Monday, September 1, 2014

How to Make Vegetarian Meatloaf!

Believe it or not, it's possible to make a no-beef meatloaf that DOESN'T suck...


If you're like me, you probably spend at least an hour a week just perusing the vegetarian/vegan section at your local grocery store's freezer section. A few years back, I recall picking up a no-meat "meatloaf" dinner -- my high hopes were immediately dashed, when as soon as I took the patty out of its container, it more closely resembled a brown sponge than an actual ketchup-drenched slab of ground beef.

For years, I've been meaning to at least attempt a REAL vegetarian meatloaf dish. I mean, how hard could it possibly be? You brown some faux-meat, bury it in catsup, and you're all set.

Well, me and my gal-pal decided to give it the old collegiate try a few weeks back. The results, I must say, were surprisingly awesome.


As far as ingredients go, you're going to need quite a few items. A good meatloaf seasoning packet is recommended, as are a can or two of breadcrumbs. You see, veggie meat has an unfortunate tendency to not want to clump together, so you're definitely going to need something starchy to keep the faux beef together. Other things to add to your grocery list: milk, eggs, brown sugar, ketchup, and, of course, some delicious meat-less meat. 


I know opinions on the quality of Morningstar products fluctuate considerably, but as far as I am concerned, their Grillers Recipe Crumbles are among the better multi-purpose faux beef products on the market. The number of bags you use, of course, is up to you, but for our test run, we elected to use two whole bags. Obviously, you need to select a skillet large enough to handle the load. It seems like advice that need not stating but remember: the target audience for this here web blog hardly ever use any kitchen devices outside of a microwave, and for ritzier occasions, toasters.


Step one is unload the Crumbles. You'll need to put just a dab of olive oil in the (preferably non-stick) bowl before you dump the faux-meat (henceforth, referred to as "feat") into it.


From there, you're going to have to dump in the meatloaf seasoning, with about a half cup of milk. After that, crack one egg into the dish and add about a fourth of a cup of breadcrumbs. Then, you'll need to stir the compound together, until it resembles one nice, uninterrupted chunk of brown goop.


From there, you're going to have to get hands-on with the dish. After making sure the mixture is nice and coagulated, its your job to shape the feat solution into something that sorta looks like a regular meatloaf. Surprisingly, we had hardly any difficulties at all making the thing stand up on its own; as long as you have a good proportion of breadcrumbs in there, you shouldn't have any problems, either.


Of course, any meatloaf dish is only as good as its sauce, and our IIIA household recipe is one of the most delectable out there. The trick? You've got to add just a sprinkle of brown sugar to the ketchup, with a teensy bit of red pepper flake. It's simple, I know, but trust me, it REALLY takes the dish to the next level.


The rest, I reckon, is pretty self-explanatory. We cooked our feat for about 20 minutes on 350 degree Fahrenheit, and the end product was something that, to our jubilant surprise, actually looked like a giant chunk of beef. After that, we basted the loaf in our proprietary awesome sauce (trademark pending) and let the dish warm up for about five extra minutes.


Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I thought the final product was pretty damned delicious. Rather unexpectedly, the dish had a very, very traditional meatloaf taste and texture, and the feat definitely complemented an assortment of Southern favorites like stewed corn and boiled red potatoes quite well.

Considering the rollicking success of the dish, I'm beginning to wonder if other beef-and-pork-heavy favorites could translate to the faux meat treatment as well. Uh...does anybody know if fried veggie bologna sandwiches are any good?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Five: #010-#01)

The final installment of a five-part series celebrating the best SNK and pals had to offer! 


HEY! Looking for other installments in the series? They can be found at the links below:

PART ONE: Counting down games #050 to #041
PART TWO: Counting down games #040 to #031
PART THREE: Counting down games #030 to #021
PART FOUR: Counting down games #020 to #011

The Neo Geo is one of the most beloved consoles of all-time, and pretty much the definition of a gamer’s system. Originally released in arcade board form, the Neo Geo Multi Video System (MVS) delivered some of the absolute best coin-op titles of the 1990s, via an ingenious cartridge set-up that allowed gamers to play four different titles on one machine. With its impressive hardware specs, it provided gamers with some of the era’s most dazzling graphics, and introduced players the world over to such acclaimed franchises as Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug and Fatal Fury, not to mention tons of less heralded, underappreciated gems such as The Last Blade, Pulstar and Top Hunter. Not content with dominating arcade parlors, SNK also released the system as a high-powered (and absurdly expensive) home console, known as the Advanced Entertainment System (AES) which LITERALLY brought the arcade experience into players’ living rooms.

For almost 15 years, SNK and other developers published titles for the AES and MVS, giving it one of the absolute longest life spans of any console in gaming history. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the console’s official retirement, THE INTERNET IS IN AMERICA is rolling out a special, five-part series, counting down the 50 greatest games to ever grace the Neo Geo.

Before we continue, a few notes about the criteria for the list:

001.) Both MVS and AES releases are eligible for the countdown. Unless explicitly stated, the versions of the games referred to on this list are the MVS iterations.

002.) Only official games, produced during the console’s original lifespan, are eligible. Sorry, homebrew enthusiasts.

003.) SNK games from the era, which were not released on the MVS or AES, are ineligible for this countdown. In short, that means no Neo Geo CD or Hyper Neo Geo 64 games are in the running.

004.) Hey, did you ever play that one "Double Dragon" game on the Neo Geo? If so, my apologies.

With the fine print out of the way, who is ready to hop right into the countdown? All aboard, just say “S-N-K…”

Number 10:
Shock Troopers (1997)


I suppose in some ways, you could consider the sequel, “2nd Squad,” to be the superior offering: the semi-3D graphics are much improved, you can ride in vehicles ala “Metal Slug” and now, characters die in hilariously violent (yet bleakly comical) fashion. That said, as far as overall entertainment goes, “Shock Troopers” is a pretty damn hard game to top. At the end of the day, it very well could be the best bad game on the Neo Geo!

Granted, “Shock Troopers” may not exactly be a technical gem on par with “Samurai Shodown” or anything, but it’s certainly a whole hell of a lot of fun to play, regardless. Developed by Saurus -- the same folks who gave us the second “World Heroes” game and the sorta’ cult-classic “Irritating Stick” -- this game is your standard “Ikari Warriors” update, only with controls and gameplay that’s, you know, good.

