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 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 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 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'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, a word, gorgeous. One of the best songs I've ever heard, and that is truly saying something. It's certainly not a HAPPY 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 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 just had an absurd plot, and for a movie about a bulletproof strong guy who can fly at the speed of 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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Best of the Best: 2005

Flawed, but still pretty great.

Year: 2005
Movie: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Game: Tekken 5
Album: Ghost Reveries by Opeth
Song: Soldier Side by System of a Down (or Born by Nevermore)   

So it was 2005. I was working at a job that I quickly grew to hate, not the least of which because it was a night job with long hours (often mandatory overtime) and working weekends. I had no real "day life" to speak of, because the daylight hours were typically spent trying to sleep. In general, not a terribly happy camper, but I persevered. There honestly isn't much to say about 2005 the year, as far as personal life went, because as sad as it is to say, it kind of went up in smoke working at said job. But the mid-2000s, while gradually sliding into some pretty murky waters, were still reliably producing some pretty solid entertainment for me to latch on to.

2005 saw many notable movies release. There was the first ever theatrical adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which itself was a very faithful version, and very well done, without much unnecessary excess. Hardly the most exciting story in the series, Lion is still plenty entertaining, a first look at the magical parallel world of Narnia, a world I had spent some headspace in as a child, reading the books, seeing the old cartoon and BBC adaptations. So I was plenty excited to see this movie, and it lived up to what I expected it should be. Could it have been EVEN better, or would I have done it a bit differently as director? Of course. But for what it was, it was good stuff.

A decent film, even IF that voice is annoying.

2005 ALSO saw the release of the newest take on the DC Comics classic Batman, titled Batman Begins. It was an interesting "origin tale" type take, and it tried to take the material more seriously than the previous Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films had. It employed heavy use of something Hollywood uses aplenty these days anyway, that being "shaky-cam" and up-close tight shots for EVERY single fight/action scene (just about), which can really ruin the action. It also featured an okay take on Bruce Wayne's early beginnings, trying to train and infiltrate the crime underworld to better understand it, with an interesting subplot involving the villain Ra's Al Ghul and eventually the Scarecrow. The year saw many other movies, including some notable remakes, one of them decent but overlong in the form of Peter Jackson's King Kong, another in the abysmally bad form of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One adaptation that I did rather enjoy, however, was Steven Spielberg's alternative take on the HG Wells' classic War of the Worlds, in which against type, instead of portraying the alien invasion itself and the war that ensued, he instead chose to focus on one family trying to survive said invasion and war. A fresh take that I quite enjoyed, and yet another Tom Cruise movie that I quite liked.

Never the greatest art, but sometimes a lot of fun.

Video game-wise, 2005 didn't hold a WHOLE lot for me. The Gamecube, while I didn't own one as I've said, had several games for it I really liked, but not so much in 2005. It DID produce arguably my biggest gaming disappointment, or certainly right at the top of the list, in the form of Star Fox: Assault, a game I had been majorly hyped for, in spite seeing and hearing about dumb gimmicks they were shoehorning into it. And then it came out, and my friend Harold and I tried it...and it was fucking awful. First two levels, that I had seen in trailers and gotten hyped by? They were fantastic. The rest of the game? A drooling, bland, uneven mess that featured mostly NOT flying combat missions, the keystone feature of the series. Instead, it had horrible, repetitive "get out and walk around and shoot stuff" missions....and it was just very UN-fun. I don't know off the top of my head if I have ever been THAT outright disappointed in a game before or since, as I absolutely loved Star Fox 64, and badly wanted a real, worthy follow up to that game. What I've gotten instead, for years, are one badly slapped-on gimmick game after another.

