Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The rise of Falke, or how military design works in fighting games...

The newest Street Fighter V character has just been announced. A former Shadowlaw / Shadaloo super soldier that goes by the name of Falke. She debuts on April 24, 2018 as part of Season 3. In this blog we're going to break down the character, her powers, inspiration and the military motif being used in the genre.

Falke has some very unique powers. As a former Shadowlaw soldier she was subject to experimentation and fight training. This gave her the ability to use "Psycho Power" the psychic energy that allows organization leader Vega / M. Bison / The Dictator to fly, teleport, and even shoot fireballs. Ed was also experimented on and uses his psycho energy to generate awesome punches and even psychic webs. Every major Shadowlaw character in the series uses psycho power a little bit differently. Falke actually channels her energy through a fighting staff which she nicknames Harmony. She can send projectiles of psycho energy through the air, as if they were bullets. She can also fill the staff with psycho energy and use it as a sword. This makes her game play style very unique in Street Fighter V. Her effective distance for strikes is increased over regular hand-to-hand fighters thanks to the staff and because of her psycho power she has the ability to shoot psychic projectiles at range.

Falke's fighting staff seems to be made in sections and out of a unique composite material. It seems to be metal and not really flexible. If you look at it closely you can see where the staff is screwed together. Also when an alternate costume is selected the staff changes shape slightly as well. It looks collapsible now, almost like a walking stick. Also this variation of the staff has a muzzle diffuser,  these are the small holes that would normally be seen on the tip of a rifle. Perhaps this acts as a blast diffuser, a feature on some firearms that helps focus the energy of a bullet forward instead of out to the sides. In the case of Harmony the diffuser could focus psycho energy in a specific direction. Little details like this help reinforce the overall military look that the designers at Capcom were going for.  

Of course the first thing that many people commented on when Falke was announced was how because she fought with a staff she seemed to be the new Rolento. Well let's talk a little bit about this. Using a staff or any other weapon in Street Fighter is not a new idea. In the original Street Fighter (1987) the ninja Geki had a claw and threw shuriken aka ninja stars. In England the fighter named Eagle used two fighting sticks. The name Falke is actually German for Falcon. I doubt she is related to Eagle because his name was a golf pun. The other fighter from the UK was named Birdie. But I digress... Maki from Final Fight 2, Street Figher Zero 3 fought with a tonfa. Ibuki from Street Fighter 3 (1997) also threw shuriken. Rolento returned in Street Fighter Zero 2 (1996) but he originally debuted in Final Fight (1989) as a boss for Mad Gear. He appeared a few more time in the series, always fighting with his staff and throwing grenades at opponents. These moves were adapted into Street Fighter. The first female to actually use a staff in the series was Nanase in Street Fighter EX 2 (1999). 

Nanase was the younger sister of Kairi and Hokuto, the two main characters in the story arc of the EX series. Nanase was being groomed to lead the Mizugami clan in the event that anything happened to her elder siblings. Of course in storytelling fashion they both disappeared and she was thrust into the spotlight. She had to track them down and prove her worth in the EX tournament. Because she was a kid it wouldn't have made sense for her to compete hand-to-hand against adults no matter how talented she was. This was why she was designed with a weapon in hand, a bo to be exact. It was a regular wooden bo, nothing special like Falke's staff. Nanase might have been half as big as Ryu but with the staff she had more range than he did and the ability to hit almost as hard. In the updated version of the EX story she is a little older, her memory of Hokuto is wiped but she remembers her fight training. Now going by the name Sanane, an anagram of Nanase. Falke did not move or fight like Nanase, or for that matter any other weapons-based character from the Street Fighter universe. 

Falke focused her psycho energy through Harmony. She didn't really thrust with it like Nanase, or spin it quickly as with Rolento. It was an extension of herself rather than a weapon. The precision with which she used it was done in a very militaristic fashion. She squared Harmony with her shoulder as if it were a rifle when firing bolts of psycho energy. Without it I don't know how effective of a fighter she would be or if she could even control her psycho power. Ed on the other hand knew how to box, trained by former champ M. Bison / Boxer. He could also use his psycho energy in hand-to-hand combat. In canon fighters like Rolento and Nanase would not be at a loss without their staff. They still had training to fall back on. I wouldn't guess the same thing could be said of Falke. Like Rolento however her design worked in the series because it kept up the military aesthetic. Shadowlaw was made up of mostly soldiers. Looking at the cut of Ed and Falke's uniform you could tell they were not soldiers but officers. Shadowlaw, or Ex-Shadowlaw operatives wore armor and what appeared to be leather. They were fit for operations in the northern hemisphere, especially Eurasia. Rolento was not a member of Shadowlaw but instead a contractor. As a mercenary he did a lot of travelling. He wore khaki's and no armor, his uniform was suited for the tropic or desert climates. The color, cut and fabric of a costume did a lot of storytelling. It was something that every studio could take advantage of.

