificently bad voice actors from the original RE (I haven't played RE5, but I'm still waiting for an explanation of what the hell is going on with Wesker. I guess maybe it's in that 'Wesker's Report' or maybe elucidated on in RE5 or one of the Wii remakes?)

Still, as bad as Code Veronica was - and it was bad, topped off with a ridiculous ending scene setting up a game that, perhaps thankfully, never happened - it didn't prepare me for Resident Evil Zero, maybe the most schizophrenic entry in the series. It has the beautiful graphics of the GameCube remake of RE, a bizarrely-implemented but kind of interesting faux-co-op gameplay mechanic, and the worst storyline ever. Nothing in it makes any sense or rises above even the most amateurish levels of narrative. Despite ostensibly existing to answer questions about the series or fill in the background from immediately before the first game, it does nothing of the sort; instead, it barrels through the backstory of the series, making changes to characters and locations that just don't fit with the already established storyline (most direct examples: it stars Rebecca Chambers, who appears in the first game if you play as Chris Redfield as a mostly-useless medic who just kind of gets in the way. At no point does she mention this apparently really quite long adventure she just had, dealing with the zombie menace. And the character of William Birkin, the villain/monster in RE2, always struck me as a sort of unethical scientist - not the pantomime villain featured in Zero, standing over the dying body of his mentor and cackling about stealing his research. Yes, again with the evil laughter) and like Code Veronica, featuring a personified villain who babbles on about revenge that you don't care about and aren't a part of - and then inexplicably decides to include the player characters as targets for his ire. It's truly dire.

Resident Evil 4 is, of course, widely regarded as a very good game. It was with no small amount of trepidation that I put the first disc into my GameCube, because actually if you look back at the reception for previous games - they still got good reviews, despite their increasing poor quality (which was kind of a double-whammy of poorness: not only were the games getting 'objectively' worse, but also certainly subjectively, as with each release they approached the 'modern era' of gaming where that kind of bullshit should really get called out. When the first RE from the mid-90s has ridiculous dialogue and terrible voice acting, it's because Capcom seem to have pulled in foreigners off the street to read a script translated by someone who has no business doing so. When a GameCube game sounds like that, it's not something that can still be overlooked).

Imagine my suprise, and relief, when it didn't suck (though as a pedant, I have sympathy for those who argue it 'isn't Resident Evil' anymore - I think it is, but sticking a 4 on the end is a bit disingenuous. Maybe Resident Evil: Leon and Ashley's Excellent Adventure, or something. Mind you, whilst we're on the topic, I have no sympathy for anyone complaining about the lack of zombies. Despite their prevalence in the earlier games, the boss characters were never zombies, and half the enemies weren't zombies either - giant insects, frog-like hunters, enormous mutated man-tanks, and so on. They were just things infected with some other thing, and the things in 4 just continue that pattern with a new kind of infection resulting in new enemies. Man, I feel dorky for having written that).

It might seem contradictory, now, that I enjoyed RE4 when it once again has personified villains, but I'd argue it can get away with it in a way the earlier games never could, simply by hanging a lantern on it - in Code Veronica and Zero, the villains are meant to be researchers, scientists, and employees of a mutlinational company. In the modern day. They don't get to be raving lunatics. But characterise the villains as an isolated community with a religious cult running through it, and I'll kind of go "sure, why not". Their plans may be bombastic and improbable, but they're a cult. They're not widely known for making a lot of sense. But why did Umbrella ever even want the T-virus, or any of its other bioweapons? It seemed to exclusively use them against its own employees! Somewhat improved story-telling aside - and it's worth noting that it is a tremendous improvement over some of the earlier entries in the series, including the caliber of voice-acting involved and a general reduction (though not complete elimination) of weird translations and goofy lines - the vastly-better gameplay was the main reason I enjoyed it.

