Thursday, August 29, 2013

The 50 Greatest Sega CD Games of All-Time! (PART FIVE -- #010 to #001)

A Five-Part Countdown of the Greatest Games the Sega CD Had to Offer!

Hey You! Looking for the Previous Installments in this Series?

PART ONE, counting down games #050 to #041, can be found right here.
PART TWO, counting down games #040 to #031, can be found right here.
PART THREE, counting down games #030 to #021, can be found right here.
PART FOUR, counting down games #020 to #011, can be found right here.
PART FIVE, counting down games #010 to #01, can be found right here

For what it’s worth the Sega CD (known as the Mega CD in Europe) might just be the single most underrated console in the history of video gaming. Considered a proverbial laughingstock by gamers that have hardly spent any time at all with the system, the Sega CD was actually a pretty damn good little console, stocked with plenty of killer console exclusives, graphically and musically superior special editions of 16-bit classics, and even a couple of standout genre offerings that, sadly, have become outmoded in today’s all-too-familiar virtual world. Come on, you know you miss side scrolling shoot ‘em ups and digital comic books as much as I do…

After tackling a list of the best the Sega Dreamcast had to offer, I thought long and hard about which console I wanted to focus on for my next countdown. Seeing as how the unsung, unheralded Sega CD generally gets about as much recognition and praise as gonorrhea, I figured the criminally underappreciated console was absolutely perfect the “Top 50” treatment. For those of you that had the honor of owning and playing through some of these classic games (many of which remain under-the-radar gems to this day), consider this a fond recollection and celebration of what once was, and for all of you young whippersnappers that equate the console with “pure fail?” Something tells me that’s a tune you’re going to change in a hurry after seeing everything you’ve missed out on.

As for the criteria for the list, I was pretty lax and subjective. Ever the jingoistic American that I am, I decided that only games that were given North American releases, while the Sega CD was still in production, should qualify as candidates, so no obscure-ass Japan-only SHMUPs or home-brew RPGs some dude made in his basement in 2008 are in contention here.

As always, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own, and your list would surely differ. That said, whose ready to take things to THE NEXT LEVEL?

Earthworm Jim: Special Edition

In a sea of pale Mario and Sonic imitators, “Earthworm Jim” stood out as one of the more remarkable platformers from the 16-bit era. With awesome action that rivaled the likes of “Contra III” and “Gunstar Heroes,” not to mention the title’s trademark irreverent humor, “Earthworm Jim” was easily one of the best cross-platform titles from the era, and if you’re itching to play the absolute best version of the game out there, it appears as if you’re going to need to get yourself a Sega CD ASAP. 

“Earthworm Jim” on the Sega CD truly is a “special edition,” with improved visuals and better animation than its 16-bit precursors. That, and it has an all new soundtrack, which as expected, is freaking marvelous. AND THEN there are the levels, which have been completely redesigned to be longer, more challenging and more secret-packed. Oh, and did I mention that they give you an all new weapon to toy around with, in addition to a completely new, built-from-the-ground up stage that you won’t find on any other console? Not only is the Sega CD iteration of the game the most impressive “Earthworm Jim” out there, it’s also the lengthiest and most fun to blast through.

The only downside here are the load times, which can be a bit excessive. Other than that, you really can’t complain about ANYTHING in the game, be it the terrific visuals, the fantastic music, the hilarious character exchanges, the tremendous controls or the super-memorable boss battles. And the “secret” ending where a narrator runs down a list of “facts” about actual earthworms? It’s a work of post-post-modern genius.

The Amazing Spider-Man vs. The Kingpin

If you ever owned a Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, you probably played “The Amazing Spider-Man.” It was one of the absolute best Sega Genesis games, and to this day, considered one of the absolute best Spider-Man games ever (hell, in my opinion, it STILL is.) Now, how do you make that already awesome title even more awesome? Well, how about starting by completely beefing up the game with levels that are easily twice (maybe even three times) larger than the game worlds in the previous title? And on top of that, how about adding a hard rocking soundtrack by Mr. Big (yes, THAT Mr. Big!) and atop that, some all new animated cut-scenes, tons of new missions, a couple of new boss fights and redesigned stages? 

Clearly, this game truly lives up to its self-imposed moniker “Amazing,” and then some. While the Genesis version was more or less a linear side-scrolling action game, this title is actually something of a free-roaming title, with a HUGE map of New York City to explore. You traverse from mission to mission, ultimately confronting an all-time classic list of Spidey rogues, including Doctor Octopus, Venom, The Lizard and of course, The Kingpin. Hell, you even get to throw down with some foes that weren’t in the Genesis game, including Bullseye and Typhoid Mary!

Pretty much everything in the game is spectacular. The controls are tremendous, the visuals are outstanding, the animation is top-notch, the music is great, and the gameplay, while challenging as all hell, is still quite accessible. That, and it even throws in a few neat addendums, including a super-addictive pinball mini-game that will suck more hours out of your Sega CD than most full-fledged games. If you ask me, not only is this one of the best Sega CD games ever, it’s far and away the greatest Spider-Man game ever created; if you’re a fan of either Ol’ Webhead or awesome action games in general, this is a game you simply MUST experience.  

Popful Mail: Magical Fantasy Adventure

“Popful Mail” is a truly wonderful game, a delightful action RPG/platformer hybrid with some of the best cut scenes on the Sega CD, an absolute ton of voice acting, incredible music and of course, utterly fantastic gameplay. Produced by Working Designs -- perhaps the most important developer on the console --“Popful” is, at once, instantly accessible and something completely different from the norm. It truly is one of the best games on the system, and really, one of the most underrated platformer games of the early 1990s. 

The presentation in the game is really well done. At the time, how the game fused dialogue into the actual gameplay was pretty uncommon, and the incorporated role playing game elements -- like selling items for weapon upgrades -- was actually an aberration for contemporary platformers. The title is also one of the lengthier games to be found on the console, and additionally one of the most challenging. Take heed, novice gamers; despite the game’s cutesy animation and character design, this thing is “Ninja Gaiden” levels of difficult. 

There’s a ton of stuff to explore in the game, and as stated earlier, it will probably take you a pretty long time before your skills are advanced enough to fully conquer it. The graphics and music may not be revolutionary, but the solid-as-a-rock gameplay (not to mention the dynamite presentation) is enough to keep you glued to your console for as long as this majestic journey will take you. Copies of the game today are pretty rare (and are likely to cost you more than an arm and a leg online), but if you luck up and find a used copy at a yard sale or a local thrift shop? If you DON’T pick this one up, you’ll be kicking yourself for the rest of your life.


Forget “Star Fox,” THIS was the best polygonal space-shooter of the 16-bit-era. Game Arts’ “Silpheed” is an absolutely phenomenal pseudo-3D vertically scrolling SHMUP, with tremendous visuals, amazing music, excellent voiceover and controls that are smoother than a well polished ice cube. 

In some ways, I’d be secure in calling “Silpheed” something of a update to “Zaxxon,” aka, the arcade game that put Sega on the map way back when. The effects in this game were completely mind-blowing at the time, with HUGE polygonal spaceships floating by your teeny little fighter while literally hundreds of neon colored bullets swirled around you. The game is just so pretty to look at; odds are, the first couple of times you play it, you’ll end up getting whacked because you can’t keep your eyes off the game’s beautiful backdrops. The vacancy of space isn’t that vacant in “Silpheed” -- even today, some of the levels, including a fantastic, “2001”-esque warp speed level and a concluding dogfight through a Death Star facsimile, are just breathtaking to experience.

