Monday, December 27, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy is quite possibly the coolest movie I have ever seen.

Mind you, I'm not some die-hard Tron fanboy, and I came into this sequel with low expectations.  I tried watching the original when I was a kid, but I just found it terribly boring. Coming to it recently as a more cultured adult, I found it still boring, and furthermore ridiculous, but I could at least appreciate that it was unique, at the time new, and unlike anything else people had ever seen before.

Like its predecessor, Tron: Legacy too is something new and unique. But it also looks good and is entertaining. Indeed, I think the new world of Tron: Legacy is what Tron was supposed to have looked like all along, only the technological constraints of the time having distorted the vision. It creates a world wholly and deliberately unreal, yet makes it as convincing as it is attractive. Yes, it is somehow, paradoxically, convincingly unreal. Credit must be given, of course, to the original Tron, whose basic design laid the groundwork for the sequel. Whenever, God forbid, I should imagine what it is like to exist inside a computer, the image shall hereafter forever be informed by both movies. But, whereas everyone remembers the original as a technical marvel, I don't imagine that Tron: Legacy is the result of considerably more supercomputers at work than any other current special effects-laden flick. Rather, the singular aesthetic of the movie is, first and foremost, a work of art that sets it quite apart from any other blockbuster.

Equally essential, if not more so, is the film score by Daft Punk. Even before the film transitions to the virtual world, the urgent soundtrack takes hold and has you surrendering your emotions to the groove. The hypnotic score remains in the foreground throughout, and the otherworldly visuals later seem almost more an illustration of the movie's sound. The sublime marriage of audio and visuals is truly what makes Tron: Legacy, nearly a feature-length music video.

Writing is also improved over the original, although the story is definitely a sequel, and depends heavily on the first film's. All the ridiculous explanations from the first movie remain in effect, but they seem less ridiculous this time, mainly because the sequel doesn't even bother explaining how flesh-and-blood humans are able to enter the realm of digital data. Tron: Legacy also doesn't tell viewers much about who Kevin Flynn and Tron were, though both characters return, the latter being more welcome than the former.

On that note, I should make mention of the special effects used to make Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner appear young again, whether because they appear in flashbacks or because data isn't supposed to show wrinkles. By some accounts, the digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges is the one blemish on an otherwise visually impeccable film. To be honest, I wasn't much bothered by it. Rather, when I watched the original Tron just a few months ago, I was startled by the genuine image of the young Jeff Bridges, since I had only ever really known him from his work as a much older man. So, perhaps because any young Jeff Bridges is, by its nature, a strange sight to me, I did not regard his CG mask as itself deficient in Tron: Legacy.

It is somewhat the opposite case with Bruce Boxleitner. Playing Tron would be the highlight of his career, so for most people, having not watched him age through his later roles, he has remained frozen in that image of him as a young man in Tron. So when I saw him as the young Tron again in Tron: Legacy, it seemed right (and, in this case, I have met little disagreement), whereas it was the scenes featuring the old Bruce Boxleitner's real face that kind of unsettled.

At the risk of spoiling things, I will say that Tron's role in the movie is brief, and his face shown only from a distance and through some distortion filter for most of it. So maybe the filmmakers themselves did not have complete confidence in their tech to do justice to the series's coolest and most beloved character. It makes me wonder about the possibility for future sequels. Without both CG assistance and shrewd editing, Bruce Boxleitner is already too old, not only in body but in voice, to convincingly play the same character from thirty years ago. I'd wager that limiting that character's minutes in Tron: Legacy was simply a practical necessity. But, going forward, would a Tron movie without any Tron at all even be worth making? Well, I suppose as technology advances, the Tron character may yet endure, and now truly as just data.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Last Unicorn

"And where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you? How dare you come to me now, when I am this?"

The Last Unicorn was not so vivid in my memory as Robin Hood. In fact, I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard of it before, let alone seen it. But there was something vaguely resonant about the title and DVD cover art, and as I read the synopsis, I felt certain that this was the very movie I had been searching for for years.

It was back when I was a kindergartener. At my elementary school, I remember, at the end of the last Friday of every month, all the kindergarteners would gather into one classroom to watch a movie (usually a Disney animated classic—Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, etc.).

To be honest, I didn’t really like “movie day,” mainly on account of the fact that it was always hosted in the other kindergarten class, where I would have to sit on the floor and be surrounded by strange kids I didn’t normally see. Looking back, I also wonder why we even had a movie day. What educational value was there to be had from watching Disney movies during class time? As heavily criticized as California’s under-budgeted education system is nowadays, I suppose it’s easy to be cynical in retrospect and imagine that the underpaid teachers were just idling the day away any way they could.

But, no, I really did like my kindergarten teacher, and though I can’t remember much of the day-to-day in her class, everything I can remember tells me that she had the students’ best interests at heart. It is neither easy nor profitable being a teacher, especially for the very young kids. I have to believe that anyone who would take on that job would do so from the heart (though that speaks unfortunately little of their qualifications). And maybe, for us young kids, movie time existed for the same reason as nap time—we could only handle so much and needed periods to unwind.

But I’ve no expertise to comment on such matters of education, and, anyway, I digress. The Last Unicorn was not even screened on movie day, but rather came presumably from our teacher’s personal collection. Near the end of the school year, she would end every day by playing a bit of the movie. I don’t remember her introducing it in any way or even discussing it at all. When the work was done for the day, she would just turn the lights down, pop in the tape, and have us watch quietly until the bell rang.

Trying to sort through the memories now, it’s hard to make sense of the math. I feel like we must have watched The Last Unicorn for at least a week, but, in that case, we must have only been watching for a few minutes at a time, because it was not a very long movie after all. Yet each viewing must have been long enough for me to become quite engrossed, as I definitely recall being the case. But what I mainly remember is that the school year ended before we could finish the movie (and, yes, we were still watching it up to the final bell of the final class day).

I was, at the time, still quite new to this “school” thing, so I didn’t really appreciate what “summer break” meant, even though my older brother seemed very excited for it. I gathered quickly enough that it was a long break from school. But, to be honest, through that whole enjoyable summer, there was a small part of me that was still anxious to find out how The Last Unicorn was going to end, and, in my naivete, I actually believed that, once school started up again, we would pick up right where we left off. Once first grade did start, it did not take me long to realize how stupid I’d been to think that I’d be resuming The Last Unicorn with a different class and different teacher. But I was still a tad disappointed.

For years after that, I continued to wonder how the movie was supposed to end. I might have just asked my parents to buy the movie for me, except that I actually couldn't remember the title of it. And in those pre-Internet days, it was not easy to look up and identify a movie based on some recollected description. Over time, I would forget almost entirely what the movie itself was about. I would only remember, now and again, that there was some animated fantasy movie that I had watched in kindergarten, which I did not get to see the end of.

I might have asked my kindergarten teacher, except that she left the school after my year. I was told that she had moved away with her husband, who was nothing less than a Harlem Globetrotter. I knew that athletes had to do a lot of traveling, so I supposed that she also had to move around a lot to be with him. Only much later in life did I do some digging and find out that her husband was actually David “Smokey” Gaines, a former Globetrotter, who was already long past his performing days by the time I was in his wife’s kindergarten class. He had become a basketball coach, and he had received an offer in another state, so that was why they had moved.

To be honest, I actually managed to track down Mr. Gaines’s current office, and I almost considered giving him a call just to ask how his wife was now. Of course, I didn’t know if they were still married, or if she was even still alive . . . . But, even in the best-case scenario, I seriously doubt she would remember me, just as I can no longer remember much about her. And what would I even say to her?

Hello, Mrs. Gaines, I was in your kindergarten class some twenty years ago. Chinese kid. Kind of quiet. You asked me once how I would feel about being selected for a “good citizenship” award, and I told you to “let me think about it.” You laughed and said okay, but later you gave me the award anyway without ever asking for my answer. Thank you for that. And how are you these days?

Yeah, it probably wouldn’t go down like that . . . .

Anyway, I digress again.

As for the movie itself? Well, I actually bought the DVD about three years ago, but, even though I'd already waited twenty years to see the end of it, I kept putting off watching it until yesterday. Or maybe, precisely because it had been that long, I was afraid to watch it, for fear that it could not possibly live up to my childhood feelings about it, those feelings being about all that I could remember, in lieu of any details about the movie itself.

