Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Best of the Best: 2014

The NES game that should have been. And now is.

Year: 2014
Movie: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Game: Shovel Knight
Album: Bloodstone & Diamonds by Machine Head
Song: Faith in Others by Opeth

2014 was a key year for me, in some ways, mainly because I started a new job at a fairly new online  company, that was supposed to get huge, but then didn't (more on that later). I got a new gym membership for the first time in years, which didn't bear immediate fruit, but did later on (more on that later also). It was also a better year for entertainment, I'd say. Well, at least two thirds of the equation I've been shilling here so far. On the gaming front, 2014, for me, was The Year of the Indie Games. Two in particular. One being Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, which came out late in the year, and the other, as seen above, being Shovel Knight. Now, ironically, Shantae is developed by a studio called WayForward, and Shovel Knight, was actually founded by several former developers from WayForward. It was one of the first BIG game projects to get Kickstarter funded, one of the first of those to gain major attention as well. I was there for the whole ride, supporting the KS fund, hanging out with the crew as they did live-streams with the fans, getting the updates, the whole shebang. And when it finally released in June 2014, it was a godsend. They developed it specifically to be like old 8-bit NES games, and the design itself borrows from many classics, such as Duck Tales, Mega Man, etc. The game is chock full of great humor, solid gameplay mechanics, and rockin' 8-bit tunes. They even got game music composer Manami Matsumae, who did the soundtrack for the first Mega Man, to do a bit of music for the game, including the main theme.

All in all, Shovel Knight is brilliant. It certainly has it's "NES hard" moments, and they pissed me off plenty, let me tell you. But it's also fun as hell, with some very clever ideas and designs. And the game is technically still going, as during the KS fund, against the typical fan-fleecing practices of the modern era, the developers committed to giving people who bought the game DLC content for free. They already delievered on that with an update called Plague of Shadows, in which you play as one of the boss knights, Plague Knight, and while it still uses the same basic levels, it's a whole new campaign with new story, mechanics, etc. And they originally committed to doing a total of THREE such playable-boss expansions, that the fans voted to choose, so we've still got two more coming. That's a lot of bang for your buck, for a game that was also not expensively priced to begin with. Even if you're only "casually" into games, I would suggest giving Shovel Knight a look.

Another good poster, simple, yet subtle.

As for movies, 2014 was an unusual step up. As in there were multiple movies I actually wanted to bother to spend money to go see in theaters. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in particular, stands out as a movie that I honestly feel, so far, may be the altogether strongest of the entire Marvel lot. It wasn't perfect, but I think it had nice pacing, and hit enough of the right notes. A movie I rented, was the Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow, which while not amazing, did have a novel "time loop" theme, and was pretty well executed. Another that I saw on Netflix, was Earth to Echo, which many compared to Super 8, another "kids having an adventure dealing with an alien" type film...but honestly in some ways it's kind of better. Perhaps "better" is a strong word, but it's definitely on par, even though I think it flew under the radar a bit. A movie that I did enjoy (though I don't love that they're going to, naturally, whore it into a whole franchise now), was The Lego Movie. The did such a good job with the look and "feel" of the Legos, I actually wondered if it was stop-motion, and not CGI (it's CGI). Guardians of the Galaxy, while I'm sad the original Guardians team is being ignored, was also a well done, funny film.

They also made a new American "Godzilla" film, which I did and still do have mixed feelings about. It came out on the 60th anniversary of the original Godzilla, and I had wanted Toho themselves to make a new movie, which they didn't. Toho IS making a new movie now....but honestly, I'm not super excited for it, because the new design doesn't look great at all, which makes me sad. But as for the 2014 American "Zilla"? Well, many compare it to the 1998 "Godzilla" film, the one with Matthew Broderick, featuring a giant irradiated iguana. Many people state that it's great compared to THAT film, and I guess in some ways, they're right. It certainly is more "Godzilla-like" than that film was. Thing is, that film wasn't bad...it was a big dumb summer blockbuster type film....I just hated that they tried to pass it off as "Godzilla". This film, on the other hand, really IS trying to BE "Godzilla"....but it just kind of isn't. Like, for one thing, I never loved the big, clunky look they gave him. And for another, as I've pointed out in previous articles, when it comes to daikaiju films, there is just something that suit actors bring to the screen, an organic life, that CGI can't mimic. Del Toro's Pacific Rim had the same problem. But beyond effects, the movie itself focused too much on one soldier character trying to get home, and the giant bug things that "Godzilla" had to fight, were kind of dumb. It wasn't a BAD film...it was just kind of dull and uninspiring. I feel like their heart was in the right place, and part of me is glad it made a lot of money, so that Godzilla gets a bigger presence again. But ultimately, I didn't love the film, and wish that someone would have just made more of a TRUE Godzilla film. I wonder if Hollywood ever could?

But the movie I gave the Film of 2014 to, was by one of my favorite directors, Wes Anderson. The Grand Budapest Hotel just might be my favorite Anderson film. It has a bit of everything, and it was like your typical Anderson quirk, but turned up to 11, and wrapped around somewhat of an adventure story. Wes has always been great at characters and narrative, and that strength was on full display in this. The movie bleeds heart, and charm, and wit, but not in a painful, forced way. There is an organic, earnest quality to Anderson's films, he definitely has his own unique style, and in a Hollywood landscape with SO much lifeless, generic crap produced in this modern era, his films don't really come off as "Hollywood". I don't love every single one of his films, but I've liked most of them, and they're a breath of fresh air.

Much better album art.

Now, it's fair to say that Machine Head's "Unto the Locust" album was GOOD. But their 2014 follow-up, "Bloodstone & Diamonds", is pretty great. 2014 in general was a better year for music, with great albums by two of my favorite bands, Machine Head and Opeth, coming out. I don't love EVERY song on Bloodstone, but it has some true gems, including "Now We Die" and "Sail Into the Black". In fact I had the lyrics up on my crew's blackboard for "Sail Into the Black" for months, and I'm not sure anyone noticed. Opeth's "Pale Communion" was good enough on it's own, that I seriously considered it for album of the year as well. The previous album, "Heritage", continued the progressive rock trend they had been on, this time completely dropping all death metal growling 100%, but it was, for me anyway, almost TOO prog rock, it didn't have a lock of hooks, and there wasn't any one song that really stayed with me. They correct that with Communion, as it has that same prog, eclectic sound, but is more focused, has the hooks, and many of these songs really stick with you. The song I picked for Song of 2014, in fact, is one of the best they've ever done, called "Faith in Others", which has a wonderful strings accompaniment.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Best of the Best: 2013

Old School.

Year: 2013
Movie: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Game: Super Mario 3D World
Album: Skull by Evile
Song: Tomb by Evile (or Cry of Achilles by Alter Bridge)   

 I wouldn't go so far as to say that 2013 was another "dead year". And yet, I'm hard pressed to say it was all that great either. Right at the ass end of the year, I did finally manage to move away from a crappy college neighborhood I'd stuck myself in for the better part of a decade. Being a writer, something I've wanted badly for a very long time, is to live somewhere where, on a daily basis, I can get a regular dose of peace and quiet. Sadly, while I did get to a neighborhood not rife with loud bass pounding my walls sometimes from parties happening a block or more away (yes, really), in a way I kind of traded one set of noise in for another. Meaning I made the sorry choice to move into a downstairs apartment, and have regretted it since. That's enough about that, really, but let's just say I still yearn to, and fully intend to someday actually attain a QUIET home. Someday.

The Wii U was out in Fall 2012. And I was initially happy with the console, because while the "Gamepad" controller was a bit bulky and took a little getting used to, it is in essence a regular controller, that just happens to have a huge touch screen. The system still can use the Wiimote and other Wii accessories, in fact it is 100% backwards compatible with all Wii games, which is a nice touch in an era when that is not really longer the case with other systems. But it became obviously early into 2013, that something was not quite right in paradise. Big games were getting delayed, alleged exclusives were being delayed AND made multi-platform. There were multiple months in 2013 when zero retail Wii U games released at all. That's what we in the gaming business call a "drought". And as a fan, and owner of a new system that I rushed out to own? It sucked. I specifically got a Wii U, personally, for one major game, and that was Pikmin 3. It was announced as in development for Wii prior, but then was moved, and was originally supposed to release fairly early on in the system's life. It got delayed til August 2013, and when I finally got it, I was, sadly, very underwhelmed. They took a few of the most key elements of Pikmin gameplay that had made me love the first two games so much, namely the ability to independently control the Pikmin with the second stick, and camera zoom (and even MULTIPLE save files) away, for no good reason. They also switched to new characters, and a focus on collecting fruit, but zero treasure. The treasure hunting alone had been a big part of the fun of Pikmin, because you always wondered what little trinket you were going to find next. So the game that had been my most anticipated for Wii U, was a big let down. Not a BAD game...but it's not really Pikmin, not the complete experience.

