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And Still More Spore

February 12th, 2009 No comments

I’m having entirely too much fun recreating the classic Dungeons & Dragons canon in Spore. Unfortunately, it looks as if a gelatinous cube may be out of the question for now. But here’s a carrion crawler doing a little dance!

More Spore

February 10th, 2009 No comments

Here are two more iconic Dungeons & Dragons critters recreated in Spore. In both cases, I went back to the original Chinese plastic toys that Gary Gygax appropriated for the game.

The bulette was a burrowing beast that probably owed a great deal to Chevy Chase as the “Land Shark,” as well as to the classic Outer Limits episode “The Invisible Enemy,” in which Mars was infested by fin-headed monsters that swam beneath its sandy surface.

The dreaded rust monster, whose sole purpose in the game was to screw over players that had acquired too much loot. Its tendrils caused metal (e.g. magic swords, magic armor) to rust instantly.

Gaming The System

February 9th, 2009 No comments

One of the first things I did after getting my new laptop up and running was to load onto it pretty much every piece of computer game software I’ve bought in the past five years. Some were ones I’d just never finished, others were ones that I’d had to uninstall because of lack of hard drive space on my old desktop, and still others were ones that required a much more powerful processor than I had available. So it was that for the last week of January I played through the remainder of Doom 3…approximately five years after it came out.

I’ve also bought several new(ish) games, a couple of which came courtesy the closeout of the rapidly-dissolving Circuit City chain. Right now I’m messing with Spore. After a lot of hassle with its ridiculous digital rights management scheme, I was finally able to access the enormous online library of user-created content. But of course the real fun is rolling your own creations. Here’s a Dungeons & Dragons Beholder that I whipped up, thick in the throes of first love.

As many of the reviews have suggested, Spore the game isn’t half as interesting as Spore the thing maker.  It’s neat to put your creature through the evolutionary process, but the early stages of the game are rather uninvolving, and the Tribal stage in particular isn’t something I think I’d ever seek out a second time. My little guys are just entering the Civilization stage, and then it’s on to outer space, where I’m told the gameplay becomes a lot more fun. Still, the title has charm galore, and the content creators are amazing. I was lucky enough to snag a copy for twenty bucks, and I’ve gotten my money’s worth just fiddling with the editors.

One of the games that I picked up during the death rattle of Circuit City was Soulstorm, the most recent installment of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War series, and I’m psyched about the addition of my beloved Sisters of Battle to the franchise. The other was Fallout 3. I know that certain fans of the older entries in that post-apocalyptic series are annoyed with the switch from pure role-playing game to first-person shooter, but having no exposure to Fallout outside of the Playstation 2 game, I don’t have much invested in it. The reviews have been very encouraging, and I’m looking forward to giving the disc a spin.

That Bites

October 12th, 2008 No comments

Last Friday’s session in my ongoing Dungeons & Dragons campaign began with the players breaking a cardinal rule of RPGs: “Don’t split the party.” Separating into two groups is bad for the DM, who then has to keep both subgroups engaged even though one isn’t “there” at the moment. It’s also bad for the players, who are much more likely to find their characters outgunned by whatever opposition their DM had balanced with a larger group in mind. Note to my playgroup: telling me that you’re splitting the party in a manner which suggests that you know better does not actually help.

So it was that the paladin, wizard and ranger went to check out the new shipment of goods at Marali’s Fine Imports, while the warlord and rogue investigated a report of a “beastman attack” outside the Punt & Pole Tavern near the waterfront. The previous day, a bestial humanoid had slashed the throat of a patron leaving the establishment and fled into the night.

Arriving at the tavern, they soon encountered Meepo, an enthusiastic, relatively innocuous kobold (a small, lizard-like humanoid) who had recently been kicked out of his usual pub after an altercation. Meepo fancies himself a brave adventurer, and that–plus his race’s worship of dragons–caused him to quickly latch onto the dragonbord warlord Kesek.

Meanwhile, Marali–a comely half-elven proprietor–asked the other group to talk to a shady character who had been lurking outside her shop the past couple of nights. The stranger was rude and gave them a bad feeling. He eventually ambled away but soon returned in the company of a sinister, hooded figure with eyes that glittered in the half-light.

The players asked about Marali’s recent shipment from the north, and learned that there was one item which wasn’t listed on the manifest. It was a bowling ball-sized, black sphere which had a mysterious sigil etched upon it: the mark of the long-dead “Night Wizard,” Tor Shok. They offered to borrow the sphere and take it to the Arcane Assembly for identification, but Marali was hesitant to let such a potentially valuable item out of her hands.

By this time, the two groups had reunited at Marali’s, but they soon split up again, with the ranger and rogue tracking the hooded figure through the dark alleys, while the others stayed behind to guard the store. This proved to be an error in judgment, as did Green Leaf the ranger’s attempt to “distract” their quarry by tossing down a magical bauble which flashed into a bright light.