Well, now having seen the whole thing finally, I don't think it's a particularly great movie, worthy of all that I've invested in it over these more than twenty years. But there is a certain haunting beauty and an earnestness to it that is seldom found nowadays in children's pictures. I would say that the filmmakers grasped rightly that a child can more deeply feel than think. Truly, there is little of sense to the movie, but the characters' ever guileless (and seemingly always unprovoked) expressions of love, longing, frustration, sadness, and dread would have been keenly resonant to younger audiences, children being all emotion before reason. Or perhaps I speak only of my own younger self.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Robin Hood

While shopping the other day, I happened by the movies section of the electronics store at the mall. And, for whatever reason, I quickly gravitated toward the animated shelf. Perhaps I was looking for some comforting reminder of my childhood, back when I could watch a movie more earnestly, even if it happened to star talking cartoon animals. I passed by a number of older titles that I could remember liking—An American Tail, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound—though I could not otherwise remember anything about them, so long had it been since I’d seen them.

One that caught my eye was Disney’s version of Robin Hood. It had been a particular favorite of mine growing up, though again I cannot remember it well enough now to determine where it would stack up against more recent pictures. But I remember, back when my parents, who used to work days and nights, would drop me off at the daycare, Robin Hood was one of the handful of VHS tapes on hand to entertain the kids.

I probably watched Robin Hood at least a dozen times there, yet somehow the twelfth time was as engaging as the first. I suppose, being a child, maybe I was just easily diverted. It has now been many years since I last saw it, but there is still one scene that I can vividly recall.

I believe it came near the end of the movie. I don’t even remember the exact context, but Robin Hood was attempting to flee Prince John’s burning castle. All avenues of escape were cut off, however, and he was forced to turn from one dead end to another, meanwhile having to evade relentless guards and arrows fired from all directions. Although Robin Hood had been a charismatic and cocksure hero up to that point, the panic and desperation were now clearly drawn on his expression, as though he were for the first time confronting a situation he wasn’t sure he could get out of. And as his seemingly futile escape attempt stretched on for interminable minutes, it became all the more agonizing to watch him get boxed in, his options shrinking along with his chances, until he was driven to flee deeper inward and upward into the castle (which, in my five-year-old experience, was never a good idea).

The climax came when finally Robin Hood dove (or fell) into the moat. He sank beneath the surface of the water almost upon landing, a hail of arrows following immediately behind, while both Prince John and Robin Hood’s own merry band looking on waited expectantly for him to rise again. But there was no stirring in the water, and as the bubbles stopped floating up to the surface, what followed was only his hat, an arrow running through it. Prince John was exultant, while Robin Hood’s friends were in disbelief, then pained resignation, the depth of their grief itself, more than anything else, serving as seeming proof of the cruel fate handed upon their heroic leader.

Of course that wasn’t the end of the movie, and Robin Hood did survive, and there was much rejoicing as good triumphed over evil. Yet somehow that whole sequence was, every time I saw it, as vital to me as though I were seeing it for the first time. Even though I knew he would make it out okay—in fact, I probably knew that even the first time I watched it—somehow it was still terrifying for me every time Robin Hood sank beneath the water. Somehow I got anxious every time waiting for him to surface. And the anguish of his friends, as they believed him perished, especially tore me up inside every time.

Anyway, that was Robin Hood to me.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Maybe for charity

You know how they sometimes have Celebrity Jeopardy!, Celebrity Apprentice, etc.?

Well, maybe they should do a "Celebrity" edition of Dancing with the Stars.




You know, just to shake things up for a season.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

I feel about Modern Warfare, as a video game, much as I do about The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I think both are technically well-made, but I have little personal affection for either. I probably enjoyed playing Modern Warfare more so than I did watching Lord of the Rings, but I think parts of me also despised the game much more so than those movies, toward which I would describe myself as more lukewarm. In all fairness, I am not a particular fan of first-person shooters, so Modern Warfare may have started at a disadvantage for me, but truly I must say that playing it was one of the most soul-numbing experiences I ever had in gaming.

The game was sold to me as the modern exemplar of its genre. If you were to play only one FPS in your life, in other words, it should be this one. I might actually be inclined to agree with that, although I have admittedly not played that many examples myself. But Modern Warfare does include just about everything one should expect from an FPS, and most of it done better (if only slightly so) than in any other game I've played.

There is fun to be had here, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments I've had in gaming. Truly, what make the game are the explosive set pieces and scripted sequences that leave the player feeling as though they are acting out a Hollywood blockbuster. There were occasionally stunning images, such as the sight of a helicopter spinning out and going down in real time (no cut to cinematic, pre-rendered or otherwise), while my character sat watching from another helicopter alongside. Even more impressive were the interactive moments that, although obviously scripted, gave the player just enough of an illusion of agency to feel like the hero of the script, as in the game's most adrenaline-fueled scene, when the slow motion kicks in, and you know you've got just one clip in your sidearm to make count, or else.

My favorite mission in the game, essentially a series of scripted encounters, had me playing as part of a two-man sniping team. The operation takes place indoors and outdoors, moves from the foliage to an urban environment, and encompasses just about every gameplay type--stealthy infiltration, long-range sniping, escort mission, and hectic standoff while awaiting rescue. Had that been the only mission in the game (actually, it was spread across two campaign levels), it might still have been the most perfect FPS I would ever have played, despite also being the shortest.

But then there were the other five hours of the roughly six-hour campaign. Most of the game, unfortunately, is just tedious room-clearing, practically indistinguishable from the basic gameplay found in Haze or Perfect Dark Zero, which are regarded as among the worst FPS titles of this generation. You just march forward, unload a clip into any enemy combatant that pops up probably out of nowhere, reload often, retreat to regenerate health, and probably die many unforeseen deaths before it's all over. The formula repeats several times, until there are seemingly thousands of nameless dead left behind on both sides, and there is almost no discernible narrative to let you know where you are, who you're fighting or why. It's unsettlingly impersonal, one of the most emotionally and spiritually deadening experiences not just in gaming, but in my life in general.

The game is assuredly better than Haze or Perfect Dark Zero, yet in some ways it made me feel worse. It may be the game's attitude in the face of its own realism. The game's action is, for sure, very over-the-top, but the overall aesthetic is still starker by far than the cartoony Perfect Dark Zero or even a rugged sci-fi shooter such as Gears of War. Even in the aforementioned favorite mission of mine, there was something eerie about the way, every time I sniped a guy in the head, my AI partner would compliment me with a mesmerized "Beautiful." In Haze, these sorts of war-intoxicated hollow men were the bad guys. Even Army of Two, with its mercenary protagonists, was less unnerving, because it actually came across as satirical at times, whereas Modern Warfare seems sincerely gung ho in its militarism.

The very worst (and most impersonal) mission in the game, "Death From Above," has the player staring down the sights from an AC-130 gunship that is providing cover fire for friendlies on the ground. Everything is black-and-white, and your job is to fire upon the many tiny, noiseless enemy silhouettes below until they just stop moving. Your mostly dispassionate pilot will periodically mutter a "Nice shooting" to let you know that you hit your targets. Although Modern Warfare was released three years ago, the stage bears a remarkable resemblance to the infamous WikiLeaks "Collateral Murder" video that came out earlier this year. Even the pilot audio is almost identical. It all suggests that, compared to Haze or Army of Two, Modern Warfare's representation of war is probably the more realistic. It's also uglier. What's furthermore baffling is that, come end credits, developer Infinity Ward chose to roll more of this type of footage, before closing with an irreverent rap anthem that samples, among other things, the developer's own pre-release hype for its game.

So did I ultimately have fun with Modern Warfare? I guess. I'm really not sure, however, because by the end I had kind of stopped feeling.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

No Such Thing

Stopping by the workplace commons to refill my water, I spotted the off-duty older security guard sitting by himself and staring out the second-floor window. Alerted by the gurgling of the water cooler, he turned to stare at me. I smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, as is my usual response, and prepared to make my exit back to work.

He had other ideas, however, and stopped me to ask whether the office would be open on the day after Thanksgiving. Employees are of course given that day off, but in past years, when the workload has allowed, management has encouraged people to come in and earn overtime. There had been no official word yet for this year, and it was highly unlikely that I, as unconcerned low man on the totem pole, would be informed before security, for whom, if operations are running that day, coming in is maybe not so voluntary.

I told him that I hadn't heard anything, but that, in any case, it hardly mattered to me, because I would not be coming in either way.

"Lucky rascal," he said. "Going home, or staying local?"

For me, home was local, but he didn't need all the details. I answered, "I'll be here. I just won't be here."

"But you're still single, right?"

This seemed to me rather a non-sequitur, but I indulged him and answered in the affirmative.

"Lucky rascal," he said again.

He was being playful of course, and now looked away as if to indicate that he had had his fun and I was free to go. But something compelled me to carry on a little longer.

"Are you married?" I asked him.

"Thirty years," he said.


"No such thing!" he answered triumphantly, as though he had been the one all along steering us to this punchline.

But I was heading in a different direction: "You know, I think maybe you're the lucky one."

