As the lean years began, my life wasn’t going so well. After living at home for maybe a month after graduating from college, I was feeling quite stressed and depressed. That’s when I found unexpected solace in a video game about robots.
That seems like no surprise, especially since the game in question was another Mega Man title, but something about this one stuck with me more than most. Mega Man X5 is neither a perfect nor particularly difficult game, and it’s not the best game in the series — that honor goes to either the first or fourth installment. But it’s easily my favorite part of the MMX saga for personal reasons. (Déja vu: it’s another Mega Man game with the number five in the title!)
Allow me to explain. As graduation rapidly approached during that autumn long ago, I was still looking for a job, and really starting to get nervous about it. My degree ceremony came and went, and still no employment. I moved back home, and soon settled into a sad routine, as I’ve mentioned in the past: my days back then consisted of job hunting, playing video games, and little else. I had few friends, and my funds dried up quickly.
Things went from bad to worse, as I was getting crap at home about finding work. Even though I spent hours every day searching through online job listings as well as want ads in the newspaper, I often got a vibe from my folks that I wasn’t trying hard enough. I tried explaining to them how online job listings worked, and that many companies were eschewing printed ads, but they didn’t seem to get it. Either that, or they just didn’t believe me. I did score a few small freelance gigs, but even those caused problems at home.
So you can see how my life wasn’t so hot, but at least I had a new Mega Man game to look forward to. I was broke, but I had already paid for MMX5 in full when I preordered the game before graduation. I had done this just in case I didn’t have a job lined up right away, which was unfortunately prescient. Anyway, I moped my way over to the mall and picked up the game on a snowy Friday night. (The game was officially released on Thursday, February 1, 2001, but I know I got it on Friday, for whatever reason. Maybe the shipment was late to my local store due to the winter weather?)
I fired up the PlayStation as soon as I got home, and MMX5 drew me right in. I ended up playing it for a good chunk of the night, and resumed later the next day after my usual job hunt. Despite this, I sadly recall that my folks saw me playing it and remarked again that I should be using that time looking for work instead. Bear in mind, I had spent all morning digging through the want ads, as per usual, and this was on the damned weekend. I couldn’t catch a break; is it any wonder I retreated to X’s world whenever possible? (Look, I don’t want to sound like I’m just bitching and moaning about my home life, but those issues were a big part of this time period, and thus relevant to this story.)
Enough of that depressing shit. Let’s move on to all of the cool stuff about MMX5 that I love.
The gameplay was largely the same as its predecessors. MMX5 didn’t really break any new ground, but what really stuck out to me was the great character design, music, and story. The MMX series has always had really cool boss designs, with plenty of details to make them look noticeably different from the other Mega Man series. Once the MMX games moved on to the PlayStation and Saturn architecture, Capcom wisely did not immediately switch the series into 3D like so many other games. Instead, they leveraged the systems’ impressive 2D capabilites to create even more detailed and fluid characters.
That’s been apparent since day one, but in MMX5‘s case, it’s the little stuff that brings even more life to the Mavericks, like the scar on Grizzly Slash’s face, Izzy Glow’s mustache, or Dark Dizzy’s monocle. (More on their weird names later.) Giant Mavericks like Duff McWhalen were loaded with detail and personality, and MMX5 also introduced a seemingly ridiculous concept like a Maverick based on a rose. But somehow, it worked out great; much better than previous oddities like Wire Sponge, for sure.
The soundtrack in MMX5 kept up the hard-charging synth-rock that the series was famous for, with the music for Izzy Glow’s stage as a particular standout piece. But let’s back up for a second: I knew I was really in for a treat when it came to the music during the game’s intro movie scene. Starting right off with a natural progression of Dr. Light’s theme, it launched into a high-energy piece that perfectly set the tone for the action-packed game that followed. Surprise, surprise: MMX5 is my preferred soundtrack from the X series. I even tracked down a CD copy and I remember listening to it a lot while I worked on freelance projects during that frigid winter and subsequent pollen-infested spring.
