24/07/2017

COMBAT SCHOOL / BOOT CAMP (ARCADE)

Everyone loves war games, right? Not the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie WarGames, I mean videogames about war. I should hope people like war games, because there are plenty of them out there, which lead to Konami spotting a gap in the market. “What if, instead of letting players fight in a war,” thought Konami, “we let them do all the boring army training instead?” What a masterstroke that was, and as a result we have today’s game: Konami’s 1988 killbot-factory-em-up Combat School, also known as Boot Camp!


I’m old enough to remember when certain sections of the media were telling me that videogames were a combat school, twisting my tender young mind and turning me into a remorseless killer with superior firearms handling skills and a complete desensitization to violence. That, of course, was not the case. Maybe if I could run at two hundred miles an hour and never need to reload like the marine from Doom I’d be the greatest soldier in history, but as it stands I’m halfway between a pacifist and a coward with the marksmanship skills of a one-eyed lemur.


No combat school would be complete without a stern drill sergeant, and here’s the one who’ll be putting you through your paces in this game. “Are you looking for a fight?!” his digitised voice bellows at me during the attract mode, to which I answer no, no I am not. Did you not read the bit about being a pacifist? Also, your tiny hands would make you punches more painful as they’d focus your power into a smaller area. Nice moustache, though. You’ve got sort of a “Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind” meets Full Metal Jacket look about you, pal.


I’ll be playing as Nick, a fresh-faced recruit with absolutely zero remarkable features. Also here is Joe, who acts as either a computer-controlled rival or the second player’s character. I reckon Joe is only participating in basic training so he can become a GI for pun purposes.


The first step to mastering the art of combat is to hone your body to physical perfection, so what better way to start than with a gruelling obstacle course? It’s Nick versus Joe in a race to the finish – although you don’t have to beat Joe, you just have to reach the end without running out of time. The first part of the course is hurdles, so you hammer the run button as fast as you can to build up some speed, tapping the jump button when you reach a wall, hopefully timing your button-press in such a way that Nick leaps over / scrambles across the hurdle. I say hopefully, pressing the jump button at the wrong time so Nick leaps face-first into the wall and bounces off is probably the most entertaining moment in Combat School, so I’d recommend trying it at least a couple of times.


I suspect the army’s “Be the Best” slogan may not have been aimed specifically at you, Nick.


There’s also a section where you swing across some monkey bars. Again, this is accomplished by hammering the buttons. In case you haven’t realised it yet, Combat School is essentially one of Konami’s multi-event sports games – like Track and Field or Hyper Sports – given a military coat of paint. It’s quite a clever way to recycle the gameplay formula, I suppose.


The second event is the firing range, and there’s not much to say about this one: a row of targets appears, and when they do you move your crosshair over to them, pressing the fire button and sweeping your cursor horizontally across them. If you manage to destroy all the targets in a row you get some bonus points, but the real goal is to shoot enough targets to qualify, as per the target (hah!) number at the bottom-left of the screen. It’s not much of a challenge, but after the button-mashing of the first stage it’s a welcome break for your thumbs. On the original Combat School arcade cabinets, your movements were controlled with a trackball rather than a joystick. I’m very glad that there was also a joystick-controlled version, though. This game’s hard enough on your thumbs as it is, I wouldn’t want to ruin my wrist by spinning the trackball too.
Anyway, that’s the shooting range. The first shooting range, I should say. It’s easy to clear and feels appropriately militaristic. The only notable thing about it is that the drill sergeant shouts “fire!” every time the targets pop up, and by the end of the round the targets are appearing so quickly that he starts to sound like Beavis.


Next up is the Iron Man Race, a dash to the finish while wearing heavy boots of lead and filling your victims full of dread. No, not really. I kinda wish you were wearing lead boots, though – they might prevent Nick from falling on his arse if he so much as dips his tippy-toes in one of these puddles. Again, I suspect you might not be cut out for the life of an enlisted man, Nick.


It’s more understandable that these live land mines would knock you over, though. That’s right, this army training course is littered with live land mines. The graduating class of Combat School might only have five legs between them, but by god they’re tough. Princess Diana is looking down from heaven and weeping, I’m sure.


The Iron Man Race is also a biathlon, with a swimming section in the second half. It’s only a swimming section because Joe stole my boat, the absolute dick. Too late did I realise that there’s another boat that I could have taken, but I didn’t spot it until I’d swum past it and the game wouldn’t let me go back and climb aboard, so I had no choice but to swim to the finish.


But the hammer of karma swiftly came crashing down on Joe, the nefarious dinghy-grabber. The hammer of karma took the form of a log, because these things work in mysterious ways, and the floating tree-trunk knocked Joe out of his boat and delayed him long enough for me to overtake him. It’s a moral victory and, you know, an actual victory for Nick.