So the game I chose for my Game of 2013, IS a pretty good game, even if it wasn't the big epic HD Mario game that everyone wanted (and is still waiting for). Super Mario 3D World is a follow up to the Nintendo 3DS title Super Mario 3D Land, which was the first fully 3D Mario game on a portable system. It had but in comparison to that game's bite-sized levels, this game features much bigger stages, arguably better overall design, and as you can see in that picture up there aways, for the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2 (or if you want to be technical, since it's remake Super Mario Advance), you could play that classic 80s line up of Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Toadstool (Peach). They also, as has been their habit over the last several games, added new a new "suit" power up, this time being Cat Mario, which in addition to being adorable, allows you to climb walls (somewhat), and claw enemies to death. The thing is, not only is 3D World not the big, sprawling epic HD Mario many (myself included) dreamed of, but they also missed a key opportunity with it,  I feel. The game already has SEVERAL subtle hints and traces of Mario 2, so why not just go full bore? Why not, instead of having another game where you have to fight Bowser, and instead of sending the heroes to some generic "fairy land", why NOT just have a return to Subcon, and have the Mario 2 bosses like Mouser, Tricyde, Birdo and Wart return? Why NOT have Shy Guys and Sniffits and Phantos all over the place? That would have made the game far more unique and memorable. But as it is, it IS a fun game, with decent 4 player co-op play, and the ability to play those four characters (including Peach being able to float, ala Mario 2).

Typical "evil looking" modern metal album cover.

2013 was another fairly dry year for music, but it did feature an album by a band that I had thus far only partially gotten into, the UK thrash metal band Evile. They are not an old 80s relic, but rather a young band trying to recreate that style, and while their early work sounds more like the band Slayer (whom I'm not terribly fond of), their last two albums, including this one, really see their sound progress and get richer. "Skull" is definite evidence of that, and I'd like to see them continue going in that direction. Most of the songs are still pretty "balls to the wall" thrash, but there is one brooding "ballad" piece (that in true thrash fashion gets heavy near the end), called "Tomb", that is lyrically super depressing, but also very poignant, and a very good song. If you're into metal at all, I'd suggest checking them out.

So there.

Another on the list of "movies I didn't actually watch in theater but rented later and liked", Ben Stiller's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was another nice surprise. It's directed by Stiller also, which makes it the third film he's directed that I liked (the other two being Cable Guy  and Tropic Thunder). The movie is more of a serious film, though it does have it's comedic moments. And it presents, while a bit ridiculous, something I myself have been all too familiar with my entire life: living a rather unspectacular life, and wanting something more, and having fantastic daydreams as a means of escape. Walter Mitty is a simple guy who works as a photo editor for Life magazine, which is sadly defunct, and finds there is a key photo missing that his boss wants for the cover of their last ever issue. So he has to go on an impromptu adventure to find it, and in doing so, goes on a journey the likes of which he has only ever imagined, which truly chances his life, and him as a person. It's really strong, compelling, at times even profound stuff. In some ways, it's Stiller's best work, both as an actor and director.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Best of the Best: 2012

Otherwise known as The Borrowers.

Year: 2012
Movie: The Secret World of Arrietty
Game: Skyrim (PS3 version)*
Album: Cascadia by Third Seven*
Song: Destination Now by Third Seven*

I'm just going to start out by saying that especially after looking back at it, I think it's safe to say that, especially entertainment-wise, 2012 was a fairly dead year for me. In my private life, I finally managed to fully conquer the unrighteous and horrendous demon known as "Forced General Education", as I put math I should have never been required to take for an English degree behind me, and finally earned a few college degrees, even if they aren't worth much. My struggles with math, which, again, I should have never been required to take, were epic, even though I was concurrently in the Honors Program and regularly pulling off As and Bs in classes that actually interested me, I struggled in math and a couple math-heavy science classes. None of which applied to my degree. But I digress. That was one minor accomplishment in my life worth noting, finally "graduating" college. I had intended to move on to another university in pursuit of a Humanities/Arts and possibly even Film degree, but got stopped short by financial aid issues that aren't worth going into. Regardless, while having college degrees to my name is neat, it doesn't help me attain what has been my ultimate goal (career-wise) since my late teens: to make a living as a writer. A goal I'm still working towards, and shall continue to do so.

On the movie front, it was basically a few lone oasis' in a vast dessert. Which is unsurprising as that is obviously the direction my views on modern blockbuster films has been heading in this whole time. Getting into the negative at this point would be redundant, but I will mention two films: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and The Hobbit (part 1). With Ghost Rider, the original Nick Cage film was, while not perfect, enjoyable, and I had been looking forward to what they might do with a sequel. As it turned out? Wish they hadn't bothered. It was another case of different writer/director, and basically just taking the whole thing to pot. It was legitimately a bad film, which almost entirely ignored the fact that the first film had even happened, and I was really let down. But not nearly as much as I was with Peter Jackson's The Hobbit. To save myself bitching about in more in subsequent years, I will just say that while I really enjoyed his Lord of the Rings films at the time, and Fellowship was my "favorite movie" for a few years there, even looking back on those, I wish they had stuck more to the books, and been done differently in certain key ways. But they're still GREAT compared to what he did with The Hobbit. I won't allow myself to bog this down with another huge rant, but I will just say that I truly will always wish that Guillermo Del Toro had stayed on as director, I feel he almost would HAVE to have done a better job. He only wanted to make ONE movie based on the Hobbit (which was ONE book), and that is precisely what should have been done. Instead, Peter Jackson let Hollywood suits talk him into making ONE book into a fucking trilogy. And the man who I had once felt had been FAIRLY faithful to Middle Earth, a place that had been near and dear to my heart since childhood, went and made films that were, I shit you not, almost 50% completely made up bullshit. The opening like 20 minutes of this first Hobbit film? Pretty solid. The rest of the trilogy? Gets worse as you go. I genuinely hope that someone else comes along years from now and does ONE good Hobbit film. I really do, because it deserves better. For now, the 1977 cartoon is THE way to go, if you want a good (and faithful) adaptation.

The Lorax was okay, but I feel that these CGI Dr. Seuss films are sometimes missing the beat a little bit. There was the Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom, which was in his typical quirky style, and was quite enjoyable. The Avengers also surprised me, and stands out as the only thing Joss Whedon has ever done that I actually like. But the movie that earned my Movie of 2012 praise, and not merely because nothing else really stood out, was Studio Ghibli's Secret World of Arrietty. Based on the Borrowers novels, while not directed by the master Hayao Miyazaki himself, it was still pure Ghibli, and a very, good film that I would recommend to anyone.

Game of the Year?

So, I need to tell a quick story to explain this one. I didn't play it when it released in 2011, even though I own a PS3. In fact I had never previously played any of the Elder Scrolls games, not being a big PC gamer, and never being terribly interested in the previous game Oblivion. When this game came out, I really didn't get the hype, and as is sometimes the case with me, was actually rather annoyed by the hype surrounding it. Oblivion had gotten some attention, but the sheer level of buzz and craze surrounding THIS game was insane, and I just didn't get it. Then came the gaming desert of 2012, wherein, literally, almost nothing that I really wanted to play came out, happened. So at some point around the early summer of 2012, after I had finally conquered "Gen Ed" and "graduated", I just randomly decided to ask my friend Jay if I could borrow his copy, since he had also given the game praise, and wasn't playing it at the moment. Now, while I didn't (and don't) love the forced cinematic opening nonsense you have to go through, once I really started the game, I found myself getting into it. And getting into it led, quite frankly, into a veritable "lost week" in that early summer, wherein I stayed up all night playing Skyrim for hours, slept for awhile, got back up and did it again, for the better part of a week.

So I got into it. That isn't to say I LOVE the game, and I WILL state that the game deserves an asterisk as my Game of 2012, because nothing else really deserved the praise. I DID go out of my way to buy a Wii U on launch day (which saving up for that in itself was an adventure), and I DID like New Super Bros. U. But I chose this because I poured hours into playing this fucking game, for good AND ill, so based just on how much time I sank into/wasted on it, I felt it deserved the title. The game is hardly perfect, in fact it's VERY flawed. I didn't love the stupid civil war storyline, nor did I love more or less being forced to choose a side if you want to get anywhere in it. And the PS3 version is glitchy as hell, with a lot of bugs, a few of which made certain missions unbeatable. And overall I really kept constantly feeling like "okay, why can't I do THIS?", over and over as I played the game. What I came away from the experience with, was a feeling that while Bethesda is NOT a terribly good developer (noone that puts out that buggy a product deserves to be called good), what they crafted with Skyrim was a fairly organic feeling, "living" type of game world, and THAT was why I played it for hours. Not for the often overly long, VERY much the same thing over and over dungeons. Nor for the riveting plot about racist Nords, Asshole Elves, and a World Eating Dragon. But the most fun I had playing Skyrim, was forgetting the game I was supposed to be playing, and just getting lost in the game WORLD, running around, exploring, filling out the map, finding hidden areas, etc. You know, the same basic shit I love about Zelda games. I was left with a feeling that, if they ever finally make an Elder Scrolls 6 for a system I own, that if they could take what they did for Skyrim, but do it a lot BETTER, that is a game I would like to play.