But on the other hand, on the Playstation 2, which by that time I owned, there were a couple of games at least that caught my interest. One of which I saw at a friend's house, an underrated sleeper hit called Shadow of the Colossus. A very unusual game wherein you play a horse-riding, sword-wielding hero, ala Link from the Legend of Zelda series, but instead of running around fighting enemies and solving puzzles, you explore a sprawling, barren land, locating and fighting only a handful of gigantic monsters, each of whom houses a piece of some demon's soul, that you need to use to somehow revive your lost love that you have brought to this forbidden valley. It has a great soundtrack, and while some of the boss designs are a bit goofy, the overall game is very unique and while not perfect, it's fun and keeps your interest. The other, which I actually owned, pictured above, was the PS2 release of Tekken 5. I had been into the Tekken games since playing the first three in arcades as a teen, and while not my absolute favorite fighting game series, I did really enjoy them. Unfortunately, Tekken 4 was the first major misstep for the franchise, after the brilliant Tekken Tag Tournament, and I really wasn't feeling it. But then part 5 released, and it seemed as if all was right again. Not only was the fifth game more in line with the amazing Tekken 3, but the home package also featured ALL three original arcade games as unlockable bonuses.

And it even had another bonus "adventure" type mode that nobody wanted to play....but hey, at least it had it. The only true downside to Tekken 5, was the boss, Jinpachi, who was the first instance of a Tekken character having some kind of projectile move. If it isn't bullshit enough that he can hit you with a fairly unblockable fireball that takes up a huge chunk of your life bar, then try on for size the fact that he can (as I recall) also refill his own lifebar. You basically have to steamroll him from start to finish, knocking him over repeatedly and not really giving him a chance to breath, to beat him. But outside of his bullshittery, I did have a lot of fun playing the game, which is why I picked it as my Game of 2005.

My first real exposure to the band, but a great one.

Now 2005 for music was, I dunno....interesting. It did have some good albums, like Nevermore's "This Godless Endeavor", an album I almost picked as Album of the Year. It also had System of a Down's two-part album "Mesmerize/Hypnotize", which while not GREAT albums, did feature a handful of really strong songs. But while working at said night job, a co-worker turned me on to Opeth, specifically their newest album "Ghost Reveries", and for some strange reason I was hooked. It must be said that while I love heavy metal, not ALL metal is created equal in my eyes, and for as much of it as I like or even outright adore, there is also MUCH of it that I really don't care for at all. And among that is included the vast majority of most "screamy" vocal styles, such as so-called "Death" and "Black" metal, to name a couple. And Opeth was a band I knew about, and knew they for many years were primarily just another Swedish death metal band (a lot of them come from Sweden).

But at some point in their career, they started to diversify and grow their sound. On the album preceding this, "Damnation", it was entirely acoustic style songs, and it was brilliant. "Ghost Reveries" was back to business as usual, with quite a lot of "death growl" vocals on hand....but also some fantastic songwriting, and moments of pure brilliance and beautiful "clean" singing interspersed. There were ENOUGH of those moments, that I really got hooked to it, even though I often strongly dislike that vocal style. And I eventually wound up liking it enough that I would now pick it as my Album of 2005.

As for Song of the Year, while I could certainly pick a song from that album, especially my favorite track "Harlequin Forest", I instead picked a tie between two songs that really spoke to me and embodied how I felt, deep in the second W. Bush term, deep in the middle of the Iraq War, deep in the middle of  steadily worsening economy and a shitty personal life. And those songs were "Soldier Side", a very haunting song about soldiers and war by System of a Down, easily the strongest song on albums that can otherwise often be downright silly. The other being "Born" by Nevermore, a song about, basically, how lost and seemingly helpless we all are inside the system we have created and have allowed to rule us.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Best of the Best: 2004

The perfect album for the W. Bush era.

Year: 2004
Movie: Spider-Man 2
Game: Pikmin 2
Album: American Idiot by Green Day
Song: Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day

So finally we get to 2004. I was still in college, but by the end of that spring semester, I had decided that I was done with school, disenchanted, disenfranchised, over it. Done with the system, done with how it all worked. I was going to move on, and focus on my writing. I worked at a bar over the summer, a large very creepy bar, at night, by myself. It was a lot of fun, really. And then that fall I switched to a tech company (of sorts), doing data entry and various other shit like that, for the better part of the next two years. It was a job that I would wind up rather miserable in, but that's a story for another year.