More firearms training with the next exercise, and the army has upgraded from paper targets to tiny tanks with glowing lights on the top in what is clearly an egregious case of taxpayer’s money being wasted. Just tie targets to a bunch of chickens and set them loose, that’d accomplish the same effect for a fraction of the price, plus that way you’ve got something to put in the soldier’s rations afterwards. Even better, give the chickens beak-mounted machine guns so they can fight back. That’d really give these recruits some combat training they won’t forget.
Anyway, the second shooting gallery is a little different than the first, because you can and must move horizontally along the bottom of the screen while firing upwards. It’s very reminiscent of the vertical-shooting sections from Contra, except not as much fun.


For the next challenge, Nick and Joe are taking a break from actual military training to get a bit of macho arm-wrestling done. With no logs of divine retribution coming to Nick’s aid in this one, I had to rely on the tried-and-true method of mashing the button as fast as possible. I went with the “rubbing” technique, where you rub your finger back-and-forth over the button, and that seemed to work extremely well. It’s far more likely to give you a blister the size of a small cantaloupe than simply pressing the button, but it was always our preferred method of button-mashing back in the day, usually combined with something like a pen lid. It was more than enough to easily beat Joe, although I reckon Joe would have done better if he’d taken a stance that a regular human person might have employed instead of whatever bizarre, squatting, crab-like posture he’s adopted here. Maybe you should have done your arm-wrestling at a slightly taller table, chaps.


I think this image nicely sums up just how thoroughly I beat Joe.


Now it’s time for yet more shooting practise. I suppose it makes sense, you’d want your soldiers to be good at shooting things. Unfortunately, this is where Combat School’s difficultly takes a wild upswing, as though it suddenly remembered it was an arcade game and it should trying to kick you off the machine already. It’s a three-pronged assault of increased challenge, starting with the addition of targets depicting the drill instructor. You’ll be penalised if you shoot one of those targets, which were presumably included to weed out candidates with a tendency towards insubordination. Then there’s the much stricter time limit / number of targets needed to qualify, too. Finally, there’s the fact that controls are way worse in this event than in the others. Your crosshair snaps to each target, but it’s horribly “sticky” and often simply won’t move fast enough, wasting yet more time that you don’t have. I don’t know whether this problem is specific to the joystick (rather than the trackball) version of Combat School, but it’s definitely a pain in the arse and the first few times I tried this event I failed miserably. “Go home to your mother!” barked the drill sergeant and buddy, I’d like to. There’s nothing in Combat School’s fairly rudimentary gameplay that’s got me hooked, you know. It looks okay and it sounds okay – I’m always pleased to hear digitised speech in eighties arcade games – but there’s just not enough to it. Speaking of speech, when Nick fails a task, he says “darn it!” and if Napoleon Dynamite wasn’t released sixteen years after Combat School I’d swear that’s who he’s supposed to sound like.


Here, Nick and Joe put aside their rivalry to enjoy a crafty cigarette behind the bike sheds. That’s the kind of camaraderie that can only be forged by joint military service.


Now comes the final test of your martial skills: a one-on-one bout against the drill instructor. I said the last event was where Combat School started getting tough, but this is where it becomes hatefully difficult and completely unfair. The problem is that the sergeant is equivalent to the final boss from an SNK fighting game, the Rugal Bernstein of the US military. You can punch and kick – although I never did figure out what determines whether you punch or kick – and so can the sarge, but despite his sprite implying that he has the same reach as Nick the sergeant’s kicks will always hit you while you do no damage. Simply hitting the instructor is very, very difficult, and ninety percent of the time he’ll wait for you to attack, ignore your attack and kick you in the face. There’s no sense of flow to the combat, either. It’s very stodgy and not engaging in the slightest. After repeatedly taking a battering, I thought to myself “man, this is just not fun at all, I’m going to turn the difficulty down” so I went into the dip-switch settings only to find the game was already on the easiest difficulty setting. That didn’t do my self-confidence much good, let me tell you.


Eventually I managed to overcome the odds and knock my commanding officer unconscious through raw determination and expert-level gameplay. Also, I cheated. And you know what? It felt good.


Thus, Nick’s training comes to an end. He’s a soldier now, a warrior, a man. A man who jumps face-first into walls and slips over if we walks near a puddle, sure, but for now he can be proud as he and the rest of his graduating class celebrate their accomplishments by throwing their caps roughly four hundred feet into the air while the stars and stripes flutters behind them and the Star-Spangled Banner plays in the background. Actually, that makes this the second game in a row here at VGJunk to include the Star-Spangled Banner: it also played during the loader for Bruce Lee.