Billy Mickelson

2012 was also a dead year for music. So much so that it isn't even worth going into whatever came out that I didn't like. So I will just instead mention that by pure accidental happenstance, the previous December I had been in an "Intro to Jazz" class, and was supposed to be attending a live Jazz show to write a paper on. And instead, because of a mix-up with signs and days and whatnot, I accidentally went to this little coffee shop type place to see "Third Seven" instead, which is basically a one-man act (though he sometimes has an accompanying musician or two). The one man band is Billy Mickelson, pictured above. He is from Bend, Oregon (I myself being born in Portland), and he is, I don't mind saying, a fairly masterful cello player. The cello also happens to be my favorite classical instrument, and what he does with it is rather remarkable. Especially live, he is literally a one man band, as what he does is he uses looping/mixer peddles, to record and loop music that he plays live, on the fly. So he'll do a simple beat on the body of the cello, for example, and then loop that, then strum a simple tune, loop that, and THEN play mournful cello strains OVER his own loops, and sing. It's very unique, and I was quite taken with his work right way. I got an mix cd of his older music from him that night, and later downloaded (he offers it for free) his 2012 album "Cascadia". I've seen him once when he came back to town since, and though it's been awhile, I eagerly await his next stop. He offers his music for free (though he also sells cds) on his website.

*You can ALSO check out some simple "music videos" I made for several of his songs last year, over on the Retro Revelations Youtube Channel:

As Are We - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep1nZa9e-Lc

Something Oceanic - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCZWLvD7zOw

Himinn - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yMRhgfMrYE

Fyrre - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rt7eUBvyZ8&t=11s

Cleansing Fire - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNMhlbT5iKI

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Best of the Best: 2011

More movie poster should look like this. Less actors, more art.

Year: 2011
Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2
Game: Kirby's Return to Dreamland
Album: Unto the Locust by Machine Head
Song: Darkness Within by Machine Head

2011 wasn't a great year for movies. A Green Hornet film came out, a project long in the making, that I feel would have been awesome if it had starred Stephen Chow of Kung Fu Soccer fame, as it was originally supposed to. At one point it was even linked to Jet Li. But the movie that finally did come out, while not terrible, starred Seth Rogen, and some Korean pop star, and honestly it just kind of came off like a Seth Rogen film. Didn't really live up to the spirit of the Green Hornet. Sticking with the Green theme, Green Lantern was also pretty bad. Which is too bad, because the character and concept are pure gold, but they miscast Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan (really miscast), and the film in general just wasn't very good, with a terrible villain. Spielberg made a Tin Tin film, which I appreciate, but I felt the film itself was too....I don't know...busy. I just didn't like it as much as I had hoped I might. There was also a "prequel" made to John Carpenter's The Thing, which I feel is one of the best horror movies ever made. The "prequel"? Was okay, but honestly, while I really appreciate the attention to detail they put into trying to recreate what might have happened in the Norwegian camp discovered in the original film, this movie just proves that the modern reliance on CGI and jump scares, is no substitute for the genuine tension and creepiness that classic horror movies relied on. Also, as a minor personal gripe, they didn't bother to give it a subtitle of any sort, just calling it The Thing again, which is both lazy and confusing to audiences.

There were some surprising films that I didn't see in theaters, but later rented, like Super 8 and The Adjustment Bureau. With Super specifically, it's an oddity, as I honestly can't stand most of JJ Abrams work (especially considering the fact that personally, I feel he helped ruin Star Wars a bit, nuff said). But Adjustment was actually very good, out of the various "surreal" films that came out around this same time-frame, I feel it was the best. Another I didn't see in theaters, but later rented, also ironically starring Matt Damon, is We Bought a Zoo, a drama about a family that buys an abandoned zoo, and I'll tell ya, there were all kinds of feels in that movie. I'd highly recommend both. I'd also recommend Tower Heist, starring Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick and Eddie Murphy, a very funny and well done "heist", a dark comedy really.

On the superhero front, Thor was a mixed bag of both good and bad. The movie in general, and the casting of Loki and Thor (even Odin) were good. But the cinematic Marvel insistence (up until now) of NOT having anything truly mystical or magical in their movies, even though the Marvel Universe is RIFE with it, is outright idiotic. And because of that, they changed what is supposed to be Norse Gods (even in the comics), to a Hollywood multicultural array of "aliens"....even though their "planet" is literally still a flat-world island floating in the sky/space. Like I said, the movie itself is okay, but those little details are important, and their reasons for changing them are absurd. 2011 also saw the release of Captain America, starring Chris Evans who had already previously played The Human Torch in the non-shared-universe (and shitty) Fantastic Four films. It was actually really good, a nice 1940s period piece, very well done, with Evans being a very good Steve Rogers.

But of course the movie that gets my Movie of 2011 pick, is Harry Potter 7 (part 2). I honestly don't really like or agree with this new Hollywood trend of splitting adaptations of ONE book up into multiple parts, and while I can see the logic, I suppose, of "fitting more of the book into the film", the real reason they do it is to get twice as many millions in $$$ at the box office. I don't know that HP7 needed two films, even though I've admittedly still never read the books (plan to). But while it was a good movie, I feel Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 needlessly dragged in places, where as Pt. 2 feels like a rush to the finish line. In other words, the two films are uneven. I think if they had made one film, if the fucker wound up being 3 long hours, that they could have easily still fit in all of the key points of the story, and cut the fat of Pt. 1 especially, to make one balanced, complete film. But regardless, DH Pt. 2 is a great end to the film series, a series that it unusually accurate to the books (from what I've been told), which had great casting, mostly good film choices, little deviation from the source material, etc.

There's those angry NA Kirby eyes.

There honestly wasn't much that I played, gaming wise, at least new games, in 2011. The two biggest releases for me were on Wii, and they were Zelda and Kirby. First I'll talk about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. On it's face, it's a decent game, and there were elements of it I liked that I wouldn't mind them bringing back in future games. Such as the upgradable items, a nice touch that wasn't ever implemented quite this way in previous Zelda titles. The graphics, while an odd pastel palette, were nice to look at, a more cartoony fare than Twilight Princess had been. And the game having a more personal relationship between Link and Zelda (basically childhood best friends), was neat. The negatives of the game, however, while I would never call it a BAD game, were fairly strong. For one thing, the game is big on repetition in a way that few other Zelda games are. There are only four major areas to the game, a sky world "hub", and three earthbound "overworld" areas. You go to these three areas, basically, over and over. And while there are a couple unique bosses thrown in, you literally fight the two main villains, Girahim and Demise, three+ times each, getting harder and more annoying each time. On the one hand, yes, it was a novel approach. But on the other hand, I don't prefer it.

However, all of that could have been forgiven, if the game had PLAYED better. Eiji Aonuma, the man who has been in charge of the series basically since Ocarina of Time, insisted (with some strong nudging I'd imagine from Shigeru Miyamoto), in heavily implementing the Wiimote and the "Motion Plus" attachment they made for it, in the gameplay. And for the swordplay itself, I was fine with that notion. But the problem is, they went fucking overboard with it, applying motion controls to EVERYTHING in the game. Even navigating simple menu screens, or aiming arrows, or flying, or swimming...ALL things that would have controlled 100% better using the analog stick or the IR pointer function of the Wiimote. And that over-use of motion controls almost ruined the game for me. I still had a relatively good time playing it, and had stretches where I enjoyed myself. But those controls were also often very cumbersome, and even at times quite annoying, and absolutely detracted from the overall experience. I think even with it's repetitious nature and other flaws, Skyward Sword would have been 100% better a game if it had only used motion controls for Link's swordplay, or even just used traditional "analog and button" controls.

My Game of 2011, goes to Kirby though. Seeing as how Kirby's Adventure is one of my Top Ten Favorite Games Ever, the Kirby series in general has always been one of my favorites over the years. They often deviate and do little side games, which is fine, and as explained I even liked little experiments like Epic Yarn. But while I prefer 2D sprite graphics to 3D polygons, at least for 2D styled games, as the name Return to Dreamland implies, this game was a nice return to form. What it REALLY was, in all blunt honesty, was the long-awaited culmination of a "2.5D" Kirby project that had been in development YEARS before for the Gamecube, but sadly never came out. I wish it had, but this game was still a lot of fun, and traditional Kirby fare, with the inclusion of limited-time "super powers" you could get, along with your normal powers.