If you are working on a fighting game and want audiences to recognize a character as a serious fighter what do you do? Do you give them a facial scar and tattoos? Do you give them a flat nose and huge muscles? Or do you begin with the most obvious clue to audiences? The easiest thing you can do is put them in a costume. Look at some of the game characters through history and see which were the easiest to identify as a fighter. Those in military, or military-inspired costumes stood out. The best part for designers was that a military uniform could be given to a man or woman. Thanks to history we associated military training with martial ability. This was why characters like Heidern, Leona and Whip stood out in the King of Fighters series. We didn't need to know if they studied a particular form of fighting we just knew that they could fight. If they were members of a special forces team, which they were, then they weren't just good they were lethal. The Ikari Warriors were notorious in game canon as being the most skilled mercenaries operating abroad. They were able to topple regimes, steal secrets or just lay waste to an entire battalion. The two most famous Ikari Warriors, Ralf and Clark, made their debut in 1986. This was a year before the original Street Fighter was released.

Some costumes, even military ones, can still be ambiguous. A person wearing a karate uniform might be a karateka, but they can also be a judo or jujitsu practitioner. That is why designers give them supporting details. Ken and Ryu for example had striking gloves so you could tell they were more likely karate fighters than judo grapplers. Ralf and Clark are obviously military fighters but what type? They don't wear stripes on their sleeves, or sleeves for that matter. We can tell that Rolento or Heidern are officers because of their full uniforms. Ralf and Clark are different, just look at their supporting details. They carry ammunition and explosives on their vest and belt. They look more like jungle mercenaries than servicemen. Based on their size we can tell that they are immensely strong. Since neither carries a weapon we can tell they are going to be strikers or grapplers in the King of Fighters. 

Something that was pointed out on Twitter this week was how somebody at Capcom has a certain fallback when designing alternate costumes. Specifically for blonde female characters. See if you can spot the costume detail they like to add. Aside from that Falke is an interesting addition to the Street Fighter lineup. She seems to be on par with Ed as far as introducing new game play mechanics and shifting the focus to a new generation of characters. Capcom has done a decent job of focusing on new female characters through Street Fighter IV and V. The focus on the story is particularly unique. Ed is the founder of Neo Shadowlaw, a group assembled of former or discarded Shadowlaw experiments. With Falke revealed as a new recruit audiences are eager to find out who the other characters shown in the story mode are. Also if this organization had anything to do with the Illuminati featured in Street Fighter III.

It seemed that Ed and Neo Shadowlaw would soon be confronting The Dictator and his Shadowlaw generals. This was a solid story push and something not entirely new to Street Fighter mythology. Many years ago in the manhua, or Chinese comics, of Street Fighter Zero there was a showdown between two factions fighting for control of Shadowlaw. We'll see how Falke and Ed figure into all of this. Of course the ramifications of any betrayals or sacrifices will ripple down to the rest of the universe.

So what do you think about Falke? Do you like her design? What do you think about her powers? Will you be playing as the character when she is released? Are you siding with Shadowlaw or Neo Shadowlaw in this update? I'd like to hear your take in the comments section. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!
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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The six degrees of dancers and Dragon Ball.

Dragon Ball FighterZ has really captured the eyes of the fighting game community. I couldn’t be happier. I’ve been saying that the Street Fighter series has lost its way for some time. Questionable decisions have really detracted from the roster. I felt that it was only a matter of time before there was another game to dethrone it in terms of popularity. I think part of the reason why the Dragon Ball game has been so well received is because it manages to recapture the spirit of the earlier Dragon Ball Z: Butoden games that appeared on the Super Famicom in the early ‘90s. By keeping the mechanics 2D rather than being able to fly around and fight in 3D, as in the Dragon Ball Budokai series, players can focus on a more traditional fighting game experience. I look forward to seeing the return of classic characters as this series develops.

I hope to see some of the rare characters that were used one time in the various Dragon Ball Z films. One of the more interesting characters ever to appear in a movie was Android 15. The spunky little fighter debuted in the 1992 film Dragon Ball Z: Super Android 13! I’m not going to sugar coat the character. He was very much coded as a black trope. The dark skin, big lips, earring, and outlandish costume all signaled of black stereotypes. I wouldn’t call Dragon Ball creator Akira “Dr. Slump” Toriyama a racist however, instead he was reflecting the pop culture that he grew up with.


Son Goku was based in part on the myth of Sun Wukong the Monkey King. He was also based in part on Superman as he was the last survivor of a doomed alien planet. These characters and legends existed well before Dr. Slump was ever born. The things that he saw in pop culture helped inspire many of his creations. Android 15 for example had been in the back of his mind for some time. The character was most likely inspired by the Lockers dance crew. The dance team was formed in 1971 and was a sort of west coast response to the breakdancing trend that started in New York. Breaking, popping and locking all evolved out of street dance in the early ‘70s. These trendy dances and dancers were featured on shows like Soul Train. The most popular of the Lockers was Fred “Rerun” Berry (rip) who appeared as the comedic relief on the show What’s Happening’