But suddenly, danger strikes! That’s right, Combat School went with the ol’ fake-out ending, but there’s more to be done before you truly finish the game. Terrorists have taken over! Taken over what? That’s a bit vague. Taken over the entire country? The Eastern Seaboard? This specific military academy? The nearest branch of Nandos, because even those who will stoop to the most barbaric methods to achieve their goals can’t resist the taste of peri-peri chicken?


Oh, I see, it’s the White House that’s been taken over. I think. That means the President’s in danger, and there’s only one man who can save him: a recently-graduated private with no actual combat experience! Yes, surely Nick is the best choice for this perilous mission. “Don’t be a chicken,” says your drill instructor. I kinda wish I could go back to the fighting section so I can kick him in the head a few more times.


This final stage takes the form of a short single-plane beat-em-up. Notice I said “beat-em-up,” not “shoot-em-up” because despite half of the events in Combat School being firearms training the army neglected to give Nick a gun. I’m beginning to think that the top brass don’t want the President to be rescued. What the hell was their excuse for sending Nick in unarmed? “Sorry, private, but all our guns are currently in use by the recruits going through all that firearms training, you’ll have to make do with high kicks.”


And so kick I shall, as ineffective as it is. Konami were seemingly dead set against any players reaching the end of Combat School, and this final stage bundles together many of the issues you might have with other extremely difficult arcade games into one distinctly un-thrilling package. Nick is slow and cumbersome to control, terrorists spawn without end and although you do have a health bar most of the terrorist’s attack will kill you in one hit anyway. Oh, and you can’t continue during this stage. If you take a knife to the gut at this point it’s game over, friendo.


The action reaches a nadir with this section, a digital microcosm of hell itself where you must shimmy Nick across these pipes while terrorists throw molotovs at him, dropping down at just the right time to avoid the incendiary devices, the fire that’s already there and the other terrorists that are dashing around screen. It is my considered opinion that anyone wanting to make a retro-styled action game should be forced to play through this section and then create its exact opposite. It really is bad, and the only redeeming feature of this whole stage is that some terrorist throw knives at you and you can kick them out of the air. I would still have preferred a gun.


At the end of the stage is a boss, of sorts. I’m not sure why former WWE wrestler “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan has rejected the world of sports entertainment and become the leader of a terrorist cell, but I’m sure he has his reasons. Thankfully, after the bullshit of the previous stages the boss himself is a piece of cake, and I managed to rescue the president by simply walking forward and pressing kick. If the terrorist leader had a 2x4 to defend himself with it might have been a different story, but as things stand Nick has triumphed over all the odds and Combat School is complete.


Your reward is a shot of Nick leading the President to safety while the cops point their guns at him. C’mon, lads, that’s just taking the piss.
I went into Combat School AKA Boot Camp hoping for a bit of that Konami arcade magic, but unfortunately it was in short supply. There’s some charm to the graphics and the digitised speech is nice, but in my opinion that’s really all it has going for it. It suffers from being, to use a tired old football cliché, a game of two halves. The first half is okay but not really interesting enough to hold my attention, while the second half is too difficult to be any fun. All in all, the only thing I learned from my time with Combat School is that I'm glad “sports” games with button-mashing controls are an almost extinct genre.

20/07/2017

BRUCE LEE (COMMODORE 64)

Over the years, I’ve played as a lot of videogame characters “inspired” by Bruce Lee. Fei Long from Street Fighter, Marshall Law from Tekken, Forest Law from Tekken, Kim Dragon from World Heroes, every time I’ve played a Fist of the North Star game… the list goes on. Well, today that’s going to change - this time I’m actually going to play as the man himself. Originally developed in 1984 for Atari’s 8-bit computers, it’s the Commodore 64 version of Ron Fortier and Datasoft’s Bruce Lee!

Here’s the Little Dragon himself, appearing on the title screen next to his name in both English and Chinese. I have to say, that’s a rather good likeness. If you showed it to me out of context, I’d definitely recognise it as Bruce Lee, so it’s a step above a lot of eighties computer games starring real humans.
I think it says a lot about both Bruce Lee’s fame and level of cultural impact and the fact that his talents are so suitable for a videogame conversion that it feels perfectly acceptable for this game to just be called “Bruce Lee.” Not Bruce Lee: The Computer Game, not Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, not Bruce Lee’s High-Kickin’ Kung Fu Kapers, just Bruce Lee. I can’t think of many other celebrities for whom that would be true.
As the game’s simply called Bruce Lee, you might have guessed that it isn’t based on any specific Bruce Lee movie. So what’s it all about?


Collecting lanterns, mostly. There are six pictured in the screenshot above, they’re the ovoid things hanging from the edge of the platforms. You control Bruce – he’s not wearing a shirt but he is wearing black gloves – and you have to collect lanterns by jumping into them until you’ve collected enough to open up the next screen.