Ugly album art, good album.

As for music....well, I honestly don't remember much of what music may or may not have come out in 2011. Which of course isn't a good sign. Granted, I am not really into a lot of modern music, especially various forms of pop music, but still, even of the stuff I DO like, there wasn't much. Trivium put out their follow up to "Shogun", called "In Waves", but while it featured two or three decent songs, it was honestly a major letdown to me, comparatively. But the one album that did come out in 2011 that I did really like, was "Unto the Locust" by Machine Head. It was a decent follow up to the album that got me into them, "The Blackening", and while it was on the shorter side (only seven tracks), it still featured some strong music. Most especially, the song that is also my pick for Song of 2011, and one of the best songs I've ever heard period, a ballad (of sorts) called "Darkness Within". Not only is it beautiful, but the lyrical theme of being "saved" from the pain of the harsh world around us by art, like music, really struck a chord in me.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Best of the Best: 2010

Isn't that such a happy album cover? Positive vibes.

Year: 2010
Movie: The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader*
Game: Cave Story - Nintendo Wii version
Album: Relentless Retribution by Death Angel
Song: Claws in so Deep by Death Angel

Starting on a different note, 2010 was certainly a better year for music then 2009 had been. For one thing, one of my favorite bands, Sevendust, had previously seen the return of original guitarist Clint Lowery, and the first new album with that lineup was released, called "Cold Day Memory".  It had many strong songs, such as "Splinter", "Forever", and "Nowhere". While it didn't have, to me, the sheer number of songs that really hook you, as the previous album, 2008's "Chapter VII: Hope & Sorrow", it was still a strong album. And while I liked his replacement, Sonny Mayo, it was nice to have Clint back, because he honestly never should have left. 2010 also saw the release of Powerglove's next opus, dubbed "Saturday Morning Apocalypse", this time focusing on mostly old cartoon show themes, instead of video game metal covers. The Batman song on there is especially good.

But my vote for Album of 2010, and subsequently Song of 2010, comes from the Bay Area thrash metal legends Death Angel. This band had a unique and also tragic history, starting out as (so far as I'm aware) the only all-Asian American metal band, as the members were all Filipino. They got their break and their first album recorded back in the mid-80s with the help of fellow half-Filipino Kirk Hammet, lead guitarist for Metallica. They rose to break into a taste of mainstream success with their third album, 1990's "Act III", only to nearly lose their drummer to a bus accident. The band more or less broke up after that, and didn't get back together until the early 2000s, under their mostly original line-up. That lineup put out two great albums, 2004's "The Art of Dying" and 2008's "Killing Season", after which the original bassist and drummer decided they had had enough of life back on the road or whatever, and quit the band. It was after this, when the band was joined by a couple of journeyman musicians (the band no longer being all Filipino), that they recorded 2010's "Relentless Retribution", and while it made me sad that the original members left again after making such a triumphant return, this new album was undeniably the band's strongest work yet since returning.

I wouldn't necessarily say that it was better BECAUSE of the new guys, but the band obviously had a fire lit under it during the writing and recording for this record, because it comes through in pretty much every song. There are many great cuts off this album to choose from, and honestly I could have chosen a song from Sevendust's album as well, but ultimately THE Song of 2010 for me was "Claws in so Deep", a very visceral yet haunting song, speaking very vaguely and metaphorically about society, the rich, politicians, etc....people with their claws deep into us, The People, manipulating us and living off of us, like parasites. Basically strong themes for the album in general, with even the album art displaying the concept of "wolves among us". It's just a really kick ass song, and it has a really nice acoustic outro by the Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela.

One of my favorites of the Narnia series, though not my TOP favorite.

2010 for movies was still not a great year, as that downward trend was still continuing. It saw what I felt was yet another sub-par adaptation from Tim Burton in the form of his Alice in Wonderland movie. I must note, that I DO like several Burton films, but they are pretty much exclusively his more original ideas, most notably Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Ed Wood. His adaptations, however, not a huge fan. The Batman films are okay.....but the only Batman committed to film that has ever really "gotten it right", was the 90s animated series. 2010 also saw yet another of my beloved classics needlessly remade into a boring, stumbling CGI-fest, this time Ray Harryhausen's
Clash of the Titans. The 1981 film is rightly regarded as a classic, and I personally consider it Ray's masterpiece, his final opus before he decided to sadly call it quits. The remake, beyond just the magic of that old stop-motion effects work begin replaced be fairly lifeless CGI, also just kind of has fairly lifeless writing and acting as well.

2010 ALSO saw the live action adaptation of The Last Airbender, based off of the Avatar show, that I happen to really love, and it was even directed by a director whose work I really liked up until his last few films in M. Night Shyamalan. But the truth is he is not a big budget, epic action film kind of director, and it really showed. He is better suited for smaller, quirky, character driven stories, that's his forte. And in the process of trying to make an Airbender movie, instead of being the beginning of an awesome (though horribly unnecessary) live action film trilogy....it was a fairly humorless and wooden version of a cartoon show that had been vibrant and full of life.

But as for movies I DID like, well of course there was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt. 1, which I could have chosen because it was very good, but I decided to give it to something else. Toy Story 3 came out, which I did not see in theaters, but later rented. However, though wanting to like it, much like part 2, which I can't honestly remember what it was about half the time, I just really wasn't feeling the third film. It was solid, and I got what they were going for, but  I guess I really only liked the first Toy Story film. In the realm of CGI cartoons though, Despicable Me was a surprise hit, and though it didn't need the obligatory sequels and spinoffs that would follow, the original film was actually rather charming. But the movie I did obviously pick as Film of 2010, was the third in the Narnia series (of films that is), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I originally experienced these stories (aside from the books) in the BBC adaptations of them, which were low budget but fun, and Dawn Treader was always neat. Though I was (and sadly still am) waiting for my favorite entry, The Silver Chair. Voyage was a good movie though, and even though they did change a couple of plot points around, it was strong enough to earn Film of the Years honors.

A major surprise, but SUCH a good game.

2010 had some decent games, but I wouldn't exactly call it a big year for gaming for me. Super Mario Galaxy 2 came out, but while it was a decent game, the first was far more fresh and to me more fun. The direct sequel, to me, felt kind of unnecessary. Nintendo also put out a sequel to an obscure N64 game that we never got, called Sin & Punishment, this one being subtitled Star Successor. It's a decent on-rails shooter type of game, and with the Wiimote aiming, it played substantially better than the N64 game. Sega also put out their own Mario Kart type game, called Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing (really long title), which was a pretty fun game featuring all sorts of characters from Sega's history. The game Metroid: Other M was a significant disappointment to me (and a lot of people), mainly because the team who made it, "Team Ninja" (responsible for the 3D Ninja Gaiden games), just isn't very good at things like in-game physics, cameras, platforming or...much of anything. And the plot was fairly absurd, and the hero Samus Aran was very un-Samus-like.

A great game that was a very close runner-up for Game of 2010, was Kirby's Epic Yarn, made by the company Good-Feel, who had previously done a really excellent hand-drawn 2D Wario Land game on Wii in 2008. With their crack at the Kirby franchise, usually made by Hal Laboratories, they went in a unique direction wherein the graphics of the game are entirely comprised of digitized yarn and other materials. Kirby and all the other characters and enemies in the game, specifically, are made of strings of yarn, basically character outlines, to give it a look quite unlike anything that had come before. And while it didn't have the traditional "suck, spit, gain enemy powers" Kirby mechanics, it was still a very good 2D platformer, with a focus on exploration and collection, rather than the typical frantic-ness of most platformers. It was a game that I could really just kind of chill out and play, which is rare for a side-scroller, and I liked that.

But the game that DID win my Game of 2010, was one Cave Story. This brilliant indie game had been originally been released for free on home computers in 2004, developed all by one independent Japanese developer, Daisuke Amaya, aka "Pixel". He made the entire game over the course of five years, all in his spare time, and that means everything: the graphics, programming, design, music, everything. Six years later, it as ported to the Nintendo Wii (originally as a Wiiware exclusive), with slightly updated sound and visuals (though you could choose to have the originals). And let me tell you, I don't heap this kind of praise on most things, but I don't mind making the statement that Cave Story is, hands down, one of the best games ever made. By anyone, but it's especially impressive that ONE dude made this brilliant 8-bit/16-bit style masterpiece. The game itself plays out a bit like a "Metroid-vania" type game, in other words a fairly open, explorable 2D world with elements like backtracking. It's essentially a 2D shooter with platforming elements, and it's quite simply one of the funnest games I've ever played. I had not experienced it til it came to Wii, and I was totally engrossed my entire first playthrough. If you've never played Cave Story, do yourself a huge favor and try it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Best of the Best: 2009

The triumphant return of 2D Mario to home console.