The outlandish costume, the big hat and bright colors of Android 15 was most likely based on the costumes worn by the Lockers whenever they appeared on television. Trends moved slower back in the '70s and ‘80s than they did today. Without the internet it took a long time for fads to catch on in other states and especially around the world. Dr. Slump was incorporating designs in the ‘80s on things that had been popular in the US in the ‘70s. He wasn't the only one. The people working at Capcom also used the things that were popular to them in the late '70s and early '80s when creating the Street Fighter line up. Mad Max, Streets of Fire, Master of the Flying Guillotine were just some of the movies that helped shape the Capcom legends. The stories and characters from the '80s helped shape the '90s, the '90s helped shape the '00s and so on. Pop culture, comics and movies all shaped the look of the fighting game icons. I want you to remember that the next time you fire up a fighting game. Ask yourself where the character came from, chances are there was somebody that inspired them. As always if you enjoyed this blog and would like to sponsor me please visit my Patreon page and consider donating each month, even as little as $1 would help make better blogs and even podcasts!

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Friday, March 23, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, Final Part

The giant monster genre has entertained movie audiences for almost a century. However the legends that inspired those creatures were much older than that. In a way they were the roots of the fairy tales, the religious parables and the creation myths thousands of years old. The giant monster was a way to explain the uncertainty of life, the terrible tragedies and natural disasters. Chaos was easier understood when people could put a shape and name to it. There were artists in the modern world that were exceptional at capturing the images of chaos. People like Ian Miller, Wayne England and Mark Gibbons created horrific creatures with an exceptional level of detail. It was as if they were tapping into the fears of primitive civilizations and framing nightmares in ink and paint. Then there were artists that took the opposite approach while rendering the giants of chaos. An artist like Bob Eggleton made classic beasts like griffons and dragons accessible and managed to do the same to modern legends like Godzilla. Eggleton was not alone in this regard, the painter Yasushi Torisawa and Bill Gudmundson kept the images of those primal heroes and villains alive. In pop culture circles the comic book style illustrator Matt Frank AKA the Kaiju Samurai had earned a strong following. The artist that I would like to highlight today is the best representative of the many themes I have explored over this series, including science fiction and horror.

Thomas Perkins is an illustrator and character designer in title but his volume of work is much more than just that. His designs on the original Ben 10 series earned him an Emmy. It validated his time in animation as much as his impeccable style. Mr. Perkins had cut his teeth designing for the great Richard Raynis on a string of projects including the Extreme Ghostbusters, Big Guy and Rusty the Robot, Godzilla: the Series, and the Jackie Chan adventures. It was impressive that Mr. Perkins actually got a chance to follow in the footsteps of Geof Darrow, the artist on the Big Guy and Rusty graphic novels. Geof's insanely detailed giant monster illustrations became the stuff of legend in the community. Mr. Perkins was certainly no slouch while crafting his own villains. The beasts that the Big Guy and Godzilla battled over several seasons were consistently great.

His work on the Ben 10 series was known by every kid and kid-at-heart in the US. The people he worked with created the monsters Spidermonkey, Humongousaur, Jetray, Chromastone and Swampfire. The assortment of creatures that Ben Tennyson could turn into and battle were amazing. He followed up with a new library of creatures in Ben 10 Alien Force and Ultimate Alien. Here's a sampling of the characters he designed: Ditto, Waybig, Artiguana, Upchuck, Benwolf, Benmummy, Ben 10K, Ken 10, Gullet / Samohtsnikrep, Benviktor, Charmcaster, Eye Guy, Captain Kork, and Big Chuck. The characters in Ben 10 Omniverse were designed by Derrick J. Wyatt as an homage to the original creatures. These creatures would influence countless generations of designers. It would not be a stretch to say that his work over the years became the encyclopedia of modern monster designs. What made the artist special however were the illustrations and characters that most people never get to see. He detailed many of these designs on his blog and liked to insert as many comic book references and insider jokes as he could. For example one of his original characters, Kid Kuthulu, was a vintage hero that could only have existed if HP Lovecraft were a comic book writer.

Mr. Perkins' best work may be in deconstructing and rearranging pop culture characters and references. He had done revisionist versions of the Marvel and DC characters from the 70's that would work in the modern, Bruce Timm-style, super hero cartoons. He had even created a few convincing illustrations of Chinese bootleg super heroes just for fun.

Recently he did a version of Batman that was set in the Science Ninja Team: Gatchaman universe. Instead of going with the classic animated show as a template he followed the more recent Imagi studio redesigns of the characters. His version of "Batchaman" was genius and certainly deserved a chance for a DC spin-off.

As if Mr. Perkins was not busy in television he was also busy being a dad. His entry for father of the decade would be posted on the Lunch Bag Blog. He illustrated a multi-panel scene on his kid's lunch bags every day of every week during their school year. He turned his kids into super powered characters and let their adventures be told over several seasons. He took the interests that each had and built narratives around their hero persona and the powers they had. On occasion little sister Perkins Lass Purple would join her brothers Red and Green on their adventures. More often than not the kids ended up fighting against or even fighting as giant monsters.