I realise that description has made Bruce Lee sound extremely lame. The thing is, though, it isn’t lame. If you’ll forgive me for leaping ahead to my conclusions, it’s actually a really fun little game, even if gathering up all the nearby light fittings might not be what you’d expect from a game called Bruce Lee. You’d expect kung fu fighting, naturally, and you’ll be pleased to know that there is some of that in the game. Bruce can’t go about his lamp-collecting in peace, and there are a pair of enemies who will appear and reappear endlessly to try and stop him. The first is the ninja, who runs towards Bruce and tries to whack him with his wooden sword. Not to worry, the ninja can be dispatched with a couple of flying kicks to the chest, performed by pressing the fire button while Bruce is running left or right. You can also stand in place and punch, but using the flying kick means you don’t have to be as accurate, and also you’re playing as Bruce Lee for pity’s sake, you should be doing nothing but flying kicks.


The other enemy is the mysterious Green Yamo. He looks a bit like a sumo wrestler and he’s wearing very small black pants, but other than that little is know about Green Yamo. Green Yamo simply is. He’s a much trickier customer than the ninja, mostly because he’s just as adept at flying kicks as Bruce is, so running towards him can end badly.


The ninja and Green Yamo often appear at the same time, doing their darnedest to prevent Bruce from collecting all the lanterns. Bruce can take a few hits before losing a life, but it’s still a bad idea to get trapped between the two villains as they can and will knock you back and forth. They’re especially fond of waiting just below a platform you need to drop down from, so they can whack you while you’re falling and thus defenceless. However, having them next to each other isn’t necessarily a bad thing because, and this is one of the reasons I had so much fun playing Bruce Lee, the enemies can hit each other. It’s extremely satisfying to see the ninja take a swing at you and miss, only for the Green Yamo to clobber him in the back of the head with a flying kick


Bruce has one more move up his sleeve, and because defence is as important as attack he can avoid all incoming strikes by laying face-down on the floor. It does mean that the bad guys can’t hurt you, but it has two major drawbacks: you can't move or attack while you're doing the worm, so your foes will be waiting to slap you about as soon as you stand up. It also makes you look a bit of a tit.


After a few screens on the surface world of pagodas and statues of particularly bulbous oxen, Bruce descends underground and the game undergoes something of a shift in focus. You’re still collecting lanterns and the ninja and Green Yamo still appear sometimes to attack you, but for the most part Bruce Lee eschews the combat in favour of a platforming, trap-avoiding collect-a-thon.


There’s a lot of climbing to be done, too. Many surfaces, like the trellises in the above-ground screens and these moving “conveyor belts” of purple energy can and must be scrambled up to reach those tricky lanterns. Not only is Bruce Lee a martial arts expert and charismatic movie star, but he’d also make a tip-top rock climber, it seems. Well, he’s definitely got the upper body strength for it.
There are also traps littering every screen from here on out, each of which will immediately cost you a life if you touch them. On this screen, for instance, you’ve got the white spikes, which are easily avoiding as long as you’re paying enough attention not to accidentally climb into them, and the rather more dangerous bolts of energy that zip across certain parts of the screen and must be dodged by carefully timing your movements.


Other traps include land-mines that explode a second or so after you run over them – that’s one pictured above, spurting what appears to be a plume of lightning. At the bottom of the screen is something that looks like a particularly lush carpet, but is actually a… well, it’s, you know… it’s a thing. A deadly thing. A conveyor belt that doesn’t move you when you stand on it? Look, I don’t have a word for it. What it is, right, is you see those two white pixels on top of it, over on the left-hand side? Those are deadly to the touch, and they travel horizontally along the top of the shag pile at regular intervals, meaning that Bruce has to perform a series of jumps to clear the danger and get to the other side.


I was a little dubious when I realised Bruce Lee was going to be less about fighting and more of an obstacle course, but I needn’t have worried. There’s still fighting to be done, but more importantly the traps are all fun to negotiate. Apart from the projectiles, where you have to stop and figure out their timing, many of the traps can be defeated by pure speed. Running headlong into them and dodging the dangerous bits with well-timed jumps is both effective and enjoyable, thanks in large part to the game’s excellent controls. They’re smooth, responsive and reliable, especially when you’re jumping, and I don’t think there was ever a time when I pressed fire and Bruce refused to attack, which puts Bruce Lee way above dozens of the other eighties home computer games that I’ve played in terms of pure accessibility. Once or twice I had a problem getting Bruce to let go of something he was climbing on, but aside from that it was smooth sailing all the way.