As movies go, 2004 was still okey doke. The third Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, and it honestly was a strong choice for the top movie of the year. It was my favorite Potter film for many years. I also really enjoyed Pixar's The Incredibles, which was a very novel and rich take on the superhero concept, this time with a family (including super kids). The Brad Pitt film Troy was also an interesting adaptation of the classic Greek epic poem The Iliad, and it was a solid film, well done, imagining what the events might have been like if they were "real", sans any direct depictions of gods or mythological phenomenon. The movie might have been more fun if it had the mythological stuff, but it was good for what they attempted. The Butterfly Effect, while a bit of a downer, wound up really surprising me also, considering it stars Ashton Kutcher. But Spider-Man 2 wound up winning the year, as it built on the foundation the first Raimi film had laid down, and built a better film out of it. The first was entertaining, but the second, I felt, really got more to the heart of the Peter Parker character, and while not super-accurate to the comics, the film depiction of Doctor Octopus was actually very well done. Easily the best Spider-Man film they have yet made.

How to do a sequel correctly.

Now in 2004, I finally got my hands on a (at the time) "current gen" console, a used PS2 that I bought from someone. I found myself playing an awful lot of the WWF wrestling game Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain, like Wrestlemania 2000 before it, mainly due to the whole create-a-wrestler feature. Metroid Prime 2 also came out, and while it's a good game, I felt it wasn't as good as the first. But I would be remiss if I didn't pick Nintendo's Pikmin 2 as the Game of 2004. It is, in almost every meaningful way, an improvement and a better game than the original. And when it comes to game sequels, that is precisely how you do them right. Now when I originally played this, mind you, I did love it, and felt then that it was a better game, in all ways but one. It had no time limit to complete the game, unlike the first which gives you 30 game days. There were even more areas to explore, and more treasures to find. In fact that was the focus of this second game, was that you were sent back to this planet to find more treasure. But the ONE drawback, or at least so I originally felt, is that there are underground areas that are basically often mandatory, and once you go down into them, it can often mean doomsday. If you fuck up, and don't play your cards right, on these missions you can very easily lose all your Pikmin, which is a tragic state indeed, let me tell you. BUT, I'm happy to report, that after coming back within the last few years and playing through the game again, which I actually beat this time, those caves aren't SO bad. Don't get me wrong, they can be kind of fucked, but the game IS overall an improvement over the already brilliant first game. I wish I could say the same for Pikmin 3, but I digress.....

THE band of 2004.

And as I already spoiled above, my album of the year, without a shadow of a doubt, was Green Day's "American Idiot". I had, as I'd mentioned in the previous article, been a Green Day fan since at least 1994 or 1995, when I first heard songs like "Basket Case" and "When I Come Around". But their output over the year in between had been very uneven, with "okay" albums like "Insomniac" and "Warning" sandwiching a better album like "Nimrod". Well....I guess in that light, the kept up the trend, perhaps by total accident. As the lore goes, they basically had most of an entire album written, perhaps even recorded, and some shit went down, and they somehow lost it all. Distressed as anyone would be, instead of crumbling, what they did was they turned around and wrote a FAR BETTER album (most likely), inspired by the absolute bullshit of the George W. Bush era, they wrote an anthem album, a rock opera for a new generation. And "American Idiot" was just that. It was  an album that came at the right time, especially in light of "W" winning a second term (dubiously, but whatever). The album attacked everything about the cynical, dark, often disdainful post-9/11 America, and called out bullshit left and right, while also speaking to the inner heart of American youth, the confusion, the suffering, the uncertain future, etc. It was an album of it's time, for sure, and an album that I absolutely latched onto.

Now I have always felt that the first half of the album, in general, is far stronger than the second half, but overall, it's a classic album with many great songs. And the song that was pretty much my Song of 2004, was the mournful ballad "Boulevard of Broken Dreams". I would dare say, though, that "American Idiot" might well still stand, and perhaps forever remain Green Day's finest work. A punk band that had long wrote mostly silly or oddball songs, suddenly had something serious to say, and it really worked.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Best of the Best: 2003

An amazing film.