Thomas Perkins should be celebrated as one of the best giant monster designers ever. His style could be read very easily by comic book and animation fans equally. His use of lines and shapes were clean, even when drawing the grotesque. He gave all of his creatures personality on top of presence. The giant monsters written about over the course of this series have all shown some level of personality. They are remembered for more than their awe inspiring size and power. They have existed in our dreams and myths since the dawn of time and will continue to fill the spaces in the minds of future generations. Mr. Perkins is one of the artists working in animation that understands that all too well. I am glad that he is one of the people working to keep the genre alive and well.

I hope that you have enjoyed this series and give pause to think about some of your favorite giant monsters and giant monster games as well. Hopefully there will be some more great monster stories to write about as new games and movies get off the ground. If you have any thoughts or comments on the series please let me know in the comments section.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 20...

From 2009 through 2010 Privateer Press was trying to make Monsterpocalypse one of the most popular tabletop game systems ever. They used a grassroots approach to appeal to the community. They incorporated player feedback from local game stores during play testing. They maintained a certain level of transparency at every step of the process. They would answer questions, share notes and post previews right on the company website. They used word of mouth to help build a following. They toured the country visiting all the major conventions and showed off this system alongside their flagship Warmachine and Hordes systems. The studio had incorporated new manufacturing technology to help streamline production. They created pre-painted miniatures with built in counters and made the game board out of paper maps to help cut costs and appeal to entry-level gamers. For the most part they did everything right by the system and for the system. Any company trying to get noticed in the gaming world should study what Privateer did during those early years.

It was hard to ignore the appeal of the game. Who would not want to try monsters versus aliens versus robots? The mix of genres seemed like a perfect fit for tabletop gaming. Giant monster games were rare for the community and miniature based systems even more so. The attention to detail that Privateer put into the sculpts and paint jobs were amazing. Players could enjoy watching their monsters fend off an invasion or level a city with reckless abandon. The system managed to become so high profile that it got some unexpected attention from the government. The Series 3 All Your Base expansion was flagged by Homeland Security and could not be distributed in the country until it got cleared.

This immediately started debates on various tabletop gaming sites both in and out of the US. People couldn't believe that tax dollars were being wasted investigating a game, especially when gaming was supposed to be protected by the First Amendment. Players questioned the reasoning behind this and wondered what other games and systems the government began keeping track of in the name of security. It was possible that the post 9-11 world made some groups very paranoid. Players speculated it was because the game was dealing with mass destruction and some high profile landmarks, copies of the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty, were targets in the game. Others said it was because some of the factions were against the military industrial complex and expounded radical thinking. The government agency never revealed the findings of their inquiry. The expansion was cleared by Homeland Security a few weeks later. Store owners were put off by the delay but not as much as gamers were. Privateer relished in the free publicity.

After three expansions the system had hit its stride. The middle of 2010 saw the introduction of Block 2 and the first of the six new factions. It was far along now and could hold its own against the original games created by Privateer. Monsterpocalypse was unlike the other systems though. It was unique in the scope, scale, production and genre. Tabletop games could be lumped into one of two genres, the fantasy or science fiction type. Even with the advent of pre-painted miniatures the genre was still mostly either fantasy or sci-fi. Pre-painted superhero Clix-type games were growing in popularity. The Marvel, DC and even Halo universe were each licensed for their own Clix game. Privateer found a way to combine the best elements of the Clix system with their own design philosophy. They ended up building a game that had no parallel. It was not quite sci-fi or fantasy but a mix of the two set in a modern world. No other studio was savvy enough to address the wants of veterans while making a system that appealed to beginners. No studio even considered the giant monster as the perfect template for a new type of game.

The popularity that Monsterpocalypse enjoyed helped validate for the work of Privateer. The system was gaining momentum at a record pace. Within two years the world Privateer created had established its own canon. The factions were rich with history, strong personalities and defined objectives. It had a distinct style that rekindled memories of classic cinema while also pulling in influences from comic books, animĂ© and modern features. People could be fans of the game without being familiar in any other series. Perhaps Privateer got a little too comfortable with their position. The game possibly grew too quickly for its own good and was pushed too hard by the company on players. The expansions were beginning to come one after the other, leaving little room for players to get used to the changes in game play. Buying new factions was proving to be a costly gambit. The buildings, monsters and support were randomly boxed in each case. Players had to buy several "blind" boxes in order to find the figures that they needed or had to pay marked up prices on eBay. Privateer then began looking for licenses to make the game even more appealing. For some players the game "jumped the shark" when the studio announced that they would be featuring a crossover with Voltron. The robot was made popular in cartoons from the 1980s. The Defender of the Universe got a big push by Privateer and was forced into Monsterpocalypse canon in July 2010.