The traps are also fun because they can also defeat your enemies. Getting the ninja to chase you onto a land mine you’ve just triggered is particularly satisfying, and on top of that it feels like a very Bruce Lee thing to do. Have you ever read his philosophy toward combat? He was all about using whatever was available to defeat your opponents, eschewing the set-in-stone patterns of traditional martial arts as being pointless and limiting in a real fight. Be like water and go for their weak points, that kind of thing. Does your opponent have testicles? Then mash those potatoes until your foe comes to regret that life ever evolved beyond asexual reproduction. I might be paraphrasing there, but what I’m saying is that if Bruce Lee could trick someone into running into a spike, he totally would.


As I scampered and scurried my way through the increasingly murderous maze, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea why I was doing so. So I looked up the game’s cassette inlay and apparently Bruce is trying to “penetrate the fortress of the Evil Wizard.” Why? Because defeating the wizard will grant Bruce “infinite wealth and immortality.” Okay, see, I don’t think Bruce Lee was ever that concerned about infinite wealth, and there’s something a touch unnerving about his digital quest for immortality given his tragically early death. On the other hand, vast swathes of the planet still know who Bruce Lee was, so he’s already achieved a certain degree of immortality.


Bruce Lee’s gameplay is a lot of fun, then. Simple, precise, exciting and often rather satisfying. But what about the presentation? On the audio side, there’s not much to talk about. There’s a decent theme tune on the title screen, but no in-game music and only a few sound effects – although the sound effects that are there are good, especially the grunt the Green Yamo makes when he sees you and the noise that plays when collecting a lantern. You’ll have to provide your own Bruce Lee-style combat screams, I’m afraid, and if there was ever a C64 game that would benefit from just a smidgen of digitised speech it’d be this one. Imagine a tinny, distorted cry of “whataaa!” playing every time you performed a flying kick, it’d be great.


As for the graphics, they’re a bit more divisive. Personally, I really like the super-blocky aesthetic: there’s something charming about the crudeness of it. That said, if someone told me they thought the graphics were ugly, I could see where they were coming from. I will definitely say that despite their simplicity, the character sprites are well-animated and have a lot of, well, character. I especially like the feeling of solidity when you land a flying kick and you opponent goes flying. Nothing beats a well-executed flying kick, eh?
There is one problem I have with the graphics, actually: later in the game, some of the lanterns get bloody difficult to see. There are three in the screenshot above. No, really. The only reason I figured out where they were is because they contain a single black pixel that blinks on and off. Drawing the lanterns to be grey on a grey background was a bad decision: drawing them to look nothing like lanterns was another. Still, once you’ve figured out that you’re supposed to be collecting them it’s not too difficult to pick them out.


After much running, climbing and being murdered by electrified carpets – that static build-up is no joke – Bruce finally reaches the lair of the Evil Wizard. That’s him, up there. I know I was just defending the graphics, but this chap is a little hard to read, huh? He’s holding the bars of his cage(?), he seems to be wearing a mortarboard, his shoes are very pointy, he’s… he’s carrying a massive rose under each armpit? Look, I’ve got nothing. He’s an evil wizard, that’s all you need to know. Okay, so you need to know how to beat him too, I suppose. It’s simple – as soon as you enter the room, run as fast as you can to the right and smash Bruce’s face into the switch on the far wall. The Wizard throws projectiles at you, but they’ll only hit you if you hesitate. Just leg it and you’ll emerge victorious (also immortal and wealthy, I assume).


“Congratulations!” the game says, “you’ve found the room where we store all the graphics deemed to ugly to appear in the actual game!” I think that stuff at the bottom is supposed to be fire. I’m not entirely certain, though. Fire doesn’t tend to be black, blue and red at the same time.


And so ends Bruce Lee – except it doesn’t really end, it loops back to the start but it’s much more difficult this time around. The Green Yamo in particular has really stepped up his game. It’s because I lured him onto all those land mines, isn’t it? Humiliation can be a powerful motivator.
It’s easy to see why Bruce Lee is so fondly remembered by people who played it back in the day, and it’s still a fun game to spend some time with even now. It’s fast-paced and accurate, it’s got solid controls, you can jump-kick a ninja in the face – what more could you want? There are even a couple of two-player modes, one where control over Bruce alternates when you lose a life and a much more interesting mode where player two takes control of Green Yamo, allowing them to either hinder or help Bruce. That sounds like the perfect recipe for a spoiled friendship, I must remember to try it out some time.

18/07/2017

EPHEMERA: SILENT HILL 2 EDITION

We’re going from the ridiculous to the sublime at VGJunk today, because after writing about “worst game ever” contender Rhythm Beat last time out I decided to give myself a break and play through the best game ever, Silent Hill 2. Okay, okay, I know that’s subjective. It’s my favourite game ever, though, and probably always will be if even Bloodborne couldn’t shift it from its lofty perch.