Last but not least, the story. Beyond the main “X versus Sigma” plot, which is expected, I enjoyed the larger world that MMX5 created. New characters like Dynamo and Alia were cool, but I more enjoyed the concept of the Sigma Virus affecting X and Zero in drastically different ways, leading up to a battle between the two heroes towards the end of the game. Sure, story’s hardly a big deal in a platformer, but I just loved this one. The game’s cliffhanger ending (with X) was actually supposed to close out the X series and lead into Mega Man Zero…but Capcom went forward with Mega Man X6 and the series’ storyline became more muddled as successive games came out. MMX5 also strongly implied the return of Dr. Wily in some form, but subsequent games dropped the ball and completely ignored these revelations for the remainder of the series. What a waste! Still, those great story hooks made the game far more interesting than the usual run-and-gun.
Even the more random stuff in MMX5 made me stupidly happy, especially the throwbacks to previous Mega Man titles. There was the remixed Bubble Crab stage music, the insidious force beams from Quick Man’s stage reappearing in Sigma’s fortress (which can be dealt with in a similar fashion, using the Dark Hold weapon), and the return of a Devil-series guardian.
I actually beat MMX5 the day after I bought it, but that didn’t stop me from playing it over and over again in the coming weeks and months. I hunted down every hidden item and secret, and played through the game in different orders with both X and Zero. I became absolutely obsessed with MMX5 in every detail. When the family TV was in use by someone else, or if I just wanted some peace and quiet, I often played MMX5 (and other PlayStation games) using Connectix Virtual Game Station on my ol’ Power Mac G3. The game ran incredibly well, and it was nice to relax in my room without interruption. This also came in handy when I started writing a FAQ for the game. (Yeah, I used to do that.)
My enjoyment of MMX5 went beyond the game itself, as I collected as much online media as I could find, as well as trying to nab some Japanese toys. I tried to find some of the model kits, as I had with a few previous X games; unfortunately, they were hard to find as well as expensive back then, and they’re even more so now. I did find a set of tiny figurines, though, so that was better than nothing. They adorned the top of my old computer monitor for many years.
Now they rest in a storage tub…until I get another display case, that is.
As I was home and spending a lot of time on the Web, I often discussed the game with fellow fans on message boards, and I noticed one thing above all else: other fans fucking hated that the English names for the Mavericks were altered to resemble the bandmembers of Guns N’ Roses. (That’s not a joke.) I didn’t mind so much; maybe it’s because I’m a GN’R fan, or maybe it’s because the new names didn’t change the Mavericks’ personalities or actions. If Axle the Red was belting out lyrics, then I’d be annoyed. Besides, if you really can’t stand the GN’R-esque names, you can use the original Japanese ones. Or, better yet, fan-translate ’em yourself in your headcanon: Spiral Pegasus, Tidal Whale, et cetera. (I did much the same thing with Mega Man X6, as that game didn’t even bother translating the Mavericks’ names into proper English at all. After later games had the same failing, I just gave up.)
Okay, I’ve been rambling long enough. Due to its fun factor as well as its critical importance in getting me through a rough patch in my life, Mega Man X5 is one of my favorite games of all time. In fact, it’s been a long time since I’ve played it. Time to fall in love with the game all over again!
The autumn is upon us, and that means an onslaught of “pumpkin spice”-flavored foodstuffs. (That’s in quotes because for most of them, there’s no real pumpkin or spice in there.) I love pumpkin pie and some pumpkin spice-flavored products myself. But even I think that this season’s gone far beyond the pale with this shit. We don’t need pumpkin spice everything, and that’s practically what fall has now become.
Pumpkins have been a seasonal staple since time immemorial, but the reason for their heavy injection into modern snacks and such can be traced back to Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, which remains vastly overrated. This beverage is so popular that the company maintains a Twitter account for it. For a fucking drink. That’s something so stupid my brain wants to pop like a flashbulb, and I refuse to link to such a thing here. Consider it proof that modern culture has gone helplessly insane.
Anyway, I’m not a fan of Starbucks in general — their overpriced “coffee” has the bold flavor of a dirt pile — but in the interest of fairness, I went out and purchased one of their famous lattes to see if anything had changed in the past decade.
I feel like I’m in enemy territory.