It made little to no sense why the studio would adopt a cartoon character. As cool as he was, especially to kids that grew up in the 1980s, the premise of a giant robot made up of lions seemed a little too campy for the Monsterpocalypse universe. The studio had gone out of their way to create art, articles and rules with a certain tone. The world of Monsterpocalypse was fairly serious, any humor in it was a bit dark. The monsters, robots and aliens were created in earnest and maintained a certain level of realism. The inclusion of Cthulu-like creatures that cursed the ground they walked on and turned humans into abominations pretty much summed up the established canon. All of a sudden there was a new brightly colored robot in the world, brandishing a huge sword, not representing any faction but himself.

Privateer used the same basic rules of Monsterpocalypse to build a standalone version of the Voltron game. His main rival was an evil dopplegänger named Lo-tron. Instead of fighting over a city the pair were dueling out in the cosmos. Interest in the expansion was almost nonexistent. It marked the moment that interest in Monsterpocalypse began waining. Monsterpocalypse earned good reviews on the BoardGameGeek and was ranked the 578th most popular game on the site with over 700 votes. By comparison the Voltron game did not manage to rate nearly as well. The stand alone version was ranked at 3278 on the list and had garnered only 59 votes from editors and visitors. The title seemed to hurt the brand more than help it. The seeds of doubt for the franchise were actually planted earlier.

A few months before Voltron arrived Privateer posted a press release with a major announcement. On May 2010 DreamWorks had secured the rights for a film adaptation. This was the same studio that had marginal success with Monsters versus Aliens. People that remembered the animated film winced at the news. By July 2010 the studio announced that Tim Burton was selected to direct the feature. Burton would be joined by long time collaborator and screenwriter John August. Fans of the game gave mixed reactions. They appreciated Burton's directing style but were concerned that he would completely redo the canon to fit his artistic vision. After all he took the trading card series Mars Attacks and turned it into a campy, big budget mess. Many were afraid that he would do the same thing to the Privateer game.

Spring of 2010 saw the 5th expansion to the game released. Big in Japan was actually delayed due to production issues and growing global consumer demand. Players were expecting to see a sixth update by the end of the year but it never came to fruition. After the Voltron and the movie announcements the system seemed to stall. Privateer stopped updating the Monsterpocalypse website any news. The studio seemed to drop all articles or mentions of the game from their No Quarter magazine as well. Only fan-organized events and tournaments seemed to keep the game alive. The gaming group Team Covenant took to hosting online games for the community. The continued to ask anyone and everyone at Privateer what had happened to the system. For over two years the company stayed tight lipped. It was as if everything they had worked so hard on no longer mattered. Worse that they built up the community and suddenly pulled the game out from under them.

John August hinted on his Twitter feed that the reason the company had become so quiet was because they were waiting for the numbers on Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim movie. If the Warner Bros. produced film generated good buzz and a huge box office then DreamWorks would push to get Monsterpocalypse done. If not then they might just let the rights expire. This was terrible news for fans of the game. It seemed that Hollywood had killed the system and community. They cared little for Monsterpocalypse at all and just saw something that they could exploit for a quick buck. Those that grew up with the Transformers animated show in the 80s and compared it to the Michael Bay movies knew what Hollywood was capable of. Audiences wondered what type of deal Privateer had signed up for. Why couldn't they continue to support and build expansions for the system? Was development halted on the IP because of what DreamWorks or Tim Burton had planned? Was the game really going to change direction, game play or factions based on what the movie established? One of the last posts from Privateer was a preview for the next wave of creatures. They appeared to be expanding the Tritons, Savage Swarm and Empire of the Apes factions from the Second Block. The figures were very far along in the process but never made it to market. Four years after that post most players had given up hope.

Fans felt burned by Privateer and for good reason. They had invested their time and money with the promise that the system would continue to be supported. They had previously never come across any publisher that dropped an entire system without warning. It was actually unheard of! Even Games Workshop, the huge studio from England, had developed and dropped a dozen great titles. They slowly weaned players off of a system before putting them in the "Specialists Games" section of their catalog. It was a warning that the system would no longer be supported. Privateer Press was the alternate to Games Workshop. They were the little studio that made big waves because they cared about the community. Every game they had developed they had supported to their fullest. At least they had let on that they did. The company had built their reputation by winning over players at many conventions. One by one the employees would look a player in the eye, shake their hand and introduce them to a new game. Monsterpocalypse had started out like this and certainly deserved a better fate.

All of the hype that the company had put on the community turned out to be nothing but that… hype. Many players had ended up sitting on hundreds of models. Those figures stopped being collector items rather quickly. The miniatures not kept for their novelty value were sold off for a loss. The independent game stores were burned by Privateer just as much as the fans. They had stocked shelves thinking that the company would keep running with the line as they had with Hordes and Warmachine. The energy that followed the system from convention to convention had dried up. The company stopped featuring the game altogether and employees did not bother to acknowledge its existence. Privateer kept the system in a shallow grave, hopeful that they might be able to resuscitate it and turn a hefty profit should a movie ever be released. Fans were also hoping for a return of the system but had no guarantee that it would be the same. For all they knew the company would start all over, drop the rules and factions and turn it into a board game. Nothing that Privateer or the fans did would hurt or help the chances of seeing a film. The movies were coming despite whatever plans Privateer had made. If there was a silver lining for the genre was that it would never disappear. In fact some of the best animated work in the past decade was created by teams that loved the genre. Find out about one of these artists on the next and final blog in the series.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 19...