I usually play through Silent Hill 2 at least once a year. Not last year, though – I played Silent Hill 4 instead for the purposes of this article, so never let it be said that I don’t suffer for my art. That just means I’m really looking forward to playing SH2 again, though, and in this article I’ll be pointing out a few of the things that caught my attention during what was my thirtieth-ish playthrough. With that in mind, this article will contain spoilers. Lots and lots of huge, end-game spoilers right from the beginning of the article, so if you’ve never played Silent Hill 2 but you’d like to one day then skip this article. Seriously, if there’s any game where spoilers should absolutely be avoided, it’s Silent Hill 2. To reiterate: watch out for spoilers. Okay? Okay. Right, let’s get started.


I’ll begin in the very first area of the game: a disgusting, piss-drenched men’s toilet! This neatly sidesteps the issue of why you never see protagonists go to the bathroom – in Silent Hill 2’s case, it because protagonist James Sunderland has thoroughly evacuated himself before embarking on his adventure. That’s not why I’m talking about the toilet, though. Instead, I’d like to draw your attention to this strange piece of graffiti on the bathroom wall. Weird bowling-pin creatures with shocked expressions make an interesting change from the usual “LEEDS UTD 4EVA” or “Dazs mum is a slag” you see scrawled on toilet walls, but I’m more interested in the writing around the graffiti man. Here’s a closer look:


That certainly looks like Hebrew writing to me. But what does it say? Sorry, but that’s where my knowledge of Hebrew ends, I’m afraid. I tried to puzzle it out on my own and didn’t get very far. A bit of internet research suggest a few other people have also tried to figure it out, with the result that the writing might be a list of names for God in Hebrew. The one just to the left of the little dude’s neck looks like it could be “Adonai,” for instance. Personally, I’m not so sure. It depends on whether this image was taken from somewhere or if it was created specifically for the game by SH2’s graphic artists. There are other instances in the game of text in different alphabets, (and we’ll get to that in a bit,) where Konami simply replaced the English letter with its closest equivalent from the Greek alphabet, so that might also be what’s happening here only with the Hebrew alphabet. You’re all welcome to have a crack at deciphering this thing, but I’m happy enough just to use it as an example of Silent Hill 2 hiding mysterious titbits that may or may not have a deeper meaning amongst the game’s graphics.

UPDATE:


A big thank you to the people in the comments below who filled in the blanks on this mysterious bit of graffiti. It turns out they are the names of God, and I even managed to find the original source image! Check out the comments for a bit more info. 

A little further in, and James encounters both the game’s first monster – which he promptly batters to death with a stick – and the franchise’s iconic radio, which emits static as a warning when monsters are nearby. However, in Silent Hill 2 the radio serves another purpose: it sends James a message from his dead wife Mary, encouraging him to hurry up and find her. Just to make one hundred per cent sure you get it, here come some enormous spoilers. Don’t say you weren’t warned.


The message you hear is garbled and patchy… but not as garbled and patchy as the game wants you to think it is. Check out the subtitles in the screenshot above – you can see there are only snippets of the message coming through, until you stop reading the subtitles and actually listen.



At about 23 seconds into the clip above, you can clearly hear James’ wife say “why did you kill me?” thus revealing Silent Hill 2’s most shocking plot twist about five minutes into the game. That’s what you call a ballsy manoeuvre, folks. The thing is, out of all the people I know in real life who’ve played Silent Hill 2 not one of them has ever noticed Mary spoiling the game. I know I didn’t, I had it pointed out to me years later. It’s pretty amazing, really. My explanation as to why so few people pick up on this is that a) you’re not expecting to be told the game’s plot twist right off the bat, b) people assume that there’s nothing to hear because they take the game’s insistence that the message is garbled as fact and c) you’re actually reading the subtitles, assuming that they’ll tell you any important information. It’s a fascinating psychological trick, honestly. Risky, but I think it pays off nicely.

Now that James has a weapon and a radio, he can spend some time wandering around the foggy streets of Silent Hill trying to figure out where to go next. Or, you can take in the town’s architecture at your leisure, because it’s not exactly difficult to avoid the monsters. That way you get so see what Silent Hill has to offer as a resort town, including a couple of cafes and bars, a restaurant that promises “humongous burritos” and whatever this place sells.


I had a hard time picking a favourite shop name from Silent Hill 2, especially when you consider other contenders are a shop called “I Love Groovy Music” and the ultra-appropriately named “Cafe Mist” but in the end I had to go with “Magical Envelopes” because, c’mon, magical envelopes? On one level I appreciate the absurdity of it, because quite possibly the least magical thing I can think of is a manila envelope. On the other hand, Silent Hill 2 does literally start with James receiving a magical envelope, so now we know where the dark forces of Silent Hill do their stationary shopping.