Well aware that he was being followed, he led the pursuers into an ambush, as four human-appearing creatures came at them from two sides, their faces morphing into bestial features as they attacked. One of them slashed at Cynfael the rogue’s throat with its fangs and began to lap his blood. Things were looking grim, as the twosome were cornered.

Fortunately, Green Leaf’s frantic whistle carried to Marali’s shop, and the rest of the party was able to catch up surprisingly fast. (Brave, little Meepo was left behind to hold down the fort.) While Cynfael was temporarily brought down, the creatures were soon routed, each exploding into dust as they died. Green Leaf fired an arrow at long range and pierced the heart of the last, fleeing vampyr.

As the hooded figure had dallied to watch the fight, the heroes were able to follow him as he fled into an abandoned temple to Corellon. They burst through the doors to find him reunited with his fellow vampyr from outside the shop, and backed up by several skeletons and zombies which he summoned from the ruined crypt below.

During the battle, Tuk’-Ja the wizard proved a danger to his own friends through his overenthusiastic use of area effect spells, but eventually the minions were dusted and Daggas, the vampyr Death Master was cornered and beheaded.

As the heroes licked their wounds, an arrow infused with electricity struck the floor nearby with a crash of thunder. Another vampyr hung upside down from a bell rope, firing his magic longbow.

Cynfael scurried up a ladder and jumped for the hanging rope, while the other characters discovered a hidden stair. They confronted the powerful vampyr on the ledge outside the bell tower.

This unnamed foe was especially tricky, enshrouding himself in a cloud of darkness. However, outnumbered and outmatched by the assembled characters, he volunteered to throw himself from the ledge, smashing to the ground below…then inexplicably vanishing!

As our heroes reach “second level” at last, they still don’t know the purpose of the strange sphere, nor the extent of the vampyrs’ influence in Boswin.

But that’s an adventure for another day…

A Whole Lot Of Poo

September 28th, 2008 No comments

Last Friday evening, our gaming group completed their first adventure in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

It all began innocently enough, with the adventurers gathering for a meal at “Gutworthy’s,” a pub specializing in greasy, filling food. Their revels were interrupted by a screaming woman in the nearby market square: “My baby! It’s taken my baby!”

The “it” in question was a giant rat, which had grabbed her infant son in its teeth and scrambled down a nearby sewer opening. There was, of course, little choice for the heroes but to follow.

Wandering the maze of twisty passages without a map, they soon entered a long, straight tunnel in which the ceiling and walls seemed to be crumbling. Taking little heed of the surroundings, they were ambushed by several large centipedes!

Meanwhile, while scouting up ahead, Cynfael the rogue found himself unexpectedly attacked by a dreaded gelatinous cube, a large, transparent scavenger that had crept quietly up behind him. The creature engulfed and attempted to digest him! (DM’s note: I have a well-documented fondness for the gelatinous cube.)

Cynfael managed to extricate himself from the jelly-like mass, and eventually the party overcame the menaces. Tuk’-Ja the eladrin wizard found himself a magic orb within the body of the slain cube.

Traveling further, they reached an intersection. There the phrase “GO BACK STOMPERS” was written out in some manner of unwholesome “paint.” A crazed voice cackled from somewhere within the walls: “Who dares invade my kingdom? My subjects will gnaw your bones!”

Several dire rats tumbled out of the pipes and challenged the heroes. Seconds later, with a clanking sound, a strange device rose up from the floor at the end of the passage and a mechanical arm began tossing exploding firepots at random combatants.

The trap nearly proved to be too much for the group, taking down their healer, Hariah the half-elf paladin, with a lucky hit. (DM’s note: I used a trap straight out of the Dungeon Master’s Guide that was allegedly appropriate for characters of their level, but found its high accuracy and damage rate both to be a bit much.) For reasons known only to them, they chose to battle on within its arc of fire rather than getting behind the machine. They did, however, rescue Hariah and finally shut down the device.

After a short rest they pressed on, only to find the lead members of the party sliding helplessly down a slick slope into a large chamber with a stinking pile of muck at its center. To no one’s true surprise, a bulk emerged from beneath the offal surface. A slavering, tentacled otyugh attempted to pull Hariah into its maw, while more centipedes, attracted by the battle, scuttled into the room.

The other characters voluntarily slid down the slope to join the fray. Protected by the difficult terrain of the muck pile, the otyugh nearly overcame the group. (DM’s note: The otyugh is a 7th-level monster which I scaled down to 5th for the purpose of this encounter. Its high Armor Class and Fortitude values, coupled with the combat minus for fighting within its stench aura, made it very difficult to hit. The party was severely lacking in powers which could attack its relatively low Reflex defense.)

Poor Hariah had quite a time before finally breaking free of the otyugh’s grip. In the end, the foul beast went down.

Shortly thereafter, the party had another run-in with tentacled sewer dwellers, smallish beasts which dropped from the ceiling and attempted to wrap their tendrils around their victims’ necks. (DM’s note: These were actually “chokers” from the Monster Manual, “re-skinned” to resemble the darkmantles of 3rd edition D&D. Their favorite trick was to grab a victim and use it as a shield against other attacks.)

