Monthly Archives: February 2014

Truly A Game

Truly A Game

Prepare yourself for a tautology: games are games. Video games, no matter how original or artful or steeped in tropes long refined, are just bits and pieces of things we’ve grown far too accustomed, perhaps even weary. More and more, you may find yourself saying a game is trite rather than it is objectively poor.

Good games are the ones that either hide these discrete chunks or utilize their copy-paste nature as a part of their feature set rather than a detriment. It’s a bit like alchemy in that way, where you take something intrinsically less valuable and turn it into something shiny. Consider the active reload of Gears of War. What is it beyond a digitized ticket-spewing skill game tied to a damage boost?

Yet it was considered essential to the whole Gears of War package, a vital component to its success. And it was because it took a necessary action (reloading) and turned it from something mundane into something engaging (which eventually would morph into a shibboleth of pro gamers). It is such an incredibly “gamey” facet of the series.

Gears of War 3

Other games tend to lay their foundation bare. Look around you and you see rebar poking out from the walls, brick beneath the drywall. Two recent releases made me think about this heartily these past few days. The first is Thief, the modern revival of the long dormant first-person stealth series. A full review is forthcoming, but first some tangential thoughts.

As considerably innovative as the first Thief game was (one of many revolutionary titles from the legendary Looking Glass Studios), this fourth entry into the franchise is fully enmeshed in the idea of being a game. It makes no apologies for it, either.

Garrett, the playable character, is a master thief living in a downtrodden, dirty Victorian-era city. True to the setting from which it draws its inspiration, the vast majority of the city’s population is just depressingly poor, people performing jobs they’d rather not or living lives they’d rather end. Abject poverty dwells right out in the streets.

Thief

Inexplicably so. There is gold everywhere. You pick up valuable trinkets and goblets and phat stacks of coin right up off the ground. It feels almost entirely like picking up coins in a Mario game or bananas in a Donkey Kong game. They’re left to bring up a compulsion in the player to leave a clean screen in their wake, a sentiment mashed into our heads since the dawn of the medium.

Soooo many windows are open to being breached, making available the treasures within. Perhaps it’s an allegory to the spending/saving mentality of the modern American society—the one that led us to a largely broken economy—but that is probably a sizable stretch. A sizable, unearned stretch.

The stealth is unapologetically game-infused, as well. A preface, first: this is nothing like the gameplay of Dishonored. Dishonored was very much a utility towards personal expression, giving you a wide array of tools to be precisely the Corvo you want to be. Thief aims to be a strict stealth game. Hiding in shadows isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. Conflict means you messed up.

Thief

And that’s not a negative statement (keep in mind that this is not a review). It’s just to set you up to understand this: noise is an important part of staying stealthy. Creating any amount of clatter will arouse suspicion from guards and civilians in places you shouldn’t be, which is pretty much everywhere. Your nimbleness is your greatest asset.

Your greatest enemy, however, is a laughable amount of pottery. It is an arbitrary setup to establish difficulty in moving about the world, and “arbitrary” is perhaps the most defining factor of a staple gaming element. These are ginned up obstacles for the sake of increasing the duration or iterations of the gameplay loop. Not a terrible idea considering it does make vigilance a necessity, but it is a barely masked concession.

The other game that stuck out to me was Rambo: The Video Game. You might assume it’s a terrible game (a safe assumption, I would say), but it’s so oddly, nigh impossibly entrenched in video game-ness. It’s an on-rails shooter wholly embodying the strange dichotomy between First Blood and the rest of the film franchise.

Rambo: The Video Game

You earn more points for not killing cops that attack you, where instead your shoot the gun out of their hands or blast them in the chest juuuuust enough to put them on the ground but not permanently out of commission. It stands out so stridently as being a gamey representation of Rambo’s original sentiment. It is a shooter after all. What are you to do besides shoot the dudes shooting at you?

Once again, there’s nothing wrong with a game being a game. That is, after all, what they are. There’s no point in denying their true nature. But as the industry and the medium ages and matures, either integrating or throwing a facade over the essential components becomes more important. It’s come to the point where doing either poorly is remarkable, and not in a good way.

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Harold Ramis and the Rebels

Harold Ramis and the Rebels

Harold Ramis passed yesterday. I suspect his personal impact can be categorized as generational effects. Depending on when he and his oeuvre entered your life, you will hold him in different regard. He went through phases like any artist, and that shifted his place in the cultural landscape to match his metamorphoses. Nothing, though, can erode away his meaning in my life.

Ramis’ early career was impressively irreverent. He produced work that only a very particular sect of the public would appreciate. Fortunately for us, that tiny contingent would come to forge much of what we appreciate as humor today. He worked with John Belushi and Bill Murray on The National Lampoon Radio Hour; he starred in The National Lampoon Show with Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner, and Christopher Guest; and became head writer for SCTV in its first three years.