Year: 2003
Movie: The Last Samurai
Game: Soul Calibur II (Gamecube version)
Album: We've Come For You All by Anthrax
Song: Frantic by Metallica

The year 2003 was a year that began with both a new beginning of sorts, as well as an ending. At the age of 21, I finally managed to get my first place, my first home that was all my own, on my own. And just as I was in the midst of moving in, and still going to college, the mother that I had had such a strained relationship with for most of my life, passed away. For as long as I could remember, she had been mired in all sorts of health issues, that only got worse over time as she did not take good care of herself at all. By the end, she could barely move on her own, and was on more pills than I cared to count. And she eventually slipped into a coma and passed. It was a rough, interesting time for me. I say "interesting" because my feelings were certainly mixed. This woman had never been my "mom", in fact I had grown up without the privilege that most kids get, of having actual parents of any kind. I had a grandmother that often felt like more of a jailer at times, and when my mother was around, she was just there, if anything an annoying sister. So when she passed, I was certainly sad, I mourned...but though it may sound fucked up to say, I mourned not just because of her passing, but also for the mother I could have had, the parent I had deserved to have as a child. It's complicated.

But regardless, on in life I went, and as ever, at this juncture at least, entertainment was still there to help me make my way in life. Many movies caught my fancy, such as Adam Sandler's Anger Management, or the awesome Chow Yun Fat film Bulletproof Monk, which was honestly a strong contender for Movie of 2003. I can't recommend that movie enough, it's one of the best martial arts movies I've personally ever seen. Although many criticized it for dumb reasons, I also for the most part really enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk film. And of course The Return of the King, the incredibly long last installment of Jackson's LOTR trilogy. But the movie that wins the prize, is a movie that really touched me, in a real way. The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, is a really wonderful film that attempts to show the transition time in late 1800s Japan, from the last vestiges of the old era of the Samurai, to the more modern, more "Western" influenced era. Not 100% historically accurate of course, but it tells an incredible story, and is a moving, romantic take on the simple older ways, versus the modern machine. Cruise himself gives perhaps, I feel, his best performance (and that's saying something, because weird or not, he's an incredible actor). There were, of course, idiots who tried to criticize that "Oh, why is a movie about Japanese Samurai starring a white guy as 'The Last Samurai'?" And naturally, like most such opinions, it is founded in uninformed drivel. Cruise's character is an observer, he is seeing their world through our "Western" eyes, and he never himself becomes a Samurai, though he does embrace their ways while acting as their prisoner. Instead, he bears witness to the final stand of The Last Samurai, that being the actual warriors who he comes to call friends. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend it.

A once great series.

Going from Samurai to some more Samurai, while there were some games I dug in 2003, including as I mentioned before, the GBA hit Harmony of Dissonance, as well as F-Zero GX (which was fun but ridiculously hard), the game that gets my pick for Game of 2003, is the Gamecube version of Soul Calibur II. Better in many ways than the original Calibur game (itself the sequel to the often forgotten Soul Edge), this was the first time in the series that they decided to throw in a gimmick, that gimmick being that each platform would receive an exclusive character. Now, on the one hand, throwing in characters that do NOT fit the game world at all (such as Star Wars characters in SCIV, which was beyond dumb), is lame. But, as it so happened, while Heihatchi from the Tekken series in the PS2 version (he has no weapon in a weapons based fighter), and Spawn in the Xbox version, were nonsensical inclusions, Link being in the Gamecube version somehow fit. Perhaps not the more realistic setting of the SC series, but his swordplay was right at home. And naturally, they managed to fit in all of his signature moves and weapons, even boomerangs and bombs. It was, in all honesty, the last good entry in the series. SCIII (which for some insane reason was PS2 exclusive), was okay, but the series really went downhill overall after SCII.

They've come for you all.

2003 was a better year in music than 2002, and among other things, the two "big ones", for me anyway, were a new Anthrax album, and a new Metallica album. Now, while I did like several songs off of "St. Anger", and in general, in spite of the purposefully garage sounding production and goddamn snare drum sound, enjoyed the album, it is not my fav. album from that year. In fact, it's easily the worst Metallica album of all time, and I say that not hating it at all. But comparing it to any of their other records, it's no contest. I think with better production (as Bob Rock was otherwise known for great sound to his albums), it would have done the songs more service. But, ultimately, it still would have likely been their weakest record, and that's somewhat understandable, given that it was born from the most uncertain point in the band's history, when they came very close to ending. But, St. Anger did produce my favorite song of the year, as the lead track "Frantic" REALLY spoke to me for a long time, of how I felt about my life and life in general.