This is the game “Smash TV” wished it could have been. The action is non-stop, the backdrops are diverse enough to keep you glued to the screen and the awesome team-based combat system -- which actually allots a bit of strategy alongside all of the explodey mayhem -- really makes this one a deeper experience than standard blast-a-thons like “Robotron” and “Total Chaos.” Am I ranking this game too high? Probably, but it’s just so enjoyable -- and weird as all hell -- that I think it deserves a spot in the top ten. I mean, shit, you can actually storm through a virtual middle east commandeering a rocket launcher-toting character named “Big Mama” -- how am I NOT supposed to fall in love with this game?

Number 9:
The Art of Fighting 3: The Path of the Warrior (1996)


“The Art of Fighting” series has always sorta’ been looked down upon as “Fatal Fury “ lite -- sometimes, it seems, even by SNK itself. While the franchise may not have ever reached the lofty heights of its genre cohorts, the “AOF” games were pretty good, with the third title definitely representing the franchise’s best.

Even for an SNK fighter, the cast of characters in this one is strange. Not only do you have a lawsuit-baiting main character named “Ryo,” but you also get to throw down with sword-wielding Persian princesses, muscular freak-o bodybuilder leviathans, a really, really fat dude carrying a backpack, some punk-rock chick that appears to be drag queen and not just one, but TWO separate avatars rocking dinner suits heading into mortal combat.

The visuals here are tremendous. The avatars are huge and well detailed, but the backdrops are definitely the game’s big aesthetic selling point -- some of the backgrounds are so beautiful, they almost appear lifted from a Disney film! Of course, no fighting game is worth a hill of beans without a decent combat system, and the more laid-back, combo-catering fighting mechanics in “AOF 3” are certainly a change of pace from the Neo Geo norm. It’s a big dumb button masher with a really convoluted, juvenile storyline -- but with that in mind, it’s probably the best big, dumb button masher with a really convoluted, juvenile storyline to be found on the console!

Number 8:
The King of Fighters '94 (1994)


It may not have seemed like it at the time, but "KOF '94" really was one of the most innovative fighting games of the decade. Would we have had all of those "Street Fighter vs (fill-in-the-blank)" and "Marvel vs. Capcom" titles had this mini revolution of a coin-op never been released? Seeing as how the core gameplay Capcom has made a mint of off is almost entirely swiped from "KOF," I'm not so sure we would've.

This, the first "KOF" offering, had a fairly simple, yet genius, hook. Combining characters from "Fatal Fury" and "the Art of Fighting," SNK made something of an all-star brawler, which in and of itself, was a pretty unique (and brilliant) concept. But where things REALLY got interesting is the combat system. Instead of doing best-of-three one-on-one battles, the "KOF" engine had players selecting three brawlers at once and taking on another trio in one long-assed endurance bout, "Survivor Series" style.

The gameplay plays more like "Art of Fighting" than "Fatal Fury" to me, which isn't really a negative. Granted, there are more complex and technically nuanced fighting games out there, but the novel gimmick of this one definitely makes up for whatever mechanical shortcomings the game presents. That, and you have to love the absolutely insane "national teams" herein, including England's all-girl ass kicker squad, Mexico's all-Japanese roster, Brazil's paramilitary-themed line-up and of course, Team USA -- which might just be one of the most unintentionally(?) racist depictions of urban America in all of video gaming -- apparently, New York consists mostly of burning trash cans and dudes running around in football helmets.

Number 7:
Real Bout Fatal Fury 2: The Newcomers (1998)


This game, for my money, is the single-most underrated fighting game on the Neo Geo. Yeah, there are certainly some genre games of the like on the system that are better, but what this game accomplishes on its own merits definitely puts its shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the absolute best brawlers on the console.

In "Real Bout 2," Terry Bogard, Duck King, Joe Higashi and all your returning favorites share the stage with obscure weirdos like Billy Kane and Bob Wilson. What makes the game particularly awesome is that it utilizes the same visual engine from "Real Bout Special" while reinstating the core fighting engine from the first "Real Bout" title. The end result is a game that looks as gorgeous (if not even better) then Capcom's late '90s fighters and plays as smoothly and technically as the best SNK offerings from the decade.

Okay, the stages may be recycled, but beyond that, I can't think of a single major negative for the title. It's a downright stellar, nuanced fighting game with super-smooth controls, a nice tempo and a combat system that puts just about every other fighting game from the timeframe -- safe a few notable offerings -- to shame. And to think: it's STILL not the best overall game in the entire series!

Number 6:
Garou: Mark of the Wolves (1999)


The poster for this one pretty much said it all: "Legends don't die ... they get better!"

Astute IIIA readers know I've already covered this one as part of my countdown of the top 100 Dreamcast games of all-time, so I figure I am allowed to plagiarize myself when recounting this game's inherent greatness: This game was one of the absolute best produced by SNK, and in many ways, one of the greatest technical fighting games in history. It's an astoundingly deep game with well-tuned, extremely-balanced characters and an extremely satisfying combat system - in addition to being beautiful and an audio delight, too...SNK made so many great moves with this one, starting with the "Tactical Offense Position" bar, which allows characters to unleash super-powerful projectile and grab-attacks - a variable that makes one-on-one matches very strategic and cerebral. Also brilliant is the inclusion of "defense" bonuses, which allows players to recover health by successfully blocking attacks - such a small addition that makes the game that much more competitive and riveting.

Really, what more needs to be said? It's the absolute best "Fatal Fury" game ever made, which by default, makes it the absolute best in a series that is universally recognized as one of the best fighting franchises ever designed. And, it bears repeating: how can anyone not cherish a game featuring a character known as "Khushnood Butt?"

Number 5:
Blazing Star (1998)


From my perspective, this is one of the most underrated SHMUPs in gaming history. Yeah, it's probably a bit controversial ranking this one ahead of its forerunner "Pulstar," but I still think this follow-up from Yumekobo (the same company as Aicom, really) outshines its much reverred predecessor in every way.

This is just an astoundingly fun game, with vibrant 2.5D visuals (think "Einhander," except better) and precisely the kind of super-enjoyable bullet-hell gameplay you'd expect. The game is actually a lot easier than you'd probably assume, which is the only real negative I can think of here; it's long, the stages are varied and oh my goodness, is the game just a hoot and a half to blast through!