This is the stuff your parents watched and talked about at length while their parents scolded them for mushing their brains with such garbage. This is the stuff future legends would study and imitate for years to come, the first scholarly texts of modern comedy. Ramis and his fellow collaborators were building pantheons and they didn’t even notice the pillars rising up around them.

And then he got into the full swing of his astounding career. In the span of ten short years from 1979 to 1989, he cranked out Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and both Ghostsbusters. Do you know how some movies or songs or events graft themselves onto the DNA of society? Things like the Thriller dance or the “wardrobe malfunction” or Sail Cat. All of those films will be things I force my progeny to watch hours out of the hospital, let alone the womb.

Then he topped it off with Groundhog Day in 1993, the project which many have and will probably continue to call his greatest work. I’m inclined to agree; it certainly shows to greatest effect his directing and writing calling cards. The United States National Film Registry even mustered up the time to label it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

But Ghostbusters. My gosh Ghostbusters. In my severe youth, I held few things to be true that couldn’t be validated by touch, sight, or sound. (I was highly pragmatic. Surprise!) In fact, I can enumerate them here for you now: 1) The Force exists, 2) the laughing-floating bit from Mary Poppins is 100% accurate, and 3) ghosts are real.

All three were an extreme nuisance to my parents. I can only imagine how perplexed they were at their son and daughter trying to laugh themselves into defying physics and focusing their minds into levitating candy into their mouths. And the ghosts thing can be wholly blamed on Ramis and his busting of specters.

Two of those loves persist. I quote at least once daily a Star Wars film. I even dressed up for a recent Halloween as a Jedi, logging my fourth homemade lightsaber.

But Ghostbusters is something else. At various points in my life, I identified with different characters in the film. Peter Venkman was the obvious frontman. Charming, funny, effortlessly successful with women. (So perhaps it wasn’t identification so much as it was jealousy.)

Then you find yourself always a fish out of water like Winston. Or perpetually overwhelmed like Ray. Sometimes you’re hopeless while hopelessly optimistic like Louis Tully.

Lately it’s been a lot of Ramis’ own character, though. Egon Spengler. He was, to put it succinctly, a nerd. More than that, he was the nerd among a group of ghosthunting nerds. Do you remember the scene from Ghostbusters II where they come barging into a restaurant covered in slime, wearing nothing but their underwear while Venkman and Dana are on a date? There’s nothing nerdier than giving up social graces to pursue a passion.

That is exactly what Ego represents. More than that, it’s what Ramis represents. He is famously quoted as saying, “My characters aren’t losers. They’re rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else’s rules.”

I sincerely doubt I would be where I am now—the way I am now—without that sentiment coursing through me by way of Ghostbusters and Caddyshack and Animal House and Meatballs and Stripes and Groundhog Day. It’s not even about being rebels; it’s about being precisely what you want to be and nothing else.

None of his characters changed for anyone else. In every odd, impossible, and outlandish predicament they found themselves in, they did what they knew to do: be themselves. Groundhog Day, a film entirely about change, only meant something because Phil Connors wasn’t satisfied with himself, not because anyone else wanted him to be something else.

It’s not about being better or worse. To Ramis, it’s about being exactly one thing: you. And even in his late career where you might only tangentially know him from directing Analyze That or Year One, that message has blossomed into a global-sized crater. His comedy? Obviously important. But his insistence that you believe in yourself and do what you know to be right. That’s his real legacy.

We’re not rebels. We’re not outcasts. We’re just…us.

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Introducing Fast Travels

Fast Travels to Ingress Dallas

If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m terrible at keeping track of tiny things. This includes loose change, pen caps, and, unfortunately, memory cards. But I’m also pretty good at finding them waaaayyyyy down the line. In this particular case, I found the footage from my walkabout in Downtown Dallas.

To put it more specifically, my walkabout in Downtown Dallas while learning what Ingress is. For those of you with waning memory, you can still read my writeup from back in December. Otherwise, learn what it’s like to spend a day enmeshed in a game community you know nothing about!

This is a work in progress. Well, not the video; that’s done. But the series is something open to criticism and change. It’s supposed to highlight what it’s like to spend your time learning about new games, being in new places, and meeting new people. Tell me what you want to see more or less of: the games, the places, my or other faces. Just tell me!

Also, thanks to Alex Schultz for the intro and background music. You should checkout some of his stuff.

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The Meaning of the Word

The Meaning of the Word

The Titanfall beta is over now, but I hope you had some time to play it while it was available. It’s quite good and spending considerable and dedicated time with the game helps isolate its real potential (and its potential problems). For the most part, I think it deserves the hype that it has gotten so far.

There are some things that I genuinely love in Titanfall. I love how easily you can get up entire buildings, adding that third and sorely missed dimension of many shooters. I love that your Titan will accommodate any entry shenanigans you can throw its way. And I love that it doesn’t feel like just another “thing,” whatever that broad label encompasses.