You see, I like the idea of survival horror - the general mechanic of exploring a location, uncovering bits of the story, struggling to survive, amassing items and unlocking new areas, managing an inventory, all that kind of thing, many features of which are shared with titles like Zelda or the whole Metroidvania genre - but I hate being hobbled by controls. Plus, I've never bought that whole 'poor controls represent the terror the characters feel' argument, your ability to react hobbled in a way you might expect to be in real life. Flimsy as it is, that argument only really holds water the first time a character meets a zombie. By Code Veronica, Claire Redfield has escaped a whole city full of zombies - yet she still falls on her ass at the first sight of one in every cutscene, and the player remains hobbled by the controls. Besides, the majority of the characters in the games are elite police, members of the military, and in one case, a criminal. The only character who could be excused is the aforementioned Claire, but she seems to know how to handle a gun and by RE:CV really should have got her act together. RE4 still doesn't handle quite how you might expect what is essentially a third-person shooter to handle, but compared to the earlier games, it's a huge improvement. Here, Leon at least reacts like someone who has not only faced this kind of enemy before. It's actually a little sad, then, that some of the other surival horror aspects didn't make the cut, with the game being fairly linear, though at least you get to amass weaponry and juggle inventory around in your attaché case in a way that pleasantly reminded me of Deus Ex's classic inventory Tetris. I suppose one might hope that Resident Evil 5 could go on to marry some of the more traditional aspects of survival horror/Metroidvania-ish exploration with RE4's control scheme, but based on my impressions of the demo I think they've actually decided to ruin the series again instead (removing the lovely inventory system and replacing it with the ever so annoying mechanism from RE:Zero, for example). Oh well, I'll see when I get around to playing it properly.

Remember how I said I didn't regret playing through the Metal Gear Solid series? Well, I'm not thrilled I wasted my time with some of the weaker titles in Resident Evil. On the other hand, 4 is pretty reasonable, and the original is definitely worth a look.

That's more than enough on the topic though for now - next time I make a gaming-related post, I might talk a bit about some of the actual new games I've played this year, as well as taking a look at the Yakuza/Ryuu ga Gotoku series.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Qualified?

A little while ago I wrote that I was taking a training course for the CELTA - that is, a Cambridge Certificate in English Language to Adults (at least, I think thats what it stands for; ironically, clarifying that aspect wasn't part of the course's remit. I knew several fellow trainees who had no idea it was targetting adult students). I've now finished that course, and while I don't have the certificate yet, or know what my final grade is, I've been informed that I passed. The gravity of that is sinking in a little - it's only a four week course (six months, I believe, for the part-time version) but I now have one of the more widely-recognised TEFL qualifications. Coupled with the job I'll be starting next month, I have, in essence, started a career without realising it.

Me, teaching my last lesson on the course
When I get to Japan, I'll be teaching one-to-one English. Not quite eikaiwa, I think, but I'm only distinguishing it there because I'll be 'working' for a company, using their offices, and so on, rather than teaching private lessons in cafés or bars. The hours are flexible, which is great, but to earn enough I'm going to have to see a lot of clients - something which in and of itself may be hard to arrange, but also, a lot of individual clients potentially means a lot of lesson planning. Before this course, I had no idea how long it'd take to put together a simple 60 minute lesson (I'll be teaching 40 minute slots, which is slightly different, I suppose). It really depends on how rigid the company is in their syllabus, and how much forewarning I get about what the clients want to learn - after all, I can only plan a lesson if I know what to expect from them, but if I've basically got "40 minutes to teach whatever the guy comes in and says he wants to know" then it's a whole different ballgame. Getting to the point though, whilst I think this will be great as I get settled in Japan and in the longer term as a kind of part-time supplement, I'm hoping to get into classroom teaching sooner rather than later. That kind of work just seems to be much more organised in terms of when I'd actually be teaching, and how much time I'd need to devote to X amount of lessons. Fewer wild cards.

Not that I know for sure, of course. I might have got everything backwards. I guess I'll see in about fourteen days. This Friday, I fly out of England, go through Frankfurt, and on Saturday I'll be in Tokyo. I've got my apartment lined up (in theory), but also a hotel room for that first night in case I need to do things like rush out to buy bedsheets, towels, or whatever. That can be work for Sunday. In the first week I've got a list of things to do like getting my alien registration card, enrolling on the Japanese national health insurance, opening a Japanese bank account, and picking up a mobile phone - the last part being something I kind of worry about, as I'm not entirely sure I cancelled my contract properly when I was living there as a student. I can see one or two headaches cropping up due to being careless back then, for sure. After that, I believe I've got some kind of induction, and very soon... teaching. A real job, for the first time in a very long time, and back in Japan, of all places.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