Year: 2009
Movie: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Game: New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Album: Shogun by Trivium*
Song: Restless Heart Syndrome by Green Day

At least so far as I was/am concerned, 2009 was not a fantastic year for entertainment, all around. It was the first year where things (to me) REALLY started to take a downward trend as far as theatrical films I wanted to see, less games I cared about released that year, very little in the way of new music I cared about, etc. As far as games went, there were a couple of notable things happening over on the PS3. One of those was Street Fighter IV, the first real sequel SF game since the 99/2000 release of the sub-par Street Fighter III. Now, SFIV is certainly a better game than SFIII, more fun to play, better character line-up, etc. And while it does retain a general feel of the classic 2D Street Fighter gameplay, I really didn't care for the ridiculous 3D polygon art style (all the guys looked like roid freaks, etc.), nor did I care for a single one of the new characters included. So while my friends and I had a bit of fun playing it, I would hardly call it something to crow over. There was also Batman: Arkham Asylum, which is a decent game that really does (moreso than it's sequels) capture the feel and spirit of Batman. But for the game's pros, it also has it's share of cons, mainly having to do with super repetitive missions and scenarios throughout the game. 

Over on the Wii, there were games like Exitebots: Trick Racing, which was, again, an okay game. But when compared to it's predecessor, the Wii launch title Excite Truck (itself part of the Excite Bike racing series), it just wasn't as good. They replaced real vehicles with weird Transformer animal based things, and a more cartoony graphics style, which in and of themselves, aren't BAD. But then they also threw in a bunch of mid-race mini-games and weird things you have to do, such as spin yourself around bars out of nowhere to boost ahead to the next part of the track. The one major thing that Truck had going for it, even though it's motion controls took some getting used to, was that it was a fairly pure racing experience. Even having a mechanic where landscape changes would happen mid-race, or being able to pull off mid-air tricks and things, the game's main focus was still fast-paced racing, and it was honestly rather thrilling and addictive, once you learned how to play it. Bots, on the other hand, was fun, but those little mini-game gimmicks really got in the way of that sense of speed and racing thrills the first game had. What they should have done, if they had wanted a real winner, would have been to call it "Excite Race", keep the trucks, but bring in other vehicle types, like ATVs, cars, and you know....BIKES, added more tracks, and a really solid online mode like Mario Kart Wii had, and honestly, that game could have sold millions. Instead, they went the direction it did, and instead, what you have is a game few people probably remember now. Too bad.

Now, one of my most anticipated games of 2009, and a game I had BEEN anticipating for years because I loved Tekken 5 so much, was of course Tekken 6. So much so, that it was one of the main reasons I got my own PS3 in the first place, IN 2009, and pre-ordered T6 almost as soon as I bought the thing. I was really hyped for it, an then when I finally got it......it was a massive let-down. The graphics were fine, the fighting was your standard issue Tekken, even the online fighting was decent. But one of the biggest draws to home console Tekken games over the years, had been the ability to unlock new fighters as you beat the game with various characters, as well as seeing/unlocking cool, sometimes even hilarious character endings. With T6, they changed the formula, where playing the regular "Arcade Mode" no longer accomplished these things. Instead, the only way to see character endings, was the play them in a new half-baked, poorly designed attempt at some kind of "Adventure Mode", and sufficed to say, I disliked it so much, that I kept it for less than a week before going to trade it in. It left a very bad taste in my mouth, to say the least.

Penguin Suit = THE coolest power-up since the Tanooki Suit.

When I traded what WAS my most highly anticipated game of 2009 back in after less than a week, I decided to put the store credit towards a game that I had originally been pretty ho-hum about, that being New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The original NSMB came out for the Nintendo DS, which I owned, but I never bought the game myself. I played Harold's copy of it a bit, and while it was neat that they finally made a new side-scroller Mario game, it just kind of seem....a bit uninspired. And when they revealed they were making a Wii game, I was initially not super impressed, if it was just going to be more of the same. But that all changed when they revealed that it was going to be a totally new game, and more-over, it not only seemed to be heavily inspired by my favorite Mario of all time, Super Mario Bros. 3, but it was ALSO going to be the first time since the Super Nintendo game Super Mario World that Bowser's kids, the "Koopalings", all seven of em, were going to make an appearance. They had, for whatever reasons, basically abandoned those characters when Mario made the jump to 3D, which always made me sad. The very fact that they were in it pretty much sealed the deal for me, as dorky as that may sound, or not.

So as much as it absolutely sucked that T6 was such a big letdown to me, it's store credit wound up helping to pay for the game that would wind up very easily becoming my Game of 2009. Not only was NSMB Wii the first game to feature the Koopa Kids since 1991, but it was also, technically speaking, the first 2D side-scrolling Mario game on a home console since 1991. So for nearly 20 years, gamers like me had done without the "true" Mario experience, and now we were finally getting it, in spades. But what made this game great, wasn't just those facts, as cool as they are. The game had (almost) the total package. The only knock I would give it, really, is that the NSMB music is...odd. It is somewhat a mix of the traditional Mario type tunes you would expect....and then some weird shit with "BWAH BWAHs" throw in for random measure. And while that initially really turned me off....as soon as I noticed that the enemies would jump and dance a bit to those "BWAHs", while I still don't love them, that won me over a tiny bit. But weird music aside, the game has tight controls, much more varied and clever level designs than the DS game had, it added 4-player simultaneous gameplay, which is both fun and chaotic as fuck. AND, as the picture above shows, it added some really cool power-ups, INCLUDING argubly the single best Mario power-up of all time: The Penguin Suit. Not only is that thing fucking adorable, but it also makes it so you don't slip on ice (SUPER helpful), you can slide on your belly to defeat enemies, you can throw ice balls to freeze enemies, AND it gives you even better under-water swimming control than SMB3's Frog Suit.

Simply put, the Penguin Suit is bad ass. And honestly, so is this game. Easily one of the best things Nintendo has put out in many years, and from a company as consistent as they are, that's saying something.

Arguably the best of the series.

2009 was, as mentioned, not an amazing year for movies, and the true start, to my reckoning, of a severe downhill trend in major Hollywood releases. There were still some decent films, but there was also a lot of crap like Transformers, and Twilight, a "Star Trek" reboot and Wolverine. There was a really good documentary I enjoyed, Anvil: The Story of Anvil (admittedly not a great title), about the band of it's namesake, a forgotten but ever-diligent Canadian metal band from the 80s who had struggled to stick around all this time afterward. It was a really interesting and moving story, though the caveat of course being it was an independent film and not some big Hollywood production. Up carried the typical Pixar charm, and I liked it, though it wasn't my favorite among their films. I went to see Terminator: Salvation, and not only was it kind of dull for such an action-packed film, it also was the loudest movie I've ever sat through.

One movie that I did really like, was Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, a tale about a little fish girl who wanted to become human because she fell in love with a 5 year old little boy. And there I was, with my friends Corey and Harold, and possibly Harold's brother William, probably the only 3-4 grown men in the theater that day watching who didn't have a kid with them. It was, you could argue, a movie set for a younger age group, a movie "for kids". But it still had that Miyazaki magic, and enjoyed it quite a bit. ANOTHER movie I did really love, is by yet another of my favorite directors, and was a strong candidate for film of the year, Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox had a lot going for it, from good casting, well written, witty dialogue, it's based on a Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author) book, as well as being a fully stop-motion animated film. It also came out near my birthday, so a bunch of us went to see it that year, which was great, until right near the very end of the film, the power in the theater went off, and we all had to leave because of an apparent (VERY FAKE) plastic grenade that scared people outside the theater. Very lame...but welcome to Post-9/11 America.

The movie that does get my Film of 2009 nod, is another Harry Potter, this time The Half-Blood Prince. The reason this gets the nod over Mr. Fox, though Fox arguably deserves it, is because having now of course seen the entire series, I really feel this was the strongest entry (which, as I understand it, is how many fans of the books feel about that book in the series as well). The series definitely takes an ever darker turn, naturally, in the last couple entries as Lord Voldemort and his Death Eater cult-like followers are basically taking over the "wizarding world", or at least the United Kingdom section of it. The film just has some very strong performances, and I feel it's the best stand-alone story of them all, overtaking my original favorite, Prisoner of Azkaban. I also, believe it or not, developed the abilities of a "Spoiler Ninja" for these films, avoiding most MAJOR spoilers from the internet and people who had read the books, so I actually DIDN'T know (SPOILER WARNING) that Dumbledore died, let alone who killed him. I was genuinely at least a little shocked.