He straightened up and smiled more sincerely then. "You've got time," he reassured me, and we both left that as the final word.

And I went back to work and he went back to staring out the window of the empty break room.

No, of course I didn't mean it. I would not trade my life for his for anything. But it seemed like the right thing to say at the time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Drawing the Line

You've probably heard by now that, in honor of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros., Nintendo will be releasing a Wii port of the 16-bit Super Mario All-Stars next month. And, I ask, people are supposed to be happy about this? I've been a sucker at times, but I will not be giving Nintendo thirty dollars for this. No, sir.

Let's take things back a bit to 1993, when Nintendo released Super Mario All-Stars for the Super NES. The compilation was one of the sweetest packages in gaming, bringing together three of the NES's most celebrated platformers on one cartridge and giving them new life through completely revamped graphics and audio and the ability to save your progress. It also threw in one additional full game, The Lost Levels--actually the original Japan-only Super Mario Bros. 2--which many Western gamers had for years been curious about. It is perhaps not widely known that, a year later, Nintendo even added a retouched Super Mario World to an updated version, Super Mario All-Stars + Super Mario World, which was distributed as a console pack-in. Like I said, pretty sweet, eh?

Now fast-forward some ten years to the Game Boy Advance era, AKA "the dark times." With the GBA proving more than powerful enough to handle ports of SNES games, Nintendo set to granting many players' wishes by portable-izing some of their 16-bit favorites. Near the top of the request list had to be Super Mario All-Stars and its collection of evergreen titles. Maybe Nintendo would even be extra cool and give us the + Super Mario World edition. Well, we got it all right . . . as three separate $20-30 cartridges.

Somehow, as the games got older, what was once one of the greatest deals of the 16-bit era was now, ten years later, being sold to us again, no longer a collection nor a bargain. Why? Seemingly for no other reason than because Nintendo had figured out how to squeeze its fans for their every last drop of passion and especially money. The Super Mario Advance series, so nonsensically ordered, didn't even look good on the shelf as separate titles. We got Super Mario Advance (Super Mario Bros. 2), Super Mario World: Super Mario Advance 2, and Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 (Super Mario Advance 3 was Yoshi's Island).

Where were Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels? Well, the 8-bit versions had already been ported and enhanced for the Game Boy Color as Super Mario Bros. Deluxe in 1999. Even Nintendo wouldn't have tried to sell us those games yet again so soon, right? Not at all! In 2004, as part of the "Classic NES Series," Nintendo gave us a straight port of Super Mario Bros. for the GBA for $20. This was, of course, the same mercenary line that included the 8-bit Metroid, which had already been featured as an extra in both Metroid Prime (later removed from the Wii version) and Metroid: Zero Mission. Other games in the $20 "budget" series included Excitebike, Donkey Kong, and Ice Climber, all of which were available both as extras in the GameCube Animal Crossing and as much cheaper cards for the e-Reader.

Speaking of Animal Crossing for the GameCube, did you know that it included complete emulations of both Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda? I wouldn't blame you if you didn't, because to this day Nintendo has never given players any means to unlock them. You can find any number of lesser NES games quite easily within Animal Crossing, but Nintendo quietly backed away from even acknowledging the existence of these most prized items, even though hackers have confirmed that the games are right there on the disc. Why were they coded into the game if Nintendo had no intention of letting us find them? Well, probably the Animal Crossing developers started with a cool idea, which then went out the window as soon as Nintendo realized that fools would pay $20 for what might otherwise have been offered for free. That is surely why no subsequent Animal Crossing game has included emulated classics, which were practically the only thing I liked about the GameCube game. After all, how can Nintendo afford to be giving away free games, when people are willing to pay money yet again for Excitebike on the Virtual Console?

I'll concede that the Virtual Console is a cool idea with a lot of untapped potential, but sometimes that potential seems deliberately untapped. And that brings us to now, when, instead of bringing Super Mario All-Stars to Virtual Console for 800 points (the standard rate for SNES titles), Nintendo is charging us $30 for a retail disc that is, by all accounts, nothing more than the original ROM with only maybe updated copyright dates and legal screens. There's no Super Mario World, none of the GBA or e-Reader extras, no four-player Mario Bros. remake, and certainly nothing brand new to this edition. It's just 17-year-old versions of 20-25-year-old games, the originals of which have long been available on Virtual Console, among myriad other formats.


*sigh* You wonder why Nintendo isn't cool anymore? It's not because they make baby games now. It's because they pull stuff like this.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

His Sour Grape

Well, there hasn't been any recent news on the Contador front, but that doesn't mean I've forgotten.

Alberto Contador, three-time Tour de France winner, revealed in September that a urine sample he had given during his victorious 2010 race contained minute traces of clenbuterol, a banned performance-enhancing drug. The Spaniard attempted to explain it away as due to food contamination, also pointing out that the amount detected was so miniscule that it could not possibly have aided his results. The World Anti-Doping Agency has rejected this defense, however, saying that it has heard it all before. Contador’s case is further damaged by the revelation that a brand new test found him also positive for plasticizers—almost certainly residue from plastic IV bags, which could have been used for blood transfusions to boost endurance.

Contador has been provisionally suspended by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), although no hearing has been set yet, and his 2010 title presently remains on the record. An official ruling could be a long way off, judging by the doping case of Floyd Landis, who was only finally stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title more than a year after the race had concluded.

While Contador must remain innocent until proven guilty, some would say the damage to cycling’s reputation has already been done. Even if his test results cannot be definitively linked to doping, the mere fact that such evidence has been found casts further suspicion on a sport hammered by drug use over the last decade at least. Far from being surprised by allegations that their champions may be dopers, many people now expect that any Tour de France winner must be on something, the stinging disgrace of Floyd Landis perhaps justifying their cynicism.

Personally, I never followed cycling with any passion, and I really couldn't care less about Contador or Landis, except insofar as their cases add further fuel to the hunt for the alpha, the only truly newsworthy person or topic in the world of cycling. I'm talking, of course, about Lance Armstrong, the big dog himself.

The ever-popular Armstrong, self-described as the most-tested athlete in the world, won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times, never once having been found guilty of doping. But the allegations persisted throughout his period of dominance, and he has been indirectly linked to drug use through guilty associates and teammates, including Landis, who has, in the aftermath of his own admission of misconduct, named Armstrong as a fellow doper. Armstrong remains the focus of an intensifying investigation into cycling that is now being assisted by Jeff Novitzky, who played a key role in the BALCO case that implicated Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, among others.

I’m reluctant to judge the man until an official verdict comes out, but as with Alberto Contador, I must admit that Armstrong’s case practically begins in doubt, and any evidence as has already been gathered tips the odds severely against his being innocent.

What concerns me is the larger repercussions, beyond cycling or even sports in general, that might accompany the ruination of Lance Armstrong. I fear the outcome of this investigation because I know that, even as his sport has been tainted in the eyes of many, Armstrong himself remains a hero to even more people, on account of the things he has done outside of cycling. Just prior to the start of his seven-year reign at the Tour de France, having himself beaten the odds to triumph over testicular cancer, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, whose LIVESTRONG movement has supported and inspired millions of cancer sufferers. Already thus recognized as one of the most philanthropic professional athletes in the world, Armstrong also co-founded the Athletes for Hope organization to get other athletes involved with charitable causes. He’s also one of the more active celebrity Twitter users, and his more than 2.5 million followers are proof of his public sway.

What would it mean, in the larger scheme, for Lance Armstrong to be toppled by a doping scandal? What would it mean for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, for LIVESTRONG, for all those who have been inspired by all that he has done? These are the questions that worry me.

I value truth perhaps beyond any other virtue, and I cannot abide cheating. I await justice in the trials of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who continue to tarnish baseball with their flimsy assertions of no wrongdoing. But Armstrong, as a public figure—a hero even for many—means so much more than those men, and it’s very hard for me to reconcile the possibility of his guilt with all the genuine good that he’s done. Personally, if I were to weigh the good against the bad, then I suppose I’d say that raising millions for cancer care and research should outweigh use of a banned substance in the Tour de France, which is, after all, just a sport. But is that to say that his good deeds excuse his (alleged) misconduct, and we’re just supposed to look the other way? That the ends justify the means, in other words (because his cycling career was what made all else possible)? Or, more cynically, that he should be allowed, through good works, to buy the adoration of the public and seven ill-gotten Tour de France titles? That’s a difficult philosophical question that I am woefully unqualified to tackle. But it’s also the issue that the public will have to face, if the reckoning promised by Novitzky comes to pass.