There may not be that much variety in the core gameplay mechanics of the title, but trust me, you won’t be complaining about the lack of upgradable weapons by the time you are weaving your spaceship in and out of floating space islands and blasting through a polygonal jungle. All in all, this is just a fantastic, cutting-edge arcade experience  -- a simple, albeit wildly innovative and, most importantly of all, extremely enjoyable space shooting sim that all self-respecting Sega CD owners ought to have in their collections. 

Shining Force CD 

What’s better than a hyper-addictive, content-loaded tactical RPG developed by Camelot? How about FOUR hyper-addictive, content-loaded tactical RPGs developed by Camelot! 

“Shining Force CD” has a fairly strange pedigree. The first two game included on the set are actually high-gloss “ports” of two really awesome Game Gear titles, (“Shining Force Gaiden”,which never got a release in the U.S., and “Shining Force: The Sword of Hayja” if you really need the specifics.) The inclusion of those two games -- given the obvious graphical and audio upgrades -- would probably be enough to earn this game a spot in the top ten, but it’s the inclusion of two additional games -- a full fledged, feature-length sequel to “The Sword of Hayja" and an entertaining bookend that allows you to re-fight some of the series’ most memorable foes -- that really makes this game worth going out of one’s way to experience. 

This is just a remarkable title, all around. The graphics are terrific (although the limited animation may turn off some) and the music is positively stellar. Of course, the meat and potatoes here is the solid turn-based strategy combat and involving storyline -- and I assure you, what “Shining Force CD” gives you in both categories is MORE than enough to satisfy any hardcore RPG fan. To conclude? On a console loaded with some stellar RPG experiences  (a fact that is strangely overlooked in the gaming media), this is perhaps the absolute best of the best of what the Sega CD had to offer. 

Robo Aleste

If you ever owned a Sega Genesis or Nintendo Entertainment System, at some point, you probably played a game developed by Compile. That’s the company responsible for some of the absolute best SHMUPS and SHMUP hybrids on the NES (games like “Gun-Nac,” “Zanac” and “The Guardian Legend,” among them) and what is routinely considered the absolute best SHMUP on the Genesis, “M.U.S.H.A.”  Calling “Robo Aleste” a special edition version of “M.U.S.H.A.” is both appropriate and a little misleading, but if that notion doesn’t get your trigger fingers itching a bit, you my friend, are probably lacking a pulse (or else, you don’t know shit about shoot ‘em ups. One or the other, I suppose.)

Simply put, “Robo Aleste” is 2D, 16-bit, horizontal-scrolling action at its finest. Personally, I still tend to view “M.U.S.H.A.” as a better overall experience, but as a stand alone offering? There’s no denying that “Robo Aleste” is the best of the best when it comes to Sega CD genre offerings, and next to “M.U.S.H.A.,” it probably is the best overall SHMUP from the timeframe. 

The visuals are crisp and clear while the sprites are detailed and well-animated. The soundtrack, this weird-ass techno-grocery-store-stock-audio-sounding stuff, if a little unorthodox, but it actually gels quite well with the gameplay. The gameplay is more or less identical to “M.U.S.H.A.,” with a few tweaks here and there; clearly, Compile didn’t really have to reinvent the wheel when it came to gameplay, and they wisely stuck with what works here. Unlike “M.U.S.H.A.,” however, the game actually has a bona-fide story, and I believe the “cruel” difficulty setting is much, much more challenging than the highest difficulty setting on the Genesis forerunner. Without question, this is one of the best titles to be found on the Sega CD, and for SHMUP fans? It’s probably reason enough to own the console. 


Even gamers that have never laid eyes on a Sega CD console are quite fond of “Snatcher,” if just for the fact that it was Hideo Kojima’s first opportunity to bring his wild-ass, semi-cinematic story-telling ideas to a home console. While clearly laying the groundwork for more narrative-heavy games like “Metal Gear Solid,” “Snatcher” is really an entirely different beast in terms of gameplay, more or less serving as  a “digital comic” ala “Rise of the Dragon.” And alike “Rise of the Dragon,” this game, ahem, borrows quite a bit from “Blade Runner,” albeit with that unique, Kojima-style kookiness turning the title into a one-of-a-kind experience. It’s pretty much incontestable; there isn’t a better narrative to be found on the Sega CD, and really, early '90s gaming, than this game right here. 

“Snatcher” is something of an adventure title, with your character (the semi-iconic Gillian Seed) roaming around a futuristic metropolis, alongside his trusty robotic companion, “Metal Gear.” Yeah, I have no idea where that namesake came from, either. As far as basic gameplay goes, it’s quite familiar material; option boxes pop up on screen that allot certain actions (look, drive, open, etc.), and triggering the right “clues” allows you to advance the storyline. And for those of you looking for a meaty experience, there is A LOT of story in “Snatcher,” making this one of the longest experiences to be found on the Sega CD. If you’re looking for the anathema of the 40 minute long FMV game, “Snatcher” is probably about as diametrically polar as you can get. 

The presentation in the game is simply fantastic. The cutscene animation is outstanding, and the voice acting is perhaps the absolute finest to be found on the console. The controls are quite fluid (although the sometimes static gameplay may put off some of the ADD gamers out there), and once again, you really can’t argue about the inherent greatness of the game’s plotline. Simply put, “Snatcher” was a game that was at least one console generation ahead of its time, and a comprehensively awesome experience that all serious Sega aficionados would be wise to explore. Trust me; there’s a reason why 20 years later, hardcore fans are STILL clamoring for a “Snatcher” sequel…

Sonic the Hedgehog CD

A lot of people consider Sonic’s only foray on the Sega CD to be the absolute best “Sonic the Hedgehog” game ever. While I tend to disagree (“Sonic 3” FOREVER rules this world), there’s no denying that it’s one of the best Sonic games ever, and easily the best platform game to be released on the criminally neglected console.

If you don’t know how “Sonic” games wok by now, you’ve probably been a prisoner of war since Grenada. The gameplay here is about as simplistic as it gets -- you hop, bop, run and occasionally tear through enemies like a power saw -- on a quest to save your girlfriend, who, in this scenario, is a bright pink rodent. Yeah, the game probably won’t win any points for an original premise, but the execution is so goddamn incredible that you really can’t criticize any aspect of the game. It’s just a straight-up, through-and-through excellent platformer, with terrific music (even if most fan boys agree that the Japanese/European version had the superior soundtrack) and terrific visuals, especially when you hop into the pseudo 3D bonus road race stages.

The stages are very well designed and the game incorporates a lot of neat effects -- for example, when you run through a loop-de-loop, the camera shifts to a second person, Sonic’s-Eye-View and towards the final stage, your character can actually be shrunken down to near microscopic levels (thus, making the platforming terrain appear downright ginormous.) While most of the stages are more or less rehashes of previous Sonic locales, there are so many cool addendums to the level layout that just walking around in the game is a sheer delight. All in all, this is a downright beautiful game, with virtually pitch-perfect gameplay and visuals that, to this day, are absolutely breathtaking. Not only is this a highwater mark for the Sega CD, it truly is one of the absolute best platforming experiences in the annals of video gaming. 

Championship Soccer ‘94

I was real late to the party on this one, and trust me: if you’re a hardcore gamer, especially a footy fanatic, this is one hidden gem you absolutely NEED to experience.