The sewer tunnel dead-ended in the foundation of a building which had fallen into disuse. The large, underground vault was festooned with broken furniture, and dominated by a “throne” made of discarded crates and various animal and human teeth.

This was the “palace” of Loomis, the self-styled “Rat King.” This human lunatic had been sending his rat minions to the surface to kidnap male children in hopes of identifying one to serve as his “heir.” In fact, three babies were present, and Loomis intended to test their worthiness by dropping them into a water-filled cistern. His assumption was that a Rat Prince would be a good swimmer. (DM’s note: Loomis was an unused villain from my friend Dave Lartigue’s defunct 3rd edition D&D game. I was so taken by the concept–and the Lego minifigure that Dave L. had designed for him–that I asked to borrow both for my own game.)

Sergeant Kesek the dragonborn warlord ordered Loomis to surrender the children, but the Rat King set his pets against them. (DM’s note: This was another chance to use one of my favorite D&D miniatures, the “rat swarm.”)

The battle didn’t go well for Loomis: most of his minions were cut down before he could effectively rally them. He began suspiciously backing toward the far end of the room and its oh-so-convenient trap door, pausing only to fire a few rounds from his “ratapult.” (DM’s note: Loomis’ ranged attack involved plucking one of the smallish rats constantly crawling on his person and firing it with a sling.)

As Kesek gathered the would-be rat princes and the heroes closed in, Loomis threw a blackout bomb at the ground and fled through the aforementioned trap door, vowing vengeance.

The party searched the Rat King’s “nest” and discovered a nifty lightning-powered longsword which was claimed by the paladin. Returning the children to their parents, the heroes enjoyed a small, but gratefully-given reward, as well as the opportunity to clean off all that poo.

D&D: First Impressions

June 30th, 2008 No comments

As I previously suggested, I’m delighted with the new, 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks. They represent a massive step forward for the venerable role-playing game, challenging old assumptions and greatly streamlining the system to make it more playable…and fun!

The greatest praise that I can heap upon 4th Edition is this: I’ve felt so intimidated by the copious rules of modern RPGs that I’ve run a mere handful of sessions in the past two decades, yet I felt so confident after buying the new Player’s Handbook that I was conducting a playtest adventure a mere week later. And now I’m gearing up for the first RPG campaign I’ve run since I was in high school.

4th Edition has been derisively called “MMORG, the RPG.” (MMORG stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game,” as in World of Warcraft.) And indeed, even a relative neophyte to the world of online RPGs can see the influences: clearly defined party “roles” (striker, controller, etc.), permanent teleportation circles in each settlement (to avoid those long trips back to home base), and the ability to “respec” one’s character to swap out outdated or ill-chosen powers.

Yet, what’s wrong with that? Back in the day, players came to 1st Edition D&D through fantasy literature (and perhaps a Ray Harryhausen film or two), so it made sense that the game primarily drew from Tolkien, Moorcock, Vance and Howard. But these days quasi-medieval fantasy is much more a part of pop culture, thanks to the Lord of the Rings films and World of Warcraft. Why shouldn’t D&D offer those coming from the wildly-popular MMORGs a familiar play experience?

My favorite innovation is the use of “powers,” which not only replace magic spells from previous editions, but also include special melee attacks and various “finishing moves.” Not only are they so much easier to adjudicate, they are more evocative than the old “I hit him with my sword” attacks. And, along with the tactical notes available in the Monster Manual, they gave the dungeon encounters I ran instant flavor and personality.

Adding to the ease of the new system is the spiffy new Dungeon Master’s Guide, which–gasp!–actually explains how to run the game. In clear, straightforward terms, it walks the reader through the steps of building balanced encounters, creating skill challenges, modifying monsters and even creating your own horrors.


Rob’s wizard wisely hangs well back from the Ochre Jelly.

My friends Rob and Lee submitted to my will for a recent playtest. To demonstrate just how easy it was to pick up and play, I devised a simple dungeon crawl of four encounters with less than a day of prep time. Instead of drawing a map, I built the rooms out of my collection of prefabricated “Dungeon Tiles” and photographed the results. (I literally used my digital camera as my map reference.) And I just cut-and-pasted the monster stat blocks I needed onto cheat sheets.

The roughly-sketched adventure involved exploring a ruined tower in search of a kidnapped farmer’s daughter. (Look, I’m saving the non-cliches for the campaign.) Arriving at the tower, the party encountered a slurping, gluttonous Ochre Jelly.

We saw this a lot.

This first fight went against the heroes, and not just because the Jelly could take a lot of punishment before going down. Lee had a truly terrible string of die rolls, whereas my own attacks hit frequently and ferociously. His paladin was taken out all too quickly, which was a problem given that he was the only healer.