I absolutely love the pell-mell nature of the title. The scaling and scrolling effects are terrific, and I love the power-up mechanics (basically, you can load up your laser attack, "R-Type" style, and turn it into a giant battering ram/shield combination ... trust me, it's every bit as awesome sounding as you'd imagine.) There's a ton of stuff to collect, the music is outstanding (it's the most rave-tastic SHMUP you'll probably ever experience) and the replay value is off the charts. What was I saying earlier about this being one of the most underrated side scrolling shooters out there? Well scratch that; it's one of the absolute best out there, too.

Number 4:
The King of Fighters '98 (1998)


The subtitle for this game was "The Slugfest," and boy, was that ever the appropriate moniker. "KOF '98" is pretty much considered the crown jewel of the venerable franchise, and for good reason: it's one of the most beautiful, finely-tuned fighting games out there, and easily one of the best offerings from the late 1990s in any genre.

Structurally, the game plays similarly to its predecessors. You pick three fighters from a huge roster of SNK all-stars, and then you engage in lengthy three-on-three marathon bouts until only one team stands. Retaining the "Advance" and "Extra" modes from "KOF '97," this iteration really feels like two separate games; without question, it's one of the deepest, most satisfying fighting games ever designed.

With outstanding visuals, one of the most impressive line-ups in any video game ever and a combat system that is so incomparably robust, it's not really surprising in the slightest that the game remains a favorite on the fighting game tournament circuit. This is a fighting game fan's fighting game, through and through -- if you haven't played it by now, you seriously need to rethink your commitment to the hobby of video gaming.

Number 3:
The Last Blade 2 (1998)


In my countdown of the top 100 Sega Dreamcast games of all-time, I said that "The Last Blade 2" might not be JUST the best SNK game ever, but quite possibly the best 2D fighter game in history. Well, as the final outcome of THIS countdown indicates, perhaps that little proclamation was a tad hasty. What isn't debatable an iota, however, is just how goddamn incredible this game is. If you will, let me quote my Sept 2012 self for a bit:

The weapons-based combat is smooth and technical, and playing defensively is every bit as fun as playing on offense. I really liked the slower tempo of the game, which made it feel more like “Fatal Fury” than “Guilty Gear” - a kinetic brawler, this may not be, but if you are in pursuit of a cerebral, rewarding and intellectual fighter, you’re probably not going to find a better title on ANY console ... the graphics - in particular, the sprite animations - are among the best you will see in a 2D game, and the title has one of the best scores in the history of the medium. Every character feels and plays differently, although the fighters are all expertly balanced. Pulling off combos isn’t too difficult, and the inclusion of “Super Desperation” moves - basically, fatality attacks - adds an element of unpredictability alongside the combat system’s strategic depth. All in all, “The Last Blade 2” is one of gaming’s greatest triumphs - and an oft-overlooked title that is long overdue for industry-wide celebration.

Needless to say, this is an absolutely stellar title that doesn't get anywhere near the love and adulation it truly deserves. It's certainly one of the best 2D fighting games out there, and it's without question one of the best SNK offerings ever.  And if you haven't played it, good god, do you need to find a way to, and pronto.

Number 2:
Metal Slug 3 (2000)


I would really need an entire article to truly put the sheer awesomeness of this game into words. Shit, for that matter, I'd probably need to double my current bandwidth to do "Metal Slug 3" the justice it deserves.

Do I begin with the outstanding visuals and world class animations, that put most late 1980s Don Bluth movies to shame? Or do I begin with the absolutely exquisite (and beautifully chaotic) run and gun gameplay? I could begin with the killer multiplayer, and the inventive levels, and the expertly designed stages (complete with branching paths), or the game's trademark humor -- which, at once, is both the most loving and caustic homage to "Contra" imaginable. Or maybe I could talk about the insane boss fights, complete with one of the hardest final battles in the history of gaming? I can only FATHOM the staggering number of quarters squandered on this game's beyond epic final level over the years -- my coin contributions alone probably put at least one SNK employee's child through college.

Ultimately, it's the small things, I reckon, that make "Metal Slug" the modern masterpiece it is. It's watching your avatar turn into a lumbering fatass after chowing down on one too many food pick-me-ups, and it's hearing the corny Ah-nold imitator yelp "rock-it lawn-chair" whenever you pick up the RPG. It's hitting the grenade button when you're all zombie-fied on level two and then puking voodoo death all over your foes, and it's discovering all of the hidden vehicles cleverly scattered throughout the game (my favorite? Definitely the elephant flamethrower!) Not only is "Metal Slug 3" the best in the series, its arguably the greatest parody in video game history, and quite possibly the single greatest run and gun title EVER. And if you think this game doesn't deserve to stand neck and neck with illustrious games like "Gunstar Heroes" and "Super Contra," clearly, you've never played it before.

And after reflecting on 49 of the absolute best titles the Neo Geo had to offer, we find ourselves staring down the absolute creme de la creme. With so many outstanding games available on the hardware, whittling the entire library down to just one defining title was undoubtedly a tough assignment. That said, considering the legacy of the system, and the top title's unmistakable impact on the video game art form as a whole, there was really only one game that could've wound up topping this countdown. Time to give the king its rightful crown, folks.

...and the number one Neo Geo game of all-time is...

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...

...

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Number 1:
Samurai Shodown II (1994)


One could argue that there are better games on the Neo Geo than this one, but I don't think anyone would dare say there's a more iconic Neo Geo title than "Samurai Showdown II." It may not have "made" the system, per se, but it certainly showed off the power and finesse of the hardware, and gave arcade enthusiasts the world over arguably the best 2D fighting game from the era -- absolutely no small feat, obviously.

"Samurai Shodown" was a very, very good game, but its sequel improved upon it in virtually every possible way. The roster is more robust, the visuals are even better, and the sound is utterly terrific. But the thing that strikes me most about this game isn't just one component, it's how all of those components gel into an utterly remarkable holistic experience. Beyond being a great looking and great playing game, this is a game that was expertly crafted and designed. The presentation in "Samurai Shodown" is about as cinematic as it got back in the day -- and even now, it doesn't feel aged or hokey one bit.

The gameplay is just sublime. While most fighting games from the era tried to imitate "Street Fighter" or "Mortal Kombat," this game was one of the few to go its on way, making the game about pacing instead of blood, guts and hyper-fast fisticuffs. The combat system is so nuanced and rewarding, with so many nice, cerebral touches -- it is the first game in the genre to showcase parrying, after all. But as I was saying earlier, it's not one thing that makes this game so memorable all these years later. It's the visuals, and the subtle musical cues, and the weirdo dialogue, and the smooth animations, and the attention to the detail, and the almost chess-like fighting mechanics and tremendously designed characters, all boiled together into an undeniably scrumptious goulash of sheer technical awesomeness.