While this game is virtually unheard of in America, if you’re a European reader, you no doubt know all there is to know about this game, which was called “Sensible Soccer” over in the PAL region. A universally beloved offering in the Common Market nations, most U.S. gamers have never heard of “Championship Soccer ‘94,” which is a downright shame: not only is this a solid candidate for absolute best soccer game ever, it might just be one of the top ten video games to be released throughout the 1990s altogether. 

“Championship Soccer ‘94,” on the surface, looks pretty minimalist. The sprites are nowhere near as detailed as they are in some of the 16-bit FIFA games, but what the game lacks in aesthetics it MORE than makes up for in solid gameplay. Contemporary gamers will likely be astounded by just how much the game offers you, from the staggering number of teams, coaching options and game modes. What “Tecmo Super Bowl” is to American football, this game is to, uh, non-American football, I suppose -- an infinitely enjoyable, simplistic-yet-irresistibly addictive sports sim that’s nigh impossible to put down. For North American gamers, this is definitely the best iteration of the title out there…a pretty penny, it may cost you, but I assure you, this is a game you will be playing A LOT as the years chug along. 

And the moment of truth arrives! Of the 200 or so games that were released on the Sega CD in the U.S. region, if you’re looking for the absolute BEST the console had to offer, there is absolutely NO denying which piece of software you should have permanently wedged into your disc drive. Ladies and gents, I present to you the GREATEST SEGA CD GAME OF ALL-TIME…











NHL ‘94

For my money, "NHL '94" on the Sega CD is the single greatest video game ever made, on any platform. If I was exiled to a desert island -- which, for reasons we don't really need to get into, has electricity -- with just a CRT-TV, a home console of my choosing, and one video game to play for all eternity, THIS is the game I'd take with me. It's not just 16-bit, old-school sim-hockey greatness, its interactive entertainment at its absolute zenith. Yeah, that seems mildly hyperbolic, but if you've ever played the game -- and you love yourself some early '90s hockey -- than you'll know its an utterance made in anything but jest. 

When you look at a list of games commonly cited as the "best ever," you'll usually note a recurring pattern; that those games, as great as they are, are the same experience every time you play them. As good as "Ocarina of Time" and "Super Mario Bros. 3" and "Super Metroid" may be, the games are virtually identical every time you play them. The sprites will always be in the same places, and the bosses will always follow the same attack patterns, and the special items will always be hidden in the exact same place. What makes games like "Tecmo Super Bowl," "Sensible Soccer" and, most certainly, "NHL '94" so fantastic is that they are entirely different experiences every time you play them. Thanks to snappy AI -- not to mention the factor of human err -- no two games of "NHL '94" ever play out identically.

If you never played "NHL '94" on the Genesis -- a game already considered godlike by most 16-bit gaming aficionado -- the Sega CD iteration is more or less the same game in terms of visuals and gameplay. Trust me, that is a HUGE positive, seeing as how the graphics were already quite crisp and the game mechanics nigh perfect in cartridge form. What makes "NHL '94" on the Sega CD the superior version, and again, the greatest game of all-time IMO, is the beefed up audio, complete with an all new theme song and full on voice acting from Ron Barr (who spends literally six minutes doing pre-game comparisons before every match-up). The goal sounds, the roar of the crowd, the on-ice grunts; the improved sound design makes the game that much more enjoyable and intense, turning what is already an all-time masterpiece into a game that can easily be considered THE all-time masterpiece in terms of virtual ice hockey. Granted, the loading times can be a bit pesky, but trust me; considering the high production values and presentation in this game, it's well worth the minuscule waiting periods.

In many ways, "NHL '94" embodies everything that was great about the Sega CD. While neither really did anything that new -- and there are much more similarities with each's 16-bit forerunner than there are differences -- there's no denying that the hardware and software in question took full advantage of the miniature upgrade in terms of audio and graphical horsepower, turning what were already legendary 16-bit experiences into awesome, special-featured-loaded collector's editions of some of the best games ever produced. All in all, the wheel may have not been re-invented with either the hardware or the software, but at the same time? You can say that this version of"NHL 94", and the Sega CD itself to some extent, no doubt perfected an already exquisite 16-bit experience.

And what a pity it was that so few people ever got to experience that perfection, either...

It's still our hearts. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

Homosexual Hypocrisy?

Are Gay Rights Activists Ignoring the Human Rights Violations of Others to Further Their Own Self-Interests? 

Three recent stories demonstrate something fairly striking about the modern gay rights movement. First, of course, is the call to boycott the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, because of Russia’s highly-discriminatory, anti-gay legislation. Another entails the saga of Bradley Manning -- the self-identified gay soldier that handed over hundreds of thousands of confidential military records to an Australian hacktivist/Ron Paul supporter who may or may not be prone to nonconsensual sexual adventuring. And lastly, there’s the detention of David Miranda, the lover of Glenn Greenwald -- a guy with connections to Ed Snowden -- by U.K officials, on suspicions that sound an awful lot drummed up terror charges.

There’s a lot of outrage behind all three stories, and for good reason. But at the same time, there’s something awfully peculiar about the gay rights lobby’s reactions to said news -- in short, it seems as if these horrific displays of human rights violations are only worth crusading against because the victimized, in these instances are…well, gay.

Case in point: is it somewhat odd that gay rights lobbyists are calling for a mass boycott of Russia solely because of persecutory anti-gay legislation? Since the fall of communism, the Russian state is one that’s been absolutely besieged by confirmed accounts of prisoner torture, rampant ethnic minority abuses, deplorable orphanage conditions, violation of children's rights laws, absolutely insane military scandals, not to mention widespread judicial corruption, a completely rotten economic system that favors mobsters and oligarchs, a “free press” that’s seen 50 journalists murdered over the last 20 years, in addition to wide scale human trafficking and a national psychiatric system that involuntarily commits THOUSANDS of dissidents on make-believe conditions?  Needless to say, Russia is a festering bin of human rights violations for practically EVERYBODY whose last name isn’t “Putin,” but it appears as if these trifling inconveniences really didn’t matter until LGBT folks in Stalin’s old stomping grounds got the short end of some unfavorable legislation.

The Bradley Manning case has transformed from being a story about national security measures and military standards (irony of ironies, if “DADT” hadn’t been repealed, it’s unlikely that the cyber-security leak would have happened at all) to being this bizarre transgender rights case. Less concerned, the media seems to be, about the fates of Lawrence Franklin, Kenneth Wayne Ford, Jr., Thomas Andrews Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Stephen Jin-Woo Kim and John Kyriako -- all of whom have been formally charged with violations under the Espionage Act, whom additionally, never got front paged on The Huffington Post while dressed in drag, either.

You’ll hear a TON of furor over the temporary detaining of David Miranda, but you probably won’t hear a peep about the more than 70 journalists imprisoned by Turkish authorities since 2008. Nor will you hear much clamor from the gay rights crowd about Yunis Khatayer Abbas, a journalist that had the dual pleasure of being tortured by Saddam Hussein and THEN getting held in Abu Gharib by U.N forces during the Second Iraq War. Similarly, you probably won’t be hearing about the imprisonment of Rachid Niny, Ali Mahmoud Othman or Abdulelah Haider Shaye, either. Of course, that’s due to one thing, and one thing only -- those names are really, really hard to spell.