Nope. The “coffee” part still tastes like shit, but the real problem is that there’s little coffee taste to begin with. Any kind of flavored coffee is supposed to taste like coffee with a hint of [insert added flavor here], not the other way around. Starbucks’ latte is like hot pumpkin spice sugar water with coffee as an afterthought, plus a plasticky aftertaste. Granted, I’m not the beverage’s target market of twentysomething white girls, and many people who profess to liking coffee actually prefer heavy flavoring over the roasted bean brew. I may not drink my coffee black as night like a hardcore purist, but come on now: if the coffee part’s at a bare minimum, then the drink is as much coffee as Milk Duds are milk.
Let’s move on to some of the other nonsense that’s hit shelves this year. As I enjoy the normal version of the cereal, I tried Pumpkin Spice Frosted Mini-Wheats on a whim…and they tasted like a candle. In fact, a lot of these “pumpkin spice” items taste like the overpowering stench of a jar from Yankee Candle Company. As with the coffee example above, people are missing the fucking point. I’ve also seen pumpkin spice peanut butter, pumpkin spice margarine, pumpkin spice tortillas…come the fuck on. On the other end of the spectrum, many other snacks just don’t have much taste at all, like Pumpkin Spice Oreos. The added fake flavoring cancels out the entire thing, leaving us with a bland cookie indeed.
And here’s the kicker: if you’re truly addicted to pumpkin spice stuff, you can buy puréed pumpkin or pie filling and spices all year. Make the shit yourself whenever you want instead of paying too much for the next batch of artificial crap! Even my local coffeehouse serves their pumpkin pie latte year-round. And it tastes like coffee with a touch of pumpkin, the way it goddamned should.
Hot or iced, consider the mic dropped.
When it comes to contemporary culture, most people treat me like Doctor Noonien Singh: often wrong. Yet I dd not care. This pumpkin spice overload needs to stop. I put this crap in the same category as Christmas junk showing up in stores as early as September.
In the tradition of my post about Metallica’s black album as well as my lengthy ramblings on Black Sabbath, it’s time to talk about another heavy metal record that was hugely influential on my life. Set your clocks back twenty years, people, and get ready for a metal tale that starts on the beach, of all places.
My family went on vacation to Hampton Beach in the summer of 1995. It was right around my brother’s birthday, so we celebrated that up there, as well as getting in plenty of beach time. Hampton Beach also has a boardwalk loaded with shops, bars, restaurants, and other tourist crap. When we weren’t on the beach, my brother and I often wandered around this area, usually spending an inordinate amount of time in a massive arcade playing Daytona USA and the like. (When I wasn’t gawking at girls in bikini tops leaning over the pinball machines, anyway.)
During one of our many trips down the boardwalk one day, I discovered an underground record store; literally underground, as you had to go down half a flight of stairs from street level to get there. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the joint, and it probably doesn’t exist anymore, but this place was amazing. They had loads of new and used music, which worked out well since I didn’t have a lot of money to burn, and CDs were still expensive back then. This place’s disc prices weren’t too bad, but they still had a turn a profit. I was mainly looking for tapes, anyway, as I had my Walkman with me. Those were dirt cheap at this store — even the big retailers were trying to reduce their cassette inventory at this point in time — so I dug through the bins and boxes, nabbing a few things here and there. Of course, I’m too damned old to remember specifics now, but I’m sure half of it was shit anyway. I bought a few tapes, but the only disc I got was a used promo CD of Accuser’s Reflections. I had never heard of them, but it was filed under “metal,” and it was only a few bucks, so I figured what the hell?
There’s a more important reason that I don’t remember the other stuff I bought that day: because one item I was soon to purchase absolutely destroyed and overshadowed everything else. After perusing for a while, I was just shooting the shit with the store clerk. After inquiring as to what music I was and wasn’t into, the clerk said he wanted to punch me in the face for disliking punk rock (I think he was joking?), but then he suggested a new tape from some band called Fear Factory.
That album was Demanufacture, and I had heard of neither the band nor the record before the clerk popped the tape into the boombox behind the counter. I don’t recall what song was played, but it doesn’t matter; I had never heard riffs like that before, and as my eyes bugged out of my head, I knew I had to buy that album. The clerk certainly earned his commission that day. I barely made it out of the store before stuffing Demanufacture into my Walkman…and I don’t remember much of the rest of our vacation, because I lost myself in the album and listened to it on repeat constantly. I’m lucky I didn’t wear out my Walkman or the tape.