In short? It was everything that made the Neo Geo, and SNK, so incredible to begin with.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Five Best NFL Player Names EVER!

Their on-field performances may range from decent to outstanding, but when it comes to the LOLZ, all of these guys are first ballot Hall of Famers...


This season, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will take the backfield for the Green Bay Packers. While the Alabama cornerback's moniker sounds like something Mad Magazine made up (or perhaps even a belittling remark from Monica Lewinski), the frank reality is that within the pantheon of pro-football names, Mr. Clinton-Dix is hardly an oddity. In fact, looking at the the NFL history books, that's hardly even a front runner for best-sounding name.

Just in time for the start of the pro football season, I present for your consideration my countdown of the five best NFL player names ever...

#005
T.J. Houshmandzadeh
(pronounced "Tee-Jay Hoosh-Man-Za-Duh")

With a name so goddamned long even "Madden" can't fit it on a virtual jersey, the Hoosh was a Pro Bowl wide out for the Cincinnati Bengals who started sucking and ended his career hopping from doomed franchise to doomed franchise before finally retiring as an Oakland Raider in 2011. He currently holds the Bengals' record for most receptions in a single season, with an impressive 112 catches in 2007.

Half African and half Iranian, his last name roughly translates into "son of wisdom," which is pretty fitting since he's a high school dropout. Of course, proving physical ability trumps IQ, he wound up kicking ass on a junior college team and thusly earning a free ride to Oregon State University while some really smart Asian immigrant that would've cured cancer wound up working at Sizzler's instead.

It's also worth noting that he once boycotted Electronic Arts because he thought his player rating in "Madden '10" was too low. And for those of you curious about Mr. Hosuhmandzadeh's initials? It actually don't stand for shit, since his full first name is the rather mystifying "Touraj."

#004
Manu Tuiasosopo
(pronounced "Man-Eww Two-Eee-Oz-Ah-So-Poe")

Manu is sort of like Johnny Appleseed, only instead of planting trees, he keeps populating the planet with really talented, yet underperforming, offspring. Two of his sons, Marques and Matt, are one-time Raiders who did very, very poorly at quarterbacking and fullbacking, respectively. His other son, Zach, is an infielder for the White Sox. Or is it the Mariners now? Eh, I don't really have the time or energy to look it up on the ESPN website, so never mind.

Starting off as a defensive lineman for the Seahawks in 1979, Manu wound up sitting on a San Francisco 49ers squad that won the Super Bowl in the early 1980s. With 9 and half sacks over 119 games and a lone, piddly 22-yard interception, its rather safe to say that Mr. Tuiasosopo, depsite his championship ring, had anything but a storied career in the pros.

Per the Wikipedia, he's still in the Seattle area, where he was last seen coaching a high school line in Redmond. Oh, and if the name "Tuiasosopo" sounds hauntingly familiar, it should -- Manu's nephew, Ronaiah, is the jealous Samoan homosexual largely credited with starting the scandalous "Manti Te'o dead girlfriend" hoax a few years back.

#003 
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila
(pronounced "Kuh-Beer Guh-Ba-Ha-Bee-Uh-Mill-Uh")

Lovingly referred to as "KGB" by American fans that are afraid of anything Moslem-sounding, the one-time Pro Bowler and all-time sack leader for the Green Bay Packers actually has one of the League's more interesting back stories.

Raised a Sunni Muslim, KGB started an organic food company while he was still in high school. After launching a successful salad dressing line throughout Southern Cal, KGB played at San Diego State and got picked up by the Pack in the 2000 draft. He retired in 2008.

He converted to Christianity his rookie pro season (I'm guessing Reggie White may or may not have had something to do with that), and started a fund for Wisconsin's homeless and helped arrange a very Doug Ramsey-like "Christian finance" gatherting at Lambeau Field in 2007. Per the Wiki, he adheres to a "Leviticus diet" to this day, which I'm assuming means he only eats fruit out of trees he's known for more than three years. His younger brother Akbar, rather ironically, didn't play all that great in his brief five-year NFL career.

Oh, and if you're wondering? His last name means "big man come save me," which is actually a reference to his great-great-grandfather, who allegedly was an Andre the Giant sized Leviathan who used to run around Nigeria helping villagers resolve disputes.

#002 
Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala
(pronounced "Kris Foo-Mott-Eww-Maw-Ah-Fall-Ah")

Growing up in Oahu, Mr. Ma'afala lived in what was more or less the slummiest part of Hawaii. He would go on to be a star fullback at the University of Utah before becoming a sixth round pick for the Steelers in 1998.

A decent ball-carrier, he would sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003 and retire a year later. Fans were fond of cheering him on with a thunderous "Foo" chant, whereas famed TV personality and all-around piece of shit Chris Berman celebrated him with the nickname "One Bad Ma'fala" -- presumably, because his surname sounds like someone with a lisp trying to say "mother fucker."

According to the Wikipedia, today Ma'afala resides in Honolulu, where he runs a sports camp for army brats and plays racquetball with old people, He also runs a separate camp for at-risk youth, whom I assume he reprimands by forcing them to spell his name left-handed or some shit.

#001 
Dick "Night Train" Lane
(pronounced "Bad Mother-Fucker")

In the old Street & Smith season preview magazines, they used to list all of League record holders in the back. As a testament to just how great Dick "Night Train" Lane's name was, they included his full nickname in his entry -- the only player in the entire publication to receive such an honor.

Whereas the exotic qualities of the also-rans on this list are pretty much the reason for their inclusion on the countdown, it's the blunt manliness of Dick "Night Train" Lane's namesake that rocketed it to the undisputed title as best pro football name ever. The name "Dick Lane" alone just reeks of testosterone, the kind of moniker that could serve a pro wrestler and a porn star equally well.  With "Night Train" as  an addendum, the cornerback's name is transformed into the linguistic equivalent of a gun that shoots knives -- a title so unbelievably manly, it literally rapes you a little every time you speak it.