But the greatest thing about Titanfall is also one of the smallest things. So you’ve clambered about the level, endured an encounter or two with real pilots, killed a handful of incredibly ineffective grunts, and finally ground out your Titanfall counter. You throw your marker and you wait.

Titanfall

You’ve come a long way. In actual time, it’s been perhaps a few minutes, a single flake out of the entire pepper grinder. But in video games—especially quick, online first person shooters such as this—those minutes contain events that have the ability to effect other minutes or hours afterwards, even lifetimes in some cases.

It’s a short span, but you’ve crammed it full with things that you’ve done. Personally, by your hand, you’ve ended lives and saved others. You’ve captured resources and stood your ground, sent a message through your actions. So when your Titan lands and you rush up to it, your mouse clicks, your button presses, and your iron will is rewarded.

“Press X to Embark.” That’s such an interested choice of words. “Embark.” Many other games tell you to press X to enter or press X to reload or press X to interact. These—and many others—have effectively lost all meaning to us in game. We give them context because we understand what they do in the literal sense, but we forget that these words have implications beyond the animations that follow.

Titanfall

To enter is to breach a portal, to transfer yourself from one state of being to another. It is momentous. To reload is to prepare yourself to kill again, to gird your loins against the inhumane act of ending another human. It is violent. And to interact by choice is to show consciousness, to prove your agency and your independence. It is righteous.

Now you are embarking. It is such a striking choice of words. We so rarely see that word unless we talk about those that belong in the Age of Discovery, those that live solely for adventure. How often do you go on an adventure? Gut instinct would push you towards the zero side of the spectrum, but even each instance of a video game story or multiplayer session you undertake is an adventure. You enter the unknown to emerge from the other side still breathing, still willing. Still capable.

To embark is the same. We know that while we may not have the global reach of discovering new lands or zoological specimen, what we choose to do and not to do have enormous impact on who we are and what we achieve. It is huge.

Titanfall

And Titanfall acknowledges this when it asks us to embark with our Titan. It is recognizing that we worked—stumbled and fell and found ourselves again—to allow ourselves the privilege of a Titan. We have embarked, and we will again. Once our more sizable, mechanized half picks us up, we will take another unknown step out of the door and fall into the unknown.

Whether purposeful in this regard or simply an attempt to stand apart from the crowd of stock verbs, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Like the difference between using that little black, round cardboard pepper shaker we all know (and own) and the wood grain, glass-embellished full grinder, we know the importance of its variance. It speaks to our dulled sensibilities, paying recognition to our daily, weekly, and monthly journeys across the unfathomable.

We may overcome or we may be defeated, standing stoic against or with it all. We will stagger as often as we soar, trying again despite or in light of our efforts. We will waver between dedication and regret, unsure of where we lie on the timeline of purpose and discovery.

We will embark.

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Titanfall Beta Impressions

Titanfall

I used to be good at Titanfall. Namely on two occasions: 1) at E3 when seemingly no one else knew you could summon Titans, and 2) last week before the twitched-trained hordes gained beta access. Since then, I’ve been getting trounced. Not terribly, but enough to make me remember why I tend to avoid fast-paced online first person shooters.

And yet I haven’t been able to stay away from Titanfall. Respawn Entertainment’s upcoming debut, it has made a lot of headlines by simply existing. The first game from then unemployed Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampella, the decision to skip the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 generation, West’s departure from the company. But it stayed in the headlines by making splashes everywhere it went with available gameplay. People couldn’t get enough of it.

For good reason, as it turns out. Now that I’ve had more than sporadic bursts of opportunities to play the game, I’ve had the opportunity to fully steep in what Titanfall has to offer. It is an incredibly fast game, for sure, but friendly at the same time. It offers a large open door for you to walk through to the realm where kills off of wall runs and single-handedly destroying Titans reside.

As strangely rote as Titanfall may seem (mechs, multiplayer shooter, future soldiers, etc.), the game had an original vision underneath the veneer and Respawn succeeded in accomplishing it. Game director Steve Fukuda says it’s full of opportunities to play out choreographed, martial arts film-like fights. Producer Drew McCoy said they wanted the “merging of cinematic design with fast-paced action.”

Through the combination of swift on-foot running and gunning with the incredibly bombastic and oversized mech half of the game, they deliver in full. Situations emerge that you would never have thought to try simply because you’re so used to playing shooters that limit you to crouching and shooting with the option to dive a superficial afterthought. The entirety of Titanfall is structured around the incredible opportunities the building-sized Titans wreaking havoc amidst nimble and equally deadly players provide.

The game is only six-on-six, a paltry number compared to the likes of Battlefield 4, but it never feels anything less than jam-packed. For one, Titans. (Duh.) For two, there are a lot of AI-controlled bots roaming the maps, pushing the number up to 50 or so. At the outset, they are incredibly pointless. They are the equivalent to fodder enemies in a single-player game; dying to one is often the result of carelessness/late night drunkenness.