But, the album that then does win my Album of 2003, is Anthrax's "We've Come For You All". Easily the best entry in the John Bush era of Anthrax, this album was a punch to the face (in a good way) from start to finish. The band was really on fire, and while they never really WENT anywhere (the previous albums had good music to be found), this was definitely a return statement. Sadly, it would also wind up being the very last John Bush record, because after that, the other band-mates decided they wanted to do this silly 80s reunion tour with their old singer Joey Belladonna, and wanted John to participate too, and he was not feeling it at all. And I don't blame him. It was really stupid, to be honest, they had just put out their best album in years, and should have built on that momentum and released an even BETTER album to follow it up. Instead, they take several steps backwards, do the stupid reunion tour so that old metal-heads with 80s jean-jackets and mullet hair-dos could party for a few minutes. They lose John Bush, their singer of many years, in the process, and eventually lose Joey as well, because the guy is a flake. And the band basically wound up in limbo for many years, without another album release until late 2011. They even briefly got John Bush back for some live tour dates, but he ultimately decided he didn't want to rejoin full time, which of course made me sad all over again. They finally got Joey to come back, did a new record that was okay, and that's where they've been since. I will always wonder, if they hadn't been fucking idiots, what potentially great albums Anthrax might have put out, still with Bush all these years. Oh well.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Best of the Best: 2002

SUCH a good movie. Arguably Disney's last great movie.

Year: 2002
Movie: Treasure Planet
Game: Eternal Darkness (or Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance)
Album: Degradation Trip by Jerry Cantrell
Song: Psychotic Break by Jerry Cantrell

2002 was an interesting year for me. It was certainly an improvement over the darkness of 2000 and 2001. But it was still a very uncertain time for me, as I was without a place of my own, kind of floating around, spending time at my mother's tiny apartment, settling back into college, trying to figure shit out. As far as movies went, of course, there were many big ones that year. The first Sam Raimi Spider-Man, while flawed (that Green Goblin suit was retarded), was a movie I really enjoyed. There was the second Harry Potter, the second in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (which in some ways is my favorite of that set). There was the excellent inverse take on an alien invasion, in the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. There was the dark but interesting Spielberg directed, Tom Cruise film Minority Report. Many other little films I enjoyed like Orange County, John Q, Mr. Deeds, and The Transporter. I, like many people, saw the American remake of The Ring, and while it honestly isn't a great movie, I was certainly drawn in at the time simply because I didn't know what the hell was going on. In fact, it's the only time to date, that I have ever gone to see a movie two times in one day. My friends and I had seen it, and gone back to one of their houses, and his roommate had just gotten home, and we were telling him all about it. He wanted to see it, and the next showtime was going to start soon, so we all packed in a car and rushed back downtown to go see the very next showing. Sufficed to say, that movie freaked me out a fair bit, as I have a thing about ghosts and such. I had to sleep with the TV on in my room for a bout a year after that, let's just say that.

But while I was tempted to pick Star Wars Episode II for my Movie of 2002, I decided to go a different route, and pick what in my humble opinion is the last great traditionally animated Disney film, Treasure Planet. There were others around this same early 2000s era that were good, like Atlantis and Brother Bear. But I really loved Treasure Planet, it just had a lot of whimsy and adventure to it....and like Atlantis, it didn't have any singy-song moments, which is rare for Disney. I thought the sci-fi space take on the classic story was very well done, and very imaginative. And I really, truly wish that Disney would get back to making movies like this again. They did, years later, make another "Princess" film that was 2D animation, and a Winnie the Pooh movie after, but for the most part, they still just do 3D CGI cartoon films. And some of those are good, don't get me wrong....but 2D animation, to me, will always, always be the best. It just has a magic to it, that CGI lacks.

Probably the best "Horror" video game ever made.

Gaming in 2002, for me, was much like gaming in 2001, though I did perhaps get to see or play a higher volume of games. There were several games I tried and liked, such as Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, which was a fun Godzilla battle game, though it needed more monsters. Metroid Prime was a major risk, making a 3D first person Metroid game, but it worked out, as the game was really in-depth and fun to play, though hard. Nintendo actually released a second 2D Metroid on the Game Boy Advance called Metroid Fusion, released on the same day, a major overload for Metroid fans after a near decade wait for a new game. There was also an okay remake of Spy Hunter by Midway. But the two that are the strongest candidates for me, were both "horror" related games. The first was the Game Boy Advance game, part of the Castlevania series which I have loved since my teens, called Harmony of Dissonance. It was a game very similar in style to their Playstation hit Symphony of the Night, and some have criticized it for the fact that music isn't the most amazing in the series. But to me, it was the best new Castlevania to come along in years, and the best one they've made since. It was very fun, and they added some really awesome mechanics to the SoTN formula that fleshed out the gameplay experience even more. It was basically the SoTN sequel people had been clamoring for for years, so in all honesty, people should have been far happier with it.