Rob immediately declared his love for the new system, marveling at how his 1st-level wizard was not, as in olden days, a meat shield with four hit points and a single “Sleep” spell. While the trusty, old “Magic Missile” is weaker than before, being able to cast it every turn helps!

Rats!

Ultimately they prevailed and moved into the tunnels beneath the tower, where they were set upon by various giant rats. I was excited about being able to use my “Pile o’ Rats” miniature, as a swarm of vermin poured out of the ominous floor grate behind the party to cut off their escape.

They dispatched the rats without too much bother, but the hour was late and we had to put off the rest of the adventure until the following Friday.

(Insert unwelcome intrusion of real world here.)

When we resumed, the good guys entered a room in which several goblins were making their lair. Rob’s dwarf boldly stepped forward…and tumbled straight into a concealed pit, where he was soon set upon by a ravenous wolf.

Despite being given a week to work itself out, Lee’s streak of bad karma continued, and he rolled several more “ones.” Meanwhile, my goblins were happily tossing javelins and hitting more often than not.

Though one of the gobbos escaped through a curtain, the heroes defeated the remaining monsters and set off into a twisty cave passage. They ran afoul a spear trap which was hastily added on my part, and which probably needed to be better thought-out to be effective as a solo threat.

Then it was time for the main event: the lair of the goblin hexer who’d kidnapped the aforementioned daughter. As the final encounter, it was meant to be a more difficult fight. However, the peril was increased over what I’d intended for a couple of reasons. First, I’d decided that the goblin who’d escaped the previous fight should be present. Second, as I’d never written up proper room descriptions, I’d forgotten which type of goblins I’d originally used. Instead of using six “minions” (one-hit-point wonders which die from a single successful attack), I made two of them full-fledged soldiers.

The result was ugly.

At first I thought it would go okay. Rob’s wizard temporarily took out the goblin hexer with a Sleep spell. However, the adventurers made what may have been a tactical blunder of remaining in a bottleneck. On one hand, the goblin minions couldn’t flank them, but on the other, they couldn’t flank the monsters either.

A hobgoblin soldier and an orc skeleton held them at bay until the goblin hexer could wake up his sorry ass and cast an obscuring cloud over the area. Meanwhile, the goblin soldiers who shouldn’t have been there had another good run of luck with their javelins.

Rob’s wizard rushed forward to save the day with his “finishing move,” a Burning Hands spell that spread out in a cone to encompass most of the opponents. Unfortunately, he chose that moment to inherit Lee’s die-rolling karma. Subsequently, the dwarf fell unconscious, then the paladin was killed outright. At that point, it was pretty much over. The wizard dropped, and Lee’s rogue ran for the exit. The fate of the farmer’s daughter was unrevealed.

Later, Lee submitted a sketch of the final stand, which I thought was nifty!

Our first go with 4th Edition D&D may not have turned out as planned, but everyone seemed to find it a success anyway. And I learned at least one thing: remember to write down which monsters one is using to stock one’s dungeon!

Latitude Zero: The Thrilling Conclusion!

June 16th, 2008 No comments

As the final installment of Latitude Zero commences, Malic has just concluded transplanting the brain of his once-loyal lover Kroiga into the body of a surgically-grafted gryphon and sent it to “Kill MacKenzie!”

Flush with success, the ageless, mad scientist seemingly forgets that he’d intended to intimidate Dr. Okada into giving up the secret of his anti-radiation formula by turning Okada’s daughter into a bat creature. Instead, he commits a breach of etiquette by moving straight to his back-up plan of dissecting the doctor’s brain.

But first, he observes Captain MacKenzie’s group making its way across Blood Rock on his monitor, and flips a handy blow-up-the-cliffside switch to bring an avalanche down upon them. However, they manage to avoid injury from the falling rocks. This may be due to the protective combination of their corvexa jumpsuits and their swim in the Bath of Immunity, or it might be because the rocks are a poorly superimposed special effect. We’ll never be certain.

Elsewhere, Kroiga the gryphon begins to experience the effects of Malic’s “amplification serum” and grow in size.

Trapped in a cave, MacKenzie and crew suddenly find themselves in a Princess Bride crossover, as Rodents of Unusual Size (species Rattus zippersuitus) menacingly approach. Our heroes respond by firing paralyzing gas pellets from the fingers of their golden gloves, then beat a hasty retreat to another tunnel.

“Hey, does anyone else smell cheese?”

They emerge into a bone-filled valley venting poison gas into the air. As the choking fumes enter their lungs, Richard Jaeckel shouts “Bath of Immunity, my ass!” Or maybe that was just me. The corvexa suits–which, as you may recall, are woven from an impervious alloy of gold and platinum–don’t help much either when they encounter a lake of pure, purple acid. Koubo loses a boot when he ignores all common sense and tests the obviously evil, bubbling brew with his foot. Nice going, Koubo.

“Too bad there’s absolutely no other way
to tell if this is dangerous.”
“Madre de Dios!”