Bonds and Clemens too were heroes of a sort once, as were Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Now we know that their era was a shameful period in baseball’s once proud history, their dubious achievements leaving question marks all over the record book of America’s pastime. And the damage extends into today, with active stars such as Alex Rodriguez admitting to having used anabolic steroids in the past, sowing cynicism and doubt as to how much of his career is real versus enhanced. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know for sure, and that constant uncertainty is enough for many, myself included, to dull the pleasure of professional sports.

Men such as these, through their lies, stole from us the innocence to believe in and be inspired by professional athletes. From my perspective, they stole Major League Baseball itself from us, and it is now impossible for me to take the sport seriously. But again, that’s just sports. Lance Armstrong is bigger. I was never a fan of cycling, nor have I ever had cancer, so I’ve never had much reason to follow Armstrong’s name in the news, but even I can appreciate the things he has done for people affected by cancer. I would see the value of it every time I saw a random jogger sporting a yellow LIVESTRONG wristband to raise awareness and support for cancer research, as well as the resolve to live life to its fullest. The idea inspired other charities to produce their own variously colored gel bracelets, and these too would catch my eye as I spotted them everywhere on people who, even if only in a small way, were trying to inspire others as they themselves had been inspired to noble causes. But if Armstrong too was a cheater, then was his message a lie, all this hope that he gave people false? Take Lance Armstrong away from all the good men and women who believe in him, and it could amount to taking hope itself away from them.

Perhaps no sane person should confuse the man with his foundation, for which he may be merely a figurehead and not an active contributor. But I just don’t know. The foundation originated with him, it still bears his name, and Armstrong remains the face to draw people in. However little he may be involved with the day-to-day goings-on (and I honestly have no idea to what extent he is or isn’t), I imagine that, in the public perception, he is the foundation, and there is no separating it from him.

So am I a fool because part of me wants to keep LIVESTRONG going, even if it is rooted in a lie? Is a false hope better than none at all? Before, I would have said no. I would have argued that people are only really living free when they are allowed to make choices informed by the complete truth, blissful ignorance being but an illusion. But I don’t think I ever had to consider the question seriously before now, and suddenly I find myself without answers.

The truth is all well and good, but it can also be devastating. What good came of learning of Tiger Wood’s extracurricular transgressions—cheating of an altogether different sort? Or, moving from sports to the entertainment industry, what about Mel Gibson? Yes, we got the truth, and now that we are able to see these false idols for what they are, we realize what fools we were to have ever followed them in the first place. A valuable lesson learned, no? Yet, as one celebrity role model after another lets us down, soon enough we will stop believing in heroes altogether. Having been stung by these unworthy men for having believed in them more than what they are, we now exchange betrayed hopes for cynicism, believing in nothing and assuming the worst in people. I think that’s a shame. What’s more, I think that within that cynicism lies the true damage inflicted upon society by their exposed lies.

Perhaps we just had unrealistic expectations. Should we really be so disappointed to learn that our beloved celebrities—the figures most prominent in the public eye—are only men after all, as fallible as the rest of us, only their mistakes may well be greater in magnitude, as are the rest of their lives? I suppose we wish for our heroes to be wholly heroic and to never let us down. And yet I don’t see why that is so wrong. Perhaps people believe in Lance Armstrong because they need to, but why is there seemingly no scenario where honesty and inspiration intersect? Don’t people need truth and hope both equally? Don’t people deserve a hero who can deliver both? Personally, I still wish for that.

Of course, no one has caught Armstrong yet. Given all the tests he had to pass, maybe he really was clean through all those victories. I can only continue hoping that he was.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Where do we go from here?

As far as I'm concerned, the biggest story in gaming right now is Keiji Inafune's shocking resignation from Capcom, where he had spent the last 23 years, and for whom he had still been doing press and promotion within the past month.

Best known for his involvement with the Mega Man series, he eventually rose to become head of R&D and global head of production at Capcom. To many, however, more than being the head of development at Capcom, Keiji Inafune was Capcom. A Capcom without Keiji is almost as unthinkable as a Nintendo without Shigeru Miyamoto. We've still yet to get the full picture, and for now we can only speculate as to what it all means, how it came to this, and where Capcom and Keiji each go from here.

Looking back, it's not as if there weren't signs. A famously candid interviewee, he has many times made clear his dissatisfaction with the gutless direction of the Japanese games industry, even criticizing Capcom specifically. Of course, he was hardly the only one, and I just thought it was his way of lighting a fire under his subordinates.

As a mere consumer, I mostly just shrugged any time I heard talk of the Japanese games industry collapsing. But this is Keiji Inafune himself, securely the number one man at one of Japan's most distinguished publishers, leaving behind the company and property that have been his career, and I think this drastic move is undeniable proof now that things are not well in the Land of the Rising Sun.

It seems he was truly and deeply unhappy with his job. Although he was the number one man on the development side, he still felt constricted by the way Capcom ran the business end of things. But Keiji says he's not done with games, and apparently he's looking forward to becoming more involved again with the creative process.

It's hard for me to imagine what he might do without Mega Man, which I think he needed more than it needed him. I don't know how involved he was with any other titles that bore his name, but I've mostly thought of him as an executive producer of late. I am reminded of Hironobu Sakaguchi, father of Final Fantasy, who gambled as big as anyone, only to lose almost everything. Far from shaking things up, he now persists in obsolescence and irrelevance. Or perhaps we can look to Yuji Naka's career, post-Sega and Sonic.

I'm as lost and clueless as anyone, but I felt compelled to say a few words, because I honestly think this is the end of Keiji Inafune as a meaningful contributor to the games industry. Is it the end of Japanese games as well? Well, also within the past week, we've seen Shinji Mikami's studio get bought by an American company, and there's also the very reliable rumor that SOCOM developer Slant Six Games is developing some kind of squad-based Resident Evil. So these people are all now working with and for one another anyway, and I'm guessing that, in time, the distinction of "Japanese game" versus "Western game" will simply disappear. Frankly, I'm already kind of over it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Romeo and Julia

Let me tell you the story of the day TV's Jeopardy! became my enemy. No, it wasn't the Vilnius/"Vilnuis" controversy, though that guess is not far off.

Not long after the Ken Jennings period, I believe, there was an episode with a clue seeking the name of the actress who portrayed "Elaine" on Seinfeld, a '90s NBC sitcom. One contestant immediately buzzed in and answered, "Julia Louis-Dreyfus," which earned a nod from me. Instead of awarding him the money, however, Trebek left the dude hanging and befuddled until his time expired. Then another contestant buzzed in with "Julia Louis-Dreyfus," which Trebek acknowledged as the correct answer.

You see, the first guy had actually pronounced it "Louise-Dreyfus," and the judges had determined that the mispronunciation made the answer unacceptable. The second person had correctly pronounced it more like "Lewis-Dreyfus," which was judged the correct pronunciation.

I didn't entirely agree with the decision, but I was not going to argue against the Jeopardy! judges on the arbitrary rules of their own game. Rather, my complaint at the time was that I didn't think "Lewis" was the correct pronunciation. I could have sworn that I had only ever heard it pronounced "Louise," and I had never really paid it much mind that it didn't match the spelling. I thought maybe it was some odd preferred, or at least commonly accepted, mispronunciation unique to this actress. I figured the judges were adhering to conventional phonics and had never heard "Louis" pronounced in the context of her name specifically, and I awaited a correction and apology from them after the commercial break.

Well, the correction never came, the poor guy who said "Louise" lost the match by a narrow enough margin that it could have been the difference, and I could only sit at home feeling powerless to correct what I still perceived to be a grave injustice. I watched the next week's worth of episodes just anticipating some kind of apology, but it was never mentioned again.

Mind you, I didn't care enough to actually do research and confirm the pronunciation of her name myself. It was only when the actress appeared recently on 30 Rock, and I again thought I heard her name pronounced "Louise," that I finally decided to do some digging.

As it turned out, I was wrong, but so too was Jeopardy! According to the actress herself, her name is actually pronounced "LOO-ee," like the French monarchs. It's quite possible that, all those times I thought I heard "Louise," they were actually saying "LOO-ee." But it certainly wasn't "Lewis." In any case, according to their rules, the judges were correct not to award points to the first guy. But what about the second guy, who said "Lewis"? He didn't pronounce it correctly either. All he proved was that he had seen the actress's name in print and knew how it was spelled. And he didn't even really prove that! Maybe he thought it was spelled "Lewis." (And maybe the lady who was dinged in "Final Jeopardy!" for misspelling "Vilnius" as "Vilnuis" actually knew the correct pronunciation, but just had poor spelling.)

If the show were really testing knowledge (and pronunciation), then neither guy was truly correct. For that matter, the judges proved to me that they didn't know a damn thing themselves, and they were not fit to be deeming one wrong answer less incorrect than another.