I’ve heard several organizations call the modern gay rights movement the most important civil rights battle of our generation. More directly, I’ve heard every gay rights organization call the modern gay rights movement the most important battle of our generation. In that, is it too much to at least muse the idea that some of the gay rights crusaders out there are simply advocating for their own interests, with absolutely no concerns about the plights of other marginalized peoples?

In terms of civil rights, the number of things that are largely off-limits to LGBT individuals is quite scant. In short, I totally, 100 percent believe that gay people should be allowed to marry, and if one of the parties is entitled to federal benefits that would behoove the spouse of a “straight” beneficiary, I completely believe that their spouses should receive the same entitlements. Of course, that also brings up another, less heralded area of discrimination, which entails the systematic prejudices against single people of all orientations and leanings. Morally, why should two homosexual, married partners receive health insurance benefits that me and my unmarried heterosexual partner do not? Are they more in love than us and therefore more deserving of social benefits, or is it simply an unstated ploy to encourage civil unions (which not only bonds two intervals in holy matrimony, but a joint checkbook, too?) Similarly, I believe that gay couples should be allowed to adopt children, pending they pass the exact same litany of tests and pre-adoption exams that heteronormative couples take. That said, there’s still no legitimate body of research out there demonstrating any discernable outcomes -- be they better, or worse -- for children raised by gay parents as opposed to heterosexual ones. What we DO know for a fact, though, is that gender identity is greatly impacted by early childhood experiences with a mother and father, so…yeah, like I said, there’s not a legitimate body of research out there to lead us one way or the other. Furthermore, I believe that gay people shouldn’t be discriminated in education or the workplace SOLELY because of their sexual orientation -- but then again, that’s really more of “right to work” issue than it is a solid LGBT issue, since half the states in the union have employment laws on their respective books that grant employers the basic right to fire anyone for any goddamn reason they like, and there’s more or less nothing the recently fired can do about  it in the legal sense.

Outside of those areas, however, I really can’t think of any instances in which LGBT Americans are being deprived of their civil liberties and basic human rights. Eventually, a day in America will pass when gays DO have the uniform right to marry, and adopt children and have tightly-weaved anti-workplace discrimination legislation favoring them. And from that point on, what systematic, institutional prejudices will be facing them?

In essence, nothing. No one is truly criminalized for being gay in these United States anymore, nor is any gay individual's standard civil liberties to associate, vote, gather, disseminate literature or protest any more restrictive than the measures taken against heterosexual individuals. As stated in “After the Ball” -- the book that more or less serves as the “Rules for Radicals” for the modern gay rights movement -- the battle at the current isn’t so much a civil one as it is a cultural one.

You’ll hear a lot of allegedly “anti-gay” organizations spout off about something called “The Homosexual Agenda.” It’s something routinely rebuffed by the media, but going back to “After the Ball,” there very much appears to be a definitive homosexual agenda postulated by its authors:

The now quarter-century old treatise pretty much describes the process by which the contemporary U.S. gay rights movement shifted from the pell-mell ACT-UP tactics of the early 1990s all the way up to today’s hyper-accepting, “Glee” culture, where mediocre athletes are praised as national heroes for merely letting every one know that the enjoy a different kind of sex than an estimated 96 percent of the populace. To say that the tract has been successfully employed appears to a foul understatement; after all, we do live in a society where Spider-Man wants some interracial man-loving and the cultural embodiment of evil -- amidst all the gangsters and corrupt politicians and heartless corporate figureheads and remorseless killers in U.S. culture -- has become a withered Kansan pastor, who in a past life, was an NAACP-praised civil rights hero.

To some capacity, it would be insincere to state that there isn’t a gay contingent out there that isn’t attempting to co-opt the totality of U.S. culture to further their own self-interests. The debate about gay rights, in essence, has become a hyper-polarized battle that’s already been won by the adherents of “After the Ball” -- Generation Y is overwhelmingly supportive of gay rights, and they’ve effectively marginalized those opposed to gay civil liberties to the political fringes. That’s really an astounding feat, especially considering how just 20 years ago, there were actual discussions about quarantining gay people with AIDS.

With fluctuating degrees of accuracy, a lot of conservative alarmists are somewhat correct in their assertions that pro-gay organizations, to a certain extent, are attempting to silence oppositional voices -- using strategies that are almost verbatim tactics suggested by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen. The fight for gay civil liberties, I think, are pretty much inarguable battles worth waging; of course gay people deserve the same civic rights and governmental safeguards as heterosexuals. The big moral dilemma, however is this: is the LGBT movement for cultural affirmation an equally laudable undertaking?

The entire idea of culturally enforced affirmation just rings Orwellian to me, and frankly, mildly fascistic. Criminal liabilities for “hate speech?” Completely suffocating dissenting opinion, by caricaturizing the opposition as slobbering madmen? Completely rearranging the language to promote one’s own identity politicking? Supporting a definition of gender and sexual identity that ONLY acknowledges a social constructionist view, while completely disregarding irrefutable, genetic realities? Promoting a biological deterministic origin for human attributes -- when the jury is still out on the environmental influences on human sexuality -- and accusing those that have the audacity to believe that early developmental experiences may influence one’s traits and characteristics in the long haul as being pseudo-scientific?

In terms of total numbers and degrees of marginalization, an argument can be made that gays may indeed be overrepresented culturally. According to Gallup estimates, the entire gay spectrum -- covering homosexuals, lesbians, transgender/transsexual, bisexual AND intersex individuals -- makes up just 4.3 percent of the entire U.S. population. Nearly the same percentage of the populace, however, has a major gambling problem -- and of course, their plight and quest for public awareness is hardly recognized at all by popular culture. Along that same vein, nearly twice as many Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, yet cultural advocacy for their causes remain infinitesimal when compared to the massive social support of the contemporary gay rights movement.

Six times as many Americas have a major alcohol problem than there are LGBT Americans, but their cultural representation -- and social support -- is nowhere near is massive as the cultural gay rights movement. 26.2 percent of all Americans suffer from mental health disorders, and alike the 4.3 LGBT Americans, they too are denied civil rights -- such as parental custody and the right to adoption. Meanwhile, cultural advocacy to allot more liberties to those with mental illnesses is nowhere near as strong as the cultural crusade for LGBT rights, despite the former being 7.7 times larger than the latter.

Absolutely dwarfing the nation’s LGBT population -- in terms of numbers and social urgency, however -- is the downright shocking number of Americans that either live in poverty or low-income categorizations -- a sum that adds up to 48 percent of the entire U.S. population. While the LGBT movement has garnered nearly unanimous support from Gen Y, a widespread movement supporting the absolutely pivotal economic needs of the nation’s underclass has yet to even materialize, despite the fact that homeless Americans are subject to greater individualized and institutionalized prejudices than LGBT individuals…after all, in several major American cities, the state of being homeless itself has been turned into a criminal act.

Do LGBT activists have every right in the world to rally for their own interests? Absolutely, and I applaud the movement for its remarkable civil rights achievements. But at the same time, I can’t help but wag my finger at the movement’s excesses, especially the tendency for LGBT advocates to completely overlook the denied civil rights and liberties of others, many of whom are even more marginalized -- socially and especially economically -- than they are.

There’s no denying that the LGBT cause has some serious clout, with heavy financiers and a near totality of today’s kids throwing support behind the movement. And with all of that power and popularity, would it really hurt them to take the emphasis off themselves, and acknowledge the plight and marginalization of others, too?