However, I did not actually get to play HoD until 2003, so that leaves my pick for Game of 2002 to be the Nintendo published oddity (for them), a "survival horror" game entitled Eternal Darkness. Now unlike the Resident Evil series (of which the Gamecube that same year had received both a good remake of the original, and a not-so-good prequel called RE Zero), Eternal Darkness had a much better functioning gameplay system, in which you could aim for enemies heads, limbs or torso with relative ease, and there was more strategy and flow to the gameplay. The story and setting, though, were what won me over. Hearkening deep shades of two of my favorite writers, Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the story spans many centuries, allowing you to play many different characters, as events center around a dark cult, a Necronomincon type book made from human flesh and bones and written in blood, and their attempts to bring the Old Gods back into this world, to wreak destruction. It had a fairly deep story, and some genuinely creepy moments, including a certain bathroom moment earlier in the game (if you've played it, you know), that managed to scare the shit out of me. Not a perfect game, and it really would be nice to get an improved remake or sequel. But it was really great and novel for it's time, and I enjoyed it a lot.

RIP Layne Staley.

2002 was a more sparse year for music, however, so my choice of favorite album and song was a fair bit easier. There were song bands I got into that year, but nothing that was new that year. So my choice is the second Jerry Cantrell solo album, "Degradation Trip". As you can see, the album was dedicated to the memory of his former Alice in Chains band-mate, singer Layne Staley (aka the reason I loved AiC so much). Layne had died that same year, of a drug overdose, as he had never beaten the addiction demons that had caused Alice in Chains to break up in the first place. But he was still a close friend of Jerry, so Jerry dedicated the album to him, and even wrote the last track "Gone" in his memory. On a funny side note, as you can also see, bassist Rob Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies, was in a transition phase at this point in his career, also having played for Ozzy Osbourn and Black Label Society, before he would ultimately get hired as the new bassist for Metallica in 2003. As for song, while there are several goods ones from that record, I chose "Psychotic Break", a haunting and somewhat sinister tune that has stuck with me over time. In a better year for music, I likely would have picked something else, but it's still a very good album.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Best of the Best: 2001

My movie crush of the new millennium.

Year: 2001
Movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Game: Pikmin
Album: Animosity by Sevendust
Song: Duck and Run by 3 Doors Down

So the infamous Year 2000 came and went, bringing with it some good, and a lot bad, at least in my personal life. 2001 would not fare much better, in fact in some ways it was worse. I spent the vast majority of the year still being devastated by the bad relationship I had gotten out of, so much so that even though my Baltimore Ravens won (not just won, but outright fuckin' dominated) the Super Bowl that year, and I know I was there with some friends watching it, I only vaguely remember seeing it, because my thoughts were elsewhere. I was in an incredibly vulnerable state, to say the very least, and what I thought my life had been, and where it was all going, PRE-girlfriend, was basically flipped upside down and backwards. I was still intent on trying to follow through with the plans I had before her, that I was going to go abroad, to England first and then wherever in Europe, possibly never to return for all I knew. I certainly had no desire at all to ever come back to California, I wanted to leave my shitty little hometown and all the bad memories I had collected in it far behind me. So I did go, I traveled by myself, on a Greyhound bus (no fun, not recommended) cross country, and eventually wound up in New Jersey, staying with an aunt of mine. Long story short, my stay there was not what it could have been, and it was the most lonely and isolated I had ever felt, with no friends and basically only myself for company most of the time. I never did get the money saved up to go on to the UK, and life threw me a curveball and sent me headed BACK across country (by bus again, brutal), to the California side of South Lake Tahoe.