Moving on to the apartment building portion of the game, and here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned anywhere before: this spooky picture. The one on the right. What do you mean, “it just looks like trees?” Let’s zoom in and enhance:


There are a couple of skulls on that picture, and there’s nowt more spooky than skulls. It’s perhaps a little too obviously spooky for a Silent Hill game, a series whose sense of dread usually comes from unsettling weirdness. It definitely leans towards the “lenticular Halloween decoration” end of the fear scale but again, it shows there’s always something in Silent Hill 2 worth keeping your eyes peeled for.

The apartment building is also where you meet Pyramid Head for the first time, and one of the most iconic monsters in modern videogaming gets a suitably powerful introduction. Now, I suspect that when most people think of Pyramid Head’s introduction they think of the cutscene where Pyramid Head attacks some other monsters while James hides in a wardrobe, and I can see why: it’s a disturbing, aggressive scene that quickly cements Pyramid Head as something even more dangerous than the other creatures in the game. However, I much prefer the moment you get your very first look at Pyramid Head.


For me, it’s the single most effective “scary” moment in videogaming, and all Pyramid Head does is stand there, basking in a faint red glow. James’ monster-detecting radio is going bananas so you know that this mysterious figure is a monster, but beyond that you know nothing about it as it stands there and watches you from behind the metal gate, just obscured enough that you can’t make out its exact form. The dread comes from not knowing what Pyramid Head’s intentions are – other monsters would be jerking and flailing towards James in an attempt to kill him, not calmly surveying the scene. It’s the opposite of a jump-scare, I suppose, and it’s extremely effective in instilling an extra layer of uncertainty and nervousness in the player.


Speaking of Pyramid Head, here’s the first time you have to fight him. When you “win,” Pyramid Head simply turns around and walks away, but I totally forgot that if you chase after him he will turn around and start trying to kill you again. Man, that’d be a really embarrassing way to die in Silent Hill 2, huh? Killed by a boss you’ve already beaten. What kind of sap would fall for that, he chuckled awkwardly to himself as he loaded his last save file.


Before we leave the apartment building, I’ll take this opportunity to mention (again) that there’s a message hidden around the edges of the coins used in the coin puzzle.

After trekking through the apartment building, James meets up with Maria. She’s a (more spoilers) not-real duplicate of his dead wife with a more licentious personality and Christina Aguilera’s wardrobe. James and Maria eventually make their way to the hospital, but the exertion is all too much for Maria and she has to have a little lie down.


There’s definitely humour to be found in someone laying on a bare, stained mattress in a filthy abandoned mental hospital full of monsters and saying “Mmm. So comfy...” A pitch-black kind of humour to be sure, but it’s still there. Of course, now I’m wondering whether Maria’s exaggerated assessment of the hospital’s sleeping arrangements is completely intentional and she’s trying to convince James to stay with her, maybe get on the bed with her and give up looking for his dead wife. If that’s the case, she should have probably picked a location that doesn’t look like a nightmare scene from Jacob’s Ladder.


Here’s a save point adorning the wall of one of the other hospital rooms. I love that the save points in Silent Hill 2 are just… red squares. Pieces of paper, possibly. Their very simplicity makes them mysterious, especially when James comments that it feels as though “someone’s groping around in (his) skull” when he looks at them. I think one of the reasons SH2 is so effective at unnerving the player is that it’s so close to being almost over-familiar, but then it veers away into the kind of strangeness you might not expect. This is presumably the result of a Japanese team of game developers making a game that’s hugely inspired by “Western” horror – the works of Stephen King and David Lynch, for instance – but then adding their own sensibilities to it, creating something at once familiar and alien. I mentioned this in a previous article, but take Pyramid Head’s design, for instance: the way he looks in the Silent Hill movies, with the extra greeblies on the helmet and the sheer pointiness of it all – that’s how you’d expect him to look in a Hollywood horror movie. His original game design, however, is both clearly monstrous but unnervingly abstract, and it lets you know that Pyramid Head is something other than just a monster.
Where was I? Oh yeah, save points. As well as being mysterious, their simple shape and vivid colour also makes them easy to spot while you’re traversing the town, which is nice.


There’s also this scene right near the end of the game, where the developers made damn sure you knew it was time to save your progress while simultaneously making you dread whatever’s coming up next. It’s something so horrible it requires nine goddamn save points! Good job on making even such a basic mechanical element as saving your game a vehicle for horror, Team Silent.