Of course, Mr. Lane more than lived up to his vaunted moniker. Like Superman, he came into this world an abandoned infant, eschewed junior college to fight in Korea and just goddamn walked on to to the field one day because he was bored with his job and motherfucking got a starting position from it. He would then proceed to break the NFL record for most interceptions in a single season his rookie year, get selected to eight Pro Bowls, become enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and pioneer a deadly, neck snapping tackling technique forever known as "the Night Train Necktie."

But the best part about the name? As unbelievably ferocious a player Lane was, the nickname is actually derived from his own fear of flying -- hence "Night Train" is a reference to his preferred form of transportation to away games, and not a nod to how hard he knocked the fuck out of people for a living.

And in that, there's something so intrinsically beautiful, I could almost weep.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Captain Planet - The Infamous AIDS Episode!

Can a children's cartoon adequately and appropriately address the hyper-sensitive issue of HIV? I think you already know the answer to this one...


In the early 1990s, there were a lot of really preachy, liberal-tinged properties aimed towards younger audiences: "Dinosaurs!," "Zen: The Intergalactic Ninja," and "Toxic Crusaders," among them. Of course, the most brazen of them all was Ted Turner's brainchild "Captain Planet and the Planeteers," which was more or less Sierra Club public policy in animated form.

While pretty much every episode of the program dealt with some kind of environmental issue -- deforestation, shark hunting, nuclear power, etc. -- every now and then the program switched things up a little and hit kids with a pressing social issue instead. For example, one episode had to do with inner city violence, while another dealt with drug abuse, while yet another dealt with overpopulation. In hindsight, a lot of people wonder if this 22 minute cartoon could do an adequate job summarizing and presenting such frank and unsettling real world issues to the kiddos. Needless to say, "Captain Planet" was a show that had a tendency to bite off WAY more than it could chew, so much so that "Diff'rent Strokes" was rumored to have once remarked to it, "ya'll over ya'lls heads, nigga."

And no episode demonstrated the show's inability to skillfully explore hard-hitting topics quite like the season three episode "A Formula for Hate." Originally aired in 1992, the cartoon decided to zero in on what was undoubtedly one of the era's touchiest matters -- the AIDS virus.

Yes, that AIDS virus. In an animated cartoon, aimed squarely at grade school children.

The episode begins with Verminious Skumm -- a humanoid rat dude -- and one of his henchrats snooping through medical records at a doctor's office. While the Planeteers and Gaia use their NSA-like spying super-powers to remotely observe them, the villains snap several photographs before scurrying off into the darkness.

From there, we travel to a high school basketball game, where the rat villains are hanging out in the crowd, incognito. Basketball hero Todd Andrews scores a buzzer beater to send his school to the state finals, while an announcer who suspiciously resembles Barack Obama with a thicker coif creams his britches in excitement.

As Todd is literally carried out of the gymnasium on the shoulders of his teammates, Skumm grabs him, and ominously states "You're riding high, hero. Hope you don't fall."

After the game, Todd talks to his adoring little brother Chipper, makes out with his girlfriend Lisa, says some shit to his mama (who has a thick country accent provided by, of all people, Elizabeth Taylor) before high-fiving his Asian(?) buddy Jeff and making out with Lisa some more.

The next day, Todd gets some bad news from his doctor; apparently, he's HIV positive. The good doc tells him how the disease is transmitted -- needle drugs and unprotected sex. IN A CHILDREN'S CARTOON, HE'S TALKING ABOUT UNPROTECTED SEX. Considering the target audience a year earlier was still watching the Roadrunner and trying to figure out why their bellybutton smelled like their butthole, that is some wildly age-inappropriate thematic material, for sure.

Even better, the doctor reminds us that we can easily catch AIDS ourselves from blood transfusions, which as a kid, absolutely mortified me. Come to think of it, it still does, seeing as how I almost passed out while watching "Dallas Buyers Club" last Oscar season.

Understandably upset, Todd responds to the news by slamming the door, running out of the building and declaring that the entire situation, and I quote, "stinks."

Meanwhile, Skumm is hanging out in the sewer, producing a shit ton of flyers with Todd's face on it with the term "AIDS!" printed underneath it in big, scary Fox News lettering. According to Skumm, AIDS is the best thing since the Black Plague for evil humanoid rat mega-polluters, because it allows ignorance and hate to flow freely. Also, their apparent plot for world domination is to make everyone naive about HIV, so the entire planet can catch AIDS and they can subsequently take over all of humanity. Needless to say, you probably wouldn't have seen Pinky and the Brain hatching the same global takeover scheme on Fox Kids.

Todd tries to relieve the pressure of having an incurable, terminal illness by shooting hoops alone in the gym. His coach waltzes in and tells him he'll be playing in the championship game anyway, god damn it, and it'll probably be a a really long time before the Kaposi sarcoma eats him alive and he dies from the common cold. The two then agree to work on their "crossover dribble," which for all we know, very well could be some kind of "bug chaser" slang.

After that, Todd breaks up with Lisa. Angrily, she storms off in tears after tossing her ring at him. The Planeteers go into a sewer and find Skumm's subterranean lair; they all get shot with his rivet launching entrapment machine (it's hard to explain, but it just fucking captures them, if you need the gist of it) and then, the rising sewer water DOTH start accumulating. Considering the general theme of the episode, I was hoping for something a bit more creative than the watery grave death trap chestnut. Like, why didn't Skumm just give all of the Planeteers AIDS like that one D.C. comic  villain from the same timeframe?

Of course, Wheeler is able to use his fire powers to blow a hole through a wall and save everybody; meanwhile, Skumm LITERALLY hangs out in lockers at the high school and physically passes AIDS rumors from student to student. At one point, a Bobby Hill looking jock tells Jeff his best pal has AIDS, and even implies the two are GAY TOGETHER. Once again, all of this shit, in a children's cartoon, folks.

Todd enters the scene and tries to use the water fountain. He's accosted by some ruffians, and he admits he has AIDS...at which point his good buddy Jeff tells him he no longer wants him to "touch" him.

Skumm's posters are all over school now, and a whole bunch of angry parents don't want their kids playing basketball beside somebody with HIV. It just now dawns on me how much this Skumm character sounds like Beetlejuice.

Boy, is this is a highly misleading screenshot!

So, Lisa sees the AIDS poster, and realizes THAT'S why Todd broke up with her. Todd returns home, and he finds his little brother with a black eye; apparently, some of the kids at school roughed him up because his older sibling had HIV.

By the way, you know what would make a really fun drinking game? If you did a shot every time somebody said "AIDS" or "HIV" during the episode. By this point, you'd have halfway drank yourself into the sepulcher.

