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.

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