As an odd aside, 2009 was also, on an unrelated note, the year I developed Type 2 Diabetes. Which is an absolute fuckin barrel of monkeys to have, let me tell you. I didn't yet realize in the Summer (when Potter came out), that I had it, though I was absolutely miserable, with no energy, peeing all the time, super dehydrated all the time, etc. And with that, I basically had to pee, REAL fuckin bad, through over half of the goddamn movie. But I am not one of those to just jump up and go when I have to, unless it's an emergency, when it's a movie I care about. Because fuck, I payed for the damn ticket, and I want don't want to miss anything important. But it got worse and worse as the movie neared it's end, to the point that in a rare moment in my life, I had to pee so bad it kind of hurt. And what's worse, the movie pulled a slight bit of "Return of the King" on me, and had a couple of moments where I thought it was over, and then it kept going. And dammit I had to see the whole thing. So the moral of that story, is that I had to rush like a motherfucker after the credits hit, and barely made it. But it was worth it, I guess.

The Odyssey. Or Vikings? Or something.

So I picked "Shogun"  by Trivium a second time, even though I would have preferred to pick something new from 2009, because honestly, there wasn't anything worth picking. Green Day put out their first album in five years, "21st Century Break Down", but outside of the songs "Before the Lobotomy" and my pick for Song of 2009, "Restless Heart Syndrome", the album just had far less gems on it than "American Idiot" had. I basically just listened to various albums, including the really good stuff from 2008 (Trivium, Opeth, Death Angel, Metallica, etc.) a lot. And so I just kind of arbitrarily picks "Shogun" again, because I liked it as much in 2009 as I had in 2008. The album cover above is from the single for the song "Into the Mouth of Hell We March", about the journey of Odysseus and his crew, at one point literally having to travel through the Underworld, to eventually get back home.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Best of the Best: 2008

This picture speaks for itself.

Year: 2008
Movie: The Forbidden Kingdom
Game: Super Smash Bros. Brawl
Album: Shogun by Trivium
Song: Unforgiven III by Metallica

Now for all the talk of Hollywood declining, and it was, 2008 was basically a "last bastion" of sorts. In many ways, not merely movies. A lot of movies I liked came out, I took a bunch of Honors classes in college, and got Straight As for the first time in years in the Fall semester. The guy I voted for, for President, actually won. Several great albums came out that year, great games, etc. etc. On the movie front, many strong films came out that year. The first Kung Fu Panda was a nice and entertaining surprise (though it didn't need sequels). The first Iron Man film was likewise better than I thought it would turn out being (though it's sequels, not so much). The first Hellboy was a nice flick, and it's 2008 sequel was, to my mind, even better overall.

Pixar's WALL-E was a minor masterpiece in some ways, and while it was kind of OVERLY dark, even for Batman, The Dark Knight, at least at the time, seemed like a great film. There was even a new Indiana Jones movie after many many years, and while hardly perfect, it was a fairly fun ride to go on again at the time. And the Narnia sequel Prince Caspian came out, which was a better film than some reviews credited it for being. There was also Hancock, whose basic premise, that of a superhuman character who is, and yet isn't, a "superhero", was very solid. And it was consequently a pretty GREAT film for maybe like half the movie...and then the second half just totally shit itself badly, ruining what could have been a pretty GREAT film.

But the movie that IS my hands-down Film of 2008, as shown above, is the epic, long awaited collaboration between THE two titans of Hong Kong cinema, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Fans had been waiting for, and had been teased by the prospect of a film where these two legends would actually appear on SCREEN together, for years. And then it finally happened, and while there are always going to be critics of everything, for someone like me who had become a big fan of both guys over the years, and who loves martial arts and mysticism and mythology anyway, The Forbidden Kingdom was pretty much perfect, and everything I wanted out of such a team-up. It's basically a retelling of the classical Chinese tale of the Monkey King, and Chan and Li play characters from that mythology. What fans REALLY wanted, of course, was to see these two titans Kung Fu Fighting...EACH OTHER, and we got it. And it didn't disappoint. One of the longer, and better choreographed fight scenes I've personally ever seen, it lived up to expectations. Even the "white kid along for the ride", or better put, the "traveler from the west who stumbles into this foreign world", did a great job I thought. He is a kid obsessed with Kung Fu, and his enthusiasm mirrors that of the creators of the film, as well as the audience. The entire movie is a love-letter to classic Hong Kong Kung Fu films, and it shows.

The BEST Smash. Yes, I said it.

The phenomenon of Super Smash Bros. was created in 98/99 by Hal Laboratory (creators of Adventures of Lolo, Kirby, and Earthbound among other things), by such figures as Masahiro Sakurai (the father of Kirby), and the late Hal programmer and Nintendo President, Satoru Iwata (RIP 1959-2015). It started life as a side-project, an experiment really, messing with the concept of a 4-playerr fighting game. 4-player home multiplayer had become a standard reality (after some failed experiments with it in previous console generations) with the Nintendo 64, and it had thus far been put to great use in many genres, such as racing, sports, shooters, and even "party" games (such as Mario Party). But Sakurai and Co. wanted to find out if 4 player fighting was something they could do, and so what would become Smash Bros., began as a generic game called "Dragon King", with Power Rangers type "Dragon Fighter" characters.

His friend Iwata stepped in, and the rest was history as he decided the game could be successful if it involved well-known Nintendo franchise characters in a kind of "dream battle" scenario. They worked on the game in secret until they had a polished demo, and then presented it to Nintendo, who approved it, and Super Smash Bros. on N64 was born. That game was fun, and very novel for it's time, but also super basic, basically just having a fighting mode and not much else. It was meant almost purely to be a multiplayer battle experience, and in that it succeeded, at least enough to warrant a sequel. So then in 2001, Melee happened on the Gamecube, and it was undeniably a much better, more fleshed out game, this time featuring an "Adventure Mode" and many other little bells and whistles, along with a larger roster and refined gameplay. This game created a sizable fandom, and even birthed it's own competitive scene over time. The problem is, many fans clung to this game as the ONLY way they would accept Smash Bros. in the future, meaning to meet their approval, some fans insisted that future installments had to play exactly like Melee.

Hence, sadly, when Brawl happened in 2008, on the Nintendo Wii console, while it was (again) in many ways undeniably better than Melee, such as having a larger roster, a far more elaborate and involved Adventure mode, and one of the best soundtracks ever featured in a video game period, featuring inclusions by many game music composers from around the industry, there were still those fans who didn't accept it as the next evolution in Smash, because there were also slight gameplay tweaks they didn't approve of. And I mean......ultimately, whatever. But to me, Brawl was (and thus far remains) the best the Smash Bros. series has to offer. My friend Corey and I went to pick it up at a Midnight release, standing in line and the whole nine yards (something I rarely ever do for anything, let alone a game), and we proceeded to play it quite a bit over the course of the next day or two. Those were good times, with tons of content to unlock, and the Adventure mode (Subspace Emissary) alone feeling like it's own entire separate game. Not being SUPER into the competitive aspect of Smash Bros. (certainly not as much as others), I enjoyed Brawl the most because it had (by far) the most single player content. And while there were certainly other good games that released in 2008, such as Mario Kart Wii (although, on a side note, FUCK the inclusion of bikes in that game, just saying), and a very cool 2D Wario Land game that featured hand-drawn animated graphics, Brawl is my pick for Game of 2008, just by virtue of how much I played/enjoyed it.

This album wound up being so good, in spite of itself.

I've mentioned before, that I am not the biggest fan of "screamy" vocals in heavy metal music. I can tolerate it, or even dig it a little, in certain styles, and certain doses. Sufficed to say, I am not much of a fan at all of the style of screamy-ness that the band Trivium utilizes, and so I was very much a fan of the fact that I got into them with the album "The Crusade", where they had made a very public point of stating that they were dropping the screamy-ness for the most part. But then 2008 happened, and yet another situation involving what you could call a vocal contingent of a fan base, had apparently complained about the lack of screamy-ness on "Crusade", enough that the band itself apparently felt compelled to go back on their own statements, and thus their follow-up album, titled "Shogun", featured a full-bore return to their previous scream/sing/growl mixture. The point of pointing that out, of course, is because that was already a recipe for me not liking the new album that much. However, as it turned out, the song-writing on "Shogun" was particularly strong, even moreso than "Crusade". So strong, in fact, that in SPITE of the screamy-ness, I eventually wound up liking every song on the record, something I could not say for "Crusade".

Now strong song-writing alone might not, however, have won this record Album of 2008 for me, BUT, it also had going for it the fact that a majority of the songs on the album, were heavily based on various kinds of mythology, mostly Japanese and Greek. And since I have always been very much into mythology, folklore and monsters, that of course is going to hold major appeal to me. Which it did. There are songs on the album about Prometheus the Titan, Homer's Odyssey, and the myth of the Greek monsters Scylla and Charybdis (the origination of the metaphor "being stuck between a rock and a hard place"), among other things. In all, it's a very strong album, and while I far preferred the vocal style of "Crusade", "Shogun" does in general happen to be a stronger album. The one caveat in that, I would say, is that there are two particular songs, one from each album, that honestly feel out of place, thematically, and like they should have been switched. The song "Down From the Sky" on "Shogun", while a good song, is pretty much the only song on the entire album that is basically modern (talking about tyranny and the threat of nuclear war, etc.), with no basis in mythology at all, which would have fit "Crusade" far better. And conversely, the previously mentioned song "Becoming the Dragon" on "Crusade", which is directly adapted from Asian myth, absolutely belongs on "Shogun".