Titanfall

But when you treat them like a resource, it becomes a much more interesting game. Killing them helps you by goosing up your point count but also by reducing the time on how long before you can summon your Titan. And make no mistake: the ability to call your giant mechanical friend is absolutely key to this game. This adds a layer you’re far more used to seeing in RTS and MOBA-style games, killing creeps and harvesting resources, and it succeeds in creating a fun, novel complexity.

Once you call in the Titan, any number of things can happen, and they all play out a specific strategy you really only can count on actuating in the heat of the moment. For instance, dropping your Titan on top of another is an instant kill, so if you manage to hammer an enemy mech into a corner and you make the call, you could clear out a high level threat in a matter of seconds. If you are caught unawares, a Titan is deployed with a bubble shield that will protect you and it until you tell it what to do.

Or you can throw it ahead off a roof and dive free into the air and let it catch you as you turn around and blast the one chasing you. Or just turn it into a mobile or stationary sentry, effecting doubling your firepower in any given battle. Whereas games like Call of Duty demand you to throw your raw talent on the line with a modicum of strategy (a heavy reduction, but you get the point), Titanfall opens many more gates and you have to decide which are the right ones to go through.

Titanfall

Luckily, Titanfall is, for the most part (and for a beta), rather balanced between the effectiveness of a soldier and a Titan. You have an anti-Titan weapon that, given your impressive mobility, can be used to solo an enemy mech with proper care and strategy. With your ability to double jump and wall run your way up three or four-story buildings—which feels amazing—and duck in and out of structured cover, you are just as deadly to them as they are to you.

It’s because as many ways as there are for you to use a Titan, there are just as many methods to take one down. Some do involve being in one yourself (my favorite is punching into one and grabbing the pilot inside), but you can also rodeo one and blast it in the head. I imagine the only time anyone has ever felt cooler was when Legolas was doing, well, anything. And then you can blast into the air from the explosion, turn invisible, and blast another to smithereens as you come crashing back down.

Oh yeah, you can turn invisible. Through your loadout, you can choose tactical abilities like the aforementioned cloak, but you can also choose Burn Cards. Earned by playing the game, they’re one-use items you equip and use in a match that allow you to do any number of things including inflict extra damage in your titan, gain extra experience, or simply run faster.

Titanfall

It’s a neat way to introduce variety to the game, so not everyone single player you meet is commensurately equipped. It also introduces the idea of expertise, as you will be rewarded amplifier Burn Cards to weapons you use often. It’s actually noticeable when most of these effects are active on other players, creating the necessity to mentally track responses to particularly empowered foes.

A nice little addition is the epilogue. It’s a post-game scenario that has absolutely zero bearing on the actual outcome of the match, but it does add a bit of levity to the incredibly intense proceedings. The losing team has to escape to a dropship, but the winning team can prevent that by either hunting them down or destroying the dropship. It reminds me of Team Fortress 2, but with at least some opportunity for the losers to save face by going down with a fight.

There are also a fair number of auto-aim weapons like the Smart Pistol that simply lock onto enemies and require little to no precision. Created with the intent to facilitate the repetitive action of killing grunts, it also provides a bit of tiered hand-holding for novice players. But it also opens the possibilities for achieving kills while pulling off incredible maneuvers like sliding in under Titans and rapidly wall running up between a narrow alleyway.

Titanfall

That, perhaps, is the calling card of Titanfall. For everything that seems to have an express and obvious purpose, there are actually many other utilities that lie behind it. You just have to discover them, and that process of discovery is often the most fun part. The first time I decided to see what would happen if I tried to land on a Titan was one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever attempted or accomplished in a video game.

The concern, however, is that these actions will eventually become less and less exciting as all of the finite possibilities get dug up and brought to the surface. Obviously it will happen at some point or another, but how long exactly will determine the longevity of the game. It could be one week or one year or one decade.

But just remember how cool it was the first time you saw a cross-map knife throw kill in Call of Duty. Now think about how cool it was after you saw it happen for the twelfth time that week. But until then, Titanfall is an incredibly exciting, open, and surprisingly complex stab at the first person shooter. And I can’t wait to play more.

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Camp Takota Review: Summer Lovin’

Camp Takota

Perhaps more than anything, there is an abundance of charm flowing out from Camp Takota. It combines a handful of people who have made entire careers on the Internet by being individually enthralling, so the decision to put them in a single movie makes sense. And while this natural appeal is a great boon to the film, it also covers up a smattering of niggling quibbles that would have otherwise become legitimate problems in less charismatic hands.

It tells the story of Elise Miller, a publishing assistant who promptly gets fired when she accidentally posts pictures to Facebook of her boss making out with hotshot young adult fantasy author Walker Paige. When she goes home to seek solace in her soon-to-be husband, she finds that he is with another woman. After some vodka-fueled thinking, she calls up Sally, an old summer camp director she happened to bump into earlier that day, to take up an offer to be a counselor.

