Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Best of the Best: 2014

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

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

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

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

Another good poster, simple, yet subtle.

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

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

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

Much better album art.

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

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