Privateer Press did the same thing for giant monsters and tabletop games in 2009 that Incog Inc. had a few years earlier for video games. Both studios started a game project as a love letter to the genre but then it evolved into a great contribution to the genre in its own right. The studios had created their own legacy, they introduced players to enormous creatures layered in personality while battling for supremacy in fun locations the world over. The only difference was that Privateer was working on a tabletop system instead of a video game. I had talked about the little American company that could back in 2007 when they were offering tabletop game players a fresh perspective. They were challenging the status quo of the big overseas studios that seemed to dominate the market.

Game designers Matt Wilson and Erik Yaple wanted to create a miniatures based game system that could rekindle the memories of the classic monster films. They started off by making a list of all the things that they enjoyed about the genre. Big monsters fighting, cool military weapons, detailed buildings and plenty of destruction were at the forefront. The system they put together was lovingly called Monsterpocalypse. It had a straightforward play mechanic which allowed for plenty of back and forth action between the gamers. The best portions actually predated some of the design elements that Richard Garfield incorporated into his King of Tokyo game. The creatures in Monsterpocalypse could evolve, grow powers and abilities but they did so by controlling buildings and areas in the game instead of through randomly played cards. I had been keeping tabs on Monsterpocalypse back when they were play testing it at various gaming conventions.

In the early days Privateer took their paper templates, unfinished resin models and rough plastic buildings to local game stores in the Pacific Northwest as well as the larger conventions. At the time Privateer had earned a dedicated following through their grassroots campaign. The Warmachine and Hordes systems quickly grew and the company expanded to create their own line of paints and even magazine to support the community. Players were eager to see what new projects they were working on, especially since the company had a reputation for being fairly open and transparent. As Monsterpocalypse evolved the maps went from graph paper to colored pencil illustrations and eventually laser printed pages. The studio was running on a very tight margin and deadline. As the miniature sculpts were being finished the company was using all the feedback they received to clarify the rules and balance the game. Like many of their systems the goal was to keep players engaged at every level of the development.

Privateer was going to release this system as their first pre-painted miniatures game, this decision raised the ire of many traditionalists. Fans of classic tabletop systems believed that all great systems required a hobby element on top of a solid play element. Role-playing audiences were supposed to keep track of character stats and unit special abilities with character sheets that they created and updated by hand with every game. Participants of tabletop systems were supposed to assemble and paint their own miniatures and models, anything less than that was considered a product for the toy store. To further set things apart Privateer would also be using counters and ability markers on the miniatures themselves.

This approach to tabletop gaming was made popular by Wizkids Heroclix series, which licensed characters from Marvel, DC and other properties into an easy-to-play tabletop system. The Clix games were a great way to introduce younger gamers to the genre. The built in counters on the bases of the figures were cleverly designed to keep tabs of important things for the characters. Strength, stamina, movement, powers and agility could be found right on or under the models. As players battled they could wind down the stats on the miniatures until an opponent was defeated. No more keeping track of stats on a separate sheet! Hobbyists were worried that Privateer might "dumb down" all of their systems and switch to pre-painted plastic models. Privateer assuaged their fears by reminding them that Monsterpocalypse was a unique stand alone game and that the other systems would not be affected by the new manufacturing techniques.

The hobby aspect itself was not affected by the use of pre-painted miniatures. Thanks to new production methods the largest and smallest figures all received great paint jobs. Those that were not experienced painters did not feel put out when starting a collection. However those with some skills and a great imagination were more than welcome to recolor and repaint entire armies. For example, the largest monsters in the game can undergo a transformation in their power level, these "Ultra" forms of the character were represented by by clear or sometimes opaque plastic models. Many in the gaming community thought that the Ultra figures were lackluster. By going with a completely transparent color all of the great details from the sculpt were lost. That was until artists began coloring portions of these Ultra forms. The custom Monsterpocalypse paintjobs by Martin Whitmore were a prime example of what could be done to make the miniatures more interesting.

The default paint job for Defender X was great out of the box. The character was inspired by classic Japanese mech designs including Mazinger-Z who was a member of the Shogun Warrior robots. The blue tint Ultra version lost a lot of the detail, especially as light passed through the surface. Mr. Whitmore picked out some details in gold and silver with a paintbrush to make his figure stand out. He did the same for several clear and pre-painted figures as well. He demonstrated to the community that even by using one or two extra colors a model could be made to stand out. His gold and black highlights to Ultra Xaxor inspired many players, especially newcomers, not to be afraid to customize their own figures.

The success of Monsterpocalypse was certainly due more to just the great miniatures that Privateer was putting out.