Working at the camp eight years after the last time they attended as campers, Elise’s old friends Maxine Reynolds and Allison Henry welcome her back and shock Elise back into a crafts and lake-filled life. And up until this point where these three are together, the film is fine, but there’s a definite, discrete shift in what it has to offer once they link up.

Maxine is played by Mamrie Hart and Allison by Hannah Hart, two other YouTubers in addition to Grace Helbig as Elise. If you were too busy taking out a second mortgage on the rock over your head, you should know that in real life, they are all actually quite good friends. And it is palpable in the movie when they finally come together at the camp.

Seeing them on screen feels as natural as if we actually were seeing old friends reunite. It’s not to take anything away from the rest of the film, but rather to highlight how well they work as a unit. Their laughs and their smiles and their care seem genuine, which is either a statement on their acting or their friendship. And not that knowing any of this is required to watch the film, but it does help; there are some meta jokes worth picking up on.

Regardless, it does make some of the smaller problems easier to gloss over. You can usually discern the products of more green storytellers and filmmakers by the number of montages they throw in, and Camp Takota has an unnerving amount, including a strange amalgam of scenes from the movie itself. While not a problem in and of themselves, montages are emblematic of another problem: transitions.

Camp Takota

Namely, they’re rather stilted. There are cutaway scenes that end up more confusing than informative (particularly one where Elise is just sitting in the woods) and an inordinate amount of cross dissolves. Not to mention Elise’s hard swing from loving and caring to cold and callous, a switch that is kind of hard to swallow given how she is portrayed in every scene prior.

But even then, that is perhaps the biggest problem with the film, and it’s not even a big problem. There’s also a noticeable dichotomy where parts of the movie look like a mumblecore indie film and other parts look like a beautiful bucolic paintings come to life and the writing can feel like it too often comes from a singular voice, but Camp Takota pulls off everything with sufficient aplomb.

Just not anything in excess. The story is a rather traditional tale of finding strength in your roots, but it does manage to pose some interesting questions along the way. It doesn’t, however, answer any of them. For example, Allison has higher aspirations to become a trained chef instead of working in the kitchen of a summer camp. She even goes so far as to apply to a culinary institute and get accepted, but doesn’t go through with it.

Camp Takota

Where does the line get drawn between loyalty and fealty? Allison sticks around because she might believe Maxine will become overwhelmed without her or she does truly fear how Maxine will react if she tells her or any number of other things, but we don’t know. It all just kind of resolves peacefully.

And through Elise and Jeff and Eli—her cheating ex and a dashing local farmer, respectively—the film examines the naive and experienced perspectives of better/worse and right/wrong in relationships. And with Maxine, the nuance of fleeing to and running from your desires and fears is put on display. There’s actually a lot of quietly subdued and heartfelt considerations in the film, but they unfortunately don’t get explored as much as you’d hope.

There is, however, a sweet, sentimental core to the movie that’s pretty hard to ignore and impossible to not love. Seeing how the immediate exposure between Eli and Elise forms something deep and essential is egregiously delectable. The film is steeped in the notion that the rose tint of the important things in life isn’t always from a lens covering our eyes. Sometimes they really are just that good.

Camp Takota

Even the bad guy isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s hard to pin down a real antagonist to the entire story. Jeff, of course, is a cheater, but he is gone for much of the film. And Jared, heir to the camp by way of his mother Sally, is actually quite a funny little fellow despite his desires to turn Takota into a nonsensical digital media summer camp.

A good amount of Camp Takota‘s success in being a wholly amiable romp actually comes from its actors. Mamrie Hart is kind of a revelation as her emotional turns inspired genuine movement in the cold, lifeless lump in my chest doctors tell me is a heart. Hannah Hart is also a treat, flexing gravitas I was unaware she had in Allison’s pivoting point. And of course, their penchant for curating laughs is in full effect here.

I suppose that the real resolution to the film lies in the romance between Eli and Elise, which means it comes down to Helbig and Chris Riedell (half of the movie’s directors the Brothers Riedell). The compacted timeline of infatuation they truck through is endlessly smile-inducing, if completely predictable. Helbig and Riedell make the inherently awkward parts of creating “moments” between two people seem as effortless and beautiful as lying in a windswept field.

Camp Takota

Like I said, Camp Takota is a film that oozes charm. Its main cast does so almost too easily, but the supporting cast does its work, too. And on occasion, they even show off some acting chops that take the overly sweet edge off the whole experience. It has to fight, however, against the visible struggles of first-time movie directors, feature film production studios, and screenplay writers.

They never devolve into full-on problems, but the rough edges are there, scratching at you as you watch the film. Thankfully, you are left in the fully capable, funny, interesting, and engaging hands of two Harts and a Helbig. They—and most of the folks in the film—make it hard to look at anything else but the movie’s victories. And they are worth seeing. But you won’t be able to ignore all of the fraying bits.