No, I'm still not satisfied.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Dead Man Talking

Back when I was doing "The Essentials," I tried not to adhere too strictly to any self-imposed guidelines, but I very quickly found myself holding to scheduling an installment for every Saturday. The thing is, sometimes I would write them days, or even weeks, in advance, not necessarily composing them in the order they went up. In such cases, I would just use Blogger's scheduling feature to set them to auto-post at the proper date and time.

It never occurred to me while I was doing it, but now that I think about it, if something unfortunate had happened to me before one of those posts went up, it might then have been just a tad morbid, or at least perplexing, for my readers to have "new" posts coming from me while the world knew me to be dead/kidnapped/in a coma/whatever.

Yeah, I don't think I'm gonna be doing that anymore.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Game Has Changed

EVO 2010 ended unsurprisingly with defending champion Daigo Umehara's Ryu triumphing again over a top American Rufus player in Super Street Fighter IV. But the real story of the tournament was Taiwanese player GamerBee. When he came out of nowhere with his Adon to stunningly upset Justin Wong, en route to a 5th place finish that made national television news in his native Taiwan, it sent shock waves through the community.

If what happened really happened, then everything was thrown into question. It had been one of life's understood truths that Adon was among the most hopeless characters in the game. What did it mean that a virtual unknown from nowhere could take this bottom-tier fighter and defeat several of America's top players in convincing fashion? Suddenly, up was down, snow fell in the summer, two plus two equaled five, and horses rode people. Okay, so maybe the situation was not so dire, but it at least suggested that the tier list was not so figured out as we believed.

The repercussions of GamerBee's run could be seen at last weekend's Season's Beatings: Redemption, the first major international tournament since EVO. Perhaps it was not as big as EVO (and maybe EVO still isn't Japan), but most of the top players were in attendance, including Justin Wong, Daigo, and GamerBee himself.

This time, GamerBee entered as a legitimate favorite, so perhaps it was not so surprising to see him win it all. Well, no, it's still hard to come to grips with an Adon player winning a major competition. But Season's Beatings was full of unexpected results that would have been thought inconceivable just a few months ago.

The first stunner was Daigo's early exit. Who took out Umehara's Ryu? His first loss came at the hands of TwistedJago, by some accounts the best Bison player in America. It was a close match, and with this being a double-elimination tournament, Daigo still had a chance to come back by fighting his way through the losers bracket. His first opponent in losers was Marn, one of the East Coast's top SFIV players since the original version's release. Ever since Super came out, Marn had been maining new character Dudley, and he had not had very impressive results to show for it. Sticking to his guns against no less an opponent than Daigo, would he pull a "GamerBee" and manage a major upset using an obscure low-to-mid-tier character?

The other highlight of Season's Beatings had to be the much anticipated rematch between GamerBee and Justin Wong. The tournament's "Redemption" moniker seemed specifically chosen to hype up a possible match between Justin and his unexpected EVO vanquisher.

Actually, before they could meet in the tournament proper, the two would face off as members of opposing teams in the 5-on-5 "USA vs. The World" exhibition. Once again, it was Justin's Rufus against GamerBee's Adon, and instead of Justin avenging his EVO loss, it was GamerBee winning in commanding fashion, proving that his last victory was no fluke.

Of course, the top American players tend to regard these exhibitions as merely arenas for sandbagging. Most experts will tell you that winning is a matter of knowing your opponent, more so than knowing the game. But even in this online age, it's not exactly a simple matter to arrange a sparring session against a player even just from another state. So an exhibition with no money at stake is a good chance to feel out a foreign opponent who might later prove an obstacle in the main tournament. A shrewd player like Justin has been known to use such opportunities to get a read on a potential threat's tendencies, while he himself holds back and saves his best for the money rounds.

Sure enough, when he inevitably ran into GamerBee in the main tournament, Justin revealed that he had been saving something especially for his Taiwanese rival. This time, he would turn the tables and leave GamerBee scratching his head. For this opponent, Justin swapped out his signature Rufus for his own eyebrow-raising character choice of Makoto, another one of the game's worst characters, who is virtually unrepresented in the competitive scene.

Now, you might think that Makoto should be the sandbag character and Rufus the money character, in which case Justin was seemingly disrespecting his opponent. But Justin Wong is a guy who lives off his tournament winnings, and even if Season's Beatings isn't quite EVO, he's in it to win it, especially up against the very guy who eliminated him in EVO, thus robbing him of both prize money and pride. And Justin has shown before that he actually has rather a large and eclectic bag of secret weapons. After his Rufus lost badly to Daigo in their first SFIV match, Justin experimented (unsuccessfully) with Abel, Balrog, and Fei Long against Daigo's Ryu in subsequent major tournament situations. There aren't many players who could thus push Justin to stray from Rufus just to counter them, so his resorting to Makoto here was truly a testament to his respect for GamerBee's skill with Adon. It also meant that he truly believed Makoto had potential, and he came in fully prepared to prove it.

So, a match between an Adon and a Makoto as the most anticipated bout of a major tournament? It sounds just a bit ridiculous, yet there it was, real and competitive, and perhaps it was time for everyone watching to forget what they thought they knew about "tiers."

Of course, that was not the end of it. Although Justin had avenged himself, this was, once again, a double-elimination tournament. Unlike Daigo, GamerBee would fight his way back through losers, and Justin would find himself having to try and finish what he started, facing GamerBee once more, this time in an elimination match in the top 3, which was perhaps only proper.

Again it was Makoto versus Adon, but this match perhaps revealed the difference between the two users of these low-tier characters. GamerBee is old school. He doesn't pick Adon just to take advantage of his opponents' unfamiliarity with the matchup, but because Adon truly is his character, whom he'll live and die by. Meanwhile, Justin's choice of Makoto may have been somewhat of a gimmick, due to run its course, once his opponent caught up to his own rudimentary knowledge of the character's tricks. Yes, as both players proved, there are more characters than just Rufus and Akuma, but the deeper lesson that GamerBee teaches us here is that it really does come down to the player, not the character.

Ultimately, GamerBee managed to adapt to the Makoto matchup, leaving Justin to reconsider his character choice. Unfortunately for Justin, he didn't really have a backup plan, and you can see at the end that GamerBee just beat the fight out of him. He would do very much the same to his final opponent, Momochi, another top Japanese player on a par with Daigo.

Momochi plays Ken, another mid-tier character that is rarely seen going far in tournaments, but he is himself as technically solid a player as anyone in the world. Even so, GamerBee made him look ordinary, and although their match started close, by the end Momochi looked lost and desperate against a character that no one even in Japan plays to half the level that GamerBee does.

So, an Adon, a Ken, and a Makoto as the top 3. Daigo "The Beast" Umehara going out to a Dudley. Usually, as players grow more experienced with a game, the tournament results narrow toward a list of three or four proven top-tier characters. With Super Street Fighter IV, however, I suspect we may only now just be getting started plumbing the depths of this game.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

T.I. Joe

In my more cynical periods, I sometimes feel that we can only be as great, or as good, as the occasion permits, and for us living in these easy times, there are few opportunities for anyone to be more than mediocre.  Of course, the truly great ones are those who do not wait for life to happen, but make their own opportunities.  So who are these "great ones"?  Well, I could name a few in the realm of sports or the entertainment industry, but in "real life"--things that matter--I don't really know.

For most people, it's back to being as good as the occasion.  So it was for rapper T.I. this past Wednesday, when he helped talk a suicidal man off a ledge.

T.I. was driving to a video shoot when he heard the news, over the radio, that a man was threatening to jump off the 22-story building that housed the radio station.  Though "breaking news" every time, such incidents are not altogether uncommon and do not typically attract more than local attention.  With the police already on hand, T.I. could have done nothing and still remained blameless, a mere civilian.  Like most civilians, he could simply have shrugged and gone on with his day, or he could have become just another spectator anticipating either a heartening resolution or a thrilling disaster.

But something in him told him that he was the right man at the right time and the right place.  He stopped what he was doing, went to the scene, and did what he could to help, recording a video message that police used to talk the man off the ledge.

It wasn't something that he had to do, but it was maybe something that only he could have done.  Or maybe the suicidal man would never have gone through with it anyway.  But the point is that T.I. did not just wait and watch, leaving the outcome up to chance.  He heard the call for him from heroism, and he accepted the charges.

I'm not familiar with the rap music of T.I.  I don't imagine I would like it.  I'm not calling him any kind of role model.  Two days after the incident, he was sentenced to eleven months in prison for having violated his probation, after having been released only eight months earlier following a year behind bars on federal weapons charges.  But in his moment of recognition and subsequent action, T.I. was as good as any man.  He did what nobody else should have expected of him, but which maybe we should all expect of ourselves.  We need not all commit our lives to saving the world, but when occasion summons us, however seldom the call may come, will we hear it and be ready to answer, as T.I. did, with our best selves?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Maybe Kanye got it right . . .