The system may have begun trying to recreate the battles from classic cinema but it grew to include influences from the science fiction and horror genres. Godzilla-like creatures could do battle with giant humanoid or Ultraman-like robots. It was daikaiju nirvana but the universe turned out to be far more expansive and violent than that! There were at least two alien species had decided to invade the Earth at the same time. One group was comprised of the classic UFO ships and War of the Worlds machinations. The other group were more like the daikaiju villains, giant sentient beings bent on total destruction. These aliens were met by another inter-dimensional being, an ancient creature that was a reminder of the monster from classic HP Lovecraft mythology. The creatures and robots were given purpose which helped shape the factions of the universe. Some monsters could partner up while others were strictly enemies. Players learned to field the armies that appealed the most to them. The first wave of factions were released over three expansion sets. The original release of Monsterpocalypse was titled Rise! The following was I Chomp NY and third was All Your Base. Readers could probably guess what the focus was on each release.

The first six factions were introduced in Block 1. These teams included GUARD, whose scientific consortium had built a giant robot that acted like a UN peacekeeper. The Lords of Cthul, the ancient creatures focused on enslaving the planet. The Martian Menace and Planet Eaters who needed no further explanation. The Shadow Sun Syndicate was a powerful organization founded by the Yakuza. They had created the ninja-like titans. Finally there were the Terrasaurs, the dinosaur-like creatures that wanted to restore nature by reclaiming civilization. Each of these factions were supported by different sized units. It was actually the smaller troops that made Monsterpocalypse unique, especially when compared to the other games I had been writing about.

Giant monsters were supported either by organic or inorganic creatures. The smallest creature would be the size of a military transport truck while the largest would be as big as a skyscraper. The giant robots had traditional military weapons backing them up. Some were supplemented by incredible science fiction technology, think of the Maser Cannon and Super X from the Godzilla films, variations of these fantastic weapons were in the game. The diversity in scale for the creatures, robots and weapons made this universe among the most robust ever created. Imagine a videogame where characters from Rampage, War of the Monsters, Earth Defense Force and King of the Monsters were all playable. Now imagine if that system had miniatures produced for everything, including the levels and landmarks. It was the ultimate celebration of the genre in tabletop format.

The popularity of the game took off as the studio released wave after wave of scenarios and supplemental miniatures. They continued to push the system at gaming conventions, as well as PAX and the San Diego Comic Con. The word of mouth was tremendous for the game. Privateer continued on expanding the universe to include a second set of factions. Fans of the genre were surprised with how many obvious choices comprised Block 2 and the expansions Big In Japan and Monsterpocalypse Now! These new units could help make a great game even better. There was the Empire of the Apes, consisting of gigantic intelligent apes and the Savage Swarm, made up of enormous insects. Those two were pulled from some of the oldest film influences. Then there were the giant mole creatures that made up the Subterran Uprising and the Elemental Champions which were monks that created weapons out of the elements. Think of the monks as each having the powers of Ang from Avatar: the Last Airbender. When they combined their forces they could create giants made up of fire, water, earth, air and metal. Creatures from the deep ocean were even turned into giant monsters through the Tritons.

It was very clever how Privateer explained some of the new factions while appealing to the classic kaiju formula. For example, UberCorp International were comprised of multinational military contractors, they were selling defensive units modeled after the monsters and aliens themselves. Only the richest nations could afford to purchase the massive weapons of destruction. This jab at profiteering was not too subtle but appropriate considering that the other corporate faction in the game was founded by the Japanese mafia. UberCorp was a way to get "mecha" versions of the most popular creatures in the game. The miniatures that Privateer created for them were very unique, they did not simply look like silver versions of the existing characters but were instead built of translucent material and white armor. These giant machines mirrored the Planet Eaters, Lords of Cthul and Terrasaurs.

As the system expanded players learned that games did not have to be limited to 1-on-1 battles. The maps, buildings and rules could be scaled to include 2 vs 2, 4 vs 4 or even all 12 factions at once. The game play usually revolved around the monsters controlling or destroying buildings on specific maps, when these maps were laid side by side they could create gargantuan layouts encompassing several tables. The battles that gamers had during tournaments was bigger and badder than what any other system promised. Those new to tabletop gaming were blown away by what was possible on certain systems. The best part was that players did not have to build scenery or carry around delicate models in order to enjoy the game. Each map was double sided and could be folded and stacked. The miniatures were already painted, light but very sturdy. The time and cost of getting into the system was less expensive than any of the more popular games. Players could still invest their time and money and continue to build and collect the various factions. The best part was that players could set up a game anywhere there was a little bit of space available.

The little game about big monsters had quickly built a dedicated following. It was a unique convergence of giant monster fans and tabletop gaming fans that helped build a reputation in the community. Yet it seemed to disappear almost as quickly as it popped up on the convention circuit. Find out how internal decisions and outside interests killed the momentum for Monsterpocalypse in the next blog.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Giant Monster Series, part 18...

Giant monster tabletop systems have been around for years but they never quite got the following of the classic board games. I had talked about many of the systems on my older 1UP blog. One of the best games based on the genre was Monsters Menace America. It included a large map of the continental USA, featuring cities for players to take over as well as an assortment of plastic miniatures that represented the creatures in the game and military forces as well. Players could literally carve a path of destruction across the states and fight both the other monsters as well as the military in the process.