Friday, August 23, 2013

The 50 Greatest Sega CD Games of All-Time! (PART FOUR -- #020 to #011)

A Five Part Countdown of the Greatest Games the Sega CD Had to Offer!

Hey You! Looking for the Previous Installments in this Series?

PART ONE, counting down games #050 to #041, can be found right here.
PART TWO, counting down games #040 to #031, can be found right here.
PART THREE, counting down games #030 to #021, can be found right here.
PART FOUR, counting down games #020 to #011, can be found right here.
PART FIVE, counting down games #010 to #01, can be found right here

For what it’s worth the Sega CD (known as the Mega CD in Europe) might just be the single most underrated console in the history of video gaming. Considered a proverbial laughingstock by gamers that have hardly spent any time at all with the system, the Sega CD was actually a pretty damn good little console, stocked with plenty of killer console exclusives, graphically and musically superior special editions of 16-bit classics, and even a couple of standout genre offerings that, sadly, have become outmoded in today’s all-too-familiar virtual world. Come on, you know you miss side scrolling shoot ‘em ups and digital comic books as much as I do…

After tackling a list of the best the Sega Dreamcast had to offer, I thought long and hard about which console I wanted to focus on for my next countdown. Seeing as how the unsung, unheralded Sega CD generally gets about as much recognition and praise as gonorrhea, I figured the criminally underappreciated console was absolutely perfect the “Top 50” treatment. For those of you that had the honor of owning and playing through some of these classic games (many of which remain under-the-radar gems to this day), consider this a fond recollection and celebration of what once was, and for all of you young whippersnappers that equate the console with “pure fail?” Something tells me that’s a tune you’re going to change in a hurry after seeing everything you’ve missed out on.

As for the criteria for the list, I was pretty lax and subjective. Ever the jingoistic American that I am, I decided that only games that were given North American releases, while the Sega CD was still in production, should qualify as candidates, so no obscure-ass Japan-only SHMUPs or home-brew RPGs some dude made in his basement in 2008 are in contention here.

As always, the opinions expressed herein are solely my own, and your list would surely differ. That said, whose ready to take things to THE NEXT LEVEL?

The Misadventures of Flink

The 16-bit era represented the golden years for platformers, and with so many all-time genre classics released during the time frame, a lot of truly outstanding offerings ended up overlooked. “The Misadventures of Flink,” most certainly, has to stand out as one of the epoch’s most criminally underappreciated genre titles.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about “Flink” is the outstanding visuals. The graphics in this game look downright exquisite, with some of the most detailed sprites to be found on any console game in the early 1990s. The game is vastly superior to the Genesis iteration of the game, not only in terms of visuals, but also aurally -- the game has a really great, low-key soundtrack that, while somewhat subdued, adds so much to the overall experience.

The gameplay in “Flink” is fairly straight forward. You hop on enemy heads, you search for treasure chests, and you do lots and lots of jumping. The gameplay mechanics probably aren’t going to win any awards for sheer creativity (nor is the level design, which is, admittedly, fairly formulaic), but the fact that the controls are so smooth -- not to mention the inherent beauty of everything in the game -- makes this a title all serious Sega CD aficionados would be wise to do their research on. 

Final Fight CD

Capcom’s seminal brawler is one of the most beloved arcade beat em ups of all-time, and the Sega CD iteration is probably the closest we ever got to a truly “arcade-perfect” port on a home console in the 1990s. While the Super Nintendo version of the game looked and played fantastically, it was certainly lacking a ton of features -- deleted enemies, the complete omission of one of the game’s central characters, and the biggest sin of them all, no two-player mode. And not only did “Final Fight” on the Sega CD manage to remedy all of those SNES complaints, it may have actually provided a beat em up experience that was superior to the arcade original.

The visuals are crisp and clear, and all three protagonists -- Haggar, Cody and Guy -- are all fully playable from the start. And yes, you can team up with a body and wipe the streets of Metro City clean, if you so choose. While the SNES version did a little bit of censoring with the enemies (most noticeably, the purple haired trollops that, canonically, are supposed to be transgender prostitutes), the Sega CD version appears to be devoid of any gratuitous “amendments.” Then, there’s the all-new, remixed soundtrack, and yeah, it’s pretty awesome, if you were wondering. 

As far as the gameplay goes, you don’t need me to tell you how fantastic it is. Incredibly simple yet incredibly satisfying, you amble down the streets and pummel the hell out of Andre the Giant look-alikes and sundry rouges in identical regalia as part of gloriously fascist vigilante quest, periodically taking respites from whacking hookers upside the head with lead pipes only to chow down on fully cooked turkeys you pull out of dumpsters and telephone booths. Simply put, it’s one of the best genre offerings ever, and outside of owning your own coin-op, this Sega CD disc is the absolute best way to experience it. 

Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side

In the 1990s, “Mortal Kombat” was one of the hottest properties going. Clearly, the element that propelled the franchise to the forefront was its over-the-top reliance on wanton bloodshed and carnage, with the novelty of “fatalities” probably making up for the game’s (let’s admit it) less-than-stellar game play. “Challenge from the Dark Side” -- a sequel to an OK but not that spectacular fighting game original on the Genesis -- obviously tried to steal “Mortal Kombat’s” thunder by not only incorporating a greater emphasis on over-the-top mayhem, but making it more or less the single locus of the title. Simply put, “Challenge from the Dark Side” is one of the wildest and woolliest fighting games ever, with enough inventive uber-violence to make Midway’s much ballyhooed series look as tame as “Karate Champ” in comparison. 

Obviously, “Dark Side” is a game worth experiencing just for its absurdity. The cast of characters is ridiculously diverse, with fighters ranging from a Creature from the Black Lagoon-type fish man to a cybernetic super hero from the year 2300 (a black dude named “Blade”…sound familiar?) and even a nefarious character called “The Senator,” whose attacks include literally entrapping his adversaries in red tape. While the title is far from being the most refined, technical fighting game on the system, its style is just impossible to resist: I mean, how could you NOT love a game that features cavemen and warlocks fist fighting outside a McDonalds? 

Lunar: The Silver Star

Probably the biggest genre gap on the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive line-up was its role playing game offerings. Yeah, there were quality games on the system like “Phantasy Star IV” and, uh, “Phantasy Star II,” but compared to the SNES juggernaut of titles like “Final Fantasy II and III,” “Chrono Trigger” and “Earthbound,” the Genesis certainly paled in comparison to its 16-bit competitor when it came to RPG selections. 

“Lunar: The Silver Star” is probably one of the two best RPGs to be found on the Sega CD (and I bet you’ll NEVER guess what the other title is!) Although pretty standard today, the game was quite revolutionary for its time, with an outstanding soundtrack (just ignore the opening cutscene, though) and full-motion, wonderfully animated sequences which served as exposition for the game’s engrossing storyline. Really, the only negative thing you can say about the game is that it’s too short: at about 20 hours long, “The Silver Star” is a briefer affair than most Game Boy Color RPGS. 