30 Days

In thirty days - give or take a few hours - I'll be sitting on a plane to Frankfurt, and then a little while later, Japan. It's been a long road getting from the year I spent as an exchange student to my forthcoming return on the working holiday visa programme. Still, despite the length of time involved, I feel like things are moving quicker than I'm prepared for. Right now, I'm still concentrating on getting my CELTA qualification, but in a couple of weeks I should have completed the course and then I've got just three weeks to run around finishing off everything I have to do before leaving the country - arranging health insurance, getting new glasses, buying suits, dyeing my currently red/pink hair a more 'suitable' colour for teaching.

My Japanese university, four years ago
Today, though, I received a pack of information from my employer (well - the people signing the other half of my contract in Japan. They don't like to refer to it as an employer-employee relationship; instead, I'm more like an independent contractor who just so happens to mostly work for them). I wasn't expecting much - maybe the address of their offices, the documentation they expected me to bring, that kind of thing. Looking over the file titles, I was also expecting a lot of fairly useless information - Japanese phrases I'd never use, some pleasantries about how Japan is cash-based, some instructions on only wearing a dark suit. This anticipation was mostly based on never having been told anything useful before I went to Japan the first time, to study at the disturbingly salmon-coloured university pictured above. I was quite surprised, then, to find a lot of quite useful stuff in there.

The location of ward offices (that would have been nice to know four years ago), where to get a pre-paid phone instead of being saddled with a contract, instructions on obtaining a Japanese driving license... I'm particularly amused by that last one, because I've been hearing for ages about how difficult it is. Turns out that, being British, I have a considerable leg up. The United Kingdom - amongst several other countries - apparently has an agreement with Japan that means that I should be able to take my regular license, get it translated, take an eye test, and subsequently be legally allowed to drive in Japan. I was planning on getting an international driving permit anyway, but this just makes things even easier, especially if I'm ultimately to spend longer living there than the year such a permit would last.

Ikebukuro
The other big bit of news for me is that I finally have an apartment reserved. I'm going to be renting from a company specialising in renting to foreigners, and while the great thing about that is that there aren't difficult contracts, mountains of key money, or ridiculous agency fees, the bad thing is that it's hard to book anything very far in advance. These last few days, the window finally opened up for me to find a place becoming available when I arrive, and I snapped up an apartment in Ikebukuro. A trip to the bank later, and I sent off the deposit.

I'm a big fan of Ikebukuro. I spent a lot of time there when I was a student, and then stayed in hotels there both times I returned to Japan on holiday (not least because the Narita Express empties out in Ikebukuro Station, and I hate dragging suitcases around Tokyo). I don't understand why guidebooks always seem to dismiss it as a place to see, really. That's moot, though, because I'll be living there, not visiting.

Next time: more about the CELTA course, perhaps. Or thrilling photos of me trying to figure out what to pack.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Previously, on...

For the last two weeks, I've been studying for the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults). In just over a month, I'm going to be working in Tokyo, Japan as an EFL teacher. This blog will, more or less, be about that experience.

I'll probably also talk a lot about the videogames I play, the (often terrible) Japanese dramas I watch, the movies I see, and the photos I take.

Shinjuku, two years ago
I have no idea how all this will work out. With few jobs seeming to recruit from overseas for Japan any more, I eventually opted to pick up a working holiday visa, book some tickets, and just see what happens. Ironically, by the time I arrive I should have the CELTA qualification that I'd have needed to apply to the few places that were recruiting from abroad, but I'm hoping it'll help me edge out some of my soon-to-be competition. For my first job, I'll be teaching one-to-one English on a six month contract, but I've no idea if the clients will cover my cost of living. With the experiences I've had teaching on the CELTA course, though, I'm now hoping to find some classroom or group work - maybe something teaching for a company, even.

Hopefully, this year won't burn out halfway through with me running low on funds and having to return to England (not entirely easy, since I have a one-way ticket), but whatever happens, it should be interesting.

Oh, and the title of this blog?


I left Japan in 2007, after spending a year there as an exchange student. At the time I couldn't imagine going back, but a few years, some unemployment, and a general craving for Yoshinoya later, and here I am.