+ One of the most charming things you’ll see this month
+ Manages to introduce interesting and complex ideas into the story
+ Standout acting chops from the cast
– Failure to follow through on its intriguing reflections in a conventional tale
– A stilted movement between disparate parts of the plot

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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Nintendo Direct Recap: Mario Kart 8, Haggling, Nonsense

Nintendo Direct for February 13, 2014

I still find these Nintendo Direct events somewhat ridiculous. It’s easy to say, “What, Nintendo, are you too good for a regular press conference at E3 or something?” And then you smoke several cigars at once while riding a giant Fresca can into space. It’s really just that these things tend to highlight on a semi-regular interval the struggles and stigmas the company has battled for the past two console generations.

Mainly, Nintendo just doesn’t know what to give us. Often times, everything looks like more of the same, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Nintendo’s bar for a poor release is actually higher than other mediocre-adjacent measuring sticks. And when they do give us something, they don’t know how to show it off. We’re usually left confused or feeling like we’ve seen it all before.

Case in point: there’s been another Nintendo Direct event. If you didn’t see the stream, I’ll catch you up on the major points. If you did, well, I’m not sure what I have to offer you besides a hearty slap on the back, significant eye contact, and then a wistful goodbye. Let’s get to it.

Bayonetta 2 Trailer

Absurd. That’s what this is. Has there ever been a more mismatched voiceover with an over-the-top thing? He sounded like he was reading the game’s instruction manual to a mildly interested four-year-old cousin. But whatever. I really like the first Bayonetta (it was seriously a Game of the Year contender) and this looks to take a big, witchy step in another ridiculous direction.

Look for the game sometime in 2014 in the US and this summer in Japan.

Haggling

Rusty's Real Deal Baseball

Perhaps it’s the immensely large war chest of money backing seemingly reckless decisions that lead to poor outcomes, but it seems like Nintendo is the most open of the big three that is open to experimentation. For instance, besides taking their first step into free-to-play games with Steel Diver: Sub Wars, the upcoming Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball will feature price haggling.

The system is based around you actually playing the game and doing it well. In minigames, if you score high enough, you will earn an ostensibly useless item (for a baseball game, anyways). But if you take it to the shopkeeper and give him just what he needs (be sure to listen to his stories), he could be willing to knock a few pence off the price of downloadable content. Pretty big swing.

Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball comes out this April for the 3DS. Steel Diver: Sub Wars, while just announced, is already out on the eShop.

Mario Kart 8

Everyone loves their first Mario Kart. I’m willing to bet in 90% of all cases, the first Mario Kart you play is your favorite one. I’m also willing to bet that is because that’s the basis of what you judge a kart racer to actually be, and deviations necessarily make games less of a kart racer.

It makes you wonder how many people will make Mario Kart 8 (freaking eight!) their first Mario Kart. Would they even recognize the first iteration of the franchise? It’s kind of a terrifying thought. But, regardless, I will still probably end up playing Mario Kart 8. I don’t know why. It’s just going to happen. Maybe this is the one to bolster poor console sales.

Mario Kart 8 releases May 30th for the Wii U.

Fresh Professor Layton Trailer

You know what? I was never terribly into Professor Layton’s shenanigans. I found him charming, I thought the games were fun, and I would recommend the series all the time, but I just never got behind it the way many other people did. It’s really strange.

Maybe it needs a movie like Phoenix Wright. I’m not sure. This trailer, though, still has me looking forward to Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy. Oh, wait, also Emmy’s Story. Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy: Emmy’s Story. Christ, what a name.

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy: Emmy’s Story releases Feburary 28th for the 3DS.

New Ace Attorney

New Ace Attorney announced at Nintendo Direct for February 13, 2014

Only bearing an announcement of words, it was still fairly big news because original series creator Shu Takumi will be behind the wheel. And Capcom will be behind another wheel. A 3DS wheel made of money. And law. Or something. Unfortunately, no word on when it will be released or if it will come out in any country not called Japan.

And if you’re curious, the text on this briefly displayed card translates to “Ace Attorney: a New Project Begins” according to Kotaku. I dunno, they seem legit.

Pokémon Battle Trozei

Let’s be honest: we’re all suckers for puzzle games, especially those of the match-three variety. How else did Bejeweled get as big as it did? Either way, there’s a new Pokémon-themed one coming out called Pokémon Battle Trozei. The weird combination of high fidelity video game bit sounds and 90s wailing electric guitar alone makes me want to play.

It’ll be out on March 20th for the 3DS.

GBA Games Coming to Virtual Console

Game Boy Advance

Perhaps it’s just my fading old man memory, but it seems like the GBA came and went fairly fast in terms of handheld lifecycles. Technically it lasted around five years, but its big hits all seemed to fall within two years of each other and then that was it. So it seems befuddling that there was enough call for GBA games to come to the Wii U Virtual Console for this to happen.