Metallica's "Return to Form".

I would be remiss, as a self-avowed massive Metallica fan, to not at least mention their own new album that released in 2008. And in all fairness, it was the other top candidate for Album of 2008. There were other strong albums in 2008, including Sevendust's "Hope & Sorrow", Death Angel's "Killing Season", and Opeth's "Watershed", which itself had some truly beautiful music and continued a trend and evolving sound of the band, further into a progressive rock mold, drifting further away from their "Swedish Death Metal" roots. But beyond being my favorite band of all time anyway, Metallica's "Death Magnetic", itself is a very strong album and had a very strong case for being album of the year for me. I suppose the two main reasons that it's not, are firstly that the myth-based songs of "Shogun REALLY won me over, and I listened to the shit out of that album. But also, it needs to be said that the final mix/production on DM, sadly, suffers from a stupid phenomenon of the mid-2000s onward in the mainstream music business, called "The Loudness War", in which big record companies seem to honestly think that turning EVERYTHING up loud on the final mix, making for a "wall of noise" type approach for the mix, regardless of how it actually affects the quality of the music being presented.

Now I was lucky enough to "find" a copy of "Death Magnetic" (in addition to the LOUD retail version I bought), that was ripped from the game Guitar Hero III, as the full album was released as downloadable songs for that game. And while I have no great love for those rhythm/music games (whose star thankfully seems to have mostly come and gone), I am thankful that the album was released for that game, BECAUSE of the fact that it features the pre-final mix recording of the music. IE the way the album should have sounded, very clean, no "wall of noise". Metal nerds can complain about Bob Ross all they wish, but the fact is, outside of "St. Anger", the dude had fantastic production values on his albums, and "Death Magnetic" would have sounded light year better with him producing it, than it did with Rick Rubin and Co. doing the job.

Having SAID all that, though, my Song of 2008 does come from DM, the song "Unforgiven III". I have mentioned before how the original "Unforgiven" song is one of my all-time favorites by any band, because it is so well written, so damn catchy, and I can unfortunately relate to it so damn well. And while "Re-Load" featured a semi-sequel of sorts, thematically at least, in "Unforgiven II", which is a decent song, more of a love song really, "Unforgiven III" on this new record really goes back to the feel of the first song. Lyrically it speaks of a man lost in his own head, "adrift on the sea of life, lost in a fog", and it just has not only a great theme and sound, but some very good word-smithery by Mr. James Hetfield, something he's not particularly a stranger to, when he really tries. Especially lines like "Set sail to sea, but pulled off course by the light of golden treasure. How could he know this new dawn's light, would change his life forever?", really highlight some of Hetfield's strongest writing. Sadly, while I really wished it would receive one, as the first two songs did, "Unforgiven III" did not get a music video, nor was it released in the US as a single, even though I would argue it's the strongest song on the entire album.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Best of the Best: 2007

Mario in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

Year: 2007
Movie: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Game: Super Mario Galaxy
Album: Metal Combat for the Mortal Man by Powerglove
Song: Blackbird by Alter Bridge 

So as already laid out in 2006, I finally got a Nintendo Wii in early 2007, and while I was initially hesitant about the dumb system name and the gimmick of motion controls, I was won over pretty quickly. The reasons I got it, over just getting a cheap Gamecube to play Zelda and other games on, were many. For one thing, they announced the "Virtual Console" service, which was going to allow you to (legally) download games from classic consoles like the NES, SNES, N64, Genesis, Master System, Turbo Graphx 16, etc. They were also going to have "WiiWare" games, which would be new digital titles, many of which would wind up being "retro" styled games, which is more more flavor. That alone was reason to be excited for the system. But another big reason, were games that were announced, such as Metroid Prime 3, Super Paper Mario, Smash Bros Brawl and Mario Kart Wii (neither of which would release until 2008), and various others.

That included, of course, the game pictured above, Super Mario Galaxy. Now while I was of course worried that the "waggle" controls many "hardcore" gamers complained about, might well ruin a perfectly good Mario game, and was otherwise not totally on board with the odd concept of running around little planetoids and having strange space gravity physics.....you know what? It worked out. The first Mario Galaxy was, in all honesty, a masterpiece of a game, with some genius (and sometimes devious) level designs, a brilliant soundtrack, neat little nods to older Mario games throughout, and a graphical presentation that rivaled the best that the system's HD competitors (PS3 and Xbox 360) had to offer. I'm fairly certain most outlets even voted it as Game of the Year 2007, and so do I. However, it must be said, that the one downside to the game, which is an added bonus you don't even need to experience: unlocking the ability to play Luigi after you beat the game once with all 120 stars. I have been quoted as saying, and to this day maintain, that playing MARIO, Super Mario Galaxy is one of the best games I've ever played, and playing Luigi....it's one of the worst games I've ever played. Let's just say he's hard to control, and leave it at that.


2007, for movies, as I said in 2006, continued a gradual downward trend. Less and less movies that I was actually interested in seeing in theater, if at all. There was the okay but overstuffed and somewhat disappointing Spider-Man 3, completing Sam Raimi's otherwise brilliant trilogy on a somewhat awkward note. It was a GOOD movie.....but Marvel forced him to stick the character Venom into a story that didn't need or ask for him at all, and it just kind of became a mess. That and Raimi's nonsensical "Bad Peter Dancing" scene. Which was too bad, because the end to the Harry Osborn arc was (mostly) decent, and the Sandman was well cast and portrayed.

There was also a Simpsons movie, which was, unsurprisingly, a long episode of the show, more or less. It was fine, but nothing to write home about. There was also a Will Smith led adaptation of the story I Am Legend, twice before adapted by Hollywood in the 50s Vincent Price classic The Last Man on Earth, and the 70s Charlton Heston cult hit The Omega Man. Smith's version was surprisingly decent, mainly driven by his own character performance. There was ALSO the Nicolas Cage starring Ghost Rider film, which while Cage was not really the right casting choice for Johnny Blaze, the movie itself was one of the better early Marvel films.

But my choice for Movie of 2007, somewhat by default I suppose, simply because no other movie was especially BETTER than it, goes to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not even the best entry in that series (up until now, my favorite entry had been Prisoner of Azkaban), it's still a solid film, and while he needed more screen time (because he's awesome), Gary Oldman's character Sirius Black experiences some major SPOILERS territory.  I think the film should have been a bit longer, just to facilitate more Sirius and Harry development, him being Harry' godfather and all, and also to give the Order itself more development, as it does come off a tad undercooked, and such an awesome underground resistance group deserves proper screen time.

Now that's an album cover.

As for music, well, while it IS still heavy metal, my album of the year goes to a band I discovered around this time, one of many video game tune cover bands (though arguably the best of them), a band from the east coast called Powerglove. They do almost strictly instrumental songs, and while most other game cover bands do fairly basic covers, strictly adhering to the source material, Powerglove has a habit of using the original music as a framework, and while still being incredibly faithful to the source, the kind of take it and run with it, and "paint their own picture", if you will. And they do that in spades on the album "Metal Combat for the Mortal Man", the title track of which is an amalgamation of both the Mortal Kombat movie techno theme, and music from the NES game Mega Man 2. That alone is brilliant, but they also have other great songs, like "Mario Manor", a bad ass Super Mario Bros. thrasher (if you can believe it), "Fight On", a song based on the music of the original Killer Instinct fighting game, and "Power, Wisdom, Courage", a Legend of Zelda based song, titled after the three mystical Triforces. And then there's my personal favorite, "Red Wings Over Baron", which is a medley of music from my favorite rpg game of all time, Final Fantasy IV.

As for song, the band Alter Bridge, who were the former members of Creed (minus Scott Stapp), had come along a few years before, and while I initially wasn't that into them, it was mainly because I was still bitter about Creed breaking up. But upon a closer look, I actually liked their music, and that became more evident on their second album Blackbird. There were several good songs on that album, and I considered it as a possible Album of 2007, but the title track most especially, is....in a word, gorgeous. One of the best songs I've ever heard, and that is truly saying something. It's certainly not a HAPPY song.....at all. It is very subtly about people who die before their time ("The static of this cruel world, causes some birds to fly, long before they've seen their day"). In other words, suicide. But the chorus especially, is just fucking soul-rending: "May the wind carry you home, blackbird fly away, may you never be broken again. Beyond the suffering you've known, blackbird fly away, may you never be broken again." As someone who has dealt with depression etc. for many years, as well as someone who has known people who died before their time, this song really hit home, and still sticks with me.