The giant rats pursue them across the plain. MacKenzie and Ken Tashiro hold them off with their fingertip flamethrowers. That’s right, fingertip flamethrowers. Never mind how a pair of normally-sized gloves can accommodate gas launchers, laser projectors and flamethrowers, not to mention their assorted power sources and ammunition. It’s science!

Unfortunately, Koubo’s “elevation belt” improbably fell off and melted as Perry and Ken pulled him out of the acid lake, which leaves MacKenzie in a pickle as the now-flaming rodents continue their advance. Ordering the men to link arms, they airlift the beltless Koubo as the rats heedlessly plunge into the deadly liquid.

This does, in fact, look ridiculous. Turns out the rats were no smarter than Koubo.

Back at Evil Medical Center, Cesar Romero is pissed that his newly minted gryphon ineffectually sits around utterly failing to kill MacKenzie. He grouses, “Kroiga was a fool as a woman; is she also a fool as a gryphon? Why doesn’t she attack?” I don’t know, Malic, do the words “Die, die, DIE!” mean anything to you?

He prepares to cut open Dr. Okada’s brain, which somehow involves pointing a sinister sun lamp at his head. From the gallery, Okada’s daughter reinforces a stereotype by shouting “Prease! Prease don’t hurt my father!”

At long last, MacKenzie bursts into the chamber and all hell breaks loose. Bat creatures swoop down, supported by thick wires. One attacks Ken and is promptly smacked in the head. As Perry grapples the monster, Dr. Tashiro rushes to the aid of Miss Osaka, and…kicks a bat creature in the ass.

Sure, they can fly.
But they prefer the elevator.
Ken Tashiro, Action Scientist!

Malic’s galpal Lucretia moves to stab Dr. Okada with a hypodermic needle, but MacKenzie intercepts her. Petulantly, she plunges the hypo into the captain’s chest. However, the needle merely bends as it contacts his intermittently impervious jumpsuit.

Then, in what seems a supremely dickish move by a purported good guy, MacKenzie deliberately throws Lucretia onto Malic’s knife.

“Into the mud, scum queen!”

As Lucretia dies in Malic’s arms, the terrible twosome share a touching moment:

“Lucretia! I didn’t…I didn’t…”
“I know, Malic. I know.”

Okay, it ain’t deathless dialogue, but it is the most honestly emotional moment of the entire film.

I haven’t cared much for MacKenzie up until this point, but I now like him even less when I see the insufferably smug look on his murderous face. Malic doesn’t care for it either, urging his bat creatures to “Kill him!”

MacKenzie (or rather, his stunt double) does a quick tuck-and-roll, then begins firing laser beams from his all-purpose gloves. A bisected bat creature thuds into the cavern wall.

Ladies and gentlemen, Joseph Cotten.

Koubo lifts a man-bat over his head for a helicopter spin. Perry punches another in the face. And Ken Tashiro, Action Scientist knifes one in the back.

Now I’m even beginning to feel sorry for the bat creatures.

Malic closes the shutters, plunging the room into darkness and bringing forth a swarm of garden-variety bats which, due to a tragic miscalcuation of scale, appear to have four-inch wingspans. The distraction allows him to escape to his submarine.

As Koubo switches on the cavern lights, Lucretia’s dead body is seen to rapidly decay into dust. Why? Oh, why the hell not?

“Aieee! Tiny bats!” She should’ve moisturized.

Captain MacKenzie leads the Okadas back to the relative safety of his own submarine, the Alpha, but Malic’s Black Shark closes in.

Malic launches a shell full of sparking glitter which settles over the Alpha and electrifies the sub’s controls. Again, the Bath of Immunity proves overrated as Koubo is burnt. Inexplicably, MacKenzie is able to overcome the electrical arcs with his bare hands and thrust the lever which disperses the glitter from the ship’s hull.

Undeterred, Malic activates a hidden magnet which draws the Alpha against the cliff wall, then begins to oh-so-slowly pivot his laser cannon for a final, deadly shot.

At last, MacKenzie reveals the “special modifications” that he’d ordered for the Alpha. Rocket engines fire and the vessel soars into the air. Because, honestly, it wouldn’t be Japanese sci-fi without a flying submarine.

Malic rushes to the cannon turret and lauches a furious fusillade. But the Black Shark itself is pulled against the cliffside. Hoist by his own magnetic petard, the villain initially fails to notice that Kroiga–remember her?–has chosen this moment to get off her dead gryphon ass and enter the fray.

The beast flies down and swipes at the laser cannon, knocking it aside. The cliff face is blasted, and rocks rain down on the Black Shark. Malic flails in futility, Kroiga claws at the turret, and finally the whole mess goes up in an orgy of Toho Studios-brand explosions.

Hell hath no fury like a woman
whose brain was surgically removed.
“Roar! I say roar, even!”

Ken Tashiro, Action Scientist observes “Scratch one submarine.” Then as Blood Rock detonates as well, Perry pithily responds “Scratch one island.”

Boom.