I was 19, finding myself in yet another situation that was mostly out of my control and unstable, living with a "friend" there, and trying to write a book, which I actually did get several chapters into. But then life happened...Fate happened...and "9/11" happened. I don't mind telling you, that day, that time right after then, was possibly the scariest and most lonely I had ever experienced, even when compared to the toxic fallout from the ex. I was awakened very early that morning, told to turn on the news, and saw the Twin Towers and the Pentagon burning. It was a nightmare come to life, the world that had once seemed sleepy and relatively safe from my California vantage point, the world that had been so uneventful and undeniably better in the 90s, was forever changed in one day. I honestly feared that this was it, that our crazy-as-fuck President Bush was going to go off the handle, and we were just going to start bombing people to hell. That World War III was upon us, and that kind of post-apocalyptic shit you see in movies was going to actually happen. That was my initial fear at least. And there I was, helpless, alone, and broke in Lake Tahoe, powerless to do anything. I felt very very small during that time, and a world already full of uncertainty, became all the more uncertain by the moment. Well....WWIII never did start, and though we engaged in two pointless, costly wars in the Middle East over time, war was not the biggest price we paid in that "Post 9/11" world. No...the real price we paid was, at least in my view, a kind of innocence lost. I turned 18 too late to vote against George W. Bush, and then the world was thrown into chaos before I had even turned 20. I got to spend my adult years, my 20s, the "prime of my life", in a much darker, much more bitter and paranoid, much more uncertain America.

Such a great film.

As for movies? Well, I saw less movies in 2001 than I might have, in part because at varying points I was living in New Jersey, then Lake Tahoe, and eventually wandered my way back to Chico shortly after 9/11 occurred, broke as a joke. There were several movies I saw, especially late in the year, that I did really like, such as Jet Li's The One (possibly still my fav. Li movie), the silly Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, the dark Denzel Washington drama Training Day, the first Harry Potter film (I had never read the books, but found that I liked the movies), and even the excellent Jim Carrey drama The Majestic. That last one in and of itself, was a very close candidate for my Movie of 2001. It's a great story, that speaks to the love and magic of films, that spoke (ironically) of a loss of innocence and things changing forever, and of the paranoia of the 1950s McCarthy era. The filmmakers couldn't have had any way of knowing just how much this film would speak to a Post-9/11 world when they were making it, but it certainly came at a pertinent time. The film didn't do that well money wise in the box office, but American audiences honestly often ignore really great films, and pour money into hot garbage instead. Regardless, it was a really gteat film, one of Carrey's strongest performances, with a fantastic co-starring performance by Martin Landau as well.

But, as much as I love that movie, there was one other film that came out in late 2001 that I loved even more, and that was the first in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. I had been waiting for them to make a live action LOTR movies for years, hearing rumors and then finally confirmation that it was happening. And one thing, in all that pain and loneliness and confusion and outright insanity that my world, and the whole world, now was, that could soothe things and help you escape for a little while, was the outright greatness that was that first, glorious moment seeing Tolkien's work put up on the big screen. I had grown up with The Hobbit and Rings books, first being read to me, and then later reading myself. I grew up with the amazing Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon that is one of my top five favorite films of all time, as well as the "sequel" Return of the King, and Ralph Bakshi's late 70s LOTR animated movie as well. So it was safe to say I was a lifelong fan, and my anticipation for this film had been higher than perhaps any other since I started getting to see movies in theater in 1995. And it did not disappoint. From opening to close, I enjoyed it, and marveled in the sheer spectacle of Middle Earth being brought to painstaking life on the screen.

I loved it so much after seeing it, that I actually think, if I'm remembering correctly, that I went back to see it a total of something between seven and nine times, which is by far a record for me. My mother asked me what I wanted for my 20th birthday, and I told her all I wanted was enough money to go see Fellowship several times, so she obliged. This movie was my pick, replacing Dragonheart, as my top fav. movie of all time, for the next several years. I even loved it so much, when I bought the special edition DVD set, I sat and watched ALL of the special features, many hours worth, and enjoyed it the entire time, both because I love Tolkien, but also because I love the magic of film-making in general. But, all that being said, looking back, it was not a perfect film. The story could have been adapted better, especially after my finally going back and reading the LOTR books in 2014, I realized just how much could or should have been in the film. I know if I ever, in my wildest dreams, had the chance to do my own big budget LOTR trilogy, it would be distinctively different. Still, many things about the film WERE spot on, such as the casting, for the most part. Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey, and Sir Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, were brilliant. The soundtrack, also, was superb, and their take on Hobbiton was truly beautiful.