In the hospital’s shower room, there’s a trail of fluorescent green goop running down the drain. Given that this is Silent Hill, this fluid could be all manner of unpleasant substances, but I’m going to assume that it’s a reference to the undead resurrecting serum from the Re-Animator movies. Do I have any evidence to support this claim? No, I do not. I just like Re-Animator, and I especially like the idea of Herbert West pitching up in Silent Hill. He’d probably love it in Silent Hill. There’s a regular supply of dead bodies to re-animate and enough mysterious disappearances that it’ll be ages before anyone even suspects him. Presumably Herbert West would inhabit the regular, non-nightmarish Silent Hill, though. The haunted, psychological-torture version of the town only seems to ensnare those with deeply repressed guilt, and Herbert West has never felt guilty about anything in his life.

After the hospital, James heads to the Silent Hill Historical Society. Open Friday-to-Monday, kids under five go free, ask us about the town’s history of evil religious cults and lake tragedies. There are a few notable relics of Silent Hill’s past in the Historical Society, mostly in the form of paintings. The most famous is that huge painting of Pyramid Head that dominates one wall, but some of the others are interesting, too.


For instance, this fairly unremarkable picture actually depicts the room where you fight the game’s final boss, a nice little piece of foreshadowing.


There’s also this one, called “Crimson and White Banquet for the Gods.” It’s a little hard to see here, but that’s okay, I’ve got a close-up.


As you can see, it shows some people participating in a ceremony, including someone wearing robes and a big, red, triangular hood. Hmm. I’ve always been partial to the theory that on James’ first visit to Silent Hill – back before he killed his wife and descended into a nightmarish psychological hellscape – he saw this picture on a trip to the Historical Society and it stuck with him, later informing the appearance that Pyramid Head takes as it is manifested from James’ mind. The chap in the red hood, one Jimmy Stone, also pops up in Silent Hill 4 as one of the ghosts, because one of the big themes in Silent Hill 4 is taking minor world-building elements from Silent Hill 2 and making them more “important.”

Via the expedient method of jumping down some seemingly bottomless pits, James finds himself in a prison for the next portion of the game. One great thing about the prison is that it shows how much you can get out of playing through Silent Hill 2 multiple times. On your first playthrough, the prison seems appropriate because it could represent how trapped James is feeling by his situation, his inability to protect Maria and his reluctance to accept his wife’s death. On later playthroughs, however, and especially if you got the ending that explains James killed his sick wife for selfish reasons, you’ve got an extra layer of meaning as you realise that prison might be where James belongs.


There are a few moments that hammer this home, some of them less subtle than other. James briefly gets trapped in a cell, and there’s a scene where he pulls down a noose so that it frames his head, that kind of thing. The moment pictured above is one I’ve never really thought about before, though, showing James on the “wrong” side of the visitor’s booth while the camera – that is, the player – views him through the security glass. It’s a wonderfully crafted little scene, and a pleasing reminder that even after playing SH2 dozens of times I’m still finding new ways to enjoy it.


On a lighter note, there’s a gallows in the prison. No, wait, bear with me. You see, you can climb up the gallows, and you can also fall off them.


James’ weird falling animation and comically heavy thud as he hits the ground provide a welcome moment of levity in a game of such unrelenting horror, and as such I chuck myself off this platform a few times every time I play through the game. Well, they do say nothing relieves a stressful situation like a little gallows humour. Oh, cool, that was the joke that finally killed my soul.


Also, the prison has some surprisingly cheerful signage on its bathroom doors.

The final area of the game is the hotel, and just outside there’s a fountain that’s making me question my conception of what a bird looks like. I always assumed it was supposed to be a fish, perhaps one that sprays water out of its mouth. You know, one of those sculptural fish you sometimes see that look like medieval drawings of dolphins. But no, James says it’s a bird and he’s looking right at it. Who am I to question his taxonomical skills? I can see it as maybe a stretched goose, I suppose, although rather than a fish or a bird it reminds me most of a sandworm from Beetlejuice.


Finally for today, it’s the moment just before you face the final boss. Visually, it’s a beautifully composed image: stark and plain, which I’ve always taken to represent James letting go of the delusions he’s been labouring under for the rest of the game. All that’s left is to confront “Mary” and bring it all to an end, whatever end that might be. One touch I really like is the quietness of the scene: as you approach this final encounter, there’s no music and the only sounds are James’ footsteps and a light rain. You get here by climbing up a huge metal staircase, and when you enter the room the staircase falls away beneath you to show that there’s no going back – but it does so silently, without the sound of crashing metal you might expect. I don’t know whether this was intentional or not, but it works out well because if there was a sudden loud noise it would really detract from the scene.


So that was a bunch of words about Silent Hill 2, huh? Yeah, it didn’t really fall into the usual Ephemera article style, but sometimes you’ve just got to write about what makes you happy and rambling on about SH2 does make me happy. Now I’ve just got to decide between playing through Silent Hill 2 again or moving on to Silent Hill 3.
 

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