The bridge late in the song, I think, really seals the deal though, so I'll share it before moving on:

"Ascend, may you find no resistance,
Know that you made such a difference,
All you leave behind will live to the end.
The cycle of suffering goes on,
But memories of you stay strong,
Someday I too will fly, and find you again.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Best of the Best: 2006

Beautiful cover art. Still my favorite 3D Zelda.

Year: 2006
Movie: Stranger Than Fiction
Game: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Album: Dante XXI by Sepultura
Song: Becoming the Dragon by Trivium

Now when it comes to video games, 2006 had a bit more going on for me on the Gamecube side of things. For one, Midway released a new Rampage game, Rampage: Total Destruction. They had resurrected the franchise years prior on PS1 and N64 with Rampage: World Tour in 1997, and a direct sequel to that in 1999 Rampage: Universal Tour. These games took the formula of the 1986 arcade original, that of giant monsters climbing buildings and trashing them while fending off human armies, and updated it with neat looking prerendered graphics and a bit more variety. With Total Destruction, they tried to update it even further, this time using fairly good looking 3D polygon graphics, though still keeping the action on a 2D plane. In Universal Tour they introduced additional monsters for the first time, outside of the original trio of George, Lizzie and Ralph (a King Kong knockoff, a Godzilla knockoff, and a giant Wolfman). So in Total Destruction they upped the ante even more, adding a LOT more playable monsters, and a bit more variety in levels. Still the same basic arcade style gameplay, though: simple but fun.

There was also a little known sleeper hit released by Nintendo, called Chibi-Robo, a VERY Japanese title in which you play a tiny robot (Chibi meaning small or tiny), whose sole purpose is to clean. A housekeeper bot. But this particular one also has a bit of a Johnny 5 (Short Circuit) complex going on, where it has a "big heart" (or glitchy programming that makes him super nice), and so Chibi wants to make the family in the household happy as well. And that is the basic premise of the game: walk around a giant (to the robot) house, clean up messes after the humans (and their dog), explore and solve quirky situations (including at one point having to talk down a renegade toy army general), and help the family get along with each other better. It sounds on the surface like "What the fuck, why would anyone play this?" But BENEATH that surface, I assure you, it's actually quite fun and engaging. I never beat the entire game, but I did put in several hours of good house-cleaning elbow grease.

SUCH great art!

But as the picture above alludes, hands down, my Game of 2006, was the new Zelda entry, Twilight Princess. Now, the caveat in that is that I didn't actually play it until early 2007, but I'll explain why. As I've said, I didn't own a Gamecube during that console generation. I intended to buy one when this new Zelda was originally supposed to release in 2005, but then it got delayed for a year as they decided they also wanted to port it to their upcoming console, the Nintendo Wii. Now, stupid name aside, the Wii little by little revealed itself to be something I actually wanted, and since I had the money to buy one, and learned that it was going to be 100% backwards compatible, playing all Gamecube games and controllers etc., that I just decided to wait and play the GC version of Twilight Princess on Wii instead. I wanted to specifically play the GC version, not the Wii port, because it was the "real", original version of the game that I had been waiting years for, and I wasn't sure about these new-fangled "motion controls" anyway.

Well, long story short, because I was an idiot and didn't pre-order the Wii, I wound up having to wait months to actually get one, because they were literally out of stock in the entire area for awhile. Thanks to the runaway success of a simple title like Wii Sports, the damn thing was out of stock. Well, thanks to a contact I had at a local game store (NOT called Game Stop), I finally got my hands on one in February of 2007, along with copies of Wii Sports and Excite Truck (both fun games). But the main event, was borrowing Harold's GC copy of Twilight Princess, which of course he'd already beaten, and I had to make him shut the fuck up MANY times so as not to spoil anything for me. FINALLY getting to play it myself, I can firmly tell you.....it was worth the wait. I had more fun playing that Zelda than I had with almost any game in ages (outside of maybe Pikmin), and in my first playthrough I put almost 80 hours into the game, not because I had to, but because I spent a LOT of time just dicking around and exploring in between dungeons and plot points. It was a blast, and I genuinely enjoyed myself. It is, to this day, my favorite 3D Zelda (my favorite of all time of course being Link's Awakening, as detailed here).


As for movies, 2006 was, I'd say, perhaps the beginning of a downward trend in Hollywood, at least for me. There were some major stinkers that came out that year, such as Bryan Singer's (the man behind the not-at-all-accurate-to-the-comics-on-purpose X-Men films) latest foray into not really giving a fuck about being true to comic book source material, Superman Returns. Now, in spite not liking what Singer had done to my precious X-Men, I went to see this film solely because it was SUPPOSED to be a direct sequel to the previous 70s and 80s Christopher Reeve Superman films, the first two of which, at least, I love. However, it was.......less than enthralling. It certainly wasn't a BAD film....it just had an absurd plot, and for a movie about a bulletproof strong guy who can fly at the speed of sound...it was rather dull. 2006 also saw the "rebirth" of James Bond, going from the so-so era of Pierce Brosnan, to the NEW "reboot" style era of Daniel Craig. Now, Craig the actor is fine, he's talented, nothing against him. But what they did to Bond, the route they took, basically changing the character from the cerebral, suave thinking man's spy, into basically a generic action hero who shoots his way out of trouble and blows shit up.....that I hated.

On the fun side of things Mission Impossible III, even though it was directed by JJ Abrams (IE the man who tried to ruin both Star Trek and Star Wars), was a surprisingly good entry in that franchise. And the sequel to the Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest, was probably the most fun of that trilogy, especially because, I mean, c'mon, it had a giant Kraken. Grandma's Boy, starring Adam Sandler cohort Allen Covert, was also an R rated romp through video game and pot jokes. The pot jokes I could do without (as I don't partake), but it was still dumb fun. 16 Blocks, the last film directed by one of my favorite directors, Richard Donner, starring Mos Def and Bruce Willis, was also a very pleasant surprise. But in general, there just weren't any movies that felt BIG to me, that I could point to say say "Yes, THAT is my Movie of 2006!"

But the movie I did pick, was yet another surprise. I have been a Will Ferrel fan since his SNL days, and his early cameo appearances in the Austin Powers movies. I have not loved everything he's done, but I like some of his movies. His screaming and whatnot act wears thin on some, and many people aren't fans of his. But even to people who aren't necessarily his fans, I would highly suggest watching Stranger Than Fiction. As a writer myself, it was a delight to see a movie about the process and the struggle of writing, but also getting down into the fundamental elements of storytelling. Plus the story is very quirky, and endearing, and I would say this is easily Ferrel's finest performance as an actor (much like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler's turns at more serious films revealed some great acting in them). It's a incredibly well done film, engaging from start to finish, and so it deserves the nod for 2006 film.

Simple but effective cover art.

Now the song of the year also goes to the runner up for album of the year, and that is Trivium's "The Crusade". Trivium is a band I had heard of, but never really listened to, in the early 2000s. They were, to some extent, part of that era's so-called "malcore" movement, which doesn't actually mean anything, except to imply that it's another kind of "hardcore" metal, but interspersed with pretty "clean" singing. Point is, I never got into their music, until this 2006 album came out. It was with Crusade that they changed their style (albeit briefly), to more of a 80s Metallica type vibe, more thrashy, dropping the screamy vocals almost entirely, in favor of Hetfieldian growling, which is just fine with me. Not all the songs on the album were winners, but several were, most especially the one that is my pick for song of the year, and that is the song "Becoming the Dragon". It's a really "pump you up" kind of song, that also happens to have a solid foundation in Chinese/Japanese mythology, telling the tale of the Koi fish who spent 100 years struggling to swim up great water falls, until he finally reached the mystical "Dragon's Gate", and was rewarded for his perseverance by the gods, transforming him into an immortal Dragon form whose very breath could create flame and storms. Basically, a song of surviving and transforming yourself into something greater, and I love it to this day, it's still a bit of a personal anthem to me.

As for album, well, Sepultura had been rockin' it with the Derrick Green lineup for some time. For those unaware, a lot of whiny metal fans with nothing better to do with their time, have spent the years since 1996, when original band leader Max Cavalera left the band, complaining that "It isn't Sepultura without Max", and bemoaning that the band should have just quit or changed their name. Even though Max started the "nu-metal" outfit Soulfly, and Sepultura with American singer Green, went on to make some great albums, especially 2001's "Nation". Well, while their work since has been okay, I personally consider "Dante XXI" to be their last great album. It was a concept album, based around Dante Allegiri's classic Inferno, and a diverse album with everything from thrash to outright peaceful music within. Certainly not one of my favorite albums of all time, but I was absolutely rocking it in 2006.