I dreamed that Taylor Swift secretly owned slaves.  The story was broken by TMZ or some such thing, and of course it was a big scandal.

A silly dream, certainly, and I mostly forgot about it as the day progressed.

Then, hours later, on the drive home from work, a Taylor Swift song came on the radio, and for a second, I actually felt angry.  How dare they play this trash on the radio? I thought.  What next, readings from Mein Kampf?

Haha, a silly dream indeed.  But such is the power (and danger) of the false memories left by even silly dreams.

Monday, October 11, 2010


As seen at Big 5 Sporting Goods:

Seriously?  Okay, I may not know baseball, but in my world there is right and there is wrong, and that distinction is not difficult to make.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Lion and the Lamb

Does an isolated episode of NBC's mediocre new procedural, Chase, really merit its own post?  That is not the sort of question that I can be bothered with around here at this blog.  But be warned, there will be spoilers for episode 3, "The Comeback Kid," and what follows won't have much meaning if you haven't already watched it.

I am not a regular viewer of Chase, having in fact only seen the third episode.  I tuned in that night because I saw previews indicating that Robert Knepper would be guest-starring.  As Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell on Prison Break and Samuel Sullivan on Heroes, Knepper has previously played two of my favorite TV characters in recent years.  Both those shows have ended, however, and Knepper does not yet have a new regular gig.  So I turned on Chase to get my fix in the meantime, even though I understood that he would only be playing the villain of the week.  There was also perhaps some question of whether I was really expecting to see Robert Knepper, or if, rather, it was T-Bag/Samuel Sullivan that I wanted to see.  Either way, I was not disappointed, and this latest performance, although a one-shot, forms a nice arc along with his previous two most famous roles.

To recap (or in case you simply refuse to watch Chase), Knepper stars in the episode as Jack Druggan, fugitive of the week, who after living peacefully for years under a stolen identity, one day seems to snap shortly after turning fifty.  He seeks out and guns down the punks who mugged him and his longtime domestic partner, and this bloody vengeance apparently rekindles his glory days, back when he was a lion among lambs, robbing banks at will and enjoying Harvard-educated hookers.  Giving up his stable life of the past seventeen years, he does nothing to cover his tracks, even seeming to deliberately attract the attention of the Chase crew of U.S. Marshals.

At first, Druggan rather seems the opposite of T-Bag/Samuel.  Whereas his previous characters were monsters trying to be men, Druggan seems to have grown tired of playing house and wants to be once more a lion.  Even with the law hot on his heels, far from seeming desperate, he sees the gangster lifestyle as the most glamorous and adventurous existence there could be.  When he sees his photo printed in the newspaper, he offers a better, more recent picture, as if to taunt his pursuers, for he is proud of what he is and uninterested in hiding it.  The self-involved U.S. Marshals, peripheral players on their own show in this episode, try to get inside his head, and they determine that he is the bold, showy sort of criminal, who cannot help himself going for one more big heist, which indeed is his plan.

Maybe the Marshals are right.  Even by the episode's end, there is never any dialogue from Druggan or any other character to explicitly identify him as anything but a monster addicted to bank-robbing.  But there's a lot that doesn't add up with that interpretation.  The Marshals theorize that he went into hiding originally because things just got too hot and he didn't have money left to blow while on the run.  But in my mind, one does not spend seventeen years carrying on a relationship, working a humdrum job, and getting involved as a counselor at the halfway house for recently released prisoners, all simply as a cover while planning out the next big score.

Again, the Marshals connect the dots, seeing his position at the halfway house as the perfect avenue for him to groom and recruit his next crew, which indeed he does.  But his recruitment pitch surprises even one of his prospects, who seems to have been on the road to reform, thanks specifically to the good advice that Druggan always gave him as a counselor.  Druggan's lover also attests that, for those years they were together, he was a good man.  And when he turns, he doesn't turn on her, but invites her to join him.  She rejects his life on the run, of course, and he accepts her answer amicably, saying only that he had to try.

So, for seventeen years, Druggan had a steady job, the love of a fine woman that he loved back, and the admiration of his community for doing God's work.  For seventeen years, he had exactly the life that T-Bag and Samuel seemed to always want but could never make work because they could never escape themselves and their pasts, as men brought up into worlds with few honest options.  Perhaps Druggan was the same--a man who could not escape who he was.  It's hard to say for certain how hard he tried; his turn would have occurred before the action of the episode, most likely when the muggers attacked his lady, enraging him into a realization of his essential nature that he had been repressing.  But, again, seventeen years is a long time to be living a lie, unless that lie was what you wanted more than anything else.  In other words, perhaps he wanted to be a lamb all along, and the lion was the face that he showed again only once he was already defeated.  Defeated by a truth about himself that he did not think he could escape.

For all his proud talk of being a lion, he's not especially vicious by TV murderer standards.  He only kills people that, in his mind, robbed or tried to rob him.  He leaves several witnesses unharmed.  Even when one of his subordinates abandons him, Druggan simply accepts it and lets the man walk away.  He releases his picture to the papers supposedly because he is cocky and wants to be recognized, but perhaps, as much as he wants the world to see who he is, he also needs to be told who he really is by having the paper report back to him his crimes.  And his big score at the end seems uncharacteristically poorly planned, with no other possible outcome but a hopeless firefight.

On the surface, Druggan seemed much more self-assured than either T-Bag or Samuel, but perhaps he was actually a more resigned and knowingly self-destructive version of the same man.  T-Bag and Samuel were men who wreaked havoc on a world they felt left them no other options.  Druggan, who actually spent a long time living the life they could only dream of, ultimately discovered that his dream did not match his nature, and eventually he could be neither man nor wholly monster, and there were no options, period.  Although they were villains, I always found myself rooting for T-Bag and Samuel, hoping that things could somehow go their way.  But perhaps Druggan shows what T-Bag and Samuel would have become, even had they gotten the lives they thought they wanted.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Saw this in 3-D.  Nothing amazing, but I honestly enjoyed the 3-D better here than in any of the animated features I've seen, save for Beowulf.  Paul W. S. Anderson does not waste the tech on subtle effects; his idea of 3-D means bullets and axes flying toward the audience.  Even so, there are lengthy spaces without any noticeable 3-D, and I suppose, on the bright side, I can say that, during those moments, I honestly forgot that I was wearing the glasses.  In other words, whenever the glasses were not enhancing my experience, at least they were not detracting from it either, as has been the case in the past.  Perhaps I'm just getting accustomed to them.

As for the movie itself, it was what I wanted and more than I expected, which is not to say that it was very good or very surprising.

The first Resident Evil was a movie that I enjoyed more so than I would like to admit that it was good.  In fact, it was not very good, but its appealing lead actress and basic laundry list of zombie, sci-fi, and thriller tropes kept things sufficiently entertaining.  The second and third films then gave Milla Jovovich telekinesis, becoming very ugly superhero flicks in the process--a bit like Blade but with none of the wit, stunt work, or costuming.  They were wretched.

Afterlife sees Paul W. S. Anderson back in the director's chair for the first time since the original (though I don't know if that's actually significant, since I'm pretty sure he's never directed a good film).  More inspired by the latest games, it's much more a straight action affair.  There are still zombies, but there are also tons of bad humans, and Wesker, the main antagonist, is basically the superhuman Wesker from the games.  Milla, meanwhile, loses her own special abilities early on, becoming just a regular, albeit ideal, human, overcoming her enemies with skill, experience, and attitude, instead of conveniently timed and vaguely defined superpowers.  Thus freed of its predecessors' most unbelievable element, the movie is by far the most exciting in the series, with action set pieces on a par with the Blade trilogy's.  In my opinion, Milla is also better-dressed and better-armed this time, and the whole affair just looks cooler all around.

I had fun.  In fact, 3-D or no, I enjoyed it more than The Expendables.  And between these movies and Ultraviolet, I'm ready to declare Milla Jovovich the most exciting action star of the last ten years, probably her only rival being Angelina Jolie.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Perchance to Dream

Had a dream that I was watching Chuck on Hulu.  Instead of the usual sponsor's message and short ad, however, the video was preceded by an initialization sequence listing off all the files and processes that Hulu needed to start up.  What particularly caught my eye was the line "loading . . . ," as if the program had to load individual actors into the video.

After I woke up, I was of course reminded of that Batman: The Animated Series episode where Batman figured out that he was in a dream after he tried to read a newspaper and found the printed text nonsensical.  According to Batman, the part of the brain that we use for reading is inactive during sleep.

Well, even though my nine-year-old self thought I could remember being able to read in my dreams, so authoritative did Batman sound, as voiced by Kevin Conroy, that I naturally assumed he had to be correct, and for many years I went on believing that we could not read in our dreams, even if I seemed to remember doing so.