I assume every title will just be Golden Sun, Metroid Fusion, or Advance Wars, the only three GBA games worth playing. Just kidding; there were plenty of other good ones. Just get ready to remove those rose-tinted glasses when they come your way this spring.

NES Remix 2 Continues Year of Luigi

NES Remix 2

The Year of Luigi may have come to an end, but that doesn’t mean it has to leave your heart. NES Remix 2 will feature a bunch of old Nintendo classics like Dr. Mario, Kid Icarus, and Metroid challenges along with the entirety of the original Super Mario Bros., but with Luigi as the star and the levels are backwards and also it’s called Super Luigi Bros. Surprise!

NES Remix 2 comes out April 25th.

Everyone Still Wants X

X

It’s been just over a year since X, the followup to Xenoblade Chronicles, was announced. We’ve heard just about nothing about it since then and now we see some new footage and…that’s about it. It’s still slated for release for this year, but come on. That’s probably not going to happen. I mean, we can all hope, but it won’t. Ugh, it just looks so fun.

Kirby Triple Deluxe Trailer, Date

Hey guys. I really liked the last three Kirby games. You should probably pay attention to this trailer. (Those two thoughts are unrelated.). It looks basically just like Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, which also looks a lot like every other major console Kirby release. This little pink puff is the unsung hero of Nintendo. I don’t think it’ll ever change, but his games are little troopers that do what they need to do and then get out. It’s great.

Kirby Triple Deluxe will release May 2nd for the 3DS.

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Transparent Pilot Review: So Clearly

Transparent

The title of Jill Soloway’s Transparent, another of Amazon’s second slate of pilots, works on a few levels. The first is quite obvious (hint: it’s a word) and the second works as a play on the tagline of the show, but the third is perhaps most important. On the outset, Transparent looks to be another rote familial/gladiatorial showdown of dysfunctional brothers, sisters, and parents with more of Soloway’s trademark, tilted perspective, but it has a lot more once you see past the surface.

Transparent is a comedy that features a small family of a perpetually broke sister trying to figure out how she can write hipster novelty books; an overworked stay-at-home mom trying to reconcile a lifeless marriage with the reappearance of her old college (and lesbian) lover; a brother who floats between women like a tumbleweed between saloons; and a father who can’t find it within him to tell his children he’s in the midst of transitioning to a woman.

While none of these situations are likely to directly apply to your life (or maybe they do; I don’t know your life), the core of each of these situations are going to land somewhere in your cold, dead heart and rattle it. The standout component to the show is just how identifiable these people are in their collective foundation of struggles, and not in their actual situations.

Ali, the younger sister played by Gabby Hoffman, has a tough time finding her way mostly because she can’t seem to find where she sees herself. Unhappy with her body, unhappy with her family, and unhappy being broke, she wants change but can’t produce a catalyst. She speaks to our complacency in life, a complacency brought about through idleness.

Amy Landecker as Sarah, the older sister, struggles with maintaining her house of grade school children and any semblance of romance with her husband. Her ex lesbian, married lover from college, however, has recently moved back and happens to run into her as they drop of their kids at the same school, and something is kindled once more. How often romance acts like a sickness, grabbing a hold of the most lively host and throttles it with madness.

Each of these characters is broken in such a particular way but seemingly excised directly from some facet of your life. It is a strength of the show, but certainly not the only one. These relatable units of life are delivered by quality actors, though the highlight is most clearly Jeffrey Tambor as the father.

Transparent

He’s nothing like his other most notable patriarchal role in Arrested Development. There’s a melancholy resolution here. He puts himself almost entirely in a dark place. His children are deftly selfish, reducing themselves to boisterous animals when together at a family dinner. His life is split in twain, one he’s trying to shed and another he’s trying to fit into like a snake into another skin. It’s a heartbreaking yet emboldening portrayal.

The crack in the solid wall of Transparent, however, is that so much of this required a steady and precise hand to guide it and maintain this level of insight and direction that it could so easily fall apart. While I don’t think Transparent is the strongest pilot, I do believe it is the show with the most potential. I also believe it has the most potential to crash and burn if it gets picked up.

But this is just what Amazon needs to get its studio component running against Netflix’s award-winning original programming. It needs to put all its chips behind a single hand, and Transparent just might be the one to win it all. It could land Amazon in the House of Cards and Orange is the New Black territory, but it has to follow through and keep up with its promising setup. Easier said than done, though.

Transparent

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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The After Pilot Review: Something Strange

The After

Of all the Amazon pilots, my expectations were highest were for The After. Well, perhaps not expectations, but certainly my hopes. Written and directed by The X-Files creator Chris Carter, it attempts to delve back into his cozy home of supernatural shenanigans. Unfortunately, this pilot is more of a mishmash of poorly cobbled tropes and a modicum of intrigue.

The tagline that shows up along with the show is fairly accurate: “Eight strangers are thrown together by mysterious forces and must help each other survive in a violent world.” The title refers to the fact that this group of people come together after some unknown event results in a new chaos-ridden civilization. You probably can’t call it post-apocalyptic quite yet, but it’s certainly headed that way.