Skumm then leads an angry mob, who attack Todd's mom's vegetable stand (I suppose a fruit stand would have been way too Freudian here.) Then Todd shows up, and the townfolks start chunking tomatoes at him. Linka uses her wind powers to disrupt the crowd (which I take it is a felony under U.S. Code), while Skumm tries to run over the Geo Cruiser (to the uninformed, the Planeteer's eco-friendly jet plane thingy) with a semi-truck. At that point, the po-po show up, and everybody scrams.

Not to be too topical or anything, but do you think if this show was still on the air today, the Planeteers would probably be visiting Ferguson, Mo. and shit?

After that, the Planeteers just fucking walk into Todd's House and start monologuing, having never even formally introduced themselves to his mom. Todd responds by traveling into the swamp in a gondola, where he decides to rest for a bit in a waterside hut.

Cue a dream sequence in which Skumm shows up and says he's Todd's worst nightmare -- ignorance, hate, and fear. Huh. Seems to me his worst nightmare would be, you know, having AIDS and everything.

He runs into his brother, Jeff, his mom and Lisa, before his coach admonishes him for being a quitter. Then, he wakes up ... but strangely enough, he actually WAS sleeping in a fucking swampside encampment he just wandered into, though.

The day of the big game, Todd is nowhere to be found. Ma-Ti uses his "heart powers" to remotely stalk him; his mom says "hey, that's the old fishing camp, but it's all the way downriver and he'd never be able to make it back in time for the game.

This, of course, leads to Captain Planet being summoned. He flies on over to the swamp, where Todd is attempting to make a raft, Tom Sawyer-style. Interestingly enough, he has no qualms whatsoever about letting a translucent blue dude with a green mullet whisk him away to where the hell ever.

Captain Planet literally flies Todd into the gym, where nobody acknowledges that he arrived while being lifted in the air by a water-colored God-being. The other team's slovenly white coach (who has a deep black voice) says he doesn't want Todd giving his players the AIDS. And as with everyone else in the crowd, he completely ignores the azure-hued Jesus standing at mid court.

Captain Planet and Todd's coach then give a lecture on AIDS. Through painfully up-close facial shots, the good Captain tells us to "deal with the real" and that the power to combat HIV is ours, collectively. And with his syllable-long spiel, literally the entire crowd's worldviews have completely flip-flopped. Huh, maybe in addition to all of those geological powers, maybe the dude has mind control abilities, too?

"Listen people, if you'd just hear what Dr. Manhattan's hippie brother is trying to say about sex diseases..."

The crowd roars, Todd is told to suit up for the game, and Planet apprehends Skumm, who is then arrested by local police for...uh, something? The posters, or the truck incident from earlier in the episode, perhaps? Hell, maybe it's not the real police that showed up, you know...

And with a slam dunk that puts Ed Norton's in "American History X" to shame, Todd wins the state championship. He and Lisa then hug in the reflection of the championship trophy.

In the first of two post-show "Planeteer Alerts," Gaia (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg) tells viewers at homes they can't get AIDS from hugging or eating at the same cafeteria, and encourages kids to talk to their parents and teachers about the disease.

I'm not sure if I ever asked my mom about AIDS following Gaia's request, but if it did, I'm pretty sure the conversation would've gone a little something like this:

Eight-year-old me: "Mom, what do I need to know about AIDS?"

My Casually Racist Mom: "Stay away from black people and homos and you don't need to know nothing."

Eight-year-old me: *cries a little on the inside*

In the second PSA, the Planeteers do a bunch of track and field stuff, saying you need to be physically active and brave and shit to save the planet. Then, a dude who looks like Freddy Mercury shows up  and throws a shot put ball at Captain Planet, which then turns into a globe.

And...credits.

You know, there's probably a tactful way to discuss deadly, sexually-transmitted diseases with children, but I sure as hell wouldn't let the writers of the episode go anywhere near that little assignment.

For one thing, the AIDS victim in the show was a heterosexual white male .... statistically, the wrong categorizations all the way around. I suppose you could give the show props for letting a gay actor, Doogie Howser himself, voice the AIDS-infected main character, though.

On top of that, they really didn't seem to make HIV look like a disease at all; the guy didn't lose weight or develop lesions or get sick to any real extent. And man, did they ever drop the ball on AIDS prevention, with the show bringing up -- but never really celebrating -- safe sex or abstinence from needle drugs. And to me, the whole "he got AIDS from a transfusion" subplot was a million times freakier than it should have been -- wouldn't that make kids more afraid of going to the doctor or receiving transfusions themselves?

And considering the heavy celeb involvement with the show in general (this, being the same show that once featured Meg Ryan, Winnie Cooper AND Brundlefly), was I the only person expecting a Magic Johnson cameo? I mean, it's an episode about AIDS, basketball and erasing stigma; you'd think his appearance would be a no-brainer here.

However, I didn't think the show was really as bad I was expecting. Yeah, it was awkward as all hell for the most part, and the cartoony elements REALLY felt out of place with the way-too-realistic-for-most-viewers theme, but it wasn't that embarrassing. Granted, it was an attempt that never really should have gotten off the ground, but as far as animated train wrecks go, I don't think this one would really even bear mentioning as a disaster.

Still, I have to wonder what could've been, had other contemporary kids shows followed their lead on this one. An "Eek the Cat" special on Chlamydia? How about an episode of "Bobby's World" where Uncle Ted gets busted for molestation? Or maybe even A "Dog City" finale, touching upon the issue of euthanasia?

What a Pandora's box you could've opened, Mr. Planet. What a box, indeed...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The 50 Greatest Neo Geo Games of All Time! (Part Four: #20-#11)

Part four of a five-part series celebrating the best SNK and pals had to offer! 


HEY! Looking for other installments in the series? They can be found at the links below:

PART ONE: Counting down games #050 to #041
PART TWO: Counting down games #040 to #031
PART THREE: Counting down games #030 to #021

The Neo Geo is one of the most beloved consoles of all-time, and pretty much the definition of a gamer’s system. Originally released in arcade board form, the Neo Geo Multi Video System (MVS) delivered some of the absolute best coin-op titles of the 1990s, via an ingenious cartridge set-up that allowed gamers to play four different titles on one machine. With its impressive hardware specs, it provided gamers with some of the era’s most dazzling graphics, and introduced players the world over to such acclaimed franchises as Samurai Shodown, Metal Slug and Fatal Fury, not to mention tons of less heralded, underappreciated gems such as The Last Blade, Pulstar and Top Hunter. Not content with dominating arcade parlors, SNK also released the system as a high-powered (and absurdly expensive) home console, known as the Advanced Entertainment System (AES) which LITERALLY brought the arcade experience into players’ living rooms.