But this time I was certain that I had been reading in my dream, because I specifically remembered Dolph Lundgren's name being misspelled "dolf."  And after a quick bit of overdue research, I couldn't find any real scientific evidence to support Batman's explanation.  In fact, when I Googled "reading in dreams," the first results were questions that turned out to be inspired by that very episode of Batman, and the only answers supporting Batman could actually be sourced back to him.

Well, Batman, you've let me down, but I suppose you did teach me a different lesson: I probably shouldn't believe everything that cartoon superheroes tell me, no matter how convincing they may sound.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The New--What the Hell?

Up above is the man in charge of the new UK-developed Devil May Cry.  You can go to GameTrailers to hear him talk about the inspirations behind Dante's radical redesign.  Or you can not waste your time, and instead just take a look at his mop.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Funny Name of the Day

Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Gugu (short for Gugulethu) is the star of NBC's new spy series, Undercovers.  I'm not sure whether s/he's the dude or the chick. Show's lame anyway, so what does it really matter?

(In all seriousness, please forgive my lameness, Gugu, even though I bet you're a good sport and perfectly cool with it.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

3 Games That Would Play Better In 3-D

I don't personally view 3-D as a revolution in visual media, but I'm also not ready to just glibly dismiss it as a passing fancy, and I firmly believe that it still has a lot of as-yet-untapped potential.  I think 3-D should hold more meaningful applications for gaming than for film, and I even believe that it could be more gracefully implemented than motion controls.  Motion controls tend to be a disaster when lazily forced into traditional gameplay models, and even the more groundbreaking Wii Sports titles haven't really entertained me as well as good traditional games.  But I can think of a couple existing games that could be subtly yet significantly improved by 3-D.

Contra 4
(This can probably be applied to the original Contra as well, but I'm sticking with Contra 4 because it's fresher in my memory.)

As in the first Contra, there are stages in Contra 4 that switch you to a behind-the-back perspective.  Forward progression is automated, so the player is only really running or jumping side-to-side while fighting the enemies ahead.  Most enemy attacks are best avoided by dodging left or right well in advance, but there will be moments when you're faced with a row of barrels rolling toward you that spans the entire length of the stage.

Ideally, you should just fire on and destroy the barrel in your immediate lane, but if you're too slow on the draw and don't have enough firepower, you may have to jump the wall of barrels as it passes into the foreground.  This can be somewhat tricky because it is harder than it should be to spot how near or far the barrels are from you.  You know that the player character is in the foreground and the barrels' origin point in the background, but with only the illusion of depth achievable on a flat image, it can be difficult to track the barrels as they move between layers.  If you jump too early, you may just land on the barrel, whereas if you wait too long, you'll be dead before you leave the ground.  Also keep in mind that there will more than likely be additional pressure coming simultaneously from enemy soldiers firing bullets at you. With 3-D to make the barrels and other active elements pop out better, there would be less needless guessing and, consequently, less frustration.

Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader
This is like the previous example, only to a much greater and more serious extent.

In the Rogue Squadron games, you are always flying forward from a behind-your-craft perspective, so that false depth is an ever-present issue.  But it is never more a hindrance than in the Death Star stages in Rogue Leader.  The first one has you making the classic trench run, just like in the first movie, only now they've added all sorts of pillars and crossbars to get in your way.

Death usually accompanies any impact, and, at the speed at which the game moves, you're not left with much time to gauge where these obstacles are and dodge accordingly.  Unfortunately, even though Rogue Leader is built on polygons, everything still looks pretty flat on the TV screen, and thus it's harder than it should be to pick out those hazards as they approach.  Essentially, they are like the barrels from Contra 4, but faster and more numerous.

Actually, any basketball game could benefit from 3-D.

Back in the day, in most any basketball game out there, I could probably have gone through the season mode and averaged 200+ points, 40+ steals, and maybe even 4-5 blocks (that's only counting blocks by me, not my AI teammates) in five-minute quarters.  The one category where I always performed below what was realistic, however, was rebounding.

In my defense, I tend to have a high shooting percentage, so there aren't many offensive rebounds for me to go after.  Meanwhile, on defense, I try to always get the steal before my opponent can even attempt a shot.  But the real problem is that, once that ball graphic is in the air, it's always very difficult to track its position in the pseudo-3-D space.  In the older 2-D games, part of the problem was that the ball sprite itself often would not scale according to its distance from the foreground, but even in the polygonal games, it's again that issue of multiple planes of play effectively having to be pancaked onto a flat screen.

Of course, I have no desire to see 3-D completely take over, or even to see games that require 3-D.  It should never detract or distract from the core experience of a traditional game.  But 3-D can help sometimes, or at least it can be a nice bonus, should the player choose to take advantage of it.  Like surround sound.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The New Whatever

It was not long ago, on this very blog, that I was saying that I didn't think Dante was cool anymore.  Now, as if in response to that, Capcom has unveiled a brand new Dante.

This emaciated, vampiric Dante will be starring in DmC, a series reboot from English developer Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved).

At this stage, it's really too early to tell if this is an improvement or not.  I kind of dig the new, more urban duds.  His signature bold red is still there, but it's more subdued, and the overall ensemble is sleeker and less showy, more casual--a good fit for his lankier frame.  Check out the trailer, and you'll see that Ninja Theory's take still has all the right moves (no actual gameplay footage, however) and retains at least some of that swagger that DMC2 Dante was so sorely lacking.  The hair and face are startling, however, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Setting aside good or bad, it's just shocking that Capcom would essentially jettison (or allow Ninja Theory to jettison) the iconic look of one of its most recognizable characters.  That they had to bring in Nero with DMC4 already suggested that maybe the material had run its original course, and the series was due for a hard reboot.  I would have been okay with tossing all the existing mythology and supporting characters (Trish, Lady, Nero, Vergil), but here they have seemingly gotten rid of Dante himself, replacing him with a different guy who only happens to have the same name.  What makes this weirder is that the old Dante (in his DMC3 incarnation) and Trish are going to be in next year's Marvel vs. Capcom 3, giving the impression that Capcom itself isn't clear on its direction for the franchise.

The trailer is somewhat ambiguous, so I suppose it's possible that this guy is just some psychotic who only thinks he's Dante.  If the "real" Dante shows up later, in a similar capacity as he did in DMC4, then that could even be a cool twist.  Of course, Hideki Kamiya will tell you that the only "real" Dante is his DMC1 self (although I'm not sure how much of a hand Kamiya really had in designing Dante in the first place).

Whatever.  Mixed feelings on new Dante aside, the trailer looks, yes, cool, and I'm looking forward to seeing more.  Honestly, I'm more worried whether Ninja Theory will be able to capture the deep combat of the series's better installments.  I played a bit of Heavenly Sword, and it seemed pretty shallow to me.  On the other hand, a more mainstream, casual Devil May Cry might not be a bad thing, so long as it's not like DMC2.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The King of Fighters (2010)

Yes, someone actually went ahead and made a live-action The King of Fighters movie.  Yes, I've seen it.  Yes, it's awful.

The Good (or just okay):
  • Being such a fan of fighting games, I've occasionally daydreamed about how I personally would faithfully adapt them to film.  The biggest hurdle has always been how to handle the tournament itself.  How are the characters even supposed to survive taking on these brutal fights one after another?  Without weeks of rest and medical attention between bouts stretching the tournament into a yearlong affair, what shape could the finalists even be in to present an exciting match?  The King of Fighters actually provides a somewhat clever solution, having the fights take place on some sort of astral plane.  That is where the characters don their wacky video game costumes and attain superhuman abilities for clashes that may take only an instant in the real world, which they then return to uninjured.  (Of course, it's never explained why the tournament exists in the first place, but the movie is no more ridiculous than the games in that regard.)
  • (SPOILER) Rugal, played by Ray Park of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation fame, making his entrance by walking up to a security guard and, without warning or explanation, exploding the man with seemingly just his raw aura.

The Bad:
  • Rugal resorting to machine guns in the very next scene.
  • Everything else.

The Ugly:
  • Forty-year-old stuntman David Leitch as CIA tool Terry Bogard, who becomes, in the fight dimension, a buffoonish yet preposterously mighty Dan Hibiki-esque comic relief character.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Dear Nintendo Power

Dear Future Publishing,

In Volume 222 (December 2007) of Nintendo Power, on page 17, the "News" section reported  that The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga for the Wii would contain KoF '95, '96, and '97.  As a long-time fan of SNK's historically underappreciated fighting games, I was certainly pleased to hear this, especially since, as your well-researched story noted, '96 and '97 had never been released on North American consoles outside of the prohibitively expensive Neo Geo.