The machine-gun riffs, unique vocals, science fiction lyrics, pummeling rhythm section, awesome industrial elements and clean production…what wasn’t to love? At first, I even thought that the band had two vocalists, but it was just one guy. That surprised me as I had never heard the heavy/clean vocal style before. (Neither had most people, and it’s one of the things that put Fear Factory on the map.) The whole thing struck a chord with me (no pun intended), as no music I had heard came remotely close to what Fear Factory was playing, and it really stuck in the core of my being in terms of songwriting, musicianship, and lyrics.
Most of the songs’ subject matter examined the concept of man versus machine, including some overt Terminator references. I love that shit, and even then I noticed that it set Fear Factory apart from their extreme metal brethren,who often focused on fantasy or horror themes. I don’t even think I can pick a favorite song off of Demanufacture; I love “Replica” and “New Breed,” but then I’ll recall how much I enjoy the title track, “Zero Signal,” or “H-K (Hunter-Killer).” It’s one of those records that goes full bore from start to finish, and the slow finale “A Therapy for Pain” was yet another aspect of the album that took me by surprise.
Once we got home from vacation, Demanufacture rarely went back in its case; it just got swapped between my Walkman and my boombox. The album was a staple while I walked home from school, worked on my various bullshit hobbies, or just needed to calm down from one of my many angry moments. As soon as I was able, I picked up Fear Factory’s debut Soul of a New Machine, and nearly wore that tape out, too. (Don’t worry, I eventually upgraded both records to CD form.) That one was quite different that its successor, as it had much more of a death metal focus, but I still loved it.
Guess who was practically the lone Fear Factory fan at school? Since their tapes were often on my person, I played Demanufacture and Soul for my friends in the performing arts wing…but given that they weren’t into extreme metal, most of them hated it. One other dude in jazz band dug it, though. Better than nothing, I suppose.
I’ve been a massive Fear Factory fan ever since Demanufacture first hit my eardrums. I followed their music throughout college and beyond, buying every album upon release, and seeing them play live a few times. Fear Factory’s music has gotten me through a lot of shit, and Demanufacture led the charge. The record is twenty years old now, but its impact hasn’t lessened one bit. It still sounds just as amazing and relevant as it did in 1995. Seriously, it doesn’t sound dated at all, and very few records can pull that off. A lot of metal records from the 1990s have not fared so well, much like the scene itself, but Demanufacture still crushes.
Fear Factory’s touring in support of their newest record Genexus right now, but they’re also doing shows where they play Demanufacture in its entirety. I’m sidelined because of back problems, but what’s your excuse? Go see that shit, and at the very least, pick up Demanufacture and hear for yourself just how groundbreaking it is.
Last year I spoke about the car dream, and today I’m going to talk about another specific dream I have on a recurring basis. No, it’s nothing involving me standing in sort-of sun god robes on top of a pyramid surrounded by a thousand naked women screaming and throwing little pickles at me.
The dream in question is one where I’m building some kind of machine or similar device. It would be nice if this machine was consistent so I know what it is that I’m supposed to build, but the device often appears differently each time. Sometimes it’s a clock. Sometimes it’s a motorcycle engine. Once in a blue moon, it’s a car engine. Most of the time, though, it’s a device I do not recognize, or at least a part thereof. A few times, the word “gate” has accompanied the device, even though it doesn’t look like one. Even when I can’t tell what it is, all I do know is that in these dreams, it’s critically important that I complete the machine. That feeling is the one constant, even when the device appears differently.
While the device usually appears in dreams, on other occasions they intrude upon my waking mind. These aren’t daydreams, mind you, as I’m not distracted from whatever it is I’m doing. Like Dr. Ray Stantz said, “it just…popped in there.” I could be reading a book, or watching television, or out riding my bike…and there comes random images of that blasted device again. That makes even less sense than the dreams!
I’m at a loss to explain any of this, other than that the device is possibly a representation of my own brain, which doesn’t bode well. What do you folks think?