As far as the gameplay goes, it’s fairly simplistic and easy to hop into. Everything is top-down, and while the animation here isn’t the greatest from the era, it is still very respectable. Turn-based-combat is similarly facile, and there is an absolute TON of stuff to explore in the game. Unlike most other role playing games on the Sega CD, this one is actually more story-oriented than it is grinding-based; all in all, it’s one of the absolute best traditional, JRPGs to ever appear on a Sega console, and arguably the very best to be found on the Sega CD. Well, except for…

Lunar: Eternal Blue

“Eternal Blue” is arguably one of the best 2D role playing games from the early 1990s, and certainly one of the absolute best to appear on a non-Nintendo manufactured console. It’s really hard to overstate just how much of a technical achievement this Working Designs classic truly is; the staggering amount of audio dialogue in the game was completely aberrational at the time, and even now, I think gamers would be impressed by the quality of the game’s voice acting. Add to that the amazing soundtrack, the tremendous storyline and the smooth gameplay, and you have what may very well be the best RPG on the Sega CD. 

Really, the reason to play this game is the storyline, which, in my humble opinion, just blows away anything that Square or Enix was producing at the time. Eschewing the usual “Final Fantasy” melodrama, “Eternal Blue” has a much more nuanced and complex array of heroes, including allies with severe drinking problems (Ronfar) and a Starfire-like alien with zero command of how normal humans works (Lucia.) The dialogue is pretty intelligent, and the storyline throws so many twists and turns at you that you’re utterly compelled to keep playing to see what happens next. I’m not really a huge fan of the genre, but even I was able to get caught up in the experience in this one. 

Pretty much everything that worked in the first “Lunar” offering on the Sega CD has been heightened in “Eternal Blue,” and the first title’s few shortcomings have been rectified. Overall, “Eternal Blue” is a much lengthier, much more complex experience than “The Silver Star,” with a lot more plot, way more characters, more diverse game worlds and larger towns to roam around in. The animation, while not world class, is noticeably better than in the first game, and the soundtrack, as expected, is downright stellar. The battle system hasn’t been changed all that much, but a few tweaks, especially a new auto attack feature, makes things much smoother. Outside of a somewhat crappy save system, I can’t think of a single major negative for the game; if you’re in need of a classical RPG, and you have a Sega CD lying around…well, what are you waiting for, exactly? 

The Terminator CD

It’s a truth universally acknowledged in the gaming world: if it’s a game from the 1990s, and its based on a movie, odds are, it’s going to suck. With that in mind, perhaps it understandable why so many gamers would proceed with the Sega CD version of “The Terminator” with much trepidation; that said, it’s actually an utterly fantastic game, and in my opinion, one of the most underrated run and gun titles of all-time. 

First off, the game looks and sounds terrific (thank you very much, Tommy T.) Secondly, the “Contra” inspired gameplay is very smooth and satisfying, and unlike most run and gun games from the era, the levels are actually pretty huge for a genre title. There are some neat environmental effects here and there, and I really enjoyed the diversity of the game worlds; just like in the 1984 movie, one minute, you’re dressed up like the dude from the box cover art of “Doom” and shooting robot skeletons in a nuclear wasteland filled with nothing but metallic debris and ladders, and in the next, you’re packing a shotgun and running around L.A. blasting holes a mile wide in various street criminals and hoodlums (who, for some reason, are all armed with Molotov cocktails.) 

Unlike most movie tie-in games, this one is actually quite faithful to its inspiration, right down to an awesome final boss bottle with Ah-nold, whom you have to vanquish in a pretty ingenious puzzle-solving/run-and-gun sequence. To be fair, you could probably complain about the game’s brief length (if you can’t beat it in under an hour, there’s probably something wrong with your controller), but up until its dénouement? It’s a seriously fun title, and easily one of the best Terminator games ever produced.

Soul Star

“Star Fox” on the Super Nintendo is regarded as one of the best space-shooter games of the early 1990s -- this, despite the fact that the gameplay was largely underwhelming (the ‘90s being a golden epoch for graphics whores, I think enough poor souls were wooed by the now-hideous polygonal visuals to give it a mostly undeserved reputation.) What “Soul Star” does, effectively, is the same kind of space shooting action, only with gorgeous 2D graphics and downright awesome parallax scrolling effects that, in my humblest of opinions, produces a far, far superior “second person” shooter than Nintendo’s much ballyhooed furry-bait. 

I tend to think of “Soul Star” is the absolute best version of “Space Harrier” ever made. Targeting is a breeze, the controls are smooth as silk and there’s enough challenge to keep you glued to your screen WITHOUT there being the unfortunate roadblocks (and I mean that literally in the case of “Space Harrier”) that made previous forays into the genre so frustrating. I also liked the sense of speed conveyed in the game -- it feels like your blasting through space at top speed, but it doesn’t feel unwieldy, like you’re going to be flying off into the recesses of space at any moment like in “F-Zero.” These are really difficult mechanics to peg down, and in “Soul Star,” they’re implemented about as perfectly as I’ve ever experienced them. 

The music is really good, the gameplay is accessible and satisfying, and the 2D visuals are just fantastic. Each game world feels unique from the last, and the boss fights (especially the grand finale) are absolutely awesome. Hell, at some points in the game, you even get to trade in your space cruiser for an aquatic sub and an AT-AT-like mech walker! Simply put, “Soul Star” is the kind of criminally overlooked, virtually unheard of titles that made the Sega CD such an underappreciated gem of a console, and if you’ve got a hankering for some space shootin’, than this is a game you definitely ought to give a try. 

Android Assault: Revenge of Bari-Arm

In case you kids haven’t figured it out yet, I’m kind of a sucker for SHMUP games. The Genesis may have easily been the all-time greatest console for SHMUP fans, but that’s not to say that there weren’t some fantastic, side scrolling shoot ‘em ups released on the Sega CD, too. Among them was “Android Assault,” a beautiful, solid-as-a-rock genre offering with some of the best beats and aesthetics the hardware ever produced. It’s a treat for the eyes and the thumbs, no doubt, providing the Sega CD with one of its absolute finest 2D offerings in any genre. 

What makes “Android Assault” different form most SHMUP games from the era is its power-up dynamics and its pace. One of the really awesome things about the title is that you’re able to “level up” until you transform into a super-ungodly-powerful mech warrior, and just annihilating every enemy spaceship on screen is an utter hoot. Secondly, the game is noticeably slower in tempo than most side scrolling shooters of the early 1990s -- while some may construe that as a negative, I actually kinda’ dug the more leisurely pace the game offered. Hey, that way, you actually have time to soak up all the pretty visuals and neat (albeit, subdued) stage effects, no?

All in all, “Android Assault” is just good old fashioned, old-school arcade fun, with diverse stages, which are not only more beautiful than most contemporary genre offerings, but considerably lengthier, as well. The boss fights are also quite impressive (although a little too easy for seasoned SHMUP vets,) and unlike virtually every other game in the genre? When you die, you DON’T lose all of your power-ups…a much needed kindness that makes replays of the game much, much more desirable than some other Sega CD discs. 

Road Avenger

Oh, full motion video games…you blight of the early 1990s, you digital disgrace to the medium, right? Although kids today reflect on FMV games as utter crap, the reality is that quite a few FMV games released on the Sega CD were not only enjoyable, but actually pretty damn good games in their own right. Yeah, they may not have been classics on par with “Super Monaco GP” or “Shining Force 2,” but at least games like “The Masked Rider” and “Night Trap” attempted to do something new with the medium. And in the case of “Road Avenger,” the ultimate outcome wasn’t just a unique gaming experience, but earnestly, one of the best racing games of the early 1990s. 