For almost 15 years, SNK and other developers published titles for the AES and MVS, giving it one of the absolute longest life spans of any console in gaming history. To commemorate the tenth anniversary of the console’s official retirement, THE INTERNET IS IN AMERICA is rolling out a special, five-part series, counting down the 50 greatest games to ever grace the Neo Geo.

Before we continue, a few notes about the criteria for the list:

001.) Both MVS and AES releases are eligible for the countdown. Unless explicitly stated, the versions of the games referred to on this list are the MVS iterations.

002.) Only official games, produced during the console’s original lifespan, are eligible. Sorry, homebrew enthusiasts.

003.) SNK games from the era, which were not released on the MVS or AES, are ineligible for this countdown. In short, that means no Neo Geo CD or Hyper Neo Geo 64 games are in the running.

004.) You know, a "Ragnagard vs. Sengoku" crossover would've been something. And that something is "pure shit," that's what.

With the fine print out of the way, who is ready to hop right into the countdown? All aboard, just say “S-N-K…”

Number 20:
Twinkle Star Sprites (1996)


Don’t let the cutesy visuals fool you -- this is a game that will kick your ass, and savagely. Not only is “Twinkle Star Sprites” one of the most inventive games on the Neo Geo, its easily one of the most intense as well.

The last game produced for the platform by developers ADK, “Twinkle Star Sprites” is a clever shoot ‘em up/competitive puzzle game hybrid. Like in “Puyo Puyo,” your ability to clear your own screen affects your adversary’s playing field, and vice-versa. The twist is, instead of solving block puzzles, you’re actually engaged in a SHMUP showdown, and believe you me, the vertically scrolling blasting can get hot and heavy, indeed.

This is actually a really strategic game, with enough technical nuance to put hardcore fighters like “Mark of the Wolves” to shame. The title includes a brilliant parrying system of sorts, which allows players to bat combo-linked fireball attacks back and forth -- trade enough times, and it actually summons an ungodly powerful boss creature to REALLY make things interesting. If you’re in search of an unorthodox multiplayer experience, then this is a truly innovative title you need to get your hands on ASAP.

Number 19:
Magical Drop III (1997)


Data East was easily the Neo Geo’s most valuable third party developer, and “Magical Drop III” isn’t just the venerable puzzle series’ best -- it’s without question the best game of its type to be found on the system.

Structurally, the “Magical Drop” games play quite a bit like “Bust-A-Move.” The difference, however, is two-fold. For starters, the game allows you to yank orbs from the playing field, instead of supplying you with balls from the get-go. This means you’ll find yourself constantly pulling down single bubbles and bursting similarly colored groupings -- it’s a game designed from the ground up to always have you on your toes.

The other variation, however, is what makes the “Magical Drop” series, and especially this superlative third outing, stand out so much -- the game’s tempo. Trust me, when I say the gameplay in this one is fast, I mean “Sonic commandeering a Indy car in Burnout 3” fast. Fierce multiplayer bouts have been known to lead to some minor carpal tunnel syndrome-like symptoms -- this, my friends, is about as hardcore as puzzle games can possibly get.

Number 18:
Top Hunter: Roddy & Cathy (1994)


There is just so much to love about this game that I don’t really know where to begin. Imagine, if you will, a magical combination of “Metal Slug,” “Bionic Commando,” “Shinobi” and “Rocket Knight Adventures.” Now, add to that some elements borrowed from “Mega Man,” “Ghosts N Goblins” and even a little bit of “Ristar,” and you have the core fundamentals behind “Top Hunter.”

“Top Hunter” is basically an early ‘90s arcade love-in, which actually predates some of the era’s most beloved 2D games. You get the mech suits from “Metal Slug,” the ability to hop in and out of the background like in “E-Swat,” and even pick up weird-ass props and use them to your own advantage like in “Double Dragon.” With stage design that rivals the best “Sonic” levels, not only is this a criminally underappreciated title you should’ve played years ago, it’s quite possibly one of the era’s most absurdly undervalued technical achievements, to boot.

This is really a fantastic platform/run and gun/side scrolling beat ’em up hybrid, with absolutely gorgeous character sprites and some of the era’s best animated backgrounds. With five absolutely gargantuan levels to choose from -- each filled with tons of sub-bosses and constantly changing game mechanics -- this is definitely one of the longer coin-op forays to make it to the Neo Geo. And did I tell you the game has some supremely awesome co-op play, as well?


Number 17:
World Heroes Perfect (1995)



A rather fitting title here: the game itself may not be perfect per se, but as far as “World Heroes” titles go, there’s none better than this mid ‘90s redux.

To be fair, the “World Heroes” franchise has always kind of been one of the redheaded stepchildren of the SNK fighting game family. With character designs and a globe hopping hook that strongly resembles another popular Clinton era brawler, a lot of coin-op enthusiasts tended to write the first two “World Heroes” games off, which is a real shame. This title is basically a hyper-polished re-release of “World Heroes 2,” with practically every character in the franchise included as a playable fighter. And yes, the game is pretty damn spectacular too, in case you were wondering.

The title plays a lot like “Street Fighter II” (shocking, I know), with really good backdrops, some pretty awesome animations and character sprites that are a lot more detailed than most genre games from the timeframe. The gameplay is rock solid, with every character looking -- and playing -- distinctively, from the sword-wielding Joan of Arc rip-off to the razor-gloved Jack the Ripper punk-rocker to the kinda’ racist Tiki warrior to the evil football player from hell to the two guys that play just like Ken and Ryu, right down to the palette swapped clothing. It’s a bit simplistic compared to the other heavy hitters on the Neo Geo, but there is no denying this one is a flat out great game in its own right.


Number 16:
SVC Chaos: SNK vs. Capcom (2003)


At some point, you’ve probably played one of the “Capcom vs. SNK” games before. Outside of a Neo Geo Pocket Color offering (which, by the way, is one of the greatest handheld games of all-time), this early 2000s offering is the sole SNK-produced crossover brawler to also feature “Street Fighter II” stalwarts.