Later, back at the undersea pimple that is Latitude Zero, Perry takes snapshots of happy couples. Anne Barton has at last landed her Franco-Japanese love, Jules Masson. Meanwhile, Ken Tashiro, Action Scientist blissfully plays golf with a woman whom I’ve only realized just now is Miss Okada.

Irwin Allen presents: Picnic at the Bottom of the Sea!

Perry prepares to return to the surface world with his camera full of photos and his tobacco pouch loaded with diamonds. He questions MacKenzie, “You said, ‘Everything down here is developed for the benefit of Mankind,’ right? Well, when are you gonna let the rest of the world in on this secret?”

The captain responds, “Mr. Lawton, none of us is wise enough to know when man will live in harmony. Until then, we must continue our work here because it’s the only place on this planet where we can.” Makes sense to me.

We then enjoy a photographic montage of the surface world: scenes of protest, Communists, impoverished kids drinking from styrofoam cups, rocketships blasting into orbit.

After this bizarre interlude, we see a naval vessel which rescues Perry from an inflatable raft. Oddly, no one believes his story of underwater civilizations, baths of immunity, oversized rats and teensy bats.

“Really, it was an alloy of gold and platinum!”

Without warning, and for no explainable reason, the film begins to channel the final scene of The Wizard of Oz. The ship’s captain is a dead-ringer for Ken Tashiro, Action Scientist, and the commander is Glen MacKenzie (no relation), played again by Joseph Cotten.

A flustered Perry attempts to prove his tale with the film from his camera, which–as anyone who has even seen this sort of thing before will know–is completely blank. And the pouch? Filled once again with tobacco.

“Son, what you’ve got here is a Toho Studios film.”

Now, you may be thinking that all this “and you were there, and you, and you” stuff is a put-on: that Ken Tashiro, Action Scientist and Captain MacKenzie have disguised themselves to mess with Perry’s head and protect the secret of Latitude Zero. But then the ship’s lieutenant enters, and he’s played by…Cesar Romero!

Whaaaaaaaa?!?

After Perry is led to sick bay to dribble into a cup, the lieutenant receives a message sent to Mr. Lawton from a bank in New York: “Have received 600 carats of diamonds from unknown sender, instructing we hold for safekeeping pending your return.”

“How did the bank know that he’s aboard this ship?”
“Damned if I know, but it’s a cinch he’s the richest man aboard.”

Soooooo, the fine folks of Latitude Zero fogged Perry’s film and replaced his fortune in precious stones with pipeweed, but then they went ahead and deposited the diamonds anyway?

And what the hell is Cesar Romero doing here? Why the pointless addition of a “it was all a dream, or was it?” twist?

We’ll never know. The vessel sets a new course: “Longitude one-seven-six, latitude…zero!”

Latitude Zero: Chapter Three

June 12th, 2008 No comments

Up ’til now, you may not have understood why I was so entranced by my initial viewing of Latitude Zero. Sure, it’s hokey, talky and far too impressed with its science-utopia, but the same could be said for a number of ’50s and ’60s sci-fi flicks.

It’s the third act where the wheels come off the bathysphere and and it descends into batshit insanity. You could blame the Japanese, who turn out unfathomably odd pop cultural artifacts faster than you can say “hentai Pokemon.” But I’ll lay it at the feet of its American screenwriter, Ted Sherdeman, who based it on his own ’40s radio serial. Time magazine’s review of the radio drama suggests that some of the odder details were there from the start. (In fairness to Sherdeman, he also wrote the screenplay for Them!, one of the very best ’50s monster movies.)

To recap the story so far:

MacKenzie and Malic are superscientists with inexplicably extended lifespans. They fight.


 

Our story continues as MacKenzie prepares to rescue the kidnapped scientist Dr. Okada and his daughter from Malic’s island fortress. He orders that special modifications being made to his submarine, the Alpha, be completed within the hour. Feeling indebted, Perry, Ken and Jules volunteer for the mission. The “Frenchman” asks how they should prepare for the dangers of Blood Rock. “First,” says MacKenzie, “the Bath of Immunity!”

It turns out to be more of a Spa Pool of Immunity, a bubbling tub of greenish water that grants 24 hours of protection. The gang is surprised when Anne joins them in the skinny dip. (It’s still the ’60s, so the nakedness is only implied.) It’s supposed to be humorously titillating when the boys have to exit the bath first with their junk dangling, but it’s really just sort of awkward.

Concerned about shrinkage. Get a good look, guys. This is all you get.

And how do we know that this is truly a Bath of Immunity and not just MacKenzie’s ploy to see Richard Jaeckel’s wee-wee? The good captain has one of his minions shoot him with a revolver. Plucking the bullet from the air, he says to Perry, “We’d better test you too.” And before any of our heroes can suggest something less drastic–a bad paper cut or poke in the eye–each is shot square in the chest. Ah, the scientific approach.

Call it job satisfaction.
“Wow, I didn’t even feel the kinetic energy!” “Me? Hey, you never shot the broad!”