I was disappointed, however, at the glaring error of the accompanying screenshot.  The featured shot is not of any of the titles comprising The King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga.  Rather, it is a picture of the first Fatal Fury, one of the Neo Geo's earliest titles, which is four years older than the oldest title in the collection.

You can tell by the archaic graphic of Terry Bogard's "Power Wave" attack, the very same sprite that appears on page 24 in a screenshot for the Virtual Console release of, you guessed it, the original Fatal Fury.  Even more telling is the fact that Terry's opponent on page 17 is Richard Meyer, one of SNK's lesser-lights, whose only other playable appearance was as a bonus character in the recent The King of Fighters 2006.

Although the titles in The Orochi Saga are themselves plenty old now, they represent the prime of the Neo Geo hardware's life, and this erroneous screenshot is misrepresentative in an unflattering way.  While I am glad to see any mention of SNK in my favorite gaming publication, it was unfortunate that it had to be accompanied by such an obvious mistake.  Hopefully, upcoming releases on the Wii will give SNK some deserved exposure that will help to prevent such oversights in the future.

Sincerely yours,


Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Death of the Cool

Gameplay should be what counts in a fighting game, yes, but one of the reasons I have not been able to deem Street Fighter IV the definitive Street Fighter actually has nothing to do with how it plays.  It's the art.  More specifically, it's the character design, which is and always has been the other crucial component of a fighting game--that element that can earn a title tons of devoted fans who will never compete at a tournament level, but who will cosplay as their favorites and build shrines to them.

Obviously, SFIV contains mostly characters that were designed more than a decade ago, but these are still new takes, some of which I find to be quite disappointing.  Ryu is a bit thick, Sagat looks like a dummy, and none of the females are attractive.  To be fair, many of the other characters are spot-on, but the goofy Chun-Li and haggard Rose are probably the worst they've ever looked.

None of that really compares, however, with SFIV's wholly original additions to the franchise.  Hakan would be the most acceptable if he weren't inexplicably orange, but Abel, El Fuerte, Rufus, and Seth are all hopelessly lame.  That leaves the girls, Crimson Viper and Juri.  These are two characters who could look good someday, but my initial impressions of both were that they were uninspiring attempts by Capcom to create King of Fighters-style "cool" characters, and they simply lacked that SNK magic--that certain je ne sais quoi--that identified a true original.

But, y'know, since thinking that, I've gone back and replayed a lot of SNK games, and I've come to the conclusion that those originals were not that cool either.  Or, at least, if they were cool once upon a time, then that time is long past.

Sure, King of Fighters has always had its dud characters, but I seriously used to think that its better characters were the coolest in any video game.  The unyieldingly derisive Iori Yagami was a particular favorite of mine.

Looking at him now, I have no idea what I ever liked about him, and I just feel embarrassed.  Even among the official art, there is almost no piece that manages to make his hair work.  And why are his knees tied together?  How is anyone supposed to run like that, let alone jump and kick?  He doesn't seem built for street fighting, though he's hardly alone in that.

What is wrong with Iori is pretty much what is wrong with all of the characters in King of Fighters; these designs were made for the runway, not the ring, and their obsolescence was built-in.  Unfortunately, SNK Playmore hasn't really kept ahead of changing fashions, and the latest designs are among the series's worst.  Or maybe I'm the one that has no fashion sense.  Actually, there's no "maybe" about it.  But I think I'm just tired of the whole blasted fashion model street fighter aesthetic.  Now I just want fighters to look like fighters, as they did back in Street Fighter II.

To be fair, it's not just SNK that has failed to age with grace.  As another example, take Dante from Devil May Cry.  Here's another guy I used to think was badass.  But lately I've been playing a lot more Western-developed shooters, and when I put him next to a guy like Marcus Fenix, I realize that Dante is truly not that far removed from the typical effeminate JRPG hero.  He's stupidly good-looking, wears flashy clothes, and spouts some embarrassing dialogue.  I wouldn't call Marcus Fenix "cool," but in the context of a gaming landscape filled with space marine-type characters, Dante seems less than manly, and surely that isn't cool.

So what is cool now?  I have no freaking clue, and I'm not sure I care anymore.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Top 5 Video Game FMVs

Yes, we've arrived at that point in this blog's life.  No more joking, I now make "Top 5" lists in earnest.  It's either that or I start playing weekly games of Madden 11 . . . demo (Colts vs. Jets all day!) and posting the play-by-play box scores.

Anyway, I was inspired after recently viewing the cinematic trailer for DC Universe OnlineDC Universe Online, being an MMORPG, held no interest for me as a player, but I am now glad that it exists, if only because it has resulted in the commissioning of Blur for this amazing mini-movie that will surely be the best thing about the entire game.

Blur may not be a household name, but it is one of the hottest computer animation and design studios around, its skills allegedly commanding per-minute charges in the $1 million range.  Blur does a lot more than just video game work, but its CG talent is undeniably a perfect fit for gaming, and it has done much to class up a number of otherwise mediocre products.  Before DC Universe Online, the studio caught my attention with a pair of similarly awesome cinematic trailers for the similarly yawn-inducing Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Well, Blur may be the king now--frankly, it doesn't have a lot of competition, as many developers have opted this generation to rely less on pre-rendered assets--but I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on the past and pick out five of my favorite pre-rendered video game cinematics.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis - Opening

The Resident Evil 2 opening movies were, in their own time, the most technically impressive CG FMVs on console, and Code: Veronica's roller-coaster intro is always a crowd-pleaser, but my personal favorite Resident Evil cinematic is the opening for Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.

RE2 allowed us to play in the aftermath of Raccoon City's fall to the zombie apocalypse, describing in journals how it all went down, but here we finally got to see the citizens making their hopeless last stand.  No longer contained within some mansion in the woods, the zombies were taking over the city streets, and the nightmarish spectacle was consequently more real than ever before.

Kingdom Hearts Final Mix - "Deep Dive"

The famous "Deep Dive" video was a secret movie contained in the Japan-only "director's cut" of Kingdom Hearts.  As a teaser for Kingdom Hearts II, it was as oblique and enigmatic as you would have expected from a Tetsuya Nomura production--even four games later, fanboys are still trying to decipher all its hidden messages.  But it also established another Nomura signature.

Considerably darker and more violent than anything else in the game, it was also plain cool.  Its significance to the story would remain unclear even hours into Kingdom Hearts II, but this non-interactive movie surprisingly provided more meaningful clues as to how future games would look and play, with its near-weightless style and balletic combat.  Here also were planted the seeds of Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and you can even follow the lineage onward to the upcoming Final Fantasy Versus XIII.

Kingdom Hearts II - Opening

Many Kingdom Hearts fans, drawn to the series for its high production values and exciting combat, understandably skipped Chain of Memories for the GBA.  That posed a bit of a problem for players hoping to jump directly to Kingdom Hearts II, however, because although not a lot happened in Chain of Memories, the story definitely did not end in the same place it began.  To get these players up to speed, the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II recapped the story thus far in virtuosic music video form.

Actually, as a recap, it was almost useless to anybody who hadn't played the previous games.  But it was gorgeous, full of inventive imagery and editing (especially in the Chain of Memories section), and it rewarded players of Chain of Memories, bringing their imaginations to life by highlighting resonant moments that the GBA simply could never do justice.  My favorite part has got to be the shot of Sora and company racing up a staircase while Riku progresses upside down along the underside--a sublimely literal representation of their parallel journeys through the castle.

Onimusha 3: Demon Siege - Opening

This one requires little introduction, as it is regularly at or near the top of almost everybody's list.  The Onimusha series was originally conceived of as a cinematic game, and all of the core Onimusha titles have had ambitious opening movies, but Onimusha 3's by Robot remains the best.

I think all of the videos on this list are ones that I come back to because they are so replayable and stand well even out of context. Onimusha 3's intro, better than everything else in all of the Onimusha games combined, is the epitome of that--essentially a CG short film with its own complete and perfectly self-contained narrative arc.  Indeed, you would be best off just watching this and then skipping the rest of the game.  Not only is it all downhill from here, but nothing that follows even has anything at all to do with what is seen in this video.

Mortal Kombat: Armageddon - Opening

Bringing together almost every fighter ever to have appeared in MK up to that point, it was the slugfest to end all slugfests.  In my opinion, this is even better than the DC Universe Online video, for the sheer number of distinct characters that it is able to juggle.  If you were ever into the series, this was a glorious celebration and culmination of its entire history.  Even if you couldn't name even half the characters, it was just an awesome battle royal, rendered in astonishingly accomplished CG that was probably more than MK and Midway deserved.  Also, as will likely be the case with DC Universe Online, watching the opening movie is vastly more exciting than actually playing the game.