The title was published in 2005 by Avalon Hill and was actually a remake of an earlier game called Monsters Ravage America. Wizards of the Coast, creators of the wildly successful Magic: the Gathering series of collectible card games (CCG) bought up Avalon Hill and acquired the rights to all the systems they had developed. Hasbro acquired Wizards in 1998 and is the parent company that owns the various systems. Monsters Menace America was a decent introduction to the genre for kids over 12. The miniatures were pretty nice and the illustrations on the power up and attack cards were great. Even those too young to know anything about the classic B-films would appreciate the mix of humor and horror in the game. There were actually a couple of new board games introduced later that tried to put their own spin on the genre. The first was through the use of a big name star.

Godzilla was the featured monster in two separate titles by Toy Vault Inc. Godzilla Stomp was a CCG from 2011 that featured several Toho monsters. The game could be played by two to five players. In it participants chose from one of five monsters; Godzilla, Mechagodzilla, Battra, Destroyah and Mothera. They all took turns trying to take down as many buildings as possible as they were revealed. The more buildings that players destroyed the more points that could be won. Whoever had caused the most destruction had won the game. The other title by the studio was a bit more ambitious.

Kaiju World Wars was a tabletop system featuring a city game board, building models and four Toho monsters; Godzilla, Gigan, Rodan and King Ghidorah. It was also released in 2011 but targeted more towards die-hard Godzilla fans. The game was not far removed from the CCG, it had similar play mechanics and ability cards even. The miniatures combat system changed things considerably. Players set buildings and encounters on top of a highly detailed game board. The illustration printed on the board showed the damage left behind by multiple battles. There were impact craters, burn marks, rubble and gashes carved into the Earth by creatures that weighed several thousand tons. It helped create a sense that the game was taking place in the final moments of an all out monster war. I enjoyed studying the details when I first saw the game and could imagine that a younger fan would be completely absorbed by the atmosphere created by Toy Vault.

It turned out that Pipeworks wasn't the only studio having difficulty working with the license. The Godzilla name was popular but making a memorable game out of the character seemed impossible. Players knew what they wanted to see in the character and his opponents. Anything short of an amazing firefight between the monsters and military while causing massive collateral damage would be considered a failure. Toy Vault actually got close to a really good system that allowed for military strikes, monster combat and buildings that could be pulverized. The game suffered in its loose rules and small lineup of monsters. Even Monsters Menace America had six playable creatures to Kaiju's four. The goal from the company was to release expansion sets featuring new monsters, scenarios and military weapons. After more than a year since the debut it did not seem likely that the system would ever see any expansions. Game designer Richard H. Berg tried to answer any rule and scenario questions on gaming forums. BoardGameGeek member Scott Nixon consolidated the core rulebook, info cards and Mr. Berg's corrections into a streamlined rulebook for fans. Sadly most players wouldn't expect that they would have to search for some sort of unified rulebook online after picking up the game.

A second daikaiju themed game was also released in 2011. King of Tokyo was designed by gaming veteran Dr. Richard Garfield, he was best known for designing Magic: the Gathering, Star Wars and Battletech CCGs. Mr. Garfield came up with his own spin on the giant monster mythos, instead of focusing on big boards or detailed miniatures he wanted to focus on the combat and monster elements. He introduced gamers to six unique monsters, they were cardboard standees illustrated in a stylized cartoon format by Benjamin Raynal. The monsters were trying to claim Tokyo for themselves but in order to do that they had to defeat their opponents or simply survive an onslaught. Monsters could battle, destroy and even unlock unique mutations.

Up until the King of Tokyo the idea of a giant monster mutating and evolving new abilities was reserved for tabletop RPG systems like Monster Island or Giant Monster Rampage. Think of those systems as Dungeons & Dragons for the giant monster genre. Dr. Garfield introduced play elements into his series by allowing any of the monsters to gain new powers and even change shape right in the middle of the game through a couple of card turns. His time spent mastering the nuances of the CCG translated well into the tabletop genre. His game was actually published by the French company Iello Games. In 2012 they released an expansion called King of Tokyo Power Up featuring new cards and a new monster named Pandakai. The character was pulled from gaming zeitgeist thanks to the successful Kung-Fu Panda film series and World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria. In 2013 the system got a Halloween! expansion. In 2014 it got a stand-alone game called The King of New York. In 2016 they got the King of New York: Power Up expansion as well.

It was interesting how Dr. Garfield managed to breathe new life into the giant monster genre by presenting the basic elements from the films into an easy to enjoy system. He was so successful in his design that King of Tokyo became one of the highest rated board games according to the editors and visitors of Board Game Geek, the definitive tabletop editorial site. King of Tokyo was an exceptional game but there was only one system that could be considered as the ultimate giant monster tabletop game for hobbyists. We shall explore this game in the next blog.