For my money, “Road Avenger” is the absolute best FMV game on the Sega CD, in addition to having arguably the best soundtrack of any game on the console. One part “Mad Max,” one part “Speed Racer” and one part “Death Race 2000,” the game is an awesome, extremely well-animated racing game with some of the absolute best visuals to be found on the hardware. Presentation-wise, it’s far and away the best FMV experience on the console, making for an extraordinarily gripping audio-visual adventure. 

The best way to think of “Road Avenger” is Steve McQueen’s “Bullit,” only in anime-form. With simple button commands, you weave your way in and out of oncoming traffic, occasionally tapping the brakes and hitting the turbo pedal to push enemies off cliffs. The quick-time-events and actual game footage meld together better than any other offering on the system, providing a super intense, super-enjoyable game of “Simon Says” that, while about as rudimentary as gaming can get, still manages to provide plenty of spills and chills. If only the game wasn’t so short -- and mostly, unchallenging -- this thing would be an all-time masterpiece, and possibly the game that could have made full motion video titles something more than experimental, niche offerings. Even so, “Road Avenger” is undeniably a fun experience, and a game I would highly recommend to any Sega CD owner out there. 

Rise of the Dragon

Digital comics were a pretty popular genre on PCs back in the late 80s and early 90s, but due to the hardware limitations of the 8-bit and 16-bit systems, the niche never really found a home on consoles until the Sega CD arrived. “Rise of the Dragon” is one of two games that more or less defined everything great about the unusual game medium, and as an added bonus? This Sega CD iteration actually includes animated sequences and voiceover segments that the original DOS game did not!

There’s really no sugarcoating it: the game is an unabashed ripoff of “Blade Runner”, with the developers of the title going as far as to ACTUALLY name the main character of the game “Blade Hunter.” That said, the game, despite its thematic uncreativeness, is a really rock-solid adventure game, with an absolute ton of stuff to explore, with literally hundreds of seedy, underground labyrinths to comb through. And if that’s not enough, the title even switches up genres every now and then, at times turning into a light-gun shooter and a side scrolling, “Elevator Action” type platformer. 

The presentation in the game is fantastic and the gameplay is satisfying, but it’s the story that’s the real reason to check out the title. “Rise of the Dragon” was one of the first home console games to attempt a truly mature story, with a plotline rife with more adult-oriented fare. Of course, there is some (censored, I am sad to say) sexual and violent content in the title, but it’s really the intellectual components of the narrative that are the most delectable elements of the game. It’s a title that makes you think  and isn’t afraid to step outside the “instant gratification” button-mashing safety zone and try to do something a little bit more cerebral with the medium. With a shockingly complex story and so much content to wade through, “Rise of the Dragon” is easily one of the most worthwhile games to be found on the Sega CD; if you’re in the mood for a game that doesn’t treat you like a kindergartner, I really can’t think of too many other games on the system that would serve you this well.

It's still our hearts.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Book Review: “The King Whisperers” by Kerwin Swint (2011)

A book that reveals a lot of unpopularized historical truths, including tidbits about  Lawrence of Arabia’s sexual misadventures, Joey Stalin’s straight-up gangsta’ upbringing and the incredibly anticlimactic origins of how Ernesto Guevara got the nickname “Che.” Seriously, you will not believe just how anticlimactic it is.

A few years back, this guy at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (the one with Ted Turner and Martin Luther King, not the one that gave us young thuggin’ Joey Stalin -- more on that later) named Kerwin Swint published a book, titled “The King Whisperers.” Recently, I found it just laying on the aisle at America’s number one retailer of surplus and overstocked wares, and decided, “what the hey?” Back in college, history was my favorite subject, and I can’t turn down the offer to expand my knowledge of historical antecedents…especially when it’s being hoisted upon me for just uno dollar-o.

Swint’s book is basically a bunch of essays about history’s greatest and most notorious “backstage characters” -- i.e., the men and women behind the men and women that are responsible for shaping and changing modern politics and world affairs. He begins the book by addressing the great Machiavellian schemers throughout history, beginning with something of an apologist take on old Niccolo himself.

While the name “Machiavelli” today connotes the most mendacious and duplicitous aspects of politics, Swint argues that his ideal-eschewing, hyper-jingoistic, state-security-before-ethical-concerns political philosophy has more or less become the very bedrock of contemporary geopolitics. In that, Swint’s take is that Machiavelli wasn’t so much a nihilistic warmonger as he was the first completely honest political philosopher in history, whose emphasis on state aggression and international interventions for the sake of domestic welfare have become more or less the strategic defaults for the world’s heaviest geopolitical hitters.

Now, if you want a political philosopher with a true streak of de Sade etched down his backbone, Swint says you ought to turn to this one Indian fellow named Kautilya, whom served as Emperor Chandragupta’s right hand man during the heyday of the Mauryan Empire (around the 300 to 200 B.C.E. timeframe, roughly.) Also referred to as Chanakya, he allegedly penned a treatise called “The Arhtasastra,” which made “The Prince” sound like a “Chicken Soup for the Soul” offering; whereas Machiavelli was a pragmatist whose worst crime was more or less stating the obvious, Kautilya/Chanakya was a proponent of extremely stringent “loyalty tests” to the court -- in short, killing the hell out of anyone that even looked like they were going to dissent, even friends and family -- while lugging about the “Conan the Barbarian”-quality personal motto “if one can win, one should fight.”

Interestingly, Swint also lumps two U.S. political figures -- Alexander Hamilton and Dick Cheney -- alongside the individuals he considers the greatest Machiavellian-thinkers in history. Swint argues that Hamilton -- a man whose dual hatred of bluebloods and John Adams may have stemmed from being a literal bastard from the West Indies -- was really the man most responsible for the expansion of federalist power in the early years of the U.S., having been instrumental in both the Whiskey Act of 1791 and the Alien & Sedition Act  of 1798. Meanwhile, Swint describes Cheney as quite possibly the most powerful vice president in American history, stating that he fostered a very Machiavellian taste for secretive, results-focused endeavors, such as the Patriot Act and pretty much the entire War on Terror in general. He also informs the reader that, after college, Cheney spent several years working as a lineman in Wyoming -- so the next time you drive by some dude working on a telephone pole, just remember that there’s a historical basis to believe that he very well could be the man that sends your grandson off to die in some everlasting struggle against an unkillable ideology in about 40 years.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the book’s other interesting tidbits and factoids:

- The Knights Templar was probably couldn’t have survived without the aide of a St. Bernard.

Not only did Charles Martel save Europe from Moor conquerors, he managed to do so in the most gloriously pastel way possible. 

- Ibrahim Pasha rose from being a slave to being vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. How did Pasha go about achieving such a remarkable feat? Well, it’s probably because he was most likely Suleiman’s long-term boy toy, as well. And thanks to Ottoman Empire law -- which allowed a slave owner to legally kill a servant, anytime, just because -- that’s precisely what Suleiman did once he got bored with Pasha, despite his very, very high standing in the emperor’s court.

- Otto von Bismarck, more or less the father of modern Germany, was a bad motherfucker who started the Franco-Prussian War via telegram.

- A guy from the Netherlands  named Jan Pieterszoon Coen absolutely dominated the global spice trade in the 17th century. He accomplished this by doing some extraordinarily shady shit, including torching Jakarta to the ground and rebuilding it as fortress city to ward off would-be mercantilists from abroad.