Taking place in Los Angeles, there’s a French actress in town for an audition, a “wrongly accused” escaped convict, a police officer, a literal clown of the birthday party variety, an old woman with diabetes, an Irish asshole, a powerful lawyer dude, and a high society prostitute. It is basically an after school special representation of real life diversity, everyone fulfilling some misguided caricature of stereotypical character design.

None of the characters seem smart enough to survive in a regular situation let alone a dire one like the pickle they’ve found themselves in. Not smart enough and not real enough, actually. The actress continually watches videos of a daughter and husband she left in France and then becomes bewildered when the battery dies. The prostitute inexplicably goes skinny dipping in front of six strangers, one of whom is a foul-mouthed Irishman that looooooves drinking.

The old woman, despite having sugar packets in her purse she could use to stave off a diabetic fall, chooses instead to only complain that she needs to eat something and then passes out in the corner. And no one seems to remember that without electricity, electric-powered gates won’t open. The only interesting person (and by that, I mean most likely to not be a cardboard cutout) is the clown, and that’s really only because he’s a clown and we know nothing else about him.

There are some mysterious circumstances that have forced these people together. One of them is the fact that they all share the same birthday, which doesn’t inspire much in the way of mystery ginning/solving. It’s just so generic; how do you make another fake-coincidental encounter interesting? I don’t really know, but it’s not what Carter tries here.

The After

A strangely corporeal supernatural resolution appears towards the end of the pilot, and it features tattoos that two of the strangers also happen to have on their bodies, leading you to believe that the others have some sort of physical marking linking them to this oddity. One of the few genuinely intriguing developments of the event is that the strangers, after being stuck in a parking garage for what they think is a few hours, have lost upwards of an entire day of time.

And loud, ominous explosions fire off in some intangible distance every once in a while. I would really like to see where the connection is between those and the thing in the forest, but that would involve the rest of the show not being so terribly rote. There’s not an awful amount that falls into under the This Blows umbrella, but there’s also not enough that makes me think an entire show could work on what’s presented here. There are some pieces in place with The After, but Carter needs to know how to use them.

Final Score: 5 out of 10

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Mozart in the Jungle Review: Above the Trees

Mozart in the Jungle

Perhaps the pilot with most promise, Amazon Studios delivers to us Mozart in the Jungle, a comedy about being a performance artist in New York. Centered mostly around a green oboist from North Carolina, it successfully blends hints of a mainstream sitcom and the pleasantly dry appeal of a Bored to Death. That, combined with its subject matter, however, may result in a very niche appeal.

Oboist Hailey currently teaches private lessons and plays in the pit at a hilariously awful Styx jukebox musical called “Oedipus Rocks,” but she has higher aspirations, ones that match her significant level of talent. One night at the classic rock/musical theater abomination, she meets Cynthia, a cellist who is making ends meet with this gig and her spot as first chair at the New York Symphony.

This sets Hailey down the path of forgoing her generic musical career of teaching youngsters and scraping together nightly gigs and attempting to jump into one of the most prestigious symphonies in the world. It happens at a fortuitous time as the old conductor played by Malcolm McDowell reluctantly steps down to let Gael García Bernal’s hotshot Rodrigo take over.

Obviously written by some folks with a musical background (namely Alex Timbers, though Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman have their distinct ingredients thrown in the pot), it is rife with references to a musical life with pinpoint accuracy. The drama would not be out of place in an actual documentary on any orchestra in the world (the show is actually based on a memoir called Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music).

The problem is that this has the potential to limit the show’s audience. One of the opening moments of the show actually has Cynthia running through a litany of old band jokes that make analogous comparisons to what you play and what you’re like in the sack. It’s so real and comparable to my time as a musician that it hurts. And Hailey’s entire approach to trying to “make it” and dividing her desires between being outgoing and responsible can be identifiable by pretty much anyone with a pulse.

But then other times, it seems like the show wants to be more outlandish. Rodrigo is an entirely fantastical character that is basically a musical savant with a visual panache that makes you immediately like or hate him. He’s can only exist in on a screen. And when Hailey engages in a play-off competition in the middle of a raging party that involves spinning a bottle, improving licks in particular genres, and taking shots, that simply doesn’t happen.

Mozart in the Jungle

The humor, though, is spot-on for what the show is. The jokes flow between situational remarks and remarks on universal situations. There are moments that are genuinely funny and also progress development between characters. It rarely falls into the trap of making jokes for the sake of making jokes (they are, however, almost all entirely dry).

Given the pedigree of the show, however, I would like to believe that if the show continues, it would drop what semblance it has of reality and delves full-on into its creators’ collective whimsy. Coming from Schwartzman and Coppola, its strengths would obviously be in the odd and absurd, but the grounded parts of Mozart in the Jungle are similarly compelling. It would be great to see the show get picked up and see how that mix plays out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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