Next, they are issued shiny jumpsuits made of “corvexa,” an alloy of gold and platinum and therefore impervious to all temperatures. Just like real gold and platinum are.

Back on Blood Rock, Malic taunts Dr. Okada by telling him that he knew about the homing device secreted in his prisoner’s spare eyeglasses all along, then smashes the frames with his foot. (Honestly, there’s evil and then there’s just plain dickishness.) He orders that the captives be brought to the observation gallery.

In the operating theater, a bat creature wheels in a gurney like a Chiropteran orderly. Strapped to it is Kroiga, once-loyal submarine commander and romantic rival of Malic’s “companion” Lucretia. As Lucretia prepares to jab her with a scary needle, Kroiga’s last words are “You monster! You fiend! Damn you! I hope you die…die…DIE!”

Keep this in mind. It’ll be important later.

On the next episode of Grey’s Anatomy “Seriously, die…dieDIE!

“I’ll demonstrate my skill,” Malic declares to Dr. Okada, “by creating the creature destined to kill your Captain MacKenzie.” As he walks over to a control panel, the nearby actor in the bat suit appears to think, “Well, I can’t just stand here doing nothing,” and so begins to quiver with palsied menace.

A pair of sliding wall panels reveal another actor, this one in a thoroughly unconvincing lion costume, and a puppet condor. Anesthetic gas pours into the lion’s cell.

On the Alpha, MacKenzie cracks out the rest of the gear. They include rocket-powered “elevation belts,” and gloves with a variety of weapons built into the fingers: miniature flamethrowers, paralyzing gas and lethal lasers.

Back in the operating room, Shaky the Bat watches as Malic begins to saw into the cranium of the still-conscious guy-in-a-lion-suit. From the gallery, Okada’s daughter cries, “I can’t stand it!” only to receive a dressing-down from another nearby bat creature.

“No, I do not want a neck rub!”

Malic’s intention is to transplant Kroiga’s brain into his beast, so that it’ll be able to “understand and obey” his orders. Okada offers to give up his anti-radiation formula, but it’s too late. Malic pulls out his rotary saw, and orders Lucretia to anesthetize the condor!

Perhaps a little too happy about his work. Fun Fact: “Anesthetize the condor” is a popular euphemism in the Malic household.

The Alpha arrives at Blood Rock and parks underneath a cliff face. Stepping out onto the landing ramp, the invaders activate their elevation belts and rocket upwards.

We are Devo. This does not in any way look ridiculous.

As they make their way toward the fortress, a magnetic force locks their elevation belts and holds them in place, but Koubo manages to lift them safely onto a nearby ledge.

Lucretia is alarmed as she watches their escape on a monitor, but Malic is otherwise engaged as he saws at the condor’s wings. “It doesn’t matter! Don’t bother me!” he snaps. This was the moment I realized that Latitude Zero had transcended to the ranks of the truly, wonderfully awful, as I witnessed Cesar Romero manically butcher a puppet bird.

Thanksgiving at Blood Rock was always a little strange.

Malic finishes assembling his creation, a winged lion with a human brain! He addresses it as “Kroiga,” and crows in triumph when it recognizes its name. Oh, but that’s not enough for Malic, now showing off like a toddler using the toilet for the first time. He brandishes his “amplification serum,” which will cause the gryphon to increase three times in size.

Now, as none of us are mad scientists, consider this for a moment: you have betrayed your lover (whose last words, remember, were “I hope you die, die, DIE!”), cut out her brain, stuck it in the body of a half-lion/half-bird, and made the resultant monster three times bigger. Really? This is your master plan? Have you really thought it through?

Malic’s mind is elsewhere. He cries “Go! Find MacKenzie and kill him! Kill MacKenzie!”

As the gryphon soars into the sky, we take our leave from Blood Rock for now…

  • Will Kroiga really “kill MacKenzie?”
  • Is creating a giant monster that hates your guts a good idea?
  • Does this corvexa jumpsuit make Joseph Cotten look fat?

Stay tuned, for the final chapter of Latitude Zero!

Next: Rodents of Unusual Size!

Latitude Zero: Chapter Two

June 6th, 2008 No comments

When we last left the heroes of Latitude Zero, they had outwitted Kroiga, captain of the Black Shark. Then, after a brief discussion of sexual etiquette, they set course for the underwater settlement that gives the film its name.

The nature of Latitude Zero is somewhat unclear. It’s housed in a huge, white dome that resembles a pimple desperately yearning to be popped, yet it’s accessed through a secret tunnel in an undersea rock wall. A secret tunnel marked with a sparkly, yellow and purple “zero,” which might as well be a neon sign post reading “This Way, Malic.” Maybe they thought bad guys would mistake it for the entrance to a disco.

Freudian symbolism alert.