- Despite some claims that T.E. Lawrence was Victorian prude, other historical evidence suggests that he was a big fan of spankings. He also admitted to once being sodomized by Turkish guards (allegedly), in a scene that probably wound up on the cutting room floor when “Lawrence of Arabia” was going through final edits.

- Speaking of Lawrence Arabia, Wilhelm Wassmuss was more or less his German palette swap, having been tasked with wreaking havoc in India and goading the Iranians into overthrowing their British occupiers. He had a rather unfortunate tendency to lose codebooks, however, and once found himself locked up by a local chieftain who knew he was totally full of shit.

- Had it not been for the almost-ignored advice of Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak would’ve been blown to smithereens by Islamofascists in 1995. Needless to say, history could’ve turned out very, very differently had Mubarak not taken the advice of his General Intelligence Director that fateful afternoon…

Viva  La Revolucion! (but in a way that's most appealing to fashion-obsessed douches, of course.)

- Theodora of Byzantium was one of the first major political leaders to effectively implement sweeping, pro-women public policy in an empire. During her reign, she was  also responsible for the cultural renovation of Constantinople, including the construction of the Hagia Sophia. Not bad for a former hooker, no?

 - Leon Trotsky, as we all know, was highly influential in the spread of Communism throughout the 20th century. His ultimate demise, however, remains less discussed; he was axed to death, Jason Voorhees-style, in Mexico in 1940.

- Charles Martel was the military leader that lead the Franks to victory over the Moors in the Battle of Tours in 732 -- a defeat that more or less prevented Muslims crusaders from taking over the entire continent of Europe. In addition to having the MMA-worthy nickname “The Hammer,” Martel also happened to be an illegitimate child sired by Pippin the II.

- Sala ad-Din Yusuf iba Ayyub -- better known as Saladin -- is pretty much the greatest Muslim military leader in history, having united forces in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Iraq and conquering Jerusalem in 1187. He was much revered, even by his enemies, who called him both “a chivalrous knight” and a “virtuous pagan soul.” Even so, he had nasty habit of murdering conquered peoples -- including the genesis of his career as a general, where he routinely butchered hundreds upon hundreds of Fatimid slaves in Egypt and abroad.

- For most of his life, Oliver Cromwell was just your dime-a-dozen depressed drunk. Then he found God in his 40s, and decided to stick it to Charles I  by overthrowing the monarchy and conquering the entire pre-United Kingdom. Cromwell was so hated that after he died, his corpse was dug-up so it could be “re-executed” -- according to legend, his severed head (which has its own Wikipedia page, in case you were wondering) was placed on a pike outside Westminster Hall for more than 20 years.

- Sakamoto Ryoma is more or less responsible for Japan abandoning its shogunate system in the 1860s, which in turn kicked off the nation’s economic liberalization as well as the birth of its incredibly powerful naval fleet. The Meiji Restoration, as it is often called, was instigated because Ryoma accidentally managed to convince high-ranking official Katsu Kaishu to join his side. By the way, Ryoma was on an assassination assignment at the time…to kill Katsu Kaishu.

- Giuseppe Garibaldi was an instrumental figure in the formation of an official Italian state in the 1800s. He was also the Italian version of that dude from “The Hurt Locker,” it seems, having gone on mercenary assignments in the U.S. Civil War, the Austo-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War after his business in Italia wrapped up.

"There goes that crazy Mao again, enacting another wacky public policy that'll only kill about ten or twenty million people this week..."

- The voice of reason behind Mao’s madcap communist antics in China was a dude named Zhou Enlai. And thanks in no small part to a conveniently-timed ping-pong world championship tournament, he was more or less the diplomat responsible for China kinda’ embracing a capitalistic system.

- A few things you probably didn’t know about Ernesto Guevara: he was a trained physician that grew up in wealthy home, he was technically Irish, his widely celebrated economic policies failed pretty much everywhere they were attempted and his nickname “Che” is derived from an Argentinean “conversation filler” -- similar to the terms “you know” or “man” in U.S. English -- that all of his Cuban comrades thought sounded funny.

- The man mostly responsible for the Spanish Inquisition was financed by the same couple that gave Christopher Columbus the A-OK to sail to the new world. He was also a quarter-Jewish, which makes many of the anti-Semitic practices of the Inquisition…uh, kinda’ ironic, I guess.

- As a youth, Georgian Joeseph Djugashvili was known to rob banks in these highly elaborate, multi-man knock-off jobs that more or less resembled acts of terror perpetrated by The Joker. Raised by a set of abusive alcoholic parents and living in a village where drinking and fighting were daily rituals -- in tandem with an almost impossible to conceive classical education -- the Jew-hating Djugashivili later went on to become Vladimir Lenin’s number one terrorist-gangster buddy. He changed his name to literally mean “Man of Steel,” and the rest is history.

- A lot his been written about Hitler’s psychological quirks, but his administrators may have been even more imbalanced than he was. Herman Goering, for example, was a morphine-addicted binge eater, who, as a side note, made his fortune off BMW sales.

- Political campaign revolutionaries Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter once goaded a motion picture company into producing a film solely for the sake of derailing Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign in California.Yes, that Upton Sinclair.

- The man that was more or less responsible for the success of JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign later went on to serve as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association.

-- Among the finer moments of Karl Rove’s illustrious campaign history? Stealing his opponent’s stationary in 1970 and mailing out party invites to wreck his headquarters, falsely claiming that a political rival bugged his office in 1986 and saying all sorts of slanderous shit about John McCain back in the 2000 primaries.

- Julia Agrippina’s life story is an absolutely amazing cocktail of political intrigue, poison mushrooms and incest. The brother of Caligula (so you know she’s got wackiness in her DNA already), she had the philosopher Seneca killed,  and then executed her own son, Brittanicus. As a follow-up, she tried to seduce her other son, Nero, for political gain and ultimately found herself gutted by an assassin…who was hired by her own flesh and blood, no less.

The Justin Bieber of his day.

- Edward II was an incompetent leader that launched several wars just to appease the family and benefactors of his boyfriend. Eventually, Edward II’s wife Isabella came back to England with Roger Mortimer and took control of the throne…that is, until Edward III took back the kingdom and had Mortimer executed. Also, you know that stuff in “Braveheart” about William Wallace taking Isabella to the sack? All bullshit Mel Gibson made up.

- And lastly; despite popular urban legends, Rasputin wasn’t a super-hard-to-kill dude that the Russian nobility had to keep “re-executing.” What there is historical evidence for, however, is the possibility that Rasputin was offed by members of MI-6, as the Brits really, really wanted them Ruskies flanking the eastern side instead of going through all of the Revolutionary shit during World War I.

As for the book itself, it’s all right I suppose, although it’s more of a beginner’s compendium than it is a full-fledged analysis of backstage political figures. Additionally, I can’t say I’m too big a fan of Swint’s writing style, nor his sometimes obtuse means of addressing historical figures -- for example, he spends half of Che Guevara’s entry talking about the history of that one picture of Che instead of the figure himself, and the heavy-handed comparisons he makes between Cromwell and Bush the Second are incredibly clumsy and distracting. That said, there are plenty of neat little info nuggets throughout the tome, and if nothing else, it’s a really good starting place to being your own research on some of history’s most captivating rogues, schemers and scoundrels. In all, I probably wouldn’t recommend dropping 13 bucks to read it on Amazon, but if you just see it hanging out at the Dollar Tree? It’s probably worth a Washington or two.