With Playmore taking over the reins, “SVC Chaos” is a real hoot and a half to play. It’s so bizarre -- and of course, awesome -- to see characters like M. Bison and Balrog drawn up in the inimitable SNK style. And man, you haven’t seen “crazy” until you’ve seen a Hugo on Earthquake showdown in this game!

The animations are great, the gameplay is fantastic  (its basically running on the “King of Fighters 2002” engine) and the cast of characters is really tremendous. You could argue that there’s perhaps a bit of an over sampling of “Street Fighter” characters and an under serving of “Samurai Shodown” cast members, but overall, there’s hardly anything to complain about in this one at all. And be prepared for some downright astounding cameos, featuring such weirdoes as “The Art of Fighting’s” Serious Mr. Karate, the Mars People from “Metal Slug,” Mega Man’s Zero, and the ULTIMATE fighting game final boss -- the little red gargoyle asshole from “Ghosts N Goblins!”

Number 15:
Fatal Fury Special (1993)


With so many fighting games on the market, how do you make a game that stands out? While most developers turned towards sensational and gimmicky hooks (namely, through fatalities, semi-nudity and the occasional dinosaur-themed brawler), SNK knew what few others ever understood: you’ve got to have a deep, nuanced fighting system, and on top of that, a game with plenty of character.

SNK really took the “character” part to heart, with “Fatal Fury Special” a beefed up re-do of the already pretty damn great “Fatal Fury 2.” The game contains 15 characters, all of whom are aesthetically interesting and, much more importantly, diverse in fighting technique. All of the fighters in “Mortal Kombat” pretty much played alike, but in this game, there is a WORLD of difference between taking on Duck King, Geese Howard or Big Bear. Before “Virtua Fighter,” this game was pretty much the closest the fighting world got to a somewhat respectable simulation fighter (uh…just ignore the occasional fireball, though.)

So, let’s see: you have a ton of fighters, all with distinct move sets, who are beautifully animated, in conjunction with truly interesting backdrops and a combat system that’s among the absolute best in the genre. Skip the watered down console ports -- you need to experience this one the way it was intended, on actual Neo Geo hardware.


Number 14:
The King of Fighters ‘99 (1998)


Although the inclusion of “striker” characters is a rather controversial one, I think “KOF ‘99” is still one of the better entries in what may very well be SNK’s marquee franchise.

As with  the previous installments in the series, this game is anchored around three-on-three team battles. The cast for this one includes a who’s who of “Fatal Fury” and “Art of Fighting” standouts, as well as  few new additions. Alike “Insert Property vs. Capcom,” you get to build your own team from scratch, and as expected, the combat here is downright exquisite.

To me, this was this last truly great crossover fighter SNK released (not counting “SVC Chaos,” of course.) The animations were beautiful, the combat system was just about pitch perfect and even the backgrounds looked incredible (although I have to wonder what the hell is going on at the Chinese restaurant -- is that a silhouette of a man beating a cat to death?) From here, the series was just spinning in its wheels, in my humblest of opinions -- if you’re looking for “KOF” apex, I reckon this title right here is the peak of the mountain.

Number 13:
Spinmaster (1993)


Known as “Miracle Adventures” in Japan, this was Data East’s first game released for the Neo Geo, and it’s definitely one of the company’s best, as well. Playing similarly to “Joe and Mac,” with characters that appear to be culled from the forgotten Genesis gem “Dashin’ Desperadoes,” this game is a merger of underrated genre classics -- fittingly enough, becoming a much revered unsung platformer itself over the last few years.

The gameplay is very simplistic, yet satisfying. You travel from stage to stage -- which are all exquisitely animated -- and mow down wave after wave of henchmen, using all sorts of neat weapons: yo-yos, bombs, laser ninja stars and good old fashioned fireballs are all at your disposal. The character sprites are downright gorgeous, and the solid platforming gameplay -- highlighted by some excellently designed levels -- makes this one an absolute blast to play through, solo or with a buddy.

If you are a fan of intense platformer/run and gun hybrids a’la “Metal Slug” and “Gunstar Heroes,” you definitely owe it to yourself to give “Spinmaster” a try. Not only is it one of the genre’s greatest undiscovered offerings, it’s definitely one of the best games of its type, period.

Number 12:
Pulstar (1995)


Prior to this game, developer Aicom was probably best known for the "Zaxxon"-inspired “Viewpoint,” which I’d consider to be one of the more overrated titles to appear on the Neo Geo. That said, “Pulstar” is an absolutely marvelous game, and one of the best SHMUPS to come out during the mid-1990s.

The game is sort of a cross between “Einhander” and “R-Type.” The graphics are essentially 2.5D, with some really impressive graphical effects throughout. You have the ability to charge your shots for extra damage, and of course, there are TONS of upgrades for your warship. There are only four stages, but they are fairly long, and holy hell, do they look visually astounding. Each and every boss fight in “Pulstar” would probably qualify as an end-boss in any other genre game from the era.

The only thing holding this game back, in my opinion, is the length. Since it’s not exactly the toughest SHMUP out there, I found myself easily blasting through this one in under half an hour (which means, as an aside,  you can listen to “Pinkerton” all the way through during a speed run.) Granted, it’s one hell of half-hour while it lasts, but sadly, “Pulstar” just leaves you wanting more, in the worst possible way.

Number 11:
The Last Blade (1997)


At first glance, “The Last Blade” doesn’t seem all that different from “Samurai Shodown.” A feudal Japanese setting, huge, gorgeously animated sprites and, most apparently, characters wielding melee weapons? To the uninitiated, the game would appear to be an instance of SNK imitating itself.

Of course, “The Last Blade” is far from a “Samurai Shodown” rehash. Ultimately, the game plays more like a combination of “Fatal Fury” and “Virtua Fighter,” with the graphics and core combat system culled from SNK’s other sword-and-sandal ass kicker.

The gameplay really sets this one apart from its competitors. While most fighting games form the late 1990s were all about flashiness (see just about any “vs. Capcom” game for validation of this claim), “The Last Blade” is a refreshingly subdued title. The backgrounds are subtle, yet beautiful, and the underscored music is downright stellar. As stated earlier, it’s the combat system that makes this one a must-play; with a clever “speed vs. power” mechanic in place and a diverse array of brawlers (who all have their own range and weight weaknesses and strengths), this is easily one of the most cerebral fighting games of all-time.