Just in time for the system’s twentieth anniversary (in the US), I’m going to talk about the original Sony PlayStation. Well, my own experiences with it, anyway.
I didn’t know anyone who got a PlayStation when the system launched. My only contact with it was via demo units in stores, and I don’t recall being all that impressed; I guess I was a 2D snob even then. When I started college, I don’t remember anyone there having a PlayStation, either, as most of my pals were PC gamers. I had even left my precious Game Boy at home, as I didn’t want to misplace it. However, my brother received a PlayStation for Christmas in 1996. After spending the morning playing Twisted Metal II (at which my brother thoroughly kicked my ass, of course), I was sold on the console. I bought my own memory card shortly thereafter so I could play his games when I was visiting home, and over the next year, I got into titles like Wild ARMs and Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain.
Then…Final Fantasy VII hit. That’s when many of my friends at school snapped up the console. I loved FFVII, but I was never the mega-diehard that most other folks were. I actually preferred Final Fantasy VI on the Super NES! At any rate, I had to borrow time on friends’ systems when possible to play that game, so it took me forever to finish it. (I didn’t get to play FFVII at my own pace until nearly fifteen years later.) Much of my PlayStation game time at this point was playing fighting games, anyway; there was many a Tekken 2 tournament in my friends’ dorms. I would’ve loved to buy my own PlayStation, but that just wasn’t in the cards. My meager finances would not permit it (the only console I had besides the Game Boy was a cheap old NES I purchased that fall), and I’m sure I would’ve gotten a lot of shit at home if I splurged on one. So I had to settle for toting around a memory card like a loser when I wanted to play Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and such.
Finally, we get to 1999, when Final Fantasy VIII was announced. That’s what really pushed me to buy my own system. I couldn’t imagine borrowing one all over again, when I wanted to get that game at launch and play it all the damned time. I’m in the minority, but FFVIII looked much more interesting to me than its immediate predecessor; the art style, story, and characters immediately hooked me. I socked away as much cash as I could over the summer until I was able afford a PlayStation of my own. The wait worked in my favor, as the price had dropped significantly by the summer of 1999; the console ended up being $140 at Toys R Us, and it included a DualShock controller. Even still, that stretched my budget to the absolute limit; I could only justify it because I had actually gotten a promotion and accompanying raise at my summer camp job. I bought the system along with a copy of Brave Fencer Musashi…yes, because it came with the FFVIII demo. Fortunately, Musashi was a fun game in its own right. I also lucked out because since my PlayStation was a later revision of the hardware, it wasn’t prone to the overheating problems that plagued some of the earlier models. Finally, memory cards were cheaper then, so I was able to buy a few more as I needed them.
Aside from playing FFVIII like a madman, now I could easily get caught up on a lot of amazing games that I had missed. Just to offer up a few examples: like most, my love for the Metal Gear series began with Metal Gear Solid. Who could forget that Hind-D battle, or the Psycho Mantis fight? I became even more of a JRPG fan, and I played more of those on the PlayStation than anything else before or since. I was especially engrossed with Star Ocean: The Second Story, and I practically bought that on a whim! That game still has some of my favorite RPG characters and music. While I had enjoyed Blood Omen, it was Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver that really blew me away from start to finish, as the worldbuilding, voice acting, and awesome gameplay just made for an incredibly fun experience. I must point out that game’s cliffhanger ending drove everyone nuts in my apartment, as we were all hooked!
In addition to the PlayStation I already had, my roommate had his own system and another TV, and we’d often link them all together to play Commander & Conquer: Red Alert – Retaliation. Using two consoles and two televisions to play the same game in the same room seems positively archaic by contemporary standards, but it was a blast. (We played the PC version via networked computers, too. All of my roommates were big C&C fans.)
Eventually I modified the system to play imported games, like Rockman Battle & Chase. Speaking of which, my PlayStation days were also when my Mega Man obsession reached new heights, as I could finally play the newest games in the series. I had played my brother’s copy of Mega Man 8 in the past, but now I got my own copy along with Mega Man X4 and Mega Man Legends. Good stuff! As time went on, I would buy further Mega Man games immediately upon their release dates, enjoying the hell out of all of ’em.