Such a weird, but wonderful game.

Moving on to video games, between the years 2001 and 2004, gaming was an odd, uncertain time for me as well. I had somewhere along the way, been an idiot (much as I had been in years past with my NES and SNES consoles that I eventually replaced), and got rid of my N64. So there was a period there where I did not actually personally own ANY video games on my person at the time, truly a first in my life since early childhood. Even so, even though I would eventually get my hands on an NES and SNES again, by 2003, I did not own a Nintendo Gamecube, nor a Sony Playstation 2. It bears mention, I suppose, that I have never been attracted to the Xbox brand, and thus have never bothered owning any of those systems either. But during this time, I had, I suppose you could say, "fallen out of gaming". Not that I didn't still love video games, I did. I was just poor, didn't have any new systems of my own at the time, and was just less interested in them than I had been in my childhood or teens. But, having said that, I still did get to check out certain new games that came along due to friends who owned the systems. My friend Harold owned a Gamecube, and so I got to see things like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Wave Race: Blue Storm, both of which I enjoyed. But the game that really won the year for me, in the "eleventh hour" even, releasing in December, was an odd little game, a brand new franchise from the mind of Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and Zelda, etc.), called Pikmin.

It was a very weird type of game, where you played the part of a tiny little spaceman called Captain Olimar, who had crash landed on a strange, alien world, and needed to recover the parts to and repair his ship, before 30 days were up, because that it when his life support runs out. Lucky for him, he runs into these tiny little vegetable creatures, which he names Pikmin, who sprout leaves and then flowers on their head-talks, and travel in packs. As Olimar, you use up to 100 Pikmin on screen at a time, to help you explore the world, and find the parts to your ship, as well as fight miniature monsters who get in your way, and discover "treasures" to take home as well. The "treasures" were one of the best parts of the whole experience, as they were in actuality little bits of human trash, and Nintendo even took the time to change many of those items from Japanese-centric, to things Americans would recognize for our release of the game, such as Duracel batteries, or 7-Up bottle caps, etc. You used the three types of Pikmin, the red immune to flame, the blue immune to water, and the yellow immune to electricity, to help you complete your mission in a weird fusion of exploration, puzzle-solving, and strategy gameplay. And quite frankly, while Harold thought it was okay, I fucking loved it, so much that I stayed up by myself at his house when he rented it, and played through the entire game. I initially got the shitty ending, because the last boss is a real bastard. But it was still the most original, coolest game experience I had had in years, and it instantly became one of my Top Favorite Video Games of all time.

A really bad ass album.

Now, as for music, as I once again find myself talking too much about a given year, 2001 was a stronger year for music indeed, at least to me. There were several albums that I really liked that came out that year, including Megadeth's "The World Needs a Hero", Sepultura's "Nation" (my favorite album of theirs), and Live's "V" (Five). But the two bands that topped my that year, were Sevendust and Creed. In a stroke perhaps of sheer irony, both bands' initial efforts came out in 1997. Then the year I got into Sevendust, both bands' second albums release in 1999. And wouldn't you know it, both bands' third albums dropped shortly after 9/11 happened, in late 2001, Sevendust's "Animosity" and Creed's "Weathered". I really loved both albums, and both had many songs that really spoke to me. But I gave the final nod to "Animosity" because it has stuck with me after all this time, and remains to this day my favorite Sevendust album.

As for song, well, I had gotten the debut 3 Doors Down album "The Better Life" back in fall 2000, but in 2001, amidst all the danger and adversity and uncertainty I was facing, the song "Duck and Run" became a real anthem for me. It's a song that speaks of life just beating you down, over and over, but you keep getting back up, you won't "Duck and Run" away, because life is not going to beat you. And I don't mind telling you, there have been many, many moments in my life when it earnestly felt like life had in fact beaten me, that I was down for the count. Yet I persist, I survive, and keep moving forward. And this song was yet another in a long line of music that has helped me in that survival, throughout all these years.