The Alpha surfaces near the shore of an island which appears to exist in an air bubble within the colossal whitehead. That means it’s time for a Toho Studios standard…miniature mecha porn! The next two minutes of the film’s running time are spent on long, lingering shots of the Alpha arriving, being cradled by a claw-handed gantry and extending its landing ramp. It’s what most of us call “filler,” but what the Japanese call “a four-page spread in Hobby Japan magazine.”

After Kuobo loads Dr. Masson into a waiting ambulance, MacKenzie takes Ken and Perry on a tour of his submerged Shangri-La, an idyllic land where the cars are electric, the artificial sun shines exactly 14 hours a day and everyone has time to visit the pool.

And here’s where they make balloons. Today’s forecast: Sunny. Always fucking sunny.
Richard Jaeckel, playa.

There seem to be two types of people in Latitude Zero: respected scientists and babes in swimwear. Presumably the latter are an inducement when recruiting the former. Gold, extracted from seawater, is so abundant there that much of the swimwear is made from it.

“Hi! Have you met my concubine?” Latitude Zero understands the need for
girls on trampolines.
The ’70s are right around the corner, folks. Actual dialogue: “How was the volcano?” “Erupting!”

Meanwhile, at the “rehabilitation center,” Dr. Barton is seeing to the recuperating Jules Masson, who continues to harbor the illusion that he is French. Anne finds him confusing yet appealing.

“Take out Spare Ribs for one hundred dollars!”

This section of the film goes on for a bit, and unlike Captain MacKenzie, I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say that in Latitude Zero, everyone lives in peace and harmony. Greed has been eliminated. People piss champagne and crap diamonds.

In fact, they literally use diamonds to fill their planters the way we unenlightened mortals use glass beads. Perry stuffs his tobacco pouch with a million dollars of sparkling stones.

And it should go without saying that there’s nothing as de’classe’ as fast food restaurants at the bottom of the sea. Instead, wall slots dispense dinners from the central kitchen, where scientists cook as a hobby.

Actual dialogue: “Today’s chef is Dr. Neudorro, a mineralogist. Don’t worry, you won’t find any stones in your steak!” It’s Lobster Night at Old Country Buffet.

Back on Blood Rock, Malic fumes as he ruminates on the difficulty of destroying MacKenzie. More bad news comes when he learns that his Tokyo agents have failed to kidnap the prominent scientist Dr. Okada. Malic not only wants Okada for his anti-radiation formula, but as bait to lure MacKenzie outside the protection of his impregnable dome. Lucretia worries that MacKenzie is being invited to invade Blood Rock, but perks up when she learns that Malic intends one final mission for her rival Kroiga–intercepting the boat ferrying Dr. Okada to Hawaii–before he “retires her from service.”

The next morning, Perry, Ken and the fully recovered Jules are reunited, and given spiffy new surface world-style suits. MacKenzie, never one to miss a chance to prattle on about his technological paradise, shows off a model of the transforming cars his own agents use when recruiting scientists from above.

Also available from the Latitude Zero gift shop.

The scientists who willingly emigrate to Latitude Zero are believed to have defected to the other side of the Cold War. Under the sea, they work on boons rather than bombs. Their results are secretly distributed back to the surface through the old “switch the notebook pages” trick.

Meanwhile, bad things are brewing. The Black Shark retrieves Dr. Okada and his daughter, and reports of the hijack hit the international news.

Miss Okada enjoyed picking her father’s nose.
“Sir, I’ve got Orson Welles on Line 2.” It’s GHN: Giant Head News!

Back at Blood Rock, Malic and Kroiga share a moment in which he promises that he will reward his “little one” with some alone time together. But before we can firmly implant the image of Cesar Romero bumping uglies into our heads, he ushers Kroiga into a small room to await him…then pushes the “Big Yellow Cage” button. Apparently, this is not the foreplay Kroiga expected, and she cries, “Malic, daaaaaaamn youuuu!”

Honestly, I think this is preferable to the prospect of naked Cesar Romero.

Okada refuses to share the secret of his serum, which could allow a rogue nuclear state to immunize its population against radiation and than indiscriminately destroy its opposition. Because the retaliatory nukes would bounce harmlessly off its cities and infrastructure.

Malic introduces his captives to one of his experiments, comically hideous bat creatures, and threatens to turn Okada’s daughter into one of them unless he cooperates. Then he plays his trump card: the ability to surgically remove Okada’s brain and dissect its “memory bank!”

As Malic and Lucretia retire, Okada activates a homing device that Latitude Zero’s agents have hidden in his eyeglasses.

Actual dialogue: “You’re a monster!” “No, I’m a genius!”

The stage is set, the players are in place. Soon, it’ll be time for the ultimate confrontation between Malic and MacKenzie for the fate of the world.

  • Will Miss Okada be forced to wear a bat costume?
  • Will Dr. Masson realize that he is Japanese?
  • Will Malic and MacKenzie confess their love at last?

The answers to these and other burning questions will all be revealed!

Next: Assault on Blood Rock!

Two More

March 10th, 2008 No comments

While the Gelatinous Cube will eat anything, it has a fondness for caramel corn.

Lying in wait.