Back at home, my brother subscribed to the execellent magazine PSM, and I’d pore over his copies just as much as he did. (Man, do I miss enthusiast gaming mags!) Some of the stickers included with that mag still grace my old PlayStation memory cards.
Guess who my favorite publisher was.
He also bought a DexDrive, which came in very handy when managing save files. For a while, memory cards were still at a premium, and backing up our stuff onto a PC just made logical sense. And when it came to finding complete save files for games that featured unlockable content, the DexDrive was a godsend. Look, I’m all for doing the work myself to unlock extra modes, characters, and so on, but for fighting games and the like, it was just easier to download a 100% complete save file than to play a thousand matches or some such nonsense. I really suck at fighting games, so characters unlocked via skill always eluded me. These files also helped with RPGs that featured super-difficult optional bosses. Sorry, even back then I didn’t have hundreds of hours to pour into a game to max-level my party!
Let’s wrap up the ol’ college gaming scene. Obviously, we played a lot of games in our dorm. But we sometimes took the show on the road, as it were: after hours, my cohorts I occasionally hooked up the PlayStation to the graphic design lab’s then-state-of-the-art projector. Playing Tekken 3 and the Pong remake on a giant wall screen sure helped kill time while waiting for projects to render…when we weren’t playing Jigglyball, that is. Social gaming was a big thing, and I still say it’s much more fun to play video games with others in person rather than faceless opponents online.
After I graduated, the PlayStation actually served as both an entertainment device and a form of cheap therapy. Laugh all you want, but that gray box really helped me get through those hectic months when I was desperately searching for a job. My days back then consisted of job hunting, playing video games, and little else. I had almost no money and sometimes there were problems at home, so escaping into virtual worlds helped dull the pain. I distinctly remember Mega Man X5 being one of my lifelines during this time. (More on that in a future post.) Even after I secured regular employment, I spent a lot of time with my beloved games. Yes, in retrospect it was rather pathetic, but don’t judge me. After all, most of my friends had moved away, I had loans to pay off, and I had no love life.
As I became a proper video game enthusiast during the lean years, I added other consoles to my collection, but the PlayStation remained the mainstay. I even acquired a PocketStation so I could access the Chocobo World subquest in FFVIII, and the various minigames in Rockman Complete Works. That thing ate through batteries like a monster, but it was worth it. (I got the PocketStation in an incredibly lucky trade for far less than what it was actually worth at the time; nowadays, they’re quite cheap.)
Yep, still got it.
Eventually, my original PlayStation was given to some friends after I scored a debugging unit, and I later upgraded to a PlayStation 2 sometime in 2002, I believe. I still played plenty of original PlayStation games, though; like I said, there were so many great ones, and I’m not one to ditch that which is old just because newfangled technology comes along. Most folks don’t think original PlayStation games have aged all that well, with their blocky graphics and low-resolution polygons, but I still adore that stuff; especially those games that had prerendered backgrounds with 3D characters atop them. I still play classic PlayStation games on my PlayStation 3, for crying out loud. (I’ve made use of the PSN service to grab downloadable versions when physical copies are too rare and expensive.)
Looking back, that era of gaming was truly unique. 3D was really starting to come into its own, often with plenty of mishaps along the way, but we got some legendary experiences out of the deal. I’m not knocking contemporaries like the Nintendo 64, but the PlayStation really ramped things up and expanded our horizons. Its strengths as well as its limitations propelled the medium forward like nothing seen since the NES days. Speaking of which, I think the original PlayStation and its library is likely the gaming system I spent the most time with; yes, even eclipsing the NES.
Most of my games are gone now, as I traded away or sold a majority of them over time. As much as I enjoyed them, most of them were JRPGs or other lengthy titles, and I just don’t have the time to play them again. (The same applies to much of my formerly-massive video game collection in general.) I kept some of my favorites, of course, as well as my PlayStation hardware. Even my memory cards still have save files on them, a few of which date back fifteen years or more. I’ve backed up all of that stuff to the PS3, of course, but it’s a testament to the PlayStation’s legacy that they all still work.
I think FFVIII is well past due for another playthrough. Maybe